In Praise of Urinal Lit

The most confessional thing I’ve ever read wasn’t in someone’s diary, or journal, or their posthumously collected letters. Such writing always has an audience in mind, that audience being the future biographers that will excavate one’s inane reflections and elevate them to their proper place in the English Canon. I know this because I’m guilty as charged: I keep a journal every time I travel, and the writing tends to be both overly grand and protectively dispassionate. No, the most confessional thing I’ve ever read was in plain sight, for all the world to see…or at least all the world brave enough to enter the New Orleans bathroom during Mardi Gras where it was written. Above one urinal, someone had scrawled the message, “Toy Story 2 was ok…”

Toy Story 2 is one of the most highly rated movies in Rotten Tomatoes history. Yet someone had the audacity—and the need—to express this rogue dissenting opinion. If this person had claimed that Toy Story 2 was merely “ok” on social media, he would’ve been the subject of ridicule and disbelief. But to write these words on a bathroom wall and feel the relief of urination and proclamation at the same time—that is to really live. I have been a student of urinal lit ever since and believe it is the most underrated form of modern expression. It turns out that our most private thoughts are safest in public.

What qualifies as urinal lit? Well, technically it’s anything that someone is brave enough to scribble on a bathroom wall. I’ll admit, most of these scribbles are nonsense, as alcohol fuels a tremendous amount of urinal lit (though the same could be said, I suppose, for lit lit). Urinal lit often has a sense of urgency, as well as a clarity typically reserved for a form like haiku. The best urinal lit uses an economy of language that makes Raymond Carver seem positively prolix. The urgency of urinal lit comes from the necessary brevity of scrawling a message in a public place without being seen. Given the amount of graffiti in bar bathrooms, I’m amazed I’ve never actually caught anyone in the act. But after careful study and covert iPhone documentation (taking pictures in the bathroom being frowned upon for obvious reasons), I have unearthed several styles worthy of celebration:

Unsolicited Advice

The advice written on bathroom walls tends to read like the disgruntled work of a down-and-out fortune cookie scribe. It’s advice that sounds hard won, learned at the school of hard knocks (or perhaps hard liquor). These writers know of what they speak. Take, for example, the sage offering written above a urinal in the Cambridge Brewing Company that said, “Follow your heart, stay in school, don’t smoke rocks on weekdays.” Or the simple message that appeared above the adjacent urinal, “Be honest. Don’t be an asshole.” I know not what caused this near perfect maxim to appear on the wall, but I know that if I followed this creed and only this creed, I would lead a life well-lived.

My favorite piece of advice, however, was a message that no one likes to hear, but that we’ve all had to heed at one time or another: “Go home. You’re drunk.”

Bathroom Humor

In an era when everyone wants credit for every idea, the willingness of restroom authors to be anonymous is heartwarming. Although sometimes it’s clear why this anonymity is preferred. Urinal lit tends to skew crass, the bathroom, after all, being a pretty appropriate place for bathroom humor. But there are two kinds of crass: the kind that I would be embarrassed to include here, and the kind that is surprisingly novel. A prime example of the latter is a dictum I discovered in a bathroom stall in a Vermont bar: “Poop as loud as your anus will let you.” I found this message to be both gross and strangely inspirational. It made me feel ashamed of all the times I felt shame in a bathroom. Later, I went into the same bar’s other bathroom stall and found this very same message written again. Someone in Vermont is spreading the gospel of pooping pride.

Quasi-Profound Non-Sequiturs

As someone who majored in philosophy, I appreciate any and all opportunities for reflection. I just don’t typically expect those opportunities to come at 1:00 a.m in the dingy bathroom of a bar. But when someone writes, “What are we doing here?” at eye level, it tends to provoke an existential moment.

Other patrons at various bars in Portland, Maine have written such inexplicable yet indispensable messages as, “The spice must flow,” and “Dead rabbits live forever.” I also once encountered the phrase, “I will not write on the walls,” written 10 times in a row on the wall. Then there was the highly unlikely but nonetheless exhilarating claim I discovered in New Orleans, compete with an arrow pointing down, “Bukowski pissed here.” Such statements can make relieving yourself in a bar feel like an opportunity to discover the sacred in all its forms.

Interplay

Interplay between multiple authors is an exciting form of the urinal lit genre. This kind of layering is reminiscent of Buddhist koan study, in which generations of enlightened masters often leave behind pithy commentary for further dissection. In urinal lit interplay, the commentary may not be enlightened, but it certainly is pithy. The classic sign of interplay is different colored pen strokes. For example, in thick black marker, in the space where a mirror would typically go, I once saw the message, “I love no mirror and getting over stuff,” to which another scribe, using a thinner black marker, responded, “Get over it dude!”

Interplay can often devolve into a kind of debate. I once encountered the rather unremarkable statement, “Fuck the police,” with a remarkably polite series of responses.

“No thanks!” someone chimed in.

“Yes plz!” responded a third party.

Perhaps it’s this very spirit of open dialogue that I appreciate most about urinal lit. The Internet, once seen as a bastion for free-spirited exchange, has become a space where divisions are only exacerbated and the most offensive wheel gets the oil. But there is no tolerance for trolling in the toilet. It warms my heart to know that there is still a place where people not only feel comfortable expressing their true feelings, but that those true feelings are often so sweet. As one dude so memorably expressed on the wall of a bar in Boston, “Love ya motha, ya only get one.”

Ernest Hemingway advised, “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.” Above urinals all across this great nation, his encouragement has found its ideal, if not idyllic, medium. It is commonly expressed that we should not judge a book by its cover. Similarly, I would add, we should not judge literature by its location.

Image Credit: Gabor Monori.

The Extraordinary Enigmatic: Kathryn Davis’s ‘The Silk Road’

Wormholes, portals, wizards, dachshunds, geological time, haute cuisine: these are a few of the things you will find in Kathryn Davis’s fiction. “My sensibility as an artist,” Davis said in a recent interview in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, “is (thank God) a Frankenstein monster of parts.” Ever since the publication of her first book, Labrador, in 1988, she has shown herself to be a writer of graceful sentences and wild creative power—the “love child of Virginia Woolf and Lewis Carroll,” Joy Press once called her. Wherever her imagination wants to go, Davis will follow, whether that means traveling from Denmark to upstate New York with an opera-writing murderess (The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf) or settling down in a 1950s Philadelphia partly populated by robots (Duplex). She has written a novel called Hell, in which time collapses on itself within the walls of a semi-detached house, and a novel called The Thin Place, about a Vermont town where the skin between this world and the spirit world is especially porous.

Davis’s new novel, The Silk Road, continues her exploration of the strange, but if anything, it’s even bolder than her earlier books. Rather than ease the reader into the extraordinary by way of the ordinary—as Duplex does, for example, by beginning with a sleepy suburban street before proceeding to introduce robots and sorcerers and air-borne scows—The Silk Road dives right into the extraordinary from the first paragraph:
We were in the labyrinth. Afterward, no one could agree on the time. Jee Moon was tucking someone’s right hand in under their blanket, having first tucked in the left. She did this tenderly but firmly, as if to suggest we could be doing it for ourselves. Next she took someone’s head and lifted it like it wasn’t part of a human body, a cabbage or a planet or the repository of all good thoughts and evil, which, when you think about it, is exactly what a human head is.
What is going on here? A yoga class winding down, with everyone in shavasana, or corpse pose. Where are we? In the labyrinth, like the narrator says, which we will soon learn is part of “the settlement,” located in the Arctic north, where the permafrost is rapidly melting. And who are we? A group of individuals known only by the names of our professions (the Astronomer, the Archivist, the Topologist, the Cook), guided by a mysterious woman named Jee Moon. And why are we here? To escape from a flea-borne plague that is devastating humanity.

This, anyway, is the novel’s frame story, loosely modeled on the frame story of Boccaccio’s Decameron, in which 10 characters fleeing the Black Death gather in a villa near Florence and swap yarns to pass the time. But, in The Silk Road, the medieval literary device gets a new, fantastical twist: The characters don’t just tell each other tales, they hear each other’s thoughts, which swarm “from our heads and—not being solely the province of the brain—from other parts of our bodies, and [rise] to link themselves with other thoughts in a molecular action.” Though such mind-melding might quickly become ridiculous in the hands of another writer, Davis harnesses it to powerful effect, using it as an excuse to blend the characters’ voices with voices borrowed from literature, scripture, and song.

Some of Davis’s allusions are bound to slip past the reader unnoticed. There are not many who will recognize both a line from Lucretius (“Moreover in the sum of all things there is no one thing that is begotten single”) and the lyrics to an old French pop song (Chariot, chariot, si tu veux de moi…). But the sources of these lines are less important than what Davis makes of them—how she orchestrates them into a meaningful and quite beautiful whole. Often the same passages that leave us scratching our heads are the ones that take our breath away. Describing the spread of the plague across the globe, Davis writes:
Everyone knew it was a physical condition—they were that knowledgeable—but the extent of what they knew was compromised by exposure to a glut of information and rumor, making it difficult to predict anything. Some people claimed mortality didn’t come through Saturn and Jupiter, but rather through Mars. Others said the work of the planets could not be avoided but there were things it was possible to avoid. Transmutation was easiest between bodies that had matching qualities. No one knew where the sickness came from or where it was going. No one knew which hospitals had medicine or empty beds or doctors or nurses. There were robbers abroad in the land. There were wild beasts.
As this passage indicates, it can be helpful to think of The Silk Road as a piece of music, in which meaning is produced through rhythm and repetition rather than rational exposition. The reader, holding onto his hat, has to trust that themes and variations will be revealed, even if nothing in the end is certain. But complaining about indeterminacy in a Kathryn Davis novel is like complaining about William Gass’s love of alliteration or Bob Dylan’s singing voice. The embrace of uncertainty is central to the whole endeavor. Like Emerson, Davis insists that “knowledge is the knowing that we cannot know.”

The Silk Road is full of enigmas. Are the main characters siblings, as their shared memories of childhood suggest, or are they linked in some more intangible sense—perhaps as different permutations of the same soul? Is the Arctic settlement where they find themselves the Tibetan Buddhist bardo between one existence and the next? When one by one the characters begin to disappear, where do they go? We can ponder possible answers, point to evidence, even argue for one interpretation or another if the spirit moves us, but finally the pondering is what’s essential. Davis’s style encourages us to remain open to multiple interpretations even when they contradict each other. A “cove of sparkling light” at the settlement’s edge may either be a “real pool of something like water—we were in agreement on that if nothing else—or just a gathering of attention, all of it in one place, as solid and bright-surfaced as a jewel but otherwise beside the point.”

Of course, the beauty of fiction is that things can be both. The cove can be liquidly real and also a potent projection. The characters can lead their individual lives—in which they walk an ancient pilgrimage route through France or bump their braces on a water-fountain spout in St. Louis—while at the same time blending their consciousness together in a hum of voices that summons all the living and the dead.

It would be safe to say that Davis is fascinated by multiplicity, but not by the distracted, all-over-the-map multiplicity that characterizes novels such as David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. These novels, whatever else might be said of them, suffer from a jittery lack of focus. Their structures, down to their syntax, seem born of the same impatient impulse that has given us Tinder and flights of beer. By comparison, The Silk Road is a calm book that, with its meditative poise and measured prose, invites us to reduce speed, concentrate, reread and reconsider. Even as it entertains us in the expected novelistic fashion by narrating the story of a group of characters over a span of time, it is constantly throwing our received ideas about narratives, characters, and spans of time into question—and sometimes throwing them overboard altogether.

I have, so far, read The Silk Road three times and can already see that I am going to have to buy another copy—I’ve messed mine up with so many marginal scrawls. These range from exclamation points made to mark favorite images (“a few clerics in long black cassocks, sliding up and down the steep pathways like chessmen”) and aperçus (“Furniture was important to people who cared about the surfaces of things”) to question marks curling next to what, in a conventional mystery novel, would be called clues. The mystery in The Silk Road, however, revolves around nothing less than the formation and dissolution of selfhood—what Joy Williams calls “the great wheel of time and its terrifying promises of rebirth and forgetfulness.” If this mystery has a solution, I have yet to find it. If you do, you’ll have to let me know.

Cry Out with a Woman’s Voice: Love, Resistance, and the Erotic Verse of Syria’s National Poet

When my grandmother’s sister was killed, my grandmother inherited her sister’s identity.

Born in Saidnaya, Syria, in 1926, my grandmother entered the world three years after the French Mandate—the period of French rule after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire with World War I—went into effect. A mountain town roughly 20 miles north of Damascus, Saidnaya is one of the Christian-majority areas of the country (many biblical scholars consider it to be the site where Cain killed Abel). At the beginning of the 20th century, it was one of the many sites where Ottoman forces were killing Christians en masse. At the time, my grandmother’s parents had been on a waiting list to get out of the country with their two daughters, Mary and Ossin. If there were any changes to the names on the list, they would need to start the process over.

And then my great-grandmother became pregnant for a third time. This could have meant disaster for the family, but by coincidence Mary died in an attack on their farm shortly before my grandmother was born. So they gave my grandmother the name Mary, and kept their place on the list.

Half a world and 16 years later, my grandmother was sitting on her parents’ bed in Rhode Island, ear pressed to the bedroom door as her father and extended family convened to discuss what they considered to be another desperate situation: My grandmother was accepted to college. With the Orthodox priest in tow, they made the case that allowing her to have an education would turn her into a fājira—a loose woman. My great-grandfather’s response was that his daughter could do as she damn well pleased.

Like my grandmother, Syria’s national poet Nizar Qabbani was born in the era of the French Mandate (to an upper-middle-class Muslim family in Damascus). And, like my grandmother, he also lost his eldest sister, albeit to a different form of violence inherent to the land. In an era of rapid westernization due, in no small part, to colonial influence, Qabbani’s Syria was keeping up appearances, but struggling to come to terms with its long-held traditions and taboos, especially around women’s equality.

This dichotomy hit home when the 15-year-old Nizar lost his sister Wisal to suicide after she wasn’t allowed to marry the man she loved. In the wake of that loss, which he describes in characteristic plainspoken style in My Story with Poetry, Qabbani began to question love and lust and how they related to beliefs that had thrived for centuries in Arabic culture.

“Were my writings about love the natural substitute for everything that my sister was deprived of,” Qabbani would later ask of himself in My Story with Poetry. “And were they to avenge her death from a society that rejects love and chases it with axes and guns?” In the same memoir, Qabbani would later describe the act of “penetrating” the fortress of Arabic poetry as “an act of madness rather than an act of sacrilege and blasphemy… linguistic terrorism and historical, rhetorical, grammatical, moral and religious terror as well.”

At roughly the same time that my grandmother broke through as the first in her family to go to college, Qabbani broke through the “fortress” and published his first poetry collection, What the Brunette Told Me. He paid for the publication (a trend that would continue for most of his works) and wrapped each of the 300 copies in the same paper that was used in his father’s chocolate factory. An Egyptian magazine noted with derision that each book was also tied with a red string akin to those that the French required to be wrapped around the waists of Syrian prostitutes for easier access. The magazine then tore into the verse itself for its depictions of “fornication, injury, and the depiction of the experienced, impudent and shameless prostitute.”

Despite the conservative outcry (even his own father bemoaned that his son was “full of illusions [and] will never be of any use, either to himself or the world”), Qabbani’s family contacts in the government allowed What the Brunette Told Me to be reprinted several times. Reading the poems as an American in 2019, it’s almost easy to miss the fuss. “Do I love you?/No, no, that’s impossible/I never like or fall in love,” protests the narrator in “Obstinacy”:
But by the night,

My pillow starts to cry…

The stars fill my bed…

Then, I ask my heart

‘Do you know her?’

But my heart laughs at me,

I do not know why.
Yet to read this in Damascus in 1944 was to enter the heads of every Syrian youth—male or female—unable to reconcile the tyranny of tradition with a sense of inevitable modernity.

Tracing both form and focus of these works also gives us a Damascene Road of sorts to the poets and predicaments of our time. Rupi Kaur cites Qabbani as one of her greatest influences. It’s easy to see how many of his short, simple, yet supple verses—inspired by the rhythms of the Mediterranean Sea as opposed to the complex meters of classical Arabic poetry—would just as easily spread across Instagram today. Marwan Hisham and Molly Crabapple, cocreators of the memoir Brothers of the Gun, cite Qabbani’s Sparrows Don’t Need Entry Visas as an inspiration for their book.

Qabbani’s fascination with love and women didn’t stop with his first book. As early as 1975, critics like Arieh Loya noted that early Qabbani was unable “to view women as entities in themselves or to be concerned for their inner spiritual life. They were just beautiful females, alluring and disturbing, who he seemed unable yet to see as equals.”

Without sacrificing much of his Arabic machismo, Qabbani began to morph from the empirically erotic (“When I kissed your right breast/You exclaimed: ‘What about the left one?’”) into a voice for the silenced Arabic woman.

Rather than painting women as patriarchal property, he asserts that love is only genuine in the absence of coercion and with a sense of mutual desire. In “On Entering the Sea,” he writes:
Love happened at last

Without intimidation … with symmetry of wish.

So I gave … and you gave

And we were fair.

It happened with marvelous ease

Like writing with jasmine water,

Like a spring flowing from the ground.
Qabbani also began to speak in the voice of the Arabic woman, which would become a hallmark of his work. In storming the fortress of Arabic poetic traditions, Qabbani also aimed his lance at the traditions of arranged marriage, domestic violence, and honor killings—traditions that still claim the lives of Syrian women and girls today (especially among Syrian refugees, for whom the current conflict has led to an increase in gender-based violence according to the United Nations Population Fund). His lines from “Notes on the Book of Defeat” were (and still are) used as a political rallying cry against life under political dictatorship—and are just as easily repeated in the era of #MeToo:
O Sultan, my master, if my clothes

are ripped and torn

it is because your dogs with claws

are allowed to tear me.
It’s impossible to separate the personal from the political in Qabbani’s works. He writes in his introduction to Diary of an Indifferent Woman, “It is not a novel deed that a woman burns in this East of ours… half the dust of our deserts is kneaded with the ashes of long locks of hair… and stabbed throats.” His anonymous female narrator goes on to mourn the “female martyrs/Who were buried/Nameless/In the cemetery/Of ‘tradition’…”

“Is it not the irony of fate that I should cry out with a woman’s voice while women are unable to speak with their own natural voice?” Qabbani remarked in a 1968 lecture at the American University of Beirut, in a rare public and plainspoken critique of the Arabic patriarchy. “This is the book of every woman whom this stupid, ignorant East sentenced and executed before she could open her mouth.”

Perhaps this is one of the reasons I’m instinctively drawn to Qabbani: Both he and my grandmother assumed the identities of other women. In her case, it was a means of survival. In his, it was a means of understanding that sense of another’s survival being at stake.

There are other Qabbani poems that are more acutely political, but even his love poetry was, as his second wife, Balqis al-Rawi said, political poetry. In writing about 1967’s Six-Day War, in which Arabic forces were besieged by Israeli forces, he describes losing his lust. In “Poetic Communique #1,” from 1972’s Poems Outside the Law, he says to his lover:
And I love you in the protests of angry people

and in the joy of free people in the breaking of chains.

And I love you in the face of those who are coming

to kill the Caliph Harun al-Rashid.

Will you be my accomplice

in the killing of the Caliph Harun al-Rashid?
Syrian poet and scholar Mohja Kahf, who transcribed “Poetic Communique #1,” best describes the work’s underlying argument: “Love makes resistance an existential necessity.”

Resistance, too, makes love an existential necessity. In December 1981, Balqis al-Rawi had gone to her job in the cultural office at the Iraqi Embassy in Beirut, where the couple had been living. That day, pro-Iranian guerrillas bombed the embassy building and she was killed in the attack. Qabbani’s eulogies for his wife weren’t confined to a single poem, but the most damning was “Balqis,” which features his descriptions of kissing her hair and eyes amid the rubble before declaring:
I swear by your eyes

That draw millions of planets into them

That I shall speak infamies

About the Arabs

I shall say: Our chastity is harlotry

Our piety is filth

And I shall say: Our struggle is a lie

And there is no difference

Between our politics

And prostitution.
Both the rage and the romance in these works is Qabbani’s legacy to Arabic poetry, and a reminder of our inheritance in both Syria and the United States today. Having discovered Qabbani’s poems as a teenager, I’ve found myself growing with him since then. We were full of raging teenage hormones together, and as an adult now I feel his political rage—turned now against ever travel ban and misguided declaration of victory over ISIS. After spending part of October of last year in a refugee camp in Greece meeting with fellow Syrians, I retreated into Qabbani’s simple sentences, longing for the sense of love and refuge they provide. “The Qabbani baptism,” as Salma Khadra Jayyusi wrote in her introduction to On Entering the Sea, “is like a tattoo on the spirit. It cannot be removed.”

Qabbani died in 1998, missing out on the ascendance of Bashar al-Assad and the Arab Spring. My grandmother is still alive, though in the last 15 years her mind has slipped further and further into dementia (she’s avoided what Qabbani has called the most dangerous heart disease: strong memory). The last time I spoke to her, she didn’t remember Syria at all. Her sister Ossin died last fall. While she has other siblings, some of whom have been to see our family still in Saidnaya, they were all born in the United States. Eventually, that direct line to where I come from will fade, like a poor transatlantic signal.

My grandmother can no longer remember. But Qabbani remembers for both of us.

Stranger in a Strange Land: Dave Eggers’s ‘The Parade’

Someone once said, “Life”—or was it history?—“is one damned thing after another.” Whichever it was, and whoever said it, Dave Eggers’s The Parade—or any parade, really—is just that: one thing after another. The novella’s plot moves in a straight line, event after event rolling along day by day. But The Parade can’t be reduced to its plot any more than life (individual or collective) can be reduced to bare events.

The plot: A man is paving a road through a country that has recently (apparently) ended a devastating civil war. The road, as laid out by an unnamed foreign company contracted by an unnamed foreign power to aid the unnamed country, is destined to be as flat and straight and well-made as a road can be. Its stated purpose is to unite the torn-apart country; it will heal.

The protagonist, who calls himself Four (“for reasons of security, the company insisted on simple pseudonyms, usually numerical”), is a real square, a stolid worker whose experience, over 60-plus similar assignments, dictates that going by the company book means he’ll get the job done on schedule—without getting killed.

“Work like his often took place near the time and place of violence and atrocities, without actually intersecting with either…He once missed by minutes the scene of a crucifixion.” Safety and efficiency lie, above all, in keeping aloof from the people who populate the country he’s paving.

The paving machine is built for isolation. Inside its closed cab, all its operator need do, basically, is keep rolling. The roadbed awaits, prepped with pods of fuel and material at intervals matching the machine’s capacity. Four is almost literally at one with the machine, even before he hops into the cab. The story opens with him waking with “leaden head” in “platinum light” within a CHU (Containerized Housing Unit). It’s almost as if he’s a man flying solo in a space capsule. When he bathes, his goal is to remove “his human stink.” A perfect night, for him, is a black expanse “unsullied by human striving.” Four’s helper, Nine—as in the maximum single-digit odd number, not to mention the number of lives for a cat—is the spanner in the works. (Did Eggers do the math, to yoke two numbers that add up to bad luck?) Nine has hair that flops in his face; he smiles and chats. He has a mouth Four repeatedly observes as “womanly,” not with homoerotic overtones, but with distaste; such a mouth disrupts a manly face.

Nine’s job is to scout ahead, driving a quad, to “mitigate obstacles,” which can range from a crinkle in the roadbed’s surface to a shepherd and his flock crossing in front of the paver. Rather than mitigating obstacles, though, Nine generates them. Time after time, Nine goes off the company book, drinking the local water, eating the local food, shagging the local women. In getting down with the natives, he endangers himself and Four, and puts the job at risk of missing its deadline.

Four seethes. Not only does he want to get home to his family ASAP and in one piece, but the president of the newly reunited country has scheduled a grand parade, to begin “the moment the road was completed.”

Despite repeated omens that the country’s war-scarred people hold deadly bitter grudges, Four persists in believing that the road will heal the nation, that the people will rise to exploit the manna of foreign aid, with “joy and frenetic enterprise.” Neither his dour outlook nor his relentless pragmatism shakes this optimism, based as it is in a bedrock faith in progress and order.

Nine shares his optimism, though for him it’s all about people, about being human. Four sees the road, Nine sees the people who will travel it.

The book’s setting is conveyed vividly, yet without specificity. It’s dusty; refuse is burned or left in heaps; black plastic garbage bags containing “the waste of war” litter the roadside. It’s hot and humid, and air conditioning is not a norm, except in the “cockpit” of the paver. Nine is enchanted; Four sees nothing new: “Everything around them was standard for a developing country after a war,” including “white trucks full of aid workers fretful or debauched.” Four’s admiring and detailed assessment of the paving machine, with which a single operator can pave a roadbed and even paint the double yellow line in one pass, disarms doubt that such a thing can exist (it doesn’t) and conveys a time in the near future when road paving is no longer “messy and toxic work” involving too many human beings.

Eggers is less effective with the terrain. The characters see far into the distance, even in a “rough terrain, thick with foliage and outcroppings.”  Four rides shotgun on a motorcycle through “low scrub” to see a “mosaic of light visible through the woods.” Eggers might have intended to underline vagueness of place, but Four’s character, so tightly woven by Eggers, undermines the effect. Even as events unpin Four’s emotional center, a precise and widely traveled man like him would not misidentify his surroundings.

The inconsistencies in terrain distract, but overall Eggers succeeds in evoking a fractured Anyland, through which two men of opposing temperaments and views (mash them together and it’s Everyman) are tasked to pave a perfectly straight and level road. Nothing and no one have a proper name; for example, a local man who entangles himself with Four and Nine is called Medallion for wearing a “large silver medallion” whose design is never further described.

The lack of specifics molds The Parade into an allegory that, in sideswiping Joseph Conrad’s colonial-era novella Heart of Darkness, ponders the enterprise of intervention, here exemplified by foreign aid: help framed and executed largely by people who are not native to the land of the people they are helping, with motives on all sides shadowed by less than altruistic agendas.

Allegories don’t generally supply juicy psychological backstory, a complex plot, lush language. Even lacking such beloved elements of literary fiction, The Parade bestows in straightforward prose what only literary fiction can offer: a handful of time in which the reader can be embedded in another person, not to escape but to understand a part of our world that our own lives cannot reveal. Maybe it’s in this way that Eggers’s allegory avoids prescriptiveness; it’s plain that we’re living the allegory from one man’s perspective. Four’s acute observations of street life, as he and Nine head in a taxi to where the paver is parked, reveal as much about him as they reveal about the scene and its inhabitants, and we get a glimpse of Nine:
All around were scenes of reconstruction. On a rickety scaffolding made of gnarled sticks, a dozen masons were repairing a municipal building with a cloud-shaped hole in its facade. Next door, a middle-aged woman, wearing a fur-lined winter coat, sat under a striped beach umbrella, next to an office copier that she’d somehow wheeled out onto the roadside. A line of men and women in business attire waited to avail themselves of her services. The high-pitched whine of a diesel scooter overtook them, and Nine laughed.

“Whole clan,” he said.

Four glanced over to see that a family of five had arranged themselves on one small scooter, and soon passed them, and swung into their lane. Two of the children were standing on the runner in front of their father, whose wife clung tight to him with a baby strapped to her back. The baby, fast asleep and its face cloudy with diesel fumes, wore a stocking cap covered with jewels and bells.

This was a burgeoning city awake and alive after a civil war its residents assumed would have no end….
Eggers is a master of point of view; critic Michiko Kakutani lauded his “uncommon ability to access his characters’ emotions and channel their every mood.” You adhere to his protagonist, even if you have little or nothing (besides being human) in common with him (usually a him), and even when you’re not entirely on his side. In The Parade, Eggers needs every scrap of this mastery to pull off his ending. Be prepared to engage.

As in Eggers’s A Hologram for a King, the protagonist of The Parade is a stranger in a strange land, where circumstances conspire to take him apart. Four is so tightly welded together that only extremes will break him, his psyche so carefully protected, you both hope and dread it will be unpeeled.

One thing you know pretty much from the start (again, as in A Hologram for a King): the protagonist will fail, literally or in some other, essential way. What exactly he will lose, in failing, and what he might gain, is what you read to find out.

Parallel Lives Lost: K Chess’s ‘Famous Men Who Never Lived’

In Ezra Sleight’s classic sci-fi novel The Pyronauts, the world ends in fire. Aliens in crystal spaceships arrive on Earth bearing peaceful solutions to humanity’s deepest crises: war, illness, racism, xenophobia. But the well-intentioned extraterrestrials bring along an unintended stowaway: a toxic parasite that destroys all plant life on earth. One by one, crops, flowers, and trees wither and die. Animals starve, and with them, humans. The scattered survivors resort to burning the infected landscape in hopes of killing the virus. The earth is left to smolder, charred black beyond recognition.

The Pyronauts is often heralded as a masterwork, a mournful allegory for the dangers of colonialism or the nuclear age. Sleight’s home in New York has been preserved as a museum, and his famous novel has been subject to one intricate analysis after another. There’s only one small problem if you want to read the book itself, which is that The Pyronauts doesn’t actually exist—at least not in this world. Ezra Sleight and The Pyronauts are part of an alternate timeline, a parallel universe that split off from ours in the early years of the 20th century.

Sleight and his apocalyptic masterpiece are at the center of Famous Men Who Never Lived, the debut novel by Providence-based writer K Chess. As the book begins, the parallel world in which Sleight wrote The Pyronauts actually has been destroyed by nuclear catastrophe, forcing 156,000 of its citizens to flee across the fabric of the universe to seek refuge in ours. These refugees—known as Universally Displaced Persons, or UDPs—find themselves in a world they both recognize and don’t. In their timeline, America is on the metric system, Latin America has organized into a powerful communist bloc called America Unida, airships are the preferred method of long-distance travel, online poker doesn’t exist, the Holocaust never came to pass, and the swastika, true to its Buddhist origins, is a universal sign of good luck. In this new world, New York is still New York. But the neighborhoods are different, the history has changed, the slang makes no sense, and Ezra Sleight died in an accident as a child, leaving his body of work unwritten.

Famous Men, like New York itself, jostles with the voices of many of these recent transplants as they struggle to assimilate. But it focuses in particular on two: Vikram Bhatnagar, a Ph.D. student whose field of study as he knew it—20th-century American literature—no longer exists, and Helen “Hel” Nash, a surgeon who was forced to leave her son behind in the evacuation and has sunk into depression. Forced to start their lives anew in an unfamiliar world that alternates between hostility and indifference, Hel and Vikram flail for solid ground. Vikram takes a dead-end job as a night watchman at a storage warehouse, where he’s haunted by glimpses, down darkened hallways and behind locked doors, of a mysterious blue light that seems to signal a way back home. Hel, meanwhile, stays at home rereading the last remaining copy of The Pyronauts in existence, and becomes obsessed with founding a museum dedicated to the “vanished culture” of her home world. But her plan is derailed when the sole copy of The Pyronauts goes missing, a development that drives her to take increasingly desperate and reckless measures to get it back.

Despite a premise Philip K. Dick would’ve admired, Famous Men isn’t quite a sci-fi novel, but something more like its inverse—a book less concerned with alternate universes than their absence. The disappearance of this parallel timeline, the trauma of its swift erasure, haunts the survivors, and haunts us in turn. Chess unspools her characters’ memories and points of reference with minimal context, foisting the UDPs’ disorientation onto the reader and leaving it up to us to discern the differences between two separate, competing universes. And as the book details the perilous crossing, demeaning jobs, and constant prejudice that Hel, Vikram, and the other UDPs face, it draws a clear parallel between their experience and our present-day refugee crisis—the wrecked cities of Famous Men’s alternate world recalling nothing so much as images of a leveled Aleppo or bombed-out Baghdad. In this way, Famous Men joins the recent surge of politically-minded speculative fiction, from the fantastical doors of Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West to the ravaged landscapes of Omar El Akkad’s American War and the electrical jolts of Naomi Alderman’s The Power. What sets Famous Men apart is the scope of its ambition: Here we have a story about immigration wrapped inside a post-apocalyptic fable with multiple universes that also manages to be a meditation on art, fate, trauma, and loss. All this, in a scant 300 pages.

Indeed, the book’s focus on The Pyronauts—whose plot forms its own meta-narrative within the story—allows Chess to move beyond mere allegory to ask deeper questions about loss, integration, and belonging. Because what are we if not our culture, the stories we spent a lifetime consuming? Forced migration not only robs people of their geographical foundation, the book reminds us, but their social and cultural ones too. As Sto:lo elder and scholar Lee Maracle observes in her book Memory Serves Oratories, Western culture demands that non-white immigrants, and non-white people in general, “must disavow their own story, belief, and authority” if they wish to fit in. (It is surely no accident that many of Famous Men’s UDPs are queer or people of color.) But what does one do then with all those memories? Let them go and attempt to form new ones, at the cost of one’s identity? Or hold onto them and risk social alienation? Famous Men makes this trap explicit, forcing its characters to choose between the devastated world they left behind and, literally, “a whole separate twentieth century.” At one point, Vikram is struck by a repeating design of Barack Obama’s iconic Hope poster—a politician whose very existence is new to him. “So specific, that pattern,” he muses. “And in its own way, beautiful.” Left unsaid are all the patterns and slogans and beloved figures that shaped Vikram and his world, an ocean of history lost forever.

Famous Men is so chock-full of ideas that its plotting and characters come across as an afterthought at times; a scattered third act and too-neat conclusion in particular feel like they were taken out of the oven a little too soon. But the book also illustrates a side of immigration that often gets left out of the news reports: how refugees, seeking safety and security, first must paradoxically sacrifice those very things; how homesickness and grief linger without relief. How any of us, through wildfire or civil war or nuclear disaster, could unexpectedly find ourselves on the other side of that line, our family and possessions lost, and face the paralyzing choice of looking forward or looking back, unsure which is right, which choice will lead us, at last, to a place we belong.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Luiselli, Morrison, Williams, Newman, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Valeria Luiselli, Toni Morrison, John Williams, Sandra Newman and more—that are publishing this week.

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

American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about American Spy: “Wilkinson’s unflinching, incendiary debut combines the espionage novels of John le Carré with the racial complexity of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Marie Mitchell, the daughter of a Harlem-born cop and a Martinican mother, is an operative with the FBI in the mid-’80s peak of the Cold War. Marie is languishing in the bureaucratic doldrums of the agency, a black woman stultified by institutional prejudice relegated to running snitches associated with Pan-African movements with Communist links. All this changes when she is tapped by the CIA to insinuate herself with Thomas Sankara, the charismatic new leader of Burkina Faso, in a concerted effort to destabilize his fledgling government and sway them toward U.S. interests. Now the key player in a honeypot scheme to entrap Sankara, Marie finds herself questioning her loyalties as she edges closer to both Sankara and the insidious intentions of her handlers abroad. In the bargain, she also hopes to learn the circumstances surrounding the mysterious death of her elder sister, Helene, whose tragically short career in the intelligence community preceded Marie’s own. Written as a confession addressed to her twin sons following an assassination attempt on her life, the novel is a thrilling, razor-sharp examination of race, nationalism, and U.S. foreign policy that is certain to make Wilkinson’s name as one of the most engaging and perceptive young writers working today. Marie is a brilliant narrator who is forthright, direct, and impervious to deception—traits that endow the story with an honesty that is as refreshing as it is revelatory. This urgent and adventurous novel will delight fans of literary fiction and spy novels alike.”

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Lost Children Archive: “Luiselli’s powerful, eloquent novel begins with a family embarking on a road trip and culminates in an indictment of America’s immigration system. An unnamed husband and wife drive, with their children in the backseat, from New York City to Arizona, he seeking to record remnants of Geronimo and the Chiricahua Apache, she hoping to locate two Mexican girls last seen awaiting deportation at a detention center. The husband recounts for the 10-year-old son and five-year-old daughter stories about a legendary band of Apache children. The wife explains how immigrant children become separated from parents, losing their way and sometimes their lives. Husband, wife, son, and daughter nickname themselves Cochise, Lucky Arrow, Swift Feather, and Memphis, respectively. When Swift Feather and Memphis go off alone, they become lost, then separated, then intermingled with the Apache and immigrant children, both imagined and all too real. As their parents frantically search, Memphis trades Swift Feather’s map, compass, flashlight, binoculars, and Swiss Army knife for a bow and arrow, leaving them with only their father’s stories about the area to guide them. Juxtaposing rich poetic prose with direct storytelling and brutal reality and alternating narratives with photos, documents, poems, maps, and music, Luiselli explores what holds a family and society together and what pulls them apart. Echoing themes from previous works (such as Tell Me How It Ends), Luiselli demonstrates how callousness toward other cultures erodes our own. Her superb novel makes a devastating case for compassion by documenting the tragic shortcomings of the immigration process.”

The Source of Self-Regard by Toni Morrison

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Source of Self-Regard: “Some superb pieces headline this rich, if perhaps overstocked, collection of primarily spoken addresses and tributes by Nobel laureate Morrison. Many are prescient and highly relevant to the present political moment. For example, Morrison alludes in 1996 to controversy at the U.S.-Mexico border, writing that ‘it is precisely ‘the south’ where walls, fences, armed guards, and foaming hysteria are, at this very moment, gathering.’ She focuses, of course, on the issues closest to her heart: racism, the move away from compassion in modern-day society, the often invisible presence of African-Americans in American literature, and her own novels. Some of her strongest pieces are the longest: for example, her talk on Gertrude Stein, and her two essays on race in literature, ‘Black Matter(s)’ and ‘Unspeakable Things Unspoken’ are must-reads. The collection is organized thematically, which is helpful, but because the pieces jump around in time, dates would be a valuable addition to the essay titles. And while it is no doubt important to create a comprehensive collection of such a noted figure’s writings, the book, which includes 43 selections, can seem padded and overlong at times. Nevertheless, this thoughtful anthology makes for often unsettling, and relevant, reading.”

Mother Winter by Sophia Shalmiyev

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Mother Winter: “In this bold if uneven memoir, Shalmiyev, former nonfiction editor for the Portland Review, writes of being a motherless Russian immigrant, addressing the woman who ‘left me for the bottle long before my father took me away to America.’ Stitching together lyrical essays, fragmented narratives, and critical commentary, she reflects on ‘Elena. Mother. Mama,’ whose absence led her to seek ‘surrogate mothers for myself: feminists, writers, activists, painters, ballbusters.’ Loosely linear with discursive asides, Shalmiyev shares memories of her mother’s drunken promiscuity, her own neglected childhood raised by an enigmatic father, and their emigration from Leningrad to New York in 1990. After her arrival in America at age 11, the narrative becomes more chronological and focused. Shalmiyev describes her college years in Seattle as a sex worker; a fruitless trip to Russia to find Elena; and her subsequent marriage, miscarriage, and role as mother; she intersperses these accounts with musings on art, feminism, Russian history, and the work of Pauline Réage, Anaïs Nin, and Susan Sontag (whose son was raised by his father, ‘purposefully, unlike my mom, so that she can think clearly and write’). Shalmiyev’s prose can be brilliant, but at times overreaches (‘Father never got wintery feet’ instead of, simply, cold feet), and the book’s ragged continuity stalls any momentum. This ambitious contemplation on a child’s unreciprocated love for her mother trips over its own story, resulting in an ambiguous, unresolved work.”

The Cassandra by Sharma Shields

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Cassandra: “Shields (The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac) repurposes the Greek myth of Cassandra in this alluring, phantasmagoric story of a clairvoyant secretary working at a secret research facility during WWII. Eighteen-year-old Mildred Groves frequently has strange, dark dreams and visions that she can’t escape. After running away from her home in rural Washington, she joins the Women’s Army Corps and applies for a job at the mysterious Hanford research facility on the Columbia River. Hanford was established to support the war effort, but no one understands what is being made in the large compound. Mildred cautiously tries to keep her head down, making friends and avoiding unwanted attention from male colleagues. However, she’s prone to bouts of sleepwalking and having disturbing visions of skeletons and corpses, which become more ominous when she overhears snippets of information revealing that the facility is processing plutonium for the atomic bomb. Shields incorporates a strong feminist undercurrent, and the constant objectification of and casual workplace violence against the women of Hanford often makes for uncomfortable reading. Unfortunately, narrative suspense will be lessened for readers with basic knowledge of WWII history or the Cassandra myth. There is little redemption in Mildred’s story, a conclusion foreshadowed from the start. With a plucky, charismatic narrator and vivid scenes incorporating the history of a real WWII facility, Shield’s novel digs into the destructive arrogance of war.”

The Heavens by Sandra Newman

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Heavens: “In Newman’s stellar novel (following The Country of Ice Cream Star), a woman’s ability to travel back in time in dreams—specifically, to 16th-century Britain—morphs into a world-altering liability. Kate, an art school dropout living in Brooklyn in 2000, has since childhood entered alternate worlds as she sleeps; but the dreams shift and intensify when, in her 20s, she meets and begins dating Ben, a grounded PhD student. Almost nightly Kate becomes Emilia, a pregnant Italian Jew from a family of court musicians, who escapes plague-ridden London in search of a means to save mankind. When Emilia becomes acquainted with melancholy actor Will, the resulting butterfly effect alters countless details of the present, from the president to the death of Ben’s mother. As Kate’s dream relationship with Will becomes increasingly involved (and hers with Ben twists into something strained and painful) visions of a post-apocalyptic world pepper her thoughts. While the world shifts, Kate must untangle the significance of her dreams and their implications for the future. Newman’s novel expertly marries historical and contemporary, plumbing the rich, all-too-human depths of present-day New York and early modern England, and racing toward a well-executed peak. But it’s the evolution of Kate and Ben’s relationship that serves as the book’s emotional anchor, making for a fantastic, ingenious novel.”

Death Is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Death Is Hard Work: “Khalifa’s novel compellingly tackles the strain of responsibility felt by a man in war-torn Syria. After his father, Abdel Latif, dies in hospital, 40-something Bolbol gathers his estranged siblings Hussein and Fatima and, with the corpse in the back of Hussein’s minibus, sets off from Damascus to honor Abdel’s deathbed wish to be buried alongside his sister in the village of Anabiya. Though the distance is short, the quartet’s quest is frequently interrupted by violence and corrupt military checkpoints, forcing the journey to stretch over days, during which time Abdel’s body bloats beneath its burial shroud. Khalifa (No Knives in the Kitchens of This City) punctuates repetitious roadblocks with segues detailing the histories of all four characters. For example, after taking refuge at the home of a former girlfriend, Bolbol reminisces about his father’s own pursuits of an old flame; and later, Hussein’s teenage abandonment of his parents and siblings crops up while their adult counterparts contemplate the purpose of fulfilling Abdel’s request. The narrative choice to summarize conversation indirectly, rather than placing the dialogue directly on the page, might distract some readers. Nonetheless, the novel is at times harrowing—the family flees wild dogs and faces masked guards—and serves as a reminder of the devastation of war and the power of integrity.”

Rutting Season by Mandeliene Smith

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Rutting Season: “In Smith’s unsettling debut, characters must confront the most basic, animal sides of themselves as they navigate crisis and tragedy, whether it is a husband’s sudden death, workplace tension, or a police face-off. In the title story, Carl’s boss Ray is constantly giving him a hard time, and one incident in front of Ray’s work crush may be the final straw. ‘The Someday Cat’ and ‘You the Animal’ make for an intriguing pair of stories—though they both center on the same climactic moment, they are told from two opposing viewpoints. In ‘The Someday Cat,’ Janie’s siblings are being put up for adoption one by one, and so her mother brings home a kitten to placate the children who are left. In ‘You the Animal,’ readers meet Jared, who’s about to be married and on the verge of quitting his job at the Department of Children and Families, which is where readers learn there’s something a little more sinister at play at Janie’s house. At their best, Smith’s characters skate the razor-thin line of brutality in a way that’s both chilling and compelling, although secondary characters too often come across as one-dimensional. Still, this collection proves Smith is an uncommonly talented writer with a particularly sharp eye for the serrated edge of human nature.”

Northern Lights by Raymond Strom

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Northern Lights: “Strom’s challenging debut follows recent high school graduate Shane’s roundabout search for his mother. When his uncle kicks him out of the house in the summer of 1997, Shane goes looking for his mother, who abandoned him years before. He tracks her to the small, rust belt town of Holm, Minn., where the locals react suspiciously to his androgynous looks and long hair. He falls in with erratic drug dealer J and angry, spiteful Jenny, who introduce him to increasingly serious drugs. When not getting high with them, Shane incurs the unbidden wrath and terrifying threats of wannabe Klansman Sven Svenson and pursues a confusing sexual relationship with Russell, who only seeks Shane out when drunk. Despite Shane’s plans to leave Holm in the fall for college, he becomes attached. When he finally gets a lead on his mother’s whereabouts and leaves town to pursue it, Jenny’s desperate measures to help her drug-addled mother lead to horrifying consequences. Strom’s insightful navigation of family trauma, sexual identity, and small-town despair blends with his chilling depictions of drug abuse. This bleak, unsentimental novel will resonate with readers who like gritty coming-of-age tales.”

Also on shelves: Nothing but the Night by Stoner author John Williams.

Post-Apocalypse Now: The Hard Work of Cli-Fi

Climate change is here. Trees are dead and dying, insects and songbirds are disappearing, wildlife has declined by 60 percent, glaciers worldwide are melting and ice sheets are collapsing, and weather patterns are shifting.
What will our future look like? How fast and for how long will things change? Are we mentally and physically prepared to deal with the impacts of these changes on our communities and socioeconomic structures?
In 2017, David Wallace-Wells wrote an article for New York magazine called “The Uninhabitable Earth.” He outlined the absolute worst-case scenario for climate change problems across the globe, including forest loss, sea level rise, changes in ocean currents, species loss, and more. At the time, he was vilified for overstating his case and misrepresenting the science—which he didn’t—though others argued that he had started an important conversation needed to avoid climate disaster.
Since Wallace-Wells was writing for a public audience, many people—readers unlikely to pick up a scientific journal—got his message, and they took it to heart.
Scientists themselves are also addressing the “what will happen” and “are we prepared” questions from a different angle: scenario development. They have teamed up with social scientists to derive plausible future scenarios based on both predictions of physical earth parameters (e.g., temperature, precipitation, biodiversity, wildlife, human populations), and how social scientists and humanities researchers think society will respond to those changes (e.g., economic, migration, political). In an interview with the LA Review of Books, seismologist Lucy Jones notes that the key question facing a post-disaster society is whether humans band together in communities to help each other or look out for themselves at the expense of others.
We don’t need more data to prove that climate change is a problem. Instead, we need to show people what life will look like under current and future climate-change conditions, and to share ideas about how to mitigate those conditions. We know that people are more likely to absorb information from stories than from data and lectures. Thus, like scientists collaborating with social scientists, authors of post-apocalyptic literature also apply scenarios to create analogues for our potential future, in the same way that George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale are used as analogues for the current political climate.
Post-apocalyptic novels such as Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Eric Barnes’s The City Where We Once Lived, Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus, and Sherri L. Smith’s Orleans could potentially prepare us for a future following either ecological and social collapse and/or a global pandemic. But how well do these books portray that future, and is that future realistic enough to engage readers after they’ve finished reading, to persuade them do something about adapting to and reducing the severity of climate change?
1. The Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
This 2000 classic depicts California in the mid-2020s, where rain occurs only once every six years, and the country is falling apart both economically and socially. Residents live in walled and gated communities to protect themselves from the outside world, but protagonist Lauren knows they won’t be safe forever. As she teaches herself survival skills and caches an emergency bag, she is also pulling together her thoughts on a new philosophy of life called Earthseed. When her neighborhood is breached and her family is killed, she escapes with two of her neighbors to join the hundreds of people walking north on the main highways. Despite the dangers (drug addicts, thieves, slavers, etc.), Lauren gathers a group of trusted people with her as she walks, and shares Earthseed with them.
While the dangers of the post-apocalyptic world are clear, this is ultimately a hopeful book. Lauren has hope in humanity, which is why she connects with people on the road, helping them instead of isolating herself from them. However, Lauren is also a realist, and she and her group protect their own as necessary. The key is in deciding who is a threat and who might be an asset. Their group represents a diversity of ethnic backgrounds, giving them strength in numbers. The ideas of Earthseed also bring these travelers together and help them build a community they might not have otherwise.


2. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
This allegorical tale doesn’t necessarily give us a practical understanding of how to exist in a future world, but instead provides multiple thought experiments for readers to consider how they might behave in a similar situation.
Like Homer’s Odyssey, The Road follows a man and his son on their travels. Except they’re not traveling by ship, but by foot towards the coast, across a devastated, dead landscape that is permanently cold and either raining or snowing ash. It isn’t clear if theirs is a world stripped by nuclear winter, volcanic eruptions, or constant wildfires.
The world of The Road wasn’t made for children. In their travels, the child and his father meet characters who challenge their pre-apocalypse morals and values, and graphically illustrate to the boy what is required to survive. He finds it difficult to make sense of a world in which his father says there are good people out there, while also ignoring or killing the people they meet.
The father often returns to his memories, which is how readers learn his wife killed herself because she couldn’t bear this life anymore. This memory—plus other events—make the reader reconsider what makes life worth living. “[The father] thought about his life but there was no life to think about…”
Why do they keep walking in such a dead world? How do you raise a child in such a world? What lessons is the father teaching his son—not just with his words, but by his very actions? What morals and values will you have to change or set aside to survive in such a world?
3. The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
Hig is a small-engine pilot and Bangley is a munitions expert. They live in an abandoned airport that they’ve set up to defend from marauders. The world has been emptied of people by a flu pandemic, followed by a blood disease that kills most people and leaves those who survive in quarantine. Climate change is also a problem, with minimal winter snow pack, low summer streamflows, hot summers, and animal extinctions.
Hig and Bangley represent opposite sides of a community: Hig is more likely to talk to a stranger and try to build a relationship, while Bangley is more likely to shoot first, as he believes it’s every man for himself. As Higs says, “Follow Bangley’s belief to its end and you get a ringing solitude. Everybody out for themselves, even to dealing death, and you come to complete aloneness.”
Following the death of his dog, Hig finds himself increasingly lonely and decides to fly to the last airport from which he heard a transmission several years ago. On his way there, he discovers a woman, Cima, and her father living off the land in a box canyon far from the main roads. Here the book takes on an Edenic tone: the one man on earth finds the one woman on earth and they get together.
Like The Road, The Dog Stars asks hard questions about what you need to do to stay alive, and about what is enough to keep a person content and happy. How do you justify killing people who had planned to attack you first? How do you engage with a community of people under quarantine instead of avoiding them as most people would? How do you reconcile the memories of your previous life with this entirely different, unexpected and unplanned life? It suggests that in a post-apocalyptic world, you take what you can get or go without.
4. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Station Eleven is rich in the connections it makes between far-flung people and their past and present lives. The narrative switches between the present—20 years after the Georgia flu has wiped most of the population off the Earth—and the past, in the years prior to the flu outbreak. It centers on a group called The Symphony, a travelling caravan that brings music and Shakespearean theatre to the many communities that have sprung up around the Great Lakes in the wake of the pandemic.
In the present, the world has largely returned to a peaceful state. There are small settlements in places where people decided to stop walking and make homes. People hunt, grow gardens, and make their own bread. Life has not returned to what it was, but to something that most people can manage. In this case, community rather than individuality is the key for survival.
Station Eleven offers tips for dealing with the aftermath of an apocalypse. Stay put for some time before you start moving, to allow for some of the violence to die down. Move out of urban areas and into rural areas where it’s easier to hunt and grow food. Connect with like-minded people and settle in groups. Parse out work so everyone has a task and things get done. Most of all, have compassion for other people. Remember that everyone has their own set of haunting memories. As one of the characters says, “…doesn’t it seem to you that the people who have the hardest time in this—this current era…the world after the Georgia Flu—doesn’t it seem like the people who struggle the most with it are the people who remember the old world clearly?…The more you remember, the more you’ve lost.”
5. The City Where We Once Lived by Eric Barnes
This book is somewhat allegorical—the characters have no names, and are instead defined by their occupation: the writer, the gardener, the minister, the scavengers, the pressman, etc. They live in the North end of a city that has been largely cut off from the South—it was the southerners who decided to separate from the North, which they saw as dangerous and broken. Rather than see the value in the community the North has created, a political commissioner says “it is places like this and people like you that distract us from the work we should really be doing. The support of good people and good places, that’s what we should be providing.”
This narrative represents an example of community over individuality: For the several hundred people living in the North, there is no violence, looting, or stealing. The North has a sense of calm, quiet order. People take what they need where they can find it and leave the rest in its place. The irony is that people in the South imagine the North is a lawless place where violence is rampant and survival difficult. But readers are still faced with tough questions. What is your “capacity for violence?” How do you keep living in a city where all your family has died? How do you motivate yourself to get up every day and have a purpose?
6. Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins
In Gold Fame Citrus, climate change has reduced western water supplies to a few small reservoirs that are guarded around the clock. The landscape west of the 100th meridian is completely arid, and a massive dune complex called the Amargosa Dune Sea has formed in the interior of the continent.
The main characters leave the California coast for a community they’ve heard exists at the southern edge of the Amargosa. Ultimately, the female protagonist ends up in this community, which is a cult run by a charismatic, polygamous leader to whom all community members must submit. He claims to find water in the desert via dowsing, when he’s really raiding Red Cross caravans to steal water and food. As Watkins writes, “It seemed possible, as he spoke, that his words might summon thunderheads, that his voice might bring rain.” This novel reminded me of Mad Max: Fury Road, where the keeper of the water is also a keeper of women, and where the leader chases away undesirables by forcing them into an arid and deadly landscape.
This book also asks hard questions: How do you trust people after the apocalypse? How do you decide whether to stay or to go? How does a country manage climate migrants? Is looting ever justifiable? How do you reconcile the person you were before the apocalypse with the person you are now? How do you build up mental fortitude to survive these new times?
7. Orleans by Sherri L. Smith
Smith’s novel is set in a southern United States that was hammered by seven major hurricanes—beginning with Katrina in 2005 and ending with Jesus in 2019. In the aftermath of the hurricanes, death and disease—particularly Delta Fever—are widespread. In 2025, the U.S. government withdraws from Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, and Georgia, and builds a wall to keep southerners and Delta Fever out.
The people (mostly of color) left in the south organize into tribal units based on blood type, as Delta Fever affects people of each blood type differently. It is 2056 when protagonist Fen de la Guerre delivers her tribal chief’s newborn daughter during an unexpected raid on their camp. After the Chief dies in childbirth, Fen must decide what to do with the baby. Dodging blood harvesters, members of other tribes, and an old friend who has betrayed her, she finds an unlikely ally in a northerner named Daniel Weaver, who has crossed the Wall illegally in an attempt to cure the Delta Fever. He is ultimately the last hope for the baby girl, and she sells her intricately braided hair to help save him.
Smith’s book explores the lengths that people will go to survive in a hostile environment, and the importance of building communities to support and protect each other. It portrays peoples’ adaptability in the face both of natural and man-made disasters and it shows how government misinformation spreads.
Ultimately, post-apocalyptic fiction pushes us to the extreme, to the worst-case scenario, just like Wallace-Wells’s New York magazine piece. It forces us to consider how far we’ll go to stay alive, how much we’ll sacrifice, and what we’ll do. Are you willing to steal or to fight if necessary? To kill if necessary?  This type of fiction shows us how society might organize itself—from every person for themselves (The Road, The Dog Stars), to small self-contained and interconnected communities (The Parable of the Sower, Station Eleven, The City Where We Once Lived, Orleans), to cult-like communities run by charismatic would-be prophets (Gold, Fame, Citrus; Station Eleven). But post-apocalyptic fiction also gets us off the hook when it comes to climate change and social breakdown. In these books, the apocalypse has already happened and there’s nothing we can do about it. The flu pandemic has wiped out the population, climate change has completely altered the earth, the city has been abandoned, society has fallen into ruin, the nuclear winter is upon us. We are tasked only with surviving these conditions—not with preventing them.
If we focus only on the apocalypse, aren’t we, in effect, accepting that climate change can’t be stopped? That millions of people worldwide are doomed to climate injustice? As Kathleen Dean Moore writes in Great Tide Rising, “The burdens of climate change—hunger and thirst, poisoned air and water, inundation, disruption, and wars—are imposed disproportionately on the world’s poorest communities and those that are the least responsible for its effects.”
In October of 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a special climate change report. Their tone was uncharacteristically urgent, giving us only 10 to 12 years to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Right now, the global temperature is already 1°C warmer than it was in pre-industrial times, and we’ve already seen the impacts: hurricanes, wildfires, flooding. To prevent significant future change, we’ll have to maintain a temperature increase of only 1.5°C. Unfortunately, there is only a small likelihood we’ll meet that goal—instead we’ll likely end up with a temperature that is 2.0°C warmer than in pre-industrial times. The difference between 1.5 C and 2°C might seem small, but it has major impacts on global climate—particularly because it sets off feedback loops built into the climate system due to the reflectivity of sea ice and snow cover, the impacts of forests and wildfire on the carbon cycle, and the increasing acidity of warming oceans and their impacts on corals/shelled organisms.
We need literature that bridges the space between the present and the apocalypse. That considers the immediate future and the hard decisions that must be made to avert, or at least minimize, disaster. This is where a new genre called climate fiction—aka cli-fi—comes in. By writing novels about ongoing climate change and other environmental disasters, cli-fi allows us to explore what the near future might hold.
Books like Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior (about climate change), and Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 (about rising sea levels), and Omar El Akkad’s American War (about civil war, race relations, and climate) paint a picture of what our not-so-distant future may hold.
The apocalypse may be coming—and authors have envisioned it for us in many different ways—but its actual shape depends on the actions we take in the here and now, before the end of days.

Image: Unsplash/Dikaseva

Family Stories and Folktales: Sarah Moss’s Fiction Digs Deep

In an early scene from Sarah Moss’s newest novel, Ghost Wall, the teenage narrator notes one of many logical holes in her family’s unconventional vacation: “Within days, our feet would wear a path through the trees to the stream, but that first night there was moss underfoot, squashy in the dim light, and patches of wild strawberries so ripe and red they were still visible in the dusk, as if glowing.” Silvie and her parents have joined a university archaeology class to reenact Iron Age life in the Northumberland countryside, but even as they return to an earlier era, they’re making their own contemporary marks on the landscape. She rarely dares to point such details out, however, especially in the presence of her father, a bus driver who independently studies the pre-Roman history of Britain.

Of course, that description itself makes little sense; modern concepts of “Britain” and “Britishness” have little in common with their ancient counterparts, as the archaeology professor condescends to remind Silvie’s father during a discussion of Hadrian’s Wall. “Dad didn’t like this interpretation,” she observes. “He wanted his own ancestry, a claim on something, some tribe sprung from English soil like mushrooms in the night.” Silvie’s asides gently illustrate the impossibility of experiencing the Iron Age through present-day camping: she and her family continue to use toothbrushes and tampons; they wear uncomfortable tunics with no historical backing other than the assumption that Iron Age people must have been uncomfortable; they gather food in a landscape entirely different from that of the ancient Britons, with little of the knowledge they would have possessed. At one point, Silvie sullenly thinks that if they wanted to get truly technical, men like her father and the professor wouldn’t even have lived to their current ages.

Moss’s simultaneously taut and supple writing allows for many truths to coexist in the narrative. Silvie recognizes the absurdity of their undertaking, but also that there’s nothing absurd about wanting a closer connection to nature—she can grumble, but she’ll appreciate the glowing strawberries along the way. And her father’s instinct to select the elements of history that support his chosen narrative, although transparent and destructive in his case, hardly makes him unique. Humanity as a whole can’t resist telling stories in a sometimes futile, sometimes noble attempt to frame life, to somehow contain it.

Ghost Wall, published on Jan. 8 by FSG, is a tense, nimble novel. But given that it’s Moss’s seventh book, and only the first to be released by a major U.S. publisher (two of her earliest were released in lovely editions by Counterpoint Press), American readers could be forgiven for having overlooked this eloquent British writer. Her backlist includes five other novels—Cold Earth (2009), Night Waking (2011), Bodies of Light (2014), Signs for Lost Children (2015), and The Tidal Zone (2016)—as well as a memoir, Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland (2012), recounting her year teaching in Reykjavik.

For Adam, the narrator of The Tidal Zone, the story he tells himself is that his daughter will be all right. Miriam, age 16, collapses with no warning at school, and doctors can’t determine whether or not it will happen again. “It was important to tell people,” Adam reflects, part frantic, part despondent. “To let people know that this can happen: your child’s body can stop. Stop breathing, stop beating … I needed to tell people that the world was not as they believed it to be.” A stay-at-home father, Adam struggles to return to the cycles of everyday life now that he understands the certainty of those cycles to be illusion; as long as Miriam lives, they can never be sure that she’ll stay alive. Moss’s portrait of parenthood is equally tender and blunt, with Adam both cherishing and ruing the endless laundry, cooking, and pick-ups that define his life as a father.

Relationships between parents and children feature prominently in most of Moss’s work, and even the best of these relationships are never idealized. Night Waking is a particularly honest look at the contradictory emotions experienced by parents of young children, with Anna (another first-person narrator) attempting to raise two boys and reenergize her stalled career without any meaningful support from her husband. At one point she openly admits, “I don’t like motherhood and you don’t find that out until it’s too late. Love is not enough, when it comes to children. Bad luck.” Snippets of Moss’s memoir, Names for the Sea, although lacking this kind of pessimism, echo her characters’ struggles, like her offhand mention that she hasn’t visited Iceland’s National Gallery because she’s “vicariously traumatized by [her husband’s] account of trying to take the children there on a day when they didn’t like each other.” Parenthood means nothing is simple anymore—sleeping, preparing to leave the house, finding time to work. For every adorable interaction with your child, there’s an infuriating one.

We see the other side of this dynamic in Bodies of Light, her first foray into historical fiction (and, along with its sequel, Signs for Lost Children—her only novels in third person). Here we inhabit the perspective of a girl who knows that her mother has never enjoyed raising her. Growing up in 1860s Manchester, Ally fears her mother’s tight-lipped displeasure and fanatical austerity. Through some fate of personality, her sister, May (whose letters appear as historical artifacts in Night Waking), remains untouched by this same disapproval, even as Ally strives for the love and affirmation she’ll never be given. This is my favorite book from Moss; as insightful and funny as her contemporary work is, her Neo-Victorian novels showcase how feathery her authorial touch can be. Signs for Lost Children, the richest and most complex of her books, continues Ally’s story after she becomes one of Britain’s first female doctors, and offers one of the most generous passages I’ve ever read of a child reassessing a parent. When her friend, Annie, claims that “the politics of women’s pay” doesn’t absolve Ally’s mother of parental negligence, Ally mentally replies:
There is no separation between what Annie calls the politics of women’s pay and the formation of women’s minds. Mamma was trained to philanthropy, not to a professional life. Mamma was taught to set no price or value on her own time and effort, to understand her own labours merely as the justification of her existence … It is not as if Mamma had the choices, or indeed the Dutch rubber device, available to Ally. Mamma also is a creature of circumstance, of history and location, as are we all. Mamma works, Ally sees, because she does not believe that she deserves to live.
Signs for Lost Children is also a novel of separation, with Tom, Ally’s new husband, traveling for temporary engineering work in Japan. Their early longing for each other slowly transitions to remoteness, and Tom grapples with the foreigner’s paradox: feeling gauche and childlike in a new culture at the same time that he experiences a growing estrangement from his own. Clearly, Moss’s time in Iceland, and the probing, self-deprecating way she frames her own foreignness, filter into her fiction. The same can be said for her fascination with cultures of the north Atlantic. In addition to her Icelandic memoir, and her academic nonfiction on Arctic exploration, Night Waking, is set in the Hebrides, and her debut, Cold Earth, takes place on an archaeological dig in Greenland.

These isolated locations appear by turns peaceful and forbidding, both graced and haunted by their histories. This is never truer than in Cold Earth, where an international team assembles for a four-week dig and begins sensing strange forces around their campsite. Reports of an epidemic in the wider world leave them worried they’ll be stranded with winter approaching, making this the most suspenseful of Moss’s backlist. But it’s the musings on the uncertainties of archaeology that shine in this otherwise uneven novel. “Archaeology is reading, just earth rather than text. And you could argue there’s less slippage reading words than land,” claims a lit student on the dig. “It does have a scientific grounding, you know,” counters another character. “There is a legitimate claim to objectivity. History only tells you what the people who wrote it want you to know.”

History, legends, folktales, family stories—these slippery, inescapably human constructs form the spine of Moss’s work. Therein lies one of the brilliant aspects of her writing: she herself feels driven to create stories, to capture life in narratives, even as she deconstructs this same drive in her characters. Ghost Wall, in its artistry and timeliness, is the perfect place to start. Here’s hoping that its publication will bring more readers on this side of the pond to the rest of her cerebral, moving work.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring James, Li, Wang, McCracken, Bolaño, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Marlon James, Yiyun Li, Esmé Weijun Wang, Elizabeth McCracken, Roberto Bolaño, and more—that are publishing this week.

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

Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Black Leopard, Red Wolf: “Booker winner James (A Brief History of Seven Killings) kicks off a planned trilogy with a trek across a fantastical Africa that is equal parts stimulating and enervating. Centering on the search for a lost boy, the plot is relatively straightforward, though the narrator, Tracker, moves his story obliquely ‘as crabs do, from one side to the next.’ Tracker is a ‘hunter of lost folk,’ an ornery loner with an extraordinary nose that lets him pick up the scent of his quarry from miles away. Along with several other mercenary hunters, he is hired by a slave trader to find a kidnapped boy, though who the boy is and why he is so valuable are mysteries to Tracker. Storytelling is a kind of currency in this world, as people measure themselves not only by their violent feats but also by their skill in recounting them, and they have plenty of material: giants, necromancers, witches, shape-shifters, warring tribes, and unspeakable atrocities. Indeed, there is a narrative glut, which barely lets readers acclimate to a new, wondrous civilization or grotesque creation before another is introduced. It’s altogether overwhelming, but on the periphery of the novel are intriguing ideas about the performance of masculinity, cultural relativism, kinship and the slipperiness of truth. Though marred by its lack of subtlety, this is nonetheless a work of prodigious imagination capable of entrancing readers.”

Where Reasons End by Yiyun Li

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Where Reasons End: “This heart-wrenching experimental novel from Li (The Vagrants) is framed as a dialogue between a writer and Nikolai, the teenage son she lost to suicide. The novel’s title comes from a poem by Elizabeth Bishop, and poetry is very much on the narrator’s mind, along with Alice in Wonderland and Wallace Stevens, as the freewheeling conversation turns toward such subjects as semantics, memory, the mechanics of grief, and a love that is ‘made not to last.’ Notably absent is a full reconstruction of her son’s suicide (this isn’t that kind of book), though readers do get to hear the voice of Nikolai—a precocious poet, painter, and oboist. During a conversation with her son, the mother wonders, ‘What if we accept suffering as we do our hair or eye colors?’ Like Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking or Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, Li’s novel tries to find a language to reckon with the unspeakable reality of death. The novel succeeds in Li’s approach of skirting the subject in favor of something between the dead’s nostalgia for life and regular small talk. This is a unique, poignant, and tender evocation of life as touched irrevocably by death.”

The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Collected Schizophrenias: “In this penetrating and revelatory exploration, novelist Wang (The Border of Paradise) shows how having a bipolar-type schizoaffective disorder has permeated her life. Stating that ‘my brain has been one of my most valuable assets since childhood,’ she writes with blunt honesty about striving to be seen as ‘high functioning,’ aware that ‘the brilliant facade of a good face and a good outfit’ drastically affects how she is perceived. She explains her decision not to have children, while recalling time spent working at a camp for bipolar children, and muses about viewing her condition as a manifestation of ‘supernatural ability’ rather than a hindrance. Wang invariably describes her symptoms and experiences with remarkable candor and clarity, as when she narrates a soul-crushing stay in a Louisiana mental hospital and the alarming onset of a delusion in which ‘the thought settles over me, fine and gray as soot, that I am dead.’ She also tackles societal biases and misconceptions about mental health issues, criticizing involuntary commitment laws as cruel. Throughout these essays, Wang trains a dispassionate eye onto her personal narrative, creating a clinical remove that allows for the neurotypical reader’s greater comprehension of a thorny and oft-misunderstood topic.”

Spirit of Science Fiction by Roberto Bolaño

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Spirit of Science Fiction: “This striking, meandering novel from Bolaño (2666), written toward the beginning of his career, follows the coming-of-age of two young writers in Mexico City. Aspiring writers Jan and Remo get an apartment together. Jan spends his days holed up in the apartment, reading books and penning letters to sci-fi authors he admires, such as Ursula K. Le Guin and Fritz Leiber. Jan’s solitude is contrasted by Remo’s social jaunts around the city: he joins a poetry workshop, falls in love with a young woman named Laura, and rides a motorcycle. Remo’s involvement in the city’s literary scene exposes the reader to a number of digressive stories (one particularly memorable aside features Georges Perec unwittingly defusing a duel between poets Isidore Isou and André Vernier in Paris). Meanwhile, the reader also sees Jan’s searching letters, scattered throughout: ‘Oh, Ursula, it’s actually a relief to send out messages and have all the time in the world,’ he writes. Though more a collection of scenes and impressions and thinner than his other novels, this is an intriguing and dreamy portrait of two writers taking different paths in their pursuit of their love of literature, hoping to discover their voices.”

Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Bowlaway: “McCracken’s stellar novel (after Thunderstruck) opens at the turn of the 20th century with Bertha Truitt being discovered unconscious in a cemetery in little Salford, Mass., seemingly having fallen from the sky. Bertha is middle-aged, plump, and enjoys the absence of a corset, but in spite of her unprepossessing appearance, she initiates a love affair with Leviticus Sprague, the doctor who revives her at the cemetery. The two marry and have a daughter, Minna. Townspeople, meanwhile, find Bertha charismatic; they begin to dream about her and to credit her with magical powers. With fierce determination, she establishes a bowling alley that uses newfangled candlepins, a game that she (falsely) claims to have invented. Bertha’s loving family completes her happiness before a freak accident (McCracken is a pro at inventing such surprises) derails her plans. Almost everyone—Joe Wear and Virgil, LuEtta and Jeptha, Nahum and Margaret—with whom Bertha has come in contact mystically finds himself or herself in love; often the catalyst is the bowling alley, where they meet. Loss is as prevalent as love, however, and the whims of fate cast a melancholy tinge on characters’ lives. The bowling alley itself is almost a character, reflecting the vicissitudes of history that determine prosperity or its opposite. McCracken writes with a natural lyricism that sports vivid imagery and delightful turns of phrase. Her distinct humor enlivens the many plot twists that propel the narrative, making for a novel readers will sink into and savor.”

All My Goodbyes by Mariana Dimópulos

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about All My Goodbyes: “Argentina’s Dimópulos debuts in English with this impressionistic account of a young woman’s ‘pilgrim years’ of itinerancy. The narrator leaves Buenos Aires at 23, proclaiming, ‘being useful is no use to me.’ For the next 10 years, she drifts through Spain and Germany, repeatedly falling in love but always finding a reason to keep moving. In Heidelberg, she charms a student with her knowledge of the Latin names of plants, and in Berlin, she rooms with a trauma therapist before abandoning her, broken-hearted, to run off with a globe-trotting businessman whom she’d first met roaming the beach in Málaga. Once back in Argentina, the narrator moves to a farm in the shadow of the Andes and begins a passionate affair with Marco, its proprietor. With him she begins ‘predicting a life for myself; for real this time, this time forever.’ That is, until he is brutally murdered. As more scandalous details surrounding Marco’s death emerge, however, the appeal of avoiding commitment, no matter how immature, becomes harder to ignore. ‘We know from our hydrogen and our oxygen that we are water as well as dust,’ Dimópulos writes. ‘And water runs.’ Dimópulos boldly abandons chronology in this novel, offering instead brief, interweaving glimpses of her narrator’s relationships to create a fascinating kaleidoscope of regret.”

The Hundred Wells of Salaga by Ayesha Harruna Attah

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Hundred Wells of Salaga: “A Gonja king’s daughter and her slave pursue love, power, and freedom amid the dawning of colonialism in late-19th-century West Africa in Attah’s illuminating if overstuffed debut. Wurche, the daughter of Etuto, ruler of Salaga, accepts a political marriage to solidify Etuto’s power in advance of a war with two rival kingdoms. Etuto is victorious, but when he refuses Wurche’s advice about the encroaching Germans and British, she spitefully seeks out an affair with a reluctant slave trader named Moro. Meanwhile, Aminah, a commoner, is enslaved by raiders and sold to a sexually abusive farmer who in turn sells her to Wurche at a Salaga market. Attah’s attention to historical detail, extending from her characters’ diets to the wide diversity of cultures she captures, is impressive, though it’s too often swept aside by the torrent of events she describes. Wurche flees her suddenly abusive husband for Moro, but his growing attraction to Aminah complicates matters, as does Aminah’s desire to buy her freedom. Once Wurche learns that the Germans intend to capture Salaga and resolves to warn Etuto, the reader wonders if this fusion of romantic entanglement and geopolitics needs more pages than this slim volume has. Still, Attah’s exceptional research of the era shines through, making for a convincing historical novel.”

The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Age of Light: “Scharer’s stellar debut chronicles the tumultuous working and romantic relationships of photographer Man Ray and model-turned-photographer Lee Miller in early 1930s Paris. As as an older woman living on a farm in East Sussex, Lee contemplates an assignment to write about her time with Man. Scharer intersperses her memories of that era with the grim but satisfying later years of being a WWII photographer. The years during and after the fall of Hitler led to her most important work, but also to a drinking problem. These scenes are juxtaposed against her hope-and-love-filled initial years in Paris, where she meets the older Man at a party and later convinces him to take her on as an apprentice. Man nurtures her talent as a photographer but also proves himself possessive and controlling, both as a lover and as a mentor. It becomes clear that he and his circle of famous artists ultimately don’t take women’s work seriously, prompting Lee to betray him. When Man guts her by submitting her photography under his name for a prize, she exacts revenge via another project he wanted to take from her and brings matters to a head. Scharer’s brilliant portrayal of the complicated couple features a page-turning story and thrillingly depicts the artistic process.”

Hard to Love by Briallen Hopper

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Hard to Love: “Hopper debuts with a smart group of essays on contemporary relationships. A literature scholar, Hopper cultivates a voice that is sophisticated and analytical, but also earnest and eager, and her strongest essays balance these qualities. In ‘Spinsters,’ her treatise on female friendship, she shares fond memories from her life, such as of falling asleep to a friend’s voice on the phone, while decrying how the ‘arbitrary conflation of marriage with the commitments and responsibilities of adult life sometimes turns unmarried people into second-class citizens, while devaluing many necessary kinds of love.’ Hopper also skillfully uses personal anecdote in a piece on how caring for a friend with cancer is both ‘the most adult thing… and the most adolescent thing,’ because it requires negotiating health insurance policies, but also ‘willful wish-fulfillment’ in the periods between treatments. Only rarely is she less successful, as in a disappointingly banal piece on ‘How to Be Single.’ Much more often, she demonstrates how being deeply personal with the people in one’s life can help one to be critically engaged. ‘I think about writing and hoarding together,’ she says, after describing the hoarders in her family, in that ‘so much has to be serendipitously discovered and rediscovered and collected and stored.’ There is some to be passed over in these essays, but there is much more to be discovered.”

The Atlas of Red and Blues by Devi Laskar

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Atlas of Reds and Blues: “Laskar’s stunning debut skillfully tackles hefty topics such as bullying, racism, and terrorism in a mosaic, life-flashing-before-one’s-eyes narrative. Set in 2017 near Atlanta, the novel centers on Mother, an Indian-American woman in her 40s with three daughters and a husband who travels internationally more than he’s at home. One morning, after taking her children to school, Mother is gunned down in her driveway in an unexplained robbery; the narrative is told in discursive segments that jump around in time to present flashes of Mother’s life, all while she lies dying. These short pieces cover her job as a former crime reporter demoted to obituaries; her North Carolina childhood and girlish fascination with Barbie dolls and their tainted concept of beauty; being asked, beginning as a child, where she was from, though she was born in the U.S.; her family’s move to the Atlanta suburbs in an unwelcoming neighborhood where other kids torment her middle daughter and cops often question Mother about her husband’s job. Laskar touchingly shows how Mother just wants to have a normal life with her family and rise above prejudice. Elevated by its roaming structure, this is a striking depiction of a single life.”

Sea Monsters by Chloe Aridjis

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Sea Monsters: “In Aridjis’s ethereal and ruminative second novel (after Book of Clouds), a new wave–loving teenage girl named Luisa, living in Mexico City, impulsively runs away from home with Tomás Román, an exotic and exciting boy she hardly knows. They head for Zipolite, the ‘Beach of the Dead’ in Oaxaca, where Luisa hopes to find a missing troupe of Ukranian dwarves that she believes may be hiding in the area after escaping from a Soviet circus touring Mexico. Enmeshed in precocious Luisa’s inner world, readers follow surreal fantasies and fascinations as she learns to dwell among Zipolite’s population of nudists, beachcombers, hippies, and even a so-called merman while she searches for the dwarves. She also meditates on William Burroughs, Baudelaire, Laurteamont, historical curiosities such as the shipwreck where researchers discovered the mysterious Antikythera Mechanism, and, above all, her favorite bands, including Joy Division and The Cure. The book functions more like a mood piece than a traditional novel, a fitting choice in rendering Luisa and Tomás’s life as runaways. Brilliant in her ability to get inside the head of her young narrator, Aridjis skillfully renders a slightly zonked-out atmosphere of mystery and the mind of a young romantic, resulting in a strange and hypnotic novel.”

Friend of My Youth by Amit Chaudhuri

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Friend of My Youth: “This striking novel from Chaudhuri (A Strange and Sublime Address) tracks a writer by the same name returning to his boyhood home of Bombay for a book reading. This time, the place feels different—it’s after the 2008 terror attack, and his childhood friend Ramu is back in rehab. Amit doesn’t have anywhere to be aside from his reading and running an errand for his family. As he wanders the streets, Amit reflects on why he left Bombay. He scans bookshelves for his work and doesn’t see his titles, forcing him to reconsider his mark on the city. He also thinks about the sacrifices his parents made for his education; his mother had to sell her jewelry after the family fell on hard times. Amit speaks with a working man who recalls his parents from years ago, making him realize though Amit’s parents no longer live in Bombay, they still belong. Without the anchor of seeing Ramu, Amit discovers how tenuous his connection to the past becomes. In this cogent and introspective novel, Chaudhuri movingly portrays how other people can allow individuals to connect their present and past.”

A People’s Future of the United States edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about A People’s Future of the United States: “LaValle (The Changeling) and Adams (The Living Dead) present an outstanding collection written by 25 heavy hitters of speculative fiction, offering dazzling and often chilling glimpses of an uncertain future in which America teeters on the brink. In ‘Calendar Girls’ by Justina Ireland, a young black girl arrested for selling illegal contraceptives must provide abortion transport to the daughter of the senator who criminalized contraception. In ‘Our Aim Is Not to Die’ by A. Merc Rustad, an autistic, nonbinary person struggles to survive an oppressive, technofascist society where each quality that marks them as atypical puts them at risk for being ‘remade’ into the ‘white, male, straight’ ideal. In ‘Riverbed’ by Omar El Akkad, a survivor of American Muslim internment returns to the site of her imprisonment to retrieve her slain brother’s possessions and confront America’s Islamophobic ghosts. Each story builds a plausible extrapolation of the current world, and each character is well drawn. This bold collection is full of hope, strength, and courage, and will be welcomed by readers looking for emotional sustenance and validation of their experiences in a challenging time.”

Also on shelves: Tonic and Balm by Stephanie Allen and Notes From a Black Woman’s Diary by Kathleen Collins.

Biography of a Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel

In retrospect, it’s easy to look at the life and career of John Williams and see a disconnect. Here’s a writer who was in charge of the Association of Writers and Poets, who networked his way into the lit scene through small presses, and who won the National Book Award for his 1973 novel Augustus. He edited Denver Quarterly for years, and his sophomore novel, Stoner—and his career as a whole— has enjoyed a recent word-of-mouth resurgence of interest. How, then, could such a writer view himself as an outsider?

Charles J. Shields notes in his newly released Williams biography, The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel: John Williams, Stoner and the Writing Life, that “readers of histories and biographies have the advantage of knowing the end of the story, but to the person living it, the darkness is all around.” Shields shows readers the insecurity that drove Williams to excellence in his writing career. His determination to succeed as a writer led him to cut corners in his personal and professional lives, to the detriment of himself and others. Through exhaustive research and sharp prose, Shields has composed a portrait of the complicated author and the particular darknesses that drove Williams to write, to overcompensate, to philander, to mansplain.

Shields’s framing device is simple but effective: A woman named Anne Marie Candido answers a grant-funded ad to sort through Williams’s papers, allowing readers to sift through the author’s life as she does. Candido meets him, works with him, warms to him.

Almost immediately, a revelation surfaces: Little John Williams was a living lie. His mother, Amelia, had married a man named George Williams—but he was not John’s father, Amelia revealed when John was 9. John’s true father was John Edward Jewell, who had flipped a parcel of land for cash, and was then robbed and subsequently killed later in the day by a hitchhiker. Or not. Shields reveals that no newspaper account of this killing exists, no proof, despite Amelia’s insistence that she was a widow. Regardless, for little John Williams, “news that he was not the person he thought he was called into question the importance of telling the truth,” a thread that Shields expertly weaves throughout the rest of the biography.

John Williams enjoyed stories of all kinds, often reading magazines with his mother and stepfather around the light of a kerosene lantern. He saw a film adaptation of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities and was smitten by the performance of the dashing Ronald Colman, whose pencil-thin moustache and ascot conveyed a worldliness and authority to the young Texas boy watching in the theater. Williams wrote an eighth-grade essay on Colman’s role as the novel’s Sidney Carton, and was lauded for his work—the first time, Williams later said, he was praised for anything.

Williams applied his aptitude for telling stories to his own life. He enlisted for World War II shortly after his marriage, and was assigned to a small airbase in India, near the Tibetan border. His duty as radioman was harrowing: the C-47 planes Williams flew in didn’t have enough power to elevate above the Himalayas, a terrifying prospect before the addition of winter ice muddied the navigation instruments’ control. Inevitably, Williams was shot down, breaking ribs when the plane fell, and narrowly evading a troop of Japanese soldiers. But, as Shields states, Williams’s name does not appear on any official flight documentation. Williams’s story about being shot down is no doubt based on actual anecdotes from soldiers, and is in that way believable, one of many instances of Williams telling stories to live up to a fictional image of self, referring back to the derring-do of Ronald Colman.

Williams’s marriage (the first of four) didn’t survive the war. He relocated briefly to Key West, then to California, where his mother ailed. While in California, he began pitching publishers with his first novel, Nothing but the Night, and fell into the orbit of Alan Swallow, owner and operator of Swallow Press. The tiny Denver-based operation is easily understandable in punk rock terms: Swallow kept his prices intentionally low to make his product more democratic; he was an advocate of regionalism and didn’t advertise, preferring the books to be found by discerning readers. It was Swallow who urged Williams to enroll at the University of Denver on the potential of Nothing but the Night. Williams was accepted. He became an associate editor of Swallow Press, reading submitted manuscripts from new and established authors.

One of these authors was Yvor Winters, who discussed his philosophy of “practicing rationality in art over feeling” in a Swallow Press release titled In Defense of Reason. This book was especially impactful on Williams, who was impressionably new to academia. Williams fell under the older author’s spell, adapting his anti-Romantic, pro-Renaissance stand. Flush with these newly absorbed ideas about Romanticism, Williams wrote Butcher’s Crossing, in which an East Coast transplant travels to a Wild Western town intent on striking it rich on buffalo hides. His party decamps to a hidden valley full of buffalo, kills them all, and is snowed in for the winter, a possibility they didn’t plan for. They lose all the buffalo hides months later when they return to the town, left abandoned after an overabundance of hides killed demand, and the market.  With context and retrospect, the novel is an attack on the myths about the Wild West, influenced by Winters. Its fate, though, was sealed by a savage panning from The New York Times, which misconstrued the book as a Western, rather than a critique of romanticism about the Wild West.

To cope with the crushing review, Williams threw himself anew into the character he had constructed for himself, modeled after Ronald Colman. Shields says that “By fashioning himself as a cultured, sophisticated loner, like the Hollywood leading man of his youth, Ronald Colman, he restored his self-confidence.” Part of this renewed approach was immersion in the politics of University of Denver’s English department. The faculty was mostly male and operated with a level of misogyny and chauvinism that was sadly typical of the times. Shields pulls no punches in these depictions, later focusing on new faculty member Peggy McIntosh for discussion of the department and its gendered politics. It was McIntosh who coined the phrases “male privilege” and “white privilege” in her published work, and her account of the departmental interactions is a textbook instance of both. Williams is described as boorish and threatened by non-white male colleagues, with no sign of awareness about his behaviors. This narrow view extends to the larger literary scene, which is portrayed as a boys’ club.

Even this privilege could not protect him from scandal. Following the publication of Butchers’ Crossing, Williams pitched a textbook of romantic poetry to publishers, with the ulterior motive of highlighting the lesser-known poet Hulke Greville, on whom Williams had written his dissertation. By stoking Greville’s critical fires, Williams hoped to improve the chances of his dissertation being published. The assemblage of poets, however, was largely cribbed, uncredited, from the scholarship of Yvor Winters. According to Shields, “the overlap was about 80 percent.” Winters was angry about “the lack of attribution, which he believed was deliberate and typical of Williams.” In addition to what amounts to plagiarism, Shields discusses Williams as a textbook example of privilege, stating that “he had taken shortcuts since the beginning of his teaching career,” often delivering lectures culled from the work of his colleagues and passing the work off as his own as he devoted his energies to writing novels. Winters condemned Williams as arrogant, leaving the author again as an outsider.

Despite this, Williams soldiered on, weaving interdepartmental conflicts into the narrative of his own life in Stoner, the campus novel which since his passing has enjoyed a revival of interest. The novel’s titular protagonist continues Williams’s thematic exploration of the perils of romanticism. Like the author, William Stoner grew up on a farm. Through immersion in university life, Stoner is able to dissociate himself from the pastoral backdrop he came up in. Shields says that for Stoner, “language makes it possible for him to reach new consciousness. Words permit reasoning, which can be used to concretize elusive qualities of life.” The novel’s deliberate pace did not find the audience Williams hoped, nor did a rave review from the New Republic, leaving Williams again on the outside looking in.

Despite this, he continued teaching even after his plagiarism scandal. Williams started attending the prestigious Bread Loaf conference in 1968, where he continued networking with authors, adding new members to the literary boys’ club where he sought solace.

Through his Bread Loaf connections, Williams managed to get the rapidly out-of-print Stoner republished by a small press at around the same time as the publication of his novel Augustus, a polyphonic rumination on the titular emperor’s rise and fall. After its publication in 1972, Williams “took up a prominent spot in the English Department office, where he sat all day smoking and drinking coffee, expecting that some of his colleagues would congratulate him.” One of the many strengths of Shields’s biography is the duality with which it may be read: Depending on one’s outlook, Williams’s aggressive need for validation may be as a result of his upbringing—or it may be symptomatic of a typical white male privilege. Shields portrays Williams’s disappointment when things don’t go his way, and through anecdotes about his colleagues, depicts Williams’s seeming lack of metacognition about his position as a tenured professor, his large group of colleagues, even his talent.

One sees both sides of the coin when Augustus wins the National Book Award in 1973. The catch is that the judges couldn’t agree whether the honor should be bestowed on Williams’s book or on John Barth’s Chimera. The deciding panel, flummoxed, simply decided to split the award. Williams embarked on guest lecturer positions across the country. Back in Denver, his accomplishments were ignored by his colleagues because of his drinking, his lack of commitment to students, his philandering. Finally, the college invented an Endowed Chair title for him, asking only that he teach two of three quarters a year. Williams became increasingly less effective as a professor as health problems ravaged his lungs, retiring from teaching in 1985. He died of respiratory failure in 1994 while working on a novel titled The Sleep of Reason.

John Williams assumed a “carefully constructed identity” for himself, an outward projection of a literary swashbuckler like his hero Ronald Colman in A Tale Of Two Cities. Charles J. Shields’s The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel is similarly a tale of two John Williams: the one trying to live up to the fiction of self he invented, and the one oblivious to the fact that this fantasy does not come across in the intended manner.