Natural Orders: On Hilary Leichter’s ‘Temporary’

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1.
Every new crisis leads to its own movements, whether it drives people to leave careers they thought would last their whole lives, forces them to abandon one city or country for another, or lines them up against the figures responsible for their pain. An economic downturn plays through a script of collapse in its own peculiar fashion. Nobody knows at the start of a crisis just how bad it will get, but everybody knows the poor will suffer and the rich will find shelter, somehow. I remember, when I saw The New York Times ask the graduating class of 2009 if the 2008 recession had ruined our lives up to that point, wondering how many readers, like me, had gone through a series of flashbacks, after which they answered, simply and finally: “Of course it did! Thank you for asking!”

Back then—of course—there were no jobs, but what really made everyone miserable was the surfeit of fake jobs, gigs that extracted your labor for the promise of “experience,” or less. I remember, in 2010, getting paid $10 an hour to write a newsletter, full-time, until my boss revealed there wasn’t enough money to keep paying me. Could I work 12 hours a week, he asked? I did, making less than $100 a week once you factored in taxes, after which I got hired at a travel company to run their social media “on contract,” which meant working full-time with no sick days, vacation time, or benefits. I worked there until the company shut down my branch a year later. After that, I got interviewed at a publishing company for a job as an editorial assistant, a very prestigious position that involved, I was told, working 12 hours a day—all to be near a prestigious Boomer editor—for a salary of $26,000 a year. (I did not get the job, as it happens.) Over time, what I learned is that jobs don’t grant you security, that our economy itself is built on a series of lies. Your work ethic barely factors in—if anything, it can make you more vulnerable. What matters is whether a rich person thinks you can help. If you’re lucky, you’ll save enough money to survive when they inevitably change their mind.

It’s pretty common for people my age to nurse this sort of cynicism. Raw numerical evidence bears this out. Last year, a Deloitte study found that Americans under 40 hold dim views of corporate motivation, with around two-thirds agreeing that profit is the only real motivator in business. It was also revealed, in this study, that half of younger Americans plan to quit their jobs in the next two years, with low compensation cited as the primary driver. A similar percentage expected to grow poorer than they were at the time in the future. And several years before this, in 2014, a Pew Research study found that Millennials had by far the lowest levels of social trust among the generations, with a measly 19 percent believing “most people can be trusted.” Altogether, these numbers depict a bleak portrait of our age, when a vast majority of young adults feel that success is out of reach.

Naturally, these views coincide with a broader shift to the left. By now there are too many studies to count that reveal that younger Americans are much more progressive than their elders. And while there are lots of ways to interpret or contextualize this fact, I’ve found it helpful to think of this shift in terms of modern regime theory. First developed in the early ‘90s by the scholar Stephen Skowronek, regime theory parcels American history into a number of multi-decade eras, defined by their overarching structures of thought, reaction, and belief. In short, a regime is not a particular administration but instead a set of ideas that govern the country’s elites. What Skowronek called the New Deal regime, for example, governed American life from the ‘30s through the ‘70s, imbuing legitimacy and authority to Keynesian economics. Ever since the Reagan era, we’ve been living through a right-wing regime, in which a supermajority of those with power in this country have believed and acted upon a notably different set of ideas. These ideas and assumptions have driven our leaders, including Democratic ones, to cut public spending, privatize basic goods, and metastasize the carceral state, among other things. Many leftwing inclinations of younger people can be seen as a reaction to this drift. How can anyone, the thinking goes, support things continuing as they have?

Part of what makes this theory attractive is that it has an element of hope. It suggests, after all, that a better regime is poised to overthrow the one we’re living through, and that this period of collapse will lead to a period of renewal. It also provides a diagnosis of the mindset that’s caused our current rot. For more on that mindset, I’ve found immense value in The Reactionary Mind by Corey Robin, whose articles from the early days of the Trump presidency helped frame our current movement in Skowronekian terms. The book places Trump and his movement in a centuries-old right-wing framework, one that ties stupidity and hatred into a broader ideology. The conservative, in Robin’s formulation, is a feudalist for a democratic age, a person who wants to hold a vaunted place in a rigid and brutal social hierarchy. The cruelty of someone like Trump fits neatly with this hypothesis—by relentlessly demonizing vulnerable groups, Trump reenforces the hierarchy. Here’s how Robin describes the ur-conservative:
The conservative does not defend the Old regime: he speaks on behalf of old regimes – in the family, the factory, the field. There, ordinary men, and sometimes women, get to play the part of little lords and ladies, supervising their underlings as if they all belong to a feudal estate. Long before Huey Long cried, “Every man a king,” a more ambiguous species of democrat spoke virtually the same words, though to different effect: the promise of democracy is to govern another human being as completely as a monarch governs his subjects. The task of conservatism becomes clear: surround these old regimes with fences and gates, protect them from meddlesome intruders like the state or a social movement, and descant on mobility and innovation, freedom and the future. (191)
To put this another way, the conservative wants the freedom to dominate the people in this own life, even if it means being dominated by those higher up on the social hierarchy. Inevitably, this stands in direct opposition to democracy, as the conservative sees equality itself as a threat to his ideal arrangement. He wants, at base, a land of private fiefdoms, where those with power maintain their positions through violence, coercion, and penury. Inequality isn’t a side effect—it’s one of the chief aims of his movement.

Characterizing the right in this way helps illuminate a number of things. In part, it explains why the GOP is hellbent on repealing taxes, no matter how disastrous its short- or long-term effects. It explains why a small group of tech companies have monopolized everyday life. It explains why, for decades, parental wealth and pedigree have grown more important in finding success, why the costs of higher education have risen into the stratosphere. It explains why so many people blame poverty on character and not circumstance. It explains why Blackstone founder Stephen Schwartzman once declared, infamously, that raising taxes on private equity firms is akin to the Nazis invading Poland. It explains why millions of people feel that our healthcare system is working precisely as intended when it forces immiserating debt on people for the crime of being sick. It explains why “greed is good” was a signifying phrase of the ‘80s. It explains why many rich people interpret the slightest criticism as a form of “punishing success.” It explains why the right is so focused on punishing society’s most vulnerable. And—as younger Americans overwhelmingly align themselves in opposition to these forces—it explains why the left has grown fiercer in its attacks on concentrated power.

Inevitably, these changes have shown up in the fiction of the past 10 years. By now enough books have come out to form a post-Recession canon. Arguably the most prescient of these is Severance, the 2018 novel by Ling Ma, which has gotten more attention in recent months not only for its eerily accurate portrait of a modern pandemic but also for its portrayal of a numbing, dead-end career. Daniel Torday’s 2015 novel Boomer1 takes Millennial resentment to a violent extreme, depicting a nascent movement of terrorists who attack wealthy Boomers. The Beautiful Bureaucrat, a 2015 novel by Helen Phillips, follows a young woman employed at a shadowy bureaucracy, giving us a comical play-by-play as she keeps getting evicted from apartments. And Halle Butler’s The New Me, a harrowing novel that cuts extraordinarily close to the bone for  somebody with my employment history, is a tale of a destitute, 30-something temp worker, a woman whose opportunities have dried up. All of these novels—in addition to being meticulously crafted and observed—are clear-eyed glimpses of our new, unbearable economy.

Last year, another book took its place within that canon, partly by dealing explicitly with the hardening of social hierarchy. Paradoxically, it’s a fabulist work, entirely whimsical and weird. Yet it provides commentary on the present day that has the weight of the very best parables. For readers who see the outlines of an emerging feudal society in the cruelties of recent years, Temporary by Hilary Leichter is a necessary read.

2.
In brief, the plot of Temporary is this: a young woman works through a series of fantastical, short-lived jobs, none of which give her a clear path to long-term stability. In her world, pirates and witches are employers with their own staffs and jargon, and people known as temporaries are given the status of permanent temp workers at birth. Our protagonist, who goes unnamed, is attempting to gain her “steadiness,” a euphemistic term for having a stable career. The fundamental question hanging over the plot is: will she attain it in her lifetime? This is a poignant question for her, because her mother, a temp worker herself, died without gaining her steadiness, and she raised her daughter to know exactly what it means to be a temporary.

“We work,” she tells her daughter, repeatedly, “but then we leave.” From this, a number of rules follow. It’s a bad idea to make friends at work, because you may have to say goodbye to them—forever—at any time, for any reason. It’s also a bad idea to ask your manager for a raise, or for anything, really, because doing so will likely get you fired. After all, the role of the temp is to do the work without complaint and leave—why should any of them hope to earn money or respect? It’s also the case that you can ask, sometimes, what you need to do to gain your steadiness, aware that nobody will give you the real answer, thanks to a kind of noblesse oblige. You’ll get your steadiness when a wealthy person decides you should have it, and that’s that. Everything you’re striving for depends on their caprice.

Not coincidentally, caprice is also why temporaries most often get fired. No matter your innocence, your boss can blame you for any little thing that goes wrong, or you could simply be the victim of one of their transient bad moods. Even if they like you, bosses can go bankrupt or get arrested, or they could come to the conclusion one day that they don’t like working anymore. The only person with no choice in the matter is you, the unfortunate temporary, who needs your boss to speak well of you so your agency can find you new jobs. This locks the temp into endless cycles of sucking up to their superiors, trapping them in a hierarchy in which their bosses are glorified nobles, the temporaries are serfs in nicer clothes, and the best the temporaries can hope for an act of mercy, as in a fairy tale.

Not all the jobs the narrator holds are patently absurd, but most are, and it’s a testament to this novel how eerily her struggles echo real-world conditions. On a pirate ship, the narrator ends up being forced to walk the plank, not because she did anything wrong but because, instead, the woman she’s replacing decided to return a month early. A rich man dies and wills the narrator to carry his ashes in a necklace, all so he can continue to be a “man about town.” In her role as apprentice to a murderer, the narrator takes pride in evil work, an Arendtian dynamic familiar to anyone who’s worked for bad people. Her jobs are impossible creations, in other words, but her struggles are real, and mundane.

While she gets exploited, of course, she also gets treacly advice. Her contact at the temp agency tells her, falsely, that she’s in “high demand,” and that her care in filling out time sheets means she’s “bound” for the steadiness. The phrase “just doing my job” appears, as it does in real life, so often it becomes hypnotic, and means (depending on context) some combination of “you’re welcome,” “I’m sorry,” and “I’m being forced to do this unconscionable thing.” When her murderous boss “goes public,” he says, the narrator will surely get rich, and he might be able to give her a raise when crime spikes in “the busy season.” The act of handing out pamphlets is called “disseminating information.” And when the narrator, meeting an old friend, learns that her friend has not only gained her steadiness but has done so well for herself that she can afford to hire a woman to clean her house, the old friend says, defending herself: “We need to treat ourselves kindly!”

There’s another hypnotic phrase that appears throughout the book. In the prologue, we get a short abstract for the story that follows, alongside a hodgepodge of objects, conditions, jobs. And this: “What happened exactly, specifically, in detail, While You Were Out.” The narrator hears this phrase as a child, tucked into her mother’s bedtime stories, often as part of a laundry list of items in an unnamed office. (Later on, the narrator informs us that she makes sure to write things down so that she can tell her mother, now dead, what happened while she was out.) A passage near the end of the book gives a prophecy of the last temp in history, who is also (conveniently) the last person on Earth. Why does this Last Temp record what’s happening? “It’s the least I can do while you are out.” No matter what happens in the world around her, the temp is a kind of placeholder, dutifully recording the calls and emails and notifications intended for their superiors, who (of course) remain superior to the temp eternally, long after their deaths. “While you are out” is a qualifier, a phrase that reduces the temp’s work to something irreducibly less-than. a substitute for a person with real and lasting power. Even as the world ends, the temp answers calls that she knows are never meant for her.

To be a temp, in other words, is to be an interim human being. It means having almost no rights and begging for scraps to survive. It means hearing, from comfortable superiors, that the world is reasonable and fair, that all you have to do to earn your grace is work hard, always work hard. It means understanding that you can’t have a full identity, not even when it comes to basic things. (As is customary, temps don’t have their own birthdays—instead, they adopt them from people they’re required to fill in for.) Temps don’t have stable housing, they can barely hold on to their possessions, and they can’t depend on anyone in their lives, for anything, as they all discover. Their one hope lies in being rescued.

In true medieval fashion, the hierarchy that rules this world stretches all the way to gods. The gods created the First Temporary so they could take a break. This woman, this Eve of the Temporaries, is told what her role entails, that she was created not to ask for more but to be grateful, hard-working. Obedient.

She lived in the space between who she was and whom she was meant to replace.

3.
For a couple of months in 2009, I was a temp myself, though my agency managed to place me in two full-time positions, total. (Each one lasted a week.) Eventually, I got an unpaid, part-time internship at a fledgling literary agency, which ended abruptly four months in when the agency shut down its office. I moved on to the newsletter job, and then from there to the travel company, where I hoped to settle in for a while, build up “experience.” A year later, I was back to applying to 10 jobs a day. A month or so into this, I got an interview at a “content producer,” a murky place with a legal theme.

Inside their office, 50 or so people typed furiously at bare, spotless desks. There were no personal items in sight, no pictures of family, no coffee mugs. Everybody seemed to be wearing nice clothes and they all looked supremely unhappy. My interviewer, in contrast, worked comfortably in a sunlit office.

Without looking over at me, she went through a checklist of anodyne questions, asking me about my past jobs and what I hoped to achieve. At some point, she got to what mattered. This role, she told me, required writing 10 pieces a day, all of which had to be fact-checked and had to run at least 1,500 words. These were summaries of on-the-books laws, and writers had to be their own fact-checkers. They paid $11 an hour. Did I think I had what it takes?

With embarrassing slowness, I did the math. That’s 15,000 words a day.

“No,” I answered. I hadn’t planned this. I’d never sabotaged an interview. But sitting in that office, I saw immediately that I couldn’t do what she wanted. I’m not that fast a writer. I knew I’d be fired within a week if I accepted the job.

Puzzled, my interviewer stared at me. I don’t think she’d ever heard that answer. Nevertheless, she knew what to say. “Everyone else here is doing it.”

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Ishiguro, Nguyen, Banks, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Kazuo Ishiguro, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Russell Banks, and more—that are publishing this week.

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

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Klara and the Sun: “Nobel laureate Ishiguro takes readers to a vaguely futuristic, technologically advanced setting reminiscent of his Never Let Me Go for a surprising parable about love, humanity, and science. Klara is an Artificial Friend (AF), a humanlike robot designed to be a child’s companion. She spends her days watching humans from her perch in the AF store, fascinated by their emotions and hungry to learn enough to help her future owner. Klara, who is solar-powered, reveres the sun for the ‘nourishment’ and upholds ‘him’ as a godlike figure. Klara is eventually bought by teenager Josie and continues to learn about humans through her interactions with Josie’s family and childhood friend. When Josie becomes seriously ill, Klara pleads with the sun to make her well again and confronts the boundary between service and sacrifice. While the climax lends a touch of fantasy, Klara’s relationship with the sun, which is hidden at times by smog, touches on the consequences of environmental destruction. As with Ishiguro’s other works, the rich inner reflections of his protagonists offer big takeaways, and Klara’s quiet but astute observations of human nature land with profound gravity (‘There was something very special, but it wasn’t inside Josie. It was inside those who loved her,’ Klara says). This dazzling genre-bending work is a delight.”

The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Committed: “The sequel to Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize–winning The Sympathizer is an exhilarating roller-coaster ride filled with violence, hidden identity, and meditations on whether the colonized can ever be free. The fractured, guilt-ridden narrator, a veteran of the South Vietnamese Army, where he was a mole for the communists, goes by his assumed name Vo Danh, which means ‘nameless.’ He has survived reeducation and a refugee camp and is now living in early 1980s Paris, along with his devoutly anti-communist ‘blood brother,’ Bon, who doesn’t know he was a double agent. Vo Danh starts selling hashish for a Viet-Chinese drug lord called the Boss, whom he and Bon met in their refugee camp. The gig has him more vexed about the crime of capitalism than that of drug dealing, and he’s not expecting a turf war. Indeed, he’s chagrined to discover his rivals, French Arabs who share with him a legacy of colonization, want him dead. Meanwhile, there are opportunity for socializing, revenge, and reunions at the Vietnamese Union. The book works both as sequel and standalone, with Nguyen careful to fold in needed backstory, and the author’s wordplay continues to scratch at the narrator’s fractured sense of self (‘I am not just one but two. Not just I but you. Not just me but we’). Pleasures abound, such as the narrator’s hair-raising escapes, descriptions of the Boss’s hokey bar (‘This was the new and modern Orient, where opium was both cool and quaint, chic and cute, addictive and undemanding’), and thoughtful references to Fanon and Césaire. Nguyen continues to delight.”

Abundance by Jakob Guanzon

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Abundance: “Guanzon debuts with a harrowing story of a man’s desperation and unyielding love for his son. Single father Henry has less than $100 to his name, and he’s planning on spending it on his son Junior’s eighth birthday present: a night in a hotel with a real bed and cable TV instead of sleeping in Henry’s truck. Recently released from a five-year prison sentence for possession of homemade fentanyl pills, Henry washes himself in the bathroom of a McDonald’s and lives on junk food, while Junior’s mother, Michelle, is nowhere to be found. Each chapter is titled after the dwindling amount of cash Henry has, while flashbacks show Henry’s brief windfall from a pill sale and struggle to foot the hospital bill for Junior’s delivery. Junior and Henry are all the other has, and Henry holds out hope that a job interview he has lined up at a call center will give them a shot at escaping their life of itinerancy. Unfortunately, Junior grows increasingly ill from their meager diet, and a violent altercation in a parking lot threatens to derail Henry’s plans. Guanzon’s descriptions of grinding poverty are visceral (pocket change rattles in Henry’s pocket ‘like tiny shackles’), and Henry’s attempts to fend off relentless adversity for the sake of his son are heartbreaking. This one hits hard.”

What’s Mine and Yours by Naima Coster

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about What’s Mine and Yours: “Coster (Halsey Street) returns with a rich if diffuse story of loss, betrayal, and systemic racism, centered on two families spanning the 1990s to the present, set mainly in the Piedmont area of North Carolina. In 1992, six-year-old Gee’s, father, Ray, gets killed in front of him. Noelle Ventura grows up on the other side of town, and though her father, Robbie, is from Colombia, she passes for white. In 2002, the two families intersect when Gee, who is Black, is bussed to Noelle’s high school. Her white mother, Lacey May, who struggled to support three children while Robbie was in jail, joins a group of parents who protest the school’s integration, a racist position that forces Noelle to choose between Lacey May and her growing love for Gee. In a series of abrupt shifts, Coster portrays Noelle as a housewife in 2018 Atlanta, and her Black husband, Nelson, who works as a photographer in 2018 Paris and sleeps with a white woman. In 2018, Lacey May’s daughters reluctantly return home to visit after hearing she has cancer, setting off a series of confrontations and reconciliations. While Coster’s exploration of race is powerful, the scattered plotting dampens the impact of the various stories. It’s undoubtedly ambitious, but it doesn’t hang together.”

Spilt Milk by Courtney Zoffness

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Spilt Milk: “Zoffness, director of the creative writing program at Drew University, debuts with a keenly perceptive collection of essays that considers, among other topics, family dynamics, motherhood, and her ‘inconsistent’ relationship to Judaism. In “The Only Thing We Have to Fear,’ Zoffness worries she’s passing along her childhood anxieties to her first-born. ‘Ultra Sound’ recounts her attempts to become closer to her mother, who was once in a band that opened for the Doors, yet never played any of her recordings for her children. ‘How to read such caginess?’ Zoffness asks. In ‘Holy Body,’ she attends a ritual cleansing at a mikvah center while visiting a childhood friend from Jewish summer camp. Zoffness connects her personal experiences to larger cultural moments, reflecting, for instance, on her four-year-old son’s obsession with becoming a police officer amid the Black Lives Matter protests: ‘My son still misunderstands what officers say when taking people into custody. You’re unarrested, the LEGO officer in his left hand says to a LEGO wrongdoer in his right.’ Zoffness delivers masterful essays in a fresh, vulnerable voice readers will want to hear more of.”

The Life of the Mind by Christine Smallwood

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Life of the Mind: “Literary critic Smallwood debuts with the brilliant story of a young academic powering through her existential dread. Dorothy languishes in ‘adjunct hell’ at a university in New York City, teaching up to four literature and writing courses per semester (including a course she designed titled ‘Writing Apocalypse’), while her affable boyfriend helps pay the bills from her two therapists. Each fall, she holds out an ever-dwindling hope to land one of the several jobs that open up in her field. She’s just had a miscarriage, and as the weeks pass, she muses on the menstrual blood and tissue discharge that results from her at-home Cytotec treatment. Dorothy is an intensely cerebral creature. Her narration of interactions with others, whether exchanging text messages with a friend, giving money to a panhandler, or parrying with her peers, is filtered by literary analysis, often to hilarious effect (‘This man is an albatross around my neck,’ she thinks, after the panhandler she’d dubbed the ‘Ancient Mariner’ follows her to another subway car). As she confronts her emotions about losing the unplanned pregnancy and reconsiders her ideas about endings, both literary and corporeal, she begins to reconnect with herself. Dorothy’s sharp, witty narration makes this book something special (‘In the asymmetrical warfare of therapy, secrets were a guerrilla tactic,’ she decides, after putting off a session with her primary therapist). The result is like the glorious love child of Ottessa Moshfegh and Sally Rooney.”

Brother, Sister, Mother, Explorer by Jamie Figueroa

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Brother Sister Mother Explorer: “Figueroa’s masterly debut explores the grief and trauma of two half siblings. Four months after the death of their mother, Rosalinda, Rufina and Rafa Rivera, 28 and 30, make a pact: if they collect enough money performing for the tourists visiting their high desert town in the American Southwest over the course of a weekend, the depressed Rafa will live, traveling in search of new beginnings, instead of taking his own life. The siblings take to the streets, performing for white tourists who listen, entranced, at Rufina’s melodious, seductive whistling, or gaze intently at Rafa as he gleans meaning from the symbols he sees in people’s shadows. The siblings are haunted by the ghosts of those long gone, including that of Rufina’s stillborn baby, and by memories of their mother’s enigmatic former lover, the Explorer. Meanwhile, repeated intrusions of those who only wish to help—such as a cop who gives them a pass for performing without a permit as long as they don’t come back—add to the difficulty in achieving their goal. Though the novel brims with spellbinding prose, magical elements, and wounded, full hearted characters that nearly jump off the page, its most remarkable feature is perhaps its piercing critique of the white Anglo tourists’ tendency to romanticize people of color, as well as Figueroa’s examination of the traumatic effect this attitude can have on those who are deemed ‘the Other.’ This cleverly constructed and deeply moving account enthralls.”

Burning Girls and Other Stories by Veronica Schanoes

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Burning Girls and Other Stories: “Schanoes reinterprets and unpacks old, familiar tales in this powerful debut collection of 13 speculative stories. The pieces vary in subgenre, including fabulism, historical fantasy, and surrealism, but all are united by common threads of revolution, female power, revenge, and trauma both historical and personal. ‘The Revenant,’ told with a mild, distant tone that belies its deadly serious subject matter, reimagines the urban legend of Bloody Mary. In ‘Phosphorus,’ a woman dying of ‘phossy jaw’ joins a factory girls’ strike. The Shirley Jackson Award–winning title novella is the standout, following Deborah, a Jewish witch and healer, as she flees anti-Semitic violence in 19th-century Poland while being pursued by a jealous demon. Dark pacts, willful daughters, and young punks in fishnets abound, and the collection suffers somewhat from the limited range of perspectives, with a few of the pieces striking similar notes. But at their best, these stories are rousing, political, and visceral, even gut-churning. Fans of Kirsty Logan, Daniel M. Lavery, or Catherynne M. Valente will find much to enjoy.”

Foregone by Russell Banks

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Foregone: “In this sinuous if uneven novel, Banks (Lost Memory of Skin) depicts the protean character of a filmmaker who turns the camera on himself at the end of a storied career. In the last stages of an incurable cancer, Canadian documentarian Leonard Fife sits to be interviewed in his Montreal apartment for a film being made by his former student, Malcolm. Fife’s life has been built around lies and evasions, and now he seeks to set the record straight, though the confession is directed less to the public than to his third and current wife, Emma. Instead of answering questions about his Errol Morris–like style, Fife delivers a leisurely self-portrait of serial flight: running away from home in Massachusetts as a teenager; leaving his first wife and young daughter as a confused young bohemian to be a writer; abandoning his second wife and young son to dodge the draft in 1968. However, only some of Fife’s confessions might be true, as one side effect of his medication is ‘confabulation.’ Fife’s reminiscences are generally vivid, though the spell is dissipated by the weaker scenes in which, for instance, Emma repeatedly objects to proceeding with the interview and the sycophantic Malcolm reiterates the novel’s themes in windy proclamations. Still, Banks keeps the audience rapt.”

Also on shelves this week: The Scapegoat by Sarah Davis.

Goodbye, Rush Limbaugh, and Good Riddance

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Rise of the Slathering Pit Bull

Back in the 1990s, while working as a newspaper columnist in North Carolina, I spent countless hours driving back roads on my way to interview the criminal, the colorful, the obscure and the merely famous. My chariot on those trips through the Piedmont tobacco fields and pine thickets was the paper’s staff car, a bare bones Chevy with no air conditioning and an AM radio that got spotty reception. Which is how I got introduced to that slathering pit bull of right-wing talk radio named Rush Limbaugh.

You’ve seen one tobacco patch, you’ve seen them all. So on those scorching afternoon drives I came to relish the bombardment that began issuing from the dashboard speaker every weekday at noon on the dot, then kept roaring nonstop for three hours — the whining, hectoring, insulting, chortling, blistering, coarse, cruel and often very funny voice of Rush Limbaugh. A typical show would open with a riff from The Pretenders, which made no sense and which surely set Chrissie Hynde spinning in her leather pants. And then: “Greetings, conversationalists across the fruited plain. This is Rush Limbaugh, the most dangerous man in America, with the largest hypothalamus in North America, serving humanity simply by opening my mouth, destined for my own wing in the Museum of American Broadcasting, executing everything I do flawlessly with zero mistakes, doing this show with half my brain tied behind my back just to make it fair, because I have talent on loan from God!”

What the fuck was this? Listening to Limbaugh’s show was like driving past a ghastly car wreck: I was powerless to turn away. He spent three hours every day ridiculing and belittling targets that included feminists (“feminazis”), gays, immigrants, AIDS victims, poor people, environmentalists (“tree-hugging wackos”), all government programs (except the military), and anyone who could be tarred with the label of liberal. “Feminism,” he said, “was established so as to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream of society.” I had worked in radio in Savannah and Nashville, and as I listened to this river of bile, I kept asking myself, How does he get away with saying this stuff?

Most astonishing of all were the listeners who called in to the show, people who dubbed themselves “dittoheads” because they were proud of the fact that they agreed with every word that came out of Limbaugh’s mouth. It’s obvious they were rigorously screened because they never challenged the host and only rarely engaged in a back-and-forth conversation. They were calling in for one purpose: to fawn.

Too Funny!

By then, Limbaugh, who died Feb. 17 at 70, was on his way to becoming a media phenomenon with an audience estimated at 15 million. He parlayed his megaphone into a career that carried him far beyond the AM dial — to television, the bestseller lists, fabulous wealth, a seaside mansion in Palm Beach and, inevitably, Republican kingmaker. After Limbaugh helped engineer the Republican Revolution in the 1990s, a freshman from Indiana named Mike Pence said, “I’m in Congress today because of Rush Limbaugh.” Though no one knew it at the time, the poison Limbaugh was injecting into our national politics would eventually help land Pence in the White House alongside an improbable one-hit wonder named Donald Trump. Trump repaid the favor by bestowing the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Limbaugh the day after he revealed  that he had terminal lung cancer.

Couldn’t have happened to a more deserving guy. If he accomplished nothing else in his outlandish lifetime, Limbaugh revealed the bankruptcy, hypocrisy, and outright cruelty burning  in the heart of every right-wing moralist. For such people, it’s not enough to believe that abortion is morally wrong; they must see to it that no one can get a legal abortion. Anyone who dares to disagree is open to merciless attack, with mockery as a preferred weapon. In a precursor to a bit of Trumpian shtick, Limbaugh once quivered spasmodically to mimic the actor Michael J. Fox, a card-carrying liberal who had contracted Parkinson’s disease. Anyone who has watched someone die of this horrific affliction knows just how hilarious that bit was. Limbaugh also mocked gay men dying of AIDS during the regular “AIDS Update” segment of his show, playing Dionne Warwick’s “I’ll Never Love This Way Again.” Too funny!

Doctor Shopping and Pill Popping

In his bestselling book, Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations, the comedian Al Franken pointed out that Limbaugh viciously ridiculed poor people and anyone who takes government handouts — while glossing over the fact that, by his own admission, he once accepted unemployment benefits and spent his jobless time sitting on the sofa gorging on junk food and moping, too lazy to get off his widening ass to mow his own lawn.

Now comes the best part. Limbaugh was an ardent trooper in America’s culture wars and its misguided and unwinnable war on drugs. As he said on his show in 1995: “There’s nothing good about drug use. We know it. It destroys individuals. It destroys families… And we have laws against selling drugs, pushing drugs, using drugs, importing drugs… And so if people are violating the law by doing drugs, they ought to be accused and they ought to be convicted and they ought to be sent up.” In 2003, the news broke that Limbaugh had bought hundreds of prescription pain pills a month after “doctor shopping” – a crime punishable by five years in prison – but he avoided jail time by agreeing to pay for the police investigation and go into rehab. Big, fat, white, male, right-wing moralists don’t go to prison; they go into rehab.

Off With Their Heads!

Limbaugh didn’t just go into rehab. He also went to the top of the bestseller lists with two books whose titles, respectively, capture the self-righteousness and smugness that drive the right-wing moralist. The books were The Way Things Ought to Be and See, I Told You So. When I heard that Limbaugh had died, I remembered the abrasive tone of those books — and I remembered an encounter with another right-wing moralist who made it to the bestseller lists.

This also happened in North Carolina, during an earlier stint at the same newspaper. One day one of the editorial writers invited me to a local beer joint to meet a man who, my colleague assured me, was an intellectual giant on his way to greatness. The man’s name was Bill Bennett, and at that time, the late 1970s, he was the director of the National Humanities Center in nearby Research Triangle Park. As the three of us drank longneck beers and listened to the country music pouring out of the jukebox — I can still hear Jim Ed Brown singing “Pop a top again, I think I’ll have another round…” — Bennett made a point of letting me know that he had degrees from Williams College and Harvard Law School and that he had served as assistant to John Silber, the controversial president of Boston University who resisted faculty efforts to unionize and decried the “homosexual militancy” of gay students. Then, as a Moe Bandy tune came on the jukebox, Bennett gazed out at the rush hour traffic and wistfully remarked, “I miss places like this.” And I thought: You fucking phony egghead Brahmin. Give up the salt-of-the-earth act already.

My first impression of Bennett was validated years later, after he had achieved the predicted greatness – if your idea of greatness is running the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Department of Education under President Ronald Reagan and then serving as the get-tough drug czar under President George H.W. Bush. Bennett, a devout Catholic, bemoaned “the death of outrage” when people failed to foam at the mouth sufficiently over President Bill Clinton’s moral failings. Like Limbaugh, Bennett was a gung-ho foot soldier in both the culture wars and the war on drugs. On Larry King Live, Bennett proclaimed that a listener’s suggestion that drug dealers should be beheaded was “morally plausible.” This is the right-wing moralist in full plumage: Off with the heads of people who disagree with me or fail to live up to my high standards! In 1993 Bennett published The Book of Virtues, a compendium of bromides about self-discipline, compassion, responsibility, honesty, etc., etc., in which he showed off his vast erudition by quoting Big Thinkers from Aristotle to St. Augustine, Aesop, George Washington, Hilaire Belloc, Kierkegaard and James Baldwin (!).

The book sold well and was adapted into a cartoon series for television called “Adventures From the Book of Virtues.” Small problem. The series was broadcast on PBS, and Bennett, like all good conservative Republicans, is opposed to federal funding for PBS or anything else that has to do with the arts. Robert Mapplethorpe, anyone? The moral of this story is that even right-wing moralists are allowed to swallow their objections when presented with an opportunity to burnish their brand in prime time. “It’s not that I think PBS is bad,” Bennett said at the time, by way of justifying his moral somersault. “It’s the risk of having government involved that I object to.” That’s not even halfway up the mountain to the high moral ground.

Now comes the best part. After publishing this blueprint for virtuous living and co-founding a group called Empower America that opposed the expansion of casino gambling, Bennett, according to an expose in The Washington Monthly, had lost $8 million gambling in those twin citadels of virtue, Atlantic City and Las Vegas. Oops. The right-wing moralist’s defense for this disconnect between word and deed? Bennett was raking in $50,000 per speaking engagement, he was rich, and he could afford to blow a few million on his gambling addiction. “I don’t play the ‘milk money,’” Bennett said after the story broke. “I don’t put my family at risk, and I don’t owe anyone anything.” His wife Elayne stood by her man: “We are financially solvent. Our bills are paid.”

The nastiness, phoniness, and brazen hypocrisy of right-wing moralists like Rush Limbaugh and Bill Bennett should do much more than remind us that such men walk on feet made of clay. Their failings — and the hypocrisy they tried but failed to mask — should remind us of the true moral of this story. It is this: Anyone who tries to tell you how to live, regardless of his political stripes, is trying to make you less free. Such people are to be distrusted and avoided. When you see them coming, run for your life. Goodbye, Rush Limbaugh, and good riddance.

Image Credit: Pexels/cottonbro.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Livings, Fine, Kushner, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Jack Livings, Julia Fine, Rachel Kushner, and more—that are publishing this week.

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

The Blizzard Party by Jack Livings

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Blizzard Party: “Livings, PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize winner for the story collection The Dog, returns with a brilliant debut novel centering on a woman’s memories of a fatal blizzard that occurred in her childhood. Hazel Saltwater determines to rewrite the story of Albert Caldwell’s death after a party during the historic blizzard of 1978 in New York City when Hazel was six. (Her father, Erwin, has already published a blockbuster autobiographical novel about it called The Blizzard Party.) Hazel pieces together backstories of the pivotal players who attended the party, including the neurotic Erwin, transformed by guilt over a WWII experience; Caldwell, an astute lawyer plotting his suicide before succumbing to dementia; Turk Brunn, who runs an amusement park where visitors sign up to experience various forms of simulated abuse; and Turk’s father, Lazlo, a linguistic virtuoso whose research inadvertently made him psychotic. Livings’s genius resides in his ability to weave these disparate threads together through banal events (a Christmas tree jammed into an apartment’s garbage chute; the selling of a painting; a brawl in a diner), illuminating an intricate pattern that, for Hazel, predestines a dénouement that is startling to the reader. Livings calls to mind the work of Michael Chabon as he brings insight into the way events and circumstances shape his characters’ lives. This is one to savor.”

The Smash-Up by Ali Benjamin

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Smash-Up: “YA author Benjamin (The Thing About Jellyfish) revisits Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome in her adult debut, an ambitious if schematic novel of middle-aged liberal angst. Having cofounded a successful guerrilla marketing start-up, Bränd, Ethan Frome leaves New York City in the early 2000s for a quiet life in the Berkshires with his wife, Zo. In 2016, Donald Trump’s election marks a turning point: ‘It was good until it wasn’t. All of it: The town. His marriage. Their finances. The world.’ Ethan is a common, though well-drawn, fictional type: an ironic, middle-aged underachiever beset by temptation (here it’s the live-in babysitter), yet too decent, or timid, to force the moment to its crisis. Zo, meanwhile, is part of a feminist activist group called All Them Witches and an independent filmmaker who has grown increasingly distant and enraged. With Zo fuming over Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, Ethan becomes entangled, somewhat implausibly, in the #MeToo movement: his boorish Bränd cofounder asks him to help silence a Hollywood actress whose accusations could bring down the company. With satire and suspense, Benjamin handily encapsulates the incomprehension, sadness, and rage of the Trump era.”

The Slaughterman’s Daughter by Yaniv Iczkovits (translated by Orr Scharf)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Slaughterman’s Daughter: “In Israeli philosopher and novelist Iczkovits’s delightfully expansive tale (after Adam and Sophie), a Jewish woman goes to great lengths to help her older sister in 1894 Russia. Mende and her children have been abandoned by her husband, Zvi-Meir, in the town of Motal. Mende’s younger sister, Fanny, also a wife and mother, travels to Minsk, where Zvi-Meir has gone, to convince him to sign a writ of divorce so Mende can move on with her life. Fanny’s traveling companion is taciturn boatman Zizek Breshov. Their travels take a turn when a family of bandits tries to rob them. Fanny, trained in animal butchery by her slaughterman father, expertly wields the knife she keeps strapped to her leg, and they leave the family dead on the road. Investigating the murder, imperial secret police colonel Piotr Novak disguises himself as a Jew to find out more about his suspects, Fanny and Zizek. Iczkovits elevates this cat-and-mouse story into a sweeping narrative with trips down side roads that reveal the riveting backstories of major and minor characters. His observations about human nature, family dynamics, and the interplay between religion and politics come across as wise but never didactic. Ever entertaining, Iczkovits’s lively, transportive picaresque takes readers on a memorable ride.”

The Upstairs House by Julia Fine

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Upstairs House: “Fine (What Should Be Wild) examines a new mother’s unraveling in her eerie sophomore outing. Eight days after stalled English PhD candidate Megan Weiler gives birth to her first daughter, Clara, Megan discovers a turquoise door in the stairwell above their apartment. Behind it she finds a woman who, upon asked what she’s doing, says she’s ‘building a house for Michael.’ While researching for her dissertation on children’s literature amid her postpartum delirium, Megan realizes the woman resembles Margaret Wise Brown, author of Goodnight Moon, who died in 1952, and decides she must be Margaret’s ghost, and the house she is building is for her lover, poet Michael Strange (born Blanche Oelrichs). Interstitial chapters comprise chapters of Megan’s thesis, in which she casts Margaret and Michael’s lesbian relationship as a tempestuous, borderline-abusive affair beginning in the 1940s. As the ghosts of Margaret and Michael disturb Clara, Megan flees with Clara to a cabin in Wisconsin, but even there, she can’t shake the grip of the ghosts, and her world becomes more claustrophobic. Fine keeps the high concept under control as the book hurtles toward a disturbing conclusion. This white-knuckle depiction of the essential scariness of new motherhood will captivate readers.”

Also on shelves this week: Oh You Robot Saints! by Rebecca Morgan Frank and The Mayor of Leipzig by Rachel Kushner.

Bird Brain: Lauren Oyler, Patricia Lockwood, and the Literature of Twitter

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There was no way for anyone to see it coming, of course—there never is. When the odd little microblogging service launched in 2006, it seemed like a nerdy joke, some bizarre configuration of the literature of constraint. What could be the point of trying to communicate in bursts of 140 characters? Twitter seemed like a novelty, a fad, a gimmick, a shiny toy that would dull quickly and be forgotten. Instead, it colonized the minds of millions of people, permanently altering the culture, spreading like some kind of digital kudzu, seeping down into the very neurons of whole classes and tribes of people. And this new medium proved particularly intoxicating for writers; writers and editors and journalists and critics and publishers and booksellers, all swimming in this strange new sea.

Fiction has always been slow to react to technological change, but it always eventually gets there. Newspapers, automobiles, telephones, movies, television, e-mail, and mobile phones have all been absorbed into, and subsumed by, the older technology’s capacious and appetitive flexibility. Twitter has, so far, proved singularly resistant. There is something liminal about it that makes it hard to translate cross-medium: it’s a mode of communication but also a space of performance; a so-called community forged out of collective isolation. It produces its own language, because when you try to explain things on Twitter to people who aren’t on Twitter, you invariably sound completely unhinged.

Given how comprehensively Twitter has re-wired our fundamental consciousness, it has seemed difficult to believe that no one has yet produced a book equal in expressiveness to its peculiar and otherworldly psychological glow. Olivia Laing’s novel Crudo, from 2018, came closest, but it was derailed by its flip conceptualist framework —it was a wry, Continental jeu d’esprit; clever but ultimately forgettable. As the narrator of Patricia Lockwood’s brilliant novel No One Is Talking About This puts it, all writing about Twitter “so far had a strong whiff of old white intellectuals being weird about the blues, with possible boner involvement.” Boner involvement or no, we suddenly have two novels, released within a week of each other, that brazenly, with swagger and open ambition, take on the voice of the bird app, and thus of our scrambled times.

Lauren Oyler made her name as a literary critic, becoming notorious (well, in certain circles, anyway) for a series of Dale Peck-like hit jobs that betrayed a bracingly astringent sensibility, itself a form of authentic courage in our etiolated age. Although Oyler’s reviews were always more than mere bomb-throwing—they suggested the excrudescence of a rigorous, if somewhat retrograde, critical sensibility—one sensed the room’s temperature raising when Fake Accounts was announced. In the view of the simmering collective unconscious of which literary Twitter is the thermometer, if you are going to have haughtily high standards in your criticism, then you had damn well better be able to deliver when the knives are in someone else’s hands.

Judged in this context, Fake Accounts can only be considered an interesting failure: enjoyable and smart while somehow lacking that mysterious inner light that glows through great fiction. Oyler’s novel centers on an oddly Lauren Oyler-like protagonist who quits her job and is on the verge of breaking up with her boyfriend when things suddenly become interesting. The psychological complexities of this relationship, somewhat surprisingly, are depicted with subtlety and a degree of emotional heft—an oddly 19th-century facet at which to succeed. It’s like the oldest strut in the wheel somehow remains the most durable.

The main strength of Fake Accounts, though, is its narrator’s voice, which is intelligent, fearless, and witheringly amoral. Not-Oyler unleashes plenty of  zingers (a description of “minds narrowed by therapy” has a droll Dorothy Parker ring), but she is also authentically insightful about Twitter—about how “it devours importance,” how it “muffles the sound of time passing without transcendence or joy.” Twitter comes to seem like an invisible third character in the book, one whose needs and rewards are as prickly and rebarbative as any romantic partner’s. Some of her riffs are inspired: a long car ride to the famous Women’s March on Washington with two earnest Hillary Clinton supporters is wickedly sardonic social satire, if faintly counter-revolutionary.

This is good stuff, but stylish asperity, unfortunately, does not a novel necessarily make. The book’s deficiencies become more apparent as it goes along, flattening out noticeably about two-thirds of the way through, unrelieved by anything like character development or indeed plot. There’s a disastrous foray into some modernist-lite experimentalism, and the book’s final twist feels forced and improbable.

Like Lauren Oyler—with whom she is now, due to the caprices of the publishing schedule, permanently frozen in a lit-world pas de deux for all eternity—Patricia Lockwood writes regularly for the London Review of Books. Best known for her irreverent 2017 memoir Priestdaddy, Lockwood’s fiction debut is called No One Is Talking About This, and it is a home run. It is written in quick, agile bursts, and, like Fake Accounts, it’s smart and often extremely funny. Its emotional valence, however, is somehow darker, weirder, quicker; in place of Oyler’s hip urban bohemias, it has the gothic anomie, the mesmerizing nowhere-ness, of the Midwest. Lockwood once voiced a theory that “the surrealism that has overtaken the political landscape in America can be traced back to the poisoned ground of Ohio Facebook.” A similar kind of malevolent hum, barely discernible, lies beneath the freewheeling surface of No One Is Talking About This.

The tensile strength of Lockwood’s prose reminds one that she was, before she became a memoirist and critic, a poet, with the poet’s eye for detail and ear for the music of rhythm. The book’s structure, as a perceptive colleague of mine observed, uses Lockwood’s strengths—the wit, the quickness, the way with a startling turn of phrase—to their very best. The breathless, antic tone of Priestdaddy has been sharpened and honed, suddenly infused with urgency and heart. Lockwood’s vision of Twitter, which she refers to only as “the portal,” is tonally different from Oyler’s—a surreal funhouse rather than a numbing swamp—but she shares the latter’s sense of the absurd, and she is especially good at conveying the weird panopticonical menace that the portal comes to emanate.

The second half of No One Is Talking About This takes a sharp right turn that should not be given away but which vaults the book, unexpectedly, into the realm of the tragic and the sublime. (“Did not have ‘Patricia Lockwood’s novel makes you cry’ on my 2020 bingo,” I tweeted at the time.) Improbably, this restless, hyper-contemporary story accrues a kind of grandeur, melding somehow the new and the impossibly ancient into an emotionally seamless whole. “The doors of bland suburban houses now looked possible, outlined, pulsing — for behind any one of them could be hidden a bright and private glory,” Lockwood writes. The narrator is made an “instantaneous citizen,” she adds, “of the flash of lightning that wrote across the sky I know.” That “bright and private glory,” that knowing, is a form of grieving and, finally, of living, onscreen or off.

Image Credit: Pexels/Sara Kurfeß.

On Literature and Consciousness

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Not far from where the brackish water of the delta irrigates the silty banks of the Nile, it was once imagined that a man named Sinuhe lived. Some forty centuries ago this gentleman was envisioned to have walked in the cool of the evening under a motley pink sky, a belly full of stewed pigeon, dates, and sandy Egyptian beer. In twelve pages of dense, narrative-rich prose, the author recounts Sinuhe’s service to Prince Senworset while in Libya, the assassination of the Pharaoh Amenemhat, and the diplomat’s subsequent exile to Canaan wherein he becomes the son-in-law of a powerful chief, subdues several rebellious tribes, and ultimately returns to Egypt where he can once again walk by his beloved Nile before his death. “I, Sinuhe, the son of Senmut and of his wife Kipa, write this,” begins the narrative of the titular official, “I do not write it to the glory of the gods in the land of Kem, for I am weary of gods, nor to the glory of the Pharaohs, for I am weary of their deeds. I write neither from fear nor from any hope of the future, but for myself alone.” This is the greatest opening line in imaginative literature, because it’s the first one ever written. How can the invention of fiction itself be topped?  

Whoever pressed stylus to papyri some eighteen centuries before Christ (The Tale of Sinuhe takes places two hundred years before it was written) has her central character pray that God may “hearken to the prayer of one far away!… may the King have mercy on me… may I be conducted to the city of eternity.” Fitting, since the author of The Tale of Sinuhe birthed her character from pure thought, and in the process invented fiction, invented consciousness, invented thought, even invented being human. Because Sinuhe is eternal — the first completely fictional character to be conveyed in a glorious first-person prose narration. The Tale of Sinuhe is the earliest of an extant type, but there are other examples from ancient Egypt, and indeed Mesopotamia, and then of course ancient Greece and Rome as well. As a means of conveying testimony, or history, or even epic, there is a utility to first-person narration, but The Tale of Sinuhe is something so strange, so uncanny, so odd, that we tend to ignore it by dint of how abundantly common it is today. Whoever wrote this proto-novel was able to conceive of a totally constructed consciousness and to compel her readers to inhabit that invented mind.

Hard to know how common this type of writing was, since so little survives, but of the scraps that we have there is a narration that can seem disturbingly contemporary. Written some eight-hundred years after Sinuhe’s tale, The Report of Wenamun is a fictional story about a traveling Egyptian merchant who in sojourns throughout Lebanon and Cyprus must confront the embarrassment of being a subject from a once-great but now declining empire. With startling literary realism, Wenamun grapples with his own impotence and obsolescence, including descriptions of finding a character “seated in his upper chamber with his back against a window, and the waves of the great sea of Syria… [breaking] behind him.” What a strange thing to do, not to report on the affairs of kings, or even to write your own autobiography, but rather to manifest from pure ether somebody who never actually lived, and with a charged magic make them come to life. In that image of the ocean breaking upon the strand — the sound of the crashing water, the cawing of gulls, the smell of salt in the air — the author has bottled pure experience and handed it to us three millennia later.

Critic Terry Eagleton claims in The Event of Literature that “Fiction is a question of how texts behave, and of how we treat them, not primarily of genre.” What makes The Tale of Sinuhe behave differently is that it places the reader into the skull of the imagined character, that it works as a submersible pushing somebody deep into the murky darkness of not just another consciousness, but that replicates experience of being another mind. That’s what makes the first-person different; that it catalogues the moments which constitute the awareness of another mind — the crumbly texture of a madeleine dunked in tea, the warmth of a shared bed in a rickety old inn on a rainy Nantucket evening, the sad reflective poignancy of pausing to watch the ducks in Central Park — and makes them your own, for a time. The first-person narrative is a machine for transforming one soul into another. Such narration preserves a crystalline moment in words like an insect in amber. The ancient Egyptians believed that baboon-faced Thoth invented writing (sometimes he was an ibis). Perhaps it was this bestial visage who wrote these first fictions? Writing in his introduction to the collection Land of Enchanters: Egyptian Short Stories from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, Bernard Lewis says that the Tale of Sinuhe “employs every sentence construction and literary device known in… [her] period together with a rich vocabulary to give variety and color to… [her] narrative.” Fiction is a variety of virtual reality first invented four thousand years ago.

By combining first-person narration with fictionality, the author built the most potent mechanism for empathy which humans have ever encountered; the ability to not just conjure consciousness from out of nothing, but to inhabit another person’s life. Critic James Wood writes in How Fiction Works that first-person narration is “generally a nice hoax: the narrator pretends to speak to us, while in fact the author is writing to us, and we go along with the deception happily enough.” Wood isn’t wrong – first-person narration, in fact all narration, is fundamentally a hoax, or maybe more appropriately an illusion. What I’d venture is that this chimera, the fantasy of fiction, the mirage of narration, doesn’t just imitate consciousness — it is consciousness. Furthermore, different types of narration exemplify different varieties of consciousness, all built upon that hard currency of experience, so that the first-person provides the earliest intimations of what it means to be a mind in time and space. That nameless Egyptian writer gave us the most potent of incantations — that of the eternal I. “By the end of the 19th century [BCE],” writes Steven Moore in The Novel: An Alternative History, “all the elements of the novel were in place: sustained narrative, dialogue, characterization, formal strategies, rhetorical devices.” Moore offers a revisionist genealogy of the novel, pushing its origins back thousands of years before the seventeenth-century, but regardless of how we define the form itself, it’s incontrovertible that at the very least The Tale of Sinuhe offers something original. Whether or not we consider the story to be a “novel,” with all of the social and cultural connotations of that word (Moore says it is, I say eh), at the very least Sinuhe is the earliest extant fragment of a fictional first-person narrative, and thus a landmark in the history of consciousness.  

What the Big Bang is to cosmology, The Tale of Sinuhe is to literature; what the Cambrian Explosion is to natural history, so narrative is to culture. An entire history of what it means to be a human being could focus entirely on the different persons of narration, and what they say about all the ways in which we can understand reality. Every schoolchild knows that narration breaks down into three persons: the omniscient Father of the third-person, the eerie Spirit of the second-person placing the reader themselves into the narrative, and the Son of the first-person, whereby the reader is incarnated into the character. It’s more complicated than this, of course; there’s first-person unreliable narrators and third-person limited omniscient narrators; plural first-person narratives and free indirect discourse; and heterodiegetic narrators and focalized homodiegetic characters. Regardless of the specifics of what narrative person a story is written in, the way a narrative is told conveys certain elements of perception. The voice which we choose says something about reality; it becomes its own sort of reality. As Michael McKeon explains in Theory of the Novel: A Historical Approach, the first-person form is associated with “interiority as subjectivity, of character as personality and selfhood, and of plot as the progressive development of the integral individual.”

The history of the novel is a history of consciousness. During the eighteenth-century, in the aftershocks of the emergence of the modern novel, first-person faux-memoirs — fictional accounts written with the conceit that they were merely found documents like Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe or Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels — reflected both the Protestant attraction towards the self-introspection which the novel allowed for, but also an anxiety over its potentially idolatrous fictionality (the better to pretend that these works actually happened). By the nineteenth-century that concern manifested in the enthusiasm for epistolary novels, a slight variation on the “real document” trope for grappling with fictionality, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Concurrently, the nineteenth-century saw the rise in the third-person omniscient narrations, with all of its intimations of God-like eternity that we associate with novels like Charles Dickens’ Bleak House and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. By contrast, the twentieth-century marked the emergence of stream-of-consciousness in high modernist novels such as James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury; and following the precedent of Gustave Flaubert and Jane Austen, authors like Virginia Woolf in Mrs. Dalloway and D.H. Lawrence in The Rainbow made immaculate use of free indirect discourse, where the intimacy of the first person is mingled into the bird’s eye perspective of the third. All of these are radical; all of them miracles in their own way. But the first-person is only that which is able to transplant personal identity itself.

“With the engine stalled, we would notice the deep silence reigning in the park around us, in the summer villa before us, in the world everywhere,” writes Orhan Pamuk in his novel The Museum of Innocence. “We would listen enchanted to the whirring of an insect beginning vernal flight before the onset of spring, and we would know what a wondrous thing it was to be alive in a park on a spring day in Istanbul.” Though I have never perambulated alongside the Bosporus on a spring day, Pamuk is still able to, by an uncanny theurgy, make the experience of his character Kemal my own. Certainly lush descriptions can be manifested in any narrative perspective, and a first-person narrator can also provide bare-bones exposition, yet there is something particularly uncanny about the fact that by staring at ink stains on dead trees we can hallucinate that we’re entirely other people in Istanbul. The existentialist Martin Heidegger argued that the central problem of philosophy was that of “Being,” which is to say the question of what it means to be this self-aware creature interacting with an abstract, impersonal universe. By preserving experience as if a bit of tissue stained on a microscope slide, first-person narration acts as a means of bracketing time outward, the better to comprehend this mystery of Being. “We ourselves are the entities to be analyzed,” Heidegger writes in Being and Time, and what medium is more uniquely suited for that than first-person narration?

The first-person isn’t merely some sort of textual flypaper that captures sensory ephemera which flit before the eyes and past the ears, but it even more uncannily makes the thoughts of another person — an invented person — your own. By rhetorical alchemy it transmutes your being. Think of P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie, who for all of his flippancy and aristocratic foppishness arrives on the page as a keen and defined personality in his own right (and write). “I don’t know if you have the same experience, but a thing I have found in life is that from time to time, as you jog along, there occur moments which you are able to recognize immediately with the naked eye as high spots,” Wodehouse writes in The Code of the Woosters. “Something tells you that they are going to remain etched, if etched is the word I want, forever on the memory and will come back to you at intervals down the years, as you are dropping off to sleep, banishing that drowsy feeling and causing you to leap on the pillow like a gaffed salmon.” If genteel and relaxed Anglophilia isn’t your thing, you can rather turn into the nameless narrator of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, buffeted and assaulted by American racism and denied self-definition in his almost ontological anonymity, who recalls the “sudden arpeggios of laughter lilting across the tender, springtime grass — gay-welling, far-floating, fluent, spontaneous, a bell-like feminine fluting, then suppressed; as though snuffed swiftly and irrevocably beneath the quiet solemnity of the vespered air now vibrant with somber chapel bells.”

Those who harden literature into reading lists, syllabi, and ultimately the canon have personal, social, and cultural reasons for being attracted to the works that they choose to enshrine, yet something as simple as a compelling narrative voice is what ultimately draws readers. An author who is able to conjure from pure nothingness a personality that seems realer than real is like Prospero conjuring specters out of the ether. Denis Johnson was able to incarnate spirits from spirits in his classic novel of junkie disaffection Jesus’ Son. Few novels are able to convey the fractured consciousness of the alcoholic (and I know) as well as Johnson’s does; his unnamed character known only as “Fuckhead” filtering through the distillery of his mind every evasion, half-truth, duplicity (to self and others), and finally radical honesty that the drug addict must contend with if they’re to achieve any semblance of sanity. Writing of an Iowa City bar and its bartender, Johnson says that “The Vine had no jukebox, but a real stereo continually playing tunes of alcoholic self-pity and sentimental divorce. ‘Nurse,’ I sobbed. She poured doubles like an angel, right up to the lip of a cocktail glass, no measuring. ‘You have a lovely pitching arm.’” For those normies of a regular constitution, the madness of addictions like Fuckhead’s can seem a simple issue of willpower, yet the distinctive first-person of Jesus’ Son conveys, at least a bit, what it means to be locked inside a cage of your own forging. Fuckhead recalls seeing the aforementioned bartender after he’d gotten clean: “I saw her much later, not too many years ago, and when I smiled she seemed to believe I was making advances. But it was only that I remembered. I’ll never forget you. Your husband will beat you with an extension cord and the bus will pull away leaving you standing there in tears, but you were my mother.”

Alcoholism isn’t the only manifestation of consciousness at war with itself; self-awareness turned inside out so that a proper appraisal of reality becomes impossible. Consider the butler Stevens in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, who carries himself with implacable dignity and forbearance, and is committed to the reputation of his master Lord Darlington, while overlooking the aristocrat’s Nazi sympathies. Stevens is a character of great sympathy, despite his own loyalty being so extreme that it becomes a character deficiency. No mind is ever built entirely of abstractions. Rather, our personalities are always constituted by a million prosaic experiences; there is much more of the human in making a cup of coffee or scrubbing a toilet than there is anything that’s simply abstract. “I have remained here on this bench to await the event that has just taken place – namely, the switching on of the pier light,” remembers Stevens, “for a great many people, the evening is the most enjoyable part of the day. Perhaps, then, there is something to his advice that I should cease looking back so much, that I should… make the best of what remains of my day.” A distillation of individual thought as it experiences the world, to move from switching on a light to a reflection on mortality. Ishiguro captures far more of life in Remains of the Day than does a manifesto, a treatise, a syllogism, a theological tract.

By its very existence, fictional literature is an argument about divinity, about humanity, about creativity. That an author is able to compel a reader into the perspective of a radically different human being is the greatest claim that there is to the multiplicity of existence, of the sheer, radiating glory of being. Take Marilyn Robinson’s Rev. John Ames, an elderly Congregationalist minister in small-town Iowa in 1956, who unfolds himself in a series of letters he’s writing to his young son, which constitutes the entirety of the novel Gilead. Devout, reverential, and most of all good, Rev. Ames’ experiences — not just the bare facts of his life but his reactions to them — is exceedingly distant from my own biography. As with so many readers of Gilead, I feel that there is a supreme honor in being able to occupy Ames’ lectern for a time, to read his epistles as if you were his son. In what for me remains one of the most oddly moving passages in recent American literature, Robinson writes how “Once, we baptized a litter of cats.” Ames enumerates the unusual piety of his childhood, and how that compelled a group of similarly religious children fearful of the perdition which awaited pagan kittens to dressing the animals in doll clothing while uttering Trinitarian invocations and using water to mark the cross on their furry foreheads. “I still remember how those warm little brows felt under the palm of my hand. Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing.” The way that Ames recounts the impromptu feline conversion is funny, in the way that the things children do often are, especially the image of the meowing cat dressed like a baby, their perfidious mother stealing them back by the napes of their neck, all while the event is marked by the young future minister trying to bring as many of the kittens to Christ as he could. “For years we would wonder what, from a cosmic viewpoint, we had done to them. It still seems to be a real question. There is a reality in blessing… It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that. I have felt it pass through me so to speak.”

And so have I, so to speak, felt that same emotion, despite not being a Congregational minister, a resident of rural Iowa, or a man born in the last decades of the Victorian era writing letters to his son. What the descriptions of first-person narration accomplish — both the litany of detail in the material world, and the self-reflection on what it means to be an aware being — is the final disproof of solipsism. The first-person narration, when done deftly and subtly, proves that yours isn’t the only consciousness, because such prose generates a unique mind and asks you to enter into it; the invitation alone is proof that you aren’t all that exists. Literature itself is a giant conscious being — all of those texts from Sinhu onward mingling together and interacting across the millennia like synapses firing in a brain. Writing may not be reducible to thought, but it is a type of thought. Fiction is thus an engine for transformation, a mechanism for turning you into another person. Or animal. Or thing. Or an entity omniscient. Writing of the feline baptism, Ames remembers that “The sensation is one of really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time.” This, it seems to me, is an accurate definition of literature as well, so that fiction itself is a type of baptism. Writing and reading, like baptism — and all things which are sacred — is simply the act of really knowing a creature.

True Love is Feeding Yourself: On Melissa Broder’s ‘Milk Fed’

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Milk Fed might make you hungry. Milk Fed might make you horny. Milk Fed might make you believe in god, or in love, or at least make you want to try. Hungry, horny, and trying to believe are three of the most predominant modes in which Rachel, the main character of Melissa Broder’s new novel, operates. Rachel has a rigorous system to maintain control of her weight, and thereby her life. Chain-chewing nicotine gum; protein bar and low-cal yogurt regimens; regular evenings on the elliptical or the stationary bike; and a weekly night on stage at a comedy club are Rachel’s favorite means of feeding her existential hunger for approval. This is a deep hunger, directed first at her mother, and then, after her therapist encourages her to take a 90-day communication detox, her judgmental coworker, the older-but-still-beautiful Ana. There are not many other people in Rachel’s life to approve or disapprove of her, not counting the revolving tourist-filled audience at This Show Sucks. Then Rachel meets Miriam, an obese Orthodox Jewish woman Rachel’s age, who works at her favorite frozen yogurt shop. Miriam is everything Rachel is not: religious, easygoing, indulgent. Miriam is everything Rachel fears she might become: “Amorphous. Out of control. Disgusting. Exploding.” Rachel speculates that she conjured Miriam into existence through a therapy exercise during which she sculpted those fears. It does not take long for Rachel to fall in love. And love, in this case, is transformative.

Broder’s first novel, The Pisces, encounters and explores the question of emptiness and fullness in a way that is similarly erotic and romantic. As Jia Tolentino writes, “The Pisces convincingly romances the void.” It’s a story that should be weird (a washed-up PhD candidate falls in love with an emotionally unstable but very sexy and sexual merman) but reads like realism (aside from the merman sex, which, while necessarily fantastical, is undeniably erotic). When I finished reading The Pisces I felt that I had come to a revelation with the main character, Lucy: what is love, if not sticking around, seeing things through, being there for the people and pets and work to which we’ve made commitments? Milk Fed takes this question further. If love is responsibility, what is self love? What is our responsibility to ourselves?

Over pages teeming with mouthwatering descriptions of food—frozen yogurt sundaes that drip with sprinkles and hot fudge and strawberry sauce; the Golden Dragon’s kosher pu pu platters and wonton soup and noodles and chicken and steak; a Shabbat feast at Miriam’s family’s home; the fast food and bakery binges that Rachel increasingly allows herself—Rachel sheds her hollow obsession with self image that her mother instilled in her. When she’s around Miriam, she’s comfortable with consumption. And as she becomes more comfortable with consumption, she is herself consumed by a new desire. The more Rachel eats, the more Milk Fed reveals itself as a surprisingly trans book. As Rachel’s commitment to the status-quo of her feminine self image wanes, she steps out of the gender binary still further, exploring a boyish, at times manly, facet of her identity. Midway through the book, for instance, she’s at the gym, her skin chafing against suddenly too-small workout clothes. She pedals on the stationary bike, and starts to fantasize that the bike seat is her cock. In the fantasy, she is powerful, completely in control, not of Miriam, but of Ana, the mother-stand-in from her office. It’s a satisfying scene to read, and one that is satisfying for Rachel to experience. Not only is she met, in her mind, with the motherly approval, she is wanted by the matron, and the matron does exactly what Rachel wants. This is one of the driving hungers in the novel.

But real, physical hunger also drives here. Rachel’s empty body could never have had the strength to pedal herself to orgasm. Having fed herself physically, she has the energy to feed herself spiritually. “‘It’s a mitzvah, you know,’” Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel tells her in a dream. “‘I just came to let you know that it’s nice to see you trusting your kishkas.’” ‘Kishkas’ mean your intuition, which the Rabbi also refers to as your guts. The line between body and mind, belly and mind, is drawn with a fat-tipped pen. Rachel starts to eat like “normal people… It felt like a miracle to be able to eat what I desired, not more or less than that. It was shocking, as though my body somehow knew what to do and what not to do—if only I let it.”  And giving her body what it wants is where her power lies, a power far more resonant than the neurotic control she exerts at the beginning of the novel.

Milk Fed, like The Pisces, is compulsively readable. However, unlike the Pisces, where Lucy determines only in the last pages to give dry land a last chance for the sake of her sister, it ends on more than a hopeful note. Rachel, having left behind her yearning for motherly and societal acceptance, has taken on a new look, a new confidence, and a new career in comedy. She loves herself now, enough to make up for what was missing from her mother. We know because she feeds herself.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Lockwood, Salih, Bolaño, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Patricia Lockwood, Zak Salih, Roberto Bolaño, and more—that are publishing this week.

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

No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about No One Is Talking About This: “Lockwood’s debut novel comes packed with the humor, bawdiness, and lyrical insight that buoyed her memoir Priestdaddy. The unnamed narrator—made famous by a viral post that read, ‘Can a dog be twins’—travels the world to speak on panels, where she explains such things as why it’s better to use the spelling ‘sneazing’ (it’s “objectively funnier”). While in Vienna for a conference, her mother urges her to come home to Ohio, where the narrator’s younger sister is having complications with her pregnancy and may need a late-term abortion. There, in the book’s shimmering second half, the internet jokes continue between the sisters as a means of coping with uncertainty, and resonate with the theme of life’s ephemerality vs. the internet’s infinitude. Throughout, a fragmented style captures and sometimes elevates a series of text messages and memes amid the meditations on family (‘I’m convinced the world is getting too full lol, her brother texted her, the one who obliterated himself at the end of every day with a personal comet called Fireball’). This mighty novel screams with laughter just as it wallops with grief.”

Let’s Get Back to the Party by Zak Salih

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Let’s Get Back to the Party: “The shifting landscape for gay men in America animates Salih’s heartfelt debut. In 2015, with gay marriage protected by the Supreme Court, 30-something Virginia high school art teacher Sebastian Mote wouldn’t mind a life of domesticity, but he’s just broken up with his boyfriend of three years. After the suicide of a gay student, Sebastian devotes himself to his students, especially 17-year-old Arthur, whose open sexuality Sebastian secretly envies while he works to make the school more LGBTQ inclusive. Sebastian hopes that luck has finally favored him when, at a wedding, he bumps into Oscar Burnham, a friend from childhood. But Oscar laments the end of a hedonistic lifestyle and complains that every gay man he knows is ‘a victim of marriage fever now.’ The closest Oscar comes to the life he pines for is in his friendship with Sean Stokes, an author in his 60s famous for books that document the abandon of previous decades. There’s a varied cast, though many of the support players come across as generic: an uncle disapproving of him expressing his gay identity, the loving but conflicted mother, and so on. But Sebastian’s and Oscar’s twinned dilemmas add fascinating complexity to the goings on. The party may be changing, but reasons for celebration remain, as evidenced by Salih’s passionate evocation.”

American Delirium by Betina González (translated by Heather Cleary)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about American Delirium: “Argentinian González anatomizes in her skillful English-language debut an American community’s pursuit of enlightenment and the violence and madness left in its wake. The novel takes place in a moribund, near-future unnamed U.S. city where only the university and the natural history museum have survived a devastating depression. The residents, increasingly attuned to ‘early cultural signs of the final imbalance, of how the entire planet would eventually rise up against us,’ have embraced a more resourceful lifestyle by taking up hunting. Among them, Vik, an ailing taxidermist from the fictional Caribbean island of Coloma, discovers that a possibly dangerous intruder has been living in his closet; the acerbic Beryl instructs those, like her, over 70, in marksmanship after crazed deer begin assaulting people; and a young girl, Berenice, looks for a new caretaker after her mother abandons her to join a cultish back-to-nature group. The story lines gradually converge around the prevalence of a hallucinogenic Coloma plant called albaria that ‘closes your eyes and sets you down in a ray of light where time doesn’t exist.’ This has the makings of a zany psychedelic romp, but instead the delirium is marvelously controlled and administered in doses just potent enough to ease patient readers into this off-kilter world. González’s distorted utopian vision is a memorable trip.”

Girls of a Certain Age by Maria Adelmann

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Girls of a Certain Age: “Adelmann’s uneven debut collection focuses on young women facing difficult choices to varying degrees of impact. In ‘Elegy,’ one of the most powerful pieces, a young woman who’s just had a double mastectomy reflects on the death of her aunt from breast cancer, and the near death of her mother as well. In ‘First Aid,’ the narrator details her self-harm, referring to her cuts as gills ‘because they help me breathe.’ In ‘Pets Are for Rich Kids,’ a young girl contrasts her own life and relative poverty with that of a wealthy friend while also trying to understand why her father abandoned her. Less successful are stories about 20-somethings, whether searching for meaning after a job layoff (‘None of These Will Bring Disaster’) or having relationship troubles (‘Middlemen’ and ‘Human Bonding’), though a standout among these is the lyrical and whimsical ‘Unattached,’ in which a young woman suddenly finds herself and her world turned literally upside down. While some stories could have been left on the cutting room floor, Adelmann offers an abundance of insights on the vicissitudes of life.”

Cowboy Graves by Roberto Bolaño (translated by Natasha Wimmer)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Cowboy Graves: “An appealing if inchoate episodic collection emerges from Bolaño’s archives (after The Spirit of Science Fiction). In the title novella, Arturo Belano emigrates from Chile to Mexico City at 15 in 1968 to live with his father. There, Arturo befriends a transient man nicknamed the Grub, whom Bolaño fans will remember from Last Evenings on Earth. After the 1973 coup, Arturo returns to Chile to fight on behalf of the leftists. In ‘French Comedy of Errors,’ the book’s most linear story, a French Guianese teenager receives an unexpected call in a phone booth from a group of literally underground writers called the Clandestine Surrealist Group who are waiting to start a revolution. ‘Fatherland,’ narrated by a 20-something Rigoberto Belano who differs only slightly from Arturo, transmutes from an account of Belano’s family and a love affair disrupted by the Chilean coup into fragmentary lectures on a sadistic poet and a mélange of recollected dreams, letters, and detective-style case files. While the loosely connected vignettes in each novella fail to fully cohere, they show a writer working to capture the fragility of identity and relationships in revolutionary settings. These drafts reveal Bolaño (1953–2003) perfecting the literary obsessions that became his emblems.”

Also on shelves this week: Promoteo by C. Dale Young.

What Is Wrong with Natasha?: On the Female “Type” in Tolstoian Tales

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Ever since I announced that I had started reading War and Peace, more than one person has warned me about its ending, particularly of its female protagonist, Natasha. “The more you like her in the beginning,” a friend said firmly, “the more disappointed you’ll be toward the end.”

My friend is right. I fell in love with Natasha at first sight, when the thirteen-year-old girl scampers into the room, embracing a doll and laughing her loud, contagious laughter. My favor for her grows when she nags her mother about what dessert will be served for that night, and when later, on a sleepless night, she expresses her wish to fly to the moon. Even her affair with Anatole cannot remove me from her fan club. I try not to see her as only a naïve girl readily seduced by a playboy, but a courageous young woman who is willing to pay the price for giving her heart. (She uses the word “love” to define her relationship with Anatole.) I admire her kindness and tenacity in tending to Andrei on his deathbed, her ex-fiancé who broke off their engagement when he learned she was unfaithful. Perhaps like Andrei and Pierre in the fiction, I am drawn to Natasha’s vivacity and, more importantly, her tremendous joy that is independent of any external condition; as Andrei once marvels, “this slender and pretty girl did not know and did not want to know of his existence and was content and happy with some separate—probably stupid—but cheerful and happy life of her own.”

My frustration with the ending comes not as a surprise. Natasha turns out the very opposite of what she used to be. Seven years after she marries Pierre, she has “filled out and broadened,” her inner fire for life has extinguished, and her contentment derives from the one and only source: her husband and children.

Like any movie viewer who is unhappy with a tragic ending of her beloved character, I accuse the director of his personal malevolence. Tolstoy, I decide, has a very narrow understanding of women at best, or is a hidden misogynist at worst.

We have every reason to suspect him. Unlike Gustave Flaubert, who famously said that he had to let Madame Bovary die because that decision was made by aesthetics, Leo Tolstoy is known as both an artist and a preacher. This does not only refer to the fact that War and Peace is interpolated with large prosy passages about history but also, as critic James Wood observes, the two seemly distinctive selves of Tolstoy are intertwined. (James Wood, “War and Peace: Many Stories, Many Lives”) In other words, Tolstoy is sermonizing while telling a story.

Tolstoy is very emphatic and specific about our takeaways from his tales. Take his anti-war message. Almost all the male characters start out harboring a youthful passion about the Great Men and the war. Tolstoy uses a romantic language to describe Nikolai Rostov’s adoration of the tsar: Nikolai fantasizes what “happiness” it would be “simply to die before the eyes of the sovereign,” and realizes that he is “indeed in love with the tsar.” Later, the exact same language is applied to depict the feelings that Petya—Nikolai’s younger brother—holds for his leader in the army, Dolokhov: in one scene, Petya is too infatuated to let go of Dolokhov’s hand; rather, he leans toward him and requests a kiss. Romance, almost by definition, suggests an ignorance of reality and admits illusion and falsehood. Soon, we attest to those characters’ awakening. After seeing the self-satisfied emperors and many devastated soldiers and civilians, Nikolai rids himself of all the halos of a glorious death. “We’re told to die—and we die,” he concludes, “If we’re punished, it means we’re guilty; it’s not for us to judge.” Similar moments of disillusionment can be found in Andrei’s and Pierre’s wartime experience. Petya, who doesn’t have enough time to acquire this insight, is shot to death in a battle. Nevertheless, you won’t miss Tolstoy’s emphasis: Dolokhov, Petya’s Great Man, doesn’t even bother to bury the dead admirer.

We may easily trace those morals to Tolstoy’s personal answers to the big questions he poses in the book. For example, he rejects the pervasive notion that Great Men determine the trajectory of history. Adopting the preacher’s voice, he argues in the beginning of Volume Three, Part Two, “the drawing of Napoleon into the depths of the country [Russia] occurred not according to someone’s plan, but occurred as the result of the most complex interplay of intrigues, aims, and desires of the people participating in the war […] It all occurs by chance.” In that regard, the enlightenment those male characters have attained during the war are artistic footnotes to Tolstoy’s outlook. There is also his answer to what a “true life” is, the philosophical inquiry that firstly loomed large before Tolstoy out of his fear of death: How can there be a meaning of life that is not canceled out by the inevitability of death? Tolstoy, through a lengthy spiritual journey, has found the key in faith and collectivity. Faith, as he wrote in A Confession, is the “meaning imparted by infinity—a meaning not extinguished by suffering, deprivation or death.” Collectivity, as a way out of one’s clinging to immortality, points to the possibility of a union with others through love. (Tolstoy, On Life.) Even though both essay collections, A Confession and On Life, were composed after War and Peace, the Tolstoian characters in the great novel have already come to the same conclusion, and their revelation arrives precisely at the moment when they are facing death. “I experienced the feeling of love,” the dying Andrei murmurs in hallucination, “which is the very essence of the soul and which needs no object. Now, too, I am experiencing that blissful feeling. To love my neighbors, to love my enemies. To love everything—to love God in all His manifestations.” Andrei’s epiphany is interchangeable with the lesson Pierre has acquired after he barely escapes death himself: “He could have no purpose, because he now had faith—not faith in some rules, or words, or thoughts, but faith in a living, ever-sensed God.” Andrei and Pierre’s revelation serves as the dramatic underlining of Tolstoy’s own philosophy of life.

This pronounced intention of storytelling complicates our perspective of Natasha’s ending: Is the abandonment of personhood Tolstoy’s ideal picture for women? Clues that support this hypothesis abound. First, we have the omniscient narrator’s explanation for Natasha’s disinterest in talks regarding women’s rights:
These questions, then as now, existed only for those people who see in marriage nothing but the pleasure the spouses get from each other, that is, nothing but the beginnings of marriage, and not its whole insignificance, which consists in the family.

[The same questions do not exist] for whom the purpose of a dinner is nourishment and the purpose of marriage is the family. (Tolstoy, War and Peace)
Arguably, the voice belongs to Tolstoy. Later in What Is Art, he draws a similar analogy between dinner and art:
People come to understand that the meaning of eating lies in the nourishment of the body only when they cease to consider that the object of that activity is pleasure. And it is the same with regard to art. People will come to understand the meaning of art only when they cease to consider that the aim of that activity is beauty, i.e., pleasure.
If family, as Tolstoy claims, is the only true purpose of marriage, it is logical that he applauds Natasha’s motherhood as the only true purpose of womanhood—even at a price of losing her individuality. As a matter of fact, we can find a personal note in Tolstoy’s real life to this, what seems now, very limited view of women. Like Pierre in War and Peace, the young Tolstoy lived a life of indulgence; he once confessed to Anton Chekhov that he had been “an indefatigable chaser after women.” In “Tolstoy the Apostolic Crusader,” scholar Rene Rueloep-Miller observes that after his famous conversion, the great author “regarded women as evil because they threatened to awaken man’s sensuality and to provoke what he called ‘the sin of fleshliness.” Tolstoy even recorded his generalization of women on the page: “Women are harmless only when they are wholly engrossed in the duties of motherhood, or when they have acquired the venerability of old age.” (Rueloep-Miller, “Tolstoy the Apostolic Crusader”)

In that light, every change that happens to Natasha in the end substantiates Tolstoy’s dichotomy of women’s virtues and physical attraction. In the novel, this dichotomy is also illustrated by a stark contrast between Pierre’s previous and present wife. Helene is extremely beautiful and always brags about a string of lovers. Natasha, when in her prime, almost sins by eloping with Anatole while she is still engaged to Andrei. However, as she grows obese, plain, and dull in the wake of marriage, she no longer poses threat to her husband’s moral integrity; rather, her lack of charm is sufficient proof of Pierre’s lofty mind: Pierre has finally learned “to see the great, the eternal, and the infinite in everything,” and leads a content life of simplicity. Interestingly, Tolstoy adds a nationalistic note to this outlook: the preservation of self, talent, and appearance after marriage is very “French,” with a prejudiced undertone of immorality. In contrast, the selfless, charmless, and very often mindless Natasha epitomizes Tolstoy’s authentic Russian women.

This type of transformation doesn’t happen to Natasha alone. Princess Marya who used to be a fervent spiritual seeker is also reduced to a mother and wife after marriage. Her religious side which previously gained Nikolai’s respect is no longer shown; instead, same as Natasha, she displays a complete failure in connecting to her husband’s intellectual concerns. The only difference between Princess Marya and Natasha is perhaps that the former doesn’t have the urgency to grow out of shape, since she has been stamped as ugly from the very beginning.

James Wood notices that Tolstoy’s storytelling has a lot in common with fairytales. For one thing, Tolstoy sometimes begins an episode with a throat-clearing “Here is how it came about.” (Wood, “War and Peace: Many Stories, Many Lives.”) The objects and plants in War and Peace sometimes can talk. (An oak tree once exclaims, “Spring, and love, and happiness!”) Also, Tolstoy punctuates the characters with their physical attributes: the “fat” Pierre; Prince Vassily with his “shinning bald head”; the “round” Little Princess. Yet, the most fundamental similarity Tolstoy’s stories share with fairytales is perhaps character “types.”

The good, married female type can also be found in Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s other masterpiece. Kitty, a pretty, lively girl before marriage and a faithful, devoted mother after marriage, reminds readers of Natasha. And, like Natasha and Marya, Kitty is indifferent to her husband Levin’s intellectual side. The lofty, converted male types may include Levin. Just as Pierre gets to appreciate the simple beauty in life after his encounter with the peasant foot soldier Platon Karataev, Levin returns to his childhood Christian faith after talking to a peasant. Even though Levin doesn’t transform immediately, he believes that faith will eventually guide his life toward righteousness.

In essence, this is precisely how fairytales convey their morals: ascribing good or bad endings to different types. The beautiful, kind princesses always win the heart of the handsome, brave princes and vice versa; together they live happily ever after. In other words, virtues such as kindness, courage, and loyalty are always rewarded in fairytales. However, the real world is hardly—if ever—that simple. In a similar and yet more complicated way, Tolstoy tries to convince us that a submission to suffering promises a fulfilled, joyous life. Take the story about an old merchant that Platon Karataev tells Pierre when they are both taken prisoners by the French. The old merchant is wrongly charged for manslaughter and robbery and sent to hard labor. Coincidentally, the real culprit happens to be in the same labor camp with him. Feeling profoundly sorry for the innocent merchant’s suffering, the culprit writes a note to confess. With time, the tsar finally orders the release of the merchant. But when the message finds the poor man, he has already died. “The hardest and most blissful thing is to love this life in one’s suffering, in the guiltlessness of suffering,” so Pierre summarizes the moral he has drawn from the tale. The story itself and the “rapturous joy” Karataev exudes when telling the story make me uneasy. Although I concede that suffering may potentially offer a deeper understanding of life, I wouldn’t go so far as to say all sufferings are meaningful and therefore necessary. But it is hard to push back. Tolstoy hijacks our way of thinking by imposing a religious condition: you don’t appreciate the significance of suffering because you don’t believe all is God’s will; if you have faith, you will agree with me. No, Tolstoy, that’s not a fair play.

The danger of preaching through types is that those types are no longer various personalities, but absolute moral judgement. In fairytales, for example, one of the most common villain types is the stepmother. With perpetuation and reinforcement, a moral connotation is carried directly through this identity, regardless of its specific contexts. We are imparted this false “rule of thumb”: all stepmothers are evil. This is what happens to Tolstoy’s female types. His bias of women wears the garment of universal truth: either they are attractive, childless, and morally suspicious charmers, or plain, dumb, dedicated mothers. He murders the energetic and pretty Natasha because he doesn’t believe women could be both glamorous and virtuous. He is responsible for Natasha’s death.

As a modern woman, I always stay alert when reading the portrait of women of the past. The married Natasha who speaks only her husband’s mind can easily find company in many other stories. In Chekhov’s short story “The Darling,” which was once reviewed by Tolstoy, whenever the female protagonist, Olenka Plemyannikova is attached to a man, she becomes a tape recorder of his opinions. There is also the story by Hans Christian Andersen, “What the Old Man Does Is Always Right,” in which the wife applauds her husband’s each and every stupid decision. Those characters do not necessarily bother me, as I know those kinds of women exist in a miscellaneous collection of humanity. But when I stumbled upon Margaret Schlegel in E. M. Forster’s novel, Howards End, I couldn’t hold still. Margaret and her younger sister Helen represent the “New Woman” type: independent, compassionate, and liberal-thinking. Earlier in the novel, when Margaret hosts a luncheon for Ruth, the matriarch of the wealthy Wilcoxes, Margaret is in every way the opposite of this conventional woman in service of her husband and family. When Ruth utters her belief that “it is wiser to leave action and discussion to men” and her gratitude in “not to have a vote herself,” the table falls into a polite but alarming silence. Unfortunately, after Margaret replaces the deceased Ruth to become the new Mrs. Wilcox, she accommodates herself to the role by taking her husband’s words as orders. It pained me to see her suspect the cold and distant notes Helen has written to her as signs of mental illness; she absorbs this thought from her practical-minded husband Henry who always defines Helen’s attraction to spiritualism, music, literature, and art as clinically-defined “hysteria.” For a certain period of time in that fictional world, Margaret the New Woman—with all her advanced knowledge and progressive ideas—falls back helplessly to a conventional woman type which she refused to be before marriage.

The unsettling picture reminds me of a remark my college professor once made about his female classmates: “I am really sad to see those who used to talk about philosophy and art now only discuss infant formula and diapers.” It may sound insensitive as uttered by a man, but I, too, have mixed feelings when seeing some of my female Chinese friends switch from a challenging job they enjoyed to a stable, routine bureaucratic position so they would have more time for their family. Like Margaret, they have turned into the women they once swore not to be. Viewing Natasha through the same lens, I guess what upsets me the most—more than her tragic loss in physical glamor and personhood—is a retrogression of her life trajectory. Spiritually speaking, the Natasha in the Epilogue is not that different from her thirteen-year-old self when she first emerges: bundling a doll in her skirt, she proudly tells her guest, “This is my younger one.” It feels as if she hasn’t advanced an inch of length in her spiritual journey with all the events she has been through in her life.

Almost all the male characters in War and Peace, on the contrary, have undergone a certain level of intellectual and psychological transformation. Take Pierre. He first appears as the illegitimate son of Count Vladimirovich and as a depraved young man. He is placed in the company of Anatole and Dolokhov; the three of them drink, gamble, and tie a policeman to a bear merely for fun. But through failures, struggles, and revelations, Pierre ripens into a New Man: kind, wise, content, a symbolic figure of the future Russian revolutionary. Tolstoy builds noticeable parallels between the two main characters: Pierre and Natasha. They are both seduced by extremely attractive lovers, and they both face the death of their loved ones toward the end. However, while the death of Karataev triggers Pierre’s rebirth, the death of Andrei is subject to oblivion for Natasha to move on. According to Tolstoy, whether the problem of death would initiate a revelation depends on whether the thinker confronts death concretely and corporeally. Pierre does. What ends Karataev’s life may have ended his too. The fear, anxiety, and despair pushes him to find a resolution or reconciliation in faith. Natasha doesn’t. Though heartbroken to see her ex-fiancé die, she is not threatened by war or illness or death, nor does she feel the urgency to search for the true purpose of life. In fact, all the Tolstoian female characters, domestically bound, fail to attain revelation through life experience as their male counterparts do. When Nikolai is awarded the St. George Cross, for example, Natasha’s initial response is “I’m so proud of him,” so are Sonya and Nikolai’s mother. However, exposed to the brutal nature of the war, Nikolai has already grown ambivalent about the decoration. I am not defending Tolstoy, but the huge discrepancies in the level of male and female life experience might partially explain his stiff portrait of women’s incapacity to connect with their husbands intellectually and spiritually.

Then again, this conundrum itself is a patriarchal social construct. Women’s lack of exposure to life experience outside the home originates from men commanding women to stay at home. In War and Peace, we can also see a curious parallel between Pierre’s and Marya’s religious pursuit. Pierre runs into a “traveler” who will introduce him to Masonry. But, when later he meets Marya’s wanderer woman, he speculates that Marya is dumb enough to have been deceived by a false monk. “It’s a trick,” Pierre blurts out. He does not realize that Masonry also craves his wallet, neither is he aware that the war itself is the biggest trick. As a woman, Marya does not have the freedom to wander and gain spiritual experience. She can only imagine herself walking in “coarse rags,” “with a stick and a bag down a dusty road,” and in the end arrive at the place “where there is no sorrow or sighing, but eternal joy and bliss.” That is the exact image of Pierre after his moral conversion: “Pierre’s clothing now consisted of a dirty, tattered shirt, the only remains of his former attire, a soldier’s trousers, tied with string at the ankles for the sake of warmth, on Karataev’s advice, a kaftan, and a muzhik’s hat, […] His former laxness, expressed even in his gaze, was now replaced by an energetic composure, ready for action and resistance. His feet were bare.” Clearly, Marya’s confinement in a conventional gender role prevents her from transforming into a New Woman.

Besides, the paternalistic cultural models that encourage men to protect women from potential harm often results in further restricting women’s life experience. Take the different impact that carnal love has left on Pierre and Natasha. Pierre almost kills a man out of jealousy and, reflecting on the whimsical duel, learns that his feelings for Helene are only wild lust, not love. Natasha does not seem to acquire any emotional knowledge from her aborted elopement. By driving Anatole out of town and locking Natasha up in her room, Pierre saves her reputation but stops her from possibly learning a life lesson from her failings. As a result, Natasha will fall for the next available suitor like before and her happiness will still be entirely dependent on whoever asks for her hand. This protective rhetoric is tricky because it is justified by the sad fact that women do not have the privilege to err. In Howards End, Leonard Bast—an impoverished lower-class man—summarizes the meaning of privilege sharply, “If rich people fail at one profession, they can try another. Not I.” Similarly, if a noble man like Pierre fails at his marriage, he can try remarrying, but not women, not Natasha. So the vicious circle goes on and on: the more men feel the need to prevent women from irredeemable pitfalls, the more they infantilize women.

Perhaps—and I am aware of my idealistic thinking—rather than sheltering women from the exposure to potential harm, or any life experience in general, we should instead fabricate a safety net for the underprivileged. That way, they can gain miles in their spiritual journey and, if they fail, they can start anew without paying too big a price.

Motherhood and an abandonment of individuality, in Tolstoian sense, is never a solution to women’s dilemma. (Tolstoy might even go on to deny that women faced any dilemma at all.) The final picture of Howards End as a home where the free-spirited Helen Schlegel and her extramarital son can fall back upon is closer to the concept of “safety net” which I proposed, but still, even that home is conditional on Henry Wilcox’s changeable conscience and hardly a guardian of women’s precarious lives. Nevertheless, fiction, as an agency of real life experience, engages us in the joy, shame, sorrow, and fear of others. By experiencing their struggles with women’s pressing issues concretely and corporeally, we may come to our respective resolution in reality, the same way Pierre realizes the meaning of a “true life” in facing the death of Karataev, an epiphany Natasha would have attained if given the same opportunity.

Annotate This: On Footnotes

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Good Protestant that he was, the sixteenth-century English printer Richard Jugge was a believer in the immutable word of God and that the faithful were afforded salvation through the inviolate letters of scripture alone. Through reading the gospels, the good Christian could find their heavenly reward, not in donation, or morality, or good works. Jugge was ordained in that priesthood of all believers composed of all those who were baptized – no need for black-clad priests to keep the Bible locked away in Latin, because any pious Englishman could well enough read the words for him (or her)self, so that the most humble boy plowing the field knew as much chapter and verse as the Pope himself. The meaning of scripture was simple, straight-forward, and literal.

But…. sometimes any reader could use some help interpreting the finer points of Hebrew or Koine translation. And… anyone could be forgiven for needing the guidance of expertise to better comprehend what exactly it was that God wanted them to do, think, believe, and feel. What was needed was some explication. Some explanation. Some interpretation. So Jugge, laying the copper keys into his printing press to produce copies of the official Bishop’s Bible translation in 1568, faced a bit of a conundrum. How were stolid English Protestants to properly read – of their own accord – a book written by ancient Jews millennia ago? How could such a foreign book be applied to the great theological disputes of the day, from the nature of the Eucharist to the finer points of double predestination? His solution was in the details, or rather their margins, for in Richard Jugge’s printshop located just north of St. Paul’s Cathedral and just downward from heaven was birthed the Reformation’s most enduring contribution to typography – the footnote.[1]

God may have supplied the Word, but Jugge was content to supply the gloss (or at least the typographic organization of it). Jugge’s footnotes, it should be emphasized, were certainly not the first instance of written commentary on scripture (or other books) included within a volume itself. “Notes in the margin and between the lines — so-called glosses — had featured in written documents since time immemorial,” writes Keith Houston in Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks. Marginalia has a venerable history in both manuscript and print, and there is a tradition of using the white space of the page’s border to draw attention to something within the text, from the creatures and monsters populating the illustrations of the Book of Kells, beings who sometimes point and mock transcription errors, to the curious symbol of the manicule, a drawing of a hand looking a bit like one of Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python animations, which gestures to the important bits within a book. “But no traditional form of annotation — from the grammarian’s glosses to the theologian’s allegories to the philologist’s emendations – is identical to the historical footnote,” historian Anthony Grafton reminds us in his invaluable study The Footnote: A Curious History.

Along with other typographical devices that are separate from the main text, from epigraphs to bibliographies, I’ve always had an affection for the lowly footnote. Anybody who has ever had to do advanced academic work has a love/hate relationship with the form; the way in which the piling up of footnotes and endnotes exhibits deep reading (or the performance of it), the scholarly equivalent of getting a stamp in your passport, but also the confusing tangle of references, citations, and long-ago academic debates that a young researcher must tip their cap to in due-deference, which can be a perfunctory slog at best. Footnotes can be an exercise in arid, sober, boring credit-giving, but some of the most dynamic monographs have the best stuff squired away in the footnotes. One of my favorite footnotes is in Stephen Booth’s masterful New Critical close readings of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, whereby regarding a particularly contentious biographical issue, the editor notes that “Shakespeare was almost certainly homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual.” Looking for such treasure within the footnotes — digressions, jokes, insecurities, reflections, meditations, disagreement, discourse, conversation, and snark in addition to reference, citation, credit, and acknowledgement — is like a form of textual beachcombing, pulling up something shiny out of a sandpile. As Bruce Anderson enthuses in the Stanford Magazine, “Footnotes allow us not only to see the prejudices of old sources, but the biases and convictions of the footnote himself. They provide readers with the intellectual map that the writer has used to arrive at her conclusions.” Footnotes are several things at once – labyrinth, but also diagram; honeycomb and map; portrait of thought and bibliographic graveyard.

Jugge’s innovation wasn’t commentary, it was knowing when to shunt commentary away at the bottom of the page. It wasn’t his Bible’s only perk, for a book is always more than the words on the page (whether such should be claimed by Protestants or New Critics). David Daniel describes the edition in his study The Bible in English, noting that Jugge’s volume was “lavish in its ornaments in initial letters, fresh title-pages with portraits, 124 distinct woodblock illustrations, and four maps.” Work on the translation which constituted the Bishop’s Bible was largely overseen by Archbishop of Canterbury Matthew Parker who was vested by Elizabeth I with the task of making a version of scripture that, though it was in English, avoided the overly radical tone of the Geneva Bible, which had been translated by refugees who’d crowded to the Swiss canon during the reign of the queen’s sister. Daniel is less than enthusiastic about Parker’s translation, writing that “scholar though he was, [he] could not write even reasonably pleasing English.” [2] Writing poetry wasn’t the Archbishop’s goal however, for the new edition was tasked by the queen to avoid the overly Protestant affectations of previous translations.

Translation was always a sectarian affair. In choosing to call some religious authorities “elders,” or even “ministers,” rather than “priests” and in translating a word normally rendered as “gift” to the word “grace,” Protestant translators dressed the “naked sense” (as the Renaissance translator William Tyndale describe literal reading) of the Hebrew and Greek originals in Protestant clothes. That’s always the point of a footnote, to pick some form of clothing whereby the author or editor renders the text in a certain fashion. In this regard, the Bishop’s Bible (in keeping with its episcopal name) was steadfastly less Protestant than the Geneva Bible (in keeping with its steadfastly Calvinist name). “The marginal notes… are Protestant,” explains Daniel, but Parker exerted himself to “abstain from ‘bitter notes.’” If anything, the Bishop’s Bible necessitated the reduction of marginalia. Instances as when the Geneva Bible glosses Revelation 11:7, which describes the “beast that cometh out of the bottomless pit” as matter-of-factly referring to the Pope, wouldn’t find room in Jugge’s printing. In fact, most of the marginalia from the Geneva Bible wouldn’t be repeated in the Bishop’s Bible, as all of the writing which crowded around the page would be conveniently placed at the bottom.[3]

Footnotes, marginalia, and glosses such as those in the Bishop’s Bible belong to an awkward category of literature called “paratext,” the ancillary stuff that surrounds the main event of a book, which can include introductions, prefaces, prologues, afterwords, blurbs, bibliographies, copyright information, epigraphs, and even covers and author pictures, among other things. Paratext is basically all of that which can be ignored in a text but where a person can still be credibly said to have read that book in good faith (it takes a dogged completist to include ISBN information in their reading itinerary). Easy to forget that all of those accoutrements which we associate with books, but that dim in the background to mere static, have their own histories separate from the book itself. Gerrard Genette writes in Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation that a “text is rarely presented in an unadorned state, unreinforced and unaccompanied by a certain number of verbal or other productions.”

Jugge and Parker may have believed that doctrine was verified through recourse to the text alone, but which text? No book is an island, and its shores are sandy and defuse out into the wider ocean of literature, so that paratext does “surround it and extend it,” as Genette notes, for “More than a boundary or a sealed border the paratext is, rather, a threshold.” Stated theology had it that all which was inviolate would be found in the distance between Genesis and Revelation, yet Jugge’s footnotes belied that quixotism with something altogether more utopian — all books must be, whether spoken or not, visible or not, apparent or not, in conversation at all times with a bevy of other works. Footnotes are the receipts of those dialogues. They are, as Chuck Zerby writes in The Devil’s Details: A History of Footnotes, “One of the earliest and most ingenious inventions of humankind… an indispensable tool of the scholar and a source of endlessly varied delight for the layperson.”[4]

Christians were in some ways Johnny-come-latelies to this method of freezing minds in contrast into the borders of the sacred page. While the footnote was a Protestant innovation, the process of standardizing commentary into a book has precursors in the Jewish Talmud. That massive collection is typographically organized with the primary text of the Mishna, constituting an assemblage of Jewish oral law, placed at the center of the page, which is then illuminated by rabbinical analysis known as Gemara. A tractate of the Talmud will display a portion of Mishnah with the Gemara, by several different authors, arrayed around the primary text. Gemara can be, at times, quite spirited, with Barry Scott Wimpfheimer writing in The Talmud: A Biography that the text “has the habit of citing its rabbinic authorities and tolerating disagreements.”

For example, in one Talmudic tractate where the Mishna is concerned with the prohibition on mixing milk with meat, a disagreement within the marginal gloss of the Gemara erupts as to whether fowl is properly considered meat, especially since poultry produce no dairy (and thus the moral imperative of the original commandment would seem irrelevant). Within the Mishna, Rabbi Akiva says that “Cooking the meat of… a bird in milk is not prohibited by Torah law,” (though he allows that it would be forbidden by the oral law). His interlocutor Rabbi Yosei HaGelili argues that a close conjunction of verses in Deuteronomy regarding the prohibition on eating a kid cooked in its mother’s milk, alongside a ban on ingesting carrion, “indicates that the meat of an animal that is subject to be prohibited due to the prohibition of eating an unslaughtered carcass is prohibited to cook in milk. Consequently, one might have thought it prohibited to cook in milk the meat of a bird.” The interpretive gloss of Gemera is a demonstration of a text’s living properties, the way in which correspondence, dialogue, and debate takes place even within the static environs of a book, and how any codex is an artifact of discussion that exists beyond the parameters of the page itself.

That footnotes are in some sense scholarly is central to our connotative sense of them. A book that is taken off the shelf at random advertises itself as academic if there are footnotes, endnotes, and bibliographical lists littering its pages. We see the footnote as a mark of erudition, as a means of demonstrating knowledge and giving attribution. The footnote is an exercise in due deference. It makes sense that alongside the categorization system of chapter and verse which structures early modern Bibles (and which was quickly adopted by Catholics), that the footnote was both a product of Protestantism and of modernity. Ministers might not have been priests, capable of enacting sacramental changes in our world, but they were like physicians, lawyers, and professors — which is to say bourgeoise professionals selling expertise. A minister can’t change water into wine, but what he’s selling is the explanation of how Hebrew conjugation and Greek declension necessitate the need to tithe. Footnotes are a mark of scholarly professionalism, and rhetorically they impart a heady ethos of demonstrating that the author appears to know what their talking about.     

From one perspective, the footnotes in the Bishop’s Bible arguably marked a new method of composition, whereby a concern with evidence to bolster argumentation helped facilitate the transition from the Renaissance into the Enlightenment. The eighteenth-century, era of encyclopedists and lexicographers, was when the footnote became an academic mainstay; both a sop to the new empiricism whereby inductive arguments must be made by recourse to something outside the author’s reasoning, but also counterintuitively a pale ghost of the ancient reliance on past authorities. John Burrow explains in A History of Histories: Epics, Chronicles, Romances and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the Twentieth Century that footnotes in the Enlightenment did ”far more than just identify sources… [they were] a way of bringing erudition to the support of the text without cluttering it with documents… an idiosyncratic art form, a commentary… [that] gives rein to a relaxed, garrulous intimacy which acts in counterpoint with the tautly controlled formality of the text.”

Perhaps the eighteenth-century’s greatest footnote-enthusiast is the historian Edward Gibbon in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, who uses the form to bitchily comment on antiquity’s greatest thinkers. Regarding the Church Father Origen’s self-castration, Gibbon notes that the goal was “to disarm the tempter;” when considering Saint Augustine, the historian says that his “learning is too often borrowing and… [his] arguments are too often his own.” [5] The role of footnotes, whether in the Talmud, the Bishop’s Bible, eighteenth-century historiography, or modern scholarship is to ostensibly provide source and evidence, but footnotes also provide a glimpse into a mind struggling and sometimes fighting with the material. “They evoke the community of historians, scholars and antiquaries, ancient and modern, in a kind of camaraderie of admiration, scorn and sometimes smut,” writes Burrow. Footnotes are a personal, individual, and estimably humane variety of typography.

Books are never self-contained, they are multileveled, contradictory things, and this is demonstrated best by that great engine of contradiction, the novel. When fully compelled, the novelistic imagination broaches no arbitrary unites, instead reveling in the multifaceted, and thus it’s a genre uniquely suited to mimetically presenting a mind in disagreement with itself. Novelists have thus made great stylistic use of the footnote as a means of demonstrating the simultaneous reverence and disagreement which the form is capable of enacting. Books as varied as James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves,[6] and of course David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest all make use of the footnote’s literary possibilities, allowing parallel narratives to take place in the margins, unseen narrators to comment, digressions, disagreements, and debates to occur within the white space of the page. The gold standard of the post-modern novel using footnotes to both bifurcate and further a narrative is Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, a high modernist poem written by the character John Shade, with the footnoted annotations by the critic Charles Kinbote containing a narrative that ranges from campus bildungsroman to novel of international intrigue.  It’s the sort of book where Shade can wax “For we die every day; oblivion thrives/Not on dry thighbones but on blood-ripe lives,/And our best yesterdays are now foul piles/Of crumpled names, phone numbers and foxed files,” while his biographer can note in the margins “This brand of paper… was not only digestible but delicious.”

An irony in that the reformers said that salvation was afforded through scripture alone, precisely at the same moment that they placed that book in a web of all of its mutual influences (and every other book as well). The Bible might be a thing-unto-itself, but its footnotes are an exhibition in how no book can survive without that almost mystical web of mutual interdependence with other books innumerable. “To the inexpert, footnotes look like deep root systems, solid and fixed,” writes Grafton, but to the “connoisseur, however, they reveal themselves as anthills, swarming with constructive and combative activity.” What makes a footnote remarkable, arguably, is that it provides evidence of that constructive and combative activity, since all studies, histories, monographs, novels, poems, and plays are born from a similar struggle between the author and reality, whether or not those scars are displayed. Since no book is written by an infant, or by a disembodied eternal consciousness, or from the pure and absolute ether of the void, then every book is the result of a writer reading other books. Footnotes are simply acknowledgement and demonstration of that, and every book written is threaded through with the spectral presence of footnotes, stated or unstated.

Image credit: Unsplash/Aaron Burden .

[1] It
should be said that though both dividing chapter and verse in biblical books
was an innovation of Protestants for whom the doctrine of sola Scriptura necessitated
a certain amount of making scripture more convenient for lay readers, it was something
which the Catholic Church took to quickly. The same is true for footnotes; by
1582 the Douay-Reims translation of the Bible, prepared by English priests
living on the continent (and predating the King James Bible by three decades)
had already adopted Jugge’s innovation of footnotes for their own purposes.
[2] The Hebraist Gerald Hammon is even less charitable about the Bishop’s Bible, describing it as “For the most part… a lazy and ill-informed collection of what had gone before, or, in its original parts, the work of third-rate scholars and second-rate writers.

[3] Houston explains that “The Renaissance… marked a change… for the marginal note passed from the province of the reader to that of the writer; notes grew longer and more frequent as authors preemptively surrounded the narrative with their own ‘authorized’ commentary.”

[4] Zerby’s text is idiosyncratic, eccentric, and endlessly readable.

[5] I’ve borrowed both of these examples from Anderson’s helpful article.

[6] Which I started to read in 2003 but, though it’s an incredible novel, I put aside about two thirds of the way through. I’d decided that I’d pick up the horror novel, which is ostensibly about a house that is bigger on the inside than the outside, when I was in a psychologically healthier place. I’ve never picked it up again.