The Light and the Dark: On Ali Smith’s ‘Summer’

Don’t you think it’s sad when people say they can’t wait for summer to end? Like, I can’t wait for this chunk of my life to be over with. It’s too hot, it’s too boring, the sky’s not blue enough. It’s not autumn.

I couldn’t wait for Summer to arrive this year, though Spring was a bit disappointing. And when finally I held Ali Smith’s book in my hands, I wasn’t eager for it to end. Though it had to, of course.

So?

So.

Ali Smith’s Summer opens:
Everyone said: so?
As in So what?
The so-question mark of indifference, rejection, defensiveness,
…their own punchy little
so?
So.
The so-period. The so that announces: Listen. I’m about to dare to say something sincere. It might not be earth-shaking (or it might be that), but it’s important to me, and not only is it important for me to know, it’s important to me that I tell you about it. With this so, the tales told by Summer truly begin.

Smith’s Seasonal Quartet runs: Autumn (published October 2016), Winter (November 2017), Spring (April 2019), and Summer (August 2020). Each book pokes relentlessly at our consciences with accounts of people, including ourselves, affected by climate change, Brexit, immigration, homelessness, social indifference, the lethal missteps of public health authorities during the Covid-19 pandemic. Each book loves duos and paradoxes. Migrants can be fleeing refugees or swifts flying from Africa to England. There’s the meaning of art and/or life, or the lack thereof. Families are sundered by external forces like poverty and detention, and by internal forces like divorce and drift. Silence can be meditation or muteness, elected or imposed, with human communication breaking through for better or worse. Isolation can offer time and space for insight and inspiration, or it can be a punishing confinement, or at the least a frustrating restriction. Or, as we know, all of these.

Each book has rants, often out of the mouths of children, about the mangling of human discourse in social media and in the mouths of politicians. In each, the work of a woman visual artist, renowned in her time and nearly forgotten in ours, figures prominently. Not to mention a motley crew of cultural icons, especially Shakespeare, Dickens, and Charlie Chaplin.

Most of all, the Seasonal Quartet is a foursome of togetherness and apartness, life and death, brought close by memory. Or are togetherness, et cetera, really the elements of this foursome? And if so, is it memory—rather than vague kinship or friendship, or duty imposed by family chosen or born, or plain old coincidence, or fate—that brings them together? Or is there a blamed foursome at all, besides the four seasons?

To assemble the puzzle pieces of an Ali Smith book is a challenge that might not be meant to be met. But to quote another familiar figure of Smith’s—the sage girl or woman—from Summer: “I really am me. And you really are you. But if we follow Einstein’s thinking [in his response to a bereaved man who asked, ‘what was the point, in being innocent, and gifted, and dying and becoming nothing but dust’] and add together you plus me plus time plus space. What does that all make?…It makes you and I more than just you or I… It makes us us.”

Summer’s “us” includes most of the ensemble Smith has been building through the previous seasons. (Though, curiously, Spring’s people barely make an appearance at all.) Daniel is now a very, very old man floating amidst memories, especially of his father and his sister Hannah during World War II. Grace Greenlaw, a former actress, ushers along in life, sometimes fumblingly, her two children, Sacha and Robert, both of them annoying and clever in equal measure. Iris, once a hippy, always an activist, connects again with Art, her earnest nephew, and with Charlotte, Art’s friend and ex-girlfriend. Missing fathers, grandmothers, brothers and sisters, and even an artwork, reunite with kin, in memory if not in the book’s present.

Summer brings us, too, a completion of the cycle of seasons: suffering to hope, green to gray, life to death, and back again. Or all of them at once. Or not really at all. For example, “life to death and back again” is not a given.

Take The Winter’s Tale, paradoxically, the Shakespeare play that runs through Summer. Grace remembers it from a long-ago summer tour with a theater company. She played Perdita, a dead queen who comes back to life—or a queen who pretended to be dead and to come back to life. After a particularly catty exchange with her fellow actors, Grace took a walk, ending up in an old church graveyard, talking with a mason working there. When she tells him of the (possibly mock) resurrection, he asks about the children who died in the play.
Do they come back too?
Only one of them, she says. It’s a very uneasy play, really. Pretending to be a comedy.
Smith’s references to Charlie Chaplin and Lorenza Maretti, two artists with unbearably harsh childhoods, caution the reader on the precariousness of pretend comedies, of happy endings, and happy beginnings and middles.

Hope, or optimism to put it in more practical terms, pulls people through. Grace says to the mason, “The Winter’s Tale’s all about summer, really. It’s like it says, don’t worry, another world is possible. When you’re stuck in the world at its worst, that’s important. To be able to say that. At least to tend towards comedy.”

Ali Smith’s Summer tends toward comedy. Though unable to turn her face from the suffering happening right now, right here in our world, Smith can’t resist…To say she can’t resist seeing the bright side is to invoke a phrase appealing, but long gone trite.

So?

So.
Summer’s like walking down a road just like this one, heading towards both light and dark.
Bonus Links:
Things Fall Apart: On Ali Smith’s ‘Autumn’ and ‘Winter’
Rites of Spring: Does the Latest in Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet Satisfy?

Correcting History: On C Pam Zhang’s ‘How Much of These Hills Is Gold’

1.
As a life-long lover of long shots, I was delighted by the news that C Pam Zhang’s stunning debut novel, How Much of These Hills Is Gold, made the long list for this year’s Booker Prize. The field was larded with the predictable odds-on favorites, including two-time winner Hilary Mantel (who was up for the third installment in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror & the Light), plus the much-decorated thoroughbreds Anne Tyler (Redhead by the Side of the Road) and Colum McCann (Apeirogon).

Though Zhang’s chances against this field appeared slim, her gorgeously written novel deserves praise not only for its artistry but also for its attempt to fill a shameful gap: the scarcity of Chinese characters in the literature and history of the American West. Yet Zhang’s novel is much more than a long-overdue corrective; it’s an absorbing, richly imagined account of one Chinese family scrabbling to survive the violence and racism that prevailed in the California gold fields and in the gangs that built the transcontinental railroad. Historians have been less neglectful than novelists in probing this material. To name just a few of the many valuable history books: Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad by Gordon H. Chang; the oral history Voices from the Railroad: Stories by the Descendants of Chinese Railroad Workers, edited by Connie Young Yu and Sue Lee; and Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Natives, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad by Manu Karuka. Despite these commendable efforts, there are too many stories still untold.

How Much of These Hills Is Gold opens with two young sisters, Lucy and Sam, setting out to bury their father, a tortuous, gruesome mission that will invite inevitable comparisons to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. But Zhang uses this mission as a springboard to tell the story of how the father, Ba, met his wife, Ma, and how they were brought together by a horrific accident and, possibly, by the attack of a mythical tiger. These passages, narrated by Ba from inside his coffin, are the needed beginnings of the creation of an American anti-myth, a first step toward dismantling the widely accepted narrative that the American West was won through rugged individualism, resourcefulness, persistence, and hard work. The truth is that the California railroads were built with taxpayers’ dollars and the sweat and blood of underpaid immigrants who remain largely invisible to this day. That invisibility is at the heart of this novel, and it’s the source of Sam’s desire to cross the Pacific and live one day in a land that might become a true home. “Over there they won’t just look,” Sam says. “They’ll actually see me.”

2.
To understand just how overdue Zhang’s novel is, we need to flash back to an event from a century and a half ago that has become a cornerstone of the myth America chooses to believe about itself. On May 10, 1869, a pair of locomotives was parked nose-to-nose on a stark stretch of Utah desert called Promontory Summit. Facing east was the Jupiter of the Central Pacific Railroad; a few yards away, facing west, was No. 119 of the Union Pacific. Standing on the tracks between them with a silver maul in his soft hands was a portly, bearded robber baron named Leland Stanford, a former Sacramento shopkeeper and a former governor of California who had used lavish federal subsidies to buy the land and lay the track from Sacramento to this historic spot. He was surrounded by a boisterous throng of politicians, dignitaries, businessmen, reporters, and photographers. Someone is holding a bottle of champagne aloft, the crowning touch on the nation’s first orchestrated media event. As cameras clicked, Stanford raised the maul and dropped it on a ceremonial golden spike, sinking it into a pre-drilled hole in a laurel tie. The spike was wired to a telegraph line that sent a simple message jittering across the land and, via the undersea telegraphic cable, all the way to the United Kingdom: “DONE!”

The transcontinental railroad was complete. It was now possible for people and goods to travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific on a patchwork of iron rails that had only one gap. The Missouri River would not be spanned for another three years, so passengers and cargo had to be ferried between Omaha, Neb., and Council Bluffs, Iowa. This trifle failed to dampen the spirits of the coast-to-cost celebrants, who were too giddy to be bothered by a few inconvenient truths. The first of these truths is revealed by the iconic photograph of that historic day at Promontory Summit—or, more precisely, by what is missing from that iconic photograph. In keeping with the jingoistic spirit of the pre-packaged event, there are no immigrants in the picture, even though Stanford and his partners—known alternately as the Big Four and the Associates—employed more than 20,000 Chinese laborers to do the brutal, deadly work of blasting a path and laying track from Sacramento through the Sierra Nevada mountains to Utah. And the pay given these laborers? Half of what they paid white workers, mainly Irish immigrants.

That famous photograph finds its way into the closing pages of How Much of These Hills Is Gold. Lucy, now a teenager, has wound up in San Francisco, where she has spent years working off a debt run up by her wild, androgynous sister Sam, who has fled across the Pacific seeking that home where people will actually see her. When the telegraph wire announces that the transcontinental railroad has been completed, Zhang writes of Lucy: “She hears the cheer that goes through the city the day the last railroad tie is hammered. A golden spike holds track to earth. A picture is drawn for the history books, a picture that shows none of the people who look like her, who built it.”

3.
Leland Stanford had been swept west with the gold rush just as the first Opium War and famine were pushing tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants across the Pacific to California, where they flooded the gold fields and joined the gangs of workers laying railroad tracks. (Zhang’s fictional Ma was one of these desperate immigrants; Ba was born in California, a nice dig at the stereotype that all Chinese in the West were recent immigrants.) Inevitably, violence flared between white miners and the Chinese newcomers, and the state responded in 1852 by passing the Foreign Miners Tax—$3 a month on non-citizens—and two years later the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Chinese immigrants, like African Americans and Native Americans, were forbidden from testifying in court, leaving them virtually defenseless against mob violence.

Also missing from the record of that historic day at Promontory Summit are these remarks Stanford had made at his inauguration as governor of California in 1862: “To my mind it is clear, that the settlement among us of an inferior race is to be discouraged by every legitimate means. Asia, with her numberless millions, sends to our shores the dregs of her population…It will afford me great pleasure to concur with the Legislature in any constitutional action, having for its object the repression of the immigration of the Asiatic races.”

It took 20 years for Stanford’s dream to come true in the form of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which suspended Chinese immigration for 10 years and made Chinese immigrants already in the country ineligible for naturalization. It was the first of many laws to restrict immigration, but it fit a pattern already established in California and much of the rest of the nation, a pattern stoked by fear that immigrants would seize jobs from Americans—that is, white people—while depressing overall wages. The 1882 law was also a precursor to the Immigration Act of 1924, which set strict quotas designed to encourage immigration from Western Europe, block most immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, and bar all immigration from Asia. The law was, in the words of the eugenicist Madison Grant, an attempt to protect Americans from “competition with the intrusive people drained from the lowest races.” It is not a stretch to say that these precedents made possible—even inevitable—the brutal internment of American citizens of Japanese descent after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. This history illustrates that the xenophobia that helped Donald Trump win the presidency in 2016 is nothing new. Such deep-rooted xenophobia in a nation made mostly of immigrants and their descendants is the second of this nation’s two abiding paradoxes. The first, of course, is that men who owned human beings were able to conceive and publicly embrace the notion that all men are created equal.

4.
Now we flash forward to the present day. While the president of the United States strains to build a wall along the Mexican border to repress immigration from Latin America, it comes to light that dozens of people doing menial, low-paying jobs at his resorts and golf clubs are undocumented immigrants from Latin America. So venality and duplicity, like the desire to wall out the “dregs” and “rapists” of an “inferior” race, are simply old pillars of American politics that refuse to die. In keeping with the Sinophobia first codified in the Chinese Exclusion Act, this president has dubbed the current global pandemic “the Chinese virus” and “kung flu.” In doing so, he has completed the second of the two knee-jerk reactions that have greeted the arrival of pandemics throughout human history. The first reaction is denial, which Trump has expressed masterfully; and the second is the need to blame the disease on an outside source. During the plague in Athens in 430 B.C., Thucydides, who contracted the disease and survived, claimed it originated in Ethiopia and passed through Egypt and Libya before entering the Greek world in the Mediterranean. During a smallpox plague in the Roman Empire, Marcus Aurelius blamed Christians, who’d failed to appease the Roman gods. During the Black Death that decimated Europe in the 14th century, Jews were the scapegoat, falsely accused of poisoning wells. Today in America, according to our government, it’s the Chinese—not the appalling failures of our government.

These events, coupled with our current national reckoning over race, make How Much of These Hills Is Gold not only overdue but also vital and timely. As I’d expected, Zhang did not make the short list for this year’s Booker Prize. Unexpectedly, neither did Mantel, Tyler, or McCann. No matter. I’m hoping for many more novels like How Much of These Hills Is Gold: novels that breathe life into people who have gone unseen too long.

Bonus Link:
A Year in Reading: C Pam Zhang

Humble Words Organized Beautifully: Ward Farnsworth on Style

Something disappointing in the fact that despite his immaculate New Yorker essays and his perfect children’s books (the latter of which is nothing to scoff at), E.B. White will most likely be primarily remembered for his over-valorized and pedestrian composition guide based on punched-up lecture notes from his old Cornell professor William Strunk. I’ll confess that White’s Stuart Little moves me more than Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, even if the former is about an anthropomorphic mouse who falls in love with a bird and the latter is about Virginia Woolf killing herself, but when it comes to The Elements of Style, I’m left completely cold. Linguist Geoffrey Pullum gleefully demolished the shrine to Strunk and White in a Chronicle of Higher Education piece where he condemned the “book’s toxic mix of purism, atavism, and personal eccentricity,” which is not “underpinned by a proper grounding in English grammar.” Still you’ll find precocious English majors and pretentious English professors who cling to White and Strunk’s guide as if holy writ, repeating their dogma of the best (or only) writing as “being specific, definite and concrete” or that “Vigorous writing is concise,” as if those were postulates of physics and not aesthetic suggestions mediated through a particular time and place (with the attendant masculine obsessions of that time and place).

The Elements of Style endures, however, like some antique bacterium in Siberian permafrost released by climate change and threatening us all; something better left as a relic of the time that produced it rather than as a universal guide to good composition. They arrogantly pose laws as if they were the Author of the Decalogue, and their stylistic affectations are configured as inviolate rules of grammar. Strunk and White are mummies of the Lost Generation, bound in typewriter ribbon and pickled with scotch, and their adjective-slaying, adverb-slaughtering, violent Fitzgeraldian demands to kill your darlings reflect a type of writing that’s only one example in the many-mansioned house that is literature. It’s not that the advice they give leads to bad writing, and if concision is your aim than by all means dog-ear those pages of their book. It’s rather that Strunk and White exclude anything with a glint of the maximalist, a hint of the baroque, a whiff of the rococo, a sniff of the Byzantine, or—egad!—even a touch of the purple. They make totems of simplicity, fetishes of concision, idols of conventionality. I can’t in good conscience tell students that they should “Prefer the standard to the offbeat” or that that they should “not affect a breezy manner.” Literary style, as with clothing, is an issue not of dressing like somebody else, but of being the most fully you that you can be (as Queer Eye’s Tan France would no doubt confirm). If Brooks Brothers is your thing, then by all means let Strunk and White be your guide, but never forget that the wardrobe goes back a way. “It’s sad,” Pullum writes of the regard in which the book is still held a century after it was written. For 13 years I’ve taught college composition, and for all 13 of them I’ve refused to teach The Elements of Style.

Luckily there are no shortage of composition guides of varying qualities and uses, and I’ve taught a cornucopia of them (veggies both rotten and succulent). The nearest to Strunk and White is George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” which for what it shares with The Elements of Style—in demands for the elimination of excess words, the denigration of the noble passive voice, and the provincialism that piously intones that we should “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word”—still has crusted about it some interesting philosophical observations about the relationship of language to thought. Many of my colleagues are partial to Gerald Graff’s They Say/I Say, which is less a style guide than it is a general first-year composition guide, focusing on the way in which arguments can be posed—a useful volume, even if its Stanford doctorate holding author’s affectation of being a reformed ‘50s greaser who learned the importance of higher education leaves Generation Z befuddled. Several years ago, I put in a book order for Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, enchanted by his mea culpa that “Some people are bird watchers…I belong to the tribe of sentence watchers.” Yet like many Fish books it seemed like a good idea at the time. For similar reasons, I never even thought to crack the spine of Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, with its promise to bring cognitive science to bear on the humble scribbler’s trade.

Style guides that deserve less snark include Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s delightfully gothic and grammatical The Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed, Sam Leith’s excellent oratory and composition guide Words Like Loaded Pistols: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama (as terrible a title as that may be), and the wonderfully practical and pop culture infused primer by Arthur Plotnik, Spunk & Bite: A Writers’ Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style (as great a title as that is). I’d be remiss not to mention Random House’s chief copy editor Benjamin Dreyer’s engaging Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, which is a chatty, if thorough, encomium for the lost art of line editing, and which I’ve been pleased to read but have never taught. I’ve neither taught nor read Francis-Noël Thomas’s Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose, with its promise of continental elegance and the Attic style, with its sophisticated sense that “learning to write cannot be reduced to acquiring writing skills,” but it’s to my loss.

Now our bookshelves can include a new title by Ward Farnsworth, dean of the University of Texas Law School, entitled Farnsworth’s Classical English Style. This title concludes a trilogy of Farnsworth’s, joining the unlikely cult hits of Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric and Farnsworth’s Classical English Metaphor, bringing to a close his series of vaguely Victorian, vaguely tweedy, and vaguely Anglophilic guides to style and writing (joining The Practicing Stoic, which I reviewed for The Millions). In his preface, Farnsworth avails himself well in the style guide turf war between linguistic prescriptivists and descriptivists, noting with admirable writerly latitudinarianism that “Most modern books offer advice: write this way, not that way. This book does not offer advice of that kind.” Belying the slightly fussy affectation that the book presents, from its title evocative of the 19th century, to the bulk of Farnsworth’s examples coming from writers like Dickens, Churchill, Lincoln, and Dr. Johnson, his philosophy of composition is wonderfully anarchic when compared to the partisans of prescription who dominate the writing classroom and the style-guide racket. The packaging says “conservative,” but the spirit says “rip the pages out of your book.” Farnsworth’s Classical English Style is a Molotov cocktail wrapped in paisley; a hand-grenade cushioned in madras. “Books on style usually state precepts that have merit but that talented writers violate often. Much of this book is about the violations and reasons to commit them,” Farnsworth writes, but “Our topic, in part, is when to make exceptions.” A manifesto for the preppy revolutionary of the writing seminar. Because every single dictum of the Strunk-White Industrial Complex is complicated by Farnsworth; within the pages of his book you will encounter a defense of passive voice, a glorying in the labyrinthine curve of sentences that pack clause upon clause, and a celebration of the Latinate (though not at the expense of the Saxon).

Orwell offered six rules of writing; Strunk and White had their 11 principles (as if writing were a management course), but Farnsworth correctly notes that the “only rule really worth worrying about is simple: have a reason for whatever you do in your writing.” The whole of the law is thoughtfulness, otherwise do what thou wilt. Consequently, Farnsworth’s grills the sacred cows of muscular modernism’s style guides into bloody hamburger. If a revolution refers to a turning back (a “revolving” back) than Farnsworth doesn’t reject the icons of efficient writing so much—Papa Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy with all their swagger and exterminated adjectives—so much as he turns back to the rich classical rhetoric of the era that modernism supplanted, valorizing Thomas Paine and Charles Dickens, Mary Wollstonecraft and Frederick Douglas—with all of their biblical phrasing, their classical allusion, their gargantuan sentences and erudite diction. None of these writers would have passed the Strunk and White smell test; they could be long-winded, they could be multisyllabic, they could be meandering, allusive, and illusive. Eighteenth- and 19th-century prose calls to mind the Victorian critic Thomas Macaulay’s ambivalent assessment of Dr. Johnson, that “All his books are written in a learned language, in a language which nobody hears from his mother or his nurse, in a language in which nobody ever quarrels, or drives bargains, or makes love, in a language in which nobody ever thinks.” Which naturally makes one ask if some things might not precisely call for an unnatural language; which makes one apprehend that there might be more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in The Elements of Style.

Farnworth notes that “different styles are right for different occasions,” and while he doffs his cap to the style guides that reign triumphant, he also makes clear that “This book treats efficiency as important but as not enough.” The clipped sentences were advocated for and the endangered punctuation, adverbs, and adjectives threatened by the modernists and their intellectual descendants, who have long dominated the teaching of correct style and derived their conclusions in part because they were constrained by material conditions. A journalist like White was naturally limited by the tyranny of the margin, and much of style guide orthodoxy comes from print reporting where one really did have to be judicious with verbiage. Little wonder that efficiency and concision, in all of their capitalist and Protestant dreariness, became the shibboleths of proper style. Farnsworth’s point is that things were not always as such, nor that they always have to be so. If advocates for simplicity believe that the “purpose of a piece of writing is to transmit meaning to the reader; so, the writer’s job is to make the meaning easier to understand,” they’ll find little to agree with in Farnsworth’s Classical English Style. He summarizes the White-Strunk Consensus as being that good writing uses “simple words… short sentences… [and is] direct.” From that ideal there must be an exterminator’s crusade against “Needless words, needless length, or needless anything,” since they are rank inefficiencies. Farnsworth challenges every single one of those assertions.

But he’s not a complete libertine, and if anything, Farnsworth’s Classical English Style provides some deeper and more useful axioms of writing. Farnsworth offers a novel encapsulation of what makes good writing good, whether in the King James Bible or the Gettysburg Address. He hypothesizes that “Rhetorical power doesn’t come from just being clear or just being concise or by pushing in any other one direction. It’s usually created by some sort of push and pull, or in a word by contrasts.” Where a traditional style guide would emphasize shortness and simplicity as a means to writerly elegance, Farnsworth says its in the display of difference that writing becomes most fully engaging, with the union of oppositions, “usually one of friction or contrast, between two things.” Illustration of this is provided when he analyzes the average sentence structure and length in the writing of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, arguably the greatest American legal writer (and thus close to Farnsworth’s judicial attorney’s heart). While taking care to emphasize that sentence length should be varied, most contemporary style guides hew towards the mantra that shorter is better. Farnsworth compares two paragraphs of legal writing, one from Holmes and the other from the entirely more pedestrian writer (and man) Chief Justice William Rehnquist. What Farnsworth discovers isn’t that Holmes’s sentences are either shorter or longer on average than those of Rehnquist, rather Holmes’s shorter sentences are much shorter and his longer sentences are much longer. The consensus perspective might be that briefer sentences are preferable, and the oppositional pugilist might challenge that, but the reality is more nuanced—it was in the juxtaposition of such extremity, Farnsworth argues, that Holmes’s talents lay (It would be fascinating to see an analysis of Antonin Scalia, for what that justice lacked in scruples or ideas he made up for in style).

The rhythm of like and unlike is what becomes Farnsworth’s stylistic equivalent of the unified field theory of physics; it is (not unconvincingly) his argument for what separates the sublime from the passable. A shift in difference can take many forms; he writes that the “two things might be plain and fancy words, long and short sentences, hard and soft syllables, high or rich substance and low or simple style…the concrete and the abstract, the passive and the active, the dignified and the coarse, detachment from the audience and engagement with it.” The point, he seems to be saying, is that strict prescriptions for what words to pick, how long to make your sentences, what tone to affect, miss the point—the whole game is in setting up some pair of dueling Manichean principles and letting that tension be the energy that propels the prose. The whole thing puts me in mind of an old comic strip that one sees posted upon many a faculty office door. Underground cartoonist Matt Groening, now very wealthy from being creator of The Simpsons, had an entry in his strip Life in Hell entitled “The 9 Types of College Professor,” which included the “Single Theory-to-Explain-Everything Maniac.” His warning about this genus of academic was that their “Theory may be correct.”

That’s a bit what Farnsworth’s contention feels like to me—I’m skeptical, but his rhetorical analysis goes a long way to reverse engineering what makes great prose effective. The strength of his theory is that it’s general enough, for disjuncts in prose can be manifested in a variety of ways. He shows the strength of his observation when turning towards the Gettysburg Address, often configured as an exemplar of the plain-spoken Attic style. “The beauty and power of Lincoln’s wording,” however, “lies not in a relentless use of Saxon words but in the movement between earthy language and airier words and phrases that elevate.” Contrary to the Orwell prescription that native English etymology must always be preferred, Farnsworth says that Lincoln’s genius was in knowing how to weave the various strains of English together, so that “The Saxon words create feeling and convey simplicity and sincerity. They hit home. The Latinate words evoke thought and connect the images to concepts and ideals. The sound and tone of each balances the sound and tone of the other.”

If there is a drawback to Farnsworth’s Classical English Style, it’s that he leans so heavily on excerpts from “Shakespeare and the King James Bible, from Lincoln and Churchill, from Charles Dickens and Mark Twain.” His contention that “writers of lasting stature still make the best teachers” is well taken; I always tell my students that there is no shortcut to good writing, it can only come about by reading all of the time. But the problem with the canon is that it’s a surprisingly anemic syllabus. Farnsworth says that the “premise of the book” is that these canonical authors provide “a set of lessons on style drawn from writers whose words have stood the test of time.” To which it could be retorted that that’s true for some of them; Lincoln and Churchill are unambiguously great, G.K. Chesterton is a bit too sherry-pickled for my taste, and the passages from the Irish parliamentarian Henry Gratan were certainly good, but I don’t know if he’s withstood the test of time in the sense that he doesn’t appear on a Barnes & Noble tote bag. At a certain point the litany of selections from Cardinal Newman and Patrick Henry, Daniel Webster and Edmund Burke gets tiring. Farnsworth doth protests too much about there not being enough contemporary examples exhibiting the exact qualities he celebrates, pernicious modernist minimalism or not. Farnsworth’s Classical English Style would have benefited by some Joan Didion or James Baldwin, if we’re hunting for great sentences.

A small quibble, that. Because while Farnsworth’s tastes might be conservative, his appreciation is radical. Farnsworth’s Classical English Style has a great benefit in exploding all of the pious certitude of every grammarian who has yelled at somebody for ending a sentence in a preposition, every knife-wielding composition teacher who with red pen excises succulent meat from the bare-bone of the sentence, every sectarian of shortness declaiming that their way of writing is the only way of writing. Questions of composition pedagogy are often configured as a pitched battle between conservative prescriptivists and liberal descriptivists, the former drafting laws that must be followed and the later simply describing language as it’s actually used. Any number of conservative commentators who decry the so-called degradation of contemporary language, blaming texting or pop music, are within the prescriptivist camp even while most teachers of writing are firmly descriptivist. It would be easy to see the author names that Farnsworth uses to illustrate his points and to assume he’s in the conservative faction, and it’s true that he opposes a certain literary entropy, but he’s not mounting the same argument that people who decry text-speak are making. “Those who wring their hands about the decline of the language sometimes worry too much about the wrong things,” Farnsworth writes, “They observe with horror that people confuse uninterested with disinterested, or don’t know when to say fewer and when to say less, or fumble in their use of the apostrophe or other punctuation marks.” But grammar is incidental, in many ways; the true decline has been one of style, in part ironically pushed by the very people who claimed to be defending the honor of English. He argues that “the more meaningful decline of the language doesn’t involve the presence of mistakes. It involves absences that are easier to overlook: the abandonment of half the orchestra, the erosion of rhetorical ability, the dwindling of attention spans, the scarcity of speech that inspires and rouses and strikes deep.”

Farnsworth’s Classical English Style is a worthy rejoinder to The Elements of Style. If Strunk and White sent half the orchestra home, furloughing all of the grab-bag of rhetorical tropes that make language musical from anaphora to zeugma, then Farnsworth is passing around a collection plate to make sure that we can still hear their music. He’s correct that the style promoted by the composition guides that dominate our definitions of good writing have worthy observations in them—there is no shame in that mode, as long as we acknowledge it as one among many. But the full variety of ways of writing are reduced, minimized, obscured. Farnsworth is right to mount a defense of the beleaguered Byzantine. It puts me in mind of a volley in the Pedant’s War that I once got into with a colleague who objected to my favored use of the rhetorical trope of asyndeton, the practice of deleting conjunctions so as to effect a kind of breathless rhythm when listing ideas at the end of a sentence. For him this was unconventional and distracting; for me, it gave the structure of the sentence exactly what I wanted—a sense of things as being rushed, energetic, incomplete. Count me in Farnsworth’s camp. What he offers is a beautiful stylistic disestablishmentarianism. A sentiment that gives student and writer alike the permission to be breezy—the permission to prefer the offbeat to the standard. Follow the call: enjoy the unconventional word, the meandering sentence, the affected rhetorical trope. Extremism in defense of the baroque is no vice; moderation in pursuit of minimalism is no virtue.

Bonus Links:—A Year in Reading: Ward FarnsworthThinking Makes It So: Ward Farnsworth Reframes the Stoics with Wit and InsightWard Farnsworth Doesn’t Mess Around: On ‘Classical English Metaphor’A Review! A Review! Farnsworth’s Classical English RhetoricScenes From Our Unproduced Screenplay: ‘Strunk & White: Grammar Police’Prescriptivists vs. Descriptivists: The Fifth Edition of The American Heritage DictionaryThe Impediments of Style: Advice from Steven Pinker and the CIA

Kent Russell’s Long March

When Kent Russell published his debut collection of essays back in 2015, I readily enlisted in his growing army of fans. My review of Russell’s book, the unfortunately titled I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son, praised his imagery and sentence-making and his empathy with fringe characters, while lamenting his tedious dissection of his relationship with his impossible father. Readers reacted to that review with some foam-at-the-mouth vitriol. One reader identified as Toad wrote: “It’s not uncommon for young, confidence-lacking writers to baldly ape their influences (and to pepper their work with obscure, incorrectly utilized mega-words), but such attempts are better left in the desk drawer.” A reader named Anon suggested this alternative title for the book: I Am So Tired To Think That These Types of Books by These Types of Insufferable Twits Are Still Being Published and Will Continue to Be Until My Asshole Bleeds Out.

Wow. Russell is now out with a new book called In the Land of Good Living: A Journey to the Heart of Florida that’s sure to make readers like Toad and Anon foam and bleed all over again. Not because it’s a bad book, but because it is wildly uneven—with flashes of brilliance that are too often bogged down by half-baked analysis, clunky mega-words and, most disappointing of all, muddy writing.

The trouble begins in the opening pages, which are written in screenplay format. Why? Because our three heroes—Glenn, Noah and Kent—have loaded up a shopping cart with camping packs and film gear, and they’ve embarked on a thousand-mile walk from the Florida panhandle all the way to Russell’s hometown, Miami, a journey they hope to turn into a “gonzo” documentary movie—and this book. Kent, our author and tour guide, is described in screenplay-ese as a “PAUNCHY NEBBISH” and “something of an ARTIST and/or INTELLECTUAL” who grew a “long flowing mullet” for this return to his home state. Glenn is “a blond, blue-eyed, dad-bodied man in his early thirties” who is “UNAPLOGETICALLY CANADIAN.” And Noah is “a short, scowling IRAQ WAR VETERAN” whose once-bulging muscles are now swaddled in fat, “as if the action figure of his past life has been packed away under Bubble Wrap.” So far, sorta so-so. The real trouble is Kent’s reason for embarking on this journey: “I owed $37,000 in back taxes to the Internal Revenue Service. For, you see, when you are granted an advance on a book prior to its publication, the check you receive has none of your federal, state, or city taxes deducted from it. It’s one big lump sum, like the number stamped on an over-sized game-show check.”

So there you have it. Kent Russell is a graduate of the University of Florida, he has taught at Columbia University—and yet when he sold his first book to a major New York publisher, he was unaware that writers, like all other working stiffs under God’s sun, have to pay income taxes. What do they teach the kids down there in Gainesville? So by page 13, you’re aware that you’re reading a back-taxes-plus-penalties-and-interest book. A little later, Russell comes right out with his motivation for undertaking this project: “I am in debt up to my fucking eyeballs.”

From this unpromising set-up, the book tries to take flight, and sometimes it succeeds. Russell is especially good at thumbnail historical sketches of the avarice and chicanery that made Florida possible, beginning with the first white visitors from Spain and running right up to American industrialist Henry Flagler and Walt Disney. We learn interesting things not only about conquistadors and tourism and orange groves, but also about the influx of retirees, the spread of military installations, the importance of air conditioning, the demise of the Apalachicola oyster beds, the rapaciousness of real-estate developers, and Donald Trump’s deeply visceral appeal to Floridians. (The trip took place during the 2016 presidential campaign, which now feels like the Paleozoic Era.) Along the way we meet some engaging characters, including shrimpers, strippers, swamp dwellers, a “nuisance-alligator wrestler” (nice work if you can get it), and a recovering junkie named Rodrigo who plays Jesus at Disney World’s Holy Land Experience. These people go beyond being merely colorful, all the way to perceptive and, frequently, insightful. They’re also a reminder that Russell is at his best when he gets out of his own skull and does what good reporters do: he listens.

Less successful are Russell’s attempts to analyze What Florida Means. This produces a cloud of gas and a bushel of those mega-words that so infuriated Toad, including simulacrum (a word only a French philosopher could love), synecdoche (don’t bother looking it up, just watch the pretentious Charlie Kaufman movie with the word in its title), plus pestiferous, scrying, gibbous, plosive, syncretic, and strabismic. This is tricky terrain. No writer should be faulted for having an expansive vocabulary, but there’s a fine line between using unfamiliar words to good effect and using unfamiliar words to show off or, worse, to give badly assembled ideas a glossy paintjob. Too often, Russell uses these candy-apple words to dress up analyses that are, to be kind, on the thin side. Consider St. Augustine, America’s oldest city, which, according to Russell, has been turned into “a taxidermied approximation of its former self” and “a historical fiction like Colonial Williamsburg” and an “olde tyme simulacrum of Spanish Florida.” Which leads to these 10-cent aperçus: “History qua history matters only to the extent that it can be monetized. That it can be disarticulated into a series of attractions—a competitive advantage.” And: “The lure and blur of the real. That’s what St. Augustine had to work with.” Our trio deals with the lure and blur by pitching a coke-fuelled blackout drunk.

That world “real” keeps popping up. At one point, Glenn voices a reasonable fear: “I’m afraid we aren’t getting the real Florida. Right now we are just drifting through towns barely scratching the surface.” Russell shoots back: “You wanna get Florida? OK, well—you get Florida by inventing an interpretation of it. Preferably a for-profit interpretation. Think of, like…Seaside. Seaside got Florida by substituting its own simulation ‘Florida’ in the place of Florida.” I think I get it, but I’m not sure.

In this meta vein we learn why Dale, the aforementioned nuisance-alligator wrestler, rebuffed the overtures of a “real ‘reality’ TV” crew from L.A. but allowed Russell and his fellow gonzo documentarians into his world—because the L.A. crew had come to Florida “wanting to show the country how they already think we are back in L.A.” This leads Russell to an epiphany about the makers of “reality” TV that’s worth quoting at length:
These folks have power, real power, to fabricate narratives about the world. And Dale with his practical knowledge—his common sense—will forever be at odds with the malleable “reality” encoded and presented by television, social media, all of it. This malleable “reality” (which, let’s be honest, is displacing Dale’s reality via every screen in the land) is largely a rhetorical achievement. “Reality” no longer refers to the natural world and its limits. “Reality” rejects preconditions. “Reality” is whatever people want it to be, and then say it is, individually and en masse, making it so. In a sense, the real “reality” folks and the stars they have produced really are a breed of artist. Credit where credit is due…These artists, they act natural. And that is their art. The real “reality” artist is his own best fiction. His best fiction is his true self. One thing you could say about him—he’ll never be found guilty of insincerity! Or, for that matter, sincerity. “Kent” can no more be separated from Kent (were I one of these cretins) than lightning could be separated from its flashing.
Shortly after that flash of insight, Russell agrees to give a talk to a magazine-writing class at his alma mater. Russell’s writing has appeared in The New Republic, Harper’s, GQ, n+1, and The Believer, among other venues, so his former thesis adviser figures he has some “real”-world wisdom to pass along to the students. “Brass tacks,” Russell begins, while chugging on a Contigo full of hundred-proof booze, “if you’re going to be a magazine writer, you’re going to have to deal with magazine editors. You will prepare for these editors a free-range, pan-roasted squab of a story, OK, and they will take it, and they will rip it apart, and they will pluck nuance and complexity like so many fine bones.” Chug, chug. Lowering his voice, he staggers on, “This is the secret to all publishing, from magazines, to books, to I don’t care what. If you really want to get published, what you do is ape the stuff that’s already succeeded. You go after consensus. You tell a story to these editors about the things they already believe to be true. You hand them a mirror they can see themselves in. Or see themselves as they wish they were. Now, if that sounds less like writing than flattery, well…Not everybody is cut out for this business. I’m not even sure I am, now that I think about it.” After delivering this cynical screed, Russell polishes off the Contigo and heads for the exit while saying, “Writing is serving. Living is serving. Choose what you’re gonna serve…Point is, you gotta serve something.” If I were paying tuition for such hard-won wisdom, I’d demand my money back.

Which brings us to the muddy writing. In Timid Son, Russell showed himself to be capable of producing dazzling sentences and diamond-hard metaphors, but here the writing is frequently fuzzy and imprecise. A few samples: “Kent’s glare ratchets toward him like the head of a socket wrench.” (This makes no sense if you have ever used a socket wrench.) “Torn clouds flew overhead like the last shavings of a buzz saw nicking through wood.” (Likening clouds to buzz saw shavings strikes me as a stretch.) “Children kept their eyes trained on us while remaining still as things trapped under ice.” (Shouldn’t that be “trapped in ice”?) “The green inferno was humid to the point of hindered exhalation.” (This is what I mean by fuzzy and imprecise.) Disney World brings out the worst in Russell. There he boards a trolley that’s full of “a whole honking gaggle of Europeans.” These geese-like “Euros,” as he calls them, carry “water-bladderesque purses,” smoke unfiltered cigarettes and wear Capri pants “hemmed at inspired lengths.” Then: “I stretched out as the Euros exited the trolley. To the driver they trilled thank-yous, their English scented with accents that sounded the way flavored waters taste.” This sounds like it was written by one of the 200 million Americans who don’t own a passport and who, having never traveled to Europe, assume that all “Euros” share an accent, whether they come from Latvia or Luxembourg. It’s just plain bad writing—condescending, provincial and lazy.

Russell claims to loathe walking narratives, their “epiphanies” and “treacly sentimentality.” But the truth is that walking trips have inspired memorable writing by the likes of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Muir (whose own thousand-mile walk ended not far from where Russell’s began), Jon Krakauer, Bill Bryson, and Cheryl Strayed, to name a few. You could even throw Mao Zedong into the mix. At its best moments, In the Land of Good Living is a reminder of the walking narrative’s chief virtue: it allows a writer to pass through ever-changing worlds, observing and absorbing at a leisurely pace. In our revved-up, screen-addicted age, it’s quite possibly an idea whose time has come again.

In the end, Russell does arrive at some sharp insights. “Florida isn’t just Weird America,” he writes, “it is Impending America.” Meaning it’s where we’re headed as a nation— straight off the cliff and into the deep warm sea. Florida, he adds, is an “unplanned, untenable boondoggle,” a place where “fixed meanings are prohibited by the spirit if not the letter of the law.” Surprisingly, the book’s sharpest insight comes from UNAPOLOGETICALLY CANADIAN Glenn, who looks around at the human flotsam of central Florida and delivers an observation that explains a lot of things, right up to America’s botched handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Some 300 miles into the journey, Glenn stretches out his arms and blurts: “All of this Rebel flag, meth lab, Breaking-Bad-slave-compound militia business. Like, ‘I got a God-given right to defend my crappy, ignorant life! You wanna make my existence better? You wanna send my kids to school? You wanna give me healthcare? Fuck you!’” It would not be much of a stretch to update this sentiment with: “You wanna try to tell me to wear a mask? You wanna try to tell me to stay six feet away from that sneezing meth-cooker in the MAGA hat? I’m an American! Fuck you!”

I’m not giving up on Kurt Russell because of one uneven book. He has too much talent and too much promise. I just hope he clears up his back taxes and finds a subject that springs from his pure passion—as opposed to his need for a quick buck. And when he embarks on his next book, I hope he has the good sense to ditch the Canadian and the Iraq War vet, then keep his mouth shut and listen to the people he meets along the way.

A Nightingale in the Lion’s Den

I first met Kaya Genç at his home in Istanbul. It was 2017, and I lived a short walk away, up and down a few steep, sloping streets in the city’s historic core of Beyoglu. The district is a collision course of ideologies, where family grocers and underground factories compete with vegan restaurants and vintage clothiers. It snakes through a swathe of art galleries and antiques dealers before leading to a cross section of two alleyways, Altıpatlar and Çubukçu, which translate to six-shooter and pipe-maker, respectively. Under the nostalgic spell of meters-long Ottoman smokers and the 19th-century weapon-of-choice, the young journalist grinned, approaching mid-career prestige as arguably the most important Turkish writer writing in English still living in Turkey.

Around the corner, The Museum of Innocence received guests into a world of fictive artifacts based on Orhan Pamuk’s novel of the same name. Before becoming a political exile, the Nobel laureate would stroll under the shadow of Armenian tenements to schmooze with curators exhibiting contemporary installations on bare concrete floors, well-lit for teasing out the latest theories in conceptualism. It’s a milieu that Genç captures with verve in his second nonfiction book, The Lion and the Nightingale, which begins and ends on New Year’s Eve, encompassing the bittersweet political and cultural dramas that ensued and changed history in the year 2017 in the Turkish Republic.

Genç poured coffee, and raised his phone to snap a photo of me. He was making a record of every visitor. I was an admiring fellow writer, the younger; a year into my life in Istanbul, far-flung from my Anglo-American world. We wrote for the same arts section of a Turkish daily newspaper’s English-language edition. His criticism displayed a signature deftness and plain professionalism that lent itself to descriptive prose and the creative interpretation of his subjects. His style was spare, and incisive. He introduced his first-person voice with surprising freshness. When Recep Tayyip Erdoğan won reelection in 2018, Genç finished his New York Times op-ed with a tone of apathy, weary of his nation’s affinities for military coups and single-party rule.

I asked him what his aspirations were, as a writer who had published a novel in Turkish, and reams of journalism in two languages, leading to his 2016 book of reportage about the 2013 Gezi Park Protests, titled Under the Shadow: Rage and Revolution in Modern Turkey. He pointed to a tome by Masha Gessen, one of many stacked and shelved along with magazines of every variety, most including his contributions to the book reviews, from New York, Los Angeles, London, as well as The Nation, The Paris Review, and The New Yorker to name a few. He wanted his nonfiction to read like fiction. If that is the litmus test, The Lion and the Nightingale earns its keep.

The book opens tragically, with an intimate account of the Reina Nightclub massacre. Genç has a talent for writing about Turkey to Western taste, providing the usual fare of terror and oppression. Yet, he accommodates multiple perspectives while remaining convincingly independent, at times proudly and transparently leftist. His is the writing of a Turkish journalist committed to freedom of speech and assembly in a country where those rights are endangered. It is a boon for readers to have that delivered to them directly in English, from the source. In his humanist approach to bias, Genç stands with the artists that he portrays so personally in The Lion and the Nightingale. Journalism, Genç defends, is an art. And he has proven its merit as literature.

Artists, writers, musicians, intellectuals, generally liberals, are symbolized as nightingales by Genç, who sees Turkey’s sociocultural fabric as riven by their confrontation with representatives of militarism, industry and politics. On the right, populist strongmen and conservative demagogues assume his metaphor of lions. That dualism is fixed and encircled by multifarious external forces both malign and freeing, such as Turkey’s vulnerability to international terrorism and the compulsion to fight for individual, free expression as a people divided by ethno-religious majoritarianism, mass incarceration, and multigenerational diaspora.

But, as is typical to nations traditionally allied to the global East, liberalism has had a wholly different narrative in Turkey’s political history than that of Western democracies. Briefly, the Republic of Turkey was born out of a nationalist, secular dictatorship, a totalitarian liberalization led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The Lion and the Nightingale is an apt reflection on a mirror-like opposition to Western historical convention. The book’s focal point revolves around the rise of Erdoğan and his unprecedented consolidation of presidential power following the 2017 constitutional referendum. In response, nightingales changed their tune, migrated, or fell silent.

“In the eyes of liberal Turks, Erdoğan’s term in office began promisingly,” he wrote, giving ample background to the counterintuitive progression of Erdoğan’s ascent. “Here was a politician critical of Kemalism. He questioned the nationalistic foundations of the Turkish state. He appeared to criticize its patriarchal national identity. This was music to Nightingales’ ears. For a long while, many artists openly or discreetly supported the governing party. Through their art, they interrogated many aspects of the Turkish identity that it undermined. An awkward period ensued. The Turkish art world’s provocative iconoclasts were saying the same things as Turkey’s conservatives.”

But as he later comments, “Their overlapping agenda with the Lions was too good to be true.” The Lion and the Nightingale is also a work of meta-nonfiction. Genç takes the reader on the adventure of his research, explaining how and why he chose to interview certain people, barbers and housemaids as well as cultural and political elites. He empathizes with workers and their struggle to process their disempowerment. He approaches people especially skeptical and unused to voicing broad, societal concerns, and paints a number of intimate psychological portraits. “There is a strong element of fear of the state among Turks,” he wrote.

Adhering to principles of New Journalism, Genç reports in a way similar to Gay Talese, who confidently inked the thoughts of his sources. The reader rides shotgun with Abdulkadir Masharipov before and after his nightmarish shooting in the first hours of 2017. On his way to gunning down 39 people at Reina Nightclub, Genç profiles the terrorist’s exchange with the cab driver in staggering detail. “He felt awkward when the passenger asked if he could use his mobile,” he wrote. “The passenger was talking to someone he called hodja; the driver thought he was getting spiritual advice from an authority.” Reporting the thoughts and feelings of key witnesses makes for a stiff cocktail of literary journalism and crime drama.

Genç delivered a premeditated shock to the system by opening The Lion and the Nightingale with a sobering account of brutality in the heart of Istanbul. Four chapters chronicle each season set to despair, hope, dissent, and silence, in that order. Cingöz, a married man from a conservative neighborhood in Istanbul, has a nightmare and pens an arabesque poem on his morning commute: “I take refuge inside the smoke of my cigarette.” Genç charts the mental and emotional landscape of his people with visual acumen, to reflect the thoughts of the working class and professional artists that he followed and documented, down to their everyday activities, from the Anatolian countryside to the offices of Hong Kong.

With ample tact, reporting on the private lives of citizens is an ethical balancing act that, when effective, clarifies into the roots and ramifications of widespread social ills. It is particularly strategic when writing about the political atmosphere of a country like Turkey, where people are censored and criminalized for expressing themselves freely in public forums. “There was a gap between people’s views and their articulation in public,” wrote Genç. “In an Istanbul coffeehouse I thought how these two issues, the gap between private and public views, and our ability to cut ourselves off from reality, reflected my conflicted view of the state.”

Orhan Pamuk described the private-public gap in personal opinion most memorably for Genç in his 2014 novel, A Strangeness in My Mind, as “evidence of the power of the state.” Frequently, he compares Turkey’s stifling political climate with its complex relationship to American foreign policy, and the old European appetite for Orientalist prejudice. “This belief in our freedom to choose a future for Turkey is a very American way of thinking,” he wrote. As a student, Genç cultivated his unique stance within the domestic political spectrum as an internationalist intellectual. He grew up after Turkey’s first democratically elected politician, Adnan Menderes, fell to a military coup in 1960, entangled in U.S. withdrawal and intervention.

“I sensed people silently considered Turkey as a laboratory that could teach them about the future of the United States more than the history of my country,” he wrote. “I found this frustrating. Treating foreign cultures as testing grounds for their own was quintessential Orientalism.” Leftists Turks label advocates of progressive American values, liboş, or “sissy.” Since the media purge following 2016’s failed coup, foreign journalists increasingly claimed local coverage of Turkey in the international press. “I knew I could face the same prospect. Exile. Friends around me moved to London, Amsterdam, Berlin and other European capitals.”

As a self-proclaimed nightingale, Genç has been surprised by his reception at home, where, for example, after the publication of his first nonfiction book, Under the Shadow, about popular resistance against the current government during the 2013 Gezi Park Protests, the state-owned television station TRT World invited him to interview. He has a sense of humor remembering how mainstream Turkish newspapers reviewed his book positively. At the same time their columnists were rallying for the unjust detainment of philanthropist Osman Kavala, who spent more than two years in Europe’s largest maximum-security jail, located just outside Istanbul, for allegedly funding millions of protestors in 2013. (Kavala was acquitted in February only to be rearrested on equally spurious charges linking him to the 2016 failed coup.) Writing in English is a major part of Genc’s self-preservation. The vendetta against Kavala, Genç reported in his new book, is ideological warfare, waged by the lions incriminating nightingales, i.e. the culture sector, as the opposition.

In his recent essay for The Point, published in May, “How to Lose a Language,” adapted from the book How to Lose a Country by exiled Turkish journalist Ece Temelkuran, he reflected: “Absence of critical and scholarly attention, of financial reward and global reach, and lack of interest from peers all played a part in my decision to write in English. I have no regrets.” His English has a clear, distanced perceptivity underscored by his cultural and linguistic objectivity. The Lion and the Nightingale, however, enters deeply into the work of fellow Turkish journalists who write in Turkish, with special empathy for their struggles, personalities, and careers on the other side of a distinctly opaque language barrier.

One endearing nightingale is named Murat Çelikkan, whose quarter-century service to journalism culminated in his incarceration in the wake of the July 2016 failed coup. Working for a mainstream Turkish newspaper, he became a guest editor at Ozgur Gundem, a daily read mostly by Kurdish people. Genç realized he had walked past the paper’s offices at least twice a day for the last five years when he saw a video of the raid that shut the paper down. Çelikkan could often be seen in the bohemian neighborhood, red in the face and roaring with laughter behind his mischievous smile. But by September of 2016, he was learning Kurdish in a cell with four other inmates. It wasn’t the first time he suffered jail time, nor the second.

“In Cihangir, journalists were saddened by the news of his conviction. At a goodbye party, many broke down in tears. If such a senior editor could be put behind bars, what were the chances of young journalists who covered human rights issues,” Genç wrote about Çelikkan. He also depicts a young journalist named Ömer Şan. When San wrote his first poem in his hometown of Rize, along the Black Sea, a far cry from progressive circles in Istanbul, he shared stomping grounds with Ahmet Erdoğan, the father of the Turkish president. The region, Genç explained, is vital to understanding “New Turkey.”

Şan covered environmental protests, bolstering a tradition that inspired 3.5 million people to join the Gezi movement. “I found Şan’s story interesting not only because he spent his life attending May Days, like me, but also because he was a reporter. He had devoted his life to documenting injustices and stories that define life in Turkey,” Genç wrote in solidarity. “Despite censorship and state pressure, Şan remained a muckraker.” It is a stretch to imagine a nightingale raking the muck of concrete-heavy oppression. But when a country becomes a den of lions, a song, the night, and wings are saving graces. Or, as Genç wrote of his visit to the reclusive, prestigious artist Evlent Kutluğ Ataman, “He seemed victorious to be living in a massive house in the middle of nowhere.”

The Mystery of the Other and Preoccupation with the Self: On Meng Jin’s ‘Little Gods’

In her now-classic feminist manifesto The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir talks about “the myth of woman”: “If the definition provided for this concept is contradicted by the behavior of flesh-and-blood women, it is the latter who are wrong: we are told not that Femininity is a false entity, but that women concerned are not feminine.” The concept’s aim, as argued by Beauvoir, is to cast women as “the absolute Other” so they will always remain a subject that, in turn, “justifies and even authorizes” the abuse of the ruling caste: the men.
As we see in The Second Sex, and in later feminist movements, such a political manipulation of “myth” does not only apply to women, but to all underprivileged social groups: ethnic minorities, LGBTQ people. When one says, “Oh, they are just different,” what he is really doing is reconciling ignorance and indifference. This manipulation of myth—with its concomitant ignorance and indifference—also creates problems in the portrayal of minority characters in fiction. Today, we are aware of the racism inherent in the so-called Western Canon. When white male authors wrote The Other—consider, for example, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Kipling’s The Jungle Book—they tended to exploit the racial and cultural difference to render an unfathomable myth, thus consolidating white supremacy. To me, the flaws of those authors reflect the pervasive racism of their times. But, to this day, a literary dilemma persists. On the one hand, fiction requires an element of the mysterious to keep readers engaged; on the other hand, does the mysterious—similar to the concept addressed by Beauvoir—perpetuate the unfathomable myth and abet readers’ inability or unwillingness to truly understand The Other?

There is, of course, another option: writers can kill the mystery/myth, can resolve it, at least, in the end and teach readers a cheap lesson: that every human, regardless of background, is similar by nature. But that methodology can be problematic. I remember discussing A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood with some workshop friends in Iowa City. A woman said the novel helped her realize that love between gays was no different than love between man and woman. “But that’s not the point,” a gay friend interrupted. “Every individual and every love story are unique. If an author only shows the similarity without touching on individuality, then he pleases his readers by simplifying the facts.”
As a writer of color, Meng Jin must know the stakes and inherent challenges in writing a novel set mostly in China featuring characters that are Chinese or Chinese immigrants . The setting and characters will be The Other to English-speaking readers—and this means the mystery of the novel will naturally be received as foreignness. Additionally, Su Lan the central character of Jin’s debut novel, Little Gods, is not a likable person by any conventional standard. The book opens with Su giving birth to her only daughter, Liya, on the night of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. As the novel progresses, we learn more and more about Su’s complicated personality. She is a woman who endeavors, deliberately, to erase all the traces of her past, a scientist who devotes so much time to her research that her daughter feels neglected and unwanted. Su also behaves in such a way that her husband suspects that all men—himself included—will fall victim to her cruel, manipulative games.
Yet, Jin offers insights into the debate surrounding literary mystery/myth. And, Little Gods retains an element of mystery to its very end, without simply feeding readers a pleasing political message. In a way, Little Gods responds to Beauvoir’s myth of woman: in essence, the myth of woman is conjured by other self-centered parties. In Su Lan’s case, the two parties are her daughter, Liya, and husband, Yongzong.
Mother-daughter conflict is all too common. A lack of maternal warmth may result in a daughter’s constant hunger for love and intimacy; an excess of motherly love, by contrast, may diminish a grown daughter’s adulthood. But, what underlies all these tensions is perhaps the reduction of women to motherhood. As Beauvoir put it, if the definition of motherhood “is contradicted by the behavior of flesh-and-blood women, it is the latter who are wrong.”
In Little Gods, Liya, cannot understand or appreciate Su’s longings outside the realm of motherhood; and this lack of understanding and ignorance mutate into a growing mystery in the narrative. Su’s scientific aspirations—she dedicates her life to reversing the flow of time—are to Liya a rival for her mother’s attention. Of course, this is understandable for a small child, vulnerable and sensitive. A childhood episode explains the root of Liya’s tense relationship with Su: one night, Liya woke to find her mother missing. Frightened, she went to look for Su, ending up in the house of a neighbor who called the police. Su had gone to her lab to finish some work; she is, of course, reprimanded for neglect. But her mother’s frustration at juggling her various roles cements in Liya long-standing feeling of shame. “As I got older,” Liya confesses, “as my mother and I grew apart, I would be visited from time to time by that grey-black failure. I would find myself crouching again behind my mother’s legs, watching my opportunity to save her walk away.”
Immigration reinforces and perpetuates Liya’s inability to understand her mother. Su encourages Liya to learn English and to “sound exactly like an American.” However, the urgency of cultural assimilation pulls against maternal intimacy. “When I realized what was happening,” Liya says, “that with every new word of English I was becoming more and more unlike her, it was too late. I wanted to be exactly like my mother and she wanted me to be nothing like her.”
Indeed, prioritizing work and imposing integration on her daughter could be seen as maternal failures. But, as Liya later learns—when she takes Su’s ashes back to China after her mother’s unexpected death—a daughter has her own blind spots. Liya failed to recognize Su’s flesh-and-blood humanity, her pains, passions, and introverted personality. Additionally, Liya doesn’t grasp the hidden gender issues until she comes of age and reads Su’s letters: “Did you know Einstein was cruel to his first wife? And probably to his second? He was a bad father too. He had a daughter he never met—no one knew what happened to her. He had two sons. One died in a mental institution, alone.”
The heartbreaking story of Liya and Su Lan reminds me of a short essay I stumbled upon years ago. I forget its title, but still remember the opening: “Before grandma’s funeral, I only knew that I’d lost my grandma; but after that, I realized that my mother had lost her mother.” We are all likely to only perceive our relationships, and that is a major reason why The Other always appears so mysterious, almost impossible to comprehend.
Su’s husband, Yongzong, shares the limitations and faults of all mediocre, self-absorbed male characters in fiction. As his family’s only son, Yongzong has “no chores,” and picks “the best pieces of meat at meals.” Growing up taking his family’s care and attention for granted, Yongzong lacks sympathy even for those closest to him. After Su first visits his family, she speculates as to the magnitude of his mother’s illness, a fact to which Yongzong—then a trained doctor— had never paid enough attention. On an aesthetic level, I find Yongzong’s narrative the most suspenseful and intriguing
Take the love triangle between Yongzong; his high school best friend, Bo; and Su. Yongzong suspects he and Bo are made pawns in Su’s game of romance. But, the text also suggests a loss of primacy in adulthood is what really unsettles Yongzong. Su, like every woman, is free to choose her significant other, and this process is inevitably replete with confusion, regrets, and reluctances. Yongzong, habituated to viewing women as object of desire, fails to tackle the complexity of relationships. And only by blaming all his problems on Su, can he gloss over his incapacity for love between equals.
What I admire most about Little Gods is the intersection of Yongzong’s personal failures and China’s epochal political event. Since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests are among the few things American readers know about China, a writer must fight the temptation to take advantage of that existing knowledge. Meng Jin refuses to let politics define her fictional characters. In the novel, the marriage between Yongzong and Su is failing before the political storm rages. The main reason is fundamentally personal: Su’s pregnancy changes her body and makes her ugly; at least it seems so to Yongzong. However, the coming political movement provides Yongzong an opportunity to leave his mediocracy and selfishness at home—and to appear as a respected, responsible citizen on the streets. Su’s observations sound the alarm for today’s protesters:

Have you seen these children? If you watch them for even a second you can see they just love the attention, they love hearing the sound of their own voices followed by thunderous clapping, they love hearing their words repeated and chanted by the mob, and that’s my husband too.            

Later in the novel, Yongzong, irresponsible husband and father, will accuse his wife of being indifferent, irresponsible, and unpatriotic. In this way, his hatred for his wife finds legitimacy in a politically charged context.
Besides the brilliant and beautiful depiction of the myth/mystery in the eyes of egocentric beings, Meng Jin exhibits a rare appreciation of the depth of humanity. Su’s most striking attribute is a desperate need to wipe away the traces of her past. In a country that values history and rootedness, her conduct seems uncanny. However, toward the end of the novel, in an earnest effort to better know her mother, Liya learns Su’s choices have everything to do with China’s decades of poverty and her people’s toxic tendency to glorify self-sacrifice and suffering.
In the same chapter of The Second Sex where the aforementioned quotes appear, Beauvoir calls out for women to be recognized as human beings. “To discard the myths,” she announced, “is not to destroy all dramatic relation between the sexes, it is not to deny the significance authentically revealed to man through feminine reality; it is not to do away with poetry, love, adventure, happiness, dreaming. It is simply to ask that behavior, sentiment, passion be founded upon the truth”
Little Gods is lyrical, stunning, full of wisdom, and the fruit of Jin’s pursuit of truth. Seventy years after the publication of The Second Sex, I find myself possessing a more flexible attitude toward the concept of “myth” and the more commonly used literary term “mystery.” After all, there is always the myth and mystery of humanity, which authors shouldn’t ignore or simplify. Yet, we must not allow any myth or mystery to excuse self-involvement, and every truth-seeking author must not facilitate readers’ unwarranted complacency.
Bonus Link from Our Archive:– Writers to Watch: Spring 2020

Questioning Her Own Questioning: On Leslie Jamison’s ‘Make It Scream, Make It Burn’

“The impulse to escape our lives is universal,” Leslie Jamison writes in her new essay collection, Make It Scream, Make It Burn, a book—both directly and indirectly—full of methods to escape the doldrums of daily existence: virtual-world games, travel, near-mythic sea creatures, fairy tales, past lives, the unreality of Las Vegas.
Jamison writes, “Inhabiting any life always involves reckoning with the urge to abandon it—through daydreaming; through storytelling; through the ecstasies of art and music, hard drugs, adultery, a smartphone screen. These forms of ‘leaving’ aren’t the opposite of authentic presence. They are simply one of its symptoms—the way love contains conflict, intimacy contains distance, and faith contains doubt.” These lines capture an attitude that runs through the collection, a particular perspective that adheres together the book’s wide array of subjects and styles: even though the manifestations of our interests and beliefs might look vastly different, the same underlying challenges and desires unite us.
Jamison is known best for The Empathy Exams, an essay collection from 2014 propelled to international attention by way of its opening piece, a memoir-driven, braided essay investigating the idea of empathy. In many ways, the book was an unlikely hit. Sharing little in common with humorous personal essay collections—which often reach wide audiences and hit bestseller lists—The Empathy Exams uses a wild mix of forms and styles. It was research-based and journalistic as often as it was personal and more reminiscent of the work of writers like Baldwin and Didion.
But the magic of The Empathy Exams is simple: Jamison is a stunning writer. She’s an emotionally raw and revealing memoirist; a journalist looking outward with a keen and nuanced eye; a literary critic finding clues to understanding the modern world from the literature of the recent past. In the book, she seems to be Jo Ann Beard, Janet Malcom, and Susan Sontag all wrapped into one. And in the years since its release, The Empathy Exams has become a touchstone; one of those books that other books are frequently compared to.
Last year she published The Recovering, a personal and literary history of alcoholism and recovery. But Make It Scream, Make It Burn is the true follow-up for which fans and interested admirers have been waiting. This level of anticipation rarely bodes well. There are so many ways that a follow-up can disappoint and, as great as it is, Make It Scream, Make It Burn will surely disappoint some.
While The Empathy Exams set its tone by beginning with its most personal essay, Make It Scream begins with one of its least personal: “52 Blue,” the story of a lonely whale, singing its own tune, and the humans who turn the whale into a metaphor. It’s perhaps one of the collection’s best essays, but initially it doesn’t seem like an ideal opener; it’s a slow burn, research-heavy, loaded with exposition. It’s only through the second essay—“We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live Again,” a piece about past-life claims—that “52 Blue” is put into thematic context and the work it’s done as an opener suddenly becomes obvious.
“I’d grown deeply skeptical of skepticism itself,” Jamison writes in “We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live Again.” “It seemed easier to poke holes in things—people, programs, systems of belief—than to construct them, stand behind them, or at least take them seriously. That ready-made dismissiveness banished too much mystery and wonder.”
It’s the ultimate essayist move: a writer questioning her own questioning; pushing against the act of pushing against. Though she never addresses where the boundaries of open-minded consideration lie, the essay’s bid for mystery and wonder feels exciting, almost ecstatic. It’s here that the book picks up speed and the collection’s larger themes come into focus: the limitations of doubt, how narrative and metaphor operate in our daily lives, and the universal need to believe in self-improvement. She writes, “Reincarnation struck me as an articulation of faith in the self as something that could transform and stay continuous at once—in sobriety, in love, in the body of a stranger.”
Jamison is an expert at restraint. She often holds her opinions back to let her readers come to their own conclusions, and she regularly keeps essays from becoming too personal to ensure the subject at hand isn’t overshadowed. But it’s when she lets the reins out—when she momentarily puts her journalist and literary-critic selves to the side—that her talent becomes more obvious.
In “Layover,” Jamison begins with a simple situation—“This is the story of a layover,” she writes. “Who tells that story? I’m telling it to you now.”—and lets it expand into the universal, like the perfectly impossible textbook definition of a personal essay and what it can do. What begins as a piece about an annoying, overnight layover develops into a piece about the blurry lines between selflessness and selfishness. “Does graciousness mean you want to help—or that you don’t, and do it anyway?” Jamison writes. “The definition of grace is that it’s not deserved. It does not require a good night’s sleep to give it, or a flawless record to receive it. It demands no particular backstory.”
Later in the book, “Rehearsals” opens with a line announcing a certain wildness to come: “Weddings are holiness and booze, sweat under the dress, sweet icing in the mouth.” As unhinged as the best wedding dance party, the essay flips from the second person to first person, bouncing around the country, chronicling the narrator’s experiences as a wedding guest. Beyond its sentence-level play, it manages to also be in conversation with the collection’s ideas about constructing narrative and casting doubt aside. “You feel the lift of wine in you, you feel the lift of wine in everyone, and you’re all in agreement—not to believe in love, but to want to. This, you can do.”
As skeptical as Jamison has become of skepticism, she’s still a skeptic in a certain essayistic sense: she’s always digging deeper, refusing to trust surface appearances, never letting a wedding be just a wedding. “Everyone talks about weddings as beginnings but the truth is they are also endings,” she writes. “They give a horizon to things that have been slowly dissolving for years: flirtations, friendships, shared innocence, shared rootlessness, shared loneliness.”
Despite these gems of forward motion, Make It Scream, Make It Burn doesn’t have the same energy of The Empathy Exams. In large part, it’s simply because the book is so neatly organized. While The Empathy Exams bounced between essay forms, giving it an excitement and unpredictability, this collection is broken up into three sections, with similar essays grouped together. The book is perhaps more coherent because of it, but it also creates spots where the pace slows to a crawl—especially in the middle section, where a series of three art and literary criticism essays bogs the book down, despite each essay working individually.
Still, Make It Scream is easily one of the best essay collections of the year, if not of the past decade. Jamison is a superstar of personal essay for a reason—not only is she a great prose stylist and meticulous researcher, she’s also infinitely curious. It’s this curiosity that makes everything she writes so infectious and makes this collection what it is: a wise and open assortment of essays that, throughout, feels like a gift.
Bonus Links from Our Archive:– Fellow Creatures: Leslie Jamison’s ‘The Empathy Exams’Notes from the Purgatory File: An Interview with Leslie JamisonA Year in Reading: Leslie JamisonBottoming Out: On Leslie Jamison’s ‘The Recovering’The Millions Interview: Leslie Jamison

Confronting Hypocrisy on the Page: On Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘We Are the Weather’

The bookseller’s baby was three months old, and when the weather turned colder she realized she owned exactly one pair of pants that fit. We lamented the high cost of ethical clothing and how hard it was to justify when one’s body was in transition. We agreed it was all too easy to give in to the temptation of fast fashion, even though we knew its impacts on the environment and human rights. We bemoaned the hunt for secondhand items—how even though there were so many on sale, there were so few of quality. Neither one of us wanted or needed jeans with bedazzled, leopard-print back pockets.

People I know often bring up the topic clothing because they know I sew and write about slow fashion—sustainable, ethical, and slower approaches to consumption that include handmade garments, buying secondhand, and mending. Recently, I started saying little in return—not because I was at a loss for words, but because everything I could say about the subject of clothing and its impacts on the environment and human rights seemed at once too complicated and eternally insufficient.

It’s all been said.

Which is how I imagine Jonathan Safran Foer felt at the outset of We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast. In his latest nonfiction book, the author outlines how the climate crisis can be partially addressed by reexamining, yet again, our consumption of animal products. It’s a natural progression from 2009’s Eating Animals, which combined memoir and investigative reporting to examine factory farming. Yet We Are the Weather is not interested in rehashing the same arguments as much as it is interrogating why we aren’t acting on what we know.

What we know: the four main ways to help save life on the planet are to eat less meat, drive less, fly less, and have one less child. Foer argues most of us rely on cars to get to work, many of us aren’t flying frequently (and giving up one or two flights a year wouldn’t be too difficult or too impactful), and most people aren’t deciding whether or not to have a child (though as a 32- year-old woman, it does seem like everyone is in the midst of that decision).

Out of these four, the one decision we make on a daily basis is what to eat. Another daily decision that isn’t discussed in We Are the Weather but seems worthy of consideration is what to wear.

The food system is a vastly larger animal (pun intended) than the fashion industry when it comes to ecological impact, but the latter’s influence is not insignificant: the UN reports the fashion industry “consumes more energy than the aviation and shipping industry combined,” contributes to approximately 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and produces 20 percent of global waste water. Additionally, 85 percent of textiles end up in landfills or are incinerated when most of the materials could be reused. One pair of denim jeans uses 10,000 liters of water, which would take one person a decade to drink.

And yet knowing what we know doesn’t always lead to action.

Foer spent three years researching Eating Animals, followed by two years of readings, lectures, and interviews about the book. Despite this, the author couldn’t bring himself to abstain from eating meat, dairy products, and eggs.

“So it would be far easier for me not to mention that in difficult periods over the past couple of years—while going through some painful personal passages, while traveling the country to promote a novel when I was least suited for self-promotion—I ate meat a number of times,” Foer writes in We Are the Weather. “Usually burgers. Often at airports. Which is to say, meat from precisely the kinds of farms I argued most strongly against.”

He adds, “And my reason for doing so makes my hypocrisy even more pathetic: they brought me comfort.”

Last year, after my mother called to say her flight had been cancelled and she wouldn’t make it for Thanksgiving, I drove to the mall. I gravitated toward rows of shoes. A pair of nude heels called out to me: faux suede, ankle strap sandals with a three-inch block heel and cross toe, marked down to $22, which happens to be my lucky number. I tried them on over socks, took a picture, and texted it to my mother, who was still on the bus home from the airport. Should I buy these? 

I knew I shouldn’t. I knew $22 for a pair of shoes meant somewhere someone had cut corners: not paying workers a living wage, unsafe factory conditions, environmentally unsound practices, or all of the above. I knew the materials were not biodegradable, so the shoes would sit in a landfill for longer than I’d ever wear them. I knew it was impractical to buy high-heeled sandals in Wisconsin in November.

And yet I bought them, wore them exactly twice, and still see them in my closet each day. They brought me comfort when I needed consolation, but the alleviation was short-lived, replaced by the discomforting fact of my complicity and hypocrisy.

In the chapter of We Are the Weather titled “Dispute With the Soul,” Foer laments how one of his friends—“a fellow writer and, what’s more, a passionate environmentalist”—refuses to read Eating Animals. “It upsets me because he is a sensitive thinker who cares and writes about the preservation of nature,” Foer writes. “If he is unwilling even to learn about the connection between eating and the environment, what hope is there for hundreds of millions of people to alter their lifelong habits?”

The chapter is a back-and-forth between the author and an unnamed, unidentified entity, presumably the soul, which asks, “Why won’t he read it?” 

Foer’s reply: “He told me he’s afraid to read the book because he knows that it will require him to make a change he can’t make.”

The author clarifies that he doesn’t intend to make himself out to be better than his friend, but uses “his shortcomings to illustrate my own: if I argue against eating animal products while continuing to eat them myself, then I am a massive hypocrite.” Foer then names this as a problem not because of the impacts of those actions, but because “no one wants to be a hypocrite.”

The author investigates his own hypocrisy by mining history for stories of individuals and collectives, questioning their actions like he interrogates his own. Foer examines whether personal actions matter when the problem is systemic and structural. Everyone I spoke to about the book immediately brought up the same point: our individual habits don’t matter, and focusing on personal responsibility becomes a way of excusing corporations and entire nations whose contributions to the climate crisis are inexcusable.

The title and subtitle seriously oversimplify Foer’s book, and what could be misconstrued as a pedantic and mildly pejorative tome extolling the virtues of veganism is actually an investigation of our daily choices, what they say about us as individuals, and what they could say about humanity. It is not about food so much as it is about life and how to live it, which is fitting as the two are inextricably linked.

Nonfiction is often a presentation of the author’s research tied up with a neat conclusion about what to do with this information. We Are the Weather essentially says: I did the research, I know the conclusion, but I am unable to live into what I know is right and good—not just for me but also for future generations. 

“Confronting my own hypocrisy has reminded me how difficult it is to live—even to try to live—with open eyes,” Foer writes.

Although the environmental impacts of clothing manufacturing are not unpacked in We Are the Weather, Foer collaborated with sustainability-minded designer Stella McCartney on a capsule collection named after the book. It’s not the first time a major label has emblazoned a book’s title on a t-shirt—in 2016, Dior’s first female creative director, Maria Grazia Chiuri, designed white tees featuring the title of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists for her inaugural collection. Dior’s feminist shirts will set you back $860, while Foer’s are $530 apiece; their high price tags perpetuate the unfortunate notion that slow fashion or feminism are for those who can afford it, as though they are luxuries.

Reflecting on the collaboration three years later, Adichie told Elle, “A t-shirt is not going to change the world, right? But I think change happens when we spread ideas.”

The building and layering of ideas and stories in the book becomes an implicit reminder that change doesn’t happen overnight. Decisions are daily, and the impacts are revealed over time, many of which are unseen by those who have the privilege of choice, keeping us from implementing any personal, meaningful change. At points, Foer returns to the linguistic roots of words like “crisis,” which “derives from the Greek krisis, meaning ‘decision.’”

“Encoded into our language is the understanding that disasters tend to expose what was previously hidden,” he writes. “As the planetary crisis unfolds as a series of emergencies, our decisions will reveal who we are.”

We’re grappling with who we are as a society and culture—not only to let the climate crisis reach this point, but to continue to hurtle down a terrifying trajectory. We may not know who we are just yet, but we know who we don’t want to be: hypocrites—people who act contradictory to their stated beliefs or feelings.

The word hypocrisy is borrowed from the Greek hypokrisis: playing a part on the stage, pretending to be something one is not. Is it a coincidence that the latter half of hypokrisis is the same root as krisis, a decision?

Bonus Links from Our Archive:
A Year in Reading: Jonathan Safran Foer
Sentimental and Manipulative: On Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘Here I Am’
Cut and Dry: Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘Tree of Codes’
Storytelling: Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘Eating Animals’

Modern Feminism’s Big Lie: On ‘Fleishman Is in Trouble’

In her debut novel, Fleishman Is in Trouble, New York Times Magazine staff writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner has done something astounding. The astounding thing isn’t that she’s written a book that’s garnered praise in both commercial and literary circles. Although yes, Fleishman Is in Trouble is a true commercial success, a witty New York Times bestseller that’s going to become a limited series on FX. And yes, it’s a literary-world darling, too, making the longlist for the 2019 National Book Award.

The remarkable thing Brodesser-Akner has done is to write a book that offers a sharp critique of the lie fueling modern feminism and is brilliantly disguised as a book about a man.

That man is Toby Fleishman, a 40-something liver doctor going through a divorce from Rachel. Rachel, we learn, is a status-obsessed social climber. Rachel is also the couple’s primary breadwinner (in this echelon of wealth, a medical salary is chump change compared to Rachel’s earnings running a talent agency), and Rachel is the spouse who, at the onset of the novel, drops their two kids off with Toby in the middle of the night before completely disappearing.

So, we follow Toby as he tries to find Rachel and process the end of his marriage and handle his kids and earn a promotion. Then there’s the apps. Newly single Toby has discovered the world of dating apps, a world that is, in the book as in real life, as exciting as it is draining as it is confidence-boosting as it is hilarious as it is deeply depressing.

Brodesser-Akner is equally entertaining and insightful as she judgmentally walks us through Manhattan’s world of the incredibly rich, its uber-alpha, finance-bro husbands and stay-at-home mothers with an endless supply of nannies, yoga pants, and tanks proclaiming “Lipstick & Lunges” and “Nevertheless, She Perspired.” From inside Toby’s mind and world, Brodesser-Akner makes some shrewd, impactful, incredibly funny, and incredibly correct points about class and friendship and marriage and divorce and aging and parenting and love. And there’s a version of this book that could have carried on that way to the end. Fortunately, Brodesser-Akner has written something better.

Which brings me to Libby. Did I mention that Toby’s story—in fact, the whole book—is narrated by Libby, a friend of Toby’s from his college years and a former magazine writer turned Jersey housewife? Libby is easy to overlook for the book’s first half, portrayed mostly as Toby’s omnipresent narrator, rather than an actual character with her own story to tell.

But as the book goes on, Libby becomes a person with her own story—and that story is about a world that stops seeing women as people as they become brides and wives and mothers and, ultimately, personality-less containers we can fill with the familiar, simplified stereotypes we hold about those roles.

Of course, Brodesser-Akner is not the first to tackle how age makes women’s wants and needs and general personhood disappear from the public’s collective mind. Still, there’s something new here. This book is not about women fighting those stereotypes, let alone overcoming them, as such examinations usually become; no one is finding herself here. Instead, Fleishman Is in Trouble is a long-overdue look at women who are disappearing in real time. Women who didn’t realize this would happen to them, too.

Which is to say, from Libby’s story emerges Rachel’s story—which is, of course, more complex and painful than Toby’s version of her story—from which emerges all the stories of the women who once seemed like one-dimensional side characters in a man’s story.

The more the women come into focus, the more compelling the book becomes, to no surprise to anyone who has read Brodesser-Akner’s magazine work. At a time when lots of smart ladies are writing lots of smart things about being a woman, Brodesser-Akner has established herself with a singular ability to write about her gender. A recounting of Rachel’s traumatic delivery of her first child is one of the book’s most haunting and stand-out moments. The fact that afterward Rachel feels most understood by the women she meets in a rape survivor’s group is a damning, but not inaccurate, assessment of all the different ways women’s bodies are violated.

Once the women’s lives are fully realized, readers are left with Rachel, a woman who has thrown her life into her job and winds up unhappy; Libby, who quit her job to become a full-time mother in the suburbs and winds up unhappy; Nahid, a woman Toby meets on a dating app who had no kids and never worked and offered her rich husband lots of sex and winds up unhappy; and Karen Cooper, a hospital patient in a coma because no one was able to diagnose her with a disease that could have been very easy to diagnose by looking her in the eye. And on the list goes until you have to ask: What, exactly, was the path these women were supposed to take to make things turn out differently? How does one escape the pitfalls of being a woman?

And yes, the problem with women is men. Because if you follow any female character’s problems back far enough, you’ll eventually hit a man—a cheating spouse, a sexist boss, etc. But the men are not the enemy. Not exactly. Because the book’s women, on the whole, are just as flawed as the men, and Toby, our leading guy, is never really treated as a villain.

The problem is the lie the women have been fed: that sexism is over and the world is fair and that if a woman plays her cards right, she can avoid disappearing. As narrator Libby explains it, “When Rachel and I were little girls, we had been promised by a liberated society that had almost ratified the Equal Rights Amendment that we could do anything we wanted. We were told that we could be successful, that there was something special about us that we could achieve anything.”

From there comes an absolute evisceration of The Future Is Female t-shirts and other such mantras and commodities that modern feminism feeds us. Really, the whole book is worth reading for this passage alone.

And the problem is the Modern Feminist WomanTM Fleishman’s female characters thought they could become. They thought they could live in a world without the barriers that held back the women who came before them. They thought they had choices and that they could be mothers and workers and do yoga or just wear yoga pants without doing yoga, and they thought that they could Have. It. All. while simultaneously laughing at the idea of having it all. And the women thought this because this was the image of modern feminism they had been sold from their childhood years of Take Your Daughter to Work Day to today’s endless supply of cheap girl-power slogans or even, dare I say it, pussy hats. But for Libby and Rachel, this is part of modern feminism’s big lie. All of it tokens women mistakenly accept in exchange for experiencing the same sorts of barriers that have always held women back. (Of course, if you don’t take the tokens, you’ll hit the barriers anyway.)

At this point, it seems worth stating that Brodesser-Akner has not written an angry book. She has, in fact, written a very funny book, and a compassionate and heartbreaking one, too. Equally apparent, Brodesser-Akner has written a very tired book, which is probably the perfect emotion for any book tackling issues of gender in Trump’s America. Fleishman Is in Trouble is a book that is desperately searching for solutions to the despair of gender disparity that it knows it won’t find —and yet, Brodesser-Akner and her characters helplessly and relentlessly and incredibly charmingly search for them anyway.

Amazing Grace: Reading Kelly J. Beard’s ‘An Imperfect Rapture’

Absolutism is a rhetoric of political convenience, a flashcard deck of judgments with Old Testament swiftness and certainty. Blue collar, white collar, and the billionaire class. Urban and rural. Red state versus blue state. Fact and fable. Each term generates its own litany of forgivable and unforgivable sins. These absolutes efface our desire to understand—a yearning necessary for true intellectual growth and narrative, as Malcolm Heath notes in the introduction to his translation of Aristotle’s Poetics.

Kelly J. Beard’s memoir, An Imperfect Rapture, speaks across the void between those absolutes. The youngest child to a set of parents devoted to each other and the fundamentalist principles of the Foursquare Church, Beard takes the courageous plunge back into the 1960s and ’70s of her youth. As she explores her past, she slowly shines light onto the events that scaffolded her childhood and adolescence: domestic violence, disability, mental illness, addiction, poverty, shame, and the dissonance between the promises of faith and the family’s dire financial straits.

Neither elegy nor ode, neither dirge nor fanfare, Beard’s memoir carefully attunes the harmonic resonances between her memories, her vulnerability, and her own capacity for forgiveness. The first scene presents these elements with a dynamic swell. The opening paragraph is a single sentence—“My mother saw demons.”—a fierce downbeat that pulls the reader into a tangle of fraught intimacies. In this scene, Beard’s mother is confiding in her Bible study group from Palm Spring’s Desert Chapel. As a member of the church’s telephone prayer chain, she received calls to minister to the ill, or to those showing signs of demonic possession: “My mother told the circle of women about a call she received the night before. A boy. A teenager who came home from youth services to find his mother naked, thrashing in the shallow end of the pool, gurgling like a baby.”

Beard’s parents leave their own children at home to minister to her; they “stayed all night, praying with the woman in the pool.” It’s a harrowing story. Yet, through this scene, Beard telegraphs the issues that vexed her early years. Her parents’ dedication to each other and their faith left their children neglected and abandoned—even if the kids were unaware of it at the time. As Beard’s mother recalls the prayer visit to the woman in the pool for her church group, the events of the previous night pulse for Beard with the discomfort of a dull ache:
I thought about Mama waking me the night before, how I’d listened to Daddy peeing in the tiny turquoise and white tiled bathroom across the hall while she told me they were leaving to pray for a lady. I begged to go along. No, she said, we think she’s demon possessed, we can’t let you get that close. The toilet flushed. She disappeared into the dark.

I lay awake the rest of the night, my cotton gown sticky as I listened to my sister’s rhythmic huffs in the bunk below. She slept through everything.
The moment is an otherworldly snapshot of a night in the Beard household, perfectly compressed. The Palm Spring house is claustrophobic—she can hear her father in the bathroom and she is literally bunked snug above her sister. Here, Beard intimates a few truths about her family. Her parents are on a mission, together. They believe in the power of prayer above all else. And for those two things, they’ll leave their children in the dark of night.

Despite this vague awareness, Beard writes, “I knew I was vulnerable. This knowledge kept me pinned to the floor at her feet, week after week, my cheek pressed against the cream-and-black speckled linoleum, the yellow ties of her apron dangling out of reach.”

It’s not hard to imagine Beard as a child reaching for her mother’s apron strings, in the hope of grasping some tether to genuine affection, with true comfort always out of reach.

Vulnerable and hurt, yet patient and forgiving, Beard’s tone throughout the memoir evades the polemical rage of memoirs like J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, which wield domestic violence, poverty, and substance abuse as an ideological cudgel. As Flannery O’Connor puts it in her essay collection Mystery and Manners, “Our response to life is different if we have been taught only a definition of faith than if we have trembled with Abraham as he held the knife over Isaac.”

And the Beard family certainly trembles. The children cower if their father wears a certain belt, because they know the slightest accident or indiscretion—something as simple as spilling milk—can provoke him. They endure his physical lashings, alongside the verbal ones doled out by their mother. (While she does not condone the abuse, Beard’s empathy compels her to grapple with her parents’ specters: her father’s impoverished upbringing, her mother’s loneliness.) Beard contends with eyesight bad enough to render her legally blind, but the blessings of modern optometry pale when a prayer meeting seems to heal her sister’s eye: “For my parents, Barb’s experience seemed to dilute the miracle of the half-inch thick glasses that focused my sight.”

But there are perils beyond the household and the church. When Beard’s father loses his job as a salesman for Farmhand equipment, life in Palm Springs becomes untenable. The family uproots for Colorado, then Montana, as her father chases odd jobs (traveling salesman, newspaper routes, ranch hand, and more) to provide a home for the family—not an easy task, for a man well beyond his middle years. Naturally, to resolve this apparent trial of Job, her parents turn to prayer. “And as happened more times than not,” Beard writes, “the answer to their prayers cost more than they expected.” Beard’s mother finds that her credits in a nursing program won’t transfer, and she has to retake classes in Colorado—amplifying her vindictiveness.

To compensate, Beard cycles through a revolving door of friends and experiments with drugs. For another memoirist, it would be easy to resort to a rhetoric of absolutes, of vindictive condemnation. But Beard’s elegant and direct prose teems with complexity and nuance. Moreover, with the benefit of hindsight, the memoir peels back the rind of anger and finds within a morsel of grace.

A pivotal scene demonstrates how the memoir shucks off the visceral, immediate reactions that might occur in real life, in fiction, or in a spur-of-the-moment telling. Beard’s parents had promised that she, then a teenager, could trick-or-treat with her friend Denise; instead, her parents saddle her with humiliating chores and her father beats her. For revenge, she runs off with Denise, and the two bunk away in a dorm room at the University of Colorado. There’s a hint of sexual awakening when, in the dorm room, “Denise and I glanced at each other like newlyweds.” And their time in the dorm lights in her an epiphany that, in the twilight years of her adolescence, will spark a passion for music and creative writing. “[I]t never occurred to me,” Beard writes, “that college could be exciting or anything other than a means to a job like teaching or nursing.” (Here, Beard’s work resembles such kin as Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland or Tara Westover’s Educated: In all of these memoirs, education equips the author with the desire to understand and the capacity to forgive.)

After a few days spent smoking and lingering together in a twin bed, Denise decides to go home, which triggers intense feelings of abandonment and fear: “In my head, I begged please don’t leave me please don’t leave me please don’t leave me.”

The memoir refuses to rage against Denise. Beard ends the scene and the paragraph, stating, “It will take me more than thirty years to see her decision as grace, to understand her mother’s desperate barter.” She glances toward the future, Halloween of 2004, when her own daughter gathers with friends before trick-or-treating. She sees in them a reflection of her young self: “In that moment, an opaque film will dissolve from my inner eye, and I will see in them what I missed in myself: how delicate their limbs, how fragile their lives. I will see the intricate, mostly inarticulate ties binding mother to daughter. I will glimpse an angel.”

What is truly masterful in An Imperfect Rapture, though, is the texture of Beard’s prose and her capacity to inflect each sentence with urgency, insight, and compassion. Like life, narrative involves so many acts of faith, ones that demand us to accept and revel in the fraught and the complex. That Beard transcends righteous anger through an ethic of forgiveness and tolerance—an ethic that demands that readers abandon the easy ideology of absolutes and assumptions—is an added grace of this vital memoir.