The Millions Least Anticipated: Post-Coronavirus Fiction

For nearly four weeks now, I’ve been practicing social distancing with my husband, our three kids, and one geriatric dog who can’t hold his bladder. When I’m not homeschooling or making beans or wiping up dog urine, I’ve thought a lot about what kind of art will come out of this crisis. What fiction, specifically.

It won’t all be good.

Below are just a few transmissions from Publishing Future.

Social Distance Warrior Before the global pandemic known as Covid-19 forced her indoors with her cat Bernie, Angela Morales was a passionate community organizer who regularly marched in protests, called her senators, and went online to cancel society’s worst. Now, stuck inside with a crate of wine (thanks, Mom) and a tower of canned food (thanks, Dad), Angela is alternately scared and bored. Before she knows it, she’s engaging daily, then hourly, with her most vicious online troll, the right-wing, Incel member known only as @MarkMAGA. Is it possible, in this crisis, to become friends with your worst enemy? Maybe even more than friends? LOL funny and NSFW sexy, Social Distance Warrior shows us that opposites really do attract, especially when all you’ve got is a modem, a cat, and a steady diet of Spaghetti-O’s.

The Covid-19It’s March 2020 and the coronavirus has swept the country. Citing an abundance of caution, Giles College, a small, elite liberal arts school tucked away in the woods of New Hampshire, sends everyone home. Or almost everyone. Three college freshmen—field hockey teammates Lara and Rachel, along with their friend Manuel—defy the order and hide in the college cafeteria. There, they confess their deepest fears and secrets, have a little fun, and, of course, stress eat…thus gaining “The Covid-19.” But within a week, this once happy-go-lucky alliance begins to falter. When they discover that an enigmatic senior, Fiona F., and her English professor, Dr. Harris, are also hiding out, things take a dark turn. Haunting and delicious, suspenseful and thoughtful, The Covid-19 is The Secret History meets The Art of Fielding meets She’s Come Undone meets Wonder Boys meets The Middlesteins meets Lucky Jim meets The Breakfast Club.

The Spread

From an outdoor market in China’s Wuhan Province, to a purse-stitching factory in Milan, to an elder care facility in the suburbs of Seattle, The Spread follows the coronavirus as it proliferates across the world, caring not for borders or race, only a rapacious need to infect—and connect. This is a sweeping and searing tapestry of a portrait of an infinity pool of a novel about humanity’s vulnerability, penned by one of our greatest contemporary storytellers, where even the virus’s spiky genome is given its own consciousness and rendered in luminous yet mischievous prose. All it takes is this single continent-leaping, genre-bending novel to prove that we are all the same beautiful, fallible species with dirty hands and dirtier saliva. The Spread reminds us that what we’re most susceptible to isn’t disease…but love.

Stay-at-Home Mom

It’s been almost two years since Hannah gave up her career in publishing to raise her daughter, Olive, and three years since she put on anything besides maternity jeans. Her pelvic floor sags like a hammock and she can’t remember the last time she didn’t smell like curdled breast milk or didn’t stay up until two a.m, leaving snarky comments on various Mommy message boards. But all this seems frivolous now that she and her husband, Ben, are quarantined with Olive in their cramped Brooklyn apartment as the coronavirus brings New York to its knees. When Ben isn’t locked in the bedroom making his glitchy conference calls for work, he’s riding anxiety attacks about the state of the world and begging Hannah to don their single dingy surgical mask and gloves to pick up yet another box of Honey Nut Cheerios. With nothing to do but occupy Olive and appease Ben, Hannah feels her sanity crumbling. Then she misses her period. Faced with another possible pregnancy, she can’t stop thinking about the episiotomy she begged for when Olive was born, and which she and Ben are still paying off via their health insurance’s installment plan; how when she masturbates, she can’t get fellow BabyCenter user MomtoMaddox447 out of her head; how Olive looks so much like Ben that Hannah wants to vomit; that sometimes she imagines cutting off her own arms and legs and hoisting her bleeding torso into her rollaway suitcase and zipping it up (with her teeth) and rotting there forever. And how all this is better than her old publishing job where she was regularly expected to kiss the egomaniacal asses of Bookstagrammers who never read the novels they posed next to succulents and mugs of bone broth. What if she contracted coronavirus, just to be alone? What if she went to buy cereal and never came back? In the tradition of Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation and Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State, with a soupçon of Ali Wong’s irreverence and Cardi Bi’s social media sass, Stay-at-Home Mom is an unflinching and pitch-perfect portrayal of motherhood during our biggest contemporary crisis. Ask yourself, are you a good mom?

My Mother and Other Respirators: Stories The sparkling, foaming 12 stories about families struggling during the coronavirus crisis of 2020 shed new light on how family at once soothes and alienates. In “Shelter in Place,” Mac’s Boomer parents insist the global pandemic “will probably just blow over,” and he must grapple with their loosening grip on reality. In “I Love You, Dr. Fauci,” Meredith and her mother bond over the wise words of the disease expert until Meredith realizes her mother is having an affair with another man named Dr. Fauci, a dentist two towns over. In the title story, Darren’s mother is an ER nurse, beloved by many, except Darren himself—off duty, his mom is a real bitch. My Mother and Other Respirators is a stunning debut story collection by a wunderkind author, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a current Stegner Fellow. She was born in 1996, so she is a truly young and nubile voice, pure and virginal, her publishing hymen thoroughly intact. She was in kindergarten when 9-11 happened, so the Covid-19 virus was the first tragedy to really pierce her as an adult and her words about it are refreshing and true and will surely burst onto the scene with elan.

Untitled

This novel is about a writer stuck at home during a global pandemic, trying to find value in made-up worlds and pretty sentences while hospital workers beg for personal protective equipment and the death toll rises exponentially with each passing day. The writer opens the document of the novel she was working on before Covid-19 began to spread across the world. She laughs. Closes it. She opens a new document, cursor blinking.  And blinking. She turns away. Picks up her phone. Bakes some banana bread. Cries. Looks at her phone again. The cursor is still blinking.

Book covers courtesy of Chris Daley and Canva.

Renewable Books Leads Industry with Green Initiatives

Random House parent company Bertelsmann recently announced the admirable goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2030. We here at Renewable Books applaud the initiative, though we would also like to take this opportunity to highlight our revolutionary advancements in eco-publishing.

Renewable Books prides itself on being the greenest publishing house in the world. Our books are printed domestically, we use only post-consumer waste paper, and Greta Thunberg responds affirmatively to 95 percent of our blurb requests. But that’s not all: Renewable’s devotion to the environment extends to all facets of the publishing process.

Our Offices:

Renewable’s Platinum LEED offices boast high-efficiency lighting, appliances, and plumbing, as well as state-of-the-art solar panels. A bike path directly links the downtown light rail station to our courtyard; our decorators only use low VOC paints; and the majority of our energy needs are met by our in-house publicists, who spew the hot air required to power two steam-engine generators.

Our Books:

Renewable Books publishes daring works of literary fiction, environmental noir, and composting erotica.

As we are of the opinion that the current threat posed by climate change more than justifies a principled rejection of copyright law, we actively encourage our authors and editors to recycle plots, characters, and dialogue from previously successful books.

Not Our Books:

While we value and advocate for transgressive literature, we prohibit the following material: scenes in which a car is needlessly idling; plot twists involving GMOs; any expression of lustful feelings for an offshore driller.

Editorial Philosophy:

We at Renewable Books feel that typos, misspellings, and consistency issues are vital components of a sustainable literary ecosystem, and that pencil-wielding humans should in no way tamper with the written word’s thriving biodiversity. This policy has saved us from needlessly printing millions of errata slips over the past decades.

Submissions:

To cut down on paper-wasting correspondence, our editors never confirm that an author’s submission has been accepted, even after the writers come across their published work in a bookstore.

We invite rejected authors to visit our offices, where their tears are funneled into our desalination plant to provide water for drought-stricken communities.

We only consider submissions from free-range, grass-fed writers who are permitted by their employer or MFA thesis adviser to walk outside for several hours a day.

Doing Your Part:

Being part of a green literary community means doing your part. To that end:

Renewable Books encourages readers to enjoy our books on public transport or at home with all the lights turned off.

In an effort to cut down on polluting chemicals and colorants, we have developed a patented ink-conservation technology that prints every other word of the text, omissions that you shouldn’t notice if you take our suggestion to read in the dark.

Review Copies and Blurbs:

Rather than sending galleys across the country, Renewable Books makes one copy of each book available in its offices to pre-qualified local reviewers. We ask critics to refrain from leaving marginalia and not to bother our publicists when they are busy in the steam-engine room.

E-Books:

We do not publish e-books at this time.

Sailing Ahead:

In lieu of 401(k)s, all employees—along with authors who meet certain sales figures—receive guaranteed berths aboard the Proof of Life, a seaworthy printing press built to withstand the coming flood. Sooner or later, she will set sail on the rising oceans, producing timeless works of literature for the end times.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

From Beyond the Grave: Interviews with Dead Authors

We all have a favorite author who is no longer with us. Whether reading a classic or contemporary book, we’re curious about the author—particularly about the deceased and the questions that may forever go unanswered. But what if we were able to ask those questions and perhaps summon answers from the dead? What if the ghosts of these authors had the benefit of hindsight in the age of the internet? Would they answer in their own voices, or in that of a snarky Millennial, someone from the MTV Generation, or even a Yuppie?

To wit: Let’s interview some of the best dead writers and find out what they didn’t reveal in life, what secrets they kept, and what they think of life in 2019.

The Hemingway Buoyancy 

Mark Gottlieb: When a Parisian friend of yours allowed his cats to eat from a table, you were initially disgusted, but later, during your time in Cuba, you became fascinated with cats and kept many of them around. How did you go from a cat-hater to a cat-lover, and what’s with all the seemingly inbred cats that roamed your former Key West home?

Earnest Hemingway: The cats on Key West merely have an extra toe on one or more of their paws. It allows them to grasp things like we do. Polydactyl is the word. A genetic anomaly among some cats. These cats are like other members of my generation that survived the war. Battered and deformed among the lost. That is my affinity for them.

MG: You led a life full of daring adventure, much of which contained many terrible injuries and near-death experiences. Some of your injuries included severe burns, multiple plane and automobile accidents, and head trauma. One injury supposedly saw you mended with kangaroo tendon. This was all preceded by the crushing news of your father’s suicide, where you remarked, “I’ll probably go the same way.” Some have wondered if you always secretly carried a death wish?

EH: My collected injuries put Evil Knievel to shame. Once my wife, Mary, and I were in a plane crash that convinced reporters I was dead. They wrote obituaries. How bizarre that was. It is hard to say if I was pining for my own demise all those years. We found out my father and siblings and I all had hemochromatosis. It’s an iron disorder that can lead to depression and lack of energy. That might have contributed to our deep depressions and suicides. I have to admit I was acting like my father close to my death. Though don’t ask if I’m part kangaroo. I am all man.

MG: Were you really a spy and do you truly think you were being followed by the FBI, or was it just paranoia?

EH: I am sure every Facebook user can relate to my paranoia of being monitored. Soviet intelligence tried to recruit me as “Agent Argo.” They knew I was always DTA—Down To Adventure. That is why I was present at the Normandy landings. Present during the Liberation of Paris. Posing with my trophy kills in Africa. The United States government treated me as a danger to myself and others. The FBI was watching me in New York and tracking me in Idaho. During the Red Scare they even opened a case to investigate my admiration for the Castro government. Too bad I had to leave all my books behind when I fled Cuba.

Have You Seen Emily?

MG: Many have wondered about your reclusiveness. You also avoided attending church later in life. You began wearing all white and carried out most of your social life via correspondence. Why live so much of your life in isolation?

Emily Dickinson: Why the life of isolation? Short answer: People suck. I grew tired of people bombastically declaring their faith in church around me. Long answer: this wild rollercoaster of a ride we call life is sometimes just too much for certain people. We lose many people and things along the way. That is what kept me confined to my bedroom in my later days. I became known as something of a local myth because of it and that drove me further into isolation.

MG: Your poems were heavily edited upon publication mainly to remove all mention of the name of “Susan,” a woman you had an intense friendship with. Had you known, would you have allowed for that? Why were you tucking your poems away in an attic?

ED: I would not have wanted many of my poems published in the first place, let alone edited. It went against my wishes that my life’s work wasn’t destroyed after my death, even if some thought it was for the good of others. I am not even sure poetry can be edited to begin with…

MG: You seemed to be very troubled by death all of your life, even though death is a natural part of life. Where do you feel that might have originated?

ED: Who isn’t troubled by death? It also doesn’t help to have grown up across the street from a graveyard. That would scare any kid and make her highly sensitive to the loss of relatives and loved ones. That was one of the reasons I remained upstairs during my father’s funeral when services were held on the first floor of our home. I left my door ajar for anyone that might need me, but I did not feel the need to be present beyond that. Funerals are for the living.

Missing Agatha

MG: Saying you were a highly prolific is an understatement. Part of what helped you write those 66 novels and 14 story collections, was an unusual writing ritual you had. Care to speak to that?

Agatha Christie: I enjoyed chewing on apples while sitting in a bathtub, dreaming up my next murder mystery novel plot. Talk about food for thought! Come to think of it, munching on apples was also a repetitive task, making for mediation. The bath probably made it more relaxing and easier to think. Our brains don’t just need fuel to write but also mental recalibration afforded by rest and relaxation.

MG: I also understand that you had a penchant for observing people at cafes and restaurants. Not to say that it bordered on voyeurism, but what was behind all of that?

AC: I observed people at cafes and restaurants in order to build my characters more accurately. It is important for writers to get out into the world and observe their surroundings rather than getting stuck in front of a screen all day.

MG: Lastly, though probably most importantly, when your husband Archie asked you for a divorce, you went missing for days. Nothing was found except your clothes and an expired driver’s license near a quarry, resulting in public outcry from the media and a front page article in the New York Times. Where were you all those days before coming back?

AC: The media was cruel. Some went as far as to say that it was an attempt to try and frame my husband. The truth of the matter is that we all later discovered that I suffered from amnesia. At least that is what the doctors had to say. The truth of the matter was that my mother’s death from the previous year, coupled with my husband’s infidelity and overwork from a busy literary career, resulted in something of a mental breakdown. It is cute to see that the 1979 film “Agatha” tried to offer an alternate solution to my disappearance, though…

The Importance of Being Oscar

MG: Believed to be your last words: “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has got to go.” Was the wallpaper in the L’Hôtel, where you spent your final days, really all that bad? Does it make you angrier that the hotel has preserved your room and its wallpaper for tourists to this very day?

Oscar Wilde:  That gallows humor could have come from the mouth of Queer Eye’s Bobby Berk upon his walking into a frat house. You must know it wasn’t just the alcohol talking—prison can really take a toll on a gent. The peacock wallpaper reminded me of a better time in my youth, when I used to decorate my own room with peacock feathers and flowers. And who wants to remember youth when you’re not youthful anymore?

MG: People think Oscar Wilde and they think parties, drinking, social decadence, and enjoying beauty for beauty’s sake. A friend from your literary circle, Reginald Turner, referred to you as the “life of the party.” Many have come to think of you as a lively “agent provocateur,” especially in Victorian times. It almost seems like your last name, Wilde, could have been self-appointed?

OW: I may have lived a wild life, but Wilde is most definitely my surname. Now do I look like Morrisey to you—using wit to mask my social ennui? I aesthetically bare the reality of who I am in an absolutely beautiful way, but then again some might just call that decadent.

What if the conversation didn’t end here? Could we speak to more dead writers? Could we seek bigger answers? We could ask Flannery O’Connor what was up with all her weird peacocks; we could ask Jane Austen for her juiciest piece of gossip. Could we determine if Bukowski really was the antihero of his novels, Henry Chinaski? Or finally figure out if Shakespeare had any help during his highly prolific career?

The main thing is that the important questions get asked. And that we reflect on these classic authors—their lives and their work. Sometimes the questions we ask are more important than the answers we receive.

Image credit: Pixnio/Toper Domingo.

David Shields, Bret Easton Ellis, and the Most Awkward Author Interview in History

On March 28, 2019, Norwegian filmmaker Kristoffer Borgli attempted to interview David Shields at a NORMS Restaurant in West Hollywood, Calif. Later he attempted to interview Shields by a hedge and at a bookshop. Later he attempted to interview Shields and Bret Easton Ellis at the latter’s nearby apartment. Luckily, Borgli’s cameras were rolling, and The Millions is proud to present its readers with what is likely the most awkward author interview in the history of American letters.

Dear Match Book

In her New York Times column “Match Book,” Nicole Lamy “connects readers with book suggestions based on their questions, their tastes, their literary needs and desires.” Some of those questions, tastes, literary needs and desires are stranger than others.

1.Dear Match Book,

I
like sympathetic protagonists who become slightly, but not too, unsympathetic
following some kind of loss, then gradually become sympathetic again while
coping with said loss. Close third-person narration preferred, with some epistolary
bits (email only) judiciously sprinkled in. No second person please! A strong
sense of place is a must, though that place need not be named as long as the
protagonist is—or vice versa.

Dear
Anonymous,

My
advice would be to write this book yourself, and then check back in after it’s
published so l can recommend it to you.

2.Dear Match Book,

I love trilogies: Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War, Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour, and more recently, Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy. My problem is I can’t stand quartets! The very thought of four books in a series—or their readers—makes me physically ill. And yet I’ve heard great things about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. Help!

Dear
Fourth Wheel,

I am terribly sorry to hear about your tetralogical dysfunction, which is barring you off from experiencing the wonders of Ferrante’s Naples and Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria. Has your therapist already suggested breaking the foursomes into two twosomes? (You do have a therapist, right?)

Alternatively, you could try wetting your feet with books with “four” in the title (e.g., Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason’s bibliophile mystery The Rule of Four)? I don’t know. I’m grasping at straws here.

What about Ali Smith’s in-progress Seasonal Quartet? Why don’t you read Winter, Autumn, and the forthcoming Spring, and then pretend that Smith got tired of the project? Next, hole up in a cabin somewhere. After 10 to 15 years, emerge from seclusion, visit a bookstore, and thumb through a copy of Summer. If you don’t retch, you’re cured!  

3.Dear Match Book,

You
up?

Dear
Romeo,

Is this a booty call? If so, this is a first for me at Match Book. I am indeed up, but I’d prefer to keep this professional. I can, however, recommend some saucy books to get you through the night. Philip Roth’s Deception and Nicolson’s Baker’s Vox each are dazzling verbal displays that plumb the depths of desire.

4.Dear Match Book,

I earn $400 a day working from home! Want to learn more? But first, do you have any well-observed family dramas to recommend? I loved the latest Ann Tyler.

Dear
Bot,

Domestic drama has been at the core of literature since Greek tragedy, so there is much to choose from. What about the Eca de Queiros’s 19th-century epic The Maias, which tells of forbidden love in a lively Lisbon? Or for something more contemporary, try Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered, her era-spanning chronicle of two New Jersey families.

I
could think of more, but I’m intrigued by your offer. $400 a day you say? Would
I still have to write this column?
Please advise.

5.Dear Match Book,

A veritable and unrepentant gourmand, I’ve devoured Valerie Luiselli, inhaled Karl Ove Knaussgard, delected Ben Lerner and glutted on Ottessa Moshfegh in the last month alone. I really don’t need a recommendation. I was just writing to communicate how well read I am.

Dear
Voracious Reader,

Barf.

6.Dear Match Book,

Recommending
books is simply a matter of data analysis. For example, with the right
algorithm I could tell you which novel to read based on the kind of paper
towels you buy.

Dear
Bot Book,

You’ll never replace me with a machine, Bezos!

p.s.
Sorry about Queens. And the dick pics.

7.Dear Match Book,

I’m looking for the perfect bathroom read. It doesn’t necessarily have to be thematically related to defecation—though bonus points if it did—just gripping enough to get me through my morning ritual.

Dear Multitasker,

I believe the best time to ingest knowledge is when one is expelling waste. The urbane musings of Joseph Epstein are my favorite companion, but perhaps it’s easiest to tell you what’s in our bathroom here at The Times: Clives James’s Cultural Amnesia, his sharp, sardonic portraits of 20th-century intellectual and artistic figures; Marcel Schwob’s Imaginary Lives, a toilet-friendly collection of mesmerizing biographical vignettes; and The Selected Poems of Kay Ryan, whose whimsical, technically proficient verse helps to move things along, so to speak.

There’s also The Penguin Book of Similes, but that’s in Dwight Garner’s personal stall.

8.Dear Match Book,

I’ve always looked forward to reading the latest from Michael Chabon, whom I believe to be our greatest living author. This is an impossible question, but if you could choose just one masterpiece from his incredible oeuvre, what would it be?

Dear
Michael Chabon,

As I
tell you each week, I am particularly attached to The Yiddish Policeman’s
Union
.

9.Dear Match Book,

We’ve
been hosting a book club on the Victorian novel for several years now. Reading Daniel
Deronda
, Our Mutual Friend, and the Barchester novels has taught us
the indispensability of timeless literature and great friends.

The
problem is I can’t stand one member of the group—let’s call him Uriah. Can you
recommend a “loose baggy monster” that will get him to quit the club?

Dear
(Middle)Marching Orders,

Part of what makes Victorian literature so compelling are its villains, from Alec d’Urberville to Becky Sharpe. Why don’t you try Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White? Embrace your inner Count Fosco to lie, scheme, and gaslight the son of a bitch until the mere sight of a triple-decker sends shivers down his spine.

10.Dear Match Book,

I
recently murdered someone during an unfortunate encounter. I’m coping just
about as well as could be expected and devoting myself to self-care, including
reading literature about the ethics of killing a (former) friend. Any tips?

Dear
Raskolnikov,

N.B. The Times in no way condones murder. Having said that, reading is a great way to begin the healing process. I would start with Albert Camus’s haunting existentialist novel The Stranger. Another book to help you come to terms with your homicidal instincts is Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. And finally, for a more recent novel to help you cope with brutally ending another life, try Oyinkan Brathwaite’s delightful satire My Sister, the Serial Killer.

If
you don’t like these, don’t shoot the recommender! Please, don’t shoot me. I
have a family and a lot of readers dependent on my help.

11.Dear Match Book,

He
was a world-renowned roller-coaster engineer, but he couldn’t control the
precipitous decline of our marriage….

Dear Thrown for a Loop,

Let me stop you right there. I believe this is a “Modern Love” submission that was sent to me in error.

Image credit: Unsplash/Josh Felise.

The Man Who Couldn’t Scan

The poetry community is looking inward after revelations about the treatment of a 34-year-old subject suffering from an extremely rare condition called aprosodia: the total inability to detect poetic meter. The subject’s identity remains undisclosed for privacy reasons, but officials did reveal that he is a college English professor and that his name is trochaic. “It has a nice tripping lilt to it,” said the lead meter scientist at the National Prosody Center, which bills itself as the world’s most stressful workplace.

The NPC had long been aware of the subject’s existence. His high school English teacher queried the center after the otherwise sharp student failed to grasp the basics of iambic pentameter. “The wóods decáy, the wóods decáy and fáll. Da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum. Nothing. He would just stare at me in utter incomprehension,” said the teacher.

The subject learned to fake the ability to scan during his graduate studies, nodding sagely when a classmate pointed out an inverted foot or a cheeky instance of catalexis. And yet, because he could not hear any of the metrical effects described, he began to think of himself as the victim of an elaborate hoax. His psychological state deteriorated, and he was finally admitted to the National Prosody Center after accusing a colleague of communicating with foreign agents via his metrical notation of Elizabethan verse.

A subsequent MRI revealed that the areas of the subject’s brain
that normally lit up during scansion remained completely dark. Over the next
several months, researchers devised an audacious plan to rehabilitate him that pushed
the bounds of prosodical ethics.

First, they tried animal therapy. The subject received daily
visits from Donovan the Dactylic Duck, a waterfowl trained to vocalize in a
distinctive pattern: “Qúack quack quack, Qúack quack quack.” He enjoyed these
visits but consistently failed to replicate Donovan’s dactyls on a decoy.

Next, NPC researchers attempted sleep deprivation therapy,
locking the subject in a padded room while piping in Anglo Saxon verse day and
night. By the third morning, he seemed to be grasping the basics of the
alliterative-stress meter, but the experiment had to be suspended after he attacked
an orderly he thought was Grendel’s mother. (“A brief caesura until his visions
subside,” a NPC spokesperson noted.)  

The subject was then put on a diet of limericks, the restorative effects of anapestic trimester being well documented. Indeed, he gave researchers hope when he appeared to have correctly identified a pyrrhic foot, but subsequent tests revealed it to have been a lucky guess. (“An ultimately hollow victory,” admitted a NPC spokesperson.)

Stymied, the brass decided to bring in its heavy hitter: U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith. She saw it as her mission not only to spread the love of poetry to the general public, but also to beat the principles of poetic stress into any and all. Meeting the subject in the NPC’s boxing ring each morning, Smith demonstrated flawless pugilistic and poetic technique in pummeling the refractory denier with virtuosic combinations of weak and strong punches—all according to the strictures of various meters.

Preliminary results were promising, as the daily lessons appeared to be penetrating the subject’s thick skull. However, Smith took things too far in one sparring session when, feeling she was nearing a breakthrough, she unleashed a hard thud of a spondee that knocked him senseless.

This time the AMA intervened, calling a halt to any future experiments. Furthermore, the ACLU declared that even mentioning the metrical complexities of Hopkins’s sprung rhythm within the patient’s earshot would violate his civil liberties.      

The failure was a blow to the reputation of the National
Prosody Center, which had earned plaudits for its work with another subject, “The
Ear,” known for her ability to detect over 300 distinct stress levels. (She
currently presides over a metrical review board that resolves disputes between bickering
prosodists.) The controversy also affected the center financially. Owing to the
backlash, sales of the NPC’s footware line, Fresh
Kictus, plummeted.   

The case of the man who couldn’t scan thrust scansion to the forefront of roiling intellectual debates. Some claimed the subject was the ideal poetic reader, immune to the hegemonic structures embedded in both meter and society. “I prefer not to scan” became the rallying cry for those seeking a radical democratization of the heretofore fascistic poetic line. Others took a reactionary stance, arguing that he was a symptom of metrical decadence: His inability to discern the most basic pattern of stresses reflected a larger societal collapse of moral values.

After recovering from his Tracy K. Smith tutorial, the subject seemed baffled by the buzz surrounding his strange affliction and expressed an eagerness to return to his normal life. One sympathetic NPC researcher slipped a copy of Pope’s An Essay on Criticism in his bag as he was being discharged. In the hopes that the shoddy treatment wouldn’t turn the metrically challenged man off poetry for good, she had highlighted the following passage:

But most by numbers judge a poet’s song;And smooth or rough, with them is right or wrong:In the bright Muse though thousand charms conspire,Her voice is all these tuneful fools admire,Who haunt Parnassus but to please their ear,Not mend their minds; as some to church repair,Not for the doctrine, but the music there.

The subject
has adjusted to life outside the center and resumed teaching. He still has
weekly visits with Donovan the duck.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

In Memoriam: Anthony “One-Take Tony” Hollander

The audiobook community audibly mourns the passing of one of its giants, Anthony Hollander, or “One-Take Tony” as he was known in the business. Whether narrating an epic, farce, or cozy mystery, his recordings all started the same: a clearing of the throat, a deep breath, and then the gruff-but-good-natured command to Scop, his dog, to vacate the studio. Hollander would then set to work reading, without interruption, one of the thousands of books he recorded over his career.

“I’ve been reading since I was four years old. So why would
I need multiple takes?” he told an interviewer in 2010.

The sound of his gravelly baritone has transported readers from
Hardy’s Wessex to Garcia-Marquez’s Macando. A more controversial figure than
Flo Gibson, his longtime rival (and, some rumored, lover), he will be
remembered not only for his recordings—including the definitive version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—but also
for the narratorial intrusions that delighted and frustrated audiences in equal
measure. There was a Rabelaisian energy to Hollander’s recordings, and indeed
his eructations (frequent), flatulence (intermittent) and snores (rare) were as
recognizable to devoted fans as his voice.

Hollander was an unpredictable reader, a narrator-as-critic. He grunted upon reading overwrought sentences, paused to deride mixed metaphors, and, in one particularly infamous episode, launched ad hominem attacks: “Who wrote this crap?” he could be heard on the recording of [redacted]’s latest novel. “Look at this author photo. Figures.”

He permanently alienated David Foster Wallace fans by interrupting Infinite Jest to take a phone call.  “Hello? No I haven’t thought about solar panels. Oh? I can sell my excess electricity back to the power company? That’s interesting. Look, I’m narrating a book right now but can I get back to you? OK, send along the info. Now where I was? Oh yes…”

Hollander once claimed that, had audiobook fame not been thrust upon him, he would have been a detective. Mystery fans did not appreciate his tendency to breezily dismiss clues (“Obvious red herring”) and to identify, often accurately, the killers before they were revealed (“Murderer written all over him”). The Crime Writers’ Association, incensed after Hollander had ruined one too many P.D. James plot twists, sponsored a short-story contest in his (dis)honor: the prize going to the most ingenious mystery imagining his murder.


In Hollander’s defense, he offended across genres. Henry James scholars bristled at his vulgar commentary on Isabel Archer and Caspar Goodwood, “Just fuck him already,” which earned his recording of The Portrait of a Lady a rare NC-17 rating.

According to his autobiography, Sounding Myself, Hollander discovered the transfixing power of his voice during grade-school reading exercises. “My stentorian delivery put the other toddlers to shame, their snotty fingers inching along the page as they hazarded one quavering syllable at a time,” he wrote in his memoirs, the audio version of which was read by Jeremy Irons. (“The one mortal whose voice I envy.”)


An audiobook talent scout discovered Hollander after hearing him summon a waiter for the check in his local North Carolina diner. His first taping was of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, during which he got up and said, “I’ve got to take a piss” about 10 pages in. The director, feeling the interruption jibed with Wolfe’s freewheeling gonzo journalism, kept the tape rolling, thus ingraining in One-take Tony his lifelong habit.

Hollander was an autodidact, and some critics held it against him. They snottily observed that it was all well and good to record a book in one take, provided one could actually pronounce the words. Though many an author, editor, and listener attempted to correct him, Hollander never could quite master pronouncing “bough” or “draught” in the heat of the moment, and consistently mangled all French words—emboinpoint and décolletage causing him particular consternation. And yet these flubs endeared him to listeners, who saw in Hollander a relatable everyman: “Ama-nu-ensis? What the hell is an amanuensis? I know I’ve seen that word somewhere.”

Hollander’s vocal range could accommodate several character
types—dainty, dangerous, homespun—but differentiation wasn’t his strong suit. Minor
characters confused him. “Wait, who is that guy again? Is that the cousin or
the friend from college? No, the cousin died. Or was he the gardener?”

In a controversy that threatened to derail his career, Hollander could be heard pleasuring himself while reading Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater. (Thankfully he was alone in the studio, having long served as his own producer, director, and sound engineer.) The stigma lingered for years. During negotiations to narrate 50 Shades of Grey, he was forced to agree to the humiliating stipulation that he record the erotic thriller with his hands tied behind his back. (“All the kinkier,” he would write in Sounding.)

Certain authors refused to have their novel read by Hollander, especially during his later years, when, having “become allergic to nature scenes,” he started derisively glossing over descriptive passages: “Sky, weather, pathetic fallacy, yada yada yada.”

Hollander died where he belonged, in the recording studio,
narrating a debut novel that, judging from the absence of naps, bathroom breaks,
and crusty asides, he seemed to thoroughly enjoy. Perhaps too thoroughly. On
his final recording, the fatal heart attack—a disturbing, yet still mellifluous,
groan—can be heard in the middle of Chapter 5, right before Jeremy Irons
graciously takes over.

Image credit: Unsplash/Claus Grünstäudl.

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.

Trapped in Purgatory with Stephen Dedalus and Anse Bundren

“Hell is other people,” according to the three characters in Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit. In Sartre’s vision, eternal damnation is mental, rather than physical, torture. Inez, Garcin, and Estelle have been selected to antagonize each other. Stuck in a gaudy, cramped room without any glass, they become each other’s mirrors. Inez is cunning and abrasive. Garcin is pensive but frail. Estelle is vain. They are terrible people, but terribly entertaining characters.

Sartre uses each character’s anxieties as weaknesses. Inez hates Garcin because he is a coward. Inez lusts for Estelle, but Estelle only has eyes for Garcin—merely because he is the only man available. Garcin is too busy thinking about what is happening on Earth to pay attention to Estelle, and she loathes being ignored. Their methods of torture are simple, cyclical, and eternal.

Each time I read Sartre’s claustrophobic play, I wonder: who would be my torturers? I won’t admit the two actual people who would vex me in a Sartrean Hell, but I will admit the two characters in literature who would annoy me forever: Stephen Dedalus and Anse Bundren.

If I were stuck in a Second Empire drawing room with no exit for all eternity, my torturers would definitely be Stephen and Anse. I love both A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and As I Lay Dying because I detest the central characters of both books.

Since A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man traces Stephen’s development, the text hews to his melodramatic sense of self. James Joyce’s method is sound—Stephen’s acquisition and mastery of language, as well as his skepticism toward his surroundings, are captured in the novel’s narrative style—but Stephen is taxing on the reader. He’s a jerk. He writes a noxious villanelle (“Are you not weary of ardent way, / Lure of the fallen seraphim.” Really?). Each prosaic moment of his existence must reflect some ancient Irish myth.

What irks me most is his glib disbelief. I’m a Catholic who knows that doubt is endemic to faith, but Stephen’s rejections—“I will not serve”—are couched in language that elevates his importance. He renounces God because he thinks himself to be God. He has become his namesake, the great artificer. Like many lapsed Catholics, Stephen is—in the words of his friend Cranly—“supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve.” But Stephen dismisses that belief as a stepping stone toward his real goal: “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode or life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using my defence the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile, and cunning.”

I can’t stand him.

This was all Joyce’s intention, of course, but that doesn’t diminish how much I hate Stephen. I imagine him leaning against a bookcase, arms crossed, huffing well actually forever and ever while the door to my Hell remains shut.

Anse Bundren is also terrible, but for different reasons. He’d sit in the center of the only couch in Hell, and spread his knees so that nobody else could fit. He’s selfish, lazy, and a hypocrite. His inert state is such a perfect contrast to William Faulkner’s profluent story in As I Lay Dying—a tragicomic journey story. He begins the book sitting on his back porch, “tilting snuff from the lid of his snuff-box into his lower lip, holding the lip outdrawn between thumb and finger.” Behind him, his wife Addie is dying. In front of him, his son Cash is building Addie’s coffin.

Anse is full of excuses: “he tells people that if he ever sweats, he will die.” He’s also full of complaints, calling himself a “luckless man.” He promised Addie that he would bury her in Jefferson with the rest of her family, but it soon becomes clear that he has other reasons for making the trek. His children don’t respect him because he doesn’t deserve it. And he’s quick to offer empty religious intonations: “The Lord will pardon me and excuse the conduct of them He sent me.” Get over yourself, Anse—and quit jabbering about your new teeth.

Certainly the central traits of Stephen and Anse that I most detest—self-importance and selfishness—are the two traits I pray that I never hold myself. Great literature has a way of making us recognize our own faults after we’ve first criticized them in others.

Who would be your literary torturers in Hell?

Image Credit: Pixabay.

That Glorious Syllable: On ‘On’

Whether introducing a charming essay or slim monograph, a witty epigram or stately sonnet, on is the most accommodating of words: the eternal handmaiden, the chivalrous cicisbeo, the dutiful emcee welcoming the main topic on stage. Though it plays this obliging, some might say servile role impeccably, it is high time that on emerge from the syntactical shadows to bask in the light of its lapidary splendor.

To be on is to be alive, energetic, aflame, to display one’s best self. Similarly, on is language’s best self, demonstrating how much can be done with so little. Compact, suggestive, manifold, on is the preposition that launched a thousand idioms.

Derived from the Proto-Germanic ana, on conjures up Iron Age images of unruly beards and makeshift encampments: the terse utterance of a culture hardened by the elements. These rude forbears, emerging from their mist-shrouded forests to rampage across Europe, were not prone to reflection. No Teutonic Hazlitt composed his lucid thoughts in essay form (e.g., “On Pillaging”). Rather, these restless warriors were in thrall to their wanderlust. On, on! we hear their guttural voices echoing through the millennia.

And yet we would be neglecting on’s suppleness were we to focus solely on its muscular genealogy. In its imperative form — on! — it is certainly a spur to action, but when reversed, a brake: no! Moreover, on displays a nobility of spirit, charitably lending its services to other nouns (onlooker) or prepositions in need, either supporting them from behind — “onto” — or lighting the way forward—“upon.” It can introduce the most heartbreaking of topics, such as Ben Jonson’s elegy to his son, or, from the same pen, a Rabelaisian bibelot: “On Gut.” (The poet was even said to have written a jeering missive to a deceived husband, “On Thy Wife,” but that bit of doggerel has been lost to time.)

A preposition wrapped in an adverb wrapped in an enigma, on is a tiny word, yet it contains multitudes. Its deceptive modesty could even be said to conceal the most fundamental of our drives. After all, what is the coupling of one vowel and one consonant but a chaste replication of the sexual act? And lest I be accused of overanalysis — as I often have been by blinkered partisans of under or beneath — consider on’s entanglement with the mating ritual: courtship is initiated with a come-on, which, if accepted, leads to both parties being turned on, and, if all goes well, a hard-on, and then…but enough. In the interests of decency, I won’t go on.

Any scholar of Shakespeare’s sonnets will gladly explain the equally bawdy potential of on’s chief rival, in, which the perceptive reader has noticed I have avoided mentioning till now. While the two words do occasionally tolerate proximity — e.g., come on in, in on it — tolerate is all. How it pains me even to type those shoddy combination of letters, so similar and yet vastly inferior to the virtuous one under review. Replacing on’s lovely o, a perfect form, with i, that impudent, egotistical erection, in is boorish, vulgar, so denotatively and connotatively crass that the mouth seems to resist pronouncing it. Compare the generous, open pronunciation of on, the mouth expanding to greet the world — all its marvels and follies — in blissful communion. “Come one, come all, and feast,” it seems to say, “dinner’s on me.”

On, on! The next time you encounter on beginning a title, ignore what follows. Recite the glorious syllable to yourself in stentorian tones, revel in its wondrous reverberations. Let your eyes linger on its elegant appearance, take in its curves, appreciate its eternal form and endless content. Soon your own love affair with the sublime word will commence, a romance that, unlike ephemeral passions, will go on and on, powering an inner light that will never turn off.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.