A Debut Novelist Imagines Life After Her Own Death

I was 17 years old when I died.
In the years after my death, I liked to use this line as an ice breaker in conversations, always enjoying the disturbed reactions. Even alone, I found myself compulsively scribbling the same sentence again and again—I was 17 years old when I died. Over the proceeding years, one sentence eventually became two, two became three. Seemingly outside of my own choice, my brain, desperate to process my death, forged the beginning of a story. The story evolved, as most stories do. It wasn’t about me. Not exclusively. It became a story about a woman in the throes of true love with a promising life ahead of her who dies of lymphoma, cryogenically preserves her body, and is resurrected 100 years later in a world where it is illegal to be a resurrected human. Ultimately, it became a story about the repercussions of cheating death—the way I had.
The truth of my death is much more common. I died in a car accident on the way to take my junior year biology final. I don’t remember any of it, the moments before my death or the many minutes I was without a heartbeat. In fact, that period where I wasn’t alive distinctly stands in my mind as a stark nothingness, a vacuum of time where I didn’t exist. I can still feel it, the scar of not existing, as real as I feel the scars on my face that I try to hide behind thick bangs. It was mere chance that my life was returned to me. My unlikely guardian angel was a former EMT with a history of substance abuse who happened to be driving by when she saw my sky blue VW bug crumpled underneath a relatively unscathed Suburban SUV. She leapt to my rescue, scaling the smoking wreckage and heaving my lifeless body through the broken windshield. With her bare palms, she held my severed temporal lobe artery to try and buy time for the ambulance to get there and restart my heart. At least that’s the story as it has been told to me. Stories from others are all I have to rely on to know anything about my own death. I was told that they worked on my body the entire ride to Grady Hospital in Atlanta and were only finally able to resuscitate me as we arrived. I was rushed into surgery. and they repaired my bleeding brain. A few hours later I awoke, having been given a second chance. I had come back to life—or at least a version of me did.
As traumatic as that morning was, I wonder if I wouldn’t be so marked by death if my accident was all I had to deal with. If my own death was all I had been forced to endure, then maybe that sentence never would have wormed its way into my pen and I never would have written the story that became my debut novel The Awoken, which publishes on August 9. But unfortunately, mine wasn’t the only death in the spring of 2005. Two weeks before my own death, my childhood best friend died in a car accident on his way home from work.
Charlie was 17 years old when he died.
We’d been friends since we were seven. He was goofy and charming and kind. We made plans of living together after college in Los Angeles and going to the beach every day. A year before we died, I took him to my high school dance and hated it when my friends flirted with him. We were never romantic, but still I wanted him to myself. He somehow knew, walking away from the gaggle of girls surrounding him to sit with me and put his feet in the cold pool next to mine. We didn’t talk. We didn’t need to. I just rested my head on his shoulder while the world spun, only our future lay ahead of us.
The proximity of our life-ending events is mere coincidence. Sadly, there was no passing EMT with a troubled past looking for redemption. Charlie died and stayed dead while I had the privilege, and shouldered the guilt, of coming back to life. To this day, my death haunts me. Shards of glass remain trapped beneath my skin. Every few years one will push itself close enough to the surface that it’s uncomfortable, and I have to get it removed. When that happens, I’m face-to-face with what could’ve been. I walk through life shadowed by the corpse of myself from a parallel universe who was not as lucky. The universe where I, like Charlie, died and stayed dead. Or better yet, a universe where Charlie and I switch places.

These dual, soul-altering events led me to that indelible sentence which then led me to write a novel. It wasn’t that simple of course. I wasn’t a novelist. At that point, I was a screenwriter and a documentarian, but I’d always been an avid reader. I grew up on big, fantastical adventures like Dragon Riders of Pern and The Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings. After my death, my reading shifted along with the rest of my life. I wore thin my copy of Frankenstein, drawn to stories that questioned the very definition of life. Until then, death had been abstract, something I read about in books, and so after my death, I turned to books to make sense of it.
More than a decade later, I still found myself pulled back to that sentence, back to my original word document, and only then did I admit to myself that this was a novel. I began writing. Although it seems naïve to say now, the truth is that I wasn’t consciously aware that I was writing a story about my death. To anyone reading this, I imagine it seems absurd considering The Awoken is about a woman, eerily like myself, who dies young and then is given a second chance at life. But I wasn’t aware it was also about my death until I read my first completed draft. The nothingness I had experienced was there on the page, anthropomorphized as the ultimate antagonist. My husband always knew, as did my mother, but they never pushed me on it. Meanwhile, my editor at Penguin Random House didn’t even know I was in a car accident until we were in copyedits, more than a year into our relationship. But there it was on the page, plain as day. I still had a lot of work to do around processing my death, and even more clear was the fact that I was terrified of ever dying again.
Since my and Charlie’s deaths, I’ve developed an obsessive interest in life extension science. When I crawled out of my hospital bed at 17, I wanted nothing more than immortality. I convinced myself I was immortal, and I even tried proving so by playing an ultimate frisbee game only two weeks after my death. The doctor had ordered me to strict bed rest. I wasn’t even supposed to go downstairs to the kitchen, but I couldn’t lay there with death surrounding me. Much to my mother’s horror, I ran across a football field with a pseudo-aneurism the size of a golf ball protruding from my temple, ready to explode if strained. My defiance stemmed from something deeper than mere teenage rebellion. It was a primal necessity. I had to be immortal, or else be forced to face my mortality. I never wanted to see that nothingness ever again. This overriding need to stay far away from death for as long as possible is what brought me to learn about cryogenics in the first place. So it was only natural that I used cryogenics as the method by which my protagonist, Alabine Rivers, gets her second chance. In fiction, we, perhaps me most of all, can viscerally consider the nuances, dilemmas, and ramifications of such a world where death isn’t the end.
Fear of death is a part of life, I’ve been told. It’s what makes us human. But to be honest, after my research, I now share an equally powerful fear of humanity attaining immortality. Since the dawn of man, we’ve fantasized about escaping death—from Herodotus’s Fountain of Youth all the way to today’s billionaires of Silicon Valley pouring their wealth into life extension research. Unlike the ancient Greeks, Elon Musk actually has a chance of cheating, or at least delaying, death. Never before has humanity, through science, been so close. The emerging field of cryogenics is at the heart of this. Imagine a pause button. A person with organ failure able to wait until the perfect transplant comes available. A cancer patient able to wait until a cure is developed. A victim of a car accident able to be frozen at the scene to prevent bleeding out, regardless of luck.
You don’t have to imagine it, people have been preserving themselves for decades, awaiting the day science figures out how to resuscitate a human. We already know how to bring rats back from preservation. Humans won’t be long off. In Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens, and even more so in his follow up book Homo Deus, Harai details humanity’s past, present, and future attempts to defeat death. While my heart races at the idea, Harai clinically and academically considers what would happen to our world in such a future where death is no longer inevitable. He writes that civilization has kept going on the singular knowledge that everyone, despite race, wealth, or privilege, will face death. What happens if that great equalizer is taken away? Some believe the wealthy will live forever while the marginalized remain unable to shed their mortality. Or, maybe it would be the reverse. Those brought back from the dead might be seen as a blight against mankind. Our new tool of resurrection seen as a direct attack on God. Afterall, in a world without death, God is no longer necessary. This is the world I forged in my novel.
The ethics of life extension are complex, and now I question my need for immortality. Don’t get me wrong, I still am terrified of the nothingness, but I was surprised to find the alternative similarly terrifying. Would I, like my character Alabine, actually choose to preserve my body? It was psychologically hard enough for me to come back from the dead once, would I really want to do it again? Would you? This is the question we should all be asking ourselves. We’re on the precipice of species altering developments. Even this very day, any of you can call up Alcor, the preeminent cryo preservation company in the US, and pay real money to cryogenically preserve your body. You die with an agreement for Alcor to resurrect you when it’s possible, most likely into a world that is so foreign, so different to what you know today, without the loved ones you know today, that one must question if it’s even worth it. That is my biggest hesitation in calling Alcor myself, along with the clear financial constraints. My before-death self is a different person than who I am now. I have her memories and her body (at least most of it), but there’s something in my core that has changed. An intangible quality that separates me from her. I recognize her, but am different. I don’t have her hope. I don’t have her carefree outlook on life. I don’t even have many of her friends left as I systematically separated myself from them in the months that followed, believing that they just would never understand. The metamorphosis from her to me was hard. The idea of doing that again and again without end is crippling. What if the next time I didn’t recognize the girl they woke up at all? What if the time after that, I no longer even wanted to?
Perhaps fortunately, that world remains merely the fodder for fiction. For now. There are many hurdles to jump before we can claim we’ve defeated death. It could be argued that inventing the technology to resurrect a human might be the easiest part. Convincing the world to embrace such an immortal existence would likely prove a greater challenge. As we’ve seen acutely in recent years, science can be vilified, and not everyone trusts it. Although we learned to clone mammals a quarter of a century ago, we have yet to see a cloned person born (independently verified, that is). Change is hard, and humans are pack-minded creatures; we ostracize those who are different. Imagine the divide between those who have been dead and those who haven’t. Like Dr. Frankenstein, we would have to redefine what life is, and decide if those who have touched death should be seen as the same as those who haven’t.
It was my own death that made me see the value and fragility of life, a perspective I find separates me, even now in my thirties, from my peers. I wonder how fundamentally our civilization would change if we all met the nothingness and gained that perspective. Then again, would life retain meaning once humans have done away with death? Would I carry the same preciousness of my life re-given if I didn’t have the comparison of Charlie’s life taken? Regardless of if I would actually choose to preserve my body, I certainly am prepared to fight for a future world where second chances are doled out to anyone who asks, and not just the billionaires. What a kinder and more loving world this would be if second chances weren’t “hard to come by,” left up to chance or privilege, but instead available to everyone.
In my early twenties, my Facebook messenger randomly dinged with a message. It was from my guardian angel EMT. We had never spoken before, despite my multiple attempts to contact her and thank her for saving my life. Her message showed up in the “other” inbox for people you’re not friends with, so it was only by chance that I even saw she’d sent it. She told me that in the years since she held my bleeding body, she’d been silently watching me on social media go to college, make friends, lose friends, direct films, and write stories. She told me that watching me live in turn saved her life. She got sober. She got her second chance too.
I write this essay weeks before The Awoken is due to be released into the world. I am excited and scared—feelings I assume I share with most debut authors, but I have an added unsettling layer. The day The Awoken publishes becomes yet another start of a new chapter in my life. Like the day my first film came out. The day I got married. Or the day I had my son. These are all chapters that Charlie will never get to have. I try to push these dark thoughts out of my head, as terrifying as the nothingness itself. I try to focus on the fact that I am working hard to do something with my privilege of life. Even if I never choose to cryogenically preserve my body, perhaps in writing this novel, I’ve already preserved a piece of myself to live forever—my words and thoughts inscribed for generations to come. Meanwhile, I’ll keep reading new articles about the developments in cryogenics, continually wondering what if.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Hamid, Gavino, Marra, and More

-

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Mohsin Hamid, our own Kate Gavino, Anthony Marra, 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.
The Last White Man by Mohsin Hamid

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Last White Man: “On the first page of Hamid’s underwhelming latest (after Exit West), a white man named Anders wakes up to find he has mysteriously ‘turned a deep and undeniable brown.’ From this Kafkaesque beginning, Hamid spins a timely if unsatisfying racial allegory in which, one after another, the white inhabitants of an unnamed country become dark-skinned. Hamid mutes the power by harnessing his plot to the dishwater-dull Anders, who works at a gym, and his equally bland girlfriend, Oona, a yoga instructor. The lack of social context is also puzzling, with the story set in an unspecified time and place largely stripped of historical and cultural detail. Hamid employs a cool, spare prose style with little dialogue, leaving the reader to feel like the action of the novel is taking place behind a wall of soundproof glass. The glass briefly shatters when white militants come for Anders, though the author quickly turns back the threat. Later, when Oona’s mother, who indulges in right-wing conspiracy theories, is sickened by the sight of her white daughter in bed with dark-skinned Anders, Hamid taps the rich potential of his premise. For the most part, though, this remains stubbornly inert.”

A Career in Books by Kate Gavino

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about A Career in Books: “With quill-sharp narration and spot-on details, this delightful graphic novel from Gavino (Last Night’s Reading) depicts New York City publishing through the eyes of three Asian American NYU grads who share an apartment. Nina Nakamura, the most career-driven of the group, takes an assistant job at a large house. Silvia Bautista, an aspiring novelist, works for an indie press supported by the publisher’s ‘seemingly endless trust fund.’ Shirin Yap is hired at an academic press, possibly because the editor hoped she’d be able to speak Cantonese with their Hong Kong–based printer (Shirin is Filipina). Besides artistic fulfillment, their goal is to ‘make that Anthropologie money… non-sale section Anthro money!’ Their neighbor, 92-year-old Veronica Vo, turns out to be a Booker Prize winner whose subsequent books about the domestic lives of Asian American women have fallen out-of-print. Nina leads a charge to reissue Veronica’s work—success for Veronica will, of course, mean hope for their own ambitions, while righting one small historical wrong. Gavino peppers her savvy line drawings with price tags (‘Edith Wharton leather-bound edition, $279’), and applies actual numbers to her characters’ salaries and calculations. Specificity is the fire that fuels this witty social satire, in which fairness doesn’t always triumph, but friendship does.”

The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Rabbit Hutch: “Gunty debuts with an astonishing portrait of economically depressed Vacca Vale, Ind., centered on the residents of a subsidized apartment building nicknamed the Rabbit Hutch. The main character is 18-year-old Blandine Watkins, who grew up in foster care and dropped out of high school in junior year. In the opening scene, she is stabbed in her apartment by an unidentified assailant. Gradually, the causes of the crime emerge, followed eventually by the facts, as well as her fate. Along the way, Gunty delves into the stories of Blandine’s neighbors, brilliantly and achingly charting the range of their experiences. An erotic flashback of an infant’s conception at a motel on higher ground in Vacca Vale called the Wooden Lady (‘It’s like if manslaughter were a place,’ one reviewer describes it), where married couple Hope and Anthony hole up during a ‘1,000-year flood,’ contrasts with a devastatingly banal and ultimately traumatic sexual encounter between Blandine and her drama teacher the year before. There’s also a lonely woman who lives in a state of ‘flammable peace’ due to her sensitivity to noise, with whom Blandine shares her fascination with Catholic mystics before going off to sabotage a celebration involving the city’s gentrification scheme with voodoo dolls and fake blood. It all ties together, achieving this first novelist’s maximalist ambitions and making powerful use of language along the way. Readers will be breathless.”

Acceptance by Emi Nietfeld

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Acceptance: “Nietfeld debuts with a heart-pounding look at her path out of homelessness and the flawed systems she had to navigate along the way. Raised in Minneapolis in the early 2000s by a single mother, Nietfeld’s home was ‘filled to the top with garbage, and… covered with mouse and dog excrements.’ Despite the glaring signs of abuse, Nietfeld’s mother convinced therapists her daughter was mentally unwell. ‘No one would listen to me. No one would trust me,’ Nietfeld writes, describing in unsparing prose the revolving door of mental institutions she spun through before being put into foster care in her teens. Though her foster parents belittled her academic pursuits, she excelled in her studies and secured a scholarship to boarding school, where she spent school breaks alternating between prestigious academic camps and living in her car. After being accepted to Harvard, Nietfeld was sure her life would change, but as she reckoned with the school’s elitist culture and, later, the disillusionment that came from working in Silicon Valley, she realized the trauma ‘ingrained into my nervous system’ couldn’t be eradicated by the fleeting thrills and rewards of finding ‘status’ in America. It’s a sobering narrative, and Nietfeld’s raw resilience and candor will keep readers enthralled until the very last page. This hits hard.”

Dogs of Summer by Andrea Abreu (translated by Julia Sanches)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Dogs of Summer: “Abreu’s emotionally resonant debut charts the tumultuous friendship between two 10-year-old girls over the course of the summer of 2005 in the Canary Islands. The unnamed narrator is fascinated by her brazen and enigmatic friend, Isora, the granddaughter of Chela, an abusive matriarch who manages the neighborhood minimarket and cares for Isora after her mother’s suicide. Isora calls the shots in the friendship and nicknames the narrator ‘Shit.’ In potent, stream-of-consciousness prose, Abreu details the girls’ long summer days spent in each other’s presence: the afternoons dedicated to memorizing the lyrics of Aventura songs, dipping their toes in the canal and imagining they’re at San Marcos beach, and the timid narrator eating burnt cake just so Isora may watch her after the latter is forced into a diet by the overcritical Chela. (Isora also develops an eating disorder.) Along the way, Abreu ingeniously picks apart the submissive narrator’s conflicting feelings of resentment, admiration, and sexual curiosity, and reveals the way these emotions quickly turn devastating once a traumatic assault changes the power dynamics upon which the girls’ friendship is based. Abreu’s exhilarating chronicle of a young friendship is not to be missed.”

Properties of Thirst by Marianne Wiggins

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Properties of Thirst: “Pulitzer Prize finalist Wiggins (Evidence of Things Unseen) returns with a powerful epic set on a Southern California ranch during WWII. Rocky Rhodes named the ranch Three Chairs, after Thoreau’s idea that three chairs are for ‘society’—or ‘company,’ as Rocky puts it. A widowed scion of a wealthy family back east, he lives there with his daughter, Sunny, and his twin sister. Sunny has a twin brother, Stryker, who is presumed to have died in the attack on Pearl Harbor. Rocky has spent much of his fortune battling the Los Angeles Water Board, furious that the city has stolen all the local water. Things get worse when Schiff, a young lawyer from the Department of the Interior, is sent to the area to establish an internment camp for Japanese Americans. Morally outraged himself, Schiff befriends the Rhodes family and falls for Sunny, a self-taught cook who takes inspiration from notes left by her mother. Here, Wiggins’s wordplay is stellar, as when the properties of a souffle become metaphor for the emotions of those about to eat it: ‘Sunny folded one thing—the inflated egg whites—into the other, le fond—with the greatest care, aware of both their fragile properties.’ The dialogue is full of grit, and Wiggins manages to capture a big swath of mid-century America by placing a blue-blooded family into a desert inland complete with adobe haciendas, desert blooms, and Hollywood movie sets, while throughout, the Rhodes hold out hope for Stryker’s survival. Wiggins’s masterpiece is one for the ages.”

Mercury Pictures Presents by Anthony Marra

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Mercury Pictures Presents: “Marra’s meticulously crafted latest (after the collection The Tsar of Love and Techno) follows a host of outsiders as they try to make it through pre-WWII Italy and wartime Los Angeles with some of their morals intact. Teenage Maria Lagana and her mother leave Italy for Los Angeles after Fascists exile her father. By 1941, Maria is B-movie producer Artie Feldman’s second-in-command. Artie, a toupee-wearing loudmouth with a heart of gold (he’ll hire any down on their luck European exile), is at war with the censors, his twin brother/business partner, and the bankers with a stake in Mercury Pictures. Marra skillfully switches between small-town Sicily and a still-small Los Angeles where, post–Pearl Harbor, Maria must register as an internal enemy and her Chinese American boyfriend, Eddie, has to flee assailants who are convinced he’s a Japanese spy. The plot is intricate: Artie tries to release a political movie and fend off creditors, Maria and Eddie plot to make a film, a Berlin-born model-builder recreates her city, a Sicilian photographer flees Italy. While Marra’s pleasure in the details and argot of the past occasionally feels like overkill, this tough-minded, funny outing exemplifies what Maria calls the democratic promise of ‘the miniaturist’s gaze,’ in which ‘all were worthy.’ Thanks to Marra, the pleasure is contagious.”

Also out this week: Ex-Members by Tobias Carroll and Bonsai by Alejando Zambra (translated by Megan McDowell).

Perfectly Realized: On Tove Jansson’s ‘The Summer Book’ at 50

-

When a friend asked what I thought was the most perfectly realized novel, I hesitated, almost said To the Lighthouse or Joyce’s Ulysses, but my heart overruled my brain, and I said what I really thought: Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book. Writing during an idyllic summer on a rocky island off the coast of Finland, Jansson managed to enter that trance-like zone of creation where effort becomes effortless and the deepest truths seem to come unbidden from one’s pen.
Now, on the 50th anniversary of its 1972 publication, The Summer Book continues to quietly win over legions of readers around the world, though it still remains a bit under the radar. The novel’s story and style are disarmingly simple: A young child, Sophia, and her acerbic, often hilariously caustic grandmother glide through languorous island summers with Sophia’s father, who is more of a background figure rather than a fully fledged character. They are the lone residents of a small island in the Gulf of Finland, living in a rustic cabin just paces away from the often stormy and temperamental sea.
What happens? Well, not much by the usual conventions of plot: Sophia searches for her grandmother’s false teeth, lost in the garden; a friend comes to stay on the island; a recalcitrant cat won’t return human affection; Sophia and her grandmother discuss mortality amid grazing cows in a pasture. And yet the book is almost unaccountably engrossing.
With a light touch, the deftly sketched vignettes pivot from the mundane—cow pats and feral cats—to metaphysical musings on life and loss, love and happiness, art and mortality. The point of view seamlessly shifts from the precocious young child to the old grandmother so that there is a sustained dual perspective that fleshes out the otherwise skeletal narrative. The chapters are short and self-contained. Much is left unsaid—and this leaving out is the mainspring of the book’s power.
Subtly flavoring everything that happens—like a bay leaf in stew—is the fact that Sophia has recently lost her mother. This is mentioned only once, almost carelessly, but it lodges in the reader’s mind and infuses everything that follows:

One time in April there was a full moon, and the sea was covered in ice. Sophia woke up and remembered that they had come back to the island and that she had the bed to herself because her mother was dead.

Jansson quietly plants this fact, this momentous event, into the reader’s consciousness, and it is the reader, not the writer, who endeavors to probe and understand what must be going through Sophia’s mind—a masterclass in the art of less being more. In the hands of another writer, the theme of the lost mother would have been dissected and analyzed and returned to over and over. By mentioning it only once, as if in passing, without comment, Jansson activates a universe of doubts and questions conjured from within the reader’s own psyche. This reservoir of shadowy hopes and fears is magically siphoned from the reader into the book, making the novel feel as though it was written specifically for you. In this way, the book gets under your skin. You register the weight of every word, taste the salt spray as waves batter the island, huddle with the family round the fire as a storm rages outside. You become Sophia, and you become the grandmother. And, in an odd way, you become the island.
Islands were always central for Jansson—geographically, metaphysically, and artistically. In her literary imagination, islands stand for independence, succinctness, and austere beauty. They are emblems of transience amid the eternal. Sands shift, seasons change, storms rage, and shorelines disappear, but the sea remains, and a new day dawns.

Jansson spent much of her life living on isolated islands, an essential ingredient in her prodigious literary and artistic output. Islands were also a catalyst to self-knowledge. As Jansson explained in a letter to a friend: “You become different and think new thoughts when you live a long time alone with the sea and yourself.”
Early on, Jansson had gained fame and independence through her wildly popular Moomin stories for children, which she wrote and illustrated and developed into a syndicated comic strip. When, after several decades, the Moomin empire became too much for her, she handed responsibility over to her brother and retreated to her island sanctuary to write and refocus on art. Over the next three decades, a steady string of novels and short story collections alternately amazed and puzzled critics, many of them perennially aggrieved that Jansson had abandoned their beloved world of Moomin.
The Summer Book was Jansson’s personal favorite among her novels, and deservedly so. In The Summer Book, she distills her art and philosophy into a thing of perfection. As Jansson once wrote, “One mustn’t have a single unnecessary thing in a boat,” and this is also how she approached her writing. Hers is a nautical aesthetic—sentences as beautiful as a gull’s wing, dialog sharp with the tang of salt air, all daily events undergirded with the faintly heard bass line of ocean breakers crashing on the shore.

When at the age of 77, Jansson and her life partner, Tuulikki Pietila, decided it was finally time to leave the island and move back to Helsinki, they left their cabin unlocked with notes for any storm-bound fishermen or wanderers who happened by: “Don’t close the damper, it will rust shut,” or “Wool socks and stockings under the boot shelf.” In the cabin’s small “secret room,” they left a bottle of rum for anyone lucky enough to find it. The Summer Book is like that small bottle of rum left behind in a secret room. Now that you’ve found it, go ahead and pour yourself a glass.

A World of Fear: On Geraldine Brooks’s ‘Horse’

-

The possessive is potent in Geraldine Brooks’s latest novel Horse, a painful study of America’s history set in the world of thoroughbred racing. Horse braids together several storylines over centuries, scrutinizing race, ownership, identity, and justice, and like the novel’s title suggests, a horse—whether composed of paint, bones, or flesh and blood—anchors all of the characters’ disparate tales of longing. 

Horse is set, primarily, in three complicated realities, revealing its largely likable leads deliberately and intricately, their stories converging in satisfying stride. Opening in 2019 America, the Trump presidency is nearing its desperate final act, and the rise of a more blatant and virulent strain of racism in political and popular discourse is unignorable. Theo, a 26-year old Nigerian American graduate student in Washington, D.C., lives amidst these thumping tensions daily. He sports his Georgetown-branded best when he goes out for some exercise because, as he notes, presaging the 2020 murder of Ahmaud Arbery, “a Black man, running, should dress defensively.” One day, at the yard sale of a newly widowed neighbor, whose deceased husband “had made clear, through his body language, what he thought about having a Black man living nearby,” Theo discovers a nineteenth-century painting of a horse. Theo is an art historian and, before he was driven out of the sport by racism, was a star polo player, but he knows little of American equestrian art.  

Theo soon meets Jess, an Australian scientist managing the Smithsonian’s osteology lab. Their first encounter is cringe-inducing, but the two share a common interest in horses. In fact, Jess has been asked by a colleague to locate a skeleton of a horse by request, and she does, in a long-forgotten attic. Jess works to “extract the testimony” from the bones, “seeking answers to questions she didn’t yet know how to ask.” Meanwhile, Theo begins to research the history of the painting, uncovering a lost history of Black horsemen. 

Concurrently, Brooks skillfully paints the picture of an enslaved Black youth named Jarrett in 1850s Kentucky. As the son of a freedman, Harry Lewis, and the stableman for his enslaver Dr. Warfield, Jarrett is afforded a relative degree of freedom that allows him to pursue his love of horses. That love is so profound it is practically part of him: Jarret is described as “half colt himself” and “flighty as a colt” because of his long, skinny arms and his raised-by-equines upbringing. Through nights spent sleeping on stall floors or in hay lofts, Jarrett sees “from the horse’s point of view,” observing that “horses lived with a world of fear, and when you grasped that, you had a clear idea how to be with them.” 

Jarrett’s pride and joy is a recently born colt, who enters the world with four white feet. The two develop an unbreakable bond. Jarrett trains the newly minted Darley to become a racehorse, and a winning one at that. The champion’s likeness is captured by painter Thomas J. Scott, who is eager to understand how the horse “feels about the world… what kind of soul he’s got.” Soon, the backdrop of the Civil War, at first a faint pulse on Dr. Warfield’s estate, becomes a racing heartbeat as Jarrett and Darley venture out into a deeply divided South. 

Finally, we meet Martha Jackson, a 1950s New York art dealer, her stable of artists including contemporary greats none other than Jackson Pollock. Martha was raised by a horseback riding mother, but she doesn’t just “like horses,” as a friend observes. “It’s far more complicated than that,” she tells us. Martha eventually acquires for sale a painting of a horse, clad with four white socks. 

Brooks’s textural barn scenes divulge a personal admiration for horses, illustrating, lovingly, the “mellow scent of horse” and “mud-caked foals” throughout the novel. Long the beasts of burden, fighting battles not their own, the proper treatment of horses is consistently pushed, as with Jarrett’s view that “both his father and Dr. Warfield treated horses like mechanical contraptions: do this, get that,” and an equine veterinarian’s regrettable reflections in conversation with Jess:  “There was so much abuse of the horses you see. I’m afraid I realized rather too late that I was abetting it.”

Throughout the story, it is impossible to miss those parallels between the treatment of horses and enslaved people. While at times clunky and over-engineered, some comparisons are torturously resonate, exemplified by Harry’s take on the “bad omen” white socks that grace the greatest racehorse of all time—“My way of thinking, a good horse has no color, it’s what’s inside that’s worth the fret”—or Theo’s observation while studying artwork: “Loyal, muscle, willingness—qualities for a horse, qualities for the enslaved.”

The takeaway, teed up in discordant endings of triumph and heartbreak, seems to be while celebrating progress we must continue to rebuke racism. Our reckoning remains incomplete and unresolved. Horse is a poignant check-in, a lookout point, for how far we’ve come, and how far we still yet must ride. In 21st century America, privilege is still purchased by proximity to power, which is too often equivalent to whiteness. Horse stands as a convincing case that time alone does not heal all wounds.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Castillo, Hokeah, Murphy, and More

-

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Elaine Castillo, Oscar Hokeah, Dwyer Murphy, 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.
How to Read Now by Elaine Castillo

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about How to Read Now: “Novelist Castillo (America Is Not the Heart) argues in this brilliant and passionate collection that the publishing industry is designed to suit white readers and that changing the way one reads can change the way one sees the world. In ‘Reading Teaches Us Empathy, and Other Fictions,’ she warns against seeing stories by writers of color as a ‘kind of ethical protein shake’ to teach white readers how to be better people, and urges that ‘we have to push back against the idea that engaging with our art in ways that look beyond the aesthetic is a cheapening of our engagement.’ In ‘The Limits of White Fantasy,’ Castillo critiques white authors’ appropriation of narratives about oppression, including Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which was partly ‘inspired’ by dissidents in the Philippines during the regime of Ferdinand Marcos. Meanwhile, ‘Main Character Syndrome’ takes Joan Didion to task for her novel Democracy, in which, Castillo writes, Hawaiian and Southeast Asian settings and characters exist as a background against which the white main characters act out the central drama. Castillo’s knowledge, along with her firebrand style and generous humor, result in a dynamic and necessary look at the state of storytelling. This one packs a powerful punch.”

Calling for a Blanket Dance by Oscar Hokeah

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Calling for a Blanket Dance: “The Kiowa, Cherokee, and Mexican family members of a young man named Ever Geimausaddle tell stories that span from his infancy to his adulthood in this captivating debut. When Ever is six months old, he witnesses his father being nearly beaten to death by police on the way back to Oklahoma from visiting his paternal grandparents in Chihuahua, Mexico. Ever’s maternal grandmother, Lena, decides to make a quilt for him to help him heal from the incident, but Lena’s schism with her daughter, Turtle, prevents her from ever delivering the gift. Though Ever grows up under a specter of violence, he finds connection to his cultures and the people around him amid the climate of grief, fear, and anger. A chapter narrated by Ever’s paternal grandfather, Vincent, in which Vincent observes his grandsons taking part in a gourd dance, perfectly conveys the double-edged sword of the family’s heritage: ‘I was amazed at how quickly they followed in my footsteps. And then it scared me.’ Throughout, Hokeah succeeds at making each character’s voice distinct and without losing a sense of cohesion. With striking insight into human nature and beautiful prose, this heralds an exciting new voice.”

Denial by Jon Raymond

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Denial: “The engaging speculative latest from screenwriter and novelist Raymond (Freebird) imagines a future in which a slew of energy executives and lobbyists have been convicted of environmental crimes. In 2052, reporter Jack Henry is hot on the trail of Robert Cave, a former fossil fuel official who fled the U.S. during the trials in 2032, was convicted in absentia, and has never paid for his offenses. After one of Jack’s sources spots Cave in Guadalajara, Jack convinces his boss to send him to Mexico to ferret Cave out. Jack scouts Cave at a museum café, and Cave strikes up a conversation with him. The two meet again the next day, and as Jack is introduced to Cave’s new life, he grows fond of his target, who knows nothing of Jack’s planned exposure, and wrestles with the ramifications of following through with his scheme. The narrative works best when it focuses on Jack and Cave, as their interactions drive the novel into unexpected directions. Less successful is a tame romance subplot between Jack and an old friend. Still, Raymond satisfies with a clever vision of a not-too-distant future. The moral ambiguity at the center leaves readers with much to chew on.”

The Boys by Katie Hafner

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Boys: “Journalist Hafner’s marvelous fiction debut centers on a socially awkward man’s neuroses about fatherhood. While working as the chief technology officer at a startup in Philadelphia, Ethan meets Barb, a University of Pennsylvania grad student, and the two start dating. They soon marry, though Ethan suspects he’s scored out of his league. Having lost his parents at an early age, he also fears becoming a father, but Barb changes his mind, only for them to discover after a year of trying to conceive that Ethan is sterile. They decide to foster two young boys, but when the Covid-19 pandemic hits and Ethan develops an overbearing attachment to them, his relationship with Barb disintegrates. She leaves him and he takes the boys on a bike trip to Italy, where a jaw-dropping twist ensues. Starting out as a lighthearted romance before taking an unsettling turn, this upsets expectations in the best way. The heartbreaking late reveal will take a second reading to fully sink in and pushes the troubled marriage genre to dizzying extremes. It’s a remarkable outing, and readers will look forward to seeing what Hafner does next.”

An Honest Living by Dwyer Murphy

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about An Honest Living: “The New York attorney who narrates Murphy’s uneven debut—who is unnamed but hints he has a name similar to the author’s—gave up a career with a prestigious law firm to make an honest living in a solo practice doing odd jobs, contract work, and document reviews, but his earnings have been slim of late. Then a wealthy woman calling herself Anna Rennick approaches him, claiming that her much older estranged husband, a former antiquarian book dealer, is stealing rare books from her library. The narrator can’t resist her $10,000 fee as well as a potential bonus if he can catch her husband offering any of her books for sale. Something about the case bothers him, but he manages “to put it out of mind” and he winds it up with little effort. The trouble begins when the real Anna Rennick shows up, threatening to sue. Murphy, the editor-in-chief of CrimeReads, writes with authority about the New York book world and literary references abound, from Edith Wharton to Cormac McCarthy, but the novel’s digressive first half drags and the plot never picks up much speed. This is destined to amuse a niche audience at best.”

From Cover to Cover: On the Pigeonholes of Publishing

-

I’m proud of being a writer, of being a woman. But I’m not sure how I feel about the category of “woman writer.” Am I also a writer of “women’s fiction” even when my protagonists are male? The woman who writes male protagonists also seems to invite the urge for gender camouflage. Would S.E. Hinton’s portrayals of tough men be as popular if she were published as Susan Eloise? Would J.K Rowling Harry be as beloved by both girl and boy readers if she published as Joanne? My most recent novel, The Evening Hero, is about two generations of Korean American male OB-GYNs. I never seriously considered a male pseudonym, but author colleagues who read drafts have often suggested it; at one point I thought of publishing under my gender-neutral Korean name, Myung.

I am haunted by what a librarian once told me: over the course of her career, she’d found that girls will read books about girls or boys, while boys generally will not read books about girls. In fact, a librarian at the Morton Grove Library in Illinois once begged me to write a YA novel that had a boy on the cover because, she said, too many Korean American boys felt they had to sneak-check out my female-led YA novel, Finding My Voice, which they reportedly enjoyed, but also wanted a book they could carry around without being teased.

It has often felt like there is a tax on being a woman writer, especially if you are competing directly with male writers. My editor comps The Evening Hero to two of his male authors—comparisons I feel are apt but that I also take a little bit as a challenge. Carrying that anxiety of not wanting to be relegated to the “less than” category without a fair fight, I took a lot of it to what would be the first impression of the book: the cover design.  I made sure to ask for a bold, text-forward font that is the hallmark of big male-authored novels for my proudly female name (when you add the Ok, which means “jade,” to Myung-Ok, the name becomes distinctly feminine).

I went further and forwarded on as suggestions the primary-colored Paul Bacon covers from the 50s, the “big book look” of instantly recognizable male-authored books like Portnoy’s Complaint, Slaughterhouse-Five, Catch-22. Because my novel spans countries and time periods with ginseng as a motif, I’d suggested an abstract cover with a priapic ginseng root as an element, maybe like Bacon’s cover of Peter Benchley’s Jaws, but ginseng instead of a shark.

In the prototypes I received, I got zero roots, no boldly colored text. Instead, I got flowers (not sure what they signified in the book), as well as a figure of a Korean woman! Who was that? She is looking out a window and dressed in an upper class Joseon-era hanbok that doesn’t clearly correspond to any character in the novel but does correspond to a bunch of recent novels set in Korea by fellow women writers. (At least her head was intact.). It was my agent, Kim Witherspoon, who preserved the ginseng motif by coming up with the idea of an abstract root design, which the designer then paired with traditional Korean colors plus text-forward renditions of my name. When I saw it, it was like seeing my son after birth: that’s it. I’m sure there were abject sighs of relief behind the walls of Simon & Schuster.

I had another anxiety, however, over the stickiness of the tropes of “ethnic writing.” As if there is a white America and Europe and the rest of us are just orbiting it. When I was growing up, the only book I could find with an Asian person on the cover was Farewell to Manzanar, co-written by a white man; most people thought The Good Earth was Asian American literature. Then along came Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, the success of which ironically made it a stand-in for all Asian American literature. In workshops, people either told me that I write like Amy Tan. Or that I don’t. There was always commentary on the amount of rice (or not) in my work, compared to hers, and where was the scene where the white boyfriend puts too much soy sauce on his rice and the aunties are horrified? It was then that three of my friends and I started the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, as a way to nurture ourselves almost in secret until we could dig ourselves out of the hole the culture dug for us.

Before the cover creation process had even begun for The Evening Hero, I requested (reasonably or not, I am not sure) a Korean book designer. Working on a novel for 18 years, I had clear ideas of what I wanted and needed, and I explained to my team that back when the New York Times had op-eds accompanied by illustrations, my editor, also Asian American, always commissioned a Korean or Korean diasporic artist. The illustrations became something that not only synergistically expressed the mood of the piece, but they deepened its themes.

For instance, an article about our family’s Americanization via the repeated Thanksgiving ritual had an amazing illustration of Korean songpyun rice cakes slowly turning into a basted turkey. Even for op-eds like the one about my son getting acclimated to New York, which had nothing to do with being Korean, they still hired a Korean artist and later, even had a gallery-type show and invited the authors to stand with their art. They picked that “My Son and the City” piece, the one that wasn’t overtly Korean, and yet, as I stood proudly next to the blow up of “my” illustration, there was something about it that felt very me, which is to say, the Korean American parent of my son.

I carried that approach to my book cover, and am grateful Simon & Schuster listened and took that extra step. Every time I look at my book cover now, I feel a kind of new-parent pride and glee. The other designs with the flowers and lady looking out the window were perfectly nice, even beautiful, but weren’t quite right. They kept expressing something of “other,” including past books by other Asian American women writers, but not me.

It’s not that I wanted to be treated as white male writer—this implies that being a woman writer, an Asian American writer, is somehow automatically less. It’s more that I wanted the full package of the book—the story, the text, the aesthetic elements like the cover—to reflect that I’m a woman and my main characters are men, to pick myself out of the mold, make my way without falling into the pigeonholes and the Joy Luck Club booby traps, to get to the place where the book reflects all of this, and all of me.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Fitzgerald, Jacobs, Stevens, and More

-

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Isaac Fitzgerald, Liska Jacobs, Nell Stevens, 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.
Dirtbag, Massachusetts by Isaac Fitzgerald

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Dirtbag, Massachusetts: “Journalist Fitzgerald (How to Be a Pirate) weaves a raucous mosaic of a rough-and-ready New England rarely seen with a transfixing story of his path to finding himself. In a series of essays, he recounts his impoverished childhood in 1980s Massachusetts and follows his escape from it through a litany of jobs and identities. In ‘Family Stories,’ he charts the ‘stained and tattered map’ of his dysfunctional Catholic parent’s lives and their bumpy road from ‘city poor to country poor.’ A poster child of the ‘classic New England family, incapable of discussing… things openly,’ Fitzgerald buried his past in drinking, drugs, and porn: bonding relationships,’ he writes in ‘The Armory,’ ‘were based on the consumption of porn and communal jerking off.’ By his mid-20s, he was ‘on the other side’ starring in pornos. As he takes readers along on his search for salvation, he barrels through many venues—from San Francisco to Southeast Asia to Brooklyn to Kilimanjaro—recounting the ‘conversations that changed me’ and eventually helped him overcome old ideals of masculinity and untangle his complicity in a racist society (in his case, ‘hipster racism’). ‘To any young men out there who aren’t too far gone,’ he writes. ‘I say you’re not done becoming yourself.’ The result is a marvelous coming-of-age story that’s as wily and raunchy as it is heartfelt.”

The Pink Hotel by Liska Jacobs

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Pink Hotel: “Jacobs (The Worst Kind of Want) returns with an amusing if over-the-top satire of the überwealthy. After a chance meeting at a hospitality conference, small-town newlyweds Keith and Kit Collins befriend the tony Richard and Ilka Beaumont, who invite the couple to honeymoon at their renowned Beverly Hills establishment, the Pink Hotel. Once Keith and Kit check in, Keith, who works as the general manager of his uncle’s restaurant and hotel, is enamored of the elite scene and agrees to help Richard attend to guests in hopes of securing a job offer, leaving Kit to spend time with a hard-partying young socialite who’s also staying at the hotel. Complications arise when Keith develops a crush on Richard’s mistress, Coco, whose cousin Sean (a construction worker helping with an expansion at the hotel) takes a liking to Kit after she faints from heatstroke and lands in his arms. Then things go off the rails as encroaching wildfires and rolling blackouts stir up angry mobs outside the hotel gates, while, inside, a guest’s exotic cats go on the attack, shots ring out, and tensions boil over. The chaotic climax is something to behold, but thinly drawn characters water down the satire’s potency, and the class commentary is a bit predictable. Readers who can look past a few wobbles will be easily carried along by the rollicking madcap sensibility.”

Shmutz by Felicia Berliner

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Shmutz: “Berliner’s memorable debut concerns a young Brooklyn Hasidic woman who becomes addicted to porn. Despite the community’s strict laws against the internet, Raizl, 18, receives a laptop as part of her accounting scholarship to Cohen College, and her naive initial Google searches quickly lead her to more explicit corners of the web. Each night, after her younger sister Gitti falls asleep, Raizl watches porn under the covers with the volume off. More transgressions follow, as she befriends a group of goth classmates and eats a bacon and egg roll from a street vendor. Meanwhile, Raizl endures a series of matchmaker-arranged ‘dates’ with potential husbands. After two failed dates, Berliner writes, ‘the matchmaker must have smelled the fear on [Raizl’s] mother because the next boy she sends… is a clammy snail in a suit.’ Meanwhile, Raizl’s porn addiction affects her grades; she stops sleeping, watching ‘video after video until morning,’ and her attempts to quit prove unsuccessful. Berliner shines in her depictions of a deeply religious life, both in its inequities and its enchantments. If the plot is at times a bit sparse, the prose is inventive, notably in how it uses Raizl’s native Yiddish (and her application of it to porn) to great effect. This brave, eye-opening tale is full of surprises.”

Briefly, a Delicious Life by Nell Stevens

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Briefly, a Delicious Life: “Stevens (Bleaker House: A Memoir) makes her fiction debut with a smart and haunting outing that immerses readers in Valldemosa, Mallorca, over four centuries. The story revolves around the ghost of a 14-year-old girl named Blanca, who died in the 15th century and is captivated by the appearance of author George Sand and her lover, composer Frédéric Chopin, on vacation in the late 19th century. Blanca is attracted to both men and women, and her playful, sensuous narration describes the centuries she’s spent observing the trysts of monks in the monastery where she lives. Sand’s masculine dress particularly excites Blanca, though it elicits disgust of the villagers. As Chopin becomes gravely ill, Stevens alternates the lovers’ story with Blanca’s memories of her own life and death, and Blanca dwells on feelings of blame toward the man who got her pregnant during their affair. Eventually, the stories entwine, as Blanca uses her ghostly powers to intercede in Chopin’s fate. Though Stevens’s idealized view of Sand can feel a bit Mary Sue–ish, for the most part it credibly reflects Blanca’s romanticizing of a woman who ‘dressed like a man, kissed like a man, smoked like a man.’ This will entice readers.”

Also out this week: The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories by Jamil Jan Kochai and Amanat edited by Zaure Batayeva and Shelley Fairweather-Vega.

Time Is Not the Longest Distance: Rereading ‘The Glass Menagerie’ as a Nonfiction Writer

-

At the end of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, the play’s protagonist, Tom, declares, “Time is the longest distance between two places.” Rereading the play recently, I thought instantly of “narrative distance,” an aspect of writing craft that my undergraduate students and I discuss when studying personal essay and memoir. I use “distance” not as a stand-in for time, but for intimacy, immediacy, humility, or authority. Distance is where we negotiate the artifice of nonfiction, I tell my students: When writing about ourselves, we might feel a certain amount of authentic proximity or detachment between two “places,” between now and then, us and them, self and subject, but we always make decisions in representing or manipulating it.
Tom’s assessment—that time is the longest distance—has often rung true for me in life, but not in literature. Writing in the present tense, I’ve found, does not guarantee “closeness” or urgency, just as writing in the past tense does not always create emotional remove. Proximity and distance can live in any number of elements beyond verb tense, from point of view to sentence structure to the balance of scene and analysis. All of these contribute to how emotionally invested—or disinvested—a piece of writing feels, helping to establish what Matthew Salesses, in his book Craft in the Real World, calls the work’s “orientation toward the world.”
The Glass Menagerie takes place in a St. Louis tenement not unlike the one where Williams spent his youth (and just a few miles from the apartment that I, like him, gave up to pursue writing). Tom is an unhappy young man working at a shoe factory—as Williams once did—to provide for his overbearing, impenetrable mother, Amanda, and his fragile, anxious sister, Laura, who spends her days tending to a collection of miniature glass animals. In his opening monologue, Tom explains that the play originates from his own memory. “Being a memory play,” he says, “it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic.” The play is comprised of a series of “episodes,” or remembered scenes that map the family’s disintegration. Many episodes end abruptly, unnaturally, leaving you grasping for closure. It’s vaguely frustrating, like trying to pinpoint a familiar scent.
In the production notes for The Glass Menagerie, Williams describes a cryptic element of the play that never made it to Broadway: a “screen device” that would project images and text directly onto the wall through an instrument called a “magic lantern.” The technique dates back to the early horror shows of the 18th century. They were called “phantasmagoria”—a crowd of phantoms. Williams hoped the magic lantern would serve as a kind of poetic exoskeleton, emphasizing the “architectural” nature of the play’s episodic structure. Throughout the manuscript, instructions for the magic lantern appear in the style of stage directions, indicating what should appear on the wall and when. Sometimes the image or legend operates like a section heading, foreshadowing an important phrase or event; other times it seems to work more like an intertitle in a silent movie, narrating in real time.
As I lost myself in The Glass Menagerie’s crowd of phantoms, I became even more certain that narrative distance is not so much about time and space as it is about filtration and mediation, about obstacles and illusions. Williams anticipated that “the screen [would] have a definite emotional appeal, less definable but just as important” as its structure. When Amanda calls Laura onto the fire escape to make a wish on the moon, a moon appears on screen. When Laura recoils at the news that an old flame will be coming for dinner, the screen reads, “Terror!” These slides package nostalgia and anxiety into discrete, digestible units. They also keep us aware that we’re perceiving them, forcing us to contend not only with the play’s architecture, but its artifice. As in memory, the core emotion isn’t visceral feeling—love, hope—but the longing for it, which, as we all know, can feel a lot like the real thing.
This kind of meta-awareness can be frustrating, even alienating. In my undergraduate literature course last spring, I taught Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, a hybrid work that incorporates visual elements like photographs and diagrams to interrupt and reinforce Rankine’s exploration of American exceptionalism, racial violence, family strife, mental illness, and mass media consumption. Most students identified with the speaker’s numbness and grief at the state of the world, but that didn’t mean they liked reading the book. They complained about the “depressing” tone and the onslaught of images, despite acknowledging that their sense of cold detachment and distraction might be exactly the point.
There’s an interesting tension here between a reader’s desire for intimacy—a Western reader, at least—and a writer’s need for distance, achieved in The Glass Menagerie through the magic lantern. Hidden in the screen legends throughout the play are fragments from poems by writers like François Villon and Emily Dickinson, poems that, when they aren’t fractured into tiny shards, read like death breathing close and hot on your neck. Meanwhile, on stage, Laura nearly faints at the arrival of her “gentleman caller,” at the outside world knocking at her door. This layering of text and image and experience certainly creates a mood, but scholars suggest these grim allusions also hold deep personal significance for the playwright. Williams based the character of Laura—nicknamed “Blue Roses” by her girlhood crush in the play—on his own sister Rose, who, after being diagnosed with schizophrenia, received one of the country’s first frontal lobotomies. In his introduction to The Glass Menagerie: A Collection of Critical Essays, R.B. Parker writes, “Rose’s tragedy was a traumatic experience for Williams from which he never freed himself. He spent much of his career addressing in his artworks his desire to atone for the guilt he felt for being unable to protect or save her.”
Like Williams, I left someone in St. Louis. I left a whole life there, a whole self, and I don’t think my leaving will ever stop feeling like a betrayal. I have spent years trying to write my way back, trying to find a way in. I’ve written through the “screens” of color theory, architectural theory, logical determinism, Newton’s laws of motion, and even Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” all in the hopes of distancing myself enough from that time to make sense of it.
When we write around or under or through, it can feel like easing ourselves into a very hot bath. But I want to believe that this can benefit the reader as well as the writer. The numbness of mediation can force us as readers to confront our own modes of feeling, thinking, or relating to others. In the case of The Glass Menagerie, for example, the screen device reminds me that my own memories of St. Louis—particularly the most salient, painful ones—are just emblems of a story I’ve told myself about the past. I’m reminded that nostalgia flattens conflict and regret into a shape we can live with.
What does it mean, then, that Williams axed the screen from The Glass Menagerie’s debut? He writes in his introduction that the actors’ talent made it superfluous. And so the magic lantern was gone, just like that. It strikes me as an act of extraordinary self-restraint, and of courage, to unhitch the play from its scaffolding. What would Rankine’s “American lyrics” be like, I wonder, without their images, icons, and interruptions; without the maps that help us lose ourselves in the phantasmagoria of modern life?
At the end of the play, Tom leaves his family and St. Louis behind, as Williams himself did. He travels to outrun his past, “attempting to find in motion what was lost in space.” Williams may have realized that he needed the magic lantern more than his audience did: as a way to screen himself from the truth that he had abandoned the people who loved and needed him, who made him who he was. It must have been painful to recreate a version of his own claustrophobic, volatile household on the page, his sister’s evolving mental illness, and his desertion. “When a play employs unconventional techniques,” Williams wrote, “it […] certainly shouldn’t be trying to escape its responsibility of dealing with reality, or interpreting experience, but should be attempting to find […] a more penetrating and vivid expression of things as they are.” Perhaps once he found his way to the truth, he could stop projecting and just remember.
It’s possible that the biggest lesson here might not be about narrative distance at all, but about revision: that it happens at all stages of the writing process, and that until the lights go down, it’s not too late to pull back or move closer. That in the early stages, it is not a failure to get lost in the dream. We can surround ourselves in a crowd of phantoms and emerge alone.

Enlightenment, then Laundry

-

Fallacy though it may be to imagine the narrator of a verse as equivalent with the poet, it’s impossible not to imagine the words of Robert Frost read in that clipped Yankee-via-San-Francisco accent of his, to intuit the blistering cold of a New Hampshire morning or the blinding whiteness of the snow-covered Franconia Range, the damp exertion of sweat under a flannel collar and muddy boots trudging across yellow and brown leaves slick with early morning ice. Frost is forever a poet of loose coffee grounds dumped into boiling water and intricate blue and red quilts, of wooden spoons hanging from hooks next to gas stoves and of curved glass hurricane lamps, of creaking wooden floorboards and doors swollen with summer’s humidity. Visiting his white clapboard, gable-peeked farmstead in Derry, New Hampshire, and perambulating in the golden woods of sugar maple and red oak and it’s hard not to romanticize the old man, eyeing him along the rough granite stone wall that he mended every spring, the famous structure whereby “Good fences make good neighbors,” which he wrote about in his 1914 collection North of Boston. The poet was always fixing things—mending, building, working. Our greatest singer of chores.

He’s at it again in his poem “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” which he wrote around 1934, five years into the Great Depression. In a cold New England field our narrator is chopping wood when he is approached by two hungry vagrants looking for paid labor. There’s something vaguely ominous about the unemployed lumberjacks, as “one of them put me off my aim/By hailing cheerily ‘Hit them hard!'” I envision the startled narrator wobbling a bit, axe stuck in aborted oak atop a chopping block. “I knew pretty well what he had in mind:/he wanted to take my job for pay.” What eventually follows is a digressive, ethical rumination, one that seems entirely foreign at a time when the gig economy has become ubiquitous. “The time when most I loved my task/The two must make me love it more/By coming with what they came to ask.” Propriety and dignity is such that the tramps won’t accept mere charity, but Frost’s enjoyment of his housework prevents him from parting with the chopping of timber. “I had no right to play/With what was another man’s work for gain./My right might be love but theirs was need,” says the narrator. Ambiguous as to what he does, if the desperate men convince him of the necessity of their task, as indeed Frost knows that their continued presence will eventually move him to turn over the axe. Yet in the chore, here amongst the warm sun and the chill wind, his “object in living is to unite/My avocation and my vocation… where love and need are one.” Frost really liked housework.

My own inclinations regarding chores are decidedly less romantic; well into my twenties, my existence was that of the stereotypical heterosexual bachelor. Living out of hampers, eating over sinks, kicking discarded magazines under the sofa. When I was an undergraduate, and even more dissolute in my habitations, my dorm room was piled with old newspapers, so that any enterprising geologist could excavate backwards through strata of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and discover George W. Bush’s reelection, the invasion of Iraq, Colin Powel’s U.N. testimony. My attitude matured with experience, or at least I got sick of living in filth—and I got married of course—so much so that I even developed an occasional affection for chores, their straightforward, contemplative, and measurable necessity. To clean cups, mugs, glasses, and dishes; to soap up a bowl or scrub crusted sauce from a fork, loading up the machine and placing that little alien detergent pod into its compartment; toggling between stream and spray to clean the sink of bread crusts and globs of yogurt. Lithuanian-American poet Al Zolynas describes as much in “The Zen of Housework” from his collection The New Physics, how his rubber gloved hand filled up a wine glass with water and soap, “thousands of droplets/of steam—each a tiny spectrum—rising/from my goblet,” what he designates the “grey sacrament of the mundane!”

Easy to valorize if nobody is making you do it; Frost’s hobby was apparently chopping wood, and most of us do our dishes and laundry because the alternative is disgusting, but there is a risk to turning the vacuum into meditation tool. The narcissistic self-regard of the husband proud of having moved a coffee cup to the sink. Without some self-awareness you might sound like the Berkely philosopher Paul Feyerabend, who told an interviewer that he most enjoyed doing housework, seeing it as an act of devotion to his wife. After he died, his wife said that Feyerabend had never done any chores.

Notice the differing words we use to describe vacuuming or cooking—from meditation to hobby to housework to chore to domestic labor—all of which depends on who is doing it for whom and what’s compelling them to do it. By contrast to Zolynas’ lyric, former Poet Laureate Natasha Tretheway writes in a poem from her collection Domestic Work about a maid for whom “All week she’s cleaned/someone else’s house,/stared down her own face/in the shine of copper—/bottomed pots, polished/wood, toilets she’d pull/the lid to.” Historically, housework has been synonymous with women’s work; whether poorly renumerated or not paid at all, the scrubbing, dusting, and washing are marked as feminine. When Frost was outside playing lumberjack, what was Elinor Frost was doing? She was inside picking dried johnnie cake batter off of the iron stove top, she was washing those musty red flannels with their stink of the woods, she was mixing soap and water in a dented steel bucket and letting the suds flow over a bathroom floor. Betty Friedan describes the score in The Feminine Mystique: “As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material… she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—’Is this all?'”

Ironically, as the second wave feminism of the 1960s and 70s smashed through (some) boundaries regarding women’s role in the workplace, the onus of domestic labor didn’t shift more equitably to male partners. According to a Gallup poll from 2020, even though women are now more than half the workforce, and on average contribute more to their family’s finances (even while a gender wage gap endures), they still are responsible for laundry in 58% of households and cooking in 51%—not to mention childcare. Important since housework, it must be said, is also often hard. Despite those technological miracles of capitalist utopia—the washing machine, the dishwasher, the vacuum cleaner—chores are not just time-consuming and monotonous, but arduous. There was a reason why activists started the International Wages for Housework Campaign in 1972, a call for a universal basic income that acknowledged that women’s domestic labor was indeed labor. Writing about the history of women’s labor in the nineteenth-century home, Susan Strasser explains in Never Done: A History of Housework how women’s “contributions could not have been more central. The household was… a center of production, where women spun, wove, and sewed raw fibers into apparel, and converted unprocessed plant and animal matter into meals.” Chores can be meditative, but to forget that they’re also instrumental is also to forget the people who actually do them.

A question Frost implicitly grapples with: what is the difference between the work we do for ourselves and the work we do for others? Trethewey writes how “Sunday mornings are hers,” a still busy day where “church clothes [are] starched” and floors are washed with “buckets of water. Octagon soap.” But the language that describes these chores is so different, joyful even. Rhythmic. There’s a “record spinning/on the console, the whole house/dancing” while she cooks on the stove, “neck bones/bumping in the pot” and “a choir/of clothes clapping on the line.” This maid who still has to clean on her day off is at least cleaning for herself, and not unlike the narrator in Zolynas’s poem, she’s got her moments of domestic transcendence as she “beats time on the rugs,/blows dust from the broom/like dandelion spores, each one/a wish.” I don’t know if she loves this work, but there is a similarity between Trethewey’s character and Frost’s narrator, that distinction between working for pay and working for oneself. What defines chores is that they have to be done. Domestic work is never done, a constant war of attrition against entropy. But also, in a circumscribed way it can be finished perfectly: A writer can always add another word or a painter another brush stroke, but once a dish is lemony clean it can be as fresh as a new mind.

If there is a danger in forgetting that the chore is work, there is also a loss if we don’t remember that Frost and Zolynas and Trethewey have a point. Housework can be a practice, a ritual, a sacrament—the very art of life. Chores can even be countercultural, in a way, as necessary work for an adequate life, rather than for increasing the profits of an invisible entity housed in that aforementioned glass and steel monolith. Still, it’s hard to interpret chores as innately subversive, especially if we rely on Comet and Arm & Hammer, Palm Olive and Tide, Kenmore and Dyson, Frigidaire and General Electric. Not long after the 2008 economic collapse, and perhaps as part of the general zeitgeist where anarchic self-sufficiency manifested itself in the heady utopianism of Occupy, there was a softer rise in enthusiasm toward ways of doing chores that didn’t put money in the pockets of executives at Whirlpool or Proctor & Gamble. Suddenly some hipsters became homesteaders, hammering espresso machines into plowshares. Sticky mason jars filled with pickled tomatoes and acerbic asparagus, frosted growlers of yeasty homemade ale, home ground coffee, an enthusiasm for strenuous carpentry among women and delicate knitting among men. During the high-water mark of the late capitalist Anthropocene, it’s “no wonder some began reaching back even further, to simpler times they’d never known firsthand,” writes Kurt B. Reighley in United States of Americana: Backyard Chickens, Burlesque Beauties, and Handmade Bitters—A Field Guide to the New American Roots Movement. He explains that “these modern pioneers are latching on to handcrafts, well-made shoes… They’ve stopped paying exorbitant gourmet prices for sun-dried or roasted tomatoes, and started learning to can their own, fresh from a local, sustainable source, maybe their own yard or a nearby farmer’s market.”

If anything, the pandemic exacerbated these sentimental desires; or, let a thousand sourdough starters rise. If the American sense of nostalgic chore work harkened to certain (often pernicious) myths of the frontier—rustic cabins and gas stoves, cracked leather and rusted machinery—than across the Atlantic there has been a retreat into a sort of cozy, fantasy Cotswold: warm ale by a hot fire in the cold pub kind of domesticity. A leader in that trend is Tom Hodgkinson, editor of The Idler and advocate for a Chestertonian anarcho-medievalism. In Hodgkinson’s view, corporate capitalism has severed our connection to the numinous, and in the quotidian repetition of chores we redefine ourselves. As a credo, Hodgkinson writes in Brave Old World: A Month-by-Month Guide to Husbandry, or the Fine Art of Looking After Yourself that the “most important but generally the most neglected of everyday living are simply these: philosophy, husbandry, and merriment. Philosophy is the search for truth… Husbandry is the art of providing for one’s family, and merriment is the important skill of enjoying yourself: feasting, dancing, joking and singing.” In Brave Old World, Hodgkinson gives detailed and witty instructions on everything from wood-chopping and bread-baking to pig-slaughtering and field-planting. Archeologist Alexander Langlands promotes a similar ideology in his book Craeft: An Inquiry Into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts, writing that in our alienated age there is an attraction towards “making… and making with a perceived authenticity: by hand, with love; from raw, natural materials; to a desired standard.” I’ll admit, the aesthetic appeals to me; the actual labor doesn’t.

Considering how much time we spend in grocery stores, or vacuuming, or doing laundry, or taking out the trash, it’s often occluded in our literature, albeit we know that Jeeves dusted and somebody was starching Mr. Darcey’s collars. “One can travel quite deep into the literary archive without finding a single reference to the activities that keep households running, and keep those within them alive,” writes Lisa Locascio in Lit Hub, and yet she argues that the “tasks grouped under the humble name housework are not only necessary, but poetic, provocative, and complex.” Housework exists at the nexus of many things—race and gender, the personal and the public, the routine and the transcendent. Perhaps it’s her Midwestern Calvinist practicality, but Marilynne Robinson endows the everyday with charmed straightforwardness, elevating the chore to its rightful place, nowhere as much as in her appropriately named Housekeeping, whereby she imagines having “swept the whole floor of heaven,” the eschatological work of “reclaiming… fallen buttons and misplaced spectacles,” whereby chores themselves are the work of reparation and repair. In cleaning, in organizing, in making that which is disordered ordered, there is a sense that “everything must finally be made comprehensible,” as Robinson writes, what “are all these fragments for, if not to be knit up finally?,” the verb itself a conspicuous conflation of feminine housework with fixing the universe.

Chores are the undercurrent of literature, because housework is so much like writing, particularly in editing and revision. (Besides, chores are either the thing done to avoid writing, or what doesn’t happen when writing commences, or what the author expects someone else to do as they write.) To be done well, both writing and housework must be done every day, lest the dust and cobwebs overcrowd your house and your manuscript, the dishes piling up in the sink like uncleaned sentences, trash overflowing in bins as if over bloated paragraphs. Or even worse, to leave a wall unpainted like a page left blank. And both, when done contemplatively, can focus the mind. Chores can be monotonous, back-breaking, thankless, but they can also be meditative, even ecstatic. That writing shares these aspects with housework is important. So too is the ritualized aspect of both endeavors, at least if there is to be any success in either. Read any of the dozens of dialogues that constitute the “Writers at Work” series collected across The Paris Review Interviews, a celebrated feature conducted largely by George Plimpton for nearly half-a-century, in which authors elaborated on how they organized their desks, or what brand of typewriter ribbon they used, or when during the day they most often labored. Worth more than a whole shelf of post-structuralist literary criticism, the “Writers at Work” series proves that theory and praxis are identical. Everything depends on where you work, what tools you use, and your schedule. It’s no different from a sink full of dishes. Writing requires the same dutiful regularity, for a person “must sit down and get the words on paper, and against great odds,” says E.B. White. “This takes stamina and resolution.” Raymond Carver also emphasizes regularity, saying “When I’m writing, I write every day,” in the same way that if a household lets receipts gather on the table and circulars in the mailbox, the situation becomes unmanageable. John Ashbery countenances against falling into bad habits, bemoaning the sloppiness that ensues if one happens to “stay up too late and sleep in too long” while Gabriel García Márquez concurs that any writing requires “extraordinary discipline.” Just as the goal of housework is parsimony and economy, Louis Erdrich recommends overwriting the ending of a piece and then going back “to decide where the last line hits.” Perhaps most crucial, and that which separates the happy writer from the tortured, the joyful gardener from the merely muddy, the zestful carpenter from one who keeps hitting his thumb with a hammer, is that the “most important thing is to be excited about what you are doing,” as James Dickey says. All of this advice is prosaic. So are instructions on how to clean a room.

If writing gestures toward an abstract world beyond, we must not forget that it’s always been a grubby job as well, of ink trapped under ragged cuticles and of aching elbows and wrists. Because we think of domestic work in less grand terms, the physicality stands out more, and yet chores can gesture to a certain beyond as well. Robert Pirsig’s countercultural classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance makes a case for the mystical possibilities of chores. Pirsig writes that people associate engine metal with “given shapes—pipes, rods, girders, tools, parts… as primarily physical,” but for those who actually fix such machines, the “motorcycle is primarily a mental phenomenon.” Writing is more physical than is supposed and the chore more mental, the two meeting in the middle. Another similarity, as Pirsig describes it, is that whether fixing a bike or writing an essay the “solutions all are simple—after you have arrived at them. ” Machines are extensions of our mind, can even alter and redefine the mind. Once you’ve realized that writing is a physical activity, defined by its own exertions, its own discomforts, its own ennobled suffering, and not just something ephemeral in the head, then you’re thankful for the technologies that make it possible—the pen, the typewriter, the word processor. Domestic work and technology have always been connected like hand in rubber glove. Even something as under-theorized as Carol Gantz’s subject in The Vacuum Cleaner: A History is rightly understood as “one of the ‘machine age’ marvels of the early twentieth century,” to cleaning what the personal computer is to writing.

Vacuuming, admittedly, doesn’t have the same romance, but Raymond Carver made something brilliant out of that mundane ritual in his short story “Put Yourself in My Shoes,” the genesis of which was a single sentence: “He was running the vacuum cleaner when the telephone rang.” The line appeared as if a mantra in the author’s head one day, later unspooling like a cleaner going over a carpet in rigid, tight turns. Other types of domestic labor have always drawn the attention of writers, been endowed with significance and romanticized. Gardening is celebrated as an artful and (literally) regenerative duty. A sense that in charting tomato vines’ progress, basil plants becoming lushly green with spring showers, craggy oregano growing green-brown against the autumn sun, is a bit like seeing a manuscript slowly take form. “If you have a garden in your library,” Cicero famously wrote in a letter from 46 B.C.E, “everything will be complete.”

Gardening speaks a vernacular both primal and cozy, and as such it draws writerly attention more than toilet scrubbing does—we read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett and not The Secret Outhouse, after all. A garden is a mysterious space, intertwining vines clinging to a red-brick wall, dirt under fingernails and engorged vegetables, a sense of freshness and safety but also of sexual reproduction and perhaps the erotically illicit, as in that original paradise from which we were all expelled. In The Art of Love, Ovid sings of how “mid soft green there springs a sacred font”; Andrew Marvell avers that nothing is “as am’rous as this lovely green” in “Upon Appleton House.” For those who truly love gardening, the word “chore” is an obscenity for an activity nearer to vocation. Jamaica Kincaid movingly writes in My Garden that her own attempts shall never match her idealized vision, but “for me [that] is the joy of it; certain things can never be realized and so all the more reason to attempt them,” but my own Zen is significantly less chill. I’m merely an enthusiast for sitting in gardens—porches, stoops, or patios are also great—but I’ve never been a partisan of the dirt like those who possess a true green thumb. When it comes to produce, my housework extends rather to going to the grocery store which processes all of those goods of the garden (or farm rather), an enchanted place in my mind that as long as I go when it’s late and empty calms me as much as if I were a Buddhist monk circling a prayer wheel.

“This place recharges us spiritually, it prepares us, it’s a gate-way,” Don DeLillo writes of the supermarket in White Noise, and underneath the luminescent hum of the lights in a midnight Giant Eagle I concur; the place where with “hungry fatigue, and shopping for images” Allen Ginsberg had ecstatic visions of Walt Whitman “poking among the meats” and Federico García Lorca by the watermelons, of “peaches and what penumbras… Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!” Vegetables from a garden are so odd-shaped and dirty; give me rather the pyramid of oranges whose spherical perfection is marred only by the little nipple on top, of gleaming Macintoshes and Granny Smiths, of jumbled mountains of phallic bananas and crisp heads of lettuce, not to mention that shrink-wrapped steak and chicken breasts divorced from any sense that they were cut from a once fleshy creature. Not to speak of the rows and rows of pre-fabricated chemical American goodness, Oreos and Swedish Fish, Kit Kats and Cape Cod potato chips. Benjamin Lorr provides a bit of perspective in The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket, explaining that the “fresh apple you bite into has typically been sitting in dormancy for close to a year. Red cherries, that epitome of summer freshness, might have been stuck stabilized for two and half months. Bananas, avocados, tomatoes, and limes land somewhere in between.” Capitalism’s illusion of choice is the same as the illusion of freedom. I don’t normally care, as long as it tastes good.

Preparing food is how I express love. “I do think the idea that basic cooking skills are a virtue, that the ability to feed yourself and a few others with proficiency should be taught to every young man and woman as a fundamental skill,” writes Anthony Bourdain in Medium Raw. “[It] should become as vital to growing up as learning to wipe one’s own ass.” Writers, as you might know, always exist in a state of heightened, vibrating anxiety, hyper-attuned to observation and analysis, forever shifting words and sentences in our minds. Such a state is only alleviated by writing itself, or somehow turning your mind off, which is no easy thing. Cooking is the great mind-emptier, not because you can do it without thinking, but rather the opposite—you must be fully and completely emersed in feeling measurements and sensing temperature, of timing with your internal clock and constantly examining and tasting, of throwing spaghetti at the wall to see if it sticks. When preparing food, one immerses oneself into the flux, into the flow, and time itself becomes hyper focused. During the earliest days of the pandemic, not long after our son was born, I invented Pasta alla Campeggio, a dish named after the Cardinal who acted as Pope Clement VII’s legate to the court of Henry VIII. I should explain that this meal only has to do with Campeggio because we were rewatching the sublime ham of The Tudors during this period, and I enjoy the mixture of guttural consonants and soaring vowels in the Cardinal’s name, a word as pleasurable on the mouth as I hope that the food I’m preparing will be. I thought naming the food something that pretentious was funny.

Pay attention—a recipe. For Campeggio, I normally use a dry Italian pasta, preferably De Cecco brand, but Barilla is fine. Always a medium width spaghetti, anything thin and all the stuff you’re using to make the sauce will weigh it down, anything too thick and the gravy doesn’t emulsify over it in the way that you want. When boiling the water for the pasta, make sure that it’s as salty as the Aegean, and for reasons unclear to me I always add a liberal pour of olive oil. While the spaghetti is being prepared, I use a large circular skillet to make the sauce. By caveat, no measurements are offered; everything is done by intuition. First, heat up thinly sliced shallots from two bulbs and a heaping pile of already diced garlic, but be careful that nothing browns too much. Then, pour in enough extra virgin olive oil so that it coats the entire surface of the skillet, though not so much that you end up with a greasy mess. Everything is kept on lowish heat when you add about a quarter pound of very thinly sliced Jamon de Iberico (or prosciutto, though the Spanish ham is smokier), allowing it to curl slightly under the heat like the pages of a book being burnt, and then cool everything down slightly by dumping in around two dozen halved cherry tomatoes. Finally, right before adding the spaghetti, the equivalent of half-a-wheel of camembert (though brie also works) is distributed throughout the skillet in thinly cut strips, while the pasta (now drained of water of course) is mixed directly into the resulting sauce, rapidly swirled throughout so that the oil covered cheese adheres directly to the noodles. Serve immediately.

“To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living,” writes Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential. I heartily concur. By no means am I a great chef; I’m at most a passable ad hoc cook for my family, and most of my recipes involve heating up a tortilla with Prego and plastic shredded mozzarella and calling it “low carb pizza” or dousing chicken breasts in Frank’s Red Hot Sauce. Yet Campeggio is my Brandenburg Concerto, my Nighthawks at the Diner. If done well, you have a Taoist synthesis of the pork’s feral gaminess and the creaminess of the cheese, the spaghetti has an al dente snap while the tartness of the tomatoes cools everything down. It must be eaten quickly and in obscenely prodigious amounts, and subsequent convalescence means that you’ve accomplished your aim. If preparing food and enjoying it with your family is a devotion of love, than the evidence of that act are the chores left over, the plates with bits of dried ham stuck to them, the slick forks and spoons and the skillet with detritus of browned shallot and garlic affixed within. Sometimes, as is the case when eating with a toddler, there is laundry to be done, oil and tomato stains to get out of shirts and pants. Because chores are only over when life is, which is part of the wisdom that they impart. Not perfectionism or completism, but the dutiful, continual, never-ending thisness of our lives.

Housework offers contemplation, yes, but more importantly it is a reminder of our inescapable physicality, of the materiality of being in this world. There is—or should be—a democracy in that, the often filthy, boring, grueling nature of what it means to simply have the honor of existing in this fallen creation, the joy, beauty, and ecstasy of the whole thing. One can tell the difference between those who never do any housework and those of us who do, for the former have callouses on their souls, they’re divorced from such an intrinsic part of what it means to be a human. Those who never make their bed or take out the trash, change a diaper or wipe a plate, whether because they pay someone else to do it or expect that it’s always the responsibility of another person (probably their wife). Most of all, chores wait for no person. Solve a difficult equation, compose perfect measures of music, or craft a beautiful sentence, and afterwards the dog still needs to shit, shoes have to be put away, and the stairs must be vacuumed. As the Zen parable has it, after you’ve reached enlightenment, ascended to Nirvana, and comprehended the illusory nature of existence, you’re still going to have to do the laundry.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Wayne, Okparanta, Chang, and More

-

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Teddy Wayne, Chinelo Okparanta, K-Ming Chang, 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.
The Great Man Theory by Teddy Wayne
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Great Man Theory: “Paul, the snippy academic protagonist of Wayne’s alternately crushing and tedious latest (after Apartment), is having a rough go of it. He’s toiling as an adjunct, has to move in with his mom in the Bronx, is being pushed away by his tween daughter, and is stalled on writing his book-length treatise, The Luddite Manifesto. Reduced to the indignity of having to buy a smartphone and work as a rideshare driver, he finds purpose after picking up Lauren, the producer of cable TV show Mackey Live (think: The O’Reilly Factor). He hits it off with her after claiming to be a conservative professor disgusted by lefty academia, and before long they’re dating. As Paul manipulates Lauren to try to get himself booked on Mackey’s show and sabotage it for the good of the country, his life further disintegrates. Wayne’s greatest feat is also something of an Achilles heel: he convincingly inhabits Paul, but Paul can be bloviating and vapid. The fact that swaths of his internal monologues are skippable may cause some readers to tune out. This would be a shame, because when Paul bottoms out, his hurt hits as deep and palpable, and, indeed, his ‘nothing to lose’ plan feels fittingly desperate. There’s not a dull sentence here, though it’s too bad there aren’t fewer of them before the sting in the tail arrives.”
Harry Sylvester Bird by Chinelo Okparanta
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Harry Sylvester Bird: “The inventive if messy latest from Okparanta (Under the Udala Trees) chronicles the coming-of-age of a young white man who is convinced he is Black. In 2016, 14-year-old Harry Sylvester Bird develops an enduring fascination with Blackness while on a safari in Tanzania. (Regarding a Black tour guide’s arm hairs: ‘I noted them and wished I could be them.’) Several years later and back home in Edward, Pa., Harry’s racist parents slide toward financial catastrophe as Harry graduates high school and Covid-19 takes hold, spurring vaccination checkpoints and a national ‘bubble registry.’ Eager to distance himself from his family, Harry moves to New York and starts to identify as Black, going by ‘G-Dawg’ and joining a ‘Transracial-Anon’ support group. After ambivalently accepting a scholarship from the Purists (an extremist white populist political party), Harry enrolls in college and falls in love with Maryam, a fellow student from Nigeria. Despite some disastrous early dates, the couple stays together for years until a study-abroad trip to Ghana compels Harry to grapple with his identity and puts his relationship with Maryam to the test. There are weighty ideas here, but Harry’s lack of self-awareness will test readers’ patience, and the satire sometimes gets lost in the scattered plot. This doesn’t quite stick the landing.”
Brother Alive by Zain Khalid
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Brother Alive: “In this auspicious debut, Khalid unfurls a beguiling story involving a Staten Island imam’s secrets. Salim Smith has adopted three boys, all sons of his inner circle of confidantes from his days at the Islamic University of Markab in Saudi Arabia. In their cramped apartment above Salim’s Staten Island mosque, the oldest son, Youssef, struggles along with his brothers to understand their father’s behavior, as Salim shuns human touch, locks himself in his room writing mysterious letters, and dramatically loses weight. Then as Youssef gets ready to start college at Columbia, he learns Salim had been thrust into a parental role he has no interest in. Salim’s story is fleshed out in the second section, which takes place decades earlier, with Salim living in Markab and being coopted by a powerful Saudi mufti, Ibrahim Sharif, into preaching to marginalized community members known as the ‘Unsettled.’ Meanwhile, Ibrahim conducts dangerous experiments on the castoffs. In the final section, Salim returns to Saudi Arabia in search of a cure for his lingering health problems from Ibrahim’s regimen, and finds that Ibrahim has built a luxurious futuristic city on top of Markab. Youssef and his brothers follow and are soon working for Ibrahim, jeopardizing their planned reunion with Salim. Khalid brilliantly reveals new shades of truth from each character’s point of view, and perfectly integrates the many ideas about capitalism and religious extremism into an enthralling narrative. It’s a tour de force.”
Total by Rebecca Miller
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Total: “In Miller’s alluring collection (after the novel Jacob’s Folly), protagonists search for connection and pleasure in strange, sometimes destructive ways. Daphne in ‘Mrs. Covet’ is a mother of two, pregnant with a third. The family hires a cleaning lady named Nat, hoping for some order, but after Nat moves in, something disastrous happens. In the speculative title story, people have transcendent phone sex on devices called Total Phones, and the force field of an early version of the phone leads to birth defects (most ‘Total children’ die from unknown causes by the age of eight or nine). Roxanne, 16, hatches a plan to break her younger sister, E, eight, from the Total Care Center where she’s lived since her infancy, and devastating consequences ensue. In ‘She Came to Me,’ Ciaran, an Irish writer who has remained faithful to his wife of 18 years, struggles with writer’s block and decides to seek out everyday stories in Dublin. He meets a young American woman who professes to be a romantic (and admits to having been a stalker). They go to her room, where he has second thoughts about having sex with her, though they do anyway. Miller brings a cinematic eye to her descriptions (a parking garage’s ‘final floor’ offers a ‘vivid sky’) and plenty of drama to the situations. These stories are full of surprises.”
Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Our Wives Under the Sea: “Armfield follows her collection, Salt Slow, with a moody and intimate debut novel, both a portrait of a marriage and a subtle horror fantasy. Miri and Leah are a married lesbian couple living in a British coastal city. Leah, a scientist with the Centre for Marine Enquiry, participates with her submarine crew in a deep-sea dive that is supposed to take three weeks but instead lasts six months, due to a malfunction, and Miri’s reactions range from helpless panic to anger to acceptance and mourning as she phones desperately to get answers from the Centre. (She even joins an online community of role-playing women who imagine their husbands are astronauts in space.) When Leah returns, she begins exhibiting such symptoms as the ‘silvering’ of her skin, sleepwalking, loss of appetite, and a need to be near or in water. She also spends hours in the bathroom with the taps running and a sound machine playing ocean surf sounds, and bleeds frequently: from her nose, gums, and through her skin. While Miri at first looks for a logical explanation for these maladies, their source remains mysterious. Meanwhile, the two have stopped communicating and sleep in separate bedrooms, and it begins to seem as if Leah is transforming into some nonhuman creature. With echoes of Jules Verne, Thor Heyerdahl (whose work inspired Leah), H.P. Lovecraft, and the film Altered States, Armfield anchors the shudder-producing tale in authentic marine science and a deep understanding of human nature. This is mesmerizing.”
The Empire of Dirt by Francesca Manfredi (translated by Ekin Olap)
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Empire of Dirt: “Manfredi’s English-language debut is an evocative tale of one young woman’s coming-of-age in 1990s rural Italy. Valentina is 12, an only child living in an ancient crumbling farmhouse with her pious grandmother and troubled mother. Valentina wakes one morning to a spreading stain on her bedroom wall, which she believes corresponds to the shame she feels about having her first period. Terrified of her body’s changes and troubled by her grandmother’s references to a family curse and biblical retribution, Valentina decides she has brought on a plague. Hundreds of tiny frogs followed by mosquitoes, flies, and locusts then descend on the house and vegetable farm, and the sheep begin dying of a terrible disease, all of which Valentina tries to deal with by sacrificing a goat. Meanwhile, her mother is busy wooing a new boyfriend, her grandmother rapidly descends into terminal illness, and her best friend has broken off their friendship out of jealousy over a local boy. The melodious prose enhances the coming-of-age scenes and Valentina’s religious guilt (‘it came at night, when all terrible things happen, and like all terrible things, it decided to give me a choice,’ she narrates about her period), but too often the plot points are dropped or unexplained. Though it feels unresolved overall, the accomplished prose is a testament to Manfredi’s potential.”
Bad Thoughts by Nada Alic
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Bad Thoughts: “In Alic’s candid and humorous debut collection, women explore their darkest thoughts and fears. The narrator in ‘My New Life’ reflects on her alienation at a baby shower (‘I sometimes worry that motherhood is contagious, like a parasite or the way cohabitating women synchronize their cycles’). There, she finds a kindred spirit in Mona, who sets up a dating profile despite being married. In ‘Tug Spin Release,’ the narrator, a gym teacher, attends a bachelorette party in Cabo, where she holds out for an unlikely acceptance from a writing residency. In Cabo, she feels increasingly isolated from the others as they overshare about their lives. In ‘The Party,’ the narrator and her boyfriend take a quiz from a swank bedding company before selecting their pricey sheets, and face their ambivalence over whether they want children. Later, afraid she’s having a dangerous reaction to an ecstasy pill, the narrator calls a telehealth line and confides in the doctor about her life, a ‘conga line of disappointments’ in which she’s ‘getting less young and more old at the same time.’ As the characters wrestle with what’s missing from their lives, the author finds mordant hilarity. The more Alic leans into the weirdness, the more addictive this becomes.”
Sirens & Muses by Antonia Angress
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Sirens & Muses: “A quartet of artists negotiate love, ambition, and politics during the 2011 Occupy movement in Angress’s winning debut. Nineteen-year-old Louisa Arceneaux is a new transfer student at the fictional Wrynn College in New England, arriving from her native Louisiana. Her roommate, the icy and beautiful Karina Piontek, is everything Louisa is not: worldly, wealthy, and confident. Preston Utley, a senior, questions the school’s relevance in the modern age. The yin to Utley’s yang is Robert Berger, a teacher whose own art career, once white-hot, has atrophied. Angress nimbly embodies each of her characters, allowing her exceptional storytelling abilities to shine. When Louisa asks Karina to pose for a painting, the initial reticence between the two fades, and something more volatile emerges. Preston and Karina begin a romantic relationship on unequal footing, while Preston, a member of the school’s Occupy group, antagonizes an increasingly desperate Robert by excoriating his work in Artforum, and the novel’s first part ends with a major rupture. In part two, set over the following year, the characters have left Wrynn’s bubble for New York City, where Preston and Karina prepare for a joint debut show at Robert’s former gallery, and Angress sweeps everything toward a wonderfully complex conclusion. This is a standout.”
Fire Season by Leyna Krow
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Fire Season: “Krow’s evocative debut novel (after the collection I’m Fine, but You Appear to Be Sinking) follows three misfits who prosper in the aftermath of a devastating fire in 1889 Spokane Falls, just before Washington gains statehood. Barton Heydale, 29, is the manager of the only bank within 100 miles; feeling lonesome and disliked, he’s considering ending his life when he sees the fire at Wolfe’s Hotel. In the chaotic aftermath, he enacts a plan to steal from the bank. He later runs into Roslyn Beck, a sex worker he’d engaged at Wolfe’s on the day of the fire, and invites her to stay with him. Barton plans to escape town with the money and Roslyn, but she and the money disappear. Then Quake Auchenbaucher arrives, identifying himself as a federal arson inspector to the police, who have taken Barton into custody on charges of usury and counterfeiting. Quake, a savvy con man, pins the fire on Barton and convinces the officers all the bank’s money is fake, and that he must transport it to the Treasury. After a series of twists, the three outlaws all converge. Krow pulls off a convincing last gasp of the Wild West with an appealing array of charlatans and schemers. The prose is marvelous, and Krow shrewdly shows via Barton, who pretends to be a ‘man in a fine, if not enviable state,’ how the riskiest con is against the self. Readers will be captivated.”
The Poet’s House by Jean Thompson
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Poet’s House: “Thompson (A Cloud in the Shape of a Girl) intriguingly explores the contours of the literary world through the eyes of an outsider. Carla Sawyer, a restless Northern California landscaper in her 20s, is stretched thin by conflicting advice. Her divorced mother urges her to either get a hospital job or grow legal marijuana, while her boyfriend remarks that her green thumb remains underappreciated. Carla’s world broadens when she begins work in the gardens of renowned poet Viridian Boone. Carla doesn’t know anything about poetry, but Viridian opens her home to the young woman, who winds up mingling with an eccentric coterie of poets, writers, and artists. As Carla grows closer to Viridian and the bohemian group, she develops a strong appreciation for poetry. Soon, Carla becomes caught up in conversations with Viridian about Viridian’s former lover, Mathias, who died by suicide many years earlier, after he became famous for his love poems about Viridian. Thompson’s talents for immersive storytelling and sharp characters are on brilliant display, particularly in her portrayal of Carla’s longing for something greater, and of Viridian’s conflicted feelings about Mathias’s work. The author’s fans will savor this.”
Big Girl by Mecca Jamilah Sullivan
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Big Girl: “Sullivan (the collection Blue Talk and Love) charms in her stunning debut novel about a Black girl’s coming-of-age. While growing up in gentrifying Harlem during the 1980s and ’90s, Malaya Clondon is irrevocably impacted by other people’s perceptions and judgments of her weight. At eight, her mother, Nyela forces her to attend Nyela’s Weight Watchers meetings, and she endures cruel remarks from classmates at her predominantly white school. When she’s 16, Nyela and Malaya’s father, Percy, fight over the prospect of Malaya undergoing a gastric bypass. Throughout, Sullivan offers a nuanced portrayal of Malaya’s difficulties in navigating a world in which other people are unable to see her beyond her size, even after a terrible loss shakes Malaya’s world and reorients her family. All of Sullivan’s characters—even the cruel ones—brim with humanity, and the author shines when conveying the details of Malaya’s comforts, such as Biggie Smalls lyrics, the portraits she paints in her room, the colors she braids into her hair, and the sweet-smelling dulce de coco candies she eats with a classmate with whom she shares a close and sexually charged friendship. This is a treasure.”
Gods of Want by K-Ming Chang
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Gods of Want: “Chang (Bestiary) returns with a dazzling collection of stories within stories that draw on old myths to embody the heartache and memories of Asian American women. In ‘The Chorus of Dead Cousins,’ the unnamed narrator is constantly disrupted by the ghosts of her dead cousins and tries to escape them by traveling with her storm-chaser wife to record a tornado. In ‘Episodes of Hoarders,’ a woman nicknamed ‘little crab’ grieves over her dead hoarder grandmother. A wild mother-in-law repeatedly pretends to die and makes married life a living nightmare for the protagonist of ‘Xífù,’ who envies her lesbian daughter for being unattached to men. In ‘Anchor,’ a young woman struggles with the verbal abuse of her aunt, who raised her after her mother died during childbirth. She’s also haunted by the ghost of a girl her aunt accidentally shot many years earlier, has delicate conversations with a nun at a nearby temple, and searches for the old toy gun her brother lost before he left for the military. Chang’s bold conceits and potent imagery evoke a raw, visceral power that captures feelings of deep longing and puts them into words. This stellar collection will leave readers hungry for more.”
Also on shelves this week: Sister Mother Warrior by Vanessa Riley.