Dear Someone: On Asian-American Writers and Letters as Storytelling

1.

I’ve recently noticed a spate of work by Asian-American authors in epistolary form.

Correlation is not causation, and there may be nothing to this trend other than a cluster of coincidence. But historically, the Asian-American story has been ignored, erased, overlooked. Asians in America have worked in government, grown the nation’s food, healed the sick, fought in wars, built the very infrastructure of the transcontinental railroad, yet too often we’re pushed out of the picture, seen as perpetual foreigners, regardless of how much history we have with this country.

Asian Americans have our own experiences of racism, experiences that often get lost or minimized by the model minority stereotype. We want to have our stories heard but not fall into the trap of competing in an “Oppression Olympics” with other minorities. Our stories are distinct, and thus the idea of a letter as storytelling vessel is a tantalizing one. At its simplest, a Dear Someone letter demands to be read, as is the case with this one, in which former New York Times editor Michael Luo addresses the racist woman who told him and his family to “go back to China.”

The word epistle comes from the Latin espistula: letter. The first epistolary novel is thought to be Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister, published anonymously in 1684. Epistolary literature often utilizes multi-character correspondence or varied documents (think: Bram Stoker’s Dracula) to drive action and deepen characterization, including the brilliant use of the email form in Maria Semple’s novel Where’d You Go Bernadette.

The following works are epistolary in a singular way. They all take the form of a Dear Someone letter, a one-way correspondence that illustrates the simultaneous power and powerlessness of the epistle as literary form. That is, the Dear Someone letter already has a clear reader in mind. But if that intended reader will actually read the epistle is not in the author’s power.

No Good, Very Bad Asian is an epistolary novel by Leland Cheuk, “authored” by stand-up comedian and reality star Sirius Lee—divorced dad, the no good, very bad Asian of the title—to his 7-year old daughter Maryann. The letter becomes a vehicle to fill his daughter (and the reader) in on his backstory, and through his voice, provide a portrait of a guy trying and hoping to be a better person while often failing and lying to himself. It is funny but also sad, and runs at a kind of breakneck speed through different stages of comedy and a disillusioned man’s life. The incidents of subtle and not-so-subtle racism (such as everyone thinking he’s a different Asian comic) are swept away by the breezy tone, yet we can feel the hurt linger, in an experience many can relate to.

The Millions: Why did you choose to write this novel as a letter?

Leland Cheuk: I felt like I had to give the reader some sort of emotional hook into Sirius’s life story. For better or worse, bringing the reader in as part of Sirius’s family was my way of doing it. In an earlier draft, it was just written as a comedian’s memoir but there are so many brilliant comedian memoirs from real comedians—why wouldn’t the reader just pick up Born Standing Up by Steve Martin or Lenny Bruce’s How to Talk Dirty and Influence People instead?

TM: Do you think, given that a spate of Asian-American novels have used this form recently, that there’s something particularly Asian-American, immigrant, diasporic about the form itself?

LC: It’s very possible. I read as many Asian-American novels as I can, but I can’t say I’m an authority on the category. I do think that the epistolary form speaks to a certain failure to communicate between generations due to cultural and language barriers that can easily be attached to the Asian-American experience.

A letter is one-way communication. In the case of my book, it’s communication that comes too late, after the point when either party can do anything about their estrangement. The irony in the book is that while Sirius’s failure to connect with his parents is related to their cultural and language gaps, Sirius’s failure to connect with his daughter has more to do with his own mistakes.

TM: Did you consciously create a character —“no good very bad” Asian who goes against basically all Asian stereotypes?

LC: I’d say some of the choices were very conscious. I didn’t want Sirius, for instance, to go to a good college and come from a life of privilege hard won by high-achieving immigrant parents, which is my background. I’m not gonna lie: I’m pretty good at math. I just tried to make Sirius’s life—and rise to and fall from fame—plausible within the pop culture of the last two decades. And that naturally required him to not be the “good Asian” who might be your doctor or accountant.

TM: What was your idea or inspiration for the book. Any other writers influence you?

LC: I started the book so long ago, I’m not even sure I remember. I’ve always been a fan of stand-up and my other writing is often comedic. Stand-up is a perfect art form to use to explore themes of identity and self. There are very few other endeavors where you’re standing in front of a crowd and receiving a judgment for what you look like and what you say every 10 to 15 seconds. Perhaps I could have written a similar book about being a famous Asian-American male model. I’m influenced by a lot of writers, but with this book, I was going for what authors like Paul Beatty and Mat Johnson go for in their novels.

2.

Vietnamese American Ocean Vuong’s novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is also written as a letter: “Dear Ma,” it starts; the first chapter was also published in The New Yorker as a personal history titled “A Letter to My Mother That She Will Never Read.” Vuong told Lithub of his choice to use a letter:
Because I knew I did not want to write a 600-page tome, the epistolary mode allowed me the quick detours and returns, while still retaining the vital urgency and vulnerability of a direct address. In this way, the voice, the letter itself, became the main plot, the digressions in memory, cultural investigations, and vignettes its tributaries. And the whale, ever fleeting, out of reach, and finally impossible, is the mother’s readership of the letter.
Yiyun Li’s memoiristic collection of essays, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, is a straightforward address to readers—and takes its title from a line in Katherine Mansfield’s notebooks. The essays, which span topics like reading, writing, and science, circle around a difficult period in Li’s life, ruminating on the sometimes unremitting darkness she feels, but also why she wants to continue writing: that “the books one writes—past and present and future—are they not trying to say the same thing: Dear friend, from my life I write to you in your life? What a long way it is from one life to another, yet why write if not for that distance, if thinks can be let go, every before replaced by an after.”

Ali Wong’s ribald, humorous memoir, Dear Girls, is addressed to her daughters who are still too young to read and understand the book. Wong’s first book, it has a kind of literary flair that separates it from her stand-up—and from those comedian memoirs that are a stand-up act reformatted into a book. It’s a perfect pairing with No Good, Very Bad Asian, covering some of the same ground, including the idea of a parent wanting to give her children a fuller, more complex idea of who they are as individuals. Also, Wong is a wonderful writer. I was fascinated to read in The New York Times that she tests new jokes in front of live audiences by using a robotic “monotone voice where there’s almost zero performance in there, to see if the material holds up.” This is similar to the writer’s internal process: Does this sound right? Does this sound wrong? Wong looks to see if the crowd laughs despite her emotionless delivery. “Sometimes, I have a joke I know is funny, but I haven’t found the right word, and when I do find it, it’s so satisfying.”

Image: David Pennington

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Davis, Jackson, Comensal, Pinckney, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Lydia Davis, Lauren Michele Jackson, Jorge Comensal, Darryl Pinckney, 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 sign up to be a member today.

Essays One by Lydia Davis

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Essays One: “The first in a planned two-volume collection of the nonfiction of short story author Davis (Samuel Johnson Is Indignant) proves a cornucopia of illuminating and timeless observations on literature, art, and the craft of writing. A master of short, punchy prose works, Davis discloses her influences, some of which may be surprising even to longtime fans, including Roland Barthes, Franz Kafka, and Grace Paley, among many more. In a few essays, Davis presents first drafts of her own work along with the final versions, annotating and explaining revisions and providing an instructive window into her process. Interwoven throughout are short pieces on some of Davis’s favorite artists, or alternatively, those whom she finds pleasingly confounding. In the latter category is expressionist painter Joan Mitchell, whose 1973 work Les Bluets Davis credits with helping her to accept and embrace the inscrutable. Invaluable is the 2013 piece ‘Thirty Recommendations for Good Writing Habits,’ which outlines best practices for creative writing, from honing one’s observational techniques to crafting believable dialogue. Fans of Davis’s unfailingly clever work should add this volume to their collection, and creative writers of every genre should take the opportunity to learn from a legend.”

The Innocents by Michael Crummey

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Innocents: “In his fifth novel, Crummey (Sweetland) imparts another heartfelt, extraordinary perspective on survival in the rugged isolation of his homeland of Newfoundland, this time from two pre-adolescent, newly orphaned siblings, after illness fells their infant sister and parents. Evered and Ada Best endure inconceivably severe weather conditions; their 19th-century livelihoods are at the mercy of nature—will they harvest enough fish to trade for necessary winter provisions? Besides the biannual visits of the ship, ironically named The Hope and run by an unscrupulous money-man, the brother and sister only have each other for companionship. Happenstance brings a captain and his cook to their cove—just in time to save a feverish Ada from near death; later a ship full of sailors looking to replace their mainmast arrives, temporarily enlivening their existence. Against the sensitive portrayal of how two naïfs handle their budding sexuality, these fortuitous encounters underscore Evered’s and Ada’s innocence about life and the larger world. Crummey delivers profound insight into how individuals grapple with the forces of nature, not only in the unpredictable environment, but in the mystifying interior of their temperaments, drives, and character. This story of how two guileless youngsters navigate life will have a deep emotional impact on its readers.”

White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue … and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation by Lauren Michele Jackson

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about White Negroes: “Northwestern University professor Jackson’s insightful debut essay collection takes on cultural appropriation—particularly of black innovation by white celebrities, artists, and entrepreneurs—through the lens of power dynamics, identifying it as a process by which ‘society’s imbalances are exacerbated and inequalities prolonged.’ In the realm of pop culture, she analyzes the pursuit of ‘urban’ sexual wildness by Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus, the aesthetic but not economic investment of the Kardashians in black fashion, and Paula Deen’s fetishistic presentation of Southern food alongside explicit racism. Her exploration of the art world juxtaposes the public reaction to Rachel Dolezal, made famous by her ‘impulse to inhabit blackness,’ with accusations against institutions such as the Whitney Biennial, which she asserts ignores black artists but treats depictions of antiblack violence as edgy and relevant. She identifies toxic white resentment of black success in the recent viral videos of white people calling the police on black people (often children) for using public pools, having lemonade stands, or barbecuing in parks. Jackson is uncompromising in her bold language, palpable in her outrage; she keeps her razor-sharp analysis in an accessible but academic register. She both calls out the damage done by appropriative and oppressive behavior and calls in white readers to take part in valuing black contributions in a way that helps black lives.”

The Bad Side of Books: Selected Essays of D.H. Lawrence edited by Geoff Dyer

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Bad Side of Books: “Dyer (Broadsword Calling Danny Boy) selects and introduces an uneven but fascinating array of essays by D.H. Lawrence (1885–1930). Comprising 38 selections from the earlier collections Phoenix and Phoenix II, the book demonstrates Lawrence’s mastery of multiple genres, from philosophical tract (‘Of Being and Not-Being’) and book review (‘Death in Venice by Thomas Mann’), to memoir (“Myself Revealed”) and nature writing (“Flowery Tuscany”). Dyer edits with a light hand, presenting the essays in strict chronological order so readers can ‘follow the twists and turns of Lawrence’s writing and thought over time.’ Occasionally, his editorial presence proves too recessive, with minimal footnotes. The wide variety of topics—one stretch of essays considers, in turn, Cézanne, pornography, Christianity, and the mines of Lawrence’s home county of Nottingham—makes it likely that any reader can find something of interest, but unlikely that the entirety will appeal consistently to those new to Lawrence. Such neophytes will also find that some of Lawrence’s thoughts regarding race, ethnicity, and gender jar discordantly against modern norms. Nonetheless, it’s an impressive example of a curious mind grappling with big issues, and samples the work of a writer of great intelligence and wit.”

The Mutations by Jorge Comensal (translated by Charlotte Whittle)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Mutations: “Comensal’s punchy debut follows a group of physically and emotionally ailing characters in present-day Mexico City. Lawyer Ramon Martinez opens his mouth ‘like an angry baboon’ to discover a painful lump. His whole tongue needs to be removed; his wife Carmela seems more worried about his children’s reactions than his pain, though she adopts his insomnia ‘in solidarity.’ Psychoanalyst Teresa de la Vega, a breast cancer survivor, specializes in treating people with illnesses. One patient is Eduardo, a young man also very concerned with cancer, having had leukemia as a child. Teresa obsesses over Eduardo as Carmela does over her family. When Eduardo comes down with bronchitis, Teresa and the reader are compelled to wonder about the connection between neurosis and physical ailments. A quote from Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor introduces the novel’s second half. Teresa, Eduardo, and Ramon and his family anchor the narrative, while Comensal folds in other, complementary plot threads. Ramon’s doctor, Joaquin Aldama, becomes passionately involved in the care of his terminal patient Lorena Galvan, but not so much in that of Luis Ramirez, who is fond of complex conspiracy theories about his illness. The novel gets its comic charge from blunt and colorful descriptions of emotional situations that in other fiction would dictate long and evocative passages (‘The dream’s latent content represented the paradox of the jouissance of the Other.’). Sidestepping sentimentality and elaborate emotional expression, Comensal brings comic compassion to his treatment of contemporary neuroses.”

Busted in New York and Other Essays by Darryl Pinckney

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Busted in New York and Other Essays: “This robust group of essays written between 1994 and 2018 by novelist Pinckney (Black Deutschland) explores African-American identity, politics, and culture. Covering such topics as Aretha Franklin’s ‘profound influence’ and what Pinckney sees as Afro-pessimism’s futility, the author puts his insightful perspective on full display in each selection. From the highs of Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign to the lows of police violence in Ferguson, Mo., Pinckney acknowledges both the social progress that’s been made and the urgency for further change. In the book’s title essay, Pinckney recounts spending a night in the Manhattan municipal jail known as ‘the Tombs’ after he and two friends were arrested for smoking a joint outside a nightclub. Spending that night and much of the next day behind bars, Pinckney observes how ‘the system’ exercises absolute control over ‘the nonwhite young, the poor’ in ways previously unknown to him and his friends, all educated professionals able to easily brush off the experience. Reflections on black women’s experiences are relatively underrepresented, but nonetheless, Pinckney demonstrates his extensive range as a commentator on African-American life. This collection offers a deep dive into his prolific career as an indispensable critic of his times.”

The Greeks Aren’t Done with Us: Simon Critchley on Tragedy

We know that ghosts cannot speak until they have drunk blood; and the spirits which we evoke demand the blood of our hearts.—Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Greek Historical Writing, and Apollo (1908)

Thirteen years ago, when I lived briefly in Glasgow, I made it a habit to regularly attend the theater. An unheralded cultural mecca in its own right, overshadowed by charming, medieval Edinburgh to the east, the post-industrial Scottish capitalI was never lacking in good drama. Also, they let you drink beer during performances. Chief among those plays was a production of Sophocles’s Antigone, the final part of his tragic Theban Cycle, and one of the most theorized and staged of dramas from that Athenian golden age four centuries before the Common Era, now presented in the repurposed 16th-century Tron Church. Director David Levin took the Attic Greek of Sophocles and translated it into the guttural brogue of Lowlands Scotts, and in a strategy now deployed almost universally for any production of a play older than a century, the chitons of the ancient world were replaced with business suits, and the decrees of Creon were presented on television screen, as the action was reimagined not in 441 BCE but in 2007.

Enough to remind me of that headline from The Onion which snarked: “Unconventional Director Sets Shakespeare Play in Time, Place that Shakespeare Intended.” The satirical newspaper implicitly mocks adaptations like Richard Loncraine’s Richard III which imagined the titular character (devilishly performed by Ian McKellen) as a sort of Oswald Mosley-like fascist, and Derek Jarman’s masterful version of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II, which makes a play about the Plantagenet line of succession into a parable about gay rights and the Act Up movement. By contrast, The Onion quips that its imagined “unconventional” staging of The Merchant of Venice is one in which “Swords will replace guns, ducats will be used instead of the American dollar or Japanese yen, and costumes, such as…[the] customary pinstripe suit, general’s uniform, or nudity, will be replaced by garb of the kind worn” in the Renaissance. The dramaturgical perspective behind Levin’s Antigone was definitely what the article parodied; there was nary a contorted dramatic mask to be found, no Greek chorus chanting in dithyrambs, and, as I recall, lots of video projection. The Onion aside, British philosopher Simon Critchley would see no problem with Levin’s artistic decisions, writing in his new book Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us that “each generation has an obligation to reinvent the classics. The ancients need our blood to revise and live among us. By definition, such an act of donation constructs the ancients in our image.”

Antigone, coming from as foreign a culture as it does, still holds our attention for some reason. The story of the titular character—punished by her uncle Creon for daring to defy his command that her brother Polynices’s corpse be left to fester as carrion for the buzzards and worms in the field where he died because he has raised arms against Thebes—would seem to have little to do with Tony Blair’s United Kingdom. When a Glaswegian audience hears Sophocles’s words, however, that “I have nothing but contempt for the kind of governor who is afraid, for whatever reason, to follow the course the he knows is best for the State; and as for the man who sets private friendship above the public welfare—I have no use for him either” a bit more resonance may be heard. Critchley argues that at the core of Greek tragedy is a sublime ambivalence, an engagement with contradiction that classical philosophy can’t abide;as distant as Antigone’s origins may be, its exploration of the conflict between the individual and the state, terrorism and liberation, surveillance and freedom seemed very of the millennium’s first decade. Creon’s countenance of the unthinkable punishment of his niece, to be bricked up behind a wall, was delivered in front of a camera as if George W. Bush announcing the bombing of Iraq from the Oval Office on primetime television. “Evil sometimes seems good / To a man whose mind / A god leads to destruction,” Sophocles wrote. This was a staging for the era of the Iraq War and FOX News, of the Patriot Act and NSA surveillance, and of the coming financial collapse. Less than a year later, and I’d be back in my apartment stateside watching Barack Obama deliver his Grant Park acceptance speech. It was enough to make one think of Antigone’s line: “Our ship of fate, which recent storms have threatened to destroy, has come to harbor at last.” I’m a bad student of the Greeks; I should have known better than to embrace that narcotic hope that pretends tragedy is not the omnipresent condition of humanity.

What could Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus possibly have to say in our current, troubled moment? Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us is Critchley’s attempt to grapple with those disquieting 32 extant plays that whisper to us from an often-fantasized collective past. What survives of Greek tragedy is four less plays than all of those written by Shakespeare; an entire genre of performance for which we have titles referenced by philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, with only those three playwrights’ words enduring, and where often the most we can hope for are a few fragments preserved on some surviving papyri. Critchley emphasizes how little we know about plays like Antigone, or Aeschylus’s Oresteia, or Euripides’s Medea; that classicists often hypothesized that they were born from the Dionysian rituals, or that they focused on satyr psalms, the “song of the goats,” giving tragedy the whiff of the demonic, of the demon Azazel to whom sacrifices of the scapegoat must be made in the Levantine desert.

Beyond even tragedy’s origin, which ancient Greek writers themselves disagreed about, we’re unsure exactly how productions were staged or who attended. What we do have are those surviving 32 plays themselves and the horrific narratives they recount—Oedipus blinded in grief over the patricide and incest that he unknowingly committed but prophetically ensured because of his hubris; Medea slaughtering her children as a revenge on the unfaithfulness of her husband; Pentheus ripped apart by her frenzied Maenads in ecstatic thrall to Dionysius because the Theban ruler couldn’t countenance the power of irrationality. “There are at least thirteen nouns in Attic Greek for words describing grief, lamentation, and mourning,” Critchley writes about the ancients; our “lack of vocabulary when it comes to the phenomenon of death speaks volumes about who we are.” Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us is Critchley’s attempt to give us a bit of their vocabulary of excessive lamentation so as to better approach our predicament.

Readers shouldn’t mistake Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us as a conservative defense of the canon; this is no paean to the superior understanding of the ancients, nor is its highfalutin’ self-help. Critchley’s book isn’t Better Living Through Euripides. Easy to misread the (admittedly not great) title as an advertisement for a book selling the snake-oil of traditionalist cultural literacy, that exercise in habitus that confuses familiarity with the “Great Books” as a type of wisdom. Rather, Critchley explores the Greek tragedies in all of their strange glory, as an exercise in aesthetic rupture, where the works of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides configure a different type of space that renders a potent critique against oppressive logic. His task is thus the “very opposite of any and all kinds of cultural conservatism.” Critchley sees the plays not as museum pieces, or as simple means of demonstrating that you went to a college with diplomas written in Latin, but rather as a “subversive traditionalism” that helps us to critique “ever more egregious forms of cultural stupefaction that arise from being blinded by the myopia of the present.” This is all much larger than either celebrating or denouncing the syllabi of St. John’s College; Critchley has no concern for boring questions about “Western Civilization” or “Defending the Canon,” rather he rightly sees the tragedies as an occasion to deconstruct those idols of our current age—of the market, of society, of law, of religion, of state. He convincingly argues that any honest radical can’t afford to ignore the past, and something primal and chthonic calls to us from those 32 extant plays, for “We might think we are through with the past, but the past isn’t through with us.”

Critchley explains that the contemporary world, perhaps even more so than when I watched Antigone in Glasgow, is a “confusing, noisy place, defined by endless war, rage, grief, ever-growing inequality. We undergo a gnawing moral and political uncertainty in a world of ambiguity.” Our moment, the philosopher claims, is a “tragicomedy defined by war, corruption, vanity, and greed,” for if my Antigone was of its moment, then Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us could only have been written after 2016. That year, and the characters it ushered into our national consciousness, can seem a particular type of American tragedy, but Critchley’s view (even while haunted by a certain hubristic figure with a predilection for the misspelled tweet) is more expansive than that. In his capable analysis, Critchley argues that tragedy exists as a mode of representing this chaos; a type of thinking at home with inconsistency, ambiguity, contradiction, and complexity. It’s those qualities that have made the form suspicious to philosophers.

Plato considered literature in several of his dialogues, concluding in Gorgias that the “effect of speech upon the structure of the soul / Is as the structure of drugs over the nature of bodies” (he wasn’t wrong), and famously having his puppet Socrates argue in The Republic that the just city-state would ban poets and poetry from their affairs for the aforementioned reason. Plato’s disgruntled student Aristotle was more generous to tragedy, content rather to categorize and explain its effects in Poetics, explaining that performance is the “imitation of an action that is serious, and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself…with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions.” Aristotle’s view has historically been interpreted as a defense of literature in opposition to Plato, whereby that which the later found so dangerous—the passions and emotions roiled by drama—were now justified as a sort of emotional pressure gauge that helped audiences purge their otherwise potentially destructive emotions. By the 19th century a philosopher like Friedrich Nietzsche would anticipate Critchley (though the latter might chaff at that claim) when he exonerated tragedy as more than mere moral instruction, coming closer to Plato’s claim about literature’s dangers while ecstatically embracing that reality. According to Nietzsche, tragedy existed in the tension between “Apollonian” and “Dionysian” poles; the first implies rationality, order, beauty, logic, and truth; the second signifies the realm of chaos, irrationality, ecstasy, and intoxication. Nietzsche writes in The Birth of Tragedy that the form “sits in sublime rapture amidst this abundance of life, suffering and delight, listening to a far-off, melancholy song…whose names are Delusion, Will, Woe.” For the German philologist that’s a recommendation, to “join me in my faith in this Dionysiac life and the rebirth of tragedy.”

As a thinker, Critchley Agonistes is well equipped in joining these predecessors in systematizing what he argues is the unsystematizable. Faculty at the New School for Social Research,and coeditor for The New York Times philosophy column “The Stone” (to which I have contributed), Critchley has proven himself an apt scholar who engages the wider conversation. Not a popularizer per se, for Critchley’s goal isn’t the composition of listicles enumerating whacky facts about Hegel, but a philosopher in the truest sense of being one who goes into the Agora and grapples with the circumstances of meaning as they manifest in the punk rock venue, at the soccer stadium, and in the movie theater. Unlike most of his countrymen who recline in the discipline, Critchley is a British scholar who embraces what’s called “continental philosophy,” rejecting the arid, logical formulations of analytical thought in favor of the Parisian profundities of thinkers like Jacques Derrida, Emanuel Levinas, and Martin Heidegger. Critchley has written tomes with titles like The Ethics of Deconstruction: Derrida and Levinas and Ethics-Politics-Subjectivity: Essays on Derrida, Levinas, & Contemporary French Thought, but he’s also examined soccer in What We Think About When We Think About Football (he’s a Liverpool fan) and in Bowie he analyzed, well, Bowie. Add to that his provocative take on religion in Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology and on death in The Book of Dead Philosophers (which consists of short entries enumerating the sometimes bizarre ways in which philosophers died, from jumping into a volcano to love potion poisoning) and Critchley has announced himself as one of the most psychedelically mind-expanding of people to earn their lucre by explaining Schopenhauer and Wittgenstein to undergraduates.  

What makes Critchley such an engaging thinker about the subjects he examines is both his grounding in continental philosophy (which asks questions about being, love, death, and eternity, as opposed to its analytical cousin content to enumerate all the definitions of the word “is”) and his unpretentious roots in working class Hertfordshire, studying at the glass-and-concrete University of Essex as opposed to tony Oxbridge. Thus, when Critchley writes that “there is an ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry,” it seems pretty clear that he’s a secret agent working for the latter against the former. He rejects syllogism for stanza and embraces poetics in all of its multitudinous and glorious contradictions. The central argument of Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us is that the form “invites its audience to look at such disjunctions between two or more claims to truth, justice, or whatever without immediately seeking a unifying ground or reconciling the phenomena into a higher unity.” What makes Antigone so devastating is that the title character’s familial obligation justifies the burial of her brother, but the interests of the state validates Creon’s prohibition of that same burial. The tragedy arises in the irreconcilable conflict of two right things, with Critchley explaining that Greek drama “presents a conflictually constituted world defined by ambiguity, duplicity, uncertainty, and unknowability, a world that cannot be rendered rationally fully intelligible through some metaphysical first principles or set of principles, axioms, tables of categories, or whatever.”

This is the central argument: that the “experience of tragedy poses a most serious objection to that invention we call philosophy.” More accurately, Critchley argues that tragedy’s comfort with discomfort, its consistent embrace of inconsistency, its ordered representation of disorder, positions the genre as a type of radical critique of philosophy, a genre that expresses the anarchic rhetoric of the sophists, rather than their killjoy critic Socrates and his dour student Plato. As a refresher, the sophists were the itinerant and sometimes fantastically successful rhetoricians who taught Greek politicians a type of disorganized philosophy that, according to Socrates, had no concern with the truth, but only with what was convincing. Socrates supposedly placed “Truth” at the core of his dialectical method, and, ever since, the discipline has taken up the mantle of “a psychic and political existence at one with itself, which can be linked to ideas of self-mastery, self-legislation, autonomy, and autarchy, and which inform the modern jargon of authenticity.” Tragedy is defined by none of those things; where philosophy strives for order and harmony, tragedy dwells in chaos and division; where syllogism strives to eliminate all contradiction as irrational, poetry understands that it’s in the complexity of inconsistency, confusion, and even hypocrisy that we all dwell. Sophistry and tragedy, to the recommendation of both, are intimately connected; both being methods commensurate with the dark realities of what it means to be alive. Critchley claims that “tragedy articulates a philosophical view that challenges the authority of philosophy by giving voice to what is contradictory about us, what is constricted about us, what is precarious about us, and what is limited about us.”

Philosophy is all arid formulations, dry syllogisms, contrived Gedankenexperiments; tragedy is the knowledge that nothing of the enormity of what it means to be alive can be circumscribed by mere seminar argument. “Tragedy slows things down by confronting us with what we do not know about ourselves,” Critchley writes. If metaphysics is contained by the formulations of the classroom, then the bloody stage provides a more accurate intimation of death and life. By being in opposition to philosophy, tragedy is against systems. It becomes both opposite and antidote to the narcotic fantasy that everything will be alright. Perhaps coming to terms with his own discipline, Critchley argues that “it is necessary to try and think theatrically and not just philosophically.” Tragedy, he argues, provides an opportunity to transcend myths of progress and comforts of order, to rather ecstatically enter a different space, an often dark, brutal, and subterranean place, but one which demonstrates the artifice of our self-regard.

A word conspicuous in its absence from Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us is that of the “sacred.” If there is any critical drawback to Critchley’s argument, it seems to be in the hesitancy, or the outright denial, that what he claims in his book has anything to do with something quite so wooly as the noumenal. Critchley gives ample space to argue that, “Tragedy is not some Dionysian celebration of the power of ritual and the triumph of myth over reason,” yet a full grappling with his argument seems to imply the opposite. The argument that tragedy stages contradiction is one that is convincing, but those sublime contradictions are very much under the Empire of Irrationality’s jurisdiction. Critchley is critical of those that look at ancient tragedy and “imagine that the spectators…were in some sort of prerational, ritualistic stupor, some intoxicated, drunken dumbfounded state,” but I suppose much of our interpretation depends on how we understand ritual, religion, stupor, and intoxication.

His claims are invested in an understanding of the Greeks as not being fundamentally that different from us, writing that “there is a lamentable tendency to exoticize Attic tragedy,” but maybe what’s actually called for is a defamiliarization of our own culture, an embrace of the irrational weirdness at the core of what it means to be alive 2019, where everything that is solid melts into air (to paraphrase Marx). Aeschylus knew the score well; “Hades, ruler of the nether sphere, / Exactest auditor of human kind, / Graved on the tablet of his mind,” as he describes the prince of this world in Eumenides. Critchley, I’d venture, is of Dionysius’s party but doesn’t know it. All that is argued in Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us points towards an awareness, however sublimated, of the dark beating heart within the undead cadaver’s chest. “To resist Dionysius is to repress the elemental in one’s own nature,” writes the classicist E.R. Dodds in his seminal The Greeks and the Irrational, “the punishment is the sudden complete collapse of the inward dykes when the elemental breaks through…and civilization vanishes.”

Absolutely correct that tragedy is in opposition to philosophy; where the latter offers assurances that reason can see us through, the former knows that it’s never that simple. The abyss is patient and deep, and no amount of analysis, of interpretation, of calculation, of polling can totally account for the hateful tragic pulse of our fellow humans. Nietzsche writes “what changes come upon the weary desert of our culture, so darkly described, when it is touched by…Dionysius! A storm seizes everything decrepit, rotten, broken, stunted; shrouds it in a whirling red cloud of dusty and carries it into the air like a vulture.” If any place best exemplifies that experience, and this moment, it’s Euripides’s The Bacchae, to which Critchley devotes precious little attention. That play depicts the arrival of that ambiguous god Dionysius to Thebes, as his followers thrill to the divine and irrational ecstasies that he promises. It ends with a crowd of those followers, the Maenads, mistaking the ruler Pentheus for a sacrificial goat and pulling him apart, his bones from their sockets, his organs from their cavities. Until his murder, Pentheus simultaneously manifested a repressed thrill towards the Dionysian fervor and a deficiency in taking the threat of such uncontained emotion seriously. “Cleverness is not wisdom,” Euripides writes, “And not to think mortal thoughts is to see few days.” If any didactic import comes from The Bacchae, it’s to give the devil as an adversary his due, for irrationality has more power than the clever among us might think.

Circling around the claims of Critchley’s book is our current political situation, alluded to but never engaged outright. In one sense, that’s for the best; those demons’ names are uttered endlessly all day anyhow. It’s desirable to at least have one place where you need not read about them. But in another manner, fully intuiting the Dionysian import of tragedy becomes all the more crucial when we think about what that dark god portends in our season of rising authoritarianism. “Tragedy is democracy turning itself into a spectacle,” and anyone with Twitter will concur with that observation of Critchley’s. Even more important is Critchley’s argument about those mystic chords of memory connecting us to a past that we continually reinvent; the brilliance of his claim about why the Greeks matter to us now, removing the stuffiness of anything as prosaic as canonicity, is that tragedy encapsulates the way in which bloody trauma can vibrate through the millennia and control us as surely as the ancients believed fate controlled humans. Critchley writes that “Tragedy is full of ghosts, ancient and modern, and the line separating the living from the dead is continually blurred. This means that in tragedy the dead don’t stay dead and the living are not fully alive.” We can’t ignore the Greeks, because the Greeks aren’t done with us. If there is anything that hampers us as we attempt to extricate the Dionysian revelers in our midst, it’s that many don’t acknowledge the base, chthonic power of such irrationality, and they refuse to see how violence, hate, and blood define our history in the most horrific of ways. To believe that progress, justice, and rationality are guaranteed, that they don’t require a fight commensurate with their worthiness, is to let a hubris fester in our souls and to court further tragedy among our citizens.

What Medea or The Persians do is allow us to safely access the Luciferian powers of irrationality. They present a more accurate portrayal of humanity, based as we are in bloodiness and barbarism, than the palliatives offered by Plato in The Republic with his philosopher kings. Within that space of the theater, Critchley claims that at its best it “somehow allows us to become ecstatically stretched out into another time and space, another way of experiencing things and the world.” Far from the anemic moralizing of Aristotelian catharsis—and Critchley emphasizes just how ambiguous that word actually is—that is too often interpreted as referring to a regurgitative didacticism, tragedy actually makes a new world by demolishing and replacing our world, if only briefly. “If one allows oneself to be completely involved in what is happening onstage,” Critchley writes, “one enters a unique space that provides an unparalleled experience of sensory and cognitive intensity that is impossible to express purely in concepts.” I recall seeing a production of Shakespeare’s Othello at London’s National Theatre in 2013, directed by Nicholas Hytner and starring Adrian Lester as the cursed Moor and Rory Kinear as a reptilian Iago. Dr. Johnson wrote that Othello’s murder of Desdemona was the single most horrifying scene in drama, and I concur; the play remains the equal of anything by Aeschylus or Euripides in its tragic import.

When I watched Lester play the role, lingering over the dying body of his faithful wife, whispering “What noise is this? Not dead—not yet quite dead?” I thought of many things. I thought about how Shakespeare’s play reflects the hideous things that men do to women, and the hideous things that the majority do to the marginalized. I thought about how jealousy noxiously fills every corner, no matter how small, like some sort of poison gas. And I thought about how unchecked malignancy can shatter our souls. But mostly what I thought wasn’t in any words, but was better expressed by Lester’s anguished cry as he confronted the evil he’d done. If tragedy allows for an audience to occasionally leave our normal space and time, then certainly I felt like I was joined with those thousand other spectators on that summer night at South Bank’s Olivier Theatre. The audience’s silence after Othello’s keening subsided was as still as the space between atoms, as empty as the gap between people.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Machado, Pico, Sexton, Tariq, Older, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Carmen Maria Machado, Tommy Pico, Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, Malcolm Tariq, Daniel José Older, 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 sign up to be a member today.

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about In the Dream House: “In this haunting memoir, National Book Award–finalist Machado (Her Body and Other Parties) discusses the mental and physical abuse she was subjected to by her girlfriend. The book is divided into short, piercing chapters, in which Machado refers to the victimized version of herself as ‘you.’ (‘I thought you died, but writing this, I’m not sure you did.’) Machado discusses meeting the girlfriend (her first) in Iowa City, where Machado was getting her MFA. She masterfully, slowly introduces unease and dread as the relationship unfolds. The girlfriend turns threatening if Machado doesn’t immediately return her calls, starts pointless fights, and inflicts physical discomfort on Machado (squeezing her arm for no reason, for instance). The hostile environment turns utterly oppressive, yet Machado stays, becoming further disoriented by someone who inflicts harm one minute and declares her love the next. Machado interestingly weaves in cultural references (to movies like 1944’s Gaslight and 1984’s Carmen) as she considers portrayals of abuse. She points out that queer women endure abuse in their relationships just as heterosexual women do, and queer abusers shouldn’t be protected: ‘We deserve to have our wrongdoing represented.’ The author eventually leaves her toxic relationship behind, but scars remain. Machado has written an affecting, chilling memoir about domestic abuse.”

Feed by Tommy Pico

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Feed: “In the riveting fourth installment of Pico’s imaginative tetralogy, food, music, sex, and the void serve as means to reveal and dissect the speaker’s interior life. Stepping outside of his alter ego persona, Teebs, to wonder about the possibility of a ‘true self,’ Pico resists the obvious narrative and claims that Teebs, perhaps, is more real than himself. The speaker declares himself a ‘recipe’ made of the ingredients of his past and his family, defined by the intergenerational trauma of Native American genocide and displacement. His Native identity is both an albatross and an amulet of protection: ‘My spirits surround me like a cloud of disapproving aunties, keeping most of you at bay.’ Amid the purposeful cacophony and confusion the poet throws at the reader, exacerbated by a lack of punctuation and erratic changes in line length, there are moments of stunning beauty: ‘What a better time than in the face / of spring and the spring / ephemerals—a bloom / so / short / it puts the fleet in ‘fleeting feeling.’ Readers familiar with Pico’s work will find continuity from previous volumes; the poet’s present concerns and ongoing obsessions are proffered in a seemingly stream-of-consciousness format that is actually meticulously well-organized. New readers, as well, can easily dive in.”

On Swift Horses by Shannon Pufahl

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about On Swift Horses: “Pufahl’s powerful debut follows two brothers just back from the Korean War and the woman from Kansas who loves them both. Muriel agrees to marry Lee not long after he and his brother, Julius, step off their ship in Long Beach, but it’s Julius with whom she finds a haunting affinity. When he disappears, both Muriel and Lee live for word from him again. Muriel and Julius are gamblers; Muriel overhears horse betting tips from men who drink at the Heyday Lounge in San Diego where she works. Muriel wins enough at the Del Mar racetrack to buy her husband the lot on which he builds their dream house. Meanwhile, in Las Vegas, Julius falls in love with Henry, a tender card cheat who’s run out of town. Desperate to find him, Julius returns to his brother’s house, steals money from Muriel, and goes in search of him. Muriel, in turn, searches for Julius, and finds herself instead. SoCal’s illicit gay joints, Mexico, and memories of Kansas are finely wrought, though by the time Muriel discovers that the mystery Julius represents actually resides deep inside her own self, Pufahl’s gorgeous metaphors and heartbreaking revelations may make readers feel like less is more. Peopled by singular characters and suffused with a keen sense of time and place, Pufahl’s debut casts a fascinating spell. This melancholy story will show up in the dreams of those whose heartstrings it has tugged.”

Space Invaders by Nona Fernández

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Space Invaders: “This standout debut from Chilean author Fernández dexterously tells the story of a group of Chilean friends haunted by the absence of their old classmate and friend, Estrella González, who left their school as they grew up during the Pinochet dictatorship. Years later, the friends all remember Estrella differently. Fuenzalida remembers her voice; Maldonado dreams about the letters Estrella sent to her (three of which are in the text); Riquelme remembers going to Estrella’s house to play Space Invaders and witnessing Estrella’s father, a high-ranking officer for Pinochet, remove his wooden prosthetic hand after he got home from work. The narrative eventually winds its way to revealing what happened to Estrella. Fernández’s masterstroke is her remarkable structure: the novella is related in fragments that drift and remain unreliable, which evokes the pervasive fear and uncertainty of life under Pinochet. ‘Time isn’t straightforward, it mixes everything up, shuffles the dead, merges them, separates them out again…. Whether we were there or not is no longer clear…. we’re left with traces of the dream, like the vestiges of a doomed naval battle.’ Fernández’s outstanding novel explores the nature of memory and dreams, and how after a certain point, they become indistinguishable.”

The Revisioners by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Revisioners: “Sexton (A Kind of Freedom) returns with this excellent story of a New Orleans family’s ascent from slavery to freedom, paying poetic tribute to their fearlessness and a ‘mind magic’ that fixes the present, sees into the future, and calls out from the past. In alternating chapters, two women tell their haunting, frightening, and ultimately uplifting stories: Ava, a mixed-race single mom struggling to establish a career and raise a teenage son in 2017, and her great-great-grandmother Josephine, a former slave who in 1924 proudly runs the family farm. Ava’s decision to be the caregiver for her rich white grandmother, Martha, as she slips into dementia will trigger disturbing premonitions for her own cancer-stricken mother, a doula named Gladys. Josephine’s story focuses largely on her struggle to turn over management of the family farm to a son intent on standing up to the Klan—and a troubling interaction with a shy white neighbor who seeks out Josephine’s rumored powers to get pregnant and appease an abusive husband. A chilling plot twist reveals the insidious racial divide that stretches through the generations, but it’s the larger message that’s so timely. ‘Ain’t no use in hate,’ Josephine’s mother advises. ‘Whatever you trying to get away from, hate just binds you to it.’ This novel is both powerful and full of hope.”

Heed the Hollow by Malcolm Tariq

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Heed the Hollow: “Winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, Tariq’s daring debut explores the intersection of black, queer, and Southern identity through the concept of ‘bottom,’ both as a sexual role and a position in the social hierarchy. The conceit is often playful, as in the repeated phrase ‘Malcolm Tariq’s Black Bottom,’ which is woven throughout the collection: ‘His Tastykake / cake / His Doublicious Kandy Kake / cake cake / the bounce/  of his Little Debbie / cake.’ More often, this concept makes erotic submission continuous with historical traumas, torquing familiar expressions: ‘Take this moan as historical rendering, / my downward-facing sigh. Thy rod / and thy staff they come for me.’ Charting a journey from Savannah to Michigan, Tariq’s confessionalism can be direct, as in the title poem (‘I take my own pills as I once learned / to sign for my mother’s birth / control. Preventative measures’), or suggestively and wittily oblique: ‘He’s never had / a black man. I’ve never had myself.’” Readers of Robin Coste Lewis will appreciate Tariq’s archival erasures, while Natasha Trethewey fans will appreciate a journey to South Carolina’s ‘Ellis Island of Slavery,’ where ‘baby strollers and casual dog walks/ file before a single marquee meant to hold/ place for history.’ Reckoning with historical atrocities and making use of a variety of formal gestures, Tariq triumphs in creating his distinctive brand of blues.”

The Book of Lost Saints by Daniel José Older

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Book of Lost Saints: “A ghost of the Cuban revolution haunts the pages of this vivid and emotional literary fantasy from Older (Shadowhouse Fall). Marisol Aragones died after Castro gained power and the Cuban revolution turned sour, but she can’t remember how or why. Now a disembodied spirit in early-2000s New Jersey, with only a tenuous foothold in the land of the living, her one hope for piecing together her past is through her nephew, Ramon. Marisol spends her days observing—and criticizing—Ramon’s work as a hospital security guard and DJ and his hopeless feelings for his no-strings-attached fling, Aliceana Mendoza. At night, she infiltrates his dreams to give him visions of what little she remembers of her life during the revolution. These dreams send Ramon on a quest to uncover long-buried family secrets, dragging a difficult truth from his mother and traveling with Aliceana to Cuba, where the resistance works against the government in secret. Older’s descriptions of Cuba, both past and present, are thoroughly transportive. This moving story of family and freedom is sure to captivate readers.”

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Aciman, NDiaye, Wilson, Garrett, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of André Aciman, Marie NDiaye, Kevin Wilson, Natalie Eve Garrett, 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 sign up to be a member today.

Find Me by André Aciman

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Find Me: “The elegant sequel to Aciman’s celebrated first novel, Call Me by Your Name, revisits his best-known characters some 20 years later. The story opens as Samuel, a classics professor who has abandoned hope of love, boards the train from Florence to Rome to visit his pianist son, Elio, the earlier novel’s narrator. On the train, Samuel strikes up a conversation with a beautiful photographer named Miranda, an American expatriate like him, though she’s half his age. In dialogue that quickly turns searching, they sense in each other a soul mate (‘I’ve known you for less than an hour on a train. Yet you totally understand me’); later that day, once they arrive in Rome, they begin planning new lives together. Several years later, Elio has moved to Paris. He begins a satisfying relationship with Michael, an attorney two decades or so his senior, but Elio’s memories of Oliver, whom he loved and lost as a teen, reawaken. A third segment focuses on Oliver, now a married father yet unable to leave the past and its passion behind, before Elio and Oliver meet again in the novel’s brief coda. Elio is the heart of the novel, as its core themes—including fatherhood, music, the nature of time and fate, the weight and promise of the past—are infused with eroticism, nostalgia and tenderness in fluid prose. The novel again demonstrates Aciman’s capacity to fuse the sensual and the cerebral in stories that touch the heart.”

Eat Joy edited by Natalie Eve Garrett (illustrated by Meryl Rowin)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Eat Joy: “In this delightful anthology, Garrett (The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook, editor) presents culinary essays from notable authors and the dishes associated with them. In ‘Comfort with Eggs,’ short story writer Laura van den Berg, addressing her anorexia as a teen, faces ‘the ghost of the person who believed it was… reasonable to starve herself to death’; novelist Chantel Acevedo cherishes hours with her grandmother toasting stove-top ‘Merenguitos’ (‘gooey like a marshmallow’); and for novelist Rakesh Satyal in ‘Bake Your Fear,’ baking pies was ‘waving a Pride flag before I could officially come out.’ Prominent writers shine, including Colum McCann, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Alexander Chee, whose story about a juice cleanse entertains. Accompanying recipes often prioritize comfort over ambition: Edwidge Danticat shares diri blan (white rice) on her father’s deathbed; short story writer Carmen Maria Machado mixes Kraft macaroni and cheese with tomato soup and hot dogs in ‘Meals of My Twenties’; and novelist Anthony Doerr slurps brownie batter in the wilderness in ‘Homesick at the Outer Edge of the World.’ Garrett has selected the best kind of culinary writing—unfussy recipes and heartfelt stories that use food as an avenue for reflection. Foodies and fiction readers alike will devour this excellent collection.”

The Cheffe by Marie NDiaye

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Cheffe: “The life and career of a majestically talented, intensely private master chef is narrated by her greatest admirer and loyal employee in NDiaye’s engrossing psychological novel (following My Heart Hemmed In). Born in the early 1950s in the southwestern French town of Sainte-Bazeille, to a large, poor family, the Cheffe leaves school at 14 to work as a maid for the Clapeaus, a wealthy older couple who ‘loved eating with a fervent, unrelenting love.’ She finds her calling in replacing the Clapeaus’ vacationing cook and goes on to devote herself to cooking, moving through kitchens ‘with the kind of controlled, dynamic, galvanizing intentness that attracted miraculous ideas’ and eventually opening her own award-winning restaurant. But this single-mindedness is also the source of painful lifelong conflict between the Cheffe and her only daughter, whom the narrator resents for what he sees as ingratitude. Deeply in love with the taciturn Cheffe, who makes him her confidante but doesn’t return his feelings, the narrator acknowledges his bias but insists on the accuracy of his insights. Like the Cheffe’s recipes, at first tantalizingly simple but eventually so austere they threaten to ‘tumble into fruitlessness’ and become useless, the narrator’s efforts to describe the Cheffe’s mind and heart are both enthralling and fundamentally unreliable as a record of her life. Readers will be consumed by this tale of talent and obsession, even as the Cheffe herself remains both fascinating and mysterious.”

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Nothing to See Here: “Wilson (Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine) turns a bizarre premise into a beguiling novel about unexpected motherhood. When aimless, low-achieving 28-year-old Lillian Breaker receives a mysterious invitation from Madison Roberts, her former roommate at a prestigious high school, longtime correspondent, and now wife to a senator, she does not hesitate to travel to Franklin, Tenn. Madison offers her a job as a very discreet governess for the senator’s twin children from a prior marriage. Ten-year-olds Bessie and Roland sometimes burst into flames, and Madison is desperate to avoid a scandal upsetting the senator’s chances of becoming secretary of state. Lillian accepts and, with begrudging help from Carl, the senator’s shadowy right-hand man, guides the children through coping mechanisms in the guest house on the family’s lavish estate while Madison and Senator Roberts remain icy toward them. Their progress is upended, though, when the senator’s prospects rapidly change and Lillian has to decide where her loyalties are. Lillian’s deadpan observations zip from funny to heartbreaking while her hesitancy and messy love satisfyingly contrasts with Madison’s raw drive for power and tightly controlled affection. Wilson captures the wrenching emotions of caring for children in this exceptional, and exceptionally hilarious, novel.”

The Intangibles by Elaine Equi

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Intangibles: “‘I write because certain combinations of words really are magical,’ Equi explains in her enchanting 14th collection. Her signature quirkiness and alien perspectives on the quotidian (including T-shirts, rhubarb and radishes, and poems built from the ‘invisible architecture’ of scents) make appearances, and, as in previous volumes, many of these poems are written in response to modern technology: ‘Once upon a time, everything was not / connected to everything else… People knew too / how to inhabit a moment, / even while daydreaming, / all the way to the far edges.’ ‘Deep in the Rectangular Forest’ offers a slightly ominous look at post-internet, post-social-media behavior and the role individuals play in this technological habitat: ‘we pollinated the mostly mediocre content / with an innocuous brand of wit. // Left to our own devices, we’d eavesdrop / on conversations around the world. / If something was unpleasant, we deleted it.’ These poems suggest people should enjoy the fun of language while it lasts, before it’s ‘ground to numeric sand’ and ‘the rabbit / of the alphabet / drops back / into the void / of the black hat.’ Like her ‘Monogrammed Aspirin’—in which E is for both Excedrin and Elaine—Equi’s poems are easy-to-swallow capsules, so filled with ideas that, occasionally, they feel curtailed, as though they could have gone on longer.”

Vanity Fair’s Women on Women edited by Radhika Jones and Tad Friend

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Vanity Fair’s Women on Women: “This dazzling collection features 28 profiles of famous women, including politicians, artists, musicians, and actresses, from the last 36 years of Vanity Fair. The profiles, each of which was written by a woman, offer snapshots of their subjects at key points in time, often with remarkable prescience. For a 1992 piece about Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail stumping for her husband, author Gail Sheehy is present to witness Clinton watching Gennifer Flowers’s CNN interview on her affair with Bill, but more importantly, she captures her personality astutely, as the ‘tougher, cooler, and more intellectually tart of the two’ Clintons. Amy Fine Collins’s 1995 piece on Audrey Hepburn explores how the legendary actress’s relationship with designer Hubert de Givenchy helped shape her career. In 1985, Tina Brown articulates the precise nature of Princess Diana and Prince Charles’s mismatch, 11 years before their divorce, while, in 1984, Janet Coleman finds Whoopi Goldberg, just prior to the release of The Color Purple, wrestling with the implications of stardom, as ‘she had never yet been censored and was concerned for her integrity.’ This is an ideal collection for those who enjoy celebrity profiles with a bit more substance.”

True Fake Fact: Donald Trump Is Andrew Jackson

Sometimes we open a book hoping to learn one thing and wind up getting bushwhacked by something completely unrelated and unexpected. I’m having that unnerving experience right now with Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.

I started reading the book as research for a nonfiction book I’m writing about a man who was born into a slave-owning family in Virginia during the Civil War and died at the age of 92 at the peak of the Cold War. I was looking for insights into the origins and evolution of Virginia’s (and America’s) class system and, specifically, for evidence supporting my long-held belief that the United States never was and never will be a classless society.

Though Isenberg has solid credentials—she wrote the well-received Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, coauthored Madison and Jefferson, and teaches American history at Louisiana State University—I’ll admit I approached White Trash with some trepidation. That “400-Year Untold History” claim in the subtitle smelled of over-reach, and the early chapters failed to convince me that my nose was malfunctioning. Then I came to chapter five, “Andrew Jackson’s Cracker Country: The Squatter as Common Man.” After a meandering description of the landless, uncouth “crackers and squatters” who led the young republic’s expansion beyond the Appalachian Mountains, Isenberg comes to her central character: Andrew Jackson, Old Hickory, the raw-boned Tennessee scrapper and warrior who would become the seventh president of the United States. Isenberg’s sketch of Jackson opens hot and quickly catches fire: “Ferocious in his resentments, driven to wreak revenge against his enemies, he often acted without deliberation and justified his behavior as a law unto himself…Jackson’s personality was a crucial part of his democratic appeal as well as the animosity he provoked. He was not admired for statesmanlike qualities, which he lacked in abundance in comparison to his highly educated rivals…His supporters adored his rough edges…Using violent means if necessary, and acting without legal authority, Jackson was arguably the political heir of the cracker and squatter.”

That was when the gong went off. It was impossible to miss. Isenberg was not merely sketching Andrew Jackson; she was, chapter and verse, sketching the personal and political biography of…Donald Trump. As I continued reading, I found myself subconsciously substituting Trump’s name for Jackson’s, and other players in our contemporary political shitshow for the 19th-century actors in the Jacksonian soap opera. The parallels were so precise they were spooky. Here, with italics marking my mental edits, was what I read:

“Trump’s was a career built on sheer will and utter impulse…Controversy, large and small, seemed to follow the man. Because Trump had relatively little experience holding political offices, his run for the presidency drew even more than the normal amount of attention to his personal character. A biography written for campaign purposes…focused on his volatile emotions. He certainly lacked the education and polite breeding of his presidential predecessors.”

At this point, a suspicion sprang to life. Could it be that Isenberg was writing a cleverly coded takedown of Donald Trump? But I soon learned that this was nearly impossible because White Trash was published five months before the 2016 election, when just about no one, least of all Hillary Clinton and The New York Times, thought Donald Trump had a snowball’s chance of winning the presidency. So Isenberg was not writing in code. The uncanny parallels between our seventh and 45th presidents are the fruit of deep scholarly research. They are actual facts. Isenberg continues, again with my italics:
Prominent critics insisted on a congressional investigation. The powerful Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, demanded the president’s censure. Trump damned the established legal authorities…Confirmed rumors circulated that Trump had threatened to cut off the ears of some senators because they had dared to investigate—and humiliate—him on the national stage.
Of course, both besieged presidents had their defenders:
Trump’s nomination provoked “sneers and derision from the myrmidons of power at Washington,” wrote one avid Trump man, who decried “the degeneracy of American feeling in that swamp.” Trump wasn’t a government minion or a pampered courtier, and thus his unpolished and un-statesmanlike ways were an advantage. In 2019, in a speech before Congress, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky used this kind of language to reproach members of the House for investigating Trump’s activities…The men and women censuring Trump, whom the Kentucky senator mocked as the “young sweet-smelling and powdered beau of the town,” were out of their league. With this clever turn of phrase, McConnell recast Trump’s foes as coastal elites, the classic enemies of flyover country.
Just when I started thinking it was time to get some sex into this parallel-universe narrative, Isenberg obliged: “The candidate’s private life came under equal scrutiny. His irregular marriage became scandalous fodder during the election of 2016…In the ever-expanding script detailing Trump’s misdeeds, adultery was just one more example of his uncontrolled passions. Having affairs with porn stars and then paying them hush money belonged to the standard profile of the backwoods aggressor who refused to believe the law applied to him…He simply took what he wanted, and was even willing to, by his own admission, ‘grab them by the pussy.’”

Even staggering ignorance of international affairs was seen as a virtue by these presidents’ supporters, as Isenberg notes: “If his lack of diplomatic experience made him ‘homebred,’ this meant he was less contaminated than former ambassador to the Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch by foreign ideas or courtly pomp. The class comparison could not be ignored: Hillary Clinton had been a first lady and a secretary of state, while Trump was ‘sprung from a common family,’ and had written nothing to brag about. Instinctive action was privileged over unproductive thought.”

That “common family” claim required a little more massaging in Trump’s case than in Jackson’s, and Trump’s minions have been happy to oblige. “Partisans of Trump claimed that he was from backwoods stock,” Isenberg writes. “This was untrue. Trump was born into an elite New York real-estate family, and though he had briefly been a resident of Queens, that five-bedroom Tudor had been abandoned long ago in favor of Trump Tower.”

It’s likely that Trump, like Jackson before him, has brought lasting changes to the American scene. As Isenberg puts it: “Trump’s candidacy changed the nature of democratic politics. One political commentator noted that Trump’s reign ushered in the ‘game of brag.’ Another observer concluded that a new kind of ‘tweeting country politician’ had arisen, who could tweet for hours before having finally ‘exhausted the fountain of his panegyric on President Trump.’”

As I reached the end of chapter five in White Trash, I dimly remembered hearing that Donald Trump is a big fan of Old Hickory. A little digging reminded me that early in his presidency, in March 2017, Trump had visited Jackson’s estate, the Hermitage, near Nashville to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Jackson’s birth. In one of his keener readings of history, Trump declared, “I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War.” Hard to fact-check that whopper because Jackson died 16 years before the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter. No matter. Trump added that he admires Jackson—and he has Jackson’s portrait on the wall in the Oval Office—because he was “a very tough person” with a “big heart.” Tell that to the 150 human beings Jackson owned at the time of his death, some of whom he hunted down personally when they tried to escape from bondage. Or tell that to the thousands of Native Americans and black slaves who perished during Jackson’s enforced relocation known as the Trail of Tears, an act of genocide by any other name.

But let’s not get bogged down with true facts when the world is bursting with so many fake facts. And let’s not lose sight of the completely unexpected lesson in Isenberg’s book. The republic survived Andrew Jackson—and Andrew Johnson, Warren Harding, Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. Surely it will survive Donald Trump? We might get the answer to that question sooner than anyone expected, shortly before the swearing in of President Pence.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Kill Your Idols: On the Violence of Experimental Literature

In a recent lecture on innovative writing, Myung Mi Kim argued that any artistic experiment is inherently violent, as the artist is dismantling an inherited tradition in order to make way for the new. For many writers, innovation does indeed contain destruction in its very definition. After all, the experimental text cannot exist in the same space as the conventions that restrict its meaning, stifle its performativity, and deny its legitimacy.


Three recent books remind us that an experiment, though it challenges elements of a familiar literary heritage, does not have to sacrifice unity of voice and vision. Karla Kelsey’s forthcoming Blood Feather, Kenji Liu’s Monsters I Have Been, and Grace Talusan’s The Body Papers skillfully dismantle received forms to offer alternative ways of creating meaning and coherence from human experience. Though vastly different in style and scope, these three innovative texts share a commitment to a unity of concept, presenting us with larger questions about the politics of language that ultimately guide and focus the generative violence of the experiment. In their hands, innovation becomes an exercise in precision, as well as a legitimate danger. As Liu writes, “The under
state / swarms our / documents. Our / lungs.”

Monsters I Have Been opens with an articulation of the artistic goals and the parameters of an invented poetic form called “frankenpo.” Liu writes in the form’s definition: “to create a new poetic text by collecting, disaggregating, randomizing, rearranging, recombining, erasing, and reanimating one or more chosen bodies of text, for the purpose of divining or revealing new meanings often at odds with the original texts.” As the book unfolds, the constraints and freedoms of “frankenpo” serve to unify the book’s wild flights of the imagination, as Monsters I Have Been reads as an extended exploration of the possibilities inherent in this specific literary form.

In many ways, it is the intense focus of Liu’s experiment that brings his discoveries into sharp relief. Culling text from a variety of sources, which range from screenplays to New York Times articles, feminist theory, and U.S. presidential executive orders, Liu shows us beauty and danger contained within the same turns of phrase, which can house both violence and redemption, light and unspeakable darkness. The poems in Monsters I Have Been call attention to the remarkable disconnect between language and the real world toward which it constantly gestures. At the same time, Liu frames this disconnect, the inherent arbitrariness of the signifier, as a source of agency for the creative practitioner.

Liu writes, for example, in “Thus I Have Heard,” “We are visas / in a national / drowning. / Each of us an executive / decision, pursuant to clay. / Each a subsection
 of protocol / and yet.” Here Liu reconfigures language from unspecified source texts, reminding us that intent not only shapes outcome with respect to the words we use, but also that intent can bring to light the beauty that resides just beneath the surface of a seemingly unremarkable text. For Liu, the same language can carry revelation and violence, enlightenment and oppression.

What’s more, he shows us the myriad ways that language is illuminated by conversation, dialogue, and juxtaposition. In many ways, the personae contained within Monsters I Have Been are strengthened and refined by conversation, as proximity brings a single voice into clearer focus. He writes, for instance, in “As the light diminishes again,” “To fit the average, we come / as animals, with a pocket map / of the sky and nothing under. // How the ragged hairpiece gapes / open and declares teeth.” This poem utilizes found text from Judith Butler’s theoretical writings as well as the Heart Sutra. Approached with that in mind, the poem becomes a space for dialogue in which one texture of language complicates, and calls into question, the other. As Liu himself asks, “What masks / What power”?

Much like Liu’s book, Talusan’s recent memoir, The Body Papers, reveals (and renegotiates) the politics inherent in language. Yet Talusan takes this kind of experimentation in a new direction, pairing text with found images as she investigates the authority, reverence, and doubt that we invest in various types of cultural documents. The artifacts that inhabit The Body Papers range from canceled passports to immigration forms to family photographs. As the book unfolds, these politically charged and authoritative documents are positioned in service of personal narrative, a gesture that proves as innovative as it is subversive. The hierarchies that we impose upon types of language are provocatively reversed. Talusan summons the authority of official documents, journalistic photographs, and the various traces of governmental power to further a personal narrative of risk, family ties, and discovery.

Talusan’s daring reversal of these power structures comes through most visibly in her depiction of the journey of her emigration to the United States from Manila with her parents and siblings. Describing the obstacles her parents encountered as they applied for citizenship, she writes, “I was terrified. I had never thought about how meaningful U.S. citizenship was until I was told I didn’t have it. With a shuffle of papers, life as I knew it could be lost. I am still astounded by how meaningful these papers are, how they are pasted onto our bodies and determine where and how we can move through the world.” This powerful narrative, in which the narrator realizes the precarity of what she had remembered as a joyful childhood, is spliced with images of a canceled Philippine passport and a character reference in support of an application for United States citizenship.

In many ways, the images included in The Body Papers complicate and enrich the narrative proper. By pairing this section with these specific documents, for example, Talusan evokes the stateless and liminal status of her younger self. Yet at the same time, she provocatively claims the authority and power of these documents for own narrative, a reversal of the ways in which we often shape and reshape personal narrative in the service of government procedure.

This investment in revealing and challenging the authority placed in government documents unifies a gorgeously capacious narrative. Talusan writes, for example: “Without physical proof, I started to question whether I had even written [the letters]—a psychological pattern that I think is intertwined with the immigrant experience.” As this powerful memoir unfolds, however, Talusan challenges the artificial divide culture has created between objective and subjective types of language, laying claim to both in prose as deeply felt as it is precise and sharply focused.

Kelsey’s Blood Feather, like the work of Liu and Talsuan, utilizes experimental language in service of social justice. This book-length poem, inspired by a rich store of archival material associated with women’s history, manifests as three dramatic monologues spoken by different personae. The whole of the archive is subsumed into the voices of these richly imagined narrators, with Kelsey drawing from texts that include Aristotle, Pina Bausch, Julian Beck, Richard Brody, Cheiro, and many other writers, philosophers, cinematographers, and thinkers. By challenging the fiction of the single speaker in such a way, Kelsey gestures at voice as a social construct, calling into question the myriad ways culture presupposes that ownership over language is even possible.

It is the unity of voice, remarkable given the scope and range of archival material represented in this volume, that renders Kesley’s text as sharply focused as Talusan’s narrative memoir and Liu’s extended exploration of a single form. As the book unfolds, this unity of voice and vision is revealed as integral to the poem’s deeply philosophical meaning. For Kelsey, the self, the single spoken voice, contains multitudes. She shows us, through her sharply focused experimentation, that the boundary between individual and community is porous and indistinct. She writes, for example, in Blood Feather:
the aesthetic problem of
form exists essentially and simultaneously as
a moral problem writes Deren in
An Anagram of Ideas on Art
and so how to perform an
ethical relation to the footage of

a flood mobile homes uprooted a
man in a canoe paddling after
his lowing cow the film then
cutting to the tremor of a
hand-held camera actress gagged and bound
to the bed how to punctuate
Here the speaker reflects on the ethical problems inherent in representation. If the boundary between self and other remains blurry, Kelsey asks us to consider where cultural appropriation begins when attempting to depict one’s own perceptions. In many ways, the philosophical quality of Kelsey’s poetry is in itself subversive, as she uses the artistic repertoire of poetry to claim agency over a predominantly masculine philosophical tradition. In doing so, she reminds us that despite the rigid binary distinctions that circulate within culture, alterity inevitably resides within the subject, who is a world unto herself.

If innovation is in itself a destructive gesture, can that generative violence be placed in service of activism and advocacy through language? Kelsey, Talusan, and Liu show us that the precision of the experiment constitutes its power. In each of these three collections, this dismantling of convention is placed in service of a specific philosophical question, the work an inquiry into what is possible when specific rules associated with language are renegotiated. Here, language is wielded as veiled threat, as provocative reversal, as gloriously shattered syntactic convention. Yet it is this space between words that allows us to see the light.

Image credit: Annie Spratt

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Attenberg, Shelburne, Matar, Ocampo, Pinsky, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Jami Attenberg, Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne, Hisham Matar, Silvina Ocampo, Robert Pinsky, 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 sign up to be a member today.

All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about All This Could Be Yours: “A patriarch’s death strains a family’s already fraught relationships in this dazzling novel from Attenberg (All Grown Up). Shady real estate developer Victor Tuchman suffers a heart attack in New Orleans and is rushed to the hospital. During his final, lingering day, his family mentally rehashes key moments of his life in hopes of understanding the man they are losing. His wife, Barbra, still annoyed about leaving their Connecticut mansion, occupies herself with obsessive walking while remembering Victor’s quick transition from shy suitor to abusive tyrant. His daughter, Alex, flies in from Chicago, desperate to know the truth about Victor’s criminal past, and begrudges her mother’s insistence she let it go and make peace. Victor’s son Gary, who is in Los Angeles to jump-start his career in the movies, avoids answering calls from the family and intentionally misses his flight. Gary’s wife, Twyla, slips into a nervous breakdown during a cosmetic shopping spree, slowly revealing the true root of her distress. As Victor fades, the family’s dysfunction comes to light and they make drastic choices about their future. Attenberg excels at revealing rich interior lives—not only for her main cast, but also for cameo characters—in direct, lucid prose. This is a delectable family saga.”

The Beadworkers by Beth Piatote

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Beadworkers: “Piatote’s debut collection mixes poetry, verse, and prose to form an impressive reflection on the lives of modern Native Americans. Piatote, a Nez Perce enrolled with the Colville Confederated Tribes, fits much nuance and profundity into stories that often reflect on the ways in which contemporary mainstream American culture continues to erase the identities and traditions of indigenous groups. In ‘Beading Lesson,’ the narrator teaches a girl how to make traditional beaded earrings, noting how fewer and fewer people have been learning the skill in recent years. In ‘wIndin!,’ two friends work on a piece of political art, a board game that comments on systemic oppression of Native Americans throughout history. A woman reunites with an old friend and considers the ways their relationship to each other and their families have changed in ‘Katydid.’ The most impressive and longest, ‘Antikoni,’ is a reimagining of Antigone, complete with a chorus of Aunties. In Piatote’s version, Antikoni strives to rescue the remains of her ancestors from the museum where they have been interred by the ‘White Coats’ and ‘White Gloves’—’We were born into this suffering. That our own/ blood would be divided/ from us, that our mourning could never come to an/ end, for it can never/ properly begin.’ The Nez Perce language is featured throughout the verse passages, and Piatote includes many explanatory footnotes. This beautiful collection announces Piatote as a writer to watch.”

Initiated by Amanda Yates Garcia

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Initiated: “Garcia, self-proclaimed ‘Oracle of Los Angeles,’ shares the series of initiations that led to her practice as a professional witch, writer, and healer in her superb debut. Raised in Northern California, Garcia was introduced to the feminist practice of Goddess magic by her mother, but she rejected those teachings for years. After experiencing horrific abuse at the hands of a family member, she left home at 16 for San Francisco, drifted to Europe, then landed in Los Angeles to chase her dream of being an artist. Garcia realizes that, like magic, art made ‘the things we imagine visible to us; it pulls them into material reality and changes the way we experience the world.’ Throughout her travels, she experiences visions that lead her thoughts back to witchcraft. Then, following a stint in grad school, she performs an official witch ceremony on her 30th birthday with members of her L.A. community and realizes ‘nothing could give me the satisfaction of witchcraft.’ She also reveals times of personal ‘darkness,’ such as working as a stripper and pursuing toxic relationships, crediting witchcraft for helping her escape: ‘The moment you stop seeing yourself as a supplicant and start seeing yourself as a participant, a coconspirator, an agent, that shift marks the moment you become a witch.’ Effortlessly weaving Goddess myths from diverse cultures with her own life story, Garcia’s reverent, powerful work will encourage readers to forge their own values and join in her ‘re-enchantment’ of the world.”

The Promise by Silvina Ocampo

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Promise: “This haunting and vital final work from Ocampo (1903–1993), her only novel, is about a woman’s life flashing before her eyes when she’s stranded in the ocean. The nameless narrator has fallen off a ship, and as she floats, her mind takes over, presenting a flotilla of real and imagined memories about the people in her life in the form of a version of the book she promises herself she’ll finish. The book’s main thread is a woman, Irene, and a man, Leandro, with whom both Irene and the narrator get involved. But the fluid narrative also encompasses brief snapshots of a murder mystery, the narrator’s grandmother’s eye doctor (‘In profile, his intent rabbit face was not as kind as it was head-on.’), her hairdresser, her ballerina neighbor, and the fruit vendor to whom her brother was attracted as a boy (‘it was a fruit relationship, perhaps symbolizing sex’). The narrator’s potent, dynamic voice yields countless memorable lines and observations: ‘The only advantage of being a child is that time is doubly wide, like upholstery fabric’; ‘What is falling in love, anyway? Letting go of disgust, of fear, letting go of everything.’ But the book’s true power is its depiction of the strength of the mind (‘what I imagine becomes real, more real than reality’) and the necessity of storytelling, which for the narrator is literally staving off death: ‘I told stories to death so that it would spare my life.’ Ocampo’s portrait of one woman’s interior life is forceful and full of hope.”

Also on shelves: Holding on to Nothing by Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne, A Month in Siena by Hisham Matar, and The Mind Has Cliffs of Fall edited by Robert Pinsky.

King, God, Smart-Ass Author: Reconsidering Metafiction

“Whoever is in charge here?” -Daffy Duck, Merrie Melodies (1953)

Like all of us, Daffy Duck was perennially put upon by his Creator. The sputtering, stuttering, rageful water fowl’s life was a morass of indignity, embarrassment, anxiety, and existential horror. Despite all of the humiliation Daffy had to contend with, the aquatic bird was perfectly willing to shake his wings at the unfair universe. As expertly delivered by voice artist Mel Blanc, Daffy could honk “Who is responsible for this? I demand that you show yourself!” In animator Chuck Jones’s brilliant and classic 1953 episode of Merrie Melodies titled “Duck Amuck,” he presents Daffy as a veritable Everyduck, a sinner in the hands of a smart-assed illustrator. “Duck Amuck” has remained a canonical episode in the Warner Brothers cartoon catalog, its postmodern, metafictional experimentation heralded for its daring and cheekiness. Any account of what critics very loosely term “postmodern literature”—with its playfulness, its self-referentiality, and it’s breaking of the fourth wall—that considers Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov, and Paul Auster but not Jones is only telling part of the metafictional story.  Not for nothing, but two decades ago, “Duck Amuck” was added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as an enduring piece of American culture.

Throughout the episode, Jones depicts increasingly absurd metafictional scenarios involving Daffy’s sublime suffering. Jones first imagines Daffy as a swordsman in a Three Musketeers parody, only to have him wander into a shining, white abyss as the French Renaissance background fades away. “Look Mac,” Daffy asks, never one to let ontological terror impinge on his sense of personal justice, “what’s going on here?” Jones wrenches the poor bird from the musketeer scenery to the blinding whiteness of the nothing-place, then to a bucolic pastoral, and finally to a paradisiacal Hawaiian beach. Daffy’s admirable sense of his own integrity remains intact, even throughout his torture. Pushed through multiple parallel universes, wrenched, torn, and jostled through several different realities, Daffy shouts “All right wise guy, where am I?”  

But eventually not even his own sense of identity is allowed to continue unaffected, as the God-animator turns him into a country-western singer who can only produce jarring sound effects from his guitar, or as a transcendent paintbrush recolors Daffy blue. At one point the animator’s pencil impinges into Daffy’s world, erasing him, negating him, making him nothing. Daffy’s very being, his continued existence depends on the whims of a cruel and capricious God; his is in the world of Shakespeare’s King Lear, where the Duke of Gloucester utters his plaintive cry, “As flies are to wanton boys are we to th’ gods; / They kill us for their sport.” Or at least they erase us. Finally, like Job before the whirlwind, Daffy implores, “Who is responsible for this? I demand that you show yourself!” As the view pans upward, into that transcendent realm of paper and ink where the animator-God dwells, it’s revealed to be none other than the trickster par excellence, Bugs Bunny. “Ain’t I a stinker?” the Lord saith.

Creation, it should be said, is not accomplished without a certain amount of violence. According to one perspective, we can think of Daffy’s tussling with Bugs as being a variation on that venerable old Aristotelian narrative conflict of “Man against God.” If older literature was focused on the agon (as the Greeks put it) between a human and a deity, and modernist literature concerned itself with the conflict that resulted as people had to confront the reality of no God, then the wisdom goes that our postmodern moment is fascinated with the idea of a fictional character searching out his or her creator. According to narrative theorists, that branch of literary study that concerns itself with the structure and organization of story and plot (not synonyms incidentally), such metafictional affectations are technically called metalepsis. H. Porter Abbot in his invaluable The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative explains that such tales involve a “violation of narrative levels” when a “storyworld, is invaded by an entity or entities from another narrative level.”

Metalepsis can be radical in its execution, as when an “extradiegetic narrator” (that means somebody from outside the story entirely) enters into the narrative, as in those narratives where an “’author appears and starts quarreling with one of the characters,” Abbot writes. We’ll see that there are precedents for that sort of thing, but whether interpreted as gimmick or deep reflection on the idea of literature, the conceit that has a narrator enter into the narrative as if theophany is most often associated with something called, not always helpfully, “postmodernism.” Whatever that much-maligned term might mean, in popular parlance it has an association with self-referentiality, recursiveness, and metafictional playfulness (even if readers might find cleverness such as that exhausting). The term might as well be thought of as referring to our historical preponderance of literature that knows that it is literature.

With just a bit of British disdain in his critique, The New Yorker literary critic James Wood writes in his pithy and helpful How Fiction Works that “postmodern novelists… like to remind us of the metafictionality of all things.” Think of the crop of experimental novelists and short story writers from the ’60s, such as John Barth in his Lost in the Funhouse, where one story is to be cut out and turned into an actual Moebius strip; Robert Coover in the classic and disturbing short story “The Babysitter,” in which a variety of potential realities and parallel histories exist simultaneously in the most mundane of suburban contexts; and John Fowles in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, in which the author also supplies multiple “forking paths” to the story and where the omniscient narrator occasionally appears as a character in the book. Added to this could be works where the actual first-person author themselves becomes a character, such as Auster’s New York Trilogy, or Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock (among other works where he appears as a character). Not always just as a character, but as the Creator, for if the French philosopher Roland Barthes killed off the idea of such a figure in his seminal 1967 essay “The Death of the Author,” then much of the period’s literature resurrected Him. Wood notes, perhaps in response to Barthes, that “A certain kind of postmodern novelist…is always lecturing us: ‘Remember, this character is just a character. I invented him.’” Metafiction is when fiction thinks about itself.

Confirming Wood’s observation, Fowles’s narrator writes in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, “This story I am telling is all imagination. These characters I create never existed outside my own mind…the novelist stands next to God. He may not know all, yet he tries to pretend that he does.” Metafictional literature like this is supposed to interrogate the idea of the author, the idea of the reader, the very idea of narrative. When the first line to Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler,” it has been signaled that the narrative you’re entering is supposed to be different from those weighty tomes of realism that supposedly dominated in previous centuries. If metalepsis is a favored gambit of our experimental novelists, then it’s certainly omnipresent in our pop culture as well, beyond just “Duck Amuck.”

A list of sitcoms that indulge the conceit includes 30 Rock, Community, Scrubs, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The final example, which after all was already an experimental narrative about a wholesome kid from West Philly named Will played by a wholesome rapper from West Philly named Will Smith, was a font of avant-garde fourth-wall breaking deserving of Luigi Pirandello or Bertolt Brecht. Prime instances would include the season five episodes “Will’s Misery,” which depicts Carlton running through the live studio audience, and “Same Game, Next Season,” in which Will asks “If we so rich, why we can’t afford no ceiling,” with the camera panning up to show the rafters and lights of the soundstage. Abbot writes that metafiction asks “to what extent do narrative conventions come between us and the world?” which in its playfulness is exactly what The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is doing, forcing its audience to consider how “they act as invisible constructors of what we think is true, shaping the world to match our assumptions.”

Sitcoms like these are doing what Barth, Fowles, and Coover are doing—they’re asking us to examine the strange artificiality of fiction, this illusion in which we’re asked by a hidden author to hallucinate and enter a reality that isn’t really there. Both audience and narrator are strange, abstracted constructs; their literal corollaries of reader and writer aren’t much more comprehensible. When we read a third-person omniscient narrator, it would be natural to ask “Who exactly is supposed to be recounting this story?” Metafiction is that which does ask that question. It’s the same question that the writers of The Office confront us with when we wonder, “Who exactly is collecting all of that documentary footage over those nine seasons?”

Far from being simply a postmodern trick, metalepsis as a conceit and the metafiction that results have centuries’ worth of examples. Interactions between creator and created, and certainly author and audience, have a far more extensive history than both a handful of tony novelists from the middle of the 20th century and the back catalog of Nick at Nite. For those whose definition of the novel doesn’t consider anything written before 1945, it might come as a shock that all of the tricks we associate with metafiction thread so deep into history that realist literature can seem the exception rather than the rule. This is obvious in drama; the aforementioned theater term “breaking the fourth wall” attests to the endurance of metalepsis in literature. As a phrase, it goes back to Molière in the 17th century, referring to when characters in a drama acknowledge their audience, when they “break” the invisible wall that separates the action of the stage from that of the observers in their seats. If Molière coined the term, it’s certainly older than even him. In all of those asides in Shakespeare—such as that opening monologue of Richard III when the title villain informs all of us who are joining him on his descent into perdition that “Now is the winter of our discontent”—we’re, in some sense, to understand ourselves as being characters in the action of the play itself.  

As unnatural as Shakespearean asides may seem, they don’t have the same sheer metaleptic import of metafictional drama from the avant-garde theater of the 20th century. Pirandello’s classic experimental play Six Characters in Search of an Author is illustrative here, a high-concept work in which unfinished and unnamed characters arrive at a Pirandello production asking their creator to more fully flesh them out. As a character named the Father explains, the “author who created us alive no longer wished…materially to put us into a work of art. And this was a real crime.” A real crime because to be a fictional character means that you cannot die, even though “The man, the writer, the instrument of the creation will die, but his creation does not die.” An immaculate creation outliving its creator, more blessed than the world that is forever cursed to be ruled over by its God. But first Pirandello’s unfortunates must compel their God to grant them existence; they need a “fecundating matrix, a fantasy which could rise and nourish them: make them live forever!” If this seems abstract, you should know that such metaleptic tricks were staged long before Pirandello, and Shakespeare for that matter. Henry Medwall’s 1497 Fulgens and Lucrece, the first secular play in the entire English canon, has two characters initially named “A” and “B” who argue about a play only to have it revealed that the work in question is actually Medwall’s, which the audience is currently watching. More than a century later, and metafictional poses were still explored by dramatists, a prime and delightful example being Shakespeare’s younger contemporary and sometimes-collaborator Francis Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle. In that Jacobean play of 1607, deploying a conceit worthy of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, Beaumont imagines the production of a play-within-a-play entitled The London Merchant. In the first act, two characters climb the stage from the audience, one simply called “Citizen” and the other “Wife,” and begin to heckle and critique The London Merchant, and its perceived unfairness to the rapidly ascending commercial class. The Knight of the Burning Pestle allows the audience to strike back, the Citizen cheekily telling the actor reading the prologue, “Boy, let my wife and I have a couple of stools / and then begin; and let the grocer do rare / things.”

Historical metalepsis can also be seen in what are called “frame tales,” that is, stories-within-stories that nestle narratives together like Russian dolls. Think of the overreaching narrative of Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th-century The Canterbury Tales with its pilgrims telling each other their stories as they make their way to the shrine of Thomas Becket, or of Scheherazade recounting her life-saving anthology to her murderous husband in One Thousand and One Nights, as compiled from folktales during the Islamic Golden Age from the eighth to 14th centuries. Abbot describes frame tales by explaining that “As you move to the outer edges of a narrative, you may find that it is embedded in another narrative.” Popular in medieval Europe, and finding their structure from Arabic and Indian sources that go back much further, frame tales are basically unified anthologies where an overreaching narrative supplies its own meta-story. Think of Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th-century Decameron, in which seven women and three men each tell 10 stories to pass the time while they’re holed up in a villa outside of Florence to await the passage of the Black Death through the city. The 100 resulting stories are ribald, earthy, and sexy, but present through all of their telling is an awareness of the tellers, this narrative about a group of young Florentines in claustrophobic, if elegant, quarantine. “The power of the pen,” one of Boccaccio’s characters says on their eighth day in exile, “is far greater than those people suppose who have not proved it by experience.” Great enough, it would seem, to create a massive sprawling world with so many stories in it. “In my father’s book,” the character would seem to be saying of his creator Boccaccio, “there are many mansions.”

As metaleptic as frame tales might be, a reader will note that Chaucer doesn’t hitch up for that long slog into Canterbury himself, nor does Boccaccio find himself eating melon and prosciutto while quaffing chianti with his aristocrats in The Decameron. But it would be a mistake to assume that older literature lacks examples of the “harder” forms of metalepsis, that writing before the 20th century is devoid of the Author-God appearing to her characters as if God on Sinai. So-called “pre-modern” literature is replete with whimsical experimentation that would seem at home in Nabokov or Calvino; audiences directly addressed on stage and books speaking as themselves to their readers, authors appearing in narratives as creators, and fictions announcing their fictionality.

Miguel de Cervantes’s 17th-century Don Quixote plays with issues of representation and artificiality when the titular character and his trusty squire, Sancho Panza, visit a print shop that is producing copies of the very book you are reading, the errant knight and his sidekick then endeavoring to prove that it is an inferior plagiarism of the real thing. Cervantes’s narrator reflects at an earlier point in the novel about the novel itself, enthusing that “we now enjoy in this age of ours, so poor in light entertainment, not only the charm of his veracious history, but also of the tales and episodes contained in it which are, in a measure, no less pleasing, ingenious, and truthful, than the history itself.” Thus Cervantes, in what is often considered the first novel, can lay claim to being the primogeniture of both realism and metafictionality.

Following Don Quixote’s example could be added other metafictional works that long precede “postmodernism,” including Laurence Sterne’s 18th-century The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, where the physical book takes time to mourn the death of a central character (when an all-black page is printed); the Polish count Jan Potocki’s underread late-18th-century The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, with not just its fantastic caste of Iberian necromancers, kabbalists, and occultists, but its intricate frame structure and forking paths (not least of which include reference to the book that you’re reading); James Hogg’s Satanic masterpiece The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, in which the author himself makes an appearance; and Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, in which the characters remark on how it feels as if they’re in a gothic novel (or perhaps a parody of one). Long before Barthes killed the Author, writers were conflating themselves as creator with the Creator. As Sterne notes, “The thing is this. That of all the several ways of beginning a book which are now in practice throughout the known world, I am confident my own way of doing it is the best—I’m sure it is the most religious—for I begin with writing the first sentence—and trusting to Almighty God for the second.”

Sterne’s sentiment provides evidence as to why metafiction is so alluring and enduring, despite its minimization by some critics who dismiss it as mere trick while obscuring its long history. What makes metalepsis such an intellectually attractive conceit goes beyond simply that it makes us question how literature and reality interact, but rather what it implies about the Author whom Sterne gestures toward—“Almighty God.” The author of Tristram Shandy understood, as all adept priests of metafiction do (whether explicitly or implicitly), that at its core, metalepsis is theological. In questioning and confusing issues of characters and writers, narrators and readers, actors and audience, metafiction experiments with the very idea of creation. Some metafiction privileges the author as being the supreme-God of the fiction, as in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and some castes its lot with the characters, as in The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Some metafiction is “softer” in its deployment, allowing the characters within a narrative to give us stories-within-stories; other is “harder” in how emphatic it is about the artifice and illusion of fiction, as in Jones’s sublime cartoon. What all of them share however, is an understanding that fiction is a strange thing, an illusion whereby whether we’re gods or penitents, we’re all privy to a world spun from something as ephemeral as letters and breath. Wood asks, “Is there a way in which all of us are fictional characters, parented by life and written by ourselves?” And the metaphysicians of metafiction answer in the affirmative.

As a final axiom, to join my claim that metafiction is when literature thinks about itself and that metalepsis has a far longer history than is often surmised, I’d finally argue that because all fiction—all literature—is artifice, that all of it is in some sense metafiction. What defines fiction, what makes it different from other forms of language, is that quality of metalepsis. Even if not explicitly stated, the differing realms of reality implied by the very existence of fiction imply something of the meta. Abbot writes “World-making is so much a part of most narratives that some narrative scholars have begun to include it as a defining feature of narrative,” and of that I heartily concur. Even our scripture is metafictional, for what else are we to call the Bible in which Moses is both author and character, and where his death itself is depicted? In metafiction perspective is confused, writer turns to reader, narrator to character, creator to creation. No more apt a description of metafiction, of fiction, of life than that which is offered by Prospero at the conclusion of The Tempest: “Our revels now are ended. These our actors, / As I foretold you, were all spirits and / Are melted into air, into thin air.” For Prospero, the “great globe itself…all which it inherit, shall dissolve / And, like this insubstantial pageant faded…We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.” Nothingness before and nothingness after, but with everything in between, just like the universe circumscribed by the cover of a book. Metafiction has always defined literature; we’ve always been characters in a novel that somebody else is writing.

On Body Horror and the Monstrosity of Women

In Sharlene Teo’s wise, tenderly grotesque novel Ponti, the introduction of teenaged protagonist Szu is effected in a cloud of body odor. “When I was eleven,” Szu grumbles, sitting in a classroom that smells of Impulse body spray and soiled sanitary towels, “I used to hope that puberty would morph me, that one day I’d uncurl from my chrysalis, bloom out beautiful. No luck! Acne instead. Disgusting hair. Blood.” Overflowing with monsters and matriarchs, Teo’s novel is at least partially a horror narrative and draws much of its impetus from the backstory of Szu’s mother, Amisa, a former horror actress, who once starred in a movie named Ponti! The film, telling the story of a deformed girl who makes a deal with a bomoh—a shaman—to become beautiful, pins the theme of transformation at the novel’s heart. Her wish is granted, but the transformation is a dual one. She does become beautiful, but she also becomes a bloodthirsty monster who feeds insatiably upon men. Teo’s novel stresses this duality, writing female adolescence as, in effect, synonymous with female monstrosity, with the becoming of something other. Szu is nicknamed “Sadako,” after another classic horror movie monster, and her adolescence is a lank, disquieting thing, at once disappointing and horrendous. She is turning into a woman, she is turning into a monster; the two things are one and the same.
 
 
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“Body Horror” is a term that comes from horror cinema, but its literary origins can be traced back as far as Frankenstein. It is a trope that springs from primal fears—from the knowledge of oneself as a physical object and the consciousness of pain—and its roots wind through the Gothic, to the fin de siècle and the birth of science fiction. As a sub-genre, it broadly encompasses the concept of bodily violation, whether that be via mutilation, zombification, possession, or disease, but arguably one of its most pervasive themes is that of transformation. From Ovid to Cronenberg, transformation occupies an anxious corner in so much of film and literature that it more or less forms a tradition all its own. Folklore and myth are littered with metamorphosis—Daphne twisting into a bay tree, Alice in Wonderland with her Eat Me’s and Drink Me’s—and its impact is frequently an unsettling one. It is a fairy-tale punishment, a warning to naughty children, a reminder of the body’s unreliability.
In talking about Salt Slow, my short story collection, I have found myself returning frequently to the concept of the body, particularly the body as a locus of fear. The majority of stories in the collection are built on body horror and transformation, concerning women and the ways in which their bodies both contain and betray them: a girl whose teenage skin is hiding something terrible, a woman taking on the aspect of a jellyfish, a woman birthing something slippery. I think that writing about women goes hand in hand with horror writing. The female body is a nexus of pain almost by design (that by-now ubiquitous line from Fleabag: “women are born with pain built in, it’s our physical destiny”), but it is also potentially monstrous—an object traditionally subjugated, both for its presumed weakness and its perceived threat. The mutations and transformations of horror writing are uniquely qualified to evoke this: the difficulty and unreliability of the female body, its duality as an object both to be feared for and to fear.


When Daphne transforms into a bay tree, the moment is one of both horror and deliverance. She is no longer what she once was, but the metamorphosis frees her from the unwanted attention of Apollo. This duality of horror and emancipation sits, I think, at the core of female transformation. Within the horror genre (and arguably everywhere else), bodies read as female are always subject to pain, and to the threat of violation. Becoming something else—a tree, a freak, a monster—preempts this pain and reduces the risk of harm. It may even, if the transformation is the right one, allow you to cause harm in return.
 
 
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As made evident in Teo’s Ponti, female adolescence is frequently a site of horror. It is, after all, the “transformation” aspect of the body horror trope made literal. Over and over, in books and in movies, girls are made subject to the bleedings and stretchings of adolescence: that werewolf period where the body becomes an othered version of itself (the horror movie Ginger Snaps comes to mind—the protagonist’s first period coinciding with her transformation into something hairy and ill-tempered). Often, the horror of this alteration is fed by misinformation—the teenaged girls I find myself writing about frequently haven’t been told. Adolescence is frightening enough on its own, but the strange, puritanical sketchiness that consistently surrounds sex and sex education only serves to heighten the panic. In Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides, a teenage boy relays to his friends a jumbled impression of the informational “puberty” video he has stolen into a Girls Only class to watch: “When girls hit twelve or so,” he tells them breathlessly, “their tits bleed.” A monster, created by whispers.
In my short story “Mantis,” a Catholic schoolgirl’s troubled teenage skin extends far beyond acne. In between receiving woefully outdated sex education and attempting to navigate a newfound interest in boys, the protagonist loses teeth and hair, watching her skin come away in pieces to reveal something altogether buggier beneath. The transformation is a horror, of sorts, but it is also an emancipation—once freed from her physical strictures, the protagonist can act in a way that is natural to her (can do to a boy what a praying mantis would normally do to her chosen mate). This sense of transformation as a moment of freedom is not new. From certain representations of Lilith to Lucy Westenra, unloosed female power is often linked to a transformation into the monstrous, a shucking of one skin for another. Teenagers shed their younger selves for the relative power of womanhood, women shed their skins to take on fresh, more threatening aspects. In another story from my collection, a girl begins to take on attributes of her newly acquired stepsister, who happens to be a wolf. While it isn’t a transformation, in a physical sense, her newly feral traits allow her to contend far more effectively with the teenage boy who has started following her home. In this case, as in many others, the “transformation” is somewhat an active choice: looking at the possibilities presented to your body—pliancy, weakness, suffering—and choosing another option. Changing into a vampire, a wolf, a praying mantis, and eating people instead.
 
 
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There is another aspect to transformation—or rather, another level. In Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, a mother experiments with cocktails of drugs and hallucinogens to achieve what she perceived as a perfect brood of “mutant” children to display at the family carnival. The extremity of transformation, here, conveys status and happiness, with “normality” considered a failing. “I get glimpses of the horror of normalcy,” notes the protagonist, “Each of these innocents on the street is engulfed by a terror of their own ordinariness. They would do anything to be unique.”
In my story “Salt Slow,” a woman gives birth to something that might not be quite human—a tentacled creature which her boyfriend tries, and ultimately fails, to destroy. The transformation here, and in Geek Love, manifests in the child rather than the mother—an inherited transformation, so to speak. Transformation, in this sense, can be not only an active choice but one to pass on—the act of becoming, or of siring, a monster as a means of reclaiming control over the female body. Within the scaffolding of the body horror trope, female bodies are arguably presented with unprecedented choice: They can be at once unstable, vulnerable, suffocating, difficult, frightening, monstrous, and changing right before your eyes.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.
Image credit: Marten Newhall