Letter from the Capitol

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The Confederate battle standard never flew within the Capitol Building — until January 6th, 2021. During the Civil War, that cankered, perfidious, malignant, cancerous cabal of traitors who grandiosely called themselves the “Confederate States of America” had many northern strategic inflection points in which they stabbed into the nation’s body, and because of these, for a time, it seemed as if they might be triumphant. General John Hunt Morgan’s 2nd Kentucky Calvary Regiment raided not just in that unfortunate border state, but in 1863 they pierced into Indiana and Ohio as well. Morgan would finally surrender in Salineville, Ohio, which latitudinally is almost as far north as Connecticut. Even more incongruously and a year later, 21 veterans of Morgan’s Raid crossed over the Canadian border, that land then colonized by a Southern-sympathizing Great Britain, and attacked the sleepy hamlet of St. Albans, Vermont, including robbing the bank and forcing the citizens at gun point to swear fealty to the Confederacy. The most violent (and most famous) invasion of the north was the traitor Robert E. Lee’s campaign in Pennsylvania, the goal of which was to possibly capture or burn down Philadelphia, but which was stopped at the infamous “High Water Mark” of the Confederacy when Union General George C. Meade turned back the Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg—a battle that took more than 50,000 American lives in three days. During Lee’s campaign in southern Pennsylvania, free Black women and men had to flee north, as the Confederate raiders would send those they kidnapped into a southern bondage.

For sheer absurdity, among the closest positions that the rebels ever got to the national capital was the Marshall House Inn in Alexandria, Virginia, where a Confederate flag was displayed that was so large and so tall that Lincoln could see it from the White House across the Potomac. A few weeks after Ft. Sumter and Union troops occupied the city, marching down red-bricked King Street where slave markets had sold thousands of human beings less than ten miles from the Capitol Building. When Colonel Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth of the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment ascended to the roof of the hotel to remove the flag, the proprietor of the Marshall House shot him dead, the first Union casualty of the Civil War. Despite being able to see the warped cross of the Confederate battle standard from the portico of the White House, Lincoln steadfastly refused to move the capital to safer points further north, arguing that the abandonment of Washington would be a capitulation to the seditionists.

“Let us be vigilant,” Lincoln telegraphed to the worried Maryland governor in 1864, “but keep cool. I hope neither Baltimore nor Washington will be sacked.” Not for lack of desire, as that same year Confederate Lieutenant Jubal Early would attack Ft. Stevens in the Northwest Quadrant of the District of Columbia, in a battle that would take close to nine hundred men. Long had the secessionists dreamed of Washington as the capital of their fake nation. In the decades before the Civil War some imagined a “Golden Circle,” which would be a veritable empire of slavery, with the South Carolina Senator Robert Barnwell Rhett imperially enthusing that “We will expand… over Mexico – over the isles of the sea — over the far-off Southern — until we shall establish a great Confederation,” their twisted nation stretching from Panama to the District of Columbia. Until last week the Confederate flag never flew within the Capitol.

There the man casually strolls across the red-and-blue mosaic floor of some antechamber in the Capitol, dressed in jeans and a black hoodie with a tan hunting vest; hoisted over his shoulder is the Confederate flag, its colors matching the tiles. It shouldn’t be lost on anybody that his uniform is the exact same “suspicious” article of clothing which Black pre-teenagers have been shot for wearing, even while this man is able to raid the very seat of government unmolested. Because America is many things, but it is not subtle, the man in the photograph is centered by two gild-framed oil paintings. One is of Charles Sumner, the Massachusetts Senator and abolitionist nearly caned to death by an opponent on the legislative floor of this very building, and who denounced the “unutterable wrongs and woes of slavery; profoundly believing that, according to the true spirit of the Constitution, and the sentiments of the fathers, it can find no place under our National Government” before Congress in 1852. The other portrait, almost predictably, is of John C. Calhoun, the South Carolina Senator and Vice President under Andrew Jackson, who in 1837 would declaim that the “relation now existing in the slaveholding states… instead of an evil, [is] a good. A positive good,” and would then gush about what a kind and benevolent slave-master he was. It would be harder to stage a more perfect encapsulation of the American dichotomy than our weekend warrior did on Wednesday, the continual pull between those better angels of our nature and the demons of history, who are never quite exorcized and are often in full possession of the body politic. A power in that grotesque image, the cosplaying Confederate momentarily self-anointing himself sovereign as he casually strolls through the chamber. Chillingly strolled, one might say, for all of these terrorists acted with as impunity as if they had the knowledge there would be no consequences to their actions. It reminds us that the mantra “This isn’t who we are” is at best maudlin and at worst a complete lie.

The siege against the Capitol on the day that Congress met for the constitutionally mandated and largely pro-forma ritual of officially counting the Electoral College votes to certify Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as the rightful victors of the 2020 presidential race can be examined from many directions, of course. Security experts can parse why there was such a profound failure at ensuring the safety of the session; political scientists can explain how social media algorithms has increasingly radicalized adherents of the far-right; historians can place movements like QAnon and the Proud Boys in a genealogy of American nativism and European fascism. Everyone should be able to say that ultimate responsibility lay with the stochastic terrorism promoted by the lame-duck president and his congressional sycophants in the Sedition Caucus, as well as his media enablers with whom he is clasped in a toxic symbiotic relationship. All those approaches to analysis are valid, but I choose to look at the day as a literary critic and a resident of Washington D.C., because those things are what I am. But incongruity alone, even the uncanny alone, can’t quite provide the full critical lexicon for what we witnessed on our televisions that afternoon, the sense that even more than an inflection point, we were viewers of a cracked apocalypse. How do we make sense of an attempted American putsch, the almost-nightmare of a coup?

Because the cultural idiom of this nation is Hollywood, and our interpretive lenses are by necessity through that of the movies, I can’t help but feel that much of what we saw seemed prefigured in film. The terrible logic of America is that our deepest nightmares and desires always have a way of enacting themselves, of moving from celluloid to reality. Look at the photograph of Jake Angeli, the self-styled “QAnon Shaman,” shirtless and bedecked in racoon fur with buffalo horns upon his head (in pantomime of the very people whom this nation enacted genocide upon) with his face smeared in the colors of the American flag, standing at the dais of the Speaker of the House, and tell me that it doesn’t look like a deleted scene from The Postman. Or examine the photograph of a smiling ginger man in a stocking cap emblazoned with “TRUMP,” casually waving as he jauntily strolls underneath the rotunda past John Trumbull’s massive painting Surrender of General Burgoyne holding under his arm a pilfered wood podium decorated with a gold federal eagle, his hero’s adage that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” apparently only to be selectively enforced. It looks like something from the post-apocalyptic movie The Book of Eli.

And then, most chillingly (and disturbingly underreported), there was the painstakingly assembled set of gallows, placed a bit beyond the equestrian monument to Ulysses S. Grant, who with great courage and strength broke the first iteration of the Ku Klux Klan, from which one vigilante hung that most American symbol of a noose. When remembered in light of the black-clad and masked men photographed with guns and zip-ties, it should make all of us consider just how much more tragic this violation, which was already a grotesque abomination, could have been. Horrifying to recall that the narrative conceit in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (and its television adaptation) that allowed for the theocratic dictatorship to ascend to power was the mass murder of a joint session of Congress. Sometimes #Resistance liberals get flak for their fears of fascism, but it would be easier to mock those anxieties if our country didn’t so often look like a science fiction dystopia.

It’s my suspicion that pop culture — that literature — is capable of picking up on some sort of cultural supersonic wavelength, those deep historical vibrations that diffuse in circles outward from our present into both past and future. There is something incantatory about those visions generated in word and special-effect, so that the eeriness of seeing marauding fascists overtake the Capitol grounds feels like something we’ve seen before. Think of all the times we’ve watched the monuments of Washington D.C. destroyed on film. Last week — while half paying attention to a block of cheesy apocalypse movies on the Syfy network that were supposed to count down the days left in the year — I saw the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier pushed into the city by an Atlantic tsunami where it rolled across the National Mall and crushed the White House in Roland Emmerich’s godawful 2012. I’ve seen the executive mansion punctuated by bombs and dotted with bullet holes in the spectacularly corny Antoine Fuqua movie Olympus Has Fallen, and according to Thrillist the Capitol itself has been laid waste in no less than nine movies, including Day After Tomorrow, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Independence Day, Olympus Has Fallen, Superman II, White House Down, and X-Men: Days of Futures Past. Probably the impulse to watch this sort of thing is equal parts vicarious thrill and enactment of deep fears. I remember that when I saw Independence Day (also by Emmerich, the Kurosawa of schlock) after it came out, the 1996 theater audience erupted into cheers and claps when the impenetrable wall of exploding alien flames incinerated its way across D.C. and shattered the white dome of the Capitol like an egg being thrown into a fire-place. Was that applause an expressed opinion about Newt Gingrich? About Bill Clinton? Something darker?

After the terrorist attacks on 9/11, now almost twenty years ago, there was a profoundly shortsighted prediction that the hideous spectacle of Americans seeing the World Trade Center collapse would forever cure us of our strange desire to see our most famous buildings, and the people within them, destroyed. A perusal into the Olympian corpus of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (seemingly the only entertainment which Hollywood bothers to produce anymore) will testify that such an estimation was, to put it lightly, premature. French philosopher Guy Debord could have told us this in 1967 in his Society of the Spectacle, wherein he noted that “all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation,” to which it could be added that the inverse is also accurate – everything that has been represented has seemingly moved into life. Which doesn’t mean that scenes like those which we witnessed on Wednesday aren’t affecting – no, the opposite is true. People reach to the appraisal that “it looks like a movie” not to be dismissive, but rather because cinema is the most powerful mythopoesis that we’re capable of.

What’s needed, of course, is a vocabulary commensurate with what exactly all of us saw. A rhetoric capable of grappling with defilement, with violation, with desecration, but because all we have is movies, that’s what we’re forced to draw upon. They gave us the ability to think about the unthinkable before it happened; the chance to see the unseeable before it was on our newsfeeds. If the vision of the screen is anemic, that’s not necessarily our fault — we measure the room of our horror with the tools which we’ve inherited. Few square miles of our civic architecture are quite so identified with our quasi-sacred sense of American civil religion as the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, and so the spectacle of a clambering rabble (used as a Trojan Horse for God knows what more nefarious group of actors) calls to mind fiction far more than it does anything which actually has happened. That’s the cruelty of our current age — that so frequently our lives resemble the nightmare more than the awakening. The Capitol siege was very much an apocalypse in the original Greek sense of the word: an unveiling, a rupture in normal history that signals why all of this feels so cinematic — though it’s hard to tell if it’s the beginning or ending of the movie, and what genre we’re exactly in. As Timothy Denevi writes about the assault in LitHub, “What is a culmination, after all, except the moment in which everything that could happen finally does? Where are we supposed to go from there?”

Important to remember that everything which could happen has already happened before, at some point. That’s what the bromide about this not being who we are gets wrong — this is, at least partially, who we’ve always been, albeit not in this exact or particular way. What happened at the eastern edge of the Mall this week has shades of the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898 in which an conspiracy of white supremacists plotted against the Black leadership of the North Carolina city ushered in Jim Crow at the cost of hundreds of lives (and then untold millions over the next century). The assault on the Capitol has echoes of the Election Riots of 1874, when members of the White League attacked Black voters in Eufaula, Alabama, leaving behind dozens of wounded women and men, and seven corpses. These are two examples of hundreds of similar events that shamefully liter our nation’s history, albeit most citizens have never heard of them. Hell, most people didn’t know about the Tulsa race massacre of 1921 — still less than a century ago — until HBO’s Watchmen dramatized it. The issue is exactly the same: White supremacists think that only their votes count, and will do anything to enforce that conviction.

That the supporters of the man who currently occupies the Oval Office believe any number of insane and discounted conspiracy theories about election fraud — claims rejected in some sixty lawsuits and a 9-0 Supreme Court decision — is to in some ways miss the point. Listen to their language — the man who instigated Wednesday’s riot emphasizes that he simply wants to count “legal” votes and ask yourself what that means, and then realize why the fevered rage of his mob focuses on places like Detroit, Philadelphia, and Atlanta. If the only people who’d been allowed to vote for Trump were white people, then he would have won the election in his claimed landslide — that’s what he and his supporters mean by “legal” votes. The batshit insane theories are just fan fiction to occlude the actual substance of their political belief. Such anti-democratic sentiment is also an American legacy, an American curse. The connection between what happened on Capitol Hill and in Wilmington, Eufaula, and Tulsa; or Fort Bend, Texas in 1888; or Lake City, South Carolina in 1897; or Ocoee, Florida in 1920; or in Rosewood, Florida in 1923 (you can look them all up), or any number of other thousands of incidents, may seem tangential. It isn’t.

When I lived in Massachusetts there was a sense of history that hung thick in the air, all of those centuries back to the gloomy Puritans and their gothic inheritance. Historical markers punctuated the streets of Boston and her suburbs, and there was that rightfully proud Yankee ownership of the American Revolution. Our apartment was only a mile or so from the Lexington battle green where that shot heard around the world rang out, and I used to sometimes grab a coffee and read a magazine on one of its pleasant benches in what was effectively a pleasant park, battle green thoughts in a green shade. Part of me wanted to describe this part of the country as haunted, and perhaps it is, but its ghosts seem to belong to a distant world, a European world. By contrast, when I moved to Washington DC, the American specters moved into much clearer focus. If Massachusetts seems defined by the Revolution, then the District of Columbia, and Maryland, and Virginia are indelibly marked by the much more violent, more consequential, more important, and more apocalyptic conflagration of the Civil War. In his classic Love and Death in the American Novel, the critic Leslie Fiedler described the nation as “bewilderingly and embarrassingly, a gothic fiction, nonrealistic and negative, sadist and melodramatic — a literature of darkness and the grotesque in a land of light and affirmation.” Our national story is a Jekyll and Hyde tale about the best and worst aspirations at conflict within the Manichean breast of a nation which fancied itself Paradise but ended up somewhere points further south.

Because I have a suspicion that poetry is capable of telling the future, that everything which can or will happen has already been rendered into verse somewhere (even if obscured), a snatch of verse from a Greek poet accompanied my doom scrolling this week. “Why isn’t anything going on in the senate?” Constantin Cavafy asked in 1898, “Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?” I thought about it when I first heard that the mob was pounding at the Capitol door; it rang in my brain when I saw the photographs of them parading through that marble forest of statuary hall, underneath that iron dome painted a pristine white. “Because the barbarians are coming today,” Cavafy answered himself. I thought about it when I looked at the garbage strewn through the halls, the men with their feet up on legislators’ desks, cackling at the coup they’d pulled. “What’s the point of senators making laws now? Once the barbarians are here, they’d do the legislating.” For a respite, it seems that the barbarians have either been pushed back or left of their own accord. In that interim, what will be done to make sure that they don’t return? Because history and poetry have taught us that they always do.

Image credit: Pexels/Harun Tan.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Saunders, Enríquez, Gurganus, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from George Saunders, Mariana Enríquez, Allan Gurganus, and more—that are publishing this week.

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A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: “Saunders (Lincoln in the Bardo) offers lessons from his graduate-level seminar on the Russian short story in this superb mix of instruction and literary criticism. In surveying seven stories by Anton Chekhov, Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, and Nikolai Gogol, Saunders concludes that the secret to crafting powerful fiction is, ‘Always be escalating. That’s all a story is, really: a continual system of escalation.’ Each story is presented in full, along with Saunders’s commentary: on Chekhov’s ‘In the Cart,’ Saunders asks, ‘why we keep reading a story,’ and on Tolstoy’s ‘Master and Man,’ he writes that facts can ‘draw us in’ when the ‘language isn’t particularly elevated or poetic.’ Saunders’s teaching style, much like his fiction, is thoughtful with touches of whimsy, as when he breaks the action of Turgenev’s ‘The Singers’ into a table and compares the short story writer to a roller-coaster designer. The writing advice, meanwhile, is expansive: revising, he writes, involves intuition, and he views a story as a conversation. His closing note for writers is to ‘go forth and do what you please.’ Saunders’s generous teachings—and the classics they’re based on—are sure to please.”

Aftershocks by Nadia Owusu

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Aftershocks: “In her enthralling memoir, Whiting Award–winner Owusu (So Devilish a Fire) assesses the impact of key events in her life via the metaphor of earthquakes. The biracial daughter of an Armenian mother and Ghanaian father, Owusu’s early life was fractured by her parents’ divorce and multiple moves necessitated by her father’s U.N. career. Living in Rome at age seven, she was visited by her long-absent mother on the day a catastrophic quake hit Armenia, seeding an obsession with earthquakes ‘and the ways we try to understand the size and scale of impending disaster.’ She believed ‘an instrument in my brain’—a kind of emotional seismometer—picked up vibrations and set off protective alarms. Her shaky relationship with her stepmother Anabel, meanwhile, worsened in her teens after her father’s death from cancer. College in Manhattan offered escape, but at 28 she was devastated by Anabel’s claim that her father died of AIDS: ‘Although… Anabel was a liar… the alarm continued to sound.’ A subsequent breakup with a boyfriend released long-suppressed anxiety, and she spent a week sitting in a chair in her apartment—’almost like sitting in my father’s lap,’ and it was only then that she could contemplate the complex love she, her mother, and her stepmother felt for her father. Readers will be moved by this well-wrought memoir.”

The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata by Gina Apostol

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata: “Filipino writer Apostol (Insurrecto) revises her playful 2009 novel, winner of the Philippine National Book Award and appearing in the U.S. for the first time, to highly entertaining effect. Framed as the expansive, postmodern memoir of the visually impaired Raymundo Mata, the book combines Mata’s reminiscences of the 1890s revolution against Spanish colonial forces and his involvement with the secret revolutionary Katipunan society with references to revered real-life 19th-century nationalist Filipino writer Jose Rizal. In a note commenting on the new edition, Apostol describes the book’s eccentric intricacies by noting how it was ‘planned as a puzzle: traps for the reader, dead end jokes, textual games, unexplained sleights of tongue.’ The narrative is studded with hilarious argumentative footnotes between an editor, a translator, and a scholar of Mata’s work, producing dueling Nabokovian narratives: Mata’s diaries and the conflicting commentaries, all suffused perfectly with Apostol’s dense, demanding style. As the story of the revolution faces off with literary histrionics, all is resolved with a gut-punch conclusion. Apostol’s unique perspective on facts versus fiction would make for a perfect Charlie Kaufman movie.”

That Old Country Music by Kevin Barry

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about That Old Country Music: “Irish writer Barry follows Night Boat to Tangier with a rather mixed story collection. ‘The Coast of Leitrim’ and ‘Deer Season’ tread well-worn romantic territories, depicting doomed and all-too familiar relationships. ‘Who’s-Dead McCarthy,’ about a morbid townie chatterbox, is entertaining, yet it ends with a punch line that falls flat. On the other hand, the title story, which follows a pregnant teen as she waits for her criminal fiancé to return from a robbery, pulses with electricity and emotion, despite its abrupt conclusion. ‘Toronto and the State of Grace’ showcases the author’s gift for dialogue and wit, as a brash son and his elderly mother hold court in a sleepy pub, drinking their way through the pub’s liquor and showering the barkeep with stories. And ‘Roma Kid’ transforms what initially seems to be a depressing runaway child story into a fairy tale of finding family and purpose. As always, Barry can’t write a bad sentence (‘A light rain began to fall and it spoke more than anything else of the place through which she moved’), but the too-tepid stories don’t do justice to the author’s considerable talents. This won’t go down as one of Barry’s finer works.”

Hades, Argentina by Daniel Lodel

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Hades, Argentina: “An Argentinian American unspools his dark memories of the Dirty War in Loedel’s mesmerizing debut. Tomás Orilla, a naive medical student, was drawn into Argentina’s dangerous political miasma in 1976 to impress his first love, the left-wing activist Isabel. The reader first meets Tomás in 1986 in New York City, where Tomás had fled 10 years earlier with a forged passport. Now married to an American woman, he shares with her a conveniently selective version of his story (‘the full, fleshed-out story still wasn’t one I was eager to examine, much less hand over’). Tomás returns to Buenos Aires after receiving a call from Isabel’s mother, who is terminally ill with cancer. There, he encounters what appears to be the ghost of a former mentor who takes him to a crypt underneath an old detention center, where he relives a series of horrifying events, some of which he was party to in the lead-up to a difficult choice he made for his own survival. The theme of ghosts is bent a few ways—ghosts appear in memories, the crypt, and on the street—and it becomes an apt, poignant descriptor for the people who were disappeared and the agony of their loved ones who had to carry on without knowing what happened to them. Loedel’s unflinching look at human frailty adds a revelatory new chapter to South American Cold War literature.”

Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Detransition, Baby: “Peters’s sharp comedy (after Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones) charts the shifting dynamics of gender, relationships, and family as played out in three characters’ exploration of trans femininity. Reese, a trans woman from the Midwest now living in New York City, is in the throes of an affair with a kinky, dominant, and married man. Ames, Reese’s ex who has detransitioned since their breakup three years earlier, is now with his boss, a divorced cis woman named Katrina. When Katrina gets pregnant, Ames must reckon with his gender once again. Katrina intends to get an abortion if Ames leaves her, and he comes up with a solution so crazy it just might work. He cannot be a father, but he can be a parent (‘He knew, however, that Katrina didn’t have the queer background to allow for that distinction’), and Reese, more than anything, wants to be a mother; desperate, Ames asks Reese if she will be a co-mother; he also confesses to Katrina that he once lived as a woman. As Reese, Katrina, and Ames reckon with the possibility and difficulties of forming a family, their quick wit gets them through heavy scenes (Reese on Katrina’s ‘AIDS panic’: ‘How retro’). Peters conceives of a world so lovable and complex, it’s hard to let go.”

Summerwater by Sarah Moss

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Summerwater: “Moss’s taut latest (after Ghost Wall) turns a rain-drenched park in the Scottish Highlands into a site of tension and unease for a group of vacationing strangers. The book opens with a middle-aged woman going for a run in the early morning, her family still asleep in their rented cabin. As she follows the trail past an illegally pitched tent, she considers the trope of a dangerous man in the woods. From here on out, each chapter introduces a new point of view among the mix of English tourists and Scots who watch and pass judgment upon one another without interacting, and situations such as a teenage boy’s ill-advised kayak trip across a rough loch and a teenage girl’s sneaking out at night keep the reader wondering if this is the kind of book where the worst thing will happen. As the noises of late-night revelry from one cabin draw attention from all others, many of whom describe its dwellers wrongly as ‘foreign’ or ‘those Romanians,’ the suspense builds. Meanwhile, a series of lyrical interludes describing the park’s elements of nature and eons of evolution provide delightfully ironic contrasts to the small human dramas. Readers unafraid of a bit of rain will relish this.”

Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Inland Sea: “Australian writer Watts punctuates her eloquent debut with deep-seated anxiety about climate change. For the most part, the story follows a young woman’s downward spiral after she graduates from college and faces a bleak future. The unnamed protagonist finds work as an operator at a call center connecting those in need to appropriate organizations. The rote job turns daunting when calls suddenly pour in, saturating her in horrific reports of floods, fires, and violence. Meanwhile, her personal life remains chaotic as she continues her relationship with an emotionally abusive ex, and indulges in heavy drinking along with nightly hookups, of which she observes, ‘I wanted to be undone. I wasn’t interested in protecting myself.’ Snapshots of her childhood reveal an angry father and her parents’ messy divorce, and the journal entries of real-life 19th-century explorer John Oxley, the narrator’s great-great-great-grandfather, find their way into the story. Oxley’s search for Australia’s inland sea is mirrored in the narrator’s bleak outlook on the future (‘The sea need only rise a few meters for… the rock and sand and red gibber plains to become submerged once more’). While the narrative moves haphazardly, the prose is consistently rich and loaded with imagery. Watts’s bold, unconventional outing makes for a distinctive entry into the climate fiction genre.”

Life Among the Terranauts by Caitlin Horrocks

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Life Among the Terranauts: “Vigorous and supremely crafted, Horrocks’s second collection (after the novel The Vexations) explores human frailties, desires, and mechanisms for survival. In ‘The Sleep,’ family man Al Rasmussen persuades the fellow residents of his moribund Midwestern town to sleep through the winter (‘ ‘Don’t try to convince me,’ Al said, ‘that anything worthwhile happens in this town during January and February. I’ve lived here as long as you have’ ’). A posse of high school girls are haunted by their favorite fortune-telling games in ‘Better Not Tell You Now,’ and a former-cult member turned real estate agent takes his estranged son on a Boston-area college tour in ‘Chance Me.’ After a gruesome act of violence in ‘Teacher,’ an elementary school teacher considers whether one can really know how a student will turn out. The title story, one of the most arresting and inventive of the bunch, follows a small group of scientists, engineers, and a philosopher who live in an isolated artificial ecosystem, vying for the chance to win a small fortune. With 187 days to go and their faith in survival unraveling into disorder, the possibility of cannibalism becomes increasingly likely. Horrocks’s linguistic finesse and narrative range is impressive, and she brings incisive humor, pathos, and wit to her characters and their predicaments. The result is an immersive and engaging work that astutely captures the complexities of the human condition.”

The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enríquez (translated by Megan McDowell)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Dangers of Smoking in Bed: “The alleys and slums of Buenos Aires supply the backdrop to Enriquez’s harrowing and utterly original collection (after Things We Lost in the Fire), which illuminates the pitch-dark netherworld between urban squalor and madness. In the nightmarish opener, ‘Angelita Unearthed,’ the bones of a rotting child reanimate after being dug up; likewise, in ‘Back When We Talked to the Dead,’ the dead foretell dread using a Ouija board. Themes of obsession and the arcane come to light in ‘Our Lady of the Quarry,’ where a band of teenage girls turn to witchcraft to snare the object of their desires; ‘Meat,’ which follows two grave-robbing fans of a recently deceased rock star; and ‘Where Are You, Dear Heart?’, in which a self-described ‘heartbeat fetishist’ gets off by holding a stethoscope to a diseased man’s chest. Things grow darker still in ‘Rambla Triste,’ as the victims of a pedophile ring are resurrected in Barcelona as “incarnations of the city’s madness,” and in ‘Kids Who Come Back,’ the book’s epic and visceral centerpiece, in which the missing, damned, and destitute begin returning home. (Which isn’t to discount the grotesque title story or the exorcism at the heart of ‘The Well.’) Finally, there are the pair of film fanatics who undertake made-to-order pornography only to quickly get in over their heads in ‘No Birthdays or Baptisms.’ Enriquez’s wide-ranging imagination and ravenous appetite for morbid scenarios often reaches sublime heights. Adventurous readers will be rewarded in these trips into the macabre—and hopefully they’ll be able to find their way back.”

The Uncollected Stories of Allan Gurganus by Allan Gurganus

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Uncollected Stories of Allan Gurganus: “Gurganus’s vital collection (after Lost Souls) portrays small-town Americans, mostly oddballs and misfits, at moments of self-discovery as recounted in their own authentic voices. Several stories take place in fictional Falls, N.C., once called ‘the Athens of This Far into Eastern North Carolina,’ according to the tour guide in ‘The Deluxe $19.95 Walking Tour of Historic Falls (NC).’ Small-town residents like Falls’ know each other’s secrets and relish the telling. In ‘The Mortician Confesses,’ a 60-year-old undertaker has sex with a corpse, and the man’s sad story is colorfully told by the cop who caught him. In ‘Unassisted Human Flight,’ a reporter investigates a local legend of a man said to have flown almost a mile as a boy of eight. The characters can also be heroic, as when a 65-year-old widower rescues his neighbors during Hurricane Floyd in ‘Fourteen Feet of Water in my House,’ and an Ivy League doctor saves a Midwestern town from cholera in ‘The Wish for a Good Young Country Doctor,’ set during the 1850s. Among the greatest entries in this stellar work are ‘My Heart Is a Snake Farm,’ featuring a spinster whose life in a crumbling Florida motel brightens when a slippery charmer opens a reptile tourist attraction, and ‘He’s at the Office,’ which details a son’s efforts to help his 80-year-old father, a WWII veteran mentally stuck in the 1940s. Simultaneously funny and compassionate, literary and lowbrow, Gurganus’s stories trawl the mysteries of the human heart and surface with wonderful results.”

Also on shelves this week: Pedro’s Theory by Marcos Gonsalez.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Knausgaard, Davies, North, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Karl Ove Knausgaard, Peter Ho Davies, Anna North, and more—that are publishing this week.

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In the Land of the Cyclops by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about In the Land of the Cyclops: “In this dense and thought-provoking essay collection, Knausgaard (My Struggle) once again displays his knack for raising profound questions about art and what it means to be human. While Knausgaard brings complexity to his studies of paintings and photographs, analyzing the function of myths in German artist Anselm Kiefer’s paintings and wondering ‘how are we to understand’ Francesca Woodman’s mid-20th-century photographs, the essays pick up when Knausgaard writes about literature. Among the most successful pieces are ‘To Where the Story Cannot Reach,’ which contains his musings on craft and his relationship with his editor (whom Knausgaard has ‘absolute trust in’); the title essay, which asks, ‘What is literary freedom?’ when writers are told ‘what they should and shouldn’t write about’; and an exploration of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (‘If [it] were published today, there is no doubt in my mind that tomorrow’s reviews would be ecstatic’). In ‘All That Is Heaven,’ he eloquently compares art to dreams, writing, ‘art removes us from and draws us closer to the world, the slow-moving, cloud-embraced matter of which our dreams too are made.’ Though unevenly paced, the volume tackles knotty subjects and offers nuggets of brilliance along the way. These wending musings will be catnip for Knausgaard’s fans.”

A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself: “Davies (The Fortunes) delves into fatherhood in his thoughtful latest, intertwining musings on pregnancy, marriage, family life, and work. The unnamed narrator, a writer and creative writing professor, makes the difficult decision with his wife to terminate their pregnancy after the fetus tests positive for mosaicism and their doctor gives them a long list of potential birth defects. A subsequent successful pregnancy brings new fears over their son’s development, as the couple processes their internalized shame over the abortion and their son’s potential autism (‘Abortion is shameful, because pregnancy is shameful, because sex is shameful, because periods are shameful. It almost makes me relieved we had a boy,’ the wife says). Davies explores their emotions in unflinching honesty, as the narrator contends with lingering fears over getting their son tested for autism. Davies’s smooth prose and ruminations on language (a synonym for ‘imagine,’ the narrator considers, is also ‘to conceive’) are the stars of this work. While an anticlimactic, philosophical conclusion somewhat undermines the narrator’s character development after he embraces his role as a father, it resonates with the key theme of paradoxes. Davies’s meditation on the complexities of parenthood is at once celebration and absolution, finding truth in human contradictions.”

The Prophets by Robert Jones

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Prophets: “This is a first novel, but I hope it took years and years to write since it is so powerful and beautiful. It is an antebellum story of a flourishing Mississippi plantation some people refer to as ‘Nothing’ and others call ‘Elizabeth,’ the name of the owner’s mother. This is a love story of two gay enslaved men, Isaiah and Samuel (not their original African names), who’ve been assigned to look after the horses and who work together in perfect harmony in the barn.

With astonishingly real details, Jones creates a convincing picture of slave life, everything from transportation in ships (where those captives who had died from hunger or wounds or disease were just thrown overboard) to the arrival, in this case, at a vast cotton plantation, where they are branded, forced with whipping to work harder and faster, insulted, mocked and, if they’re female, raped.

Jones’s women are all sharply delineated, starting with the ‘king’ of a tribe in Africa, a woman-warrior who lives with her several wives. The main women on the plantation—Be Auntie, Sarah, Puah, Essie—have their own clearly delineated identities and complex psychologies. What is unprecedented in this novel is its presentation of the two gay male slaves, each endowed with his own personality, which never merges with a stereotype.

In fact, Jones’s compassionate understanding extends even to the whites (who are referred to as toubab, a Central African locution): ‘When they approached, she had figured out something that had been like a splinter in her foot: the easy thing to believe was that toubab were monsters, their crimes exceptional. Harder, however, and even more frightening, was the truth: there was no such thing as monsters. Every travesty that had ever been committed had been committed by plain people and every person had it in them.’ Which is not to say Jones lets his slave owners off easily. They were hypocritical Christians, sadists who raped their chattel, who worked their slaves until they could do no more and called them ‘lazy’: ‘They stepped on people’s throats with all their might and asked why the people couldn’t breathe.’ Whites kidnapped black children and then called slave parents ‘incapable of love.’

The lyricism of The Prophets will recall the prose of James Baldwin. The strong cadences are equal to those in Faulkner’s Light in August. Sometimes the utterances in the short interpolated chapters seem as orphic as those in Thus Spake Zarathustra. If my comparisons seem excessive, they are rivaled only by Jones’s own pages and pages of acknowledgments. It seems it takes a village to make a masterpiece.”

Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Black Buck: “Askaripour eviscerates corporate culture in his funny, touching debut. Darren, a young Black man, lives with his mom in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood and manages a midtown Manhattan Starbucks. He’s content with his life and girlfriend, Soraya, but people tell him he could do more—he was valedictorian at Bronx Science, after all. Opportunity knocks when Darren persuades Rhett Daniels, the CEO of tech startup Sumwun and a Starbucks regular, to change his usual order. Rhett is impressed (his response: ‘Did you just try to reverse close me?’) and invites Darren to an interview, which leads to a sales job before he understands what the company actually does (it’s a platform for virtual therapy sessions). Darren makes good money, but struggles to keep up his commitments to his family and Soraya as Rhett pulls him into heavy after-hours partying. When an employee in China is charged with murder, Sumwun crashes, and so does Darren’s life. In an author’s note, Askaripour suggests the book is meant to serve as a manual for aspiring Black salesmen, and the device is thrillingly sustained throughout, with lacerating asides to the reader on matters of race. (‘The key to any white person’s heart is the ability to shuck, jive, or freestyle. But use it wisely and sparingly.’) Darren, meanwhile, is alternately said by various white characters to resemble Malcolm X, Sidney Poitier, MLK, and Dave Chappelle, while he struggles to hold onto a sense of self, which the author conveys with a potent blend of heart and dramatic irony. Askaripour is always closing in this winning and layered bildungsroman.”

After the Rain by Nnedi Okorafor

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about After the Rain: “Upon Chioma’s arrival to the remote Nigerian village where her great-aunt and grandma live, heavy, unseasonable rain begins to fall, in this vibrant, succinct graphic adaptation by Jennings (Kindred) and Brame (Baaaad Muthaz) of Okorafor’s short story ‘On the Road.’ On the third night of rainfall, a boy with brains busting out of his broken skull calls on Chioma and declares her ‘it.’ A Chicago detective, Chioma isn’t easily shaken by gore, but even she isn’t able to grasp the strange happenings that follow, the unknowable entity that stalks her, and what that entity will do when it catches her. Though, the original is open to interpretation, the adaptation, which was created in conjunction with Okorafor, outright states a moral to the story: ‘I am Nigermerican… and where those two parts meet is where I am whole again,’ slightly marring the enigma of the ending. But Brame’s bold and arresting use of color and shading lends an unnerving atmosphere to the setting, while his attention to facial expressions injects the panels with emotion. This mostly faithful adaptation honors Okorafor’s voice and paints a potent portrait of Nigeria and its folklore.”

Outlawed by Anna North

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Outlawed: “North’s knockout latest (after The Life and Death of Sophie Stark) chronicles the travails of a midwife’s daughter who joins a group of female and nonbinary outlaws near the end of the 19th century. Eighteen-year-old newlywed Ada, unable to conceive a child, fears she will be accused of witchcraft, a fate common to the women in her Dakota territory community. After Ada’s former friend has a miscarriage and accuses Ada of casting a spell on her, Ada’s mother helps her flee to a nunnery, where a Sister suggests she join a nearby gang known as Hole in the Wall. Ada becomes a ‘doctor’ to the motley group led by the Kid (to whom no gender pronouns are attributed—’‘Not he, not she,’ Elzy said. ‘The Kid is just The Kid’’). The outlaws plan to create a town where nonconforming people can belong. The tense plot takes many turns through Ada’s increasingly violent adventures with the gang, beginning with a botched holdup of a wagon laden with gold. As the novel barrels toward a surprise ending, it’s further strengthened by Ada’s voice and reflections, which preserve a sense of immediacy: ‘distances that had once seemed vast were now so small that my enemies could cross them in an instant.’ The characters’ struggles for gender nonconformity and LGBTQ rights are tenderly and beautifully conveyed. This feminist western parable is impossible to put down.”

Those Who Left Us: Select Literary Obits From 2020

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Strange. In a year when more than 330,000 Americans died from Covid-19, just one person on this highly selective list of literary obituaries is known to have died after contracting the novel coronavirus. Maybe that’s not so strange. This was, after all, the year when everything stopped making sense.

Mary Higgins Clark must have done something right. She didn’t publish her first novel until she was in her forties, but every one of her 57 mysteries after that became a bestseller, selling a total of more than 100 million copies before she died on Jan. 31 at 92. Like other brand-name authors who dominate the best-seller lists (Steel, Patterson, King, Grisham, Roberts, Child), Clark found what worked for her, then stuck with it. In her case, she set out to answer the question: “What happens after bad things happen to good people (usually women)?” It worked so well that in 1988 she became the first American writer to sign an eight-figure deal — a $10.1 million, multi-book contract. She sometimes collaborated with her daughter, Carol Higgins Clark, and she amassed a fortune that afforded her luxuries few novelists ever experience outside their imaginations, including Cadillacs, jewelry, and homes in Manhattan, New Jersey, Cape Cod, and Florida. Though her fans venerated her, few critics confused her books with literature. She could not possibly have cared less. “Let others decide whether or not I’m a good writer,” this Bronx-born daughter of Irish immigrants said in a 2017 video. “I know I’m a good Irish story-teller.”

A quartet of venerable editors died this year — a woman and three men I have come to think of as The Fantastic Four of the Blue-Pencil Set. Alice Mayhew, who died Feb. 4 at 87, got her start by editing 1974’s All the President’s Men by the Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the chronicle of their investigation of the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up; 55 days after the book was published, President Richard Nixon resigned. That book birthed a genre that might be called Inside-the-Beltway Lit, and Mayhew went on to edit bestsellers by scores of D.C.-centric writers, including Jimmy Carter, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Kitty Kelley, Frances Fitzgerald, John Dean, and Richard Reeves (who also died this year, see below). The aptly named Robert Loomis loomed over American publishing for half a century, a reign that put him in a league with the legendary editor Maxwell Perkins. In his long career, Loomis, who died April 19 at 93, edited Maya Angelou, William Styron, Shelby Foote, Pete Dexter, and Neil Sheehan, among many others. Sheehan, whose nonfiction book, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, described Loomis’s approach to editing to the New York Times: “He would help me to understand what he would have done, and then do it his way to make it a better book. That book would not be the book it is without Bob.” Harold Evans, the most recognizable name among the four, died Sept. 23 at 92, after a two-act run that began with a distinguished newspaper career in London and then crossed the Atlantic for a second act that included stints as president and publisher of Random House, magazine editor, and writer of histories and a best-selling memoir — all the while leading a glittery social life with his wife, Tina Brown. And Fred Hills, who died Nov. 7 at 85, edited more than 50 New York Times bestsellers that ranged from the shamelessly commercial to the loftily literary, by writers as different as Jane Fonda, Raymond Carver, Phil Donahue, and David Halberstam. But it was a Russian émigré who most impressed Hills. After working with Vladimir Nabokov on his last completed novel, Look at the Harlequins!, Hills said: “Having worked with many other writers, I still believe that Nabokov was the most dazzling of them all.” These four editors lived an average of just under 90 years, which surely says something about the salutary effects of spending your life trying to improve the writing of others.

Roger Kahn was a member of a small tribe who took sports writing to a new level. The tribe counted Ring Lardner, A.J. Liebling, Bernard Malamud, Roger Angell, Joyce Carol Oates, Norman Mailer, and Gay Talese as members, and Kahn, who died Feb. 4 at 92, merited membership for The Boys of Summer, a classic that mined his Brooklyn boyhood and his time covering the Brooklyn Dodgers for the New York Herald Tribune in the early 1950s. The book, one of some two dozen Kahn wrote, ranged far beyond the baseball diamond to offer meditations on civil rights, fathers and sons, teamwork, and the curveball thrown to all of us by heartbreak. And Kahn knew heartbreak. He, like millions of his fellow baseball-obsessed Brooklynites, never recovered after the Dodgers decamped for Los Angeles in 1958.

Charles Portis died Feb. 17 at 86 in an Arkansas hospice, quietly, out of view, without fanfare — the same way he chose to live. One of the most reclusive, original, and flat-out hilarious writers ever produced by America, Portis is best known for his novel True Grit—which was adapted for the screen and resulted in the only Academy Award of John Wayne’s career, then was remade in 2010 by the Coen brothers, with Jeff Bridges in the outsize role of the one-eyed U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn. Portis’s other four novels have won a zealous fan base that shades toward a cult, but his journalism, travel writing, memoirs, and drama were shamefully neglected until Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany appeared in 2012, lovingly curated and introduced by Jay Jennings. It was an overdue reminder that Portis was, first and last, a brilliant reporter with a laser eye, an unerring ear, and an ability to turn anyone and anything into grist for his delightfully skewed take on life. That grist included dump hotels, country singers, civil rights activists, Civil War veterans, Ku Kluxers, road trips, and Elvis’s mama. Jennings, in his introduction to the miscellany, notes that Portis’s strengths were evident in his very earliest writings: “unpretentious diction, an expert ear for the spoken word, deep knowledge worn lightly, stoic acceptance of trying circumstances, skill with internal combustion engines.” And, I would add, the rare ability to make readers laugh until it hurts.

Grace Edwards published her first novel at the age of 55, then waited another decade to publish If I Should Die, which introduced Mali Anderson, a female cop turned sociologist and amateur sleuth, a stylish black woman who’s better at guiding readers around her beloved Harlem than she is at solving crimes. No matter. Edwards, who died Feb. 25 at 87, knew the hood, as witnessed by this passage from the first of her six Mali Anderson novels: “The women and the old men gathered for comfort where folks were known to do the most talking: The women drifted into Tootsie’s Twist ‘n’ Snap Beauty Saloon, where the air was thick with gossip and fried Dixie peach. The men congregated in Bubba’s Barber Shop to listen to orators, smooth as water-washed pebbles, alter history with mile-long lies.” The woman knew how to write.

One week after Edwards’s death, a kindred soul named Barbara Neely died at 78. A former social activist, Neely turned to writing fiction in her fifties and had an instant hit with Blanche on the Lam, the first of four mysteries starring Blanche White, a heavyset, dark-skinned black maid who solves a murder while working for a wealthy white family. Blanche had enough mother-wit to turn her liability — her invisibility — into an advantage, and she also knew the score far better than her employers did: “For all the chatelaine fantasies of some of the women for whom she worked, she really was her own boss, and her clients knew it. She ordered her employers’ lives, not the other way around.” Neely was named the 2020 Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America.

Richard Reeves never achieved the fame of Alice Mayhew’s best-selling authors, but he produced an impressive body of reportage and commentary, plus biographies of presidents and other lesser scoundrels during a long and lustrous career that ended with his death on March 24 at 83. To his credit, Reeves wasn’t afraid of tackling second-rate subjects, which he proved with his witty and insightful — and surprisingly gentle — biography of our 38th president, A Ford, Not a Lincoln. A syndicated columnist and PBS regular, Reeves ranked George W. Bush on a par with three presidents who were forgettable, execrable, or both: James Buchanan, Warren Harding, and Richard Nixon. But Reeves saved his frothiest bile for the lame duck now waddling around the White House, calling Donald Trump “a hyperactive kid who’s lived in a bubble for his whole life,” then adding: “The irony that people who voted for him think he relates to their lives — yeah, he’s been above their lives a hundred thousand feet in his private jet flying over Youngstown.”

Christopher Dickey made his name as a globe-trotting war correspondent, wrote nonfiction books about expats, the Civil War, and the New York Police Department, and finally, for good measure, produced a couple of novels. But the book that gut-punched me was his 1998 memoir, Summer of Deliverance, which chronicles his tortured coming to terms with his father, the impossible James Dickey. As I read the book, I kept thinking, “And I thought my father was a monster!” Both men were alcoholics, egomaniacs, and philanderers, but James Dickey, unlike my father, possessed a prodigious literary gift, which brought fame and fortune to Dickey and misery to everyone in his orbit. Given all that, Summer of Deliverance is a surprisingly equable book. Christopher Dickey, who died July 16 at 68, never stoops to whining and never wraps himself in the shroud of the victim so common among today’s memoirists. The book, almost miraculously, winds up being a begrudged homage to a deeply flawed man, a hard-won reconciliation, a laying to rest of a lifetime of grievance. In short, a triumph. “Chris was weirdly objective about his dad,” says Malcolm Jones, who worked with Dickey at Newsweek and more recently at The Daily Beast. “He could talk about the monster stuff, but he didn’t go on about it. And he seemed to genuinely like the work. I think he was really proud of his dad’s writing.” I hope he was at least as proud of his own.

Like the Abstract Expressionists, the Beats were almost exclusively a boys’ club. One of the most dazzling of the female gate crashers was the poet Diane di Prima, who ranged far beyond the Beat movement and produced some 50 books before her death on Oct. 25 at 86. Her career opened with the poetry collection This Kind of Bird Flies Backward in 1958, two years after Allen Ginsberg rattled the world with Howl. Di Prima soon became a supernova in the hothouse of Greenwich Village, an avatar of the Beats’ urge to burst out of the beige Eisenhower conformity that was supposedly coating the land. In 1961, The Floating Bear, a literary magazine she published with her lover LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka), was seized for obscene content. Eight years later, after the Beat movement had played out and di Prima had decamped to San Francisco, she showed that she wasn’t above cashing in on her adventures in the freewheeling late-’50s, early-’60s counterculture. Her novelistic Memoirs of a Beatnik was commissioned by the French publisher Maurice Girodias, who kept scrawling “MORE SEX!” on the manuscript and sending it back to di Prima for revisions. She obliged. The book was revered as a rare account of a free-spirited woman navigating a subculture dominated by men. Di Prima proceeded to leave that subculture in her dust. “I don’t mind that people use the Beat label,” she told a newspaper reporter in 2000. “It’s just that it’s very much of one time, a long time ago.”

Jan Morris will probably be best remembered for Conundrum, her 1974 account of her gender transition. Fair enough. Conundrum was a shocker when it was published, and it still bristles with insights that speak to our gender blurry times. But Morris, who died Nov. 20 at 94, was much more than a gifted memoirist. She was a travel writer in a class of her own — and, not incidentally, an accomplished historian, biographer, and novelist. She roamed the world, diving into local history, architecture and street life wherever she went, bringing people and places to pungent life on the page. Her best-known travel writing is about obvious glamorous spots, including Manhattan, Venice, Hong Kong and Oxford. But to her credit she said her personal favorite was Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, a loving portrait of the overlooked Italian port on the Adriatic. Here is a writer who roamed the world, looking everywhere for that most elusive of places: nowhere.

Chuck Yeager will be forever known as the first man to break the sound barrier, but he also wrote a best-selling autobiography in 1985 (with the help of Leo Janos). And he was the beating heart of Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book about the elite cowboy test pilots — those swaggering possessors of the right stuff — who were being overshadowed by cool technicians known as astronauts in America’s space race against the Russians. Yeager shot down five German planes in one day during World War II, a total of 13 overall, and he was, in Wolfe’s telling, “the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff.” (He was played in the movie adaptation by Sam Shepard, then at the peak of his heartthrob phase.) But as his memoir revealed, Yeager bristled at the suggestion that he and his fellow test pilots possessed some gift from the gods. “All I know is I worked my tail off learning to learn how to fly, and worked hard at it all the way,” he wrote. “If there is such a thing as the right stuff in piloting, then it is experience. The secret to my success was that somehow I always managed to live to fly another day.” Yeager also punctured the myth that possession of the so-called right stuff rendered a man fearless in the face of death. “I was always afraid of dying,” he wrote. “Always.”

My introduction to John le Carré came when I was a teenager, soon after his third novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, had turned the former British spy into an international literary sensation. Having already made the acquaintance of James Bond, I picked up the novel expecting a hero who drove flashy cars, bedded countless women and swilled bone-dry Martinis. Instead, le Carré, who died Dec. 12 at 89, took me deep into a world of moral murk, duplicity, and tragedy—where nothing is what it seems and good people can be made to serve bad causes, and vice versa. The novel’s hero is no James Bond; he’s Alec Leamas, a worn-out spy at the end of his string who is coldly manipulated by his own handlers. What a revelation! Le Carré taught me that, in the right hands, even the tawdriest genre can be made to rise to the level of art.

Barry Lopez died on Christmas Day at 75 after a half-century producing a long shelf of fiction, nonfiction, and essays that strove to reconnect human beings to the miraculous natural world we inhabit. A fool’s errand, perhaps, but Lopez won the 1986 nonfiction National Book Award for Arctic Dreams, his account of five years spent with indigenous Inuit people in a world of lunar barrenness; a frigid, forbidding world that offered its own special magic; a place where “airplanes track icebergs the size of Cleveland and polar bears fly down out of the stars.” In Of Wolves and Men, Lopez sought to set the record straight on an animal that had been demonized for centuries. As part of his research, he raised a wolf pup.

And let’s not forget (in alphabetical order): Stanley Crouch, a member of a dying breed in our kid-glove literary world: the hard-punching iconoclast. Crouch, who died at 74, was a former Black Nationalist who championed jazz and didn’t hesitate to attack such black icons as Toni Morrison, gangsta rap, Louis Farrakhan, Rev. Al Sharpton, Alex Haley, and even post-1960s Miles Davis. Crouch considered himself a “radical pragmatist” on a mission to move “beyond the decoy of race.” In a syndicated newspaper column, criticism, fiction, and biography, he stepped on an unknowable number of toes while striving to remain true to his intellectual lodestars: Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Albert Murray.

New York City lost two of its greatest street-level journalists with the deaths of dogged Jim Dwyer at 63 and venerable Pete Hamill at 85.

Shirley Ann Grau’s best-known novel, The Keepers of the House, is the story of a wealthy white widower who has a 30-relationship with his black housekeeper, which produces three children. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1965 at the peak of the civil rights movement, and its taboo subject matter stoked the fury of the local Ku Klux Klan, which burned a cross on Grau’s front lawn. Grau, who died at 91, dismissed the episode as a “Groucho Marx” stunt. Her other five novels and four short story collections, redolent of the weathers and ways of her native Deep South and every bit as unflinching as Keepers, also explored the collisions of that potent quartet: race, class, power, and love.

Poor Winston Groom, who died at 77, was no one-trick pony — he published eight novels, plus histories and biographies, and was a finalist for a nonfiction Pulitzer Prize — but he will be forever locked into the pigeonhole as “the man who wrote Forrest Gump.” The man deserves way better.

Allison Lurie, on the other hand, was acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic for her 10 novels, plus short story collections and essays that meticulously dissected the amorous follies of smart people who have mastered the art of self-destruction. Lurie, who died at 94, won comparisons to Jane Austen and Henry James and also won the Pulitzer Prize for her 1984 novel Foreign Affairs. Along the way, unlike Groom, she managed to dodge all pigeonholes.

Michael McClure, who died at 87, was present at the beginning: the poetry reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco on Oct. 7, 1955 that has become enshrined as the Beat movement’s blastoff. McClure, who went on to a long career as a poet, playwright, lyricist, and novelist, later wrote of that night: “We had gone beyond a point of no return… None of us wanted to go back to the gray, chill, militaristic silence, to the intellective void — to the land without poetry — to the spiritual drabness.”

Terrence McNally wrote three dozen plays as well as the books for 10 musicals, librettos for operas, and screenplays for movies and TV during a five-decade career that mapped gay America’s journey from the closet to the mainstream. McNally, who won four Tony Awards, died at 81 from complications of the coronavirus.

Maybe the literary world’s cruelest loss in this cruelest of years was Anthony Veasna So, a son of Cambodian immigrants who died at 28, just months before the publication of his highly anticipated debut story collection, Afterparties. When he died, So was working on a novel called Straight Through Cambotown. One of his last pieces of published writing was his posthumous entry in The Millions’s Year in Reading wrap-up earlier this month. In it, So wrote about the futility of reading books in an effort to locate his own novel’s voice, structure and ancestors: “I realized how hopeless it was to locate heirs for my stoner novel about queer Khmer Americans. Might as well be my own daddy.” Wise words from a promising talent gone too soon.

Image credit: Pexels/Markus Winkler.

Pandemic Life by the Numbers: The Golden Five

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This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.

Five people

Our social worlds have contracted — my inner pod is down to five. We “check in.” We trade links and photos by text. We don’t beat around the bush, we say what we’re feeling & thinking, what’s happening in today’s hanging-in-there news—textable snippets, emojis emojis emojis.
We make phone dates (Zoom & FaceTime feel like “work” now). Some of us are single, some are hunkering down with partners / families. Those of us who live alone feel acutely but do not readily verbalize the painful fact of long stretches without physical touch. Thank goodness for the dog, who is honorary number six.

Five pounds

In the beginning, I moved in with my sister. Together we cooked creative meals to stay sane, to feel warm and nourished and connected. We ate well. In the evenings we watched “Kim’s Convenience Store” with my nephews and ate large portions of sweets or bowls-full of crunchy salty things. We ate badly. Then my nephews went to sleep, and out came the wine and whiskey. We drank too much.

We talked late into the night about how grateful we were, how anxious we were, how hard life was even before pandemic (dredging up our childhood as the wine flowed); how a totally different kind of weirdness and uncertainty had replaced the former difficulty, and how life was always stressful and frightening, pandemic or no pandemic … so hey, let’s drink some more. We put on weight.

In the middle, I moved back to my own apartment. Subscribed to a vegetable delivery service and cooked a lot and did yoga and turned over a healthier leaf. Summer came, and the endless heat wave sucked away my appetite. I went back to work. I rode my bike from uptown to downtown and back again. Outdoor activity made everything seem just a little normal, intermittently pleasurable. Most of the weight came off.

In part two of the middle, election season took over, and everything went to shit again. Night-snacking, drinking, over-eating hangover, more anxiety-snacking, more drinking; rinse and repeat. The stakes (political, existential) were enormous; the possibility of compounded disaster utterly real. Heaviness—of body and spirit—returned.

In part three of the middle, the election came and went, and I began to sleep better. That particular anxiety—considering seriously leaving the country, starting a new life away from the daily tyranny of the idiot monster—quieted. But with the change of seasons and raging infections, venturing outside and the simplest tasks became again nerve-wracking. Keep your distance; move briskly; avert your face; wash wash wash your hands.

In the end, now—part one of the end—it’s those five pounds. I feel them all the time, weighing me down physically and mentally. They are the pounds that keep you from feeling ready and energized when you wake; in-the-zone while you work; relaxed in your clothes and in your soul. You know what I mean. I’m pretty sure you do. We won’t be feeling fully energized or relaxed again for some time.

Five minutes

For many of us, life has slowed down. No more rush-hour commuting, running from work to gym to kids’ soccer practice to the nursing home to a meal with friends. We’re doing less because less is do-able. Our stresses are more about isolation, destabilization, reorientation; less about time…

…if we lean into it, that is. We could, certainly, fill up that time with other multi-tasking, time-crunching activities. I’ve found myself opting for “five more minutes.” Slow it down, pause, take a moment. It’s just five minutes, but you begin to see—the meaningfulness of small increments.

Five minutes earlier means sitting with a cup of coffee, savoring it, and thinking of nothing at all before starting on a day of brain-squeezing work. Five more minutes allows for a slow stroll to and from the subway, on which non-mission-critical thoughts can occur (I miss her, I wonder how she’s doing), neighborhood storefronts, new and old, get noticed (order takeout this weekend, they look like they need business), and notes for an essay or story can be written in a notebook (Five Minutes; The Golden Five?). Five more minutes means biking up the hill, working up a good sweat and burn, then cruising down the other side with the wind in your face, instead of avoiding the hill altogether; or it means not running that red light, not nearly slamming into a pedestrian or, worse, a car. Five more minutes gives the dog five more minutes of gleeful sniffing and one or two more doggie encounters—the value of which could be, who knows, infinitely greater than what five minutes of comparable pleasure means to us.

Sometimes it’s not about what you do or don’t do in those five minutes; it’s about gentle transitions from one thing to the next. If you do yoga, you’ve heard this, about the signals you send to your self when you jerk your body around, from standing to sitting, from sitting to kneeling, from left to right. With five more minutes, you can finish doing X; take a breath; move calmly, maybe even gracefully, into Y.  It makes a difference. It makes all the difference.

Five dollars

Many of us have less work and less money. We are also spending less and/or differently. In NYC, the loss of bar & restaurant life is (I know, cry me a river, in the grand scheme of things it probably sounds melodramatic) tragic. Certainly it’s tragic for restaurant owners and workers, and for the city’s economy. For consumers, refraining from gathering in bars & restaurants in NYC is like… living on the coast and having no access to the ocean.

Structure helps. A plan. The eating-out budget is diminished, but I want these restaurants to make it. So it’s all about 5-dollar takeout lunches, a couple times a week. Mamoun’s falafel. Bahn-mi from Saigon Shack. Tofu shrimp in garlic sauce (the 1/2 portion) from my local Chinese takeout. Lebanese Zaatar. Curry beef or roast pork pastry from Fay Da bakery. Two cheese slices with can of soda from pretty much any pizza joint. A whole wheat everything bagel with a shmear of lox cream cheese from Bo’s. For a healthy option, a green protein smoothie from the smoothie place run by Big Russ’s barber shop. And yes, even occasionally steam table oxtails and collard greens (well-managed, socially distanced, sanitized setup) from Jacob’s Soul Food.

Five more months

Who’s to say — though the real-science people have been basically right all along. Five more months seems likely. Buckle in. Mask up. Take a breath, or two, or five. Check in with your single friends. Check in with your partnered friends. Spend your stimulus money on restaurants if you can. Don’t give away or let out your clothes yet: we’ll all find our better selves and our energy again on the other side.

Image credit: Pexels/cottonbro; Photos courtesy of the author.

On Dreams and Literature

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“We are such stuff/As dreams are made on, and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep.” — William Shakespeare, The Tempest (1611)

“A candy-colored clown they call the sandman/tiptoes to my room every night/just to sprinkle stardust and to whisper/’Go to sleep, everything is alright.’” — Roy Orbison, “In Dreams” (1963)

Amongst the green-dappled Malvern Hills, where sunlight spools onto spring leaves like puddles of water in autumn, a peasant named Will is imagined to have fallen asleep on a May day when both the warmth and the light induce dreams. Sometime in the late fourteenth-century (as near as we can tell between 1370 and 1390), the poet William Langland wrote of a character in Piers Plowman who shared his name and happened to fall asleep. “In a summer season,” Langland begins, “when soft was the sun, /I clothed myself in a cloak as I shepherd were… And went wide in the world wonders to hear.” Presentism is a critical vice, a fallacy of misreading yourself into a work, supposedly especially perilous if it’s one that’s nearly seven centuries old. Hard not to commit that sin sometimes. “But on a May morning,” Langland writes, and I note his words those seven centuries later on a May afternoon, when the sun is similarly soft, and the inevitable drowsiness of warm contentment takes over my own nodding head and drowsy eyes so that I can’t help but see myself in the opening stanza of Piers Plowman.

“A marvel befell me of fairy, methought./I was weary with wandering and went me to rest/Under a broad bank by a brook’s side,/And as I lay and leaned over and looked into the water/I fell into a sleep for it sounded so merry.” Good close readers that we are all supposed to be, it’s imperative that we don’t read into the poem things that aren’t actually in it, and yet I can’t help but imagine what that daytime nocturn was like. The soft gurgle of a creek through English fields, the feeling of damp grass underneath dirtied hands, and of scratchy cloak against unwashed skin; the sunlight tanning the backs of his eyelids; that dull, corpuscular red of daytime sleep, the warmth of day’s glow flushing his cheeks, and the almost preternatural quiet save for some bird chirping. The sort of sleep you fall into when you’re on a train that rocks you to sleep in the sunlight of late afternoon. It sounds nice.

Piers Plowman is of a medieval poetic genre known as a dream allegory, or even more enticingly as a dream vision. Most famous of these is Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, where its central character (who as in Piers Plowman shares the poet’s name) discovers himself in a less pleasant wood than does Will, for that “When I had journeyed half of our life’s way,/I found myself within a shadowed forest,/for I had lost the path that does not stray.” The Middle Ages didn’t originate the dream vision, but it was the golden age of the form, where poets could express mystical truths in journeys that only happened within heads resting upon rough, straw-stuffed pillows. Langland’s century alone saw Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls, John Gower’s Vox Clamantis, John Lydgate’s The Temple of Glass, and the anonymously written Pearl (by the same lady or gent who wrote Sir Gawain and the Green Knight). Those are only English examples (or I should say examples by the English; Gower was writing in Latin), for the form was popular in France and Italy as well. A.C. Spearing explains in Medieval Dream-Poetry that while sleeping “we undergo experiences in which we are freed from the constraints of everyday possibility, and which we feel to have some hidden significance,” a sentiment which motivated the poetry of Langland and Dante.

Dante famously claimed that his visions — of perdition, purgatory, and paradise — were not dreams, and yet everything in The Divine Comedy holds to the genre’s conventions. Both Langland and Dante engage the strange logic of the nocturne, the way in which the subconscious seems to rearrange and illuminate reality in a manner that the prosaicness of overrated wakefulness simply cannot. Dante writes that the “night hides things from us,” but his epic is itself proof that the night can just as often reveal things. Within The Divine Comedy Dante is guided through the nine circles of hell by the Roman poet Virgil, from the antechamber of the inferno wherein dwell the righteous pagans and classical philosophers, down through the frozen environs of the lowest domain whereby Lucifer forever torments and is tormented by that trinity of traitors composed of Cassius, Brutus, and Judas. Along the way Dante is privy to any number of nightmares, from self-disemboweling prophets to lovers forever buffeted around on violent winds (bearing no similarity to a gentle Malvern breeze). In the Purgatorio and Paradiso he is spectator to far more pleasant scenes (though telling that more people have read Inferno, as our nightmares are always easiest to remember), whereby he sees a heaven that’s the “color that paints the morning and evening clouds that face the sun,” almost a description of the peacefulness of accidentally nodding off on an early summer day.

Both The Divine Comedy and Piers Plowman express verities accessed by the mind in repose; Langland’s poem, for not beginning in a dark wood but rather in a sunny field, embodies mystical apprehensions as surely as does Dante. A key difference is that Langland’s allegory is so obvious (as anyone who has seen the medieval play Everyman can attest is true of the period). Characters named after the Seven Deadly Sins, or called Patience, Clergy, and Scripture (and Old Age, Death, and Pestilence) all interact with Will — whose name has its own obvious implications. By contrast, Dante’s characters bear a resemblance to actual people (or they are actual people, from Aristotle in Limbo to Thomas Aquinas in Heaven), even while the events depicted are seemingly more fantastic (though in Piers Plowman Will witness both the fall of man and the harrowing of hell). Both are, however, written in the substance of dreams. Forget the didactic obviousness of allegory, the literal cipher that defines that form, and believe that in a field between Worcestershire and Hertfordshire Will did plumb the mysteries of eternity while sleeping. What makes the dream vision a chimerical form is that maybe he did. That’s the thing with dreams and their visions; there is no need to suspend disbelief. We’re not in the realm of fantasy or myth, for in dreams order has been abolished, anything is possible, and nothing is prohibited, not even flouting the arid rules of logic.

A danger to this, for to dream is to court the absolute when we’re at our most vulnerable, to find eternity in a sleep. Piers Plowman had the taint of heresy about it, as it inspired the revolutionaries of 1381’s Peasant Rebellion, as well as the adherents of a schismatic group of proto-Protestants known as Lollards. Arguably the crushing of the rebellion led to an attendant attack by authorities on vernacular literature like Piers Plowman, in part explaining the general dismalness of English literature in the fifteenth-century (which excluding Mallory and Skelton is the worst century of writing). Scholars have long debated the relationship between Langland and Lollardy, but we’ll let others more informed tease out those connections[. T]he larger point is that dreaming can get you in trouble. That’s because dreaming is the only realm in which we’re simultaneously complete sovereign and lowly subject; the cinema we watch when our eyes are closed. Sleep is a domain that can’t be reached by monarch, tyrant, state, or corporation — it is our realm.

Dreams had a radical import in George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984. You’ll recall that in that novel the main character of Winston Smith is a minor bureaucrat in totalitarian Oceania. Every aspect of Smith’s life is carefully controlled; his life is under total surveillance, all speech is regulated (or made redundant by New Speak), and even the truth is censored, altered, and transformed (which the character himself has a role in). Yet his dreams are one aspect of his life which the government can’t quite control, for Smith “had dreamed that he was walking through a pitch-dark room. And someone sitting to one side of him had said as he passed: ‘We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness.’” Sleep is an anarchic space where the dreamer is at the whims of something much larger and more powerful than themselves, and by contrast where sometimes the dreamer finds themselves transformed into a god. A warning here though — when total independence erupts from our skulls into the wider world (for after all, it is common to mutter in one’s sleep) there is the potential that your unconsciousness can betray you. Smith, after all, is always monitored by his telescreen.

Whether it’s the thirteenth or the twenty-first centuries, dreaming remains bizarre. Whether we reduce dreams to messages from the gods and the dead, or repressed memories and neurosis playing in the nursery of our unconscious, or simply random electric flickering of neurons, the fact that we spend long stretches of our life submerging ourselves in bizarre parallel dimensions is so odd that I can’t help but wonder why we don’t talk about it more (beyond painful conversations recounting dreams). So strange is it that we spend a third of our lives journeying to fantastic realms where every law of spatiality and temporality and every axiom of identity and principle of logic is flouted, that you’d think we’d conduct ourselves with a bit more humility when dismissing that which seems fantastic in the experience of those from generations past who’ve long since gone to eternal sleep. Which is just to wonder that when William Langland dreamt, is it possible that he dreamt of me?

Even with our advancements in the modern scientific study of the phenomenon, their mysteriousness hasn’t entirely dissipated. If our ancestors saw in dreams portents and prophecies, then this oracular aspect was only extended by Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. He who inaugurated the nascent field of psychoanalysis explained dreams as a complex tapestry of wish fulfillment and sublimation, an encoded narrative that mapped onto the patient’s waking life and that could be deciphered by the trained therapist. Freud writes that there “exists a psychological technique by which dreams may be interpreted and that upon the application of this method every dream will show itself to be a senseful psychological structure which may be introduced into an assignable place in the psychic activity of the waking state.” Not so different from Will sleeping in his field. The origin may be different — Langland sees in dreams visions imparted from God and Freud finds their origin in the holy unconsciousness, but the idea isn’t dissimilar. Dreaming imparts an ordered and ultimately comprehensible message, even though the imagery may be cryptic.

Freud has been left to us literary critics (who’ve even grown tired of him over the past generation), and science has abandoned terms like id, ego, and superego in favor of neurons and biochemistry, synapses and serotonin. For neurologists, dreaming is a function of the prefrontal cortex powering down during REM sleep, and of the hippocampus severing its waking relationship with the neocortex, allowing for a bit of a free-for-all in the brain. Scientists have discovered much about how and why dreaming happens — what parts of the brain are involved, what cycles of wakefulness and restfulness a person will experience, when dreaming evolved, and what functions (if any) it could possibly serve. Gone are the simple reductionisms of dream interpretation manuals with their categorized entries about your teeth falling out or of showing up naked to your high school biology final. Neuroscientists favor a more sober view of dreaming, whereby random bits of imagery and thought thrown out by your groggy chemical induced brain rearrange themselves into a narrative which isn’t really a narrative. Still, as Andrea Rock notes in The Mind at Night: The New Science of How and Why we Dream, “it’s impossible for scientists to agree on something as seemingly simple as the definition of dreaming.” If we’re such stuff as dreams are made of, the forensics remain inconclusive.

Not that dreaming is exclusively a human activity. Scientists have been able to demonstrate that all mammals have some form of nocturnal hallucination, from gorillas to duck-billed platypuses, dolphins to hamsters. Anyone with a dog has seen their friend fall into a deep reverie; their legs pump as if they’re running, occasionally they’ll even startle-bark themselves awake. One summer day my wife and I entertained our French bulldog by having her chase a sprinkler’s spray. She flapped her jowly face at the cool gush of water with a happiness that no human is capable of. That evening, while she was asleep, she began to flap her mouth again, finally settling into a deeper reverie where she just smiled. Dreaming may not necessarily be a mammalian affair — there are indications that both birds and reptiles dream — albeit it’s harder to study creatures more distant from us. Regardless, evidence is that animals have been sleeping perchance to dream for a very long time, as it turns out. Rock writes that “Because the more common forms of mammals we see today branched off from the monotreme line about 140 million years ago… REM sleep as it exists in most animals also emerged at about the time that split occurred.” We don’t know if dinosaurs dreamt, but something skittering around and out of the way of their feet certainly did.

If animal brains are capable of generating pyrotechnic missives, and if dreaming goes back to the Cretaceous, what then of the future of dreaming? If dogs and donkeys, cats and camels are capable of dreaming, will artificial intelligences dream? This is the question asked by Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which was itself the source material for Ridley Scott’s science fiction film classic Blade Runner. Dick was an author as obsessed with illusion and reality, the unattainability of truth, and doubt as much as any writer since Plato. In his novel’s account of the bounty hunter Rick Deckard’s decommissioning of sentient androids, there is his usual examination of what defines consciousness, and the ways in which its illusions can present realities. “Everything is true… Everything anybody has ever thought,” one character says, a pithy encapsulation of the radical potential of dreams. Dick imagined robots capable of dreaming with such verisimilitude that they misapprehended themselves to be human, but as it turns out our digital tools are able to slumber in silicon.

Computer scientists at Google have investigated what random images are produced by a complex artificial neural network as it “dreams,” allowing the devices to filter various images they’ve encountered and to recombine, recontextualize, and regenerate new pictures. In The Atlantic, Adrienne LaFrance writes that the “computer-made images feature scrolls of color, swirling lines, stretched faces, floating eyeballs, and uneasy waves of shadow and light. The machines seemed to be hallucinating, and in a way that appeared uncannily human.” Artificial Intelligence has improved to an unsettling degree in just the past decade, even though a constructed mind capable of easily passing the Turing Test has yet to be created, though that seems more an issue of time than possibility. If all of the flotsam and jetsam of the internet could coalesce into a collective consciousness emerging from the digital primordial like some archaic demigod birthing Herself from chaos, what dreams could be generated therein? Or if it’s possible to program a computer, a robot, an android, an automaton to dream, then what oracles of Artificial Intelligence could be birthed? I can’t help but thrill to the idea that we’ll be able to program a desktop version of the Delphic Oracle analyzing its own microchipped dreams. “The electric things have their life too,” Dick wrote.

We’ve already developed AI capable of generating completely realistic-looking but totally fictional women and men. Software engineer Philip Wang invented a program at ThisPersonDoesNotExist.com which does exactly what its title advertises itself as doing: it gives you a picture of a person who doesn’t exist. Using an algorithm that combs through actual images, Wang’s site uses something called a generative adversarial network to create pictures of people who never lived. If you refresh the site, you’ll see that the humans dreamt of by the neural network aren’t cartoons or caricatures, but photorealistic images so accurate that they look like they could be used for a passport. So far I’ve been presented with an attractive butch woman with sparkling brown eyes, a broad smile, and short curly auburn hair; a strong jawed man in his 30s with an unfortunate bowl cut and a day’s worth of stubble who looks a bit like swimmer Michael Phelps; and a nerdy-looking Asian man with a pleasant smile and horn-rimmed glasses. Every single person the AI presented looked completely average and real, so that if I encountered them in the grocery store or at Starbucks I wouldn’t think twice, and yet not a single one of them was real. I’d read once (though I can’t remember where) that every invented person we encounter in our dreams has a corollary to somebody that we once met briefly in real life, a waitress or a store clerk whose paths we crossed for a few minutes drudged up from the unconscious and commissioned into our narrative. I now think that all of those people come from ThisPersonDoesNotExist.com.

One fictional person who reoccurs in many of our dreams is “This Man,” a pudgy, unattractive balding man with thick eyebrows, and an approachable smile who was the subject of Italian marketer Andrea Natella’s now defunct website “Ever Dream This Man?” According to Natella, scores of people had dreams about the man (occasionally nightmares) across all continents and in dozens of countries. Blake Butler, writing in Vice Magazine, explains that “His presence seems both menacing and foreboding at the same time, unclear in purpose, but haunting to those in whom he does appear.” This Man doesn’t particularly look like any famous figure, nor is he so generic that his presence can be dismissed as mere coincidence. A spooky resonance concerns this guy who looks like he manages a diner on First Avenue and 65th emerging simultaneously in thousands of peoples’ dreams (his cameo is far less creepy after you’re aware of the website). Multiple hypotheses were proffered, ranging from This Man being the product of the collective unconscious as described by Carl Jung to Him being a manifestation of God appearing to people from Seattle to Shanghai (my preferred theory). As it turns out, he was simply the result of a viral marketing campaign.

Meme campaigns aside, the sheer weirdness of dreams can’t quite exorcize them of a supernatural import — we’re all looking for portents, predictions, and prophecies. Being submerged into what’s effectively another universe can’t help but alter our sense of reality, or at least make us question what exactly that word means. For years now I’ve had dreams that take place in the same recurring location — a detailed, complex, baroque alternate version of my hometown of Pittsburgh. This parallel universe Pittsburgh roughly maps onto the actual place, though it appears much larger and there are notable differences. Downtown, for example, is a network of towering, interconnected skyscrapers all accessible from within one another (there’s a good bookstore there); a portion of Squirrel Hill is given over to a Wild West experience set. It’s not that I have the same dreams about this place, it’s that the place is the same, regardless of what happens to me in those dreams when I’m there. So much so that I experience the uncanny feeling of not dreaming, but rather of sliding into some other dimension. An eerie feeling comes to me from a life closer then my own breath, existing somewhere in the space between atoms, and yet totally invisible to my conscious eye.

Such is the realm of seers and shamans, poets and prophets, as well as no doubt yourself — the dream realm is accessible to everyone. As internal messages from a universe hidden within, whereby the muse and oracle are within your own skull. Long have serendipitous missives arisen from our slumber, even while we debate their ultimate origin. Social activist Julia Ward Howe wrote “Battle Hymn of the Republic” when staying at Washington D.C.’s Ward Hotel in 1861, the “dirtiest, dustiest filthiest place I ever saw.” While “in a half dreaming state” she heard a group of Union soldiers marching down Pennsylvania Avenue singing “John Brown’s Body,” and based on that song Howe composed her own hymn while in a reverie. Howe’s dreaming was in keeping with a melancholic era enraptured to spiritualism and occultism, for she commonly was imparted with “attacks of versification [that] had visited me in the night.” The apocalyptic Civil War altered peoples’ dreams, it would seem. Jonathan White explores the sleep-world of nineteenth-century Americans in his unusual and exhaustive study Midnight in America: Darkness, Sleep, and Dreams During the Civil War, arguing that peoples’ “dream reports were often remarkably raw and unfiltered… vividly bringing to life the horrors of the conflict; for others, nighttime was an escape from the hard realities of life and death in wartime.”

Every era imparts its own images, symbols, and themes into dreams, so that collective analysis can tell us about the concerns of any given era. White writes that during the Civil War people used dreams to relive “distant memories or horrific experiences in battle, longing for a return to peace and life as they had known it before the war, kissing loved ones that had not seen for years, communing with the dead, traveling to faraway places they wished they could see in real life,” which even if the particulars may be different, is not so altered from our current reposes. One of the most famous of Civil War dreamers was Abraham Lincoln, whose own morbid visions were in keeping with slumber’s prophetic purposes. Only days before his assassination, Lincoln recounted to his bodyguard that he’d had an eerily realistic dream in which he wandered from room to room in the White House. “I heard subdued sobs,” Lincoln said, as “if a number of people were weeping.” The president was disturbed by the sound of mourning, “so mysterious and so shocking,” until he arrived in the East Room. “Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments,” the body inside being that of Lincoln. Such dreams are significant — as the disquieting quarantine visions people have had over the past two months can attest to. We should listen — they have something to tell us.

Within literature dreams seem to always have something to say, a realm of the fantastic visited in novels as diverse as L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, and Lewis Carol’s Alice in Wonderland. The dream kingdom is a place where the laws of physics are muted, where logic and reason no longer hold domain, and the wild kings of absurdity are allowed to reign triumphant. Those aforementioned novels are ones in which characters like Dorothy, Ebenezer Scrooge, Morpheus, and Alice are subsumed into a fantastical dream realm, but there are plenty of books with more prosaic dream sequences, from Mr. Lockwood’s harrowing nightmare in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights to Raskolnikov’s violent childhood dreams in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. “I’ve dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas,” writes Brontë, “they’ve gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the color of my mind.” Then there is the literature that emerges from dreams, the half-remembered snippets and surreal plot lines, the riffs of dialogue and the turns of phrase that are birthed from the baked brain of night. Think of the poppy reveries of Thomas DeQuincy’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater or the delicious purpose of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” written in a similar drug haze until the poet was interrupted by that damned person from Porlock.

Spearing writes that “from the time of the Homeric poems down to the modern novel, it is surely true that the scene of the great bulk of Western literature has not been the internal world of the mind, in which dreams transact themselves, but the outer, public world of objective reality,” but this misses an important point. All novels actually occur in the internal world of the mind, no matter how vigorous their subjects may be. I’ll never be able to see the exact same cool colors of Jay Gatsby’s shirts that you envision, nor will I hear the exact timber of Mr. Darcy’s voice that you imagine, in the same way that no photographs or drawings or paintings can be brought back from the place you go to when you sleep. Dreaming and reading are unified in being activities of fully created, totally self-contained realities. Furthermore, there is a utopian freedom in this, for that closed off dimension, that pinched off universe which you travel to in reveries nocturnal or readerly is free of the contagion of the corrupted outside world. There are no pop-up ads in dreams, there are no telemarketers calling you. Even our nightmares are at least our own. Here, as in the novel, the person may be truly free.

Dreaming is the substance of literature. It’s what comes before, during, and after writing and reading, and there can be no fiction or poetry without it. There is no activity in waking life more similar to dreaming than reading (and by proxy writing, which is just self-directed reading). All necessitate the complete creation of a totally constructed universe constrained within your own head and accessible only to the individual. The only difference between reading and dreaming is who directs the story. As in a book as in our slumber, the world which is entered is one that is singular to the dreamer/reader. What you see when you close your eyes is forever foreign to me, as I may never enter the exact same story-world that you do when you crack open a novel. “Life, what is it but a dream?” Carol astutely asks.

We spend a third of our day in dream realms, which is why philosophers and poets have always rightly been preoccupied with them. Dreams necessarily make us question that border between waking and sleeping, truth and falsity, reality and illusion. That is the substance of storytelling as well, and that shared aspect between literature and dreaming is just as important as the oddity of existing for a spell in entirely closed off, totally self-invented, and completely free worlds. What unites the illusions of dreams and our complete ownership of them is subjectivity, and that is the charged medium through which literature must forever be conducted. Alfred North Whitehead once claimed that all of philosophy was mere footnotes to Plato — accurate to say that all of philosophy since then has been variations on the theme of kicking the tires of reality and questioning whether this exact moment is lived or dreamt.

The pre-Socratic metaphysician Gorgias was a radical solipsist who thought that all the world was the dream of God and the dreamer was himself. Plato envisioned our waking life as but a pale shadow of a greater world of Forms. Rene Descartes in Meditations on First Philosophy forged a methodology of radical doubt, whereby he imagined that a malicious demon could potentially deceive him into thinking that the “sky, the air, the earth, colors, shapes, sounds and all external things are merely the delusions of dreams which he has devised to ensnare my judgment. I shall consider myself as not having hands or eyes, or flesh, or blood or senses, but as falsely believing that I have all these things.” So, from the assumption that everything is a dream, Descartes tried to latch onto anything that could be certain. Other than his own mind, he wasn’t able to find much. In dreams there is the beginning of metaphysics, for nothing else compels us to consider that the world which we see is not the world which there is, and yet such philosophical speculation need not philosophers, since children engage in it from the moment they can first think.

When I was a little kid, I misunderstood that old nursery rhyme “Row Your Boat.” When it queried if “life is but a dream,” I took that literally to mean that all which we experience is illusion, specter, artifice. In my own abstract way I assumed that according to the song, all of this which we see: the sun and moon, the trees and flowers, our friends and family, are but a dream. And I wondered what it would be like when I woke up, who I would recount that marvelous dream too? “I had the strangest dream last night,” I imagined telling faces unknown with names unconveyed. I assumed the song meant that all of this, for all of us, was a dream — and who is to know what that world might look like when you wake up? Such a theme is explored in pop culture from the cyberpunk dystopia The Matrix to the sitcom finale Newhart, because this sense of unreality, of dreams impinging on our not-quite-real world is hard to shake. Writing about a classic metaphysical thought-experiment known as the Omphalos Argument (from the Greek for “navel,” as relating to a question of Eden), philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote in The Analysis of Mind that “There is no logical impossibility… that the world sprang into being five minutes ago, exactly as it then was, with a population that ‘remembered’ a wholly unreal past.” Perhaps we’ve just dozed off for a few minutes then? Here’s the thing though — even if all of this is a dream — it doesn’t matter. Because in dreams you’re innocent. In dreams you’re free.

Image credit: Pexels/Erik Mclean.

Extinguishing the Self: On Robert Stone

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Until the pandemic forced us into hiatus, I curated a reading series for emerging writers in New York City. For 13 years, we met monthly at KGB Bar, a literary venue in the East Village. The bar was rarely full, but it was always a chore to get people to quiet down; we encouraged readers to invite friends, family, and other writers. On the best nights, the place was full of convivial anticipation, like we were throwing a big, bold send-off before these promising writers lit out to new territory.

Standing at the podium before events, the sights and sounds often reminded me of the wet, snowy Sunday evening when I heard the late, great Robert Stone read in the very same room. He was in the last years of a long life. His flowing beard was all white and emphysema made a whisper of his gravelly voice. His audience had dwindled and there were fewer people in the room that night than on evenings when I hosted readings for less accomplished authors. This is just one of the many lessons Stone taught me: that you can be nominated for four National Book Awards and a Pulitzer—and still face a half empty room at the end of your career.

You can get the full fathom five of Stone’s biography from any of a dozen sources. Stone himself wrote a memoir, Prime Green, that tracks through his Catholic school boyhood, the burden of growing up as the son/caretaker of a schizophrenic mother, and the hows and whys of his decision to run away and join the Navy as a young man. At the beginning of his career, he famously tripped with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. His second novel was made into a movie starring Nick Nolte. He once joked to an interviewer that he always ended up running into the much more famous author Paul Auster at parties. He was among the literati in the era when being seen around town was a part-time job, long before Entertainment Tonight and ages before social media made celebrity a full-time out-of-body experience.

“You were part of that world,” the interviewer Christopher Bollen said to him in 2013, talking about the druggy counterculture era. “But you have a rare career in that you moved beyond it. How?” Stone’s response was characteristic of the man: pointed, honest, and unglamorous. “I really, really wanted to write,” he said. He knew that his reach was beyond his grasp as a young writer. “I wanted to be a goof on the bus, but I wanted to write more.” So he went to work.

If you consult with the sages at Encyclopedia.com, this is how all that effort worked out for him: “Robert Anthony Stone (born 1937) was an American novelist whose preoccupations were politics, the media, and the random, senseless violence and cruelty that pervade contemporary life both in the United States and in parts of the world where the United States’ influence has extended, such as Latin America and Vietnam. His vision of the world is dark but powerful.”

Well, yes; but also, no.

The novelist Madison Smartt Bell, in an encomium in The New Yorker after Stone died in 2015, claimed that all Stone novels include the character of “a man whose idealism has been blunted by experience.” Certainly, this is true of Stone’s best books, by which I mean (in order): Dog Soldiers, A Flag for Sunrise, and Damascus Gate. In that same 2015 essay, Smartt observes that for all the protagonists of these books, the main narrative is of a redemption that must be earned. Nothing is handed to them. “Stone and his characters struggle with all received ideas at a very high level of intellectual honesty.”

In interviews and essays, Stone never denied that he wrote stories he hoped would capture the fancy of readers. He was not writing for his private muse. Nor was he a David Foster Wallace, tortured by inner Furies, pouring his thoughts onto the page in a losing bid for freedom. You can still watch Stone speak in numerous video interviews on YouTube; he smiles often, wears professorial jackets and ties, and lounges at tables beside a fire. Stone wrote big, rollicking stories like Conrad, Melville, and Dickens because those were the kind of stories that he loved and were large enough to suit his themes. He was a writer who lived in the world and wrote stories full of living.

On the word-by-word level, his work has the jostle and sting of real life; as a writer he inhabited the people in the stories in order to tell their tales. Speaking of A Flag for Sunrise with Kay Bonetti in 1982, he expresses the surprise he felt when two of his characters broke out into a dramatic quarrel at one point. “The day I started writing that piece I didn’t realize that was going to happen,” he said. “It just developed as I wrote the dialogue and imagined myself into the situation.”

For all his timeliness of story and milieu, however, you cannot approach a Robert Stone novel at high speed. He published four books after 1998; all of them have strengths but also none of them feel quite of our time. I suspect this is why his popularity began to wane after the publication of Damascus Gate. You either slow down and let the chemicals of his words do their thing, or you might as well fly on by.

2.
Stone’s best claim to literary fame is the 1975 National Book Award, when the selection committee picked his third novel, Dog Soldiers, as its fiction prizewinner. Stone’s description of his academic experience at Stanford a few years earlier could just as well describe this deeply paranoid masterpiece: “I spent a lot of my time, when I should have been writing, experiencing death and transfiguration and rebirth on LSD in Palo Alto.”

What were the National Book Award judges thinking when they chose to award the prize to this novel, a druggy, rough tale of a playwright-turned-journalist who loses his shit in Saigon and manages to ravage his entire life before the last page? Cast in granite prose, oracular in the best and worst ways, full of scenes that show but confide less than a gruff Midwestern boyfriend, Dog Soldiers has a thrilling plot, but I’m not sure I could tell you what happens in it, even on a close reread. Did the judges find in the book a reflection, darkly, of the chaotic post-Nixonian world in which they lived? Certainly, this is the easy go-to explanation for the adjunct profs who include it on reading lists and the marketing copywriters who prepared promo material for the latest reissue in 2018. It’s a book about hippies! ’Nam! Failed authority! LSD! Well, yes; and no. Dig a little deeper, and, as with Stone’s fiction, a complicated, interconnected counter story begins to take shape.

Fact: the year before Dog Soldiers won the National Book Award, the award was discontinued, briefly. So perfectly Stone. In 1974, the prize jury chose Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, a writer so writerly that he refused to give interviews. This was apparently the last straw for the publishers who underwrote the prize. They cut their funding. Completely. National Book Award organizers refused to give up, though. They assembled a temporary committee to give their award one more time. They begged the likes of Exxon and Jackie Kennedy Onassis to donate enough moola to keep the lights on. It was one more sign of the times in an age when no institutions seemed like they were going to last. Exactly the kind of world that Dog Soldiers paints in miniature. A perfect choice. Almost as if it were the work of fate. Fate of the kind that flickers in the flames of Stone’s best work. Fate that you can laugh at and say you don’t believe in, but that still has a chance of being true. Robert Stone had to win the prize that year. Because we all needed an author preoccupied by outsiders to be granted the status of a literary insider—so he could go on writing, thinking, and teaching all of us for the next four decades.

3.
The first time I tried to read Robert Stone, I couldn’t stand his prose style. I was 22. Stone’s second masterpiece, A Flag for Sunrise, was on a grad school syllabus that also included the likes of Clockers, Under Western Eyes, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The sine non qua for inclusion was that each book operated in a genre but also rose above its intentions, a concept that my thesis advisor and mentor, David Plante, also inculcated into our thinking in weekly creative writing workshops. He never said as much, but I believe that what Plante was trying to teach us was that if we were to become decent writers, which is to say writers worth our salt, we had to be contextual readers.

My first reading of Stone was troubled by the fact that I was addicted to Cormac McCarthy at the time. For my money, McCarthy is perhaps the only other major male author of the late 20th century who writes convincingly in the cut of the moment. McCarthy and Stone were born within four years of each other. They both had a stint in the military. Both write/wrote painfully slow, labored over their craft, and had very little commercial success at first. But in form and vision, they are opposing calculations on either side of an equals sign.

I read perhaps two pages of A Flag for Sunrise before putting the book back down again. The pace felt too slow. The sentences were sharp but stilted. Characters kept starting and stopping and staring. There was a nun with a man’s name. A lieutenant who was clearly also a drunk. Familiar and unfamiliar all at once. I attended the seminar session on the book without having read A Flag for Sunrise at all. How very Robert Stone of me. I had high hopes for the novel; I was myself trying to write a book that I envisioned as a literary novel with a great plot. That perfect fusion of high and low culture. But I was too eager, too hurried in my work, too starry-eyed with the idea of being done.

Cormac McCarthy novels reward you on a page-by-page basis, or at least they do if his stiff prosaic mescal is your kind of thing. A Stone novel takes longer to get going, and even longer to alter your insides. A Cormac cocktail hits you before the ice cubes melt; the work of Robert Stone will only be clear the next morning, when you realize that you blacked out hours before you got home.

I returned to A Flag for Sunrise a decade later. I revisited Stone in part because I had run out of Graham Greene novels worth my time. After my Cormac McCarthy phase ended, I suffered a long bout of Greene fever. God, how I adored Greene’s books. I still have flash burns on my heart from the pages of The Quiet American, The Heart of the Matter, and The Power and the Glory. To learn more about Greene as a writer, I had even gone so far as to read Greene on Capri, the memoir by Shirley Hazzard (herself a great writer, criminally overlooked both before and after she died).

The rediscovery of Stone was a relief, and a blessing, but not because he was aping Greene. There are plenty of lesser writers who do just that. No, Stone was a find because he added to what Greene was doing. His work possesses the urgency of Greene—the sense of people battling against the dark authorities of this world—but also something else, something that took me many novels and many hours of consideration to realize was lacking in Greene’s novels: a love of living.

Stone was often asked by interviewers for his thoughts on Graham Greene. He was never ambiguous: “He is not a favorite of mine,” he told Charles Ruas in a 1981 interview. He speculated that his antipathy was due to being compelled by nuns to read Greene and Waugh as a schoolboy. Stone was still clinging to that story when he spoke in 1982 to the Missouri Review. But by the end of his life, during his 2015 interview with Christopher Bollen, he no longer felt the need to tiptoe around his deeper feelings. “I always knew I hated Graham Greene,” he said, “even though I thought he was a really good writer.”

Stone’s antipathy, I think, was not professional so much as personal. Graham Greene, for all his talent as a writer, was not a good man. Just about 10 years after Greene died, the Daily Mail wrote a long, dark hit piece on him. The article is a slog through a great writer’s sins. A photo of Greene in late age is captioned as follows: “A man without honour: Graham Greene was an alcoholic who abandoned his wife and two children for affairs with a series of married mistresses.” I learned from the article that late in life, Greene tried to start a brothel on a Portuguese island. And that he shared a house in Italy with an avowed pederast. Asked about his estranged children, Greene is reported as saying: “I think my books are my children.” Graham Greene was the kind of person that no one would want to be constantly compared with. Not if you really cared about the company that you are perceived to keep. And certainly not if you were someone as humanistic, thoughtful, and apparently kind-hearted as Robert Stone.

Perhaps the important difference between Stone and Greene is that while Stone “really, really” wanted to be a writer, he wanted equally to be a good person. I don’t mean in the personal sense, although that seems to have mattered to Stone, too. I mean in the sense of saying things that help guide his readers to a better understanding and appreciation of the world. In the very first words of a taped interview with the Writer’s Institute in 1996, Stone says that people need stories in the same way that the waking mind needs dreams. We put together narratives in order to make sense of life. The punch line of a joke, he goes on to say, is actually a forced recognition of how things are. There is no natural narrative of things; it’s all just out there. “It is up to human will and human ingenuity to compose all this into a narrative.”

4.
If at this point you have in your mind the image of Robert Stone as a neo-Papa standing at his desk and writing out novels by long hand–then you are mistaken. Nor was he a Melvillian scrivener hunched over a desk for hours to write in a slanted longhand better suited for logging barrels of salt pork. The galloping narrative of his books will put you in mind of Stendahl; the moral weight of his vision is on level with Dostoevsky. But those two novelists dictated their work to stenographers. None of this applied to Stone. He was a typing man. He joined the navy as a radio operator, as he reports in his memoir. Later, as he told Bollen in 2013, he learned to type by taking Morse code. “I was using the typewriter from day one,” he said.

Not an Olivetti, either. A Paris Review feature from 1985 describes Stone as working in a cluttered attic at a table just large enough to hold his word processor. That’s right, a fully modern word processor. Unlike Cormac McCarthy, the image of the artist is not meant to be confused with the images in the work. Stone is neither ascetic nor saint. He was just a writer, a big-hearted one.

A picture of Stone in the mid-2010s in the Paris Review shows no fewer than two computer screens. One of them, a laptop with his reading glasses resting on the keys, is—I regret to inform the steampunks among you—almost certainly a MacBook. He was not a simple throwback. Or a caricature. His wife was a waitress when he met her. He remained married to her for his entire adult life. They lived in a simple house in Connecticut on the shore, and their two children, a boy and a girl, grew up and moved out and started their own lives as children everywhere are wont to do.

His work reads as if it were composed to the tune of clanging blacksmiths and left to cool under the stars somewhere far from land. This is the conundrum of good writing. It can take you anywhere. But in Stone’s case, the words you read were almost certainly crafted in a quiet place, by one person, typing in solitude, hopeful of the value of the time spent, but equally certain that it may never mean anything much to anyone. This is the gamble.

Stone suffered to bring the right words forth in the years before acclaim and even afterward. He worked on his first novel, A Hall of Mirrors, for six years. In the era of hot takes and from-the-hip tweets, six years is an eternity. But it is what it takes when you are groping in the dark as a writer.

I find the story of how long Stone labored on his initial book to be both inspirational and validating. I spent six years working on my first novel. It was my thesis while at Columbia. Stone labored over his work while a fellow at Stanford. He had to keep working on the manuscript after he graduated, as did I. He struggled to work and write at the same time. As he told the Paris Review about that first book: “I’d work for twenty weeks and then be on unemployment for twenty weeks and so on. So it took me a long, long time to finish it.” This is the writing life. I am writing the first draft of this essay while I sit on a wooden bench in a coffee shop in Harlem where ironically they are playing Creedence Clearwater Revival’s 1971 single, “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” I have not been employed full time for months, except for a few consulting gigs. I have been desperately writing this whole time, concocting and executing the first draft of a new novel and rounding out essays like this one that have been ricocheting around in the steel drum of my mind for ages. You find a way to get the work done whenever and however you can, almost as a sidebar to real life. And yet it’s the part of life that you most want to talk about with an interviewer from a literary magazine. Stone anticipates everything that I feel as a writer. There is this long exchange, from that same Paris Review interview, which might as well be a diary entry from my own life, except in my case the book that I’m jazzed over is called Likeness, and it won’t win a National Book Award, because I’m no Robert Stone, but the feelings are all the same:
INTERVIEWER
Is writing easy for you? Does it flow smoothly?
STONE
It’s goddamn hard. Nobody really cares whether you do it or not. You have to make yourself do it. I’m very lazy and I suffer as a result. Of course, when it’s going well there’s nothing in the world like it. But it’s also very lonely. If you do something you’re really pleased with, you’re in the crazy position of being exhilarated all by yourself. I remember finishing one section of Dog Soldiers—the end of Hicks’s walk—in the basement of a college library, working at night, while the rest of the place was closed down, and I staggered out in tears, talking to myself, and ran into a security guard. It’s hard to come down from a high in your work—it’s one of the reasons writers drink.
Stone never figured out how to write quickly. He kept his standards on the top shelf. He spoke about this in one of his last interviews, with Tin House. The editor asks him about the plot of his final novel, The Death of the Black-Haired Girl. (A novel that, I must confess, I could not finish.) He insists that he does not have a plan for his work; that it just unfolds as he discovers it. “So you are not,” the interviewer asks, “in the Nabokov camp of treating your characters like “galley slaves”? I can almost hear Robert Stone chuckling in response. “Well,” he said, “I don’t treat them very well. But, no.

In an interview with Kay Bonetti, in 1982, she said: “Some critics feel you lost control of the structure in both A Hall of Mirrors [his second novel] and Dog Soldiers.” Stone’s response: “Yes. I guess I lost control.” And then he adds, importantly, and perfectly in tune with his Zen persona: “I’m pretty satisfied with the way they turned out.” Later in the same interview, he elaborates: “I see a great deal of human life limited, poisoned, frustrated, by fear and ignorance and the violence that comes from it…I think some of the people I write about are trying to get above that and get around it somehow.”

How a Stone novel ends is perhaps more important than any other fact about it. The ending is where at long last the slowly moving lines converge. The end is the closest we will ever get to the direct sunlight of his ideas. I remember distinctly where I read the ending of Damascus Gate. I was seated on a subway car headed to the Upper West Side apartment where I lived with my wife and daughter. I was an established adult by then, full-time job, mortgage, a little girl who called me papa. All that fell away as I read the book. The only world I knew as I hurtled under the streets of New York was the world of the catacombs under Jerusalem as reported to me by Stone. The characters are lost, confused, and the predators and prey are all mixed up. As a reader, I recall my heart pounding as I turned the pages. But truth be told, I also remember being confused. Like, seriously confused. As a character in a Stone novel might say: What the actual fuck is going on?

All of Stone’s work is about the confusing fate that lies in wait behind the world of likely events. The startling break. The upsetting loss, when all the odds were in your favor. Being confused, overwrought, out of luck, or nearly so—all of Stone’s characters arrive at this moment. And then they get up and push onward. You may or may not like his heroes. But you have to admire their will to live. There are moments in his work that anticipate the modern anti-heroes of Breaking Bad or True Detective. I cannot be the only person who saw a dark reflection in the ending of True Detective season two, when Frank Semyon bleeds out in the desert, and the ending of Dog Soldiers, when the mortally wounded Hicks walks as far as he can along a railroad track. Both men are deeply flawed and filled with hallucinations. Both men are dead long before they realize it.

Arguably, it is in film and television where you can locate Stone’s true heirs. Plenty of male novelists try to mug their way through tough-guy first novels a la Stone, but in so doing they confuse him with the likes of Hemingway, Mailer, and Roth. There’s no strut to his prose; there’s nothing self-aggrandizing in Stone’s work, nor did there seem to be in the man. If anything, his work is about the extinguishment of the self in a Buddhist sense. “You’ll never find Robert Stone in a Robert Stone book,” Wallace Stegner is said to have remarked famously after reading Dog Soldiers.

5.
Five years have passed since Stone’s death. Other than a brief burst of appreciation after his passing, in the form of admiring words from peers and former students alike, at this point his floating pyre has drifted out to sea. I suspect that the rolling tide of literary canonization will not bring him back to shore. His vision is too intentionally arch; his prose style far too mandarin. This saddens me, but I do not think that it would sadden Stone; certainly the man that I met once, very briefly, had no other expectation for what would happen in the world that went on without him.

I heard Stone speak and read from his memoir in December of 2009, on the Sunday evening when he appeared on a double bill for a book promo event at KGB Bar. There was a snowstorm coming, according to the weather reports, and a wet snow had started. I suspect this depressed turn out a little. But it also made the room feel brighter and warmer.

Stone arrived shortly after I did, entering alongside a taller, younger man. Later, I would learn this was Madison Smartt Bell. Bell was an accomplished novelist in his own right, and he had a book of his own to promote; but there was in his posture, his gesture, his way of introducing Stone to all of us, a clear deference for the literary lion in our midst. For his part, Stone had no airs. He had, I would learn later, visited the bar numerous times for readings. In an Identity Theory interview in 2003, he said to the interviewer: “I was in KGB last night and I think it’s very vital, even more vital than it used to be.” He seemed at ease when he stood at the lectern, adjusting the rickety lamp to illuminate the pages he carried. He wore reading glasses on the end of his nose. His eyes smiled when he glanced up.

He read a section from his memoir and the entire text of a short story. The story, “Honeymoon,” would appear three years later in his second story collection, Fun with Problems. At the story’s end, the main character swims to his death while scuba diving, plunging into the “uncolored world of fifteen fathoms. The weight of the air took him down the darkening wall.”

Afterward, the room was still with the quiet trance of a heady draught. Stone took a place at the wall near a corner to sign books. I hadn’t realized there would be a signing. Like a fool, I had not thought to bring any books. Clearly, others had a better sense of what to expect. One young man had brought a handled paper bag full of Robert Stone hardcovers. Stone, with a chortle, signed each one.

Someone from Houghton Mifflin was selling paperback copies of Prime Green. I bought one and then apologized when I slid it under Stone’s nose. I loved Dog Soldiers, I told him. I should have brought a copy with me. Indeed, I had read the book just two months earlier in huge gulping doses. He nodded. Your work is inspirational, I said. I had spent much of my time in line figuring out what to say, what wouldn’t be too fawning but would still convey the proper reverence.

“You’re a writer?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, although I felt sheepish making this claim.

“Are you working on something? Is it going well?”

“I’m–I’m trying,” I said.

He nodded. He understood. He had seen thousands of versions of me before. I suspect he saw me as a lost child, one so alone as to not know how to ask for help. I was, at this time, twice divorced from literary agents, unpublished after a decade of trying, with not even a short story publication to my name. He told me, simply, to keep at it. That the writing is its own reward. The kind of wisdom that, to a young man, seems like resignation, but that to a man at middle age sounds a lot like fortitude and patience. He asked my name, double checked how to spell it, and then wrote his name and a quick line of encouragement on the title page and handed the book back to me.

After that I went down the bar’s long creaky stairs and out into the wet snowy night and back into the uncertainty of a writing life still largely unlived. I have been thinking about our short exchange ever since.

In a conversation with Robert Birnbaum after the release of Damascus Gate, Stone spoke about the epigraph in the book: “Losing it is as good as having it.” This is a line devoid of poetry and hardly worth an epigraph, unless you’ve bought into the long arrow path that passes through Stone’s oeuvre. As Stone explained to his interviewer, the quote wiped him out when he first heard it. “That which we have,” he said, “we invariably lose. And at the same time, it can’t be taken away.”

Stone was trying to say this same thing a decade earlier at the end of A Flag of Sunrise, when Holliwell is being rescued by a father and son who don’t speak English and seem hesitant to take the bloodied protagonist into their boat: “A man has nothing to fear, he thought to himself, who understands history.”

Losing everything, Stone tells us, is far better than never having anything at all. That full ironic detachment is a lesson that still resonates in our post-Cold War, post-American, pandemic-rankled world—with the empire teetering, so many of our heroes in retreat, and the very idea of grand masters in question, when the notion of a canon is more punch line than party line. Who can be a master? Who can speak for us all? Who is worthy? No one, obviously. But there are some voices that offer more to a listener than others. Stone’s is one of them.

Image Credit: Publishers Weekly.

Gravity and Grace and the Virus

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In “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Walter Benjamin famously writes of history as one long catastrophe, an atmosphere we continue to breathe in. “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule…The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical.” In the most often-cited thesis, Benjamin offers an image of catastrophe as physical and devastating, a continuous process of ruin blowing against a body. “This is how one pictures the angel of history… Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.” Our happiness, Benjamin muses, “exists only in the air we have breathed, among people we could have talked to.” The idea, needless to say, has gained new relevance in the age of aerosols and droplets, of mass death and the fears of proximity. The air we breathe in has never seemed so central to our health and happiness. Benjamin and his wife survived the 1918 influenza epidemic, though I don’t know how much was known about transmission in that time.

In the early months of the pandemic, I didn’t know yet to be worried about aerosols. Like the rest of the country, I was still in a deep antagonism with surfaces, wondering whether I could infect myself with coronavirus if I touched a doorknob and then my pillow. But it was clear that something was crumbling, that it would not be solved easily, and (so?) I found myself deep in the work of Jewish philosophers writing during the Holocaust.

It seemed perverse to want to read about historical devastation when there was so much right around me. Why pick now to develop an obsession with the Holocaust? Yet it was strangely comforting to read things that had been written in a time of crisis—our inherited crisis, it always seemed growing up, despite the fact that my own family’s link was indirect and generations removed—and yet one that was not this crisis, this unbearable time. Written under the sign of catastrophe, the works, which included Gershom Scholem’s wonderful biography Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship; Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History”; and Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace—all of which carried with them a newly familiar awareness of devastation and breakdown. It was the same old devastation I’d known as a Jewish child growing up in prosperous America, the endless and yet definitely historical loss that unfolded and unfolded, but now newly strange, because it was familiar. As I read about Benjamin’s despair at the increasingly inflated German mark, my best friend texted me from Brooklyn, our hometown, to ask for flour.

I didn’t read survivors. For some time I’d found it difficult to think or talk about the Holocaust head-on at all. I was struck by an essay-review in Jewish Currents in which Helen Betya Rubinstein writes, of Sheila Heti’s most recent novel, that “Motherhood is a book written around, or about, the Shoah.” Although the novel seemed to conflate a family curse with the Holocaust, Rubinstein noted, it also refused or was unable to make this connection in explicit terms. Could it be that it was no longer possible to write about the Holocaust in this explicit way? Was it necessary to write about it only subterraneously, lightly, glancingly—as though catching something off guard? And is this always true of devastation? (The articles have already been written about the strange absence of the 1918 flu in literature of the time and after.) Rubinstein fears “that the body of literature about the Shoah has too much saturated the culture, and is too full of errors and missteps, to withstand another, divergent attempt;…that it’s impossible to refer to that history without carrying the weight of all the ways the story’s already been told, including the ways it’s been misrepresented, manipulated, and abused.”

I felt these things too. What I hated in Holocaust literature and film was the American heroism so often implicit in them, the way you needed all those bodies to make an audience feel something. I thought it might help to read philosophy and biography, not memoir or fiction, and so to look sideways without looking away. Benjamin, Scholem, and Weil took their own unusual routes, straight through crisis.

Weil, a secular French Jew who longed to convert to Catholicism, died in a sanatorium, starving herself because, she said, she did not want to eat more than the rations available to the people of France. She was an extreme person whose extremity has engendered imitation and inspiration in the work of Fanny Howe and Chris Kraus, among others, and whose life has often been of greater interest to readers than her difficult work. She didn’t have any recorded romantic or sexual relationships, or children. She held people to sometimes impossibly high standards; she did not like Simone de Bouvoir, one of her few fellow female classmates at the elite university Ecole Normale Supérieure, and pronounced her bourgeois. (In this way of course I also find her charming.) She worked in factories, and taught the children of working people, who often found her bizarre and unrelatable (she was herself bourgeois, in a purely descriptive sense, and they were usually Christians) but lovable. In 1942, she’d gone away to New York, where she was safe, but then came back.

In March, I looked through her signature work, Gravity and Grace, for a useful quote, but it was all about detachment, which seemed impossible if not implausible. I was reading everything out of context. Or more in context than I ever had before? Art, Weil wrote, offers the only consolation we should seek or wish to give: “These [works of art] help us through the mere fact that they exist.” About love: “To love purely is to consent to distance, it is to adore the distance between ourselves and that which we love.” This had never felt truer, as I scanned flight schedules for a plane I wouldn’t take to be with my parents in New York, in the epicenter, an apartment with no room for self-isolation.

“Not to exercise all the power at one’s disposal is to endure the void,” Weil wrote. “This is contrary to all the laws of nature. Grace alone can do it.” At the time, I took this an explanation of what it felt like to obey lockdown instead of exercising whatever power I might have to protect myself and the people around me—that is, to rush to Brooklyn. But Weil herself was always keen to go to where the action was. She went to Spain to fight in the Spanish Civil War, although, once there, she quickly burned her feet outside of active duty and had to be rescued by her parents.

Next I moved to Benjamin, who killed himself while fleeing from France into Spain. Another strange wartime death. He and his group of fellow Jewish refugees had been turned away at the border and would be sent back to Vichy France and the camps shortly. Like Weil, Benjamin has been memorialized as physically awkward and ungainly, almost slapstick in his tragedy; a female acquaintance, according to Scholem, once said of him that he was “so to speak, incorporeal.” His was a tragic death, it has been said, because the officials did not, in the end, send his group back. They suggest that he could have lived, or else that his death was what convinced the Spanish authorities of the seriousness of his group’s crisis, that the storm cloud hovering over their heads was real. A member of the group wrote, in a letter to Theodor Adorno, that she had paid Spanish officials in the area for five years for a gravestone for Benjamin, but when Hannah Arendt went to the site only months later, she found no such marking. Later, when visitors began to come to see the grave, a marking materialized. Gershom Scholem writes thoughtfully and compassionately of his dear friend, who always disappointed him with his ardent promises to turn his attention—soon!—more fully to Judaism and the study of Hebrew. “During that year I thought that Benjamin’s turn to an intensive occupation with Judaism was close at hand,” Scholem writes of 1921. It was not.

What did these works offer me? Something about the authors’ ability to live and work in crisis, a personal crisis in some ways, unevenly distributed as all crises are, although in many other ways a global one. Something about their continued commitment to their work, their continued ability to produce great thought—not that I was capable of deep thought in March or expected to be anytime soon. Something about being myself, as I imagine most of us are, the product of crisis and catastrophe, the child (some generations removed) of those who did not die, people who escaped. Or was this self-aggrandizement, a case of American triumphalism? There were Nazis in the streets and I wanted to know why this was so important to me, what it meant to think about disaster. I wanted to know what history is for, especially but not only Jewish history. Could I use it, and if so, how?

“We experience good only by doing it,” Simone Weil wrote, in a completely different world, in a completely different context, that is also and always our world and our context.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Joukhadar, Celan, and van Heemstra

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Zeyn Joukhadar, Paul Celan, and Marjolijn van Heemstra—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 Thirty Names of Night by Zeyn Joukhadar

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Thirty Names of Night: “Joukhadar’s evocative follow-up to The Map of Salt and Stars explores a 20-something Syrian-American trans man’s journey of self-discovery. The unnamed protagonist—he later goes by the name he gives himself, Nadir—is an aspiring artist in Brooklyn who likes to go out dancing with friends and enjoys listening to his friend Sami play the oud. Nadir lives with his grandmother, Teta, and is haunted by the death of his mother years ago in a fire. After Nadir finds a diary belonging to a Syrian artist named Laila, in an old tenement inhabited by Syrian-Americans, he becomes obsessed with finding the print of a rare bird by Laila. As the story unfolds, Nadir’s narration and direct addresses to his mother (‘your presence is still here, everywhere, your hand on everything’) expands to include Laila’s voice (‘The day I began to bleed was the day I met the woman who built the flying machine’) as Nadir blossoms into his trans identity. Scenes with Sami, with whom Nadir falls in love, are particularly affecting. Quietly lyrical and richly imaginative, Joukhadar’s tale shows how Laila and Nadir live and love and work past the shame in their lives through their art. This is a stirring portrait of an artist as a young man.”

A Memory Rose Into Threshold Speech: The Collected Earlier Poetry by Paul Celan (translated by Pierre Joris)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about A Memory Rose Into Threshold Speech: “This ambitious bilingual edition completes Joris’s herculean effort to translate all of Celan’s poetry into English. Celan’s experiences of trauma as a Holocaust survivor permeate poems such as ‘Todesfuge’ (‘Deathfugue’): ‘Black milk of dawn we drink you at night/ we drink you at noon death is a master from Deutschland/ we drink you evenings and mornings we drink and drink.’ Celan expresses the propulsive, hypnotic unraveling of the world through his fragmented refrain. Elsewhere, he paints himself as a perpetual outsider: ‘Blacker in black, I am more naked./ Only as a renegade am I faithful./ I am you when I am I.’ The importance of seeing and witnessing comes up again and again throughout: ‘Gaze-trade, finally, at untime:/ imagefast,/ lignified,/ the retina—:/ the eternity-sign.’ Joris’s introduction and commentary provide useful historical and literary context. This admirable translation presents the early work of an eminent German language postwar poet to a new audience.”

In Search of a Name by Marjolijn van Heemstra (translated by Jonathan Reeder)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about In Search of a Name: “Van Heemstra’s perceptive if tepid English-language debut confronts the transformation of family myth and the hazards of historical memory. When writer and narrator Marjolijn van Heemstra was 18, she was bequeathed a ring that once belonged to her late distant uncle Bommenneef, upheld by her family as a hero of the Dutch resistance during WWII. Fifteen years later, a pregnant Marjolijn, who had promised to name her first-born son after her uncle, sets out to better understand the man who was to be ‘the blueprint for my son.’ As her quest for more information leads her to the national archives and reconnections with far-flung relatives, Marjolijn begins to realize Bommenneef might not have been as heroic as her family insists. In a plot punctuated by the travails of a complicated pregnancy, Marjolijn’s investigation touches critical questions about the past and its relation to the present. How do the stories one tells come to supplant the truth? Is it better to preserve an idealized family history than mess it up with facts? Unfortunately, the monotonous and observational narrative, mired in mundane particulars, fails to provide insight on these deeper mysteries. Readers expecting an immersive family drama will be disappointed.”

The Stories We Become: On William Cash’s ‘Restoration Heart’

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Restoration Heart begins in 2009 with William Cash, the British journalist and publisher, hiding from the tabloids. He listens as a photographer and reporter banter outside his front door. Cash, frazzled and melancholy, huddles inside. His girlfriend’s photo appears “on the front page of the Sunday Mirror, alongside that of a well-known British politician, touted as a future prime minister.” Cash’s girlfriend was embroiled in a political sex scandal with none other than Boris Johnson.

Cash, who has often written of society and scandal, is adept at setting dramatic scenes throughout his memoir. Yet there’s another layer to Restoration Heart—an acute literary sense. While “camping out in a former tack room,” lamenting another failed relationship and the family he has always longed to have, Cash thinks of a line from Graham Greene: “No man is a success to himself.”

It is an appropriate quote—Cash once wrote a biography of Greene that examined his long affair with Catherine Walston, a relationship that influenced The End of the Affair—yet another line from Greene might be even more appropriate: “I feel there’s something awful in sealing up the envelope, not being able to add to this.” Cash’s memoir is the story of a man whose penchant for letters suggests a desire to hold on to the present. Sealing up the envelope means ending the letter; it means allowing our fantasies and stories to be finished, read, and judged.

Greene haunts this book in the way perhaps only the British novelist can; a lingering but vacillating Catholicism, a predilection for drama, and the worry that life is a series of disappointments. Those disappointments—and accompanying hopes—are often set at Upton Cressett, an Elizabethan manor in Shropshire, England. In 1970, Cash’s parents “had become afflicted with that most British and expensive of diseases: the ‘dream’ of finding an old English manor house and restoring it, the more of an overgrown ruin beyond hope, the better.” Built in 1580, the house, Cash quips, “has always been the most durable of my relationships—more reliable than any love affair or marriage.”

In 1899, H. Thornhill Timmins wrote in Nooks and Corners of Shropshire of the home’s past: “The course of the moat, the ancient well, and the site of the drawbridge can still be identified.” Rumor has it that an underground tunnel once ran from the home to Holgate Castle in Corve Dale, six miles away. Yet now, Cash laments, the home “had come to resemble an architectural salvage yard.” He decides to renovate the house, and his life.

The action is uniquely British. “The Germans, French, and Italians don’t understand the British Cult of Restoration,” Cash affirms: “restoring an old manor farmhouse, mill or ruined abbey until we are driven into the financial grave. It relates to our national obsession with the past and how our best domestic architecture—from castles to cottages—gives character and identity not only to our towns and villages but also defines who we are.” 

Cash quotes P. H. Ditchfield, from The Manor Houses of England, that manors such as his “do not court attention,” nor do they “seek to attract the eye by glaring incongruities or obtrusive detail. They seem in quest of peace, love and obscurity.” For much of his life, Cash seemed the opposite. Drama found him, or compelled him. Failed relationships were compounded by literary ambitions. 

He documented it all. One of his teachers at Trinity College was Eric Griffiths, who made Cash realize that “Letters or poems to those we have loved, or still love, can live on, long after the relationship is dead. I am sure this contributed to my chronic inability to let go of my past, and my habit of photocopying and collecting my letters.” Cash tended to fax his letters to lovers, friends, and foes, which left him with boxes full of originals. He confessed his deepest desires, but those desires also remained near. It is a not-always pleasant paradox to have our secrets archived and in reach.

Cash is full of secrets and stories. In a representative tale, he first met the actress Elizabeth Hurley in 1992, and lived with her for some time, including “when Hugh Grant had his notorious back-seat encounter on Sunset Boulevard with Divine Brown.” Cash hunkered down while paparazzi swarmed their home—perhaps preparing for his own encounters with the gossip press.

Cash placed Hurley “far too high on my usual pedestal for anything more than being her confidant.” Although Hurley was only a friend, Cash had a succession of girlfriends and lovers, and each relationship seems not only a potential marriage, but a marriage with children—which might include “having twins, writing bestselling thrillers, buying two borzoi puppies, importing wild board to roam around the medieval wood and peacocks for the garden, flooding our medieval moat, learning to cook, paying my credit-card bills each month.” 

Restoration Heart is buoyed by Cash’s self-effacing humor. He’s a romantic when it comes to love, and also writing.  The novelist Jay McInerney once told Cash there are two types of books: “the type you put in everything you know, and the type you leave out everything. Make sure you know which yours is before you start.” Cash puts his life—loves, losses, and longings—on display here, and the result is a paean to hard-worn optimism, and an affirmation of the epistle as cherished form. Reflecting on his many letters, Cash concludes: “So many are hopelessly self-indulgent attempts to win a heart or offer some thread of hope (often self-deceptive) to myself. Is the narrator of my letters really me, or a persona I created? I can’t answer that. I don’t know.” Restoration Heart suggests we don’t need an answer; that the stories we tell others, ultimately, become us.