Extinguishing the Self: On Robert Stone

1.
Until the pandemic forced us into hiatus, I curated a reading series for emerging writers in New York City. For 13 years, we met monthly at KGB Bar, a literary venue in the East Village. The bar was rarely full, but it was always a chore to get people to quiet down; we encouraged readers to invite friends, family, and other writers. On the best nights, the place was full of convivial anticipation, like we were throwing a big, bold send-off before these promising writers lit out to new territory.

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

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

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

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

Well, yes; but also, no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re a writer?” he asked.

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

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

“I’m–I’m trying,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credit: Publishers Weekly.

Gravity and Grace and the Virus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Zeyn Joukhadar, Paul Celan, and Marjolijn van Heemstra—that are publishing this week.

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

The Thirty Names of Night by Zeyn Joukhadar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Past Made Present: On Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s ‘Photostats’

1.A year ago I revisited the HBO adaptation of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. I’m still convinced I first saw the play on a high school field trip in the mid ’90s, though I can’t find any documentation that it was staged at the University of Maryland. Still, I remember being profoundly moved by its beauty and gravity, the tragedy of so many lives lost so early, and the prevailing homophobia of the mid ’80s. But what struck me this time, when watching the miniseries, wasn’t any of these things. Instead I was floored by Al Pacino as the dying Roy Cohn, Donald Trump’s mentor and former attorney, who provides a direct political through line from McCarthyism (Cohn was Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel) to our current political mayhem. Watching Angels in America, the foundations of Trumpism had never been more apparent. 

And now, in 2020, the parallels are even more striking.

Then: the president didn’t acknowledge AIDS publicly until years into the pandemic, and only as his friend Rock Hudson died. 

Now: the president refuses to acknowledge the continuing health crisis and the 225,000-plus deaths and growing.

Then: Cohn refused to publicly admit he was HIV positive and dying of AIDS, or that he was gay — instead claiming he had terminal liver disease. 

Now: The Trump team’s Covid outbreak was first reported by the press. The president’s timeline from symptoms to diagnosis remains in question, with his doctors, at times, making contradictory public statements and refusing to state the date of his last negative test.

Released from Walter Reed, the president refuses to acknowledge Covid’s threat and instead tweets: “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life.”

Then: Cohn used his political power to access the then-experimental treatment AZT.

Now: Trump uses his political power to access the experimental treatment, Regeneron’s monoclonal antibodies.

History repeats itself, or Trump learned a lot from his mentor.

Tell it slant. Re-tell it slant. 

“Do you think you might be a super-spreader, Mr. President?”

2. When I consider Felix Gonzalez-Torres, his name conjures the tactile pleasures of my first encounter with his work at the Art Institute of Chicago, specifically its visual warmth, its physicality and playfulness. Candies are piled high in the corner of the room, which the visitor is encouraged to touch, take from, and consume—generally a forbidden pleasure for museumgoers. I recall the delight of undoing the shiny wrap, the hard, sweet candy melting in my mouth. The work is “Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.),” made in 1991, the year that González-Torres’s lover Ross Laycock died of AIDS. The sweet pleasure, this melting in one’s mouth is sexual, illicit, and also a woeful replacement. The work has been assigned a target weight of 175 pounds, which is the weight of an adult male body—presumably Ross’s weight. This knowledge makes the memory of taking and eating so bittersweet. 

In 1991, the year that Laycock died, Gonzalez-Torres also created a billboard, a black-and-white image of an empty bed. It’s a stark reminder of his personal mourning conjured on a public scale. How many loves were lost, and beds emptied during the AIDS epidemic? 

Two years earlier he created a billboard to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. It was mounted at the corner of Christopher Street and 7th Avenue, across the street from the historic Stonewall Inn. The billboard’s black rectangle contained two lines of white type that run across the bottom:

“People With AIDS Coalition 1985 Police Harassment 1969 Oscar Wilde 1895 Supreme Court 1986 Harvey Milk 1977 March on Washington 1987 Stonewall Rebellion 1969”

These names and dates commemorate significant moments both celebratory and tragic in the fight for gay rights and liberation. Gonzalez-Torres called this billboard “an architectural sign of being, a monument for a community that has been ‘historically invisible.’” 

3.Visibility is key for public awareness, especially during a pandemic that governmental leaders would prefer to ignore, downplay, or pass off responsibility for to someone else. It also presents the conundrum, how to commemorate an absence? Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)” replaces the mass of his lover’s body with a pile of candy. His billboards, too, are confrontational, inviting the public to intimately gaze upon an emptied bed. 

1988 is the year Felix Gonzalez-Torres made most of the photostats recently collected in the volume by Siglio Press called simply, Photostats. Their design matches that of the Stonewall billboard, only they’re vastly downsized.

1988 is the year Ross Laycock was diagnosed with AIDS. At the time testing positive was a death sentence. I’d assume Gonzalez-Torres would’ve had an awareness then that he too would likely die from AIDS-related causes. 

The photostats were originally printed on photographic paper using what was effectively an early photocopy machine. The term now sounds exotic, evoking medical lexicon—”stat” being a term used ubiquitously in hospitals to reflect an acute need demanding swift attention, but also “static”—like the white text on black, like a memorial. Visually these photostats evoke another somber memorial, The Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington DC, designed by Maya Lin. There the simple, stolid black granite walls are etched with a year, followed by the names of fallen American troops. Together the individual names amass into a sea of downed men in a war that mars our history.  

The paper Gonzalez-Torres uses is ephemeral, like the many lives lost to the pandemic, to the wars. It’s ephemeral, too, like our nation’s historical memory. 

As Ann Lauterbach comments in her essay that accompanies this volume, “History is a noun. Is it a thing?”

In recent years especially it’s become apparent that what’s “great” in American history has been made so not by what’s happened as much as by what we’ve collectively chosen to ignore. 

Photostats captivates with its bright red cover, conjuring AIDS like the red ribbons worn in the ’90s to signify solidarity with those with HIV (I wore one pinned to a bag). The title is embossed in gold and possesses an elegance and beauty suited to Gonzalez-Torres’s aesthetic. As Mónica de La Torre observes in her accompanying essay, his work, even here, is about love and infiltration, “To look closely here involves taking a deep dive into history’s ash heap, getting lost in the process, knowing there’s no one way to read the works.” There are multiple beginnings and no end: open the book on either side to the series of photostats, one series is gloss (to see the image as it’s displayed, to reflect the viewer), the other matte. Each is followed by an essay, one by de la Torre and the other by Lauterbach.

The photostat texts cite names and events that elicit and implicate the reader/viewer in a varied American and world history— that of bloodshed, protest, celebrity, glamour, oppression, and scientific prowess. Just glimpse the first page: “Patty Hearst 1975 Jaws 1975 Vietnam 1975 Watergate 1973 Bruce Lee 1973 Munich 1972 Waterbeds 1971 Jackie 1968”—and consider the commingling of history, corruption, pleasure, death, fantasy, adventure, and wealth. As de la Torre writes, “González-Torres’s inscriptions do act as constellations, as celestial alphabet.” Each page can be seen as a snapshot, read as a couplet, or a contorted haiku. What emerges are the connections a reader makes, between words and events conjured, while discerning their entanglement. There are names of fighter jets and bombs and court trials and, of course, references to the AIDS epidemic. 

I don’t have to try very hard to tease out the resonances and parallels to our current pandemic. 

“PTL 1987”: the televangelist Jim Bakker stepped down from his position after being outed for embezzling money and improper sexual acts. In 2020, Bakker was sued and sent a warning by the FDA for pedaling $80 bottles of silver solution as a Covid treatment and cure.  

“New Life Forms Patents 1987”: allowed for the trademark of the genetically manipulated OncoMouse used to develop cancer treatments; a similar transgenic species—VelocImmune® mice—was used to develop antibodies for Regeneron’s monoclonal antibody treatment that Trump received.

Toward the book’s center, names, images, ideas, and incidences cited in the photostats run on, run together so that they merge: “Diana Princess North Zero Oliver Patient” and “supreme 1986 court crash stock market crash 1929 sodomy stock market court stock supreme 1987.” Here Black Monday 1987 dovetails with another black Monday, not as often recalled: the day the Supreme Court upheld a Georgia sodomy law outlawing oral and anal sex between consulting adults.

As a child of the ’80s I’m already fluent in the patois of Photostats, and familiar with the names dropped—be it Ollie, Spud, Princess Di. The disparity between this lightness and the weightier remembrances, or those that I have to look up, creates a rift through their seeming inequivalence. But also, isn’t this how history plays out? Diana was an icon when the aforementioned outcome of Bowers v. Hardwick was decided; and I doubt Gonzalez-Torres would’ve guessed Princess Diana would die only a year after he did. These coincidences only accentuate the intermingling of beauty and carnage and power. 

I’m thinking now of how those in Generation Z will create their own lists with their own penumbras of resonance: what names and court decisions will they contain, and what aspects of the present will spin on into our collective future? Perhaps one might look something like: “Osama 2001 Obama 2008 Hobby Lobby 2014 TikTok 2020, Breonna.”

But also, in considering these fragmented histories, what becomes apparent is what’s so easily forgotten. Photostats reveals how the past still lives on, only reinvented. I’m wondering, when will there be an intervention, a disruption, a reckoning with the current trajectory we’ve taken? Perhaps it begins with the 2020 elections and becomes something we enact daily.

The Narrative Drama Triangle: On Sayed Kashua’s ‘Track Changes’

The first few chapters of Sayed Kashua’s latest novel, Track Changes, didn’t impress me much. For those acquainted with the most common tropes of immigrant fiction, the setup is familiar: one day, our narrator receives a note that his father is dying. He leaves his wife and three children in the United States and flies back to his hometown of Tira in Palestine. Gradually, we learn more about his extreme estrangement. He has not talked to his parents or siblings for 14 years. Meanwhile, his marriage in the States seems like a piece of wreckage: every night after kissing his children goodnight, he rides a bus back to his grad student dorm alone.

I wondered as I read, is this another narrative about the unbearable burdens of displacement, or about the failure of the American Dream, with a bit of mid-life crisis in disguise?

However, as the multi-layered narrative unfurled, piece by piece, like the skin of an onion, I was surprised and satisfied to see all my expectations overturned. This inventive structure drives readers, deliberately and yet subtly, into the core of a larger, abstract question regarding the nature of fiction.

In a speech last year at San Francisco State University, Kashua confessed that for him, “writing always caused a lot of troubles.” In Track Changes, the anonymous protagonist inherits a similar fate. In college, he composes a piece of precocious fiction piece that derails his life, as well as the life of a young woman he barely knows. In his story, he makes love to a female character named Palestine on the rooftop of a high school. Unfortunately, the story circulates back to Tira where there is actually a young woman of the same name. Rampant rumors abound and the protagonist is obliged to marry her.

“Fiction is never innocent,” Brett Ashley Kaplan concludes in her review of Track Changes for Haaretz. From her perspective, the novel demonstrates the potential danger of “fabrication and invention.”

I harbor mixed feelings about Kaplan’s reading. On the surface, the disastrous outcome of the protagonist’s teenage writing confirms the high stakes inherent in fictionalizing. But it is also misleading to suggest writers should abandon their creativity altogether. To me, Track Changes explores the deep roots—rather than the tragic consequences—of “fabrication and invention.”

For one thing, the novel implies that alterations of fact are inevitable. Earlier in the book, the protagonist recalls a childhood episode: a car crash that left his uncle confined to a hospital bed and killed his uncle’s wife and children. As the “good kid” of the family, the narrator is asked to stay with his uncle and hide the horrid reality from him.
“Why hasn’t your aunt come to visit?” he asked me as soon as it was just the two of us alone in the hospital room.
“I don’t know, Uncle,” I told him. “She’s probably with Omar in Petach Tikva.”
[…]
“Have you seen him [Omar]?” he asked, and I, who only that morning had seen Omar’s body, answered that I had and that he was “fine, totally fine. He even asked about you, and then we played that game that he likes with the chutes and the ladders. He beat me four to one.”
“Yes, he likes that game,” my uncle said and smiled. “You know, you’re the only one I really believe. Now I can relax. I thought the adults were lying to me. Adults always lie.”
“Never, Uncle,” I said. “I never ever lie.” And I swore to God.
What shall we, then, make of the protagonist’s lie? Is it a white lie aimed at some fundamental goodness? Or is it a betrayal of his innocence and faith? The novel is filled with such moments when we are compelled to answer those difficult questions. I take his lie as his concern for his uncle; he doesn’t want to see him hurt.

In the same vein, the narrator’s later habit of editing and altering his own and others’ memories also stems from his emotional needs. He slips his fondest childhood memories into the memoirs, which he ghostwrites because he has to get his pent-up nostalgia out. He glosses over the tension that happens in reality between him and his family members because he longs for their understanding and forgiveness. Even the short story that reshaped his entire life serves his yearning for a homeland. After all, the protagonist is a Palestinian citizen of Israel, and Palestine is a state, not a woman.

That is the complicated relation of truth to fiction: although the story is a lie, the emotions couldn’t be more real.

Ideally, if readers read the stories as what they are, the same emotions will come through and the stories will, in a way, strengthen human empathy. However, as Kashua’s sobering novel suggests, the readers participate in the reading, bringing their various presuppositions and sentiments with them.

Going back to “Palestine,” the short story that changes the protagonist’s life forever: The culture of honor that runs through the Palestinian community of the novel denies its members the space to read the story as fiction. In that regard, the protagonist and his soon-to-be wife, Palestine, are innocent; they both come under a microscope where even fiction is proof of transgression.

In 1968, psychologist Stephen Karpman theorized what is known today as the drama triangle. In this social model of human interaction, a conflict usually involves three players: the victim, the rescuer, and the persecutor. Different role-players are acting upon their own distinct needs. In Track Changes, we can see how those roles switch from one to another across a narrative depending on the characters’ needs. After the protagonist’s father wakes up in his sickbed, one of the first questions he hurls at his son is whether the latter still fabricates his memories and whether he is still the victim in those stories. The narrator does and is. Earlier in the book, he keeps dreaming the same dream of brandishing a machine gun to protect his village in a war: a victim of war, but a rescuer, too.

Almost all the post-traumatic narratives in the novel are shaped in the same way. For those Palestinians who take on the role of persecutor of the innocent woman, Palestine, they feel their belief in preserving traditional culture is threatened by the protagonist’s fiction and so their punishment is vindicated. A similar shift of roles happens to the Jewish residents of Tira as well: after three Jewish boys are kidnapped and murdered, the protagonist feels his Jewish colleagues look at him differently—they now feel the right to accuse, hate, and oppress him—and that is why he chooses to leave his hometown for the United States.

Here the novel becomes a precise metaphor of a larger cultural context, i.e., the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Both nations are shaped by the experience of collective suffering and memory: the Holocaust and the Nakba, experiences that continue to trap generations in conflict.

Track Changes thus reads as an agonized citizen’s failure to belong. Returning to the sickbed of his dying father, the protagonist hopes to leave his past transgression behind and reconcile with his family and community, only to find his people and state still filled with a sense of shame and hatred from historical traumas.

Paradoxically, the key to end the drama triangle of post-traumatic narratives may inevitably require an extent of “fabrication and invention.” Toward the end of the novel, losing his father—his organic bond to his people and state—the protagonist imagines an alternative historical moment, a moment in which he can see Palestine as a whole and without bitterness. In that polished memory, he stands on the roof of his high school, on the eve of Independence Day, and sees a girl “so beautiful that it is enough to look at her once and know that life has a purpose.” She takes down the Israeli flag and replaces it with a hand-drawn Palestinian flag.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Baxter, Reyes, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Charles Baxter, Dolores Reyes, 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 Sun Collective by Charles Baxter

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Sun Collective: “Baxter’s first novel in over a decade (after The Soul Thief) juggles satirical social critique and family drama, resulting in a messy yet engrossing tale of activism and aging. Retired Minneapolis engineer Harry Brettigan spends his days searching for his adult son, Tim, who fell out of touch months earlier, and sweetly bickering with his wife, Alma. After Alma faints one day, she starts talking with their pets and is drawn to the Sun Collective, a community group that offers resources to homeless people. There, she befriends a younger couple, Ludlow and Christina, and Harry balks when Ludlow details his homicidal vision for ‘effective microviolence’ against suburbanites to achieve the Sun Collective’s full potential. As Harry reckons with his relationships to Alma and Tim, he also travels down the rabbit hole of the Sun Collective to parse its true intentions; along the way, Tim reappears as a saved Collective member; the Sandmen, an extremist group that allegedly murders vagrants, emerge; and there’s a series of mysterious deaths. Throughout, Baxter smartly lampoons America’s political state and adds enough odd details to offset the occasionally murky plot threads. Readers willing to wade through the diversions will find a thoughtful study of anger, grief, and hope.”

Eartheater by Dolores Reyes (translated by Julia Sanches)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Eartheater: “A high school dropout reluctantly uses her clairvoyant power to find missing women and children in Argentinian writer Reyes’s lurid debut. The unnamed narrator develops a habit of eating dirt in the wake of her mother’s violent death, earning her the name Eartheater and shame for her family, especially the aunt now raising her and her older brother, Walter. When a beloved teacher goes missing, the young teenage narrator eats the dirt from the school’s courtyard and draws an explicit picture of the teacher’s body outside of a nightclub, which gets her sent to the principal. After the teacher’s body is discovered where the narrator drew her, the aunt leaves the siblings to fend for themselves, and the narrator drops out of school while Walter supports them both by working as a mechanic. The narrator prefers to drink beer and play video games with Walter and his friends from their unnamed barrio, and occasionally accepts cash for her visions from family members of missing people. Reyes crafts an alluring, unsettling edge to the plot developments, including the narrator’s first sexual experiences and the city’s pervasive violence, by collapsing the narrator’s age and the passage of time, preserving aspects of her young girlhood and her angst-ridden teenage years as she grows older. Reyes’s coming-of-age portrait stands out for her unflinching look at a teen’s exploration of sex and death.”

Here Is the Beehive by Sarah Crossan

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Here Is the Beehive: “In Irish writer Crossan’s beautifully written first adult novel (after the YA book Being Toffee), a married London lawyer and mother of two has an affair with her client, Connor Mooney, a married father of three. Ana finds her husband, Paul, to be ‘homely’ and ‘compassionate,’ and feels unsatisfied in their marriage, which mostly consists of communicating by ‘grunts and nods.’ Ana and Connor meet up in hotel rooms when they can, but Ana wants more from the relationship; while she is willing to give up her family for Connor, he’s hesitant to leave his wife. The three-year affair ends with Connor’s death, the cause of which is initially kept from the reader. Ana hears the news from the unsuspecting Rebecca, who calls to inform Ana in her capacity as the lawyer of Connor’s estate. Ana is devastated and unable to mourn her lover openly, and is left with nothing but a password-protected photograph of him on her computer. Then she secretly changes Connor’s will and declares herself the executor, ‘so I could know your life and befriend your wife and keep you for a while.’ The book, structured in five parts, explores Ana’s grief, guilt, and loss in stunning, spare lyrical prose, which appears like verse on the page as dialogue breaks into snippets of Ana’s consciousness. Told from the point of view of a highly flawed Ana, this mesmerizing story will have readers hooked.”

Nights When Nothing Happened by Simon Han

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Nights When Nothing Happened: “Han’s ambitious if mixed debut follows the travails of a Chinese immigrant family living in the wealthy Dallas suburb of Plano. Patty Cheng is the breadwinner, whose long hours designing microchips pulls her away from her photographer husband, Liang, and their two children, Jack and Annabel, 11 and five. On Thanksgiving Day in 2003, a misunderstanding leads to an accusation by Annabel’s best friend of a ‘bad touch’ by Liang, which snowballs into more trouble for Liang involving the police after Liang and Jack neglect to set the record straight. The family’s survival is dependent on a slippery sense of identity and difficulty in belonging in the Texas suburb, which permeate the narrative amid other unfortunately underdeveloped themes (duty vs. love, genteel racism). Most of the characterizations are convincing, though Annabel, even in close third-person narration, comes across as overly precocious (‘If Annabel could understand what an overreaction was, she could understand what an overreaction wasn’t’). Still, as Liang struggles through the consequences of the accusation, Han succeeds in drawing the portrait of a new American family while demonstrating a talent for creating a sense of place through the eyes of immigrants. The premise is intriguing, but Han doesn’t quite stick the landing.”

Lord the One You Love Is Sick by Kasey Thornton

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Lord the One You Love Is Sick: “Thornton’s brutal, moody debut collection crafts a tapestry of hidden secrets and cruel undercurrents in rural Bethany, N.C., revolving around the heroin overdose of troubled 23-year-old Gentry. ‘I Shall Not Wait’ picks up with Gentry’s lifelong best friend, Dale, a cop who abandoned his drug-dependent buddy, whose decline seemed unstoppable, ‘like a train barreling toward the weak spot in the tracks.’ Dale becomes psychologically unmoored by the guilt, while his wife wonders if their marriage will survive. ‘Valley of the Shadow’ follows Gentry’s mother, Nettie, following Gentry’s death. She’s angry and in mourning, left alone with her agoraphobic younger son, Ethan, who’d bonded over video games with Gentry. In ‘Trespasses,’ Ethan finds a new friend in Abigail, a neighbor who’s been sexually abused by her father. More characters unravel with each successive story, which chronicle the deep and sprawling impact made by Gentry’s death as inner lives are exposed, unlikely friendships are forged, and gossipy whispers persist at the local diner. Thornton taps the vernacular, attitudes, and prejudices of small Southern townsfolk with eerie precision. These stories collectively coalesce into a resonant, emotionally searing nexus of hard truths, buried secrets, and emotional pain that readers won’t soon forget. Thornton’s accomplished stories are full of insights on their rural American setting and inhabitants’ psychology.”

The Orchard by David Hopen

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Orchard: “Hopen commingles religious philosophy and dangerous behavior in his ambitious debut. Aryeh, 17, has always felt somewhat alienated from his deeply devout orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn’s Borough Park, so when his father’s job loss prompts a family move to southern Florida, Aryeh welcomes the opportunity to start over for senior year. He lands a coveted spot at elite Kol Neshama Academy, a modern Orthodox school whose students will undoubtedly drive their luxury cars all the way to the Ivy League. Despite his unfashionable attire and lack of social and academic sophistication, Aryeh is taken under the wing of the school’s golden boy, Noah. Noah’s risk-taking circle of friends in turn introduce Aryeh (soon redubbed Andrew) to the pleasures of secular life. Aryeh is especially fascinated by charismatic, emotionally complicated Evan, who has an emotional hold over Aryeh’s love interest, Sophia, and the group test their faith with daring escapades such as midnight speedboat rides (‘if you’re the worthy one, you survive,’ Evan says, fast approaching a jetty). Later, experiments with LSD bring on visions of God. Aryeh’s insecurities and longings are on full display in his insightful—if at times overwrought—narration. Though the students’ lengthy philosophical and scriptural debates initially seem ponderous, their thematic connections become increasingly apparent as the novel nears its moving climax. This isn’t your average campus novel, and despite its lumps, is all the better for it.”

The Best of Brevity, edited by Zoe Bossiere and Dinty W. Moore

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Best of Brevity: “In this marvelous, diverse anthology, Brevity editors Moore and Bossiere collect the literary journal’s best nonfiction pieces, none longer than 750 words. Readers will find some familiar names, including Roxane Gay and Jia Tolentino, but also gems from lesser-known writers. They include poets such as Diane Seuss, whose entry comprises a single run-on sentence capturing a parent’s fury and fatigue while dealing with a child’s drug addiction, and Lori Jakiela, who recalls a conversation in which her terminally ill mother argued with her about the fate of Lori’s soul while teaching her to make a nut-roll. Elsewhere, book reviewer Julie Hakim Azzam writes poignantly of Palestine as ‘a phantom limb that continues to send pain signals through the nerves.’ Among the fiction writers, Patricia Park reflects on Americans’ and North and South Koreans’ differing beauty standards, and Torrey Peters crafts a powerful found essay out of violent details from a 2014 report on transgender murder victims. Closing out the book, Bossiere and Moore include a list of additional recommended reading. This collection will be an asset to writing teachers and students, and a joy to essay fans.”

Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi (translated by Geoffrey Trousselot)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Before the Coffee Gets Cold: “Japanese playwright Kawaguchi’s evocative English-language debut is set in a tiny Tokyo café where time travel is possible. In four connected tales, lovers and family members take turns sitting in the chair that allows a person to travel back in time for only as long as it takes a single cup of coffee to cool. In ‘Husband and Wife,’ a nurse goes back in time to visit her husband before his Alzheimer’s erased her from his memory; in ‘The Sisters,’ a woman visits her younger sister, who died in an accident while trying to visit her, to apologize for not seeing her. Kawaguchi’s characters embark on lo-fi, emotional journeys unburdened by the technicalities often found in time travel fiction—notably, they are unable to change the present. The characters learn, though, that even though people don’t return to a changed present, they return ‘with a changed heart.’ Kawaguchi’s tender look at the beauty of passing things, adapted from one of his plays, makes for an affecting, deeply immersive journey into the desire to hold onto the past. This wondrous tale will move readers.”

Also on shelves this week: The Age of Skin by Dubravka Ugrešić (translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac) and Together in a Sudden Strangeness, edited by Alice Quinn.

What the Literature About Contemporary Korean Women’s Lives Illuminates About Our Own

There was an infamous flasher who lurked around the school gate. He was a local who’d been showing up at the same time and place for years…On cloudy days, he would appear at the empty lot that directly faced the windows of the all-girls’ classroom eight. Jiyoung was in that class in the eighth grade.
Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo

The recent Jeffrey Toobin “incident” of his masturbatory penile exposure during a work call with colleagues at The New Yorker enraged me. And while it was welcome news that The New Yorker has fired him, though not citing a reason—the lack of professionalism during a work call should be obvious. His other employer, CNN, where he serves as head legal analyst, said that following the “Zoom incident,” Toobin “asked for some time off” and that the network had granted it. He will be just fine.

My anger has to do with not just the incident itself but also the subsequent jokey “there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I” responses from the pundit lad-o-sphere, steamrollering over the fact that most women first involuntarily encounter the weaponized penis as children. I was 11 in rural Minnesota when first exposed to a flasher on the street who also threatened me with a broom handle. The response by the male adults in my life to my tears and upset were gales of laughter. The flasher, a drifter, lurked around our small town for days, unbothered by police or other authorities, until he tried flashing a well-built woman who got in a physical altercation with him and he was driven from town. Just a few years later, when I was barely an adolescent, I tried to place an ad in our town newspaper to sell my horse. My parents grabbed the phone out of my hands when they heard me shouting, “I don’t know how long a horse’s penis is, my horse is a mare!”—me not understanding that the man with the trustworthy, inquiring adult voice was not interested in purchasing my horse but was assaulting me via phone. A quick survey of friends suggests my experience is not unique but rather very typical, how this hostile atmosphere begins when girls are still children, continues with everyday misogyny (including impossible standards set by advertising), and proceeds when the weaponized penis enters the workplace. Working for years at an investment bank, a call asking a trader about price/earnings ratios would often devolve into the equivalent of horse-penis talk. For example, when pictures of a colleague’s a new baby were met with a vulgar observation by our section chief about how big the newborn’s penis was. Or when an announcement of new female analysts featured Playboy centerfolds instead of employee pictures. Unfortunately, I couldn’t hang up. Instead I had to endure this just to do my job—and it was clear I was being docked invisible points for being “overly sensitive.”

In economics, this concept of negative collateral effects of an action is called “disutility.” The poisoning of the environment and climate change would be a disutility of the energy sector. Which is why disutility is often never looked at. And when it is, it is relegated to less-than exciting (to the self-described “alpha” trader), marginalized fields like economic sustainability. It’s something I encountered only because of my interest in global developmental economics—because it comes up as a lone STEM-voice of dissent in discussions of why not just send all our old toxic iPhone trash to undeveloped countries and pay them (minimally) for the inevitable cancer they will get (See also: Theory of Competitive Advantage).

I was struck, then, at a number of recent novels set in Korea looking at the cost of sexism baldly and directly. In fact, what has been described as the Korean #MeToo movement began as a grenade that went off in the insular Korean literary community: in 2017, the Hwanghae Literature ran a feminist issue; in it a poem, “Monster,” by Choi Young-mi accused “En,” a fictional character of sexual misconduct. The details of “En” match up directly with Ko Un, arguably Korea’s most famous poet and novelist, oft-cited as Korea’s best hope for the Nobel Prize and whose work appears in most middle school and high school textbooks. Other Korean women quickly reified this accusation, suggesting Ko had gone decades unpunished for such conduct, for using his stature to sexually harass young female writers . Ko responded in a nuclear fashion, suing Choi for one billion won ($886,500) for defamation. But now that Pandora’s box has been opened, the spotlight has also shined on the movie and K-pop industry as well. Even the mayor of Seoul, who received unequivocal praise for his handling of the Covid crisis, became embroiled in his own sexual harassment scandal, and committed suicide after the allegations were made public.

The novel Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo, translated in its elegant minimalism by Jamie Chang, tells a story of a young housewife who seems to be going through a nervous breakdown and extreme depression. But, in some ways, when we see her extremely typical but psychologically and physically violent coming of age, in a dispassionate narration that not only makes the horror more total, it seems less a breakdown than a normal response to being a girl and then a young woman dealing with everyday misogyny. In the case of the flasher in Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, when the adults brush it off, some bolder girls jump the flasher, tie him up, and bring him to the police station. Jiyoung is a tentative person and it doesn’t escape her notice that the girls who rise up to defend themselves are then punished by their school. She manages to get into college, gets a boyfriend, but overhears her male friends describing her as “spat-out gum” because her boyfriend broke up with her. She is similarly dismissed when seeking employment. It seems clearer and clearer to her that taking a stand or resisting societal norms doesn’t get the rebels anywhere. She is cognizant of and frustrated by her lack of options, and half decides, half falls into marriage and childbearing, holding out hope the conventional route will get her some modicum of satisfaction. She even gives up her job, which gave her a level of independence and self-actualization, even though she didn’t like the job per se, which she realizes only once she’s quit. But she finds out later that even work was sullied: shortly after she’d left, a scandal erupted when it was discovered that the male security team set up spycams in the bathrooms, uploading images to a porn site and to male coworkers. Thus, the routes of possible escape or alternatives fade away.

Cho, a television scriptwriter, said in an interview that she wrote the book in two months because her own life, basically, provided the entire backdrop she needed. The book hit a nerve in Korea and became a bestseller—not just in Korea but internationally; it’s been translated into 18 languages.

Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (translated by Deborah Smith) is another bestseller with a wide audience in the English-language world. More atmospheric than plotted, it centers around a Korean housewife who suddenly stops eating meat after having a disturbing dream. Her indifferent and unloving husband tries to adapt, but at a family gathering her refusal to eat meat becomes insulting to her father, who goads her husband and brother into force feeding her meat. She fights back and ends up institutionalized; her husband, the narrator, is left pondering her putative delusions and the mental instability of a woman who won’t submit to the behavior men want to see from her.

If I Had Your Face by Korean American author Frances Cha follows a group of young women who happen to live in the same building as they navigate lives in Seoul, a glittery place of neon and high-rises, and a place that is widely known as the plastic surgery capital of the world. A place where an estimated one in three women will elect to have a procedure before the age of 30, and where it is impossible to merely take the subway and not see ads promising life transformation—for men and women, but more for women—everywhere). The exquisitely beautiful, cosmetically enhanced Kyuri works at a “room salon,” a fancy place where men pay a premium to consort only with the “prettiest” women. Her roommate is a natural-faced artist dating the rich son of a chaebol family. Down the hall is Ara, a mute hairdresser, whose plain-looking roommate Sujin has a dubious dream to undergo expensive and painful plastic surgery to achieve Kyuri’s looks and work in a similar salon. Sujin’s quest for a beauty she feels will make her happy and financially stable is long and painful. Somewhat more peripherally, the women are aware of the young mother Wonna, on the first floor, who is swimming against not just impossible standards of beauty and sexism but also a cutthroat economy, which was memorably limned in Bong Jun-Ho’s award winning Parasite. These obstacles may make the college dreams she has for her children just an illusion.

Looked at it one way, these novels share a depressing commonality of women ground down or driven “crazy” by an unescapable patriarchy where misogyny is not just baked in, but baked into older women’s (i.e., the in-laws) non-support of the younger. Adding to the collection of fiction, Choi Seung-ja’s newly released poetry collection, Phone Bells Keep Ringing for Me (translated by Won-Chung Kim and Cathy Park Hong), declares poems “short as a shriek,” both witness and battle cry that reminds us that canons full of male authors gloss over societal structures that have kept women largely silent in literature as well as politics and culture via a strict and narrow set of rules of what is “acceptable” behavior–and art–by women. Korean poetry is often marked by the pastoral, and poetry by women comes with expectations to be lyrical and decorous in subject. Choi, then explodes that idea. For instance, Korean culture reveres the seasons, autumn is often considered the most attractive season for its vivid colors infused with melancholy because of the nearness of winter. Choi’s “Dog Autumn” begins with:
Dog autumn attacks.
Syphilis autumn.
And death visits
one of twilight’s paralyzed legs.
Spring, the season of renewal, is also considered an attractive, tender season, with flowers like azalea and cherry blossoms representative of its beauty and ephemerality. In Choi’s hands “Spring” is
…of the lonely, unmarried thirty-three-year-old woman…
In the spring, plants and grass bloom,
and even garbage grows fresh.
The trash pile grows bigger in my mouth.
I cannot swallow it or vomit it up.
Readers would be shortchanging themselves to think of these books as a kind of anthropological look at a Confucian society that favors males. These books fit in perfectly with contemporary English-language narratively inventive novels looking at women’s lives, recent examples that come to mind includes the comedic (but ultimately serious) Fleishmann Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, a novel that also uses the wife’s absence to make points about the structures of matrimony and sexism. There is also a hard-to-classify novel about motherhood, Helen Phillips’s The Need that uses tropes of horror (a great choice) to examine motherhood and female agency.

These works, however, tend to not overtly reference the structures of patriarchy and misogyny the way the Korean novels do, drawing straight lines from these societal structures, that are largely out of women’s controls, and showing that even recognizing and resisting them isn’t a clear path to equality (or even equity). In the end, withdrawal, absenting one’s self from normal existence in the most disruptive way possible, is one of the few “effective” strategies to draw attention to these women’s stories. Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 in particular unselfconsciously emphasizes its themes, unafraid of seeming didactic. With mini essays about gender statistics and rates of labor force participations, embedded with footnotes referencing Pew and Guttmacher type statistics, this is a novel through its narrative inventiveness fusing fact and fiction (not unlike Melville’s digressions on the whaling industry), we can see Kim Jiyoung’s story placed within a context of an entire country, for what are individual data points, but actual individuals?

In the end, Ko Un’s billion-won suit against the poet Choi Young-mi was dismissed, for, as the Korea Herald reported, Choi’s consistent testimony and that of other witnesses convinced the Seoul Central District Court that she was telling the truth. Choi thanks the judiciary for “bringing justice,” but the truth is, while fending off Ko’s power-play of a public lawsuit, she was still charged the disutility of the damages she suffered from Ko, to her career, her time and peace of mind. Similarly, for every woman who’s had to put up with a hostile workplace—like a man masturbating during a work meeting in front of his female colleagues—this is a kind of tax that, like gender pay disparities, should be reconsidered and compensated. But as Cho Nam-Joo writes in her novel with men continuing to hold the reins of power, it’s no surprise what women do continues to be undervalued. Kim Jiyoung gives it all up to be the best mother, only to be called a “mom-roach” by some young office lads having coffee in the same park where she, buckling with fatigue, is taking her baby out in the stroller, the damages she’s undergone woefully and forever unacknowledged: “Probably because the moment you put a price on something, someone has to pay.”

On the Oldest Road: U.S. 1, Robert Kramer, the Buick, and Me

Six Sidewalks to the Moon

In early 1981, while Ronald Reagan was getting settled in at the White House, I quit my job as a newspaper reporter and drove my lipstick-red-and-black 1954 Buick to the top of Maine. When I got to Fort Kent, which looks out across the St. John River at the deep forests of Canada, I made a U-turn and began the 2,446-mile drive down the length of highway U.S. 1, a journey that would deposit me and my Buick six months later at “The End of the Rainbow,” as the sign proclaims in Key West, Fla., where the road runs into the sea.

Seven years later, as Reagan’s presidency was winding to a close, the avant-garde filmmaker Robert Kramer retraced my tire tracks in the company of his friend Paul McInnis, known as Doc, who had spent the previous 10 years practicing medicine in Africa. Though Kramer, Doc, and I literally covered the same ground, and though we seem to have been driven by similar compulsions, we produced two works that could hardly be more different. One of the few things they have in common, it turns out, is their shared fatal flaw.

Kramer’s trip resulted in Route One/USA, a four-hour documentary that’s almost as exhilarating and exhausting as the long drive down America’s oldest road. My trip resulted in a 348-page nonfiction manuscript that attracted the interest of a New York literary agent but failed to sell. The typescript then crawled into a box in my closet, where it slept for nearly 40 years—until I heard that Film at Lincoln Center was streaming Route One, with a wider virtual video release coming soon. Watching Kramer’s movie for the first time, I realized our projects formed mismatched bookends to the Gipper’s presidency.

Like Kramer’s best-known works—Ice, The Edge, Milestones, and Doc’s Kingdom—the unscripted Route One is a willful repudiation of conventional filmmaking. His early work won praise from aficionados of experimental film but failed to attract a wide American audience. Frustrated, Kramer moved to France in 1980, where he was highly esteemed and able to win funding for new politically tinged projects.

With money in hand, the expat decided to come back home in the late 1980s and go “looking for America,” as he put it in an interview. Like John Steinbeck, Robert Frank, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, and countless others before and since, Kramer decided there’s no better place to go looking than the open road, that endless blank slate where it’s possible to connect with the essential American impulses—disaffection, curiosity, the itch to move on, and the perverse habit of despoiling the natural world in the pursuit of so-called progress and convenience. I hit the road in 1981 for similar but slightly different reasons. After cranking out newspaper copy for the previous five years, I was dissatisfied with my daily contributions to what I had come to think of as “the conventional wisdom,” the media’s canned view of American life that obeyed one unbendable commandment—Thou Shalt Not Offend—and had to be delivered in language an eighth grader could understand. I itched to write longer and deeper stories about people who were not considered newsworthy, and I decided the open road would be the best place to find them.

With so many roads to choose from, why did Kramer and I settle on U.S. 1? I have a hunch he was attracted to the tidy narrative arc the road provided—to my ears, “from Canada to Key West” sounds like it was made for a movie poster. My attraction was a bit more complicated. The road runs “from frost belt to sun belt,” as I wrote in my book’s introduction, “through some of the wooliest wilderness and grubbiest ghettoes known to mankind.” But just as important as its variety, this road offered the kind of historical serendipity that has always been irresistible to me. My Buick rolled off the assembly line in April of 1954, a few weeks before Vice President Richard Nixon unveiled President Dwight Eisenhower’s plan to build a nationwide network of “interstate” highways. It was to be the most ambitious public works project in human history, an achievement of such magnitude that it sent bland bald Ike into an uncharacteristic fit of poetry. As he put it in his memoirs: “The amount of concrete poured to form these roadways would build 80 Hoover Dams or six sidewalks to the moon. To build them, bulldozers and shovels would move enough dirt and rock to bury all of Connecticut two feet deep.” Cars of the ’50s like my Buick, with its mammiferous chrome bumpers and fire-breathing V-8 engine and two-tone paint job, had outgrown America’s patchwork roads, including U.S. 1, which follows one of the three original Post Roads that connected New York and Boston during colonial times and would become the most heavily travelled road in the world by the 1930s. This disconnect between the cars of the ’50s and the pre-interstate roads they travelled on was intriguing to me, and it was captured with acid precision by Richard Yates in his masterpiece Revolutionary Road. Yates’s 1950s suburbanites had many misgivings—about their marriages, their jobs, their kids, and their “foolishly misplaced” homes. “Their automobiles didn’t look right either,” Yates wrote, “unnecessarily wide and gleaming in the colors of candy and ice cream, seeming to wince at each splatter of mud, they crawled apologetically down the broken roads that fed from all directions to the deep, level slab of Route Twelve. Once there the cars seemed able to relax in an environment all their own, a long bright valley of colored plastic and plate glass and stainless steel – KING KONE, MOBILGAS, SHOPORAMA, EAT – but eventually they had to turn off, one by one, and make their way up the winding country road…”

Yates had found his metaphor for postwar America in his fictional Route Twelve. Kramer and I found our own 1980s surrogate: the real Route One.

America’s Lust for the Hideous

For all their differences, Kramer’s movie and my book do have some overlap. Both works set up shop in the margins of American life, where the malcontents, the paranoids, and the fever dreamers dwell, apart from the mainstream operators who wind up on the front page and the six o’clock news. Kramer filmed Doc talking to a gallery of these marginalized people, including a coven of witches, abortion clinic protesters, newlyweds, Penobscot Native Americans, supporters of the televangelist Pat Robertson, Haitian immigrants, soldiers, a rabid minister, refugees from the civil war in El Salvador, and a journalist investigating murders connected to white supremacists. Doc doesn’t so much interview these subjects as he tries to make them comfortable enough to open up, and he’s good at it. Like all skilled reporters, he’s curious and nonjudgmental. Though they do visit some postcard places—Walden Pond, for one, and the Tragedy in U.S. History Museum, which features the Jayne Mansfield death car—Doc and Kramer stick mostly to unremarkable spots, such as housing projects, soup kitchens, army bases, and wedding chapels. Hovering over the trip like a fog is the scourge of AIDS and the Reagan administration’s dilatory response to it. The result of all this is a fragmented mosaic rather than a coherent portrait of a nation. The overall mood is one of melancholy.

My trip took place just before the AIDS scourge descended, but the people I met were not unlike the ones Kramer encountered: an itinerant Boston stripper working the back-road bars in Maine, a former NHL hockey star in the twilight of his career, people living uneasily in the shadow of New Hampshire’s Seabrook nuclear reactor, a Vietnam vet who actually missed the war, a Guardian Angel organizer in a Providence housing project, a gaggle of sozzled prosecutors at a convention of North Carolina district attorneys, the rockabilly singer Robert Gordon, the stock-car king Richard Petty, a Vietnamese refugee, a tattoo artist, a newspaper publisher, an immigrant activist in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood. Rather than melancholy, I sensed a pervasive mood of drift. After enduring the Vietnam War, Watergate, the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown, and the Iranian hostage crisis, most of the people I met felt unmoored, hungry for something they could believe in and cling to. Which went a long way toward explaining why sunny Ronald Reagan had just won the presidency in a landslide.

One of the highlights of my trip was a long hot day in Edgefield, S.C., hometown of segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond, where 2,000 activists, including Rev. Jesse Jackson, gathered at Strom Thurmond High School to rally against Thurmond’s proposal to let certain provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 expire. Most of the white townsfolk I talked to were not thrilled to have a couple thousand black people descend on their sleepy town on a Sunday morning and turn it into the wrong kind of national news.

After Jesse Jackson warmed up the crowd at the high school, I decided to skip the four-mile march into town. As I drove slowly past the long line of singing, chanting marchers, I realized they were outnumbered by cops—in marked cars, unmarked cars, a hovering helicopter. When I passed the marchers and accelerated toward town, the cops pulled me over and swarmed around the Buick, rifling through my trunk looking for weapons, grilling me about what I was doing in town, why I had a collection of out-of-state license plates, where I was going. After they let me go on my way, I would write: “They were just doing their job. No matter how many quiet years have passed, these men have not forgotten the blood and the ugliness that can spill out of afternoons like this.” The encounter with the cops was unnerving, but it was the exception that proved the rule. More times than I could count, my Buick was an ice-breaker and conversation starter, an entrée to worlds that would otherwise have been closed to me, an enabler of small grace notes. One of them happened on the afternoon I reached New York City. As I wrote:
You know you’ve crossed into the Bronx when you start noticing cars with no tires parked on their roofs. At a red light, a Chrysler Imperial glides up beside me. A girl is sitting on the front seat beside her father – grandfather? – slurping an ice cream cone. The man leans over and calls out: “That Buick a fifty-four or a fifty-five?”
 Fifty-four.”
“We use to have a fifty-six.”
“I’ve heard that before.”
He laughs. The girl, unfazed, slurps her ice cream. The man says, “That Buick’s worth a lotta money.”
“You haven’t driven it.”
More laughter. The girl looks over at me – not at the car, at Me – to see what her grandfather could possibly be so excited about. She goes right back to her ice cream cone. The light changes and immediately horns start blaring behind us. This is New York City, all right. The man takes one last long look at the Buick and waves goodbye and punches his Imperial down Boston Road.
By the time Kramer and I made our trips, of course, I-95 had turned U.S. 1 into a string of traffic lights through forgotten backwaters and the occasional big city, an afterthought, a scarred and unloved service road. I can’t speak for Kramer, but this was part of the point for me—to travel on 1954’s idea of a major highway while steering clear of the crushing monotony of the interstates. Surely there would be flecks of local color, maybe even archaeological relics from Yates’s roadside palaces dedicated to KING KONE MOBILGAS SHOPORAMA EAT. Other writers have had the same idea. In 1960 John Steinbeck climbed into a retrofitted pickup with a poodle named Charley and set out “in search of America,” driving a 10,000-mile counterclockwise loop around the edges of the lower 48 states, avoiding Ike’s new interstates as much as possible. “These great roads are wonderful for moving goods but not for inspection of a countryside,” Steinbeck wrote. “No roadside stands selling squash juice, no antique stores, no farm products or factory outlets. When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing.” And in 1982, the year after my trip, William Least Heat-Moon published a bestseller called Blue Highways, his account of a trip around the lower 48 states. Heat-Moon’s mix of reportage and historical vignettes was guided by his determination to stick to back roads and shun interstates, cities, and fast food. While neither of us discovered any roadside stands selling squash juice, our very different trips did have a fleeting moment of connection. “I knew U.S. 1, stretching from the Canadian border to Key West, was capable of putting a man in an institution,” Heat-Moon wrote as he drove out of Maine toward Boston on my chosen road. “The highway was still a nightmare vision of the twentieth century, a four-lane representing (as Mencken put it) ‘the American lust for the hideous, the delight in ugliness for its own sake.’”

When I read those words, I knew I had chosen my route well.

The End of the Rainbow

Which brings us, finally, to the fatal flaw shared by Kramer’s movie and my book. The flaw is that road trips like ours are, by definition, built on the need for constant motion, which tends to result in a string of snapshots rather than deep dives into people’s lives. Indeed, one of Kramer’s stylistic tics is to string together a series of still photographs—a river gorge, the rings in a tree stump, dock ropes, a sunset—usually shown over dirge-like cello music. Establishing a mood of melancholy takes precedence over developing a narrative arc or a coherent view of the people Kramer meets. “Route One never explains itself,” as J. Hoberman wrote recently in The New York Times. “One thing simply follows another.”

It occurs to me only now that maybe Kramer was trying to make the point that there’s no time for patience in America, this land of restless, hopped-up go-getters who are always looking ahead to the next big score. My book didn’t try to make such a point. My urge to keep moving was partly motivated by economics—I needed to make it to Key West before I ran out of gas money—but mainly I was eager to see what waited around the next curve in the road. After my trip I found myself wondering if staying in one place might have yielded richer results, the way David Simon and Edward Burns spent a year observing the drug bazaar at the intersection of Monroe and Fayette Streets in West Baltimore in The Corner, or the way Richard Price dug like a dogged anthropologist into the lives of a cocaine-dealing crew in a New Jersey housing project in Clockers.

In a final irony, Kramer and I had one last thing in common: neither of us bought into Ronald Reagan’s Morning-in-America, feel-good, trickle-down horseshit. We had no way of knowing that our trips bookended the presidency that was the beginning of the nation’s seismic shift to the right, the beginning of the four-decade campaign to limit voting and abortion rights, to reduce environmental regulations, to free corporations and their lords to grow astronomically rich at the expense of the lower and middle classes. That shift from democracy to plutocracy is just now being understood and dissected in such books as Kurt Andersen’s Evil Geniuses and Jane Mayer’s Dark Money. America, in Andersen’s telling, has come down to this: “everybody for themselves, everything’s for sale, greed is good, the rich get richer, buyer beware, unfairness can’t be helped, nothing but thoughts and prayers for the losers.”

The seismic shift began amid a national mood of melancholy and a sense of drift, the smoky things Kramer and I did our best to chronicle on our trips down U.S. 1. The shift hasn’t slowed down since, and it has, finally, landed America in the mess it’s in today: the rich getting richer, nothing but thoughts and prayers for the losers: the end of the rainbow.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Evans, Lethem, Atwood, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Danielle Evans, Jonathan Lethem, Margaret Atwood, and more—that are publishing this week.
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The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Office of Historical Corrections: “Evans (Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self) brings her usual wit and keen eye to her latest collection, which offers seven stories that explore the complexity of human emotions and relationships. While every story offers a discrete narrative, recurring themes of pain, loss, fear, and failed relationships give the collection a sense of unity. The title novella is the crowning jewel, a historical mystery centered around a Black historian whose job in Washington, D.C., is complicated when she is sent on a dangerous assignment to the site of a 1937 lynching in Wisconsin. The rest of the stories, however, are hit-or-miss. ‘Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want’ is a witty exploration of a male artist’s love life and his bizarre project of apologizing to the women he hurt. ‘Alcatraz;’ is a sad, touching story that explores how an unjust incarceration destroys a family. However, ‘Boys Go to Jupiter,’ in which a white college student deals with ‘collective anger’ after a photo of her in a Confederate-flag bikini goes viral, fails to say anything of note about race or racism. Despite its shortcomings, this is a timely, entertaining collection from a talented writer who isn’t afraid to take chances.”
One Night Two Souls Went Walking by Ellen Cooney
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about One Night Two Souls Went Walking: “A hospital chaplain working the night shift recalls encounters with patients, coworkers, and a therapy dog named Bobo Boy in Cooney’s illuminating latest (after The Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances). The unnamed 30-something chaplain, who wears her white collar with bright-colored blouses rather than clerical black, first became curious about the nature of souls in her childhood. She mentions her large family and two ex-lovers, but her focus is on the ill, injured, and dying strangers she’s assigned to help—such as the bus driver involved in a crash where four people died, the bank teller who wants to be sure the angel carrying her into the afterlife is strong enough not to drop her, and the 91-year-old stroke victim nurses believe suffers from dementia. When a therapy dog escapes his handler, the chaplain remembers Bobo Boy, the beloved deceased mixed-breed therapy dog with a gift for providing comfort and a tendency to break loose. Brief, vivid portraits of Bobo Boy, doctors, nurses, patients and the chaplain herself form a memorable collage of souls in need. Cooney’s uplifting novel captures extraordinary moments of sadness, pain, and grace, as one woman brings light to life’s darkest moments.”
Somewhere in the Unknown World by Kao Kalia Yang
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Somewhere in the Unknown World: “Hmong-American memoirist Yang (The Latehomecomer) tells the stories of fellow refugees who have ended up in Minnesota in this lyrical and frequently harrowing account. Her profile subjects include her uncle, who fought for the CIA in Laos only to be left behind when the U.S. pulled out of the country; a Bosnian war survivor who worked for an American aid organization at a refugee camp in Sudan; a young Karen man who fled Burma as his people were systematically murdered by the government; and an Iraqi woman whose grandfather was killed by Saddam Hussein’s soldiers. Through the story of a Vietnamese-American chef restoring his family’s restaurant, Yang also offers a moving portrait of University Ave. in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Once anchored by Henry Ford’s manufacturing plants, by the 1970s University Ave. had been left behind to drug dealers, gangs, and ‘immigrants and refugees.’ Yang details how a wave of ‘small mom and pop businesses’ began opening along the avenue, transforming it ‘from an abandoned, dying street into a vibrant enclave of diverse businesses.’ This heartfelt and exquisitely written account shines a poignant light on the immigration debate.”
The Arrest by Jonathan Lethem
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Arrest: “Lethem (The Feral Detective) returns with a lukewarm tale of an apocalypse set in the very near future. Sandy Duplessis worked as a screenwriter in Los Angeles with his friend Peter Todbaum. Then came the Arrest, an unexplained event that caused computers and other technology to stop working and reduced everyone to locavores. In the aftermath, Sandy, who calls himself Journeyman, ends up in rural Maine working as a butcher and delivering food grown by his sister, Maddy. When Todbaum shows up and starts pursuing Mandy, their simple life gets complicated. The locals feel threatened by Todbaum’s presence, and Sandy, who is unnerved by Todbaum’s claim that he predicted the Arrest, wonders if his old friend can be trusted, while Maddy, who begins sleeping with Todbaum, becomes his sole defender. Lethem’s prose is as great as ever (‘Journeyman was a middle person, a middleman. Always locatable between things, and therefore special witness in both directions, to extremes remote to one another, an empathic broker between irreconcilable poles—or so he flattered himself’), but despite the fine writing, the plot fails to coalesce into something engaging, the Arrest remains murky, and many scenes feel disjointed. Still, the project crackles and hums with witty dialogue and engaging ideas. While it’s not entirely satisfying, Lethem’s fans won’t mind.”
Also on shelves this week: Dearly by Margaret Atwood and an expanded reissue of How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America by Kiese Laymon.