Protagonists

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This essay is excerpted from the author’s memoir-in-progress, The Vulgar American.

In May of 2019, I’d been living in the U.K. for four months, and suddenly I was hearing a lot less frequently from my mom. She wasn’t feeling well. She was often at the doctors. She was losing weight. Having trouble keeping food down. They kept prescribing her things for stomach ulcers and sending her home.

But nothing about your diet has changed, I said.

I took a lot of Advil the other day, she said.

You always take Advil.

I know, but this was a lot. And with wine.

I don’t think so, Mom. I knew that when she said wine, she meant one glass, two at most. Are you stressed about something?

No, she said.

Then it doesn’t make sense.

*

I was taught that an easy way to write fiction was to create a character who wants something. And then to place obstacles in front of that character. And watch them overcome those obstacles

Every time I tried to write fiction this way, I failed.

Sometimes I didn’t understand a person wanting something that wasn’t achievable. Sometimes I didn’t understand an obstacle that could be overcome.

The obstacles life threw at me were disasters that couldn’t be faced or overcome or fixed. They stopped me. They stopped me and on the other side of obstacles like that, I no longer wanted the things I wanted before.

And what was it that I wanted? I wanted to go to grad school, so I applied to many and went to the one program that offered me a full ride (both times). I wanted to go to Canada, so I applied to grad school again, and I didn’t get in, so my family didn’t get to go. I had to want something else, something new, because the things I wanted had clear paths and clear dead ends.

Was I supposed to dream bigger? Was I supposed to dream more abstractly? Was I supposed to be pining after someone or something unlikely? Was I supposed to, in the end, surprise myself?

*

When I wrote Naamah, she didn’t want anything. She was set on a path by her husband and had to make the best of it.

As her author, I offered her things, escapes, gifts, friendships, lovers—the opposite of obstacles. I could never have sat down to the page and offered that woman obstacles, forced them on her.

I felt like No-Face in Spirited Away, holding out handfuls of gold to Chihiro, making a gentle noise, uh, uh.

And as I was not offering gold or greed, as I was not judging her, ever, Naamah took her time and considered her gifts, and often gently refused them, just as Chihiro had.

*

A woman often cannot want.

*

A woman makes do.

A woman makes do well, but that is not to be confused with a woman who is happy.

*

I often considered the happiness of a woman who wants and pursues. But I did not write about that woman because I had never met a woman like that.

*

When my mother was getting sick, I was running out of my medicine. The doctors in the U.K. gave me the exact prescriptions as I’d had before, but when I went to the pharmacy, the Trazadone wasn’t there.

What do you mean?

We don’t have it.

Yes. I understand that. When will you have it?

We don’t know.

I stopped myself from asking What do you mean? again. Instead I said, What do I do?

We’ll call you when we have it.

But you don’t know when that will be?

No.

No. I said it to myself.

*

The day I found out my mother’s pancreatic cancer diagnosis, I walked into my doctor’s practice and said I needed grief counseling. They made me the appointment to discuss that with my doctor for 10 minutes.

*

I’m changing so many words to Americanize my language. I went to my surgery. They made an appointment for me to see my GP. I lived in a flat. My son went to primary school. Next he would go to secondary school. I said ground floor to get around not saying first floor. And so on. And so on.

I was living a life I almost recognized in a language I almost recognized. The new words and appropriate contexts weren’t hard to learn, and yet they made everything seem slightly off, like Britain was the other side of a shimmering field that separated two parallel universes, and the big differences were in the healthcare system and the thing I missed most was Target.

*

I learned how to sleep without the Trazadone. I didn’t fall asleep immediately anymore, but it happened. Perhaps because my first response to my mother’s sickness was that I was much more prone to sleep. At night. During the day. Anytime no one needed anything of me.

I no longer needed anything of myself. Not to eat or write or amuse myself or feel purpose. Nothing.

I’d tell myself that I’d enjoy going to see a movie, and then I’d sleep in the theater. I was like the old man in the back row. I should have sat next to him. My snoring woke me up.

At another point in my life, I would have been embarrassed. Not then.

*

I was most awake from 3:30 pm to 6:30 pm—the hours between when my son came home from school and my husband came home from work. For three hours every day I was alive and brimming and engaged. That was what I could handle.

And those hours brought me joy.

I was living for those hours and those hours made me understand what I was living for and what life was and what I wanted more of, the most of. Though this is more about what happened after she died, and not about early that summer when she got sick.

*

My mother read more than anyone I knew. More than any English teacher, more than any writer, more than any student of writing. She read the Booker Prize winner every year and then she’d read the finalists and then she’d go back and read the winners from the ‘70s when she got bored.

She’d fall in love with an author and read every book they’d ever written. I remember when she did this with Atwood, and I fell in love with the dust jacket of The Blind Assassin with its thick paper and gold lettering. I was 16.

She’d read all the classics—everything by Dickens, Tolstoy, Hemingway. And she’d read the less literary, too. She knew when to give me The Clan of the Cave Bear. When to give me The Thorn Birds. When to give me The Fountainhead.

And when I wanted literary: The Source, Mila 18, Marjorie Morningstar. My whole reading life was guided by her. Often I’d already read the books assigned in English class a few years before at her recommendation. The Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace, Of Mice and Men.

She didn’t mind when I didn’t like something—like For Whom the Bell Tolls. She gave me the next book. Sometimes we read a breakout hit one right after the other. She’d finish and then the copy would become mine. This is how we read the Best American Short Stories collection every year, too.

She was honest and frank about the books and their shortcomings, but she always read them to the end. She could always find something to admire.

When she got sick she couldn’t read, and she didn’t want to talk about books either. We were both thinking it. I was bringing up books she would never get to read.

*

I didn’t think about whether my mother was a woman who wanted things unless she asked me to.

Do you think I should have been a teacher? she asked.

I don’t know. You loved teaching.

This was after she retired. She had taken more and more classes about different art forms since then. Sculpture, upholstery, basket-weaving.

I think I should have been an artist. or I think I could have been an artist. or Do you think I should have been an artist?

Artists don’t make much money. It’s not a good life.

She knew when I spoke like this, I was speaking about my own life, but she didn’t comment on that part of what I was saying, that underlying simmer.

I think I could have, she said.

*

When I was very young, I realized my mother hadn’t done things because she had had me. She often talked about the travel she had thought she would do. I cried.

Why are you crying? she asked me.

I tried to explain that I’d kept her from what she wanted. I’d changed her. I’d held her up. I’d stopped her.

No, she said. Well, yes, she said. Of course you did, she said. But because I wanted you to. Because I wanted you.

It wasn’t easy to explain for either of us.

*

My mother didn’t say—Don’t worry. We can still do those things. Or I can still do those things.

I swore to myself that when I had a child, I would still do everything I wanted to do. I would strap him to me and take him with me and off we would go.

It was a naïve way to think about life and children and wants. But it helped me to have the child I wanted, and then keep living.

*

I also thought about my mother differently after that, as if she had submitted to her life. Given in and given up.

That, too, was naïve.

She had shaped her life. She had filled it with the things she wanted—her children—and then provided for us. And she’d done it better than I ever could.

And when we got older she traveled and made art and had her musings about her what-ifs.

Life is long and different parts of it capture us, and that can look like resignation, but it’s the impositions of the things we want, and the needs of those things change, and life changes again. And if you never felt resigned to it, then you weren’t. You were waiting.

Naamah, and all the women in my books, are apologies to my mother, for misunderstanding.

*

How did you teach a life like that to fiction writers? How did you teach a woman’s life?

Was the craft of fiction around desire and obstacle taught by men and for men, for men protagonists and men readers? Was fiction part of the patriarchy? Was the craft of fiction part of the patriarchy?

The answers were all yes, and the answers were always surprising only because I had never thought of the questions before.

*

The pharmacy called two months later and said they had my Trazadone.

I don’t want it, I said. Even though I did want it. I wanted it badly. But I didn’t want to come to rely on it again, and then be told I could not have it.

My whole life was a reminder of everything I had come to rely on that was no longer mine to have.

Image Credit: Pixabay

Intimate Strangers: Reading Airport Essays During a Pandemic

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1.On a flight from Tijuana to Mexico City, I sat next to a woman who told me in Spanish that she was scared of flying, and grabbed my hand when the plane leapt. When the plane touched down she hugged me.

On a flight from D.C. to San Diego, I sat next to a college student who noticed that I was feverish. When I returned to my seat after throwing up in the lavatory sink, he handed me a fleece blanket monogrammed with his university logo.

On a flight from Boston to Los Angeles, I sat next to a woman who confessed she was flying home to sell the house she’d lived in for decades. Her husband had just died, and she needed to downsize. They were high school sweethearts; he had been her date to the homecoming dance. She tilted her phone screen toward me to show me a photo: it was them at the dance, him in a white jacket and her in a knee-length dress, rounded like a bell. When I glanced up from her phone, I saw her eyes had grown wet.

Why am I telling you about these interactions? Because lately, I’ve been missing airports and airplanes. I don’t just miss them for the adventure they imply; I also miss the casual proximity to strangers these in-between spaces invite. For more than a year we’ve avoided brushing up against others, holding our breath when it becomes necessary to squeeze by someone at the grocery store, turning our head while reaching over them for tortillas. The pandemic has rendered other people’s bodies not just inconvenient but dangerous, suspect.

2.A few months ago, nostalgic for the days of flying nonchalantly with strangers, I looked up some of my favorite airport essays to re-read. I hoped that they would help me articulate what, exactly, I miss about being crammed up next to the passenger in seat 18B.

I started with Pico Iyer’s 1995 travelogue about the Los Angeles airport, “Where Worlds Collide,” a piece I first read in a college creative writing course. At the time, I was a Californian living in New England, and even Iyer’s dreary descriptions of LAX—“a surprisingly shabby and hollowed-out kind of place”—made me homesick. In order to gather the raw materials for this essay, Iyer haunted LAX for a week, noting its inequalities and inconsistencies, ironies and images. But what interested me most when I returned to the essay was the way he put words to something I hadn’t quite articulated: the heightened attention we experience during travel.

Iyer calls this “an odd kind of twilight zone of consciousness, that weightless limbo of a world in which people are between lives and between selves, almost sleepwalking, not really sure of who or where they are.” This altered consciousness, in my experience, usually takes one of two forms. In the first, we become the sleepwalkers Iyer refers to. We move from security to gate to boarding line to seat in a haze, propelled forward by the surge of other passengers and the loudspeaker’s muffled instructions. Alternatively, this sense of displacement can heighten our attention to our surroundings. In the absence of our daily stimuli—emails on a computer screen, a toddler asking for a snack, a red light at the intersection—our attention is loosed to roam freely.

Travel in general (think of the crowd of tourists pressing toward a sculpture in a museum) and public transportation in particular (think of the subway at rush hour) enforce a proximity to strangers that I don’t experience anywhere else in my life. The displacement of air travel, a “strange statelessness,” means we are confronted with each other in a transparent way. These public spaces afford an anonymous intimacy; I can watch people, press close to them, see them without the scaffolding of job or car or routine. But this noticing has to do with more than just proximity, otherwise I’d miss standing crammed up against other people at the DMV. This state of consciousness also sharpens our awareness of our surroundings. Displaced from our daily environments, our attention zeroes in on novelty. Because of this increased capacity for noticing, we tend to see the bodies around us with more than a passing glance. I remember standing on the Athens metro in late winter and watching a woman’s eyes flick along the passing landscape. The morning light turned her irises gold, the pupils stuttering with the scenery that flashed by in frames through the window.

In the no man’s land of public travel, Iyer writes, “people are at the far edge of themselves in airports, ready to break down or through. You see strangers pouring out their life stories to strangers here, or making new life stories with other strangers.” In other words, the conversations and interactions I’ve shared with seatmates aren’t unusual, because the limbo-like space we share invites us to see each other with a rare kind of attention. Pair that with the intensified emotions we experience while flying (something psychologists chalk up to air pressure, altitude, dehydration, and loss of control), and I begin to understand why airports make us porous to each other.

This porousness makes tenderness possible. It’s why my fraternity seatmate handed me his blanket, why the elderly woman shared her grief, and why I listened. The poet Ross Gay calls this kind of public tenderness “caretaking.” In The Book of Delights—a collection of “essayettes” that chronicles daily delights, sometimes set in airports—he admires the particular kindness that exists between strangers. “In almost every instance of our lives, our social lives, we are, if we pay attention, in the midst of an almost constant, if subtle, caretaking. Holding open doors. Offering elbows at crosswalks. Letting someone else go first. Helping with the heavy bags. Reaching what’s too high, or what’s been dropped.”

3.

I like the idea that increased attention plus proximity equals tenderness between strangers, and often it does. But public caretaking is not uncomplicated. In “Layover Story,” from her collection Make It Scream, Make It Burn, Leslie Jamison considers the complexities of sharing spaces with those we don’t know.

During a layover in Houston, Jamison is thrust into proximity with a “difficult woman.” This woman has many needs: she needs help with her bags, help lobbying for an earlier shuttle ride to the airport, help navigating the boarding process with an injured leg. With few other distractions, Jamison watches her. What else is there to pay attention to in a salmon-pink hotel in Houston, in a shuttle bus, in the dull monotony of the airport shuffle from security to gate to boarding to seat? Jamison tries out a few different stories about the woman: that she is implacable, a difficult tourist; then later, that she is a victim, worthy of pity and generosity. The narratives are a way to pass the time and to feel generous. Over the course of the essay, Jamison imposes and then revises these stories: “First she was a tyrant, then a saint, and finally just a tourist, dancing.” The story she is left with is the least interesting of the bunch—woman hurts her leg dancing in Cancun—but it is constructed from acts of attention.

On the flight, Jamison is stuck next to a man who wants to talk. Initially, he bores her. She has already given her attention to the difficult woman and has little left over for a seatmate. But then he surprises her with complexity: a military history in Iraq and a duffel bag full of shells for his daughter, who will offer them as homes to her pet hermit crabs. As they talk, Jamison tries to craft a narrative out of his anecdotes. As with the difficult woman, she fails to get tidy storylines to stick. “I’m trying to run the meaning-making logic over this one too: we have the big and the small; we have more than we can use. But it doesn’t yield; Houston all over again.” Instead she settles for attention: for listening to and seeing the man. She asks questions about the hermit crabs. She is afforded brief glimpses of another person’s world: “His endlessness is something I receive in finite anecdotes: big desert skies, a little girl poking crabs…I forgot, for a moment, that his life—like everyone else’s—holds more than I could ever possibly see.”

This gets at something I love about traveling through public spaces: that it is monotonous and dull and sometimes thrilling, because it occasionally opens a window into other lives and the universes those lives contain. In “Layover Story,” both Jamison’s interactions end in a form of public caretaking. Two seatmates listen to each other. Two passengers travel together from hotel to airport to train station. No one is a martyr and no one is a hero, but—through proximity and an attentive gaze—Jamison catches flashes of other people’s infinitude.

Maybe this is, in the end, why I’ve been reading about airports. In reading, as in traveling, I want to be transported—not physically, but into a deeper engagement with the world and the people around me. Absent of the kind of traveling I’d like to do, reading has been its own kind of portal. Iyer and Jamison shuttle me back into the world of public travel, which can be both boring or luminous depending on my capacity to give attention to strangers. In airports and airplanes we can and do mostly ignore one another, seeing other bodies as inconveniences to be pressed up against or squeezed past in line. But tenderness becomes possible too. “This is how we light the stars, again and again,” writes Jamison, “by showing up with our ordinary, difficult bodies when other ordinary, difficult bodies might need us.”

Image Credit: Pixabay.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Lee, Henkin, Fung, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Jonathan Lee, Joshua Henkin, Keenan Norris, and more—that are publishing this week.
Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then become a member today.
The Great Mistake by Jonathan Lee

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Great Mistake: “Lee (High Dive) dissects the life and murder of Andrew Haswell Green, one of New York City’s preeminent city fathers and adversary of the corrupt Boss Tweed, in this ambitious outing. In November 1903, at the age of 83, Green—a onetime comptroller and architect of Central Park, the Museum of Natural History, and the Brooklyn Bridge—steps outside his Park Avenue home and is shot dead by a man in a bowler hat in broad daylight. To uncover the motive, Lee moves backward and forward in time. The detective assigned to the case probes the entanglements of wicked and wealthy bawd Bessie Davis and unstable gunman Cornelius Williams, who seems to have acted on private struggles. In chapters devoted to Green’s past, the reader learns of his father’s failing Massachusetts farm, his apprenticeship in Trinidad, and close friendship with New York governor and future presidential candidate Samuel Tilden, whose rise prefigures Green’s own pursuit to become ‘an elegant man.’ Lee’s two-tiered structure falters slightly under the weight of Green’s copious resume, but he sustains a captivating strangeness in his depiction of the period, such as the practice of hunting stray dogs on city streets for a bounty. By and by, a dynamic all-American character emerges, making for an audacious historical.”

Morningside Heights by Joshua Henkin

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Morningside Heights: “Henkin (The World Without You) brilliantly conveys the complexities of a New York City family in this humane, compulsively readable tale. In 2006, Shakespeare scholar Spence Robin, 57, is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, and his wife, Pru Steiner, is forced to return his book advance. Their daughter, Sarah, a med student, arrives from Los Angeles on a delayed flight, and Pru wryly reassures Sarah not to worry (‘It’ll be good practice for when you’re a doctor. You’ll be keeping people waiting for the rest of your life’). The focus then turns to Arlo Zackheim, Spence’s son from his first marriage, whose vagabond, self-centered mother left him with an emptiness he finds hard to fill. At 15, Arlo came to live with Spence for two years, and the marked contrast between his past and living with an erudite, structured father; a kind stepmother; and a bright younger sister is drawn with humor and insight. Henkin reaches further back to describe how Pru escaped her Orthodox Jewish family in Ohio and landed in grad school at Columbia University in 1976, and shows how Spence was a wunderkind in Columbia’s English department, making the tragedy of his illness particularly poignant. Equally well handled is Pru’s transformation from wife and lover to caretaker—wrenching changes that Henkin conveys without dissolving into sentimentality or cliché, but rather leaving readers with a kernel of hope. This is a stunning achievement.”

The Confession of Copeland Cane by Keenan Norris

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Confession of Copeland Cane: “Norris (Brother and the Dancer) delivers a powerful treatise on the double consciousness of a young Black man in this dystopian look at police oppression and surveillance in the 2030s. Coming of age in East Oakland amid racial terror in the form of televised police brutality and the ‘Ghetto Flu’ (alternately defined as a deadly flu similar to Covid-19 and the myriad challenges faced ‘due to living in the hood’) 18-year-old Cope Cane becomes a fugitive after his role in a protest that turned violent. Beloved by his swap meet queen mother and unemployed father, Cope, who previously landed a private school scholarship, now chronicles his transformation into a societal threat to freshman journalism student Jacqueline. In alternate chapters, Cope and Jacqueline unpack the complexities of miseducation, poverty, and policing, and give a nightmarish view of media-security empire Soclear Broadcasting. Cope’s persuasive and irresistible ‘confession’ to Jacqueline emerges in nonsequential strands, circling around the crime he’s suspected of having committed while outlining the economic, legal, and social disparities faced by a dark-complected person in a politically divided country ravaged by a global pandemic. In Cope, Norris has created a voice that cannot be ignored.”

Also on shelves this week: Last Comes the Raven by Italo Calvino (translated by Ann Goldstein).

Nightcap with Gian

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This is a story I now wish I could revisit in more precise detail, the way I’d read work on the written page. We were not really friends, and he did not publish me; I never sent any writing his way. I doubt he’d have recognized me years later and to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have recognized him either, despite our having been in the same room more than once since this happened. I have heard his name a lot in more recent times. Spoken of like an anchor amid the storm of literary ambition, or to put it more clearly, a pivot around which a great lot turns. I met Gian only once, though, circa 2012. It was with some finance guys a couple of years older than me who I used to go drinking with (round after round on them), among whose number was a friend in common. I remember the beatific energy, and his eyes, that hilarious mercurial shine, the way he leaned in to share an opinion. It was late, a vast, posh, nearly empty space in TriBeCa, all copper and dark glass, our final destination of the night. Since almost nobody else was there, we eventually left our booth and were perched at the bar. He didn’t say that he was a publisher or an editor, only that some of his own writing could be found here and there, like in Vice, really being modest about himself, while I plumped up about, you know, whatever I believed my accomplishments were at the time. I probably at some point mentioned James Franco. He talked up A Confederacy of Dunces, and Firework by Eugene Marten, which I had to read because I’d love it, he told me. I texted “Eugene Martin Firecracker” to myself. He asked whether I was working on a novel manuscript in a way that suggested I had no excuse not to be working on a novel manuscript. But I want it to be perfect, I believe I probably said: you know that feeling—of wanting something to be perfect? Doesn’t have to be, I believe he answered, laughing: Have you seen the kind of shit they publish? I had no understanding he was someone who could have published me himself; we were speaking only as avid believers in the art of fiction. I was truly, thoroughly soused, and another four or so rounds were ordered after his arrival, none of which I paid for—the kind of night into which you grow more intensely present for the knowledge of what you and your cohort are doing to your bodies, while at the same time your awareness starts going swimmy at the edges, slipperier and more unsteady, a state preceding the obliteration of consciousness. Even in your proximity to another human being, the force and style of increasing candor—my God how eloquently you are now finally saying all the things you really mean!—recognition dawns that you will soon start to forget, are already forgetting, for example, what just happened. What did just happen? In the end it was him and me. What I do most definitely recall is Gian ordering another round—I might have just as well told him not to, however many sheets to the wind I was, but didn’t want to be rude. I remember watching as he leaned over the leatherette check presenter, penning his signature. Then, when I looked again, after taking another slug of scotch, his own drink was sitting there to my right, on the corner of the bar, just barely touched. And he was gone. I initially had the thought that he’d ducked into the bathroom and would be back. I continued to nurse my drink. The bartender asked, “Is he coming back?” I said that I didn’t know, maybe not. Eventually the drink, which had started to spin like a barrel over a waterfall, was cleared. A friend I’ve told this story to called it an “Irish goodbye,” but it seems to me to go beyond that… More lavish somehow, and prompting a different set of thoughts in the aftermath. What kind of a goodbye is that? I remember how the fact of his mostly full drink on the dark bar made his absence feel provisional, as if the drink itself, unconsumed, were a commentary on what all we’d just been rapping about. I remember how my attention clung to it, attempting to will my surroundings into a steadiness that my swimming consciousness refused. Absence as a precondition of the power of literary fiction was a favorite topic of mine back then. Maybe it had come up along the way. More certain is that he punctuated his gesture of magnanimity by disappearing, whether deliberately or on the spur-of-the-moment, I can’t say. Through the next morning’s hangover I went on Twitter, where I’d only recently started an account (30 followers), and found my erstwhile interlocutor: Giancarlo DiTrapano, publisher of Tyrant Books (probably about 7,000 followers at that point). Honestly can’t remember exactly whether I followed him, then unfollowed a week later when he didn’t follow back, or if I was just too cowed to show myself, fellow of grand literary ambition, as a fringe character with tweets of little to no traction. Either way, how totally ridiculous. The main feeling I took from that night, as pieced together over the course of the following day? I actually had better finally write a novel manuscript if I was going to continue calling myself a fiction writer. This, to be able to, if not impress someone like Gian, then, at least, hold my own in that kind of company. If you take a look at what he published at Tyrant, with Atticus Lish’s novel probably being the most well-known among several other darkly glimmering titles, you’ll see his taste was pretty pronounced: granular gritty evocation of states of sexual and drug-induced derangement that skirt up against titanic emptiness, with a major emphasis on authenticity. You couldn’t doubt when reading these texts that the authors had experienced something very much like the extremity of what is described. He lived hard himself, and published work that reflected his own openness to experience, and while I wouldn’t say we need more like him—because, honestly, who could be just like him?—we definitely do need more generous readers with the courage of conviction in their own taste, who believe in books and are willing to stand up for those convictions, which he was, and did, in spades. Who know, as Gian did, that artistic integrity is tough to maintain without opposition to the reigning pieties.
***
I initially started writing the above for myself after reading news of Gian’s passing during the week of April 4. When I thought I had something coherent (what’s above), I shared it with a few friends: “A sweet story,” one wrote. “Seems like a classic Gian evening,” voiced another. I went ahead and read the remembrances in the Paris Review Daily and at the Believer, which being mostly by those who knew him far better than I did, offer a fuller portrait of who he was. I also read, in its entirety, the text chain from the course of a single year that Tao Lin and Gian shared on Vice, a thread whose general tenor is probably recognizable to many of us who have lived in New York City for any significant amount of time (what’s happening tonight?, when are you going to get there?, what’s the crowd like?), if not necessarily in canny specifics (jokes about their shared dealer, habitual invocations of the word “sweet”). Later that week I finally followed the link to Gian’s story from the now-defunct lit site Pindeldyboz, preserved for posterity with all the ballyhoo of the trunkless legs of Ozymandias. Fortunately, for a writer, all that matters are the words on the tablet, and with “The Rumor That Reached West Virginia” Giancarlo DiTrapano seems to have boiled the essence of his being down to around a thousand keenly ordered parts, fiction that registers as stingingly fresh today as it probably did the moment he decided his work on the piece was complete, and shifted focus to ushering into being other writers’ aspirations. “The Rumor…” reads like an ars poetica almost, vivid in both language and arc. ‘Content’ is the word that some use now for literary work and much of anything else, the suggestion being that all writers are doing is supplying chocolate dollops on a never-ceasing conveyor belt—and not, like, the essence of themselves—something it might be remotely possible to get right in one go. “I want to be able to say, ‘I’ve had my vision,’” seems like the kind of thing I might have said, quoting Virginia Woolf’s Lily Briscoe, mid-drunken monologue, on my night at the bar with Gian, the kind of thing he might have cheered on my saying. As he did for me that night, he was willing to make himself available to young or up-and-coming writers, to show himself as a human being, the polar opposite of a corporate functionary.

Part of the humor, I imagine, of publishing a piece as cheekily mind-melting and potentially shaming as a year’s worth of text messages, is knowing that when you did shatter the clock with that one flash fiction piece, every word seared in a defining passion, you then woke the next day to find… well, the heads along the way might have proven savvy to what you did. Generally speaking, though? The world goes on as before, apparently none the wiser. I know there is some question of what will happen with Tyrant Books; if there’s any justice in the literary realm, always a disputed notion, to be sure, “The Rumor That Reached West Virginia” will find its way between two covers, on the printed page, perhaps in a book that contains both Gian’s own work, and remembrances of him by the writers he championed at Tyrant, a form of collective legacy-making.
***
All of us who aspire to create art have our muses. Alongside those guiding spirits, in a kind of dialectic, are the actual gatekeepers, those who say yes and no. I think, for some reason—maybe because located next door to KGB Bar, where a memorial for Giancarlo DiTrapano was held on Friday, April 16, is the New York Theatre Workshop that debuted Hadestown here—of Orpheus and Eurydice. Who bring to mind Persephone and ol’ Hades himself. Would Gian have hated being compared to the King of the Underworld? Hoping not. Like all the great publishers, he probably knew it was best to be a little bit muse and gatekeeper.

On the entrance floor, those who made the trip to KGB Bar that evening left flowers—bunches of roses, single stems, a cluster of lilacs—around a circle of votary candles, at the center of which other personal offerings were arranged with care. Above the candles’ gently wavering glow and attached to the closed grate of the downstairs theater (the pandemic still hovering) stood a large printed image of Gian: affectless, in a dark t-shirt, and with cigarette poised by his side, a lamppost’s light glaring through the night sky. Almost seeming to dare the viewer not to make such a big deal. Saturnine grace acknowledging the brokenness of things, without sentimentality or posturing. Yet those who made his acquaintance for almost any period of time will recall that he also laughed. That he joked. That some shit was too fucking hilarious not to. Running over the top of the picture, another printed banner, larger even than what was below, of a tweet from winter of 2014: “it’s ok to say no, it’s okay to say fuck you, and it’s okay to say goodbye.” Gian’s choice to abridge the first ‘okay,’ no doubt made in abeyance to Twitter’s then 140-character limit, now all but sacramental. Friends and admirers paused before the shrine to pay respects, some weeping. For others, it seemed, it was all they could bear to spend a moment there, then head back outside, red-eyed, for a cigarette and a walk off into the awaiting evening.

Upstairs, in the third floor Red Room at least, where the overflow crowd found itself, things were weirdly—if not exactly normal—then the most casually familiar they have been, for me anyway, in a good long while. This, despite the current of sadness underlying most all that was said. Perhaps disconcertingly, conversations picked up, in some cases, almost exactly where they left off in December of 2019.

Late in the day, as light faded outside the open window, the writer Kaitlin Phillips spoke briefly before editor Jonathan Smith read a statement from Gian’s husband in Italy, Giuseppe Avallone: a remembrance of a chance first meeting involving a missed subway stop, followed by a statement of intent concerning the preservation of the legacy of Tyrant Books.

From our grouping over by the window, someone observed a guy in a gray sport-coat and loafers who had just walked in the door at a good distance from where we stood. Gian almost definitely had no friends who fit that guy’s description, the observer suggested.

“The night I hung out with him, we were on the town with a group of finance guys,” I volunteered.

“Finance guys?”

I nodded.

“Finance, really?”

We all of us speak our truth against that which would subsume us.

Death is, naturally, the cosmic Big Gulp awaiting if not all of humanity—will Peter Thiel’s consciousness live on, in a container somewhere, on a rocket out past Pluto, in centuries to come?—then for the vast majority of us. Against that encroachment on our lives, for some time now, there have been those who answer the calling to commit words to the page. Behold, all those in the grip of metempsychosis! Yes, finance guys rule the epicurean sandbox of the city, lords of pleasure and forgetting, while increasingly corporatized, risk-averse book publishers carry on at least the facsimile, if not always the spirit, of the rogue gatekeepers who founded the houses whose names they still carry. All these efforts geared toward resisting the seemingly unbreakable monopsony whose name we all know. Hey, don’t get me wrong—the ground beneath us all is shifting; the ground beneath us all is always shifting. Great books still make their way through the channel. It is not, after all, a science. Big money, as it always does, runs off in myriad directions, some more and some less worthy: angel investing, film production, economy-of-scale driven apps, crowd-funded performance spaces, drugs (that old staple), activism, festivals, presidential campaigns. All I’m saying, really, if legacy still matters—and given the prospect of rising ocean water, there are no doubt those who would scoff at the presumption of claiming it does—is a body could do a lot worse, in 47-too-brief years, than to found a publishing house to champion works of art on the page. All I’m saying, really, is the editor and publisher of Tyrant Books, by every indication, took a lot of love with him when he went.

Thanks for the drink, Gian.

Image Credit: Pixabay

Taking Refuge in How: On Toni Morrison’s First Three Novels

I love reading writers’ works in chronological order. Especially with great novelists, it’s so satisfying to see the seeds of later masterpieces in early works. What I often notice is that writers experiment widely with different genres, styles, and narrative perspectives as they work to find a unique voice at the start of their career. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s first three novels, for example, include an epistolary social critique, a surrealist nightmare, and a Dickensian bildungsroman.

Reading Toni Morrison’s books, I’m finding a stark contrast. She does not leap from one kind of story to something radically different, like a pendulum trying to find equilibrium. Morrison’s voice shines through from the beginning. Her books contain vastly different plots and characters, but they all bear the marks of her imagination, style, and insight.

In Timothy Greenfields-Sanders’s powerful 2019 documentary about Morrison, The Pieces I Am, the interviewees frequently described Morrison as expanding her canvas with each work. I decided to read through all her novels and, after finishing the first three, I already understand what they meant. These early works do not merely anticipate masterpieces to come; they are masterpieces in their own right. Examining just how each novel expands on what came before is an inspiring and, frankly, humbling experience. And it all begins with The Bluest Eye.

1.
In the afterword to The Bluest Eye, Morrison traces the novel back to a haunting conversation from her childhood. One of her friends confided that she wanted blue eyes, a wish that disturbed Morrison because, “Implicit in her desire was racial self-loathing.” “Twenty years later.” Morrison reflects, “ I was still wondering about how one learns that.” The Bluest Eye directly responds to the systemic oppression that informed her friend’s desire by “peck[ing] away at the gaze that condemned her.”

Morrison demonstrates a keen understanding of what a novel can accomplish in just the first few pages of The Bluest Eye. In essence, the opening functions as an outline of every major plot point to come. By beginning this way Morrison spoils the ending to her own story, revealing the ultimate fate of the novel’s central character, Pecola Breedlove. But this isn’t a story whose power relies on maintaining suspense. It cannot be spoiled because it is not about what happened. It is not even about why things happened the way they did because, as the unknown narrator of the prologue tells us, “why is difficult to handle.” Instead, we “must take refuge in how.”

This elevation of how over why is a defining feature not only of The Bluest Eye, but of Morrison’s subsequent two novels. She does not make it easy for us by giving us straightforward answers or even straightforward questions. Instead we simply inhabit and perceive Morrison’s richly developed world through the eyes of characters as real as any person you could meet. This is something that can only be accomplished through fiction.

Her ability to effortlessly transport us from one consciousness to another (and often from one time period to another) allows us to simultaneously perceive everything that happens from a variety of viewpoints. This does not mean we always agree or even sympathize with the characters. But Morrison does not give us the comfort of seeing any of them as villains. She is too good a writer for readers to be left not understanding anyone. The true enemies, in any case, resist easy forms or definitions. Like the insidious gaze that filled Morrison’s friend with shame, they pollute the characters’ world through systems of oppression no single person is responsible for creating.

This identification of the true villain as something systemic and pervasive is made explicit at the end of a scene where three Black girls, Celia, Frieda, and Pecola, and a white girl named Maureen Peal get into an argument. Maureen eventually storms off and declares, “I am cute! And you ugly! Black and ugly…!” Celia is enraged, but admits that, “all the time we knew that Maureen Peal was not the Enemy and not worthy of such intense hatred. The Thing to fear was the Thing that made her beautiful, and not us.”

This scene exemplifies another one of Morrison’s strengths: her ability to write scenes that could function as powerful short stories entirely separate from the novel. In part this is due to Morrison’s tendency to switch perspectives with each chapter. She switches between time periods as well. The beginning of one chapter might take place decades before or after the last one ended. But The Bluest Eye never feels like a short story collection passing itself off as a novel. The further into the story you get, the more you see how Morrison weaves each episode together into a potent, deeply affecting whole. Morrison achieves this in many subtle ways, but one obvious method is by having each incident shape the life of one particular character, Pecola.

Earlier I called Pecola the central character of The Bluest Eye as opposed to the main one. That is because it’s hard to think of her as a main anything. Pecola is always on the receiving end of other characters’ neglect, abuse, or attempts at love. She is only allowed a chance to speak for herself at the very end, and by this point her psyche is so fractured that we end up with more of a hallucinatory dialogue than a clear perspective. Even the title emphasizes not Pecola herself but something she does not and will never have. The Bluest Eye is not so much about Pecola than about how others’ choices drive her inexorably towards tragedy.

Pecola is frequently a recurring background character while someone else narrates, but she is invariably the one who suffers most. One devastating instance comes when Celia and Frieda visit Pecola at the house where Mrs. Breedlove, her mother, works as a maid. The scene ends with Pecola being beaten by her mother after the girls accidentally knock over a pie Mrs. Breedlove made, dirtying the floor she had just cleaned in the process. What compounds the emotional toll of this moment is the presence of Mrs. Breedlove’s employer’s white daughter. The toddler is horrified when these three girls she has never met before ruin the delicious pie meant for her. Mrs. Breedlove responds by gently comforting the white child right after beating her own. She does not even acknowledge Pecola as her own daughter. The racial dynamics at play here are as complex as they are heartbreaking, illustrating Morrison’s wisdom in thoroughly telling us how and leaving the trickier why for us to contemplate on our own.

The Bluest Eye demonstrates Morrison’s already impressive command over her craft, especially through her use of different styles. She would eventually demonstrate these same strengths with her third novel, Song of Solomon. In between the two lays Sula.

2.
When considering Sula, Dostoevsky once again provides a useful contrast. In one of his letters, he told a friend that after writing about a guilty man in Crime and Punishment, he wanted to portray a purely innocent man in his next novel, The Idiot. Whether Morrison consciously saw Sula as the “opposite” of The Bluest Eye, the central figures at least are indeed polar opposites. The Bluest Eye, as mentioned earlier, refers to Pecola by way of by emphasizing what she does not have. The title Sula foregrounds the character Sula Peace, who looms over everything and everyone in the novel, even when she isn’t present. If The Bluest Eye is about how others’ choices impact Pecola, Sula is about how Sula’s choices impact others.

This is more than just the story of a different kind of character, however. First, it arguably has two central figures, Sula and her friend, the far less independent Nel Wright. But second, and more importantly, this is a story about a community as much as the people living in it. The first three lines make this clear beyond any doubt:

In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood. It stood in the hills above the alley town of Medallion and spread all the way to the river. It is called the suburbs now, but when black people lived there it was called the Bottom.

 Both of Morrison’s first two novels open by looking back at something lost. In The Bluest Eye, it is an innocent time that disappeared after Pecola’s trauma. In Sula, Morrison prioritizes the loss of a place. And while places cannot literally die, there is something funereal about a place with a name being erased for the sake of a golf course and bland suburbs that undoubtedly looks like a thousand others. In both cases, an identity has been destroyed.

The interrelatedness of the Bottom’s inhabitants is made clear again and again. No major event affects just one person. Large crowds are often involved or at least present when such events occur. Generations also influence the lives of old and young alike. By the end of the novel, we have witnessed three generations whose triumphs and tragedies ineluctably shape those around them, even if the full ramifications of one action do not come until decades after. As strange as it may sound, I found myself thinking of Icelandic sagas. The plots of both Sula and these ancient narratives are deeply influenced by communities and the legacies of generations past. The actions of distant ancestors are so great that the titular hero sometimes doesn’t appear until a third of the way through the saga. Notably, Sula is not mentioned until around page 30 and it takes another 30 pages for Sula to take any action of her own in a novel named Sula.

Sula faces isolation more than once, but remains forever tied to her friend Nel. Both actually begin in an isolated state, which is why, “Their meeting was fortunate, for it let them use each other to grow on. Daughters of distant mothers and incomprehensible fathers…they found in each other’s eyes the intimacy they were looking for.”

The characters complement each other in a way only opposites could. Nel is far more insecure, lacks the courage to ever leave the Bottom, and eventually surrenders to the kind of life expected of her. This comes as no surprise, since “Her parents had succeeded in rubbing down to a dull glow any sparkle or splutter she had.” She is infected by a trace of racial self-loathing, too, though in this case it appears in the form of language. Nel has family who speak Creole, but when Nel asks about the language, her mother curtly replies, “I don’t talk Creole,” adding, “And neither do you.”\

Sula, on the other hand, is a force of nature her entire life. Unlike Nel, or anyone else in the Bottom, she has the audacity to leave. She passes through over half a dozen cities before returning home to find herself a dreaded larger-than-life figure. She is believed to possess supernatural powers. There are also rumors that she slept with white men, something the people of the Bottom consider unforgivable. But no one is more affected by Sula’s return than Nel, whose ordered world is soon plunged into chaos.

Sula certainly expands on The Bluest Eye. But that expansion is nothing compared to what came next.

3.
Song of Solomon is a neutron star of a novel. It contains so many riveting characters, so many rich family histories, so any folktales and songs, and so many pieces of U.S. history yet manages to be less than four hundred pages.

The novel begins with an insurance salesman deciding to fly from the top of a North Carolina hospital to Lake Superior. Spoiler: he fails. The birth of the main character of Song of Solomon, Milkman Dead, coincides with the salesman’s suicide. “Milkman” is actually a nickname that derives from an early scene that highlights how his mother clings to her son in the face of a loveless marriage and the absence of her beloved father. His actual name is Macon Dead III. “Macon” and “Dead,” derive from an indifferent white man who misunderstands Macon’s grandfather shortly after slavery ends.

The next two thirds of the novel exhibit all of Morrison’s by now trademark strengths. We move from one time and consciousness to another, which lets us learn about each of Milkman’s family members. Their incongruous perceptions of each other put the reader in the role of a detective. Milkman, however, is undoubtedly the protagonist, and is the first one I worried I would not like. He initially seems to function purely as a way for us to get to know others because there is not much to know about him. He is aimless, lacks any ambition, and has a limited conception of the world, unlike his politically-informed friend, Guitar. The contrast between the two men calls to mind the differences between Nel and Sula.

Then we reach Part II and everything changes. The story becomes a literal search for buried treasure that in turn expands into a quest for his family’s history. Previously Milkman only experienced his family’s past through memories that may or may not be trusted. Now he goes to the actual places where these stories happened. It is a deeply satisfying twist in three ways. First, it builds on what we learned in Part I in unexpected ways. Second, Milkman does not simply gather up facts about his ancestors. He must piece together stories and folktales and the songs, including the “song of Solomon” to discover a deeply personal truth. And third, Milkman’s quest for a sense of belonging becomes symbolic of an entire people searching for their roots.

History has never been so present in Morrison’s early works. The murder of Emmett Till is directly referenced, as is Malcolm X, and the horrors faced by Black Americans are brought up time and again, including in a particularly fascinating dialogue about the secretive Seven Days organization between Milkman and Guitar. Morrison has never ignored the brutal realities of racism and the terror white people inflict on Black lives. There are multiple scenes in her first two novels that involve white people that are unbearably tense, even in situations that seem relatively safe for the characters. For example, in The Bluest Eye, Pecola’s father is, as a young man, forced to have sex with a girl in front of white men. It’s clear his life is in danger if he does not perform for them. In Sula, Nel and her mother accidentally get onto a white’s only section of a train. They hurry out, but not before they are noticed. This second example seems to have less dramatic stakes, but the depressing fact is that any time a white character appears, we as readers know they can do anything, no matter how vile, with total impunity.

Song of Solomon is different. The first two novels included occasional intrusions into Black worlds (worlds that are, of course, shaped by the United States’ virulent racism). The toxic reality of racism feels more pervasive in this third novel, something that the characters must contend with constantly. It is also addressed more directly and philosophically by characters than before, who consequently take drastically different paths in life. This unfortunately results in divisions among family and friends, the most painful of which occurs between Milkman and Guitar. But the divide between these two men does not come about by betrayal, as with Nel and Sula. Rather, it is a gradual process, accelerated by a misunderstanding with fatal consequences.

Song of Solomon begins with one man falling and ends with another learning to fly. But this spoils nothing. Like The Bluest Eye and Sula, this is a story about how. And that how is beautiful.

4.
These three novels are a testament to Morrison’s selflessness as a writer. The Bluest Eye alone is proof of this. Not only was it a reckoning with the cruel gaze that made her friend doubt her own inherent beauty. Morrison also explains in The Pieces I Am that she wanted to write specifically for a Black audience. She felt even writers like Frederick Douglass ultimately had a white audience in mind. Her novels would be different so that her readers would know someone was speaking to them. Furthermore, they would take place in worlds that were not defined by the white gaze or any white person’s preconceptions. Her novels’ worlds would be outside the white gaze entirely. The Bluest Eye, Sula, and Song of Solomon show an author with a commanding, distinctive voice, even as Morrison also gives voice to generations of Black Americans who struggle even today to be heard at all.

As a white man, I know I am not the audience Morrison imagined. But I am grateful for all I’ve learned from reading these three novels. They have exposed me to perspectives and ideas I never would have discovered otherwise. Researching them has also led me to other great writers I undoubtedly have just as much to learn from.

And best of all, I still have eight more Morrison novels to read.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Galchen, Zambreno, Emezi, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Rivka Galchen, Kate Zambreno, Akwaeke Emezi, and more—that are publishing this week.
Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then become a member today.
Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch by Rivka Galchen

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch: “Galchen’s captivating latest (after the children’s adventure Rat Rule 79) follows an illiterate widow as she confronts accusations of being a witch in 1618 Germany. As soldiers and plague spread across the Holy Roman Empire at the start of the Thirty Years’ War, 74-year-old Katharina Kepler’s own troubles play out on a grand scale after her neighbor (whom Katharina calls ‘the Werewolf’) accuses Katharina of poisoning her and manages to convince others that they, too, have been afflicted or targeted by Katharina’s witchcraft. Katharina must fight to clear her name with the help of her three children—her youngest son, a bullheaded pewter guildsman; her daughter, a kindly pastor’s wife; and her eldest son, an expert in horoscopes who works as the Imperial Mathematician—and her kindly, quiet neighbor Simon, who documents Katharina’s case for posterity and risks his own reputation by serving as Katharina’s guardian in court. Mesmerizing details abound, such as the torture inflicted on those accused of witchcraft, and the herbal remedies Katharina relies upon. Galchen portrays her characters as complicated and full of wit as they face down the cruelties dealt to them (a man called ‘the Cabbage,’ demanding Katharina release a curse on his sister, threatens her with a ‘vain sword… something a nobleman might commission and then reject at the last moment, leaving the sword maker in a bind’). This is a resounding delight.”

Animal by Lisa Taddeo

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Animal: “In Taddeo’s underwhelming debut novel (after the nonfiction narrative Three Women), a re-traumatized woman faces her painful past. Joan, 37, leaves New York City for Los Angeles after her boss, Vic, with whom she had been having an affair, shoots himself in front of her at a restaurant. Witnessing Vic’s death brings back memories for Joan, who lost her parents to a gruesome act of violence when she was 10, which left her orphaned and with a sizable inheritance. Joan believes a young woman named Alice, a yoga teacher in L.A., whom she’d never met, holds the key to understanding the night of her parents’ death, and the reason is initially withheld from the reader as well as Alice, after the two women form a superficial intimacy revolving around men and how terrible they are. Unfortunately, Alice suffers from thin characterization that renders her little more than a device for Joan’s development. And though the men are certainly horrible, especially the ones in Joan’s life—including her dead father—Taddeo misses an opportunity for a more critical exploration of female rage, relying instead on the shock value of the third act’s violent scenes. Recent novels such as A Certain Hunger by Chelsea G. Summers have treated similar themes with more imagination and depth.”

We Two Alone by Jack Wang

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about We Two Alone: “Wang’s elegant debut delves into the heterogeneity of the Chinese diaspora in stories that take the reader to settings as disparate as 1920s Canada and Nazi-occupied Vienna. Wang is equally convincing with the voice of the insecure Oxford undergraduate whose parents run a Chinese takeaway in ‘Belsize Park,’ as he is with a washed-up Chinese American hockey player and deadbeat dad living in modern-day Florida in ‘Allhallows.’ In ‘The Nature of Things,’ a pregnant wife from Vancouver’s Chinatown is living in Shanghai on the eve of the 1937 Japanese attack. The title story is the longest, and the standout; its protagonist is Leonard Xiao, a Chinese-American actor in his late 40s whose career never quite got off the ground. Having so long wanted to prove his Harvard physicist father wrong about the viability of his career choice, Leonard poignantly grapples with the reality that this may never happen. Occasionally the stories feel as if they end prematurely and avoid narrative conflict, but Wang’s prose is subtle and economical, well suited to his themes of disappointment, alienation, and departure. As the stories build on one another, they create a portrait full of both nuance and grace.”

To Write as if Already Dead by Kate Zambreno

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about To Write as if Already Dead: “In this clever hybrid work, Zambreno (Drifts) interrogates her fascination with French writer and photographer Hervé Guibert, whose novel To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life (1990) controversially outed friend Michel Foucault of having died of AIDS. In the first of two parts, Zambreno sets out to explore ‘the problem of a friendship,’ first between herself and a famous author she met under a pseudonym online, then between Foucault and Guibert, before the novel—which traces Guibert’s own suffering with AIDS and featured a character named Muzil, based on Foucault—was written. ‘At what point,’ she wonders, ‘does the writing become an act of betrayal?’ Part two takes a diaristic turn, covering Zambreno’s pregnancy-related ailments and the daily demands on her as a working mother, as the act of writing becomes more difficult: ‘I need to push it out as if through my body… even if the thinking is fickle, even if it changes over time.’ As her investigation turns to the financial and material needs motivating her to write in the first place, it morphs into a feverish quarantine journal wherein she questions the meaning of language during crisis, especially the use of first-person writing. The author’s fans will savor this cascading meditation on what makes writing possible and necessary.”

Dear Senthuran by Akwaeke Emezi

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Dear Senthuran: “Emezi (The Death of Vivek Oji) reflects on their spiritual and creative evolution in this gorgeous epistolary memoir. Among the cast of recipients they address are friends, family, an ex-lover, Toni Morrison, and Senthuran Varatharajah, their German translator, who inspired the work’s form. Originally from Aba, Nigeria, Emezi identifies as ogbanje, an Igbo spirit that’s also a god. They are ’embodied but not human,’ an existential tension that governed their life as they traveled the globe in their 20s in search of home and themselves. Emezi eventually settled down in New Orleans in 2019, but their search for self continues in each letter as they shed old ‘masks,’ outgrow relationships, and undergo a hysterectomy to align their human body with their ‘spiritself.’ Emezi details the loneliness that comes with being ‘estranged from the indigenous Black realities’ and is unwavering in their demand that readers meet them on their terms, even if they might be considered ‘too strange, too arrogant.’ Yet in consistently captivating prose, Emezi demonstrates that it is precisely this unyielding belief in themself that catapulted their career, clinching literary awards and six-figure book deals. Those interested in broadening their metaphysical understanding of the world would do well to pick up this spellbinding work.”

Revisiting an Unchanged Venice

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I’ve always suspected that us devoted book lovers need books for deeper reasons than just entertainment or information. Speaking from experience, readers who’ve devoured books from childhood onward have found a coping mechanism between those covers. Books give us a way to escape, but even more, they can set us down in a private space of retreat and maybe even safety. In the same way that Lucy enters the wardrobe and finds snowy, magical Narnia, we enter a book and find a landscape that gives us rest from the intensity of our individual surroundings. And if readers use books in this way, then devoted book lovers who become writers have a similar, second escape route because our settings—and even the act of writing itself can provide a haven.

Last year, all of our settings were intense. Here in the Seattle area, we had a jump start on the fear and confusion the pandemic brought. My beautiful hometown of Kirkland, Wash., and my whole beloved Seattle area, was the hot zone for the coronavirus. To find our vibrant, lake-filled, mountainous, science-and-tech-smart city at the center of something so frightening was shocking, and it was surreal to witness the rest of the U.S. going about life as usual as schools shut down and grocery store shelves emptied and as our major corporations firmly sent workers home.

At the time, I was midway through the writing of One Great Lie, my novel about a young writer who travels to Venice for a summer writing program taught by a charismatic male author, and a woman who’s forced to confront some dark truths about the history of powerful men—and about the determination of creative girls—going all the way back to the Renaissance. Every time I write a novel, I make decisions about settings, of course—what’s best for the story itself, which backdrop will best add another layer of mood or meaning. But I also think about where I might want to go, where I want to spend the year or so it takes to write a book. I’ve spent that year on islands in the San Juans, in cliffside houses on the Pacific Ocean, at a divorce ranch in the Nevada Desert, on the hidden South Pacific archipelago of New Caledonia. I’ve spent a year making my way across the country on foot, mile by mile, word by word, page by page. This time, though, I wanted to travel to one of my favorite cities: Venice. That enchanting, shabby, and surreal island of sinking villas and winding streets. I wanted its atmosphere and history to seep deeply into my story, and to give it the rich patina of 500 years of art and power, tragedy and resilience.

Oddly enough, or maybe not oddly at all if you’re writing about Venice, ancient plagues had already made their way into the book. The summer writing program my character visits takes place at a villa on La Calamita, a fictional private island in the Venetian Lagoon based on the very real “plague island” called La Poveglia, which served as a plague quarantine area during the many pandemics in the 14th through 18th centuries. Also, my characters experience two very real festivals that still take place to celebrate the end of those plagues. At the same time that we in the Seattle area were locking down, we were also seeing scenes of Italians in quarantine singing from their balconies, eerily empty piazzas, and quiet, yet unusually clear Venetian canals. So, when I delved back into my book, it was with both a bittersweet connection and a sense of retreat into the past, in more ways than one.

The book was already a love letter to the city, with its romance and mystery and its watery, drowning magic, but now my love for the city and for Italy itself felt more alive and insistent, as I witnessed that resilience I was writing about. And that retreat into the past was more alive, too, as, on the eve of its 1,600th birthday, Venice was once again experiencing a pandemic. Venice, the city that also gave us the word quarantena, quarantine, for the 40 days sailors were required to spend in isolation to avoid spreading the plague.

But disappearing into that book with its enticing, foreign location was also a straight-up, glorious retreat into my own visits there. When you write, when you get into your setting as completely as you should in order to convey it to readers, you’ll feel that sun, and taste that food, and notice the gold light of the late afternoon as you set the words on the page. In those intense and stressful days, stuck at home, confined and afraid, I was transported to that the spectacular, flickering stage-set that is Venice. I walked those narrow cobblestone streets, crossed over canal bridges, and peered into shop windows. I ate cicchetti in the Cantina do Mori, and drank teeny cups of strong espresso at an outdoor cafe. I sped across the lagoon in a speedboat, had a picnic on a plateau with a view of the Euganean Hills, and walked into the cold foyer of San Zaccaria, and then down the stone steps into the water-filled crypt. I indulged in all the things us book lovers adore and that this city offers in abundance, too: ancient manuscripts, a palatial and centuries-old library, and an utterly magical bookstore: the charming Libreria Acqua Alta, with its volumes upon volumes stored in boats and bathtubs to protect them during the seasonal floods.

This is the power of books, both reading them and writing them. The power of creativity and imagination and the written word to help you both understand your world and escape it. To provide entertainment and information, yes, but even better, connection and context, retreat and rest, and even a sense of safety when the world doesn’t feel very safe. Immersed in all of those lush details, you can catch your breath and even be consoled. Deep in the smells and sights and sounds of a curiously yet reassuringly unchanged Venice, I could hear its stories. Old stories of plagues, and struggle, and art against impossible odds, resilience. New stories of plagues, and struggle, and art against impossible odds, resilience. Just as it is when you are there in person, Italy, and Venice itself, was a feast for the senses and a tonic for the spirit. Those timeless buildings, the water flowing for centuries, all of the words—written on ancient manuscripts, typed on pages, sung from a balcony—were reminders of an ageless truth: human beings have suffered, but human beings have endured.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Ford, Arnett, St. Aubyn, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Ashley C. Ford, Kristin Arnett, Edward St. Aubyn, and more—that are publishing this week.
Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then become a member today.
Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley C. Ford

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Somebody’s Daughter: “Journalist Ford debuts with a blistering yet tender account of growing up with an incarcerated father. She retraces her childhood in 1990s Fort Wayne, Ind., where she lived in a family anchored by her weary mother, whose anger bubbled over frequently, and a judgmental but loving grandmother. Felt throughout is the shadowy presence of her father, who was serving a 24-year sentence for rape. The moving narrative unfolds with tales of childhood misadventures with her younger brother, frequent library visits, and days spent anywhere but home: ‘I told myself being away was the only way we were going to make it out.’ Ford writes vividly of having to weather her mother’s rage (which ‘drained the light from her eyes’) and rotating cast of boyfriends, while navigating her own sense of shame and abandonment as a teenager fighting to be ‘loved ferociously and completely’ in a series of painful relationships. Though she rarely visited her father in prison, he wrote to her often, and ‘his letters were clues to where I’d come from.’ When they finally reconnected before his release, Ford describes their tearful reunion and reconciliation with devastating clarity. ‘Somewhere, in the center of it all, was my father’s favorite girl.’ This remarkable, heart-wrenching story of loss, hardship, and self-acceptance astounds.”

With Teeth by Kristen Arnett

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about With Teeth: “Arnett (Mostly Dead Things) paints a complex picture of a queer family in this well-sculpted drama. Protagonist Sammie and her wife, Monika, have a son, Samson, who proves to be an ornery and enigmatic child. (Among other things, he willfully lets a strange man attempt to abduct him at the age of four and later carries a school project doll of himself everywhere.) Sammie is the more anxious and hands-on of the parents; she works part-time as a copy editor, while laid-back Monika excels as a lawyer. In addition to doubting her fitness as a parent, Sammie misses the social life she had pre-Samson and ‘didn’t like the way other women looked at her wife, didn’t like the fact that no one looked at her that way anymore.’ By the time Samson’s 16, he has become a skilled swimmer and retains much of his inscrutable personality, Sammie and Monika have separated, and Sammie struggles with dating. Arnett’s prismlike prose is supplemented by vignettes focused on peripheral characters, such as Samson’s teachers, which add some maximalist flair to the domestic story. With its vividly rendered characters, this offers an intense rendition of a modern family.”

The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Other Black Girl: “Harris debuts with a dazzling, darkly humorous story about the publishing industry and the challenges faced by a Black employee. Nella Rogers, an overworked editorial assistant, navigates white privilege and microaggressions as the only Black person in her department at New York City trade publisher Wagner Books. That is until the arrival of chic Hazel-May McCall. Nella withstands being mistaken for Hazel, ‘the Other Black Girl,’ and reviewing a problematic manuscript written by a bestselling white author with horribly one-dimensional depictions of a Black single mom. Many of the company’s higher-ups have the trappings of material success (Ivy League pedigrees, renovated summer homes), and their attempts to cultivate diversity fall flat, notably with the publisher’s ‘Diversity Town Halls’ and its sheepish attempts to deal with racism (‘the elephant in the room,’ Harris writes, ‘No one really knew what the elephant was. Or where the elephant was’). When Nella receives an anonymous note reading ‘Leave Wagner. Now,’ her hopes for a career at the company begin to crumble. Meanwhile, Hazel, seemingly undeterred by office politics, is not the ally she appears to be. While the novel overflows with witty dialogue and skillfully drawn characters, its biggest strength lies in its penetrating critique of gatekeeping in the publishing industry and the deleterious effects it can have on Black editors. This insightful, spellbinding book packs a heavy punch.”

Bewilderness by Karen Tucker

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Bewilderness: “Tucker astonishes in her devastating debut, a harrowing account of addiction, friendship, and loss. Irene, an isolated 19-year-old in rural North Carolina, meets Luce, a fellow server at a grimy pool hall. They form an intimate friendship that becomes nearly addictive: within hours of their meeting, Irene believes Luce ‘understood me better than anyone, maybe even my own mother.’ Both also battle an opiate addiction. They look at the moon and see an OxyContin pill, ‘a giant 30 just waiting for someone to reach up and snatch it.’ Throughout, they find themselves in scenarios that are equal parts devastating and funny, as they scam and grift to fund their pill habit by committing return fraud at Walmart and selling placebos from their birth control packs to college kids. But their bond begins to break after Luce meets Wilky, a sergeant at the nearby military base who is set on getting clean from a pill addiction of his own and moving with Luce to Florida for a fresh start. Tucker does a wonderful job locating Irene’s and Luce’s desire to live a better life beneath their tough exteriors, as when, while buying pills from an old woman, Irene offhandedly remarks, ‘Bodies are such fragile things.’ This keen awareness consistently adds depth and devastation. No matter the characters’ genuine longing to change, they are bound to their cyclical, unrelenting patterns. This is a stunning accomplishment.

Walking on Cowrie Shells by Nana Nkweti

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Walking on Cowrie Shells: “Nkweti’s beautiful and immersive debut collection challenges hackneyed depictions of a monolithic Africa through an array of dynamic stories that reflect the heterogeneity of Africans and the Cameroonian diaspora. The satirical ‘It Just Kills You Inside’ features a PR man who capitalizes on a fast-spreading zombie virus in Cameroon, which turns into a cash cow after refugee camps and the adoption of African zombie babies become Hollywood’s latest cause célèbre. In ‘The Statistician’s Wife,’ 40-year-old economist Elliot Coffin Jr.’s interview with two homicide detectives in the aftermath of Elliot’s wife’s murder is punctuated by disturbing statistics on the number of women in Nigeria who are murdered by their husbands. Other stories switch between diary entries and narrative, as in the heartrending ‘Dance the Fiya Dance,’ in which linguistic anthropologist Chambu evades her cousin’s attempts at matchmaking while grappling with her own ambivalence toward motherhood. Whether Nkweti is writing about water goddesses, zombies, or aspiring graphic novelists, she reveals and celebrates the rich inner lives of those who do not fit neatly into social and cultural categories. But the author’s prose shines the brightest; Nkweti’s sentences soar, enthralling the reader through their every twist and turn, and often ending with a wry punch (a fledgling church headquartered in a Brooklyn apartment is ‘still undergoing a slow renovation that has spanned from Easter Sunday the year prior into an unknown future—unto the end of days, perhaps’). This is a groundbreaking and vital work.”

How the Word Is Passed by Clint Smith

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about How the Word Is Passed: “Poet and Atlantic staff writer Smith debuts with a moving and perceptive survey of landmarks that reckon, or fail to reckon, with the legacy of slavery in America. Visiting Monticello plantation, Smith describes how Thomas Jefferson’s self-perception as a ‘benevolent slave owner’ often conflicted with his actions. On a tour of Angola prison, Smith discusses how nonunanimous jury verdicts fueled the “convict leasing system” that replaced slave labor in post-Reconstruction Louisiana, and notes that when the state switched from the electric chair to lethal injection in 1991, Angola inmates refused to build the prison death bed. At the Blandford Cemetery for Confederate soldiers in Petersburg, Va., Smith questions on-site historians about the ethical implications of preserving a place of honor for the defenders of slavery. He also checks in at the annual Juneteenth festival in Galveston, Tex., and takes an illuminating walking tour of underground railroad sites in New York City. Suffused with lyrical descriptions and incisive historical details, including Robert E. Lee’s ruthlessness as a slave owner and early resistance by Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois to the Confederate general’s ‘deification,’ this is an essential consideration of how America’s past informs its present.”

The Portrait of a Mirror by A. Natasha Joukovsky

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Portrait of a Mirror: “Set in the upper echelons of New York City and Philadelphia, Joukovsky’s droll if uneven debut reads like Gossip Girl all grown up. Young tech CEO and certified ‘golden boy’ Charles Wesley Range IV shares a sprawling Manhattan loft with his stunning, quick-witted enterprise architect wife, Diana Whalen, where the almost-happy newlyweds mount a series of passive-aggressive maneuvers against one another. Meanwhile, 30-something Vivien Floris, a poised visiting curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, prepares to marry Dale McBride, a dashing consultant and aspiring novelist who lives in Philadelphia. While Diana and Dale are assigned to work on the same project, grade school crushes Vivien and Wes reunite for a fateful night. As the drama unfolds, the characters’ affairs get predictably tangled. The author uses the backdrop of Vivien’s exhibition on Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the figure of Narcissus for astute observations on the core characters’ self-involvement, though the story feels weighed down by too many less-rewarding tangents about professional mishaps and exchanges between the peripheral players, who find their incestuous social world alternately beneficial and stultifying. In the words of a mutual friend of the couples, ‘The one percent is such a small place.’ While readers will enjoy the view of an insular, rarified world, they’ll also wonder what the fuss is about.”

Double Blind by Edward St. Aubyn

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Double Blind: “St. Aubyn (the Patrick Melrose novels) expounds on epigenetics, rewilding, art, neuroscience, and philosophy in this sublime character-driven novel. With his usual elegant prose, St. Aubyn follows three friends—Francis, Olivia, and Lucy—through a transformative year. Naturalist Francis meets biologist Olivia at a ‘megafauna’ conference in Oxford and feels an instant ‘subterranean attraction.’ He later anxiously awaits her visit to the Sussex estate he has vowed to reclaim with its deer, pigs, cattle, and ponies, envisioning an ‘English savannah.’ Meanwhile, Olivia anticipates Lucy’s arrival from New York to London, where she’s taken a job with a venture capital firm headed by the scheming Hunter Sterling. Lucy’s also blindsided by unexplainable muscle spasms that lead to the ‘high tech phrenology’ of a graphically detailed brain biopsy. While she is recovering with Francis and Olivia in Sussex, Hunter helicopters in with caviar, blinis, and vodka. Add the sudden, unexpected appearance of 34-year-old schizophrenic Sebastian Tanner, whose true identity threatens to square the friends’ already fraught triangle and lends an element of mystery. The four embark on a pharmacologically fueled journey from England to Cap d’Antibes to Big Sur, leading to a surprising and enthralling moral and ethical dilemma. St. Aubyn brings off a seemingly effortless and provocative examination of the mind and its refractions. This one’s not to be missed.”

Also on shelves this week: What Makes You Think You’re Awake? by Maegan Poland.

Beyond 20 Drafts

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I am in good company to have written more than 20 drafts of a novel. Ernest Hemingway rewrote the ending of A Farewell to Arms 39 times. Compared to nonfiction, a novel may require more drafts and take longer to get right. Writing a novel is a unique challenge, rather like birthing a brainchild: each book is different and needs as long as it takes.

Before publishing my debut novel, Living Treasures, I had gone through so many revisions that I asked myself “What’s there left to revise?” Then, a published friend encouraged me: “You have to get through this, or you won’t get published.” She had written 27 drafts before publishing her debut. It was like a rite of passage to push through the last revision and be greeted at the finishing line of a marathon. My second book, My Old Faithful, a linked story collection, won the Juniper Prize. The stories were previously published in the literary journals. So the manuscript was pretty clean, and I just had some line edits. The toil of revision—like labor pains—is conveniently forgotten so I can go on writing another book.

My third novel, My Good Son, won the UNO Publishing Lab Prize. I was beyond honored. The book was read and commented on by students from The Publishing Laboratory. My dear editor, Chelsey Shannon, with her thorough diligence and incredible acuity, compiled the extensive editorial feedback: 5,500-plus comments via track changes and 13 pages of global comments. To be fair, two pages were praise. But there were also 11 pages of single-spaced constructive criticism. Some of the notes were line edits, but others were mini essays. It was overwhelming—and not just the sheer volume, but how the feedback took the story apart, tuned the timing of plot points, brought out the themes, and rounded up the symbolism, which made it seem like a battle plan.

I found the rewrite a tremendous challenge. Every time I changed a gesture or line of dialogue, it shifted a host of meanings and the relationship dynamics: who is hiding what from whom and for what reason? I found it hard to gauge my progress. Was I making it better or worse? I seemed to be making minute changes. Why did it feel so much more difficult than earlier drafts, when I built a world from the ground up?

It took me a while to understand that there are different stages of writing and revision. Early drafts are like building a house. The first draft is like scaffolding: prepare the construction site and pour foundation. Then, complete the rough framing: install the floors, walls, and roof. This is exciting physical work that makes me feel strong. Pretty soon I have the skeleton of a house that looks like a promising story.

The subsequent drafts complete that house: install plumbing, insulation, complete drywall, interior and exterior fixtures, and paint. This is less dramatic than the scaffolding but still feels very productive. After a great deal of hard work, I have built a new house for readers to visit.

Until this point, I have worked in relative isolation. The story and characters have emerged from my subconscious. I am more of a medium than a judge of my material. That is why the writing is so energizing and revelatory. I fall in love with my characters and their world, laugh and cry with them because they open me up to a broader spectrum of human emotions. The story is more than my own experience; it is everything in life that prepares me to understand, feel, and imagine.

After however-many drafts, my manuscript is accepted for publication. From there, it goes on a different journey. A book is a commodity and exists in an economic system that relies on readers to exchange money for goods. A book keeps readers invested for the five, six, 10 hours it takes to be read. The stakes are raised; now there is a relationship with the reader, who’s often got one foot out the door.

When an editor accepts my manuscript, they have a vision for the book and a target audience. The development edit turns my manuscript into something ready for public consumption. As the editor breathes life into my creation, the manuscript is transformed on its journey into the world.

Now I look at the development edit like performing surgery. I cut open the body, repair the soft tissue, make it work. It is minute work. I work in an operating room, under a microscope, for long hours. Finally I sew up the wound and wait.

Another kind of labor requires greater precision and different perspectives. I examine the story, somewhat like a judge, from the readers’ and critics’ point of view, and ask difficult moral questions, which didn’t trouble me during the early stages of writing. Now that time has come. I must undertake the role of both a medium and judge. When I see an editorial comment that confounds me, I need to slow down and listen to my characters. Let the material saturate me like before, and remember why I wrote this story. If the world and characters are true and strong, they will tell me what to do.

I cannot make the readers happy by pandering to them. Readers are compelled by characters that are distinct and surprising. If the characters are tamed—in other words, if I flinch or back down—I risk losing my story. Instead, I should keep my characters strong and push them harder: allow them to act true and with autonomy. Only when they are strong enough to rebel against me, will they convince and move the readers like real human beings.

Bonus Links:
Unconventional Revision: MFA vs. Therapy
Fifteen Poets on Revision

Image Credit: Flickr/Jonathan Kim

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Flanagan, Kawakami, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Richard Flanagan, Mieko Kawakami, and more—that are publishing this week.
Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then become a member today.
The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Living Sea of Waking Dreams: “Man Booker winner Flanagan (The Narrow Road to the Deep North) shines in his fierce, surrealistic look at a family’s dissolution in a recognizable if dystopian Australia that’s ravaged by wildfires. Amid the fires, 56-year-old Anna, an award-winning Sydney architect, makes reluctant trips to Hobart, Tasmania, to check on her mother, Francie. After Francie suffers a catastrophic brain hemorrhage, Anna’s older brother Tommy, an unsuccessful artist who has been shouldering Francie’s care, hopes to let her die in peace. Guilt-ridden over her earlier neglect of her family and unprepared to face her mother’s mortality, Anna instead sides with their younger brother, Terzo, and orders aggressive treatment. Francie begins hallucinating as the increasingly invasive interventions fail, and despite Francie’s delusions, which come through when Francie musters the energy to speak, Anna finds new tenderness in her time with her mother. Meanwhile, Anna’s left ring finger painlessly but inexplicably vanishes, soon followed by a kneecap and a nipple. Though she sees the body parts of others disappearing, too (her 22-year-old son gradually fades away to a few fingers), no one comments or reports on the eerie phenomenon. Amid all of these losses, her complacency about her once rewarding life vanishes. Juxtaposing measured prose with passages that jolt and tumble, and realistic depictions of medical issues with Francie’s phantasmagoric visions (‘the mountain plains outside her window full of fires and sandstorms where, nightly, women queued in one area for abortions and in another for orgies, where fleeing people turned into plants only to perish in flames’), Flanagan’s novel illuminates the dangers of taking the world and one another for granted. Its intensity, urgency, and insights are unforgettable.”

Revival Season by Monica West

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Revival Season: “West’s explosive debut charts the spiritual reckoning of a Baptist faith healer’s daughter. Fifteen-year-old Miriam Horton accompanies her family on an annual summer revival tour centered on evangelical conversion and healing throughout the present-day Midwest and South. As in years past, her father, Rev. Samuel Horton yearns to break the ‘two-thousand soul mark,’ his ever-elusive goal for a successful revival season. Her father’s tour of perfunctory healing ends in Bethel, N.C., where a drunken man confronts the reverend, accusing him of fraud. Horton rebukes the man, then beats him in an uncontrollable fit of rage. Miriam surreptitiously watches the confrontation and its aftermath, and as a result her relationship with her father and her own views about spiritual healing are irrevocably altered. After returning home to East Mansfield, Tex., Miriam makes her first attempt at healing prayer with her best friend, Micah, who has become seriously ill with diabetes. More secret healings ensue, as Miriam’s personal spiritual awakening runs counter to the biblical injunctions stressed by her father and the Church. West does a fantastic job illuminating the struggles faced by women and girls in the Southern Baptist evangelical movement, and the change in Miriam is palpable and moving. West’s deep understanding of her characters and community makes for essential reading.”

Cheat Day by Liv Stratman

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Cheat Day: “Stratman debuts with a sweet, smart account of one woman’s attempt to add some spark and direction to her humdrum everyday. Kit, 34, is stuck in a rut: she can’t muster the nerve to quit a job managing her sister’s bakery in the same Brooklyn neighborhood where she grew up; she’s ambivalent about having kids; restless in a marriage to her well-intentioned, workaholic husband; and still mourning the death of the grandmother who raised her. To snap out of it, she reaches for a solution she’s tried many times before: a diet. This time she embarks on the 75-day Radiant Regimen, her most ambitious wellness overhaul yet. But as she starts to master her food cravings, she begins to indulge in her attraction to a carpenter, leading to an intense affair, and the derailment of her self-makeover. Soon, Kit, realizing the ‘lucky’ life she leads, must acknowledge her failures and open up about impulses if she want to save her marriage: ‘What I know now is there is no recipe for a clean marriage.’ The uneasy relationship Kit has with her various appetites is at the heart of things, and the narrative’s success rests on her wry, insightful narration, which expounds on the inanities of the daily calculus of diet planning with hilariously cringy detail. This is a treat.”

Heaven by Mieko Kawakami (translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Heaven: “Kawakami (Breasts and Eggs) returns with a searing account of bullying and adolescent angst. In the vast, violent wasteland of middle school, the 14-year-old unnamed narrator endures horrific physical abuse from a group of sadistic classmates, assuming it’s due to his lazy eye. In graphic detail, Kawakami describes the escalating harm brought to him, from his being made to ingest toilet water, a goldfish, and scraps of food from a pet rabbit’s cage, to having chalk stuffed up his nose, being shoved into a locker, and an excruciatingly brutal confrontation in a gym, leaving him with the heartbreaking ‘desire to disappear.’ When he receives an anonymous note in his desk seeking friendship, he suspects it’s a prank, but discovers it’s from a female schoolmate who is also being humiliated. They meet in the school stairwell to share stories and later take summer excursions out of town, and suffer a stunning final encounter with their adversaries, during which one of the culprits explains the unexpected and startling reasons behind the attacks. This incident is particularly harrowing, and Kawakami unflinchingly takes the reader through the abyss of depraved, dehumanizing behavior with keen psychological insight, brilliant sensitivity, and compassionate understanding. With this, the author’s star continues to rise.”