Dubravka Ugrešić Looks for Home

1.
As her native Yugoslovia became embroiled in war in the early 1990s, Dubravka Ugrešić left. She thought she was leaving for a short time—just a brief visit to Amsterdam. She wound up staying away longer than she planned, as she writes in the opening pages of American Fictionary: “Every day I would set off for the station and then postpone my return to Zagreb with the firm intention of leaving the next day…And then I suddenly decided I would not go back.” Ugrešić remained in Amsterdam until the time came for her to travel to Middletown, Connecticut, for a guest lectureship at Wesleyan University. She would eventually return to her homeland a year or so later, but only briefly, eventually being forced into exile in Amsterdam for her anti-war and anti-nationalist stances.

American Fictionary, out last year from Open Letter in an excellent updated translation by Ellen Elias-Bursać, is a collection of essays written while Ugrešić lived in Middletown. The brief pieces run the gamut of topics, from the American obsession with the organizer, to what it means to be an Eastern European Writer, to the mythical image America has of itself, even to a diatribe against the muffin (“A muffin is an infantile form of mush, a hodge-podge, the muffin is a treat for the poor and the amateur, the muffin is not just simple, it’s crude”).

Ugrešić writes as a poignant critic of American consumerism, of American individualism, and of the American pursuit of perfection. She sees in American cultural obsessions a commitment to the pursuit of tidiness. Though she recognizes an absence in her American subjects—“No American with a smidgen of self-respect knows who he or she is: that’s why every American has a shrink”—she keenly observes that they do everything in their power to mask it. We Americans hide our chaos in our organizers. “Chaos is divvied up into little piles, stowed away in shiny plastic compartments and closed with a zip-lock. Zip! There. No more chaos. No more darkness.” She longs to do the same with her own personal wreckage:
I don’t know where my former home is or where my future home will be, I don’t know whether I have a roof over my head, I don’t know what to think of my childhood, my origins, my languages. What about my Croatian, my Serbian, my Slovene, my Macedonian? What about the hammer and the sickle, my old coat of arms and my new one, or the yellow star? What to do with the dead, with the living, with the past or the future. I’m walking, talking chaos. This is why I buy organizers.
This sense of a lost home, and the disorientation Ugrešić experiences in its wake, is at the heart of her work. Reading American Fictionary with some knowledge of what’s to come for Ugrešić is harrowing—the return home that Ugrešić occasionally anticipates in these essays will not come to fruition; her homeland will not take her back.

“I shudder at my homeland,” she writes in “Life Vest,” the last original piece in the book, written as she finally flies toward Zagreb. “I shudder at the thought of the new country where I’ll be a stranger, whose citizenship I have yet to apply for, I’ll have to prove I was born there, though I was, that I speak its language, though it is my mother tongue.” Ugrešić imagines a certain kind of homelessness—one in which, though living in her native place, she has to go through the motions of acquiring legitimate legal residence. What she ended up with was exile. As she writes in “P.S.,” her addendum to American Fictionary included in Open Letter’s new edition, “I imagined that my work on the essays for my American fictionary would be my way of sketching my homeward trajectory. Soon enough the opposite proved true: the essays were, instead, an introduction to a different sort of fictionary, to the exile on which I embarked in 1993, only a year after I’d returned from America.” Ugrešić has been based in Amsterdam ever since.

2.
There’s a passage in Fox, another recent work of Ugrešić’s published by Open Letter (and translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać and David Williams), that suggests how Ugrešić might conceptualize the idea of home today. In the passage, an anonymous reader bequeaths the narrator, who closely resembles Ugrešić, a home in Kuruzovac, a remote town in Croatia. The gesture is rife with symbolism, of course, in part suggesting that insofar as Ugrešić has found a home to replace the one she lost, she’s found it in her global community of readers.

The narrator spends several idyllic days in the home in Kuruzovac, days that include a brief love affair with a mine remover who was squatting in the home when she arrived. The landscape of the region, the purple lilacs that abound, prompt memories of her childhood, of how, “when we were little girls, we carried flowers around in the thumb crease, holding our hands out before us like tiny trays bearing crystal goblets.” The morning after she arrives at the home, she goes out to the porch: “The air was redolent of lilacs. Down the steps I went and picked a lilac cluster. Back on the porch, I sat on the bench, broke off a tiny goblet-like floret, and poked it into the crease alongside my thumb. I sat there, thumb out before me, elbow propped on knee, taking care that the floret didn’t tip over—and breathed in the new morning. I cannot remember a morning that seemed newer.” The passage seems to harken to this one from American Fictionary, where Ugrešić recounts a stay at an inn in Norman, Oklahoma:
When I came out in my pajamas one early October morning onto the veranda, I sat on the porch swing and sipped at my warm coffee…the wail of a train’s whistle cut through the stillness, a sound I hadn’t heard since my childhood. This was an auditory reminder that trains passed through the town but didn’t stop. Enchanted by the air, as sweet and fragrant as an overripe melon, I felt as if here, on this porch…I could stay forever. That veranda is my “homeland.”
Similarities abound between these two depictions of a homeland—home is found in a middle-of-nowhere place, away from the forces of power and war that might like to force her out; the feeling of having found some sort of home comes on the heels of recollections from her childhood, perhaps the only time when she felt she truly had a home. As Fox’s narrator leaves Kuruzovac, though, the reality of what home has become in her life reemerges, and she faces the true nature of her world: “The world is a minefield and that’s the only home there is. I must accustom myself to this fact.”

I feel melancholy when I read Ugrešić—for the ways in which she calls out the foolishness of American culture and what we choose to value (observations as sharp today as they were some 25 years ago), and for seeing what was lost for her and so many others divorced from their homeland. There’s a palpable sorrow in her writing, culminating in moments where the wound feels especially raw. “At the end of every year I secretly wish for all my friends and acquaintances to live at last in peace with themselves.” Reading these essays, I find myself wishing that for Ugrešić—that she might find herself calmly reclining on that verandah in Norman, Oklahoma, at some version of peace with herself.

The True Crime Story That (Might Have) Inspired Nabokov to Write ‘Lolita’

The headline says it all: “Girl Who Was Kidnaped [sic] at 11 Killed at 15 in Auto Crash.”  The newspaper article, dateline Woodbine, N.J., goes on to report: “Florence (Sally) Horner, 15, the victim in a bizarre kidnapping case a few years ago, was killed in an automobile accident yesterday on the Woodbine-Dennisville road.” “Yesterday” was around midnight on August 17, 1952.

In her thoroughly researched The Real Lolita, Sarah Weinman proposes that Sally Horner was the inspiration for Dolores Haze (a.k.a. Lolita) in Vladimir Nabokov’s masterwork, Lolita, a novel that has endured for more than 60 years.

Does it really matter? What if the young girl from Camden was the model for the nymphet from Ramsdale? Who was Sally Horner? Who is Dolores Haze? Does one person illuminate or eliminate the other? Does it make any difference in reading the novel?

These are just a few of the tantalizing questions raised by Weinman’s evocative literary detection. Arguably she has done exhaustive research.  But to what end? And for what purpose?

Weinman carries some serious pedigree in the world of crime fiction. She edited two volumes about women writers and domestic suspense—Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s and Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense. Like all good scholars she likes subtitles.

In this case, the subtitle—“The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World—promises more than the book can deliver. Sally Horner’s kidnapping was real. Lolita’s kidnapping is fiction. And Dolores Haze rose from the imaginative mind of her creator.

Weinman takes as her impetus a parenthetical aside late in the novel. The narrator, Humbert Humbert, conjectures, “(Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank Lasalle, a fifty-year old mechanic, had done to eleven-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?).” In the context of the novel, the sentence hardly bears rereading. It seems an intrusion into the narrative. Out of context, it conflates a historic event with a fabricated one. But, who was Frank Lasalle? And what does he—the person who kidnapped the real-life Sally—have to do with Lolita or Lolita to do with him?

The first fact reported about Sally Horner in the opening pages of The Real Lolita is a childhood incident that connects her to Frank Lasalle. On a dare from friends in the fifth grade, and wanting to be a part of their group, Sally steals a five-cent notebook from a Woolworth’s in Camden, N.J., in March 1948. She’s unaware that she’s being watched by a middle-aged man. When he accosts her, he claims to be an FBI agent. He says he is going to arrest her but will let her go if she agrees “to report to him from time to time.”

That man turns out to be Lasalle (a.k.a. Frank Warner), a convicted sex offender who had just been released after “serving a sentence for statutory rape of five girls between the ages of twelve and fourteen.” The petty crime and subsequent encounter define the remainder of Sally’s short, tragic life.

While it’s important to recognize the facts about Sally Horner, Weinman also relies on conjecture, often based on second-hand information from friends or acquaintances of Sally to fill the gaps of her speculative narrative. This mixing of fact and conjecture mutes the overall effect of her argument.

What is known is the circuitous path that Sally and Lasalle took across America beginning on June 14, 1948, starting with a bus ride to Atlantic City. They quickly left the shore town and headed to Baltimore, Maryland, which they left by early 1949, heading to Dallas, Texas, where Lasalle claimed the FBI has reassigned him. Eventually the pair end up in a trailer park in San Jose, California, having passed through Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, and Southern California. The itinerary is noteworthy because it shadows the kind of drives across the U.S. that Nabokov often took with his wife, Vera, and their young son, Dmitri.

In her effort to link Sally to Lolita and Nabokov, Weinman establishes a parallel chronology focusing on the writer’s academic, personal, and creative life. Of the book’s 29 chapters eight detail Nabokov’s 20-year struggle to complete his novel, speculate about how he might have learned about Sally, and outline his efforts to publish what would become a notorious piece of fiction.

The assertion that Dolores is based on Sally is pure conjecture. Granted their ages and their cross-country treks are similar. But everything about the essence of Sally’s road trips is speculative.

In his search for butterflies, Nabokov (usually during summer breaks from teaching at Wellesley, Cornell, and Harvard), took his family (first in 1941 in a new Pontiac; later, in a used Oldsmobile) from the East to the West Coast. Once to a 10-day writers’ conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, by way of the Great Lakes, Iowa, and Nebraska, then to the Grand Tetons of Wyoming and West Yellowstone in Montana. A drive in 1953 went from Ithaca, New York, to Birmingham, Alabama, to Arizona, past California lakes, ending in Ashland, Oregon.

Those trips manifest themselves in the novel in memorable chapters that capture the nature of the late 1940s, with Nabokov satirizing details of Americana. With his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, he describes “the Functional Motel—clean, neat, safe nooks,” the “stone cottages under enormous Chateaubriandesque trees,” the “Tourist Homes, country cousins of Funeral ones.” He provides the “repetitious names” of the various “Sunset Motels, U-Beam Cottages, Hillcrest Courts, Mountain View Courts, Green Acres” made of “the brick unit, the adobe unit, the stucco court.”

Along their route Humbert Humbert notes that he and Lolita frequent the “whole gamut” of roadside restaurants “from the lowly Eat with its deer head [and] one half of a chocolate cake under glass” to the “more expensive place with subdued lights, preposterously poor table linen…and an orchestra of zoot-suiters with trumpets.” Nothing like this is recorded in Lasalle and Horner’s real-life journey—it should be clear to everyone that Nobokov is drawing on his own experiences and not those of Sally Horner.

By March 1950, Sally and Frank ended up at the El Cortez Motor Inn in San Jose, California. This was Sally’s salvation. Befriended by Ruth Janisch, another resident of the trailer park, she revealed to her that Lasalle was not her father (which he had been claiming since he abducted her) and that she “want[ed] to go home as soon as [she could].”

That takes the reader to chapter 15, about halfway through Weinman’s investigation. The rest of the book follows Sally’s life to its ultimate end in the car crash. Weinman continues to defend her premise with information about Sally’s return to New Jersey, her reunion with her mother, Lasalle’s guilty plea and conviction, and the progress of the writing of Lolita up to its publication abroad by Olympia Press in 1955, then by G. P. Putnam’s Sons in the U.S. in 1958.

By 1955, Sally had been dead five years; in a dark coincidence, Dolores Haze came alive in August 1958, eight years to the day after Sally’s death.

Throughout his life, Nabokov denied any connection between Sally’s story and Lolita’s. Vera Nabokov also vehemently denied any link between the two. Nonetheless, Weinman perseveres, citing the Nabokovs’ “maddening, contradictory behavior when anyone probed Lolita’s possible influences.”

In the end, what is the takeaway from The Real Lolita? Weinman concludes that there “is no question Lolita would have existed without Sally Horner because Nabokov spent over twenty years dwelling on the theme…But the narrative was also strengthened and sharpened by the inclusion of her story.”

What is a reader of both books to do? Believe Sally was the inspiration for Dolores? And thereby refute Nabokov’s belief that “art supersedes influence.”

It’s easy to praise Weinman’s book as a new look at Lolita. It’s also just as easy to dismiss its contribution to Nabokov scholarship. Neither judgment is completely fair. Weinman is owed her due. But Nabokov’s novel overshadows it all.

Weinman’s book neither diminishes nor enhances his. Reading hers should not affect the reading of his. While Weinman’s work informs the creative process, it does not change the response to Nabokov’s masterwork. The novel will be read for another 60 years. Perhaps read hers in one hand and his in the other. The Real Lolita is best considered with an asterisk, as a footnote to Nabokov studies. It should provide incentive to read or reread the real Lolita.

This New Translation of a Russian Epic Restores What Censors Stole

Vasily Grossman’s novel Stalingrad, newly translated from the Russian by husband and wife Robert and Elizabeth Chandler and publishing in June from New York Review Books, is a book of three parts and 959 pages. It has an introduction, an afterword, and a pleasant forest-green spine. These markers of being are remarkable given the fact that an original Russian edition of this translation of Stalingrad doesn’t exist.
In truth, the Chandlers’ translation of Stalingrad draws on three published Russian editions of Grossman’s novel, which are all different from one another, plus several typed drafts and handwritten notes. The new translation is the result of the Chandlers’ “detailed comparison” of the three versions, and of their determination to prove that the novel can stand up to its better-known sequel, Life and Fate, which has long been recognized as Grossman’s masterpiece.
The idea that Stalingrad must be Grossman’s lesser book is a legacy of Soviet censorship, Robert says. Grossman wrote the novel in the late 1940s and early ’50s, when all literature in the Soviet Union had to follow the tenets of socialist realism. Official doctrine demanded a “historically specific depiction of reality,” in which characters would undergo “ideological rework… in the spirit of socialism.”
Writing that was judged insufficiently socialist realist by censors would remain unpublished, and its author might be sent to a labor camp or killed. Given these possibilities, Robert explains, “no writer in the Soviet Union ever wrote without an awareness of how the authorities would react, and every editor was, in effect, a censor.”
For Grossman, a sense of danger seems not to have been intuitive. Born in Ukraine in 1905, he studied chemistry in Moscow and then worked in a Donbass mine as an engineer. But writing drew him, and he returned to Moscow and published two novels and a short story praised by Maxim Gorky, then the Communist party’s favored writer. During Stalin’s purges, Grossman’s second wife was arrested by the NKVD, a forerunner of the KGB. Daringly, Grossman wrote a letter arguing for her innocence, and she was released. And when Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, Grossman—a 35-year-old Jewish intellectual who couldn’t shoot—volunteered for the Red Army. He was sent to the front as a journalist for the Krasnaya Zvezda newspaper.
Elizabeth speaks of the “emotional balance and steadiness of imagination” characteristic to Grossman’s prose. It was perhaps this equanimity, and his knack for getting a good interview, that made Grossman’s articles the newspaper’s most popular pieces. In August 1942, he went to Stalingrad.
“Grossman’s evocation of the inner life of young men who know they are certain to die within the next 24 hours is remarkably convincing,” Robert notes in his introduction to the novel. For much of the five-month Battle of Stalingrad, in which two million people died, Grossman lived alongside the Soviet soldiers fighting to take back Stalingrad from Axis forces. He spent hours talking with snipers, nurses, and divisional commanders; he saw them crossing the Volga under fire to enter the bombed-out city. Sometimes he traveled with them.
Writing of this wartime crossing in his novel, Grossman describes a sublime steppe landscape that becomes riddled with the corporeal—with corpses: “Millions of stars gazed down at the city and the river, listening to the murmur of water against the shore…. Some dark object slid down the river, painfully slowly, and there was no way of knowing whether it was a boat without oars, the swollen corpse of a horse or part of a barge destroyed by a bomb.” Grossman’s characters also embody this strange wartime synthesis: some are terrified while others sit calmly in their fired-upon barges and boats, making plans to read the day’s paper.


Like Grossman, the Chandlers also became interviewers as they worked on Stalingrad. Specialists and scholars, including Yury Bit-Yunan, Brandon Schechter, and Pietro Tosco, were particularly helpful, and “there are dozens of other people—translators, writers, friends, military historians, historians of the coal mining industry—who have read drafts,” Robert says. These readers helped the Chandlers accurately render details of life in the Soviet Union in the 1940s.
Under the title For a Just Cause, Grossman’s novel was finally published in 1952 in a “heavily censored” version, Robert says. Two somewhat less censored editions followed in 1954 and 1956. The English translation of Stalingrad restores Grossman’s preferred title and “follows the third edition for the general plot and the ordering of the chapters.”
It also includes, as the Chandlers often emphasize, “several hundred of the vivid, comic, and surprising passages” that were published in only some of the Russian editions, and passages that were never published, such as those describing a Red Army commander reminiscing about making his wife a dress, a doctor complaining about overcrowding at a hospital, a roach “scuttling across a map” of military operations, mentions of a postwar future, and a woman with a tomato.

The censors struck out anything that wasn’t politically on-message, as well as any details that weren’t elevated enough, Robert says, to be mentioned in connection with the venerated Red Army. Men sewing, crowded hospitals, bugs, the future, and errant vegetables were, inconveniently, just real—not socialist realism.
In Grossman’s reality, people were struck out too. He was one of the first journalists to write about the Holocaust, in which his mother was killed. But after the war, he signed a document giving credence to Stalin’s anti-Semitic purges. It’s possible that Grossman’s momentary lapse came because he feared that his next novel, Life and Fate, would be censored. He was right: Life and Fate, the sequel to Stalingrad, was clearly no longer bound by the strictures of socialist realism. The KGB confiscated the manuscript in 1961. Grossman died in 1964, and the book remained unknown until it was published in Switzerland in 1980.
It was through this Swiss, Russian-language edition, 40 years ago, that Robert Chandler first encountered Grossman. The art historian Igor Golomstock suggested that Robert take it on as a translation project. At the time, Robert was just starting out as a translator, and his immediate reply was that he “did not read books as long as Life and Fate in Russian, let alone translate them.”

The chapter that Robert eventually translated interested the British publisher Collins Harvill, who bought the book and published it in 1985. And the Chandlers’ collaboration began when Elizabeth retyped several chapters of Robert’s full translation of Life and Fate and then offered to type his translation of Andrey Platonov’s novel Happy Moscow. “We gradually got into discussing, and improving, more and more passages,” she says. They’ve continued this way of working through subsequent translations of Grossman, Platonov, and Pushkin.
Robert, who is the fluent Russian speaker, prepares drafts he reads aloud to Elizabeth. “Whenever either of us feels that something is unclear or that the tone is wrong, we discuss that sentence, batting different versions between us, until we feel we have got it right,” he says.
“If translations fail, this is very often not because they are inaccurate but because they fail to convey an author’s voice,” Elizabeth says. “With time, one gets a sense of what words a particular writer would or wouldn’t use. Grossman, for example, is often extremely funny, but he is seldom mocking.”
Life and Fate is the achievement of the broad, lucid view of Soviet life toward which Grossman had been working, and in which both humor and deep pathos have a place. But this view was already apparent in Stalingrad. In the novel, even Grossman’s worst-tempered characters are afforded moments of insight and clarity—and, Elizabeth says, “unlike nearly all his Soviet contemporaries, he treats even his German characters with respect.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.

Caring Is Creepy: Ian McEwan and ‘Machines Like Me’

I’m not a completist by nature or inclination. Even if I enjoy a novel or album a great deal, I tend to let chance determine what the next thing is I’ll read or listen to. There are very few artists whose entire catalog I’ve ever felt compelled to digest: Kubrick, The Beatles, most Alice Munro, possibly no one else. And, for reasons I’m not sure I fully understand, Ian McEwan, whom I began to read in my early 20s, and whom I’ve doggedly continue to follow, recently finishing his latest, Machines Like Me. His fifteenth: fifteen of this man’s books I’ve read, and having recently taken note of my unusual McEwan completism, it seemed worth thinking about the new novel in the context of his body of work, the only prolific author for whom I could attempt to do so.

It’s difficult to think of a writer with a more interesting, and in many ways desirable, career trajectory than Ian McEwan. His debut novel, The Cement Garden, published in 1978, was a Grand Guignol tale of death and incest, an unnatural (or perhaps all too natural) relationship that develops between a sister and brother when their parents die and they are left with their younger siblings in the house. It is a very good book: by turns funny, frightening, and powerfully creepy.

Creepiness is a theme that runs through the early part of McEwan’s corpus, a body of work that earned him the nickname Ian Macabre. [SPOILERS AHEAD] There is the creepiness of incest in The Cement Garden, the creepiness of child molestation in the story collection First Love, Last Rites, the creepiness of child abduction in The Child in Time, the creepiness of serial murder in The Comfort of Strangers, and the creepiness of bestiality in Black Dogs. I don’t mean this pejoratively—while this urge to shock and disgust can sometimes mark out an immature writer, in the case of McEwan’s early work, the unnatural seems natural, less motivated by the urge to provoke than the urge to explore the limits of human behavior.

My sense is that a reader in the 1980s would have thought of him as an oddity, maybe Iain Banks with better style chops. My sense certainly is that a reader of this era would have been shocked to learn that, by the early 2000s, Mr. McEwan would be a standard bearer of popular literary fiction. A run of three novels—Amsterdam, Atonement, and Saturday—cemented his mainstream reputation as surely as The Cement Garden had cemented his fringe reputation. The one-word titling suggests a narrowing shift in intent, and indeed, I believe this mid-career makeover to be intentional, as much as such a thing is possible, anyway. These books trim away much of the gothic fat of the early work, and present a kind of streamlined, updated Victorian realism, especially in the runaway bestseller Atonement.

This is his high-water mark, the ideal synthesis of McEwan’s genre and literary talents. Atonement simultaneously manages to be a legitimate romance, a mystery, and a World War II narrative without sacrificing much in the way of stylishness or sentence-level pleasure. It is either the most highbrow middlebrow book ever written, or the most middlebrow highbrow (I mean this as a compliment), and the same could be said of Mr. McEwan’s general authorial talents. In an era of intense specialization and branding, it is the extremely rare writer who manages to wear as many hats as McEwan does, especially during this middle period.

Solar, published in 2010, inaugurated McEwan’s late phase, the one that is perhaps my least favorite of the three, despite the various pleasures it still reliably serves up. Like James Michener with states, these are McEwan’s Idea Books, each one easily articulable in terms of social problem or dramatic conceit: Solar (Climate Change); Sweet Tooth (MI5); The Children Act (Euthanasia); Nutshell (Hamlet as Performed by a Talking Embryo). And now, Machines Like Me (Robots), the title of which I find impossible not to subvocalize with the emphasis on like, briefly imagining a book about robots being fond of the narrator. The book is an alternate history in which technology and AI advanced faster than it has in our timeline, producing human simulacra by the early 1980s. The narrator, Charlie—for reasons that are not entirely clear, to us or to him—purchases a robot named Adam (the male robots are Adams, the females Eves; the book notes that seven Eves have been dispatched to Riyadh, a not very good joke). Adam, over the course of the proceedings, develops feelings of what he describes as love for Charlie’s romantic interest, Miranda. The novel proceeds as a bizarre love triangle, between the three, with extra bits of intrigue thrown in to move things along.

This plot machinery includes a secret backstory for Miranda involving a false rape allegation against a man named Gorringe as revenge for his actual rape of her friend Mariam. There’s also: her dying father, an orphan boy named Mark, Charlie’s use of Adam as a kind of automated day trader, and the recurring guest appearance of an Alan Turing who is still very much alive in this timeline. This accumulation of the exciting and implausible begins to feel a little—and it brings me no joy to say this—silly. The late-phase books all, to varying extents, have an aspect of the ridiculous to them; or an aspect of the fun, depending on one’s point of view. Machines Like Me joins its brethren in a genre unique to McEwan, one that as I read, I began to think of as “high-concept intellectual potboiler.”

The intellectual part should not be understated. Take, for
instance, this gorgeous passage, describing a moment, one of the novel’s best
scenes, when Miranda’s father mistakes Charlie for a robot:

There are occasions when one notices the motion of an object before one sees the thing itself. Instantly, the mind does a little colouring in, drawing on expectations, or probabilities. Whatever fits best. Something in the grass by a pond looks just like a frog, then resolves itself into a leaf stirred by the wind. In abstract, this was one of those moments. A thought darted past me, or through me, then it was gone, and I couldn’t trust what I thought I’d seen.

Even McEwan’s worst books, and this is not one of his worst, are full of this kind of writing, almost somnolently smooth and controlled. The command of language goes a long way toward pulling together the strings of material that, in a lesser writer’s hands, might feel completely absurd (that Nutshell, with its pithy, oratorical embryo of a narrator, was even partially successful, is a testament to McEwan’s ability). The book is also full of interesting, if not always bleeding-edge, ideas about AI and consciousness. Adam has a precocious teenager’s love for earnest philosophy, a tendency played for laughs, but one that also produces many genuinely interesting digressions:

He said, “I’ve also been thinking about vision and death…We don’t see everywhere. We can’t see behind our heads. We can’t even see our chins. Let’s say our field of vision is almost 180 degrees, counting in peripheral awareness. The odd thing is, there’s no boundary, no edge. There isn’t vision and then blackness, like you get when you look through binoculars. There isn’t something, then nothing. What we have is the field of vision, and then beyond it, less than nothing.”

“So?”

“So this is what death is like.”

Nonetheless, despite the book’s many pleasures, one senses in Machines Like Me, as to some extent is true in all these late-phase books, a master prioritizing his own amusement. McEwan is clearly intellectually curious, and these Idea Books are clearly fun: fun to research, fun to think about, fun to write. And, to be fair, pretty fun to read. Having already dominated the British literary landscape for more than a quarter century, having produced several bestsellers, having won the Booker and just about every award that can be won, it is difficult to begrudge the man his pleasure. Nonetheless, there is an aspect of the hobbyist to it, the retiree retreating to his basement to fool with model trains.

As a lifelong fan of McEwan’s, this reader—and I suspect others—pines for a late-late phase. One that sees him leave the playroom and evolve once more while recapturing his earlier form, returning to novels of the small and intent variety. It’s not impossible to imagine—as much as McEwan’s subject matter has changed from The Cement Garden to Machines Like Me, if you read closely, certain elements and preoccupations are consistent: human desire, the ramifications of sex, the violence that people can so easily do to each other. The creepiness of the earlier work is less intense, more diffuse, but it is still very much there. McEwan received a great deal of justified flack recently, for an interview in which he spoke about the possibilities of science-fiction exploring the ethical ramifications of AI, seeming unaware of Isaac Asimov and the last 50 years of the genre; that said, to my knowledge, until the publication of Machines Like Me, sci-fi had yet to explore the possibilities of robot-human cunnilingus. In a gobsmacking moment early on, Charlie listens to Miranda and Adam going at it in her apartment overhead and vividly imagines the scene:

Minutes later, I almost looked away as he knelt with reverence to pleasure her with his tongue. This was the celebrated tongue, wet and breathily warm, adept at uvulars and labials, that gave speech its authenticity.

This is, on the one hand, a somewhat insane thing to write, but on the other it is characteristic McEwan—the unblinking, simultaneously scientific and voyeuristic eye. Even stately Atonement, a sweeping historical tragedy set in a 1930s country manor, hinges on a vulgar love letter and features a sexual tryst that includes the word “membrane.” Yes, the creepiness of the early novels remains. It is a productive, idiosyncratic creepiness that I personally find more compelling than the big ideas of his last few novels.

This, perhaps, explains why 2006’s On Chesil Beach is my personal favorite of McEwan’s novels. It tells the story of a young married couple trying and failing to have sex on their honeymoon. That’s it. It is simple and heartbreaking, paring away almost all plot machinery, distilling McEwan’s thematic interests down to the essential: two people, and the question of how to exist together. Its creepiness is the greatest creepiness of all, one that Machines Like Me also explores, but in a much more labored and labyrinthine style: the inescapable reality of human consciousness—the way we are trapped in our own minds, never able to really know anyone else in the end.  

Rites of Spring: Does the Latest in Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet Satisfy?

The first three novels of Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet—Autumn, Winter, and now Spring—are constructed not as linear stories, but as literary puzzles. To figure them out is to work their pieces together.

Autumn and Winter worked: the pieces fit. Spring’s pieces, however, feel like bits and bobs pulled out of Smith’s trunk of favorite props: Shakespeare (in Spring, Pericles), the precocious child, folklore and myth, old Britannia herself, prose poems on the seasons (green stuff pushing through the damp earth and so on), a washed-up man and wise women, works by female visual artists.

As bits and bobs go, they’re not bad. They’re Ali Smith bits and bobs. But they don’t come together to form an innovative novel, and Smith’s care in constructing them precludes the graceful chaos of an assemblage.

Part of Smith’s Seasons project entails haste; apparently, she doesn’t begin writing each book until four months before the manuscript’s due date. How does she whip them out so quickly? “I’ve been thinking about them in my head for 20 years,” she told The Guardian, “and if there’s one thing I’ve learned over those 20 years, it’s that the book already exists and we have to come out to meet it and excavate it and deliver it…The pact with the book is one that means it will always be as up-to-the-moment as possible and that’s a massive risk to take.”

Smith might not be referring literally to one book that’s been knocking around in her head for 20 years and another book that’s “up-to-the-moment,” but her statement does point up to Spring reading almost like two different books feebly bound together.

One book: Richard, an acclaimed but out-of-work film director is asked to direct a biopic of Katherine Mansfield and Rainer Marie Rilke. The screenplay revolves around the schmaltzy, and fictional, premise that the two writers became lovers while living at the same Swiss residential hotel. Richard’s beloved mentor Paddy, herself a veteran filmmaker, finds the project worthy only of scorn. While Richard is waffling about whether to take it on, Paddy’s protracted illness ends in death, plunging Richard into helpless grief.

The other book: Brit, a young but crusty female security guard at an Immigration Removal Centre in England, impulsively tags along with Florence, a 12-year-old girl she’s only just met, on a train trip to Scotland. Brit is won over by, and envies, Florence’s precocious and incisive wit and her magical ability to get people to do the right thing, including liberating women from a brothel and persuading the IRC staff to scrub the toilets.

Had the Richard book been given more room to stretch its wings it might have worked. Sturdier threads connecting it to the Brit book would have helped, too; Richard does eventually find redemption via Florence, but their encounter comes about entirely by coincidence toward the end of the novel. But the real problem with the Richard book is that its characters are a bit shopworn. Richard plays Smith’s Eternally Young but Thirsty for Enlightenment Male. Paddy and, later, Alda—and Florence, for that matter—play the Nurturing and Sage Females, there to deal Richard tough love and hopefully clue him in on the more subtle aspects of being a decent and well-rounded human being. The trope of the Nurturing and Sage Female is too pat, and what this stock character says in Spring is too prescriptive to be illuminating. Richard’s story has brilliant moments, but its somewhat patronizing, at times waggish tone eclipses Richard’s voice and diminishes the poignancy of his situation. Bound together with Brit’s book, his book is simply outdone, outshone.

Brit’s narrative tackles with passion the most profound crisis in our human world, the migration of people, a crisis that will become all the more acute as climate change destroys the viability of whole swathes of Earth. It is of a piece with Smith’s long support of Refugee Tales, an outreach organization of the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, which supports and visits men detained at Gatwick IRC.

As part of her work with Refugee Tales, Smith has written up her conversations and visits with immigrants to the U.K. An article by her in The Guardian tells of a young Ghanaian man whose life story, both in Ghana and in England, unfolds like a slave narrative out of the antebellum American South. Like many other immigrants in the U.K. (and in the U.S.), he lives under the constant threat of deportation and indefinite detention.

Smith’s Guardian article went a long way, especially for me as an American reader, in illuminating Spring. Though it’s foolish to long for a different book when reviewing a book, I couldn’t help but wish that Smith had included more elements like that article in her novel. Maybe she was following her own caution, expressed repeatedly in Spring, against reducing people to cozy, self-edited stories.

Florence at times reads as Smith’s mouthpiece (as does Paddy), but the author avoids casting her in the role of Magical Immigrant. She’s not there to rescue Brit from benightedness; she asserts her own agenda from the start. She has some interesting things to say, too. Entries from Florence’s journal, called the “Hot Air book,” intersperse Smith’s novel. A mashup of “Twitter language” is so true, and so ugly, it could (maybe should) make you weep. So can the offering of her immigrant face:
My being ineligible makes you all the more eligible.

No worries. Happy to help.

Also you’ll notice this face resembles the drawings on the posters that tell you to report anything you think looks suspicious.

Tell the police if you see anyone who looks like me, because my face is of urgent matter to your nation.

Not at all. No problem. Glad to be of service.
Gritty Brit, face to face with that face, suffers a few somewhat contrived epiphanies, but turns enough surprising corners to keep her voice true. Without sugar-coating the harshness of Brit’s world view, Smith affords Brit a dignity that, at times, evokes the goddess: Brit becomes Britannia. The twist of Brit being the more sympathetic character—shouldn’t it be the child Florence?—subverts the ease with which we decide who is the “good guy” and who is the “bad guy.”

To survive her job and the 24-hour news cycle, Brit fiercely guards her personal gates. Carefully cultivated cynicism helps her maintain emotional distance from the “deets,” the detainees: the man who throws his own shit out of his cell, the cancer patient forced to go without meds over the weekend, the “Eritrean self-harmer,” and
Body cams. Razor wire. Deets.
“The Machine,” Brit calls herself to Florence, riffing on the British art rock band Florence + The Machine, whose 2018 album is titled High as Hope.

Brit is anything but artsy, and she’s sure no hopeful bleeding heart. “I really am the machine,” she says. She’s Guard-the-Gates Brexit Brit: no more immigrants, no more tired and poor swarming her Emerald Isle in every shade of brown. But spring, as this book and everyone knows, promises change and renewal.

Brit can continue to harden her heart into stone, or she can open up. She can turn away from that foreign face (What my face means is not your face.), or she can look right into it (My face trodden in mud. / My face bloated by sea.). She accidentally gets possession of Florence’s “Hot Air book.” She could try to return it. “Or she could just burn the book.…”

We may never know what she decides. So far, the books in Smith’s Seasonal Quartet have not continued from each other with characters and storylines in common, though several themes—migrants, ecology and the procession of the seasons, humans versus the establishment “machine”—have been building.

Whichever choice she makes, how can it be other than heartbreaking?
What’s sending the thinnest of green shoots through that rock so the rock starts to split?

Me, Myself, and You: Sally Rooney’s ‘Normal People’

1.
Most millennials have been conditioned to believe that to become a grown up, you have to be independent. Hailed as “the first great millennial author” by The New York Times, Sally Rooney questions this received wisdom. She said in a recent interview that she doesn’t “really believe in the idea of the individual.” This non-belief is evident in Rooney’s latest novel, Normal People, an unconventional bildungsroman that explores not the power of self-determination but the idea of the self as something generated between people. By her own admission, Rooney is fascinated with “the way we construct one another.”

Normal People, published earlier this month, introduces Connell as a popular schoolboy in Carricklea, a small town in West Ireland. Naturally reserved and secretly anxious, Connell recognizes that he has little control over his own identity: “His personality seemed like something external to himself, managed by the opinions of others rather than anything he individually did or produced.” Nevertheless, he feels compelled to live up to the public perception that he is cool, even when he falls in love with school pariah Marianne.

Ostracised by both her family and her peers, who maintain that she is not a “normal” person, Marianne exists at the periphery of Carricklea’s social structures. This gives her “the sense that her real life was happening somewhere very far away,” and that her unstructured reality in Carricklea is insubstantial. Connell, meanwhile, sees her as “independent.” He envies her “drastically free life,” even as he conforms to social expectations and insists that he and Marianne keep their relationship secret. After all, if people found out about it, “his life would be over:” His entire identity would be destabilized.

Connell prefers “to keep both worlds, both versions of his life, and to move between them.” With Marianne, he occupies a kind of otherworld; their relationship blossoms in the margins of Carricklea, including “the ghost,” a derelict, empty estate where cool kids go to drink and smoke. Not having friends to drink or smoke with, Marianne’s never heard of the ghost, so Connell drives her there and shows her around, having exited the car first “to make sure no one was around.” This may seem callous on his part, but Connell and Marianne find their otherworld alluring because of its separateness from the parallel version of their lives. Her social unacceptability creates a space between them that is secure, meaning they can both be authentic. In an abandoned house at the estate, they have an awkward, difficult conversation about their feelings, which deepens their intimacy. “People go through their whole lives, Marianne thought, without ever really feeling that close with anyone.”

Still, their relationship falls apart, because Connell chooses to be normal rather than happy. He asks a popular girl whom he dislikes to the end-of-school ball. Marianne, upset, stops answering his calls. But at this very ball, Connell’s friend Eric tells him that everyone knows about “the secret for which he sacrificed his own happiness and the happiness of another person.” Connell finds this revelation horrifying, “not because it ended his life, but because it didn’t.” His reputation survives this minor scandal, and even if it hadn’t, the ball marks the end of the era when the opinions of his classmates are influential. “Life in Carricklea, which they had imbued with such drama and significance, just ended like that.” At the ball, Eric’s complexion appears ghostly to Connell, as he begins to realize that his school friends, rather than Marianne, will take on a lifeless quality over the next few years.

And so, Rooney shows that whole social structures can become destabilized, in the same way that identities can be. After all, the individual, in Normal People, is a microcosmic social structure, made up of webbed relationships and collective agreements. This might be the premise of any young adult novel—a cautionary tale about the dangers of allowing your personality to be governed by peers. To allow others to construct us can be destructive. But Rooney doesn’t settle for this conclusion.

2.
Connell and Marianne begin new lives as students at Trinity College, Dublin, where they are nothing more than estranged former schoolfellows. Marianne’s sense that her real life was far removed from Carricklea proves prescient: At university, she becomes instantly and immensely popular. Meanwhile, Connell becomes the “lonely, unpopular one.” Unlike Marianne, he’s from a working-class family, meaning that at a prestigious university he is an outsider. Travelling back to Carricklea every weekend to work at a garage, and finding that his school friends have dispersed, Connell loses any sense of having a “real life” either at home or in Dublin. Whereas he used to be able to move between two “versions of his life,” he now finds himself “trapped between two places,” unable to feel comfortable in either.

Connell originally applied to Trinity because of Marianne’s encouragement, but predicted that she “would pretend not to know him” if she bumped into him there. Marianne swore she’d do no such thing, and is true to her word. Despite being humiliated by Connell at school, when she meets him at a house party months later and miles away, she happily exclaims in front of her new friends: “Connell Waldron! From beyond the grave.” Here in Dublin, it is Connell, rather than Marianne, who is ghostly—a manifestation of a time that was the opposite of “life” for her—but once again, Marianne pulls Connell into her world. After this encounter, they grow close again, and she introduces Connell to everyone, telling “them all what great company he was, how sensitive and intelligent.” She constructs him, in other words, in the minds of others, in order to make Connell socially acceptable. She does for him what he was too afraid to do for her.

As a millennial author interested in the construction of identities, Rooney naturally considers the role technology plays in Marianne and Connell’s relationship. Again, she rejects received wisdom, refusing any lazy generalizations about the evils of social media, and avoiding the temptation to be snobbish about online writing. She stated in an interview that, “A large part of my style has definitely developed through writing emails,” and in Normal People, Connell develops his writing in a similar way. While traveling around Europe one summer, he composes long emails for Marianne, which he redrafts, “reviewing all the elements of prose, moving clauses around to make the sentences fit together correctly.” He reflects that writing these emails “feels like an expression of a broader and more fundamental principle, something in his identity, or something even more abstract, to do with life itself.” When physically distant from Marianne, Connell finds that the intangible, technological space between them solidifies both his sense of self and something bigger, beyond himself.

Connell is “not someone who feels comfortable confiding in others, or demanding things from them. He needs Marianne for this reason.” At school, he depended on others to give him a shape; at university, he depends on Marianne. Their intimacy is a secure space in which their identities are collaboratively and positively constructed. Connell reflects on his schooldays, when “He had just wanted to be normal, to conceal the parts of himself that he found shameful or confusing. It was Marianne who had shown him other things were possible.” In Normal People, Rooney shows us the constructive power of nurturing, tolerant relationships in opposition to the destructiveness of superficial relationships.

3.
While Connell felt pressure to live up to his peers’ positive construction of him in Carricklea, Marianne was struggling to resist her abusive family’s negative construction of her. She learns from them that she is unlovable. Her relationships at university are profoundly affected by this narrative, particularly with a boyfriend named Jamie, who she asks to “beat me up. Just during sex, that is. Not during arguments.” This proclivity, Rooney suggests, is a symptom of the narrative Marianne absorbed in Carricklea: “‘Maybe I want to be treated badly,’ she says. ‘I don’t know. Sometimes I think I deserve bad things because I’m a bad person.’”

But Marianne’s desire to submit to Jamie arises from feeling independent of him. When Connell mentions that she “never said any of this to” him, when they were together, Marianne explains:
I didn’t need to play any games with you, she says. It was real. With Jamie it’s like I’m acting a part, I just pretend to feel that way, like I’m in his power. But with you that really was the dynamic, I actually had those feelings, I would have done anything you wanted me to.
In other words, the sexual preferences she expresses are a response to the dynamic she finds herself a part of. She longs to escape her sense of independence from those around her—a sense that causes intense loneliness—even as she is afraid of the effects other people might have on her. Connell helps Marianne break out of this cycle. Though misunderstandings between them hurt her, Connell never abuses Marianne. Consistently, he counters her internalized narrative that she is a bad person who deserves mistreatment. Instead, “He brought her goodness like a gift,” enabling her to ultimately embrace the novel’s underlying philosophy: “No one can be independent of other people completely, so why not give up the attempt, she thought, go running in the other direction, depend on people for everything, allow them to depend on you, why not.”

Rooney reaches back for her novel’s epigraph, long before the dawn of our postmodern society that determinedly lionizes the independent individual. She quotes a central idea from George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda: “To many among us neither heaven nor earth has any revelation till some personality touches theirs with a peculiar influence.” She thereby introduces a coming-of-age story that emphasises not independence but interdependence. Eliot’s “peculiar influence” is another form of what Rooney describes as the special relationship between the “facts” people know about Connell’s and Marianne’s lives—a relationship that finds the protagonists, several years after their first kiss, unable to  “leave one another alone.” Marianne and Connell grow up “like two little plants sharing the same plot of soil, growing around one another,” as do we all, leaning on one another, unable to sustain independence.

Power Play: Reading Kristen Roupenian’s ‘You Know You Want This’

In the last decade, a small but mighty contingent of young female writers has been putting out novels and short story collections that examine what it’s like to be a young woman with all its messy nuances. Ottessa Moshfegh crafts weirdo protagonists looking to give up control of their lives in order to find themselves. Catherine Lacey writes of women that have lenses and expectations applied to them, personalities assumed and prescribed by suitors seeking solace in the fantasy of love, not its reality. Halle Butler’s office workers pretend to be excited about bettering themselves socially and financially when it actually withers them inside. Alexandra Kleeman writes about the surreality of being a modern woman, stitching her characters into works that are constantly threatened by unknown gothic menace, the unseen wolf at the door of life. While each writer is distinct in her depiction of being a 20- or 30-something woman in the age of polyamory and Instagram, they’re unified in their desire for a lack of control, or an inability to have it.

In January of this year, Simon & Schuster’s Scout Press released Kristen Roupenian’s You Know You Want This, a collection of stories that gained hype based on her popular New Yorker story, “Cat Person,” which focused on a bad date between a stock college girl and a stock mid-30s creep, complete with bad, erectile dysfunction-centric sex. The salacious details and disgusting dynamic of the story embedded themselves into the expectations of the collection, which offered some of that pulpy pleasure, but mostly investigated the ways in which we try to gain control of ourselves, our situations, and the lives of others. While the press surrounding the book lumped Roupenian in with other female heavy-hitters currently at work, it’d be a stretch to say her collection fits squarely into the exploratory space of her peers. Instead of writing about the search for the self via combustibility, Roupenian writes about the female perspective from a different vantage point: How do women control the lives of their friends, lovers, and selves not out of fear, but out of necessity—be it selfish or in the service of good? How do they take control of the stories they live, especially in a world where men threaten to dominate?

In some of the stories, the reader is treated to the “women behaving badly” narratives that populate the work of Ottessa Moshfegh, Catherine Lacey, and the like. However, unlike Moshfegh and Lacey, who inject their plotting with wild humor and existential loneliness, Roupenian makes her characters vicious, even if their intentions are to do no harm. In the story “Bad Boy,” an unnamed female protagonist describes the increasing amount of power she and her boyfriend exerted over their friend, a nameless sad-sack male with a great capacity for getting drunk, but no ability to stand up for himself. It’s never explained or implied what drives the need for control, but it moves from the realm of kink to deadly obsession in just 12 pages. At first, the pushover friend is harassed by the couple, who test his limits for abuse, partly out of boredom, but also as a means of taking control of their sex life. After the friend acquiesces and begins watching his friends in bed, they begin setting boundaries on his involvement, sometimes incorporating him as an ersatz third member of the relationship, and sometimes using his attention to reignite their monogamous expression.

When he tries to cut off contact, they hunt him down, enter his apartment, and force him to kill and rape the woman he’s in bed with. Roupenian’s narrator says “He was like some slippery thing we had caught in our fists, and the harder we squeezed the more of it bubbled up through our fingers. We were chasing something inside of him that revolted us, but we were driven mad as dogs by the scent.” While it’s suggested that this control was the only way for the couple to brook a stale patch in their relationship, the way the power dynamic works—the couple needs the friend to enjoy sex; the friend needs the couple to provide direction, even if it’s harmful—is nuanced, raising interesting questions about control and privilege. In “Bad Boy,” the narrator is disinterested in the feelings and concerns of her friend, but more importantly, seems to feel emboldened by his willingness to cower and bend to her and her partner’s demands. It would be easy to dismiss the story as one about two bad individuals taking advantage of a wayward friend, but Roupenian is getting at something more. Her narrators and protagonists don’t simply push or reckon with the boundaries of power, they delve into the murkiness of what it means to be in control, and how to be ethical when in that power position.

Roupenian’s story, “Scarred,” for example, features an unnamed female narrator that conjures up her literal dream man in her basement via magic. At first, she’s frightened, suspicious that it’s a demon she’s summoned. But as it becomes clearer that her conjuring is bound to the circle of salt she’s made, she slowly takes from him, bit by bit, until she has nothing left except his literal heart. Alexandra Kleeman and Ottessa Moshfegh both have stories that play with a sense of the fantastical or antiquated (“Fairy Tale” and “Brom” respectively), but while those stories are imbued with a sense of odd dread or foreboding, “Scarred” feels tragic and lamenting. Like the narrator of “Bad Boy,” the conjurer can’t help but destroy this person who has given some electricity to her life. Unlike that narrator, she struggles with the burden of yielding her power over him, saying, “I gave him a pillow to go with the blanket, a pair of shorts, one of those little camping latrines, as much water and good food as he wanted, as long as he cooperated. ‘Please don’t,’ he said when I came back, but what would you have done?” Here, the amenities are meant to distance the narrator from the pain she’s inflicting on her captive could-be soul mate. This is furthered by her proclamation that she eventually “stopped cutting up his arms,” taking instead to drawing “the knife as lightly as possible across his back and bandag[ing] him up afterward.”

These decisions are meant to reduce the physical harm being done, but they also allow the narrator to enter into a kind of caretaker relationship with her victim. While bandaging him up, the narrator promises her spells will make both of their lives better, and that she will take care of him and love him as he deserves. Initially, Roupenian’s narrator begins spellcasting to conjure an ideal mate that will worship her despite her flaws, but the author subverts the sexual captivity narrative by bringing into question the value of desire versus becoming desired. As the narrator puts it after becoming beautiful herself, “Given that I had myself fairly well convinced of his fundamental unreality, it came as a surprise, how much I enjoyed the look he gave me then —desired it, desired him. Now that I had my own beauty, my own set of tricks, I could let down my guard a bit.” As she accrues more power in her own life, her desire for her dream man dissipates, and when she eventually kills him to finish the last spell in the book, she notes, per the spell’s promise, “I would find some other love, my own heart’s true desire.”

While there are fantasy aspects to the parable, Roupenian is again writing about what control provides us, and the struggles that come with trying to justify it. Like the narrator in “Bad Boy,” there’s no deep exploration of the whys and wherefores of the protagonist’s desire for perfection. The reader is given no sense of how attractive or unattractive she is prior to the spells, nor of how bright and successful she may be. In the vagueness of these things, readers are able to project themselves onto the unnamed characters and speculate about what holes power can fill and the value of companionship and true love.

In “Boy in the Pool,” Roupenian explores the literal economics of power: how the raising of price points for increasingly degrading acts impacts control. For Taylor’s bachelorette party, her friend Kath hunts down Jared, an actor from an erotic B-movie they used to watch as teenagers. It’s suggested that Kath is in love with Taylor and believes she can win her friend’s heart by making her oldest fantasy—sex with Jared—a reality. Everything comes to a head when Jared initially refuses to go along with Kath’s idea: to recreate a swimming pool scene from the film with Taylor. In order to buy his compliance, Kath offers him more money. Immediately, Jared strips and jumps in the pool.

Here again, there’s admiration of the male body, but Roupenian quickly turns her narratives away from sex to get at something more eerie. While Jared is hamming it up, seducing Taylor and the rest of the bridal party with his long body and beautiful eyes, he’s unaware of his limitations. While Kath thinks she’s paying for sex, buying the actor in order to gain ground with her crush, what she’s really purchasing is power for her friend. Soon, Taylor pushes him underwater and holds him there until she’s satisfied. What the bride-to-be—who has suffered a series of bad relationships—really wants is to gain control of the actor who symbolizes her last potent and positive memory of a man. When she releases him, seeing him pearled with water and gasping for air, she says, “I think that’s enough for tonight.”

Always Roupenian starts with expectations and seemingly clear plotting before complicating the narrative with lenses of control. Often, the subject, almost always male, isn’t aware of those lenses, or is powerlessness to escape or turn away. In “Matchbox Sign,” the protagonists, a couple named Laura and David, are controlled by the same force—a parasite that may or may not be real, living inside of Laura. If nothing else, Roupenian should be applauded for tackling the subject of Morgelon’s Disease, a topic last written about by Leslie Jamison in “The Devil’s Bait.” The disease, a psychosomatic disorder that leads individuals to believe there’s something living inside of them when there’s not, allows Roupenian to write about the limitations of love, as well as the control it can exert when nothing else makes sense.

David and Laura are at odds with one another, not over the validity of Laura’s poor health, but about the nature of her condition. While Laura believes she’s infested with a parasite, David isn’t sure what’s wrong, even as she crawls on the floor of their apartment to search for bugs; sees her body become marked with bites, welts, and scratches; and watches her bag small eggs to take to the doctor. Ultimately, Roupenian draws a parallel between the parasite inside of Laura and the feeling of love. For most of its 18-page run, the story’s focus is lenses of control in relationships, with Laura constrained by both the unknown creature inside her and her relationship: her decision to put her ambitions on hold for David’s career; the budget spreadsheet used to track their spending, her desire to both be happy and make David happy. In effort to find happiness, she begins taking Depakote, which causes the woman David fell in love with to disappear.

All relationships struggle to allow the individuals involved freedom and independence, but Roupenian takes this into the realm of body horror, with Laura’s parasite breaking through her arm as David tries to rip it from her and provide visible confirmation of her suffering. In the last sentences, the parasite hooks into his cheek, enters his skull, and, much like love, “pulses through his bloodstream, swimming with unerring instinct toward his heart.”

Unlike the jump into the great unknown her peers force their characters to make, Roupenian lets her creations vie for a control that will break their hearts. In her estimation, it’s not about what we want, but how often that blinds us to the powers we have, and to the powers acting upon us. It’s important to read characters who are burning down their lives and searching for answers to unknowable questions. But Roupenian reminds us that these things come with a cost. And that there’s a value in knowing oneself, even if that self isn’t a version you like or need.

Finding Asylum: Esmé Weijun Wang’s ‘The Collected Schitzophrenias’

Schizophrenia is a complex disorder that few of us understand. Too often we reduce it to misconceptions and stereotypes—equating it, for instance, with split personality disorder; relating its primary symptom of psychosis, a mental break with reality, to “psychos” and violent psychopaths; assuming that anyone with the disorder leads a low-functioning life spent ranting on the streets.

In The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays, Esmé Weijun Wang clarifies these points and many others. She refers to schizophrenia as the schizophrenias, a term coined by the late-19th-century Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler. Schizophrenias, a label Wang takes as her own, looks at schizophrenia not as a single illness but as a spectrum of illnesses all of which exhibit psychosis.

Most of the essays tackle a mental health issue head-on. In “Yale Will Not Save You,” she discusses the Americans with Disabilities Act and the rights of students with mental illnesses at institutions of higher learning. In “The Choice of Children,” she looks the difficulties of (1) diagnosing and treating children with serious mental illnesses and (2) someone with psychosis wrestling with the idea of having children and the chances, if any, of passing on the disorder. In “Toward a Pathology of the Possessed,” she examines family rights as she recounts the story of Malcoum Tate, who suffered from severe paranoid schizophrenia and was shot and killed by his younger sister. In “On the Ward,” she unpacks the connotations of the word “asylum” and how it brings to mind stereotypes of psychiatric facilities made famous by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and American Horror Story’s “Asylum” season. In the same essay, she speaks to the issue of involuntary hospitalization and the politics of inpatient treatment: who gets certain privileges, who is treated with respect, who is ignored or considered problematic.

She references key players in the history of mental health and in the mental health community. In doing so, she, perhaps, introduces the general reader to them for the first time: Nellie Bly, a stunt journalist who in the late 19th century posed as a patient to write about the conditions in the Blackwell’s Island Asylum; Kay Redfield Jameson, whose An Unquiet Mind is considered a seminal text on bipolar disorder; E. Fuller Torrey, a psychiatrist and advocate of involuntary hospitalization; and Albert Q. Maisel, a journalist who tried to expose the shameful conditions in psychiatric facilities in the 1950s; among others.

For some, Wang treads territory that will feel well worn. The stigma against mental illness: how people view cancer patients as healthy and stricken down by an illness but those with mental illnesses as somehow flawed. Person-first language: how one should refer to people with mental illnesses rather than “the mentally ill” or a person with schizophrenia rather than “a schizophrenic.” For others, especially those outside the mental-health community, it will be new.

But this collection, which won the prestigious Graywolf Nonfiction Prize, does more than educate the reader. It tells of Wang’s search for the right diagnosis and a way to live with the diagnosis she’s given: schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type. With a researcher’s sensibility, she recounts her experiences—as a student at Yale, as a lab manager in Stanford’s Mood and Anxiety Disorder Laboratory, as a fashion blogger, as a counselor at a camp for children with bipolar disorder, and twice as a patient in a psychiatric hospital.

When Wang makes herself vulnerable and relates her experiences, the essays are utterly engaging. In “Yale Will Not Save You,” she tells of her acceptance to and attendance at Yale, where she was first hospitalized and treated unfairly (to say the least) by the school. After she is discharged from the hospital, the dean and the head of psychiatry respond to her situation by telling her that she can remain enrolled at Yale as long as her mother stays with her off campus for the rest of the year.

Here, we get Wang’s gifts as a writer. Of the experience, she writes: “[My mother] made Taiwanese noodle dishes. She wrote elaborate medication charts on watercolor paper. She called my psychiatrist when I lay writhing on the floor, sobbing, caught in knotty torment.” Rarely has there been a more apt description of what people with serious mental illnesses experience than “knotty torment.”

The way Wang is treated by the school is heartbreaking. After agreeing to go on a yearlong voluntary medical leave ostensibly so she can return to finish her degree, she’s denied readmittance. Yet she wants to return, even though she was treated by the school as if she’d done something criminal—having her student ID confiscated and being told to leave campus without collecting her belongings (her father had to retrieve them).

Another example of Wang’s sharp sensibility as a writer occurs when she relates a scene in the hospital cafeteria during one of her stays in the psychiatric unit. She describes how she tries to imbue the situation with a sense of normalcy, as if she can simply make conversation and eat her breakfast as if it’s any ordinary morning: “I almost choked on the first bite before abandoning the rest. The home fries were warm and slicked my tongue with grease. I ate them all. I finished my plastic container of apple juice and looked around: the glass door and windows showed the bright blue sky we couldn’t reach….” The specificity of the warm, slick home fries juxtaposed with the blue sky impossible to reach is a signature of Wang’s writing. She gets at the contradictions of her situation by zeroing in on the details.

Perhaps the most vivid essay, “Perdition Days,” concerns a period of time during which Wang suffers from Cotard’s delusion, a condition where a person believes she’s dead. Wang makes palpable her confusion and desperate need to have what she’s feeling be true. Her experience of psychosis goes from one of curiosity, observing the living from afar and almost enjoying being in an “optimistic afterlife,” to the horror of waking in purgatory: “In this scenario, I was doomed to wander forever in a world that was not mine, in a body that was not mine; I was doomed to be surrounded by creatures and so-called people who mimicked the lovely world that I’d once known.” Though the essay includes a paragraph analyzing the TV show Hannibal, “Perdition Days” is one of the few pieces where Wang focuses on her own experience to the exclusion of any reporting or research. We get more of her, and it’s powerful.

“Perdition Days” shows how in the other essays Wang’s desire to educate the reader sometimes occurs at expense of her own story. For instance, a veritable litany of medical terminology appears on a single page of the essay “Chimayó”: MRI, EEG, myasthenia, gravis, Lamert-Eaton myasthenic syndrome, IGeneX test, LLMD, Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria, neuroborreliosis, schizoaffective disorder, calcium channel Ab P/Q type. The other essays are also dense with medical and pop culture references and the question is to what purpose? Wang often reverts to analysis and a clinical view of her situation, which is to be expected given that she was a researcher. But doing so often feels like a defense, a way for Wang not to delve too deeply into the realities of her experience of mental illness.

There’s also the issue of privilege. Wang doesn’t recognize how privileged she is. She ends up graduating from Stanford, which makes her slightly less sympathetic in her gripes about how Yale treated her. Yes, it was terrible, but, no, her life wasn’t ruined. She goes on to attend a fully-funded MFA program. She has a spouse who supports her. She even tries to get on disability, believing she should be able to “grow” a business online instead of working at a menial job, which is what many on disability are forced to do. In all her research, she seems to have overlooked the fact that of the millions who apply for disability each year, only 30 percent are approved. Ultimately, she presents her experience as somehow typical of someone with bipolar disorder and/or schizoaffective disorder. There is no typical experience. But simply on a human level, Wang has had opportunities most Americans with or without disabilities only dream about.

Perhaps this complaint of the collection is unfair. As Joan Didion writes in her memoir about the death of her daughter, Blue Nights (a text Wang quotes), “privilege” is a judgment, an opinion, an accusation. Didion refuses to “cop” to her family’s privilege because of the suffering her daughter endured. It’s not that this isn’t a valid argument; it’s just that it’s tone-deaf to those who struggle financially, socially, and emotionally.

It could be that Wang’s aim is not to spend too much time focusing on the low-functioning times in her life and instead present a different portrait of what someone who suffers from psychosis looks like: that of a woman who is often rational and appears “normal.” She chooses what to wear in the morning, just like anyone else. Hers just happens to be a “brown silk Marc Jacobs dress with long sleeves, carefully folded up at the elbows.” She puts on makeup, just like anyone else. Hers just happens to be “Chanel’s Vitalumiére Hydra foundation in 20 Beige (discontinued), and a nubby Tom Ford lipstick in Narcotic Rouge (also discontinued, replaced by the inferior Cherry Lush).” She explains much of this materialism away by the fact that she worked at a fashion magazine and worked as a fashion blogger and supposedly got all of her clothes for free.

None of this diminishes the power of Wang’s writing or The Collected Schizophrenias. As she struggles to make sense of her illness, Wang gives us yet another of her sharp insights. She calls out Rebecca Solnit (and by proxy Virginia Woolf) and the claim that there’s a tranquility in illness that allows a person to abandon responsibilities, escape from the world, and laze around in bed all day. Wang distinguishes between sudden, transient illness (the flu) and chronic mental illness (schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type): “With chronic illness, life persists astride illness unless the illness spikes to acuity; at that point, surviving from one second to the next is the greatest ambition I can attempt.” In her life, Wang has obviously done more than survive from one second to the next. She’s written an important collection of essays of which all of us will be more knowledgeable and sympathetic for having read.

 

Mama Was a Number Runner: On The World According to Fannie Davis

Louise Meriwether’s 1970 novel, Daddy Was a Number Runner, is an unflinching portrait of life in Harlem in the starkest year of the Great Depression. Seen through the eyes of a remarkably buoyant 12-year-old girl named Francie Coffin, it’s a world of violence and tenderness, indignities and joys, where despair lives alongside the dream of a big score. In a foreword, James Baldwin, a son of Harlem, wrote that the black-owned daily numbers game that animates the novel “contains the possibility of making a ‘hit’—the American dream in blackface, Horatio Alger revealed, the American success story with the price tag showing!”

Weird words. Yet weirdly apt, I realized while reading Bridgett M. Davis’s scintillating new memoir, The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers. The book chronicles the journey of the author’s mother from the Jim Crow South to the industrial cauldron of Detroit, where she arrived in the mid-1950s with an ailing husband and an iron determination to figure out “how to make a way out of no way.” While her husband got erratic work in the city’s auto plants, including a hellish stint as a furnace tender at a General Motors factory, Fannie charted her own course. In 1958, after a harsh introduction to the frigid and unforgiving city, she borrowed $100 from her younger brother to start her own numbers operation, the underground three-digit daily lottery that had spread from Harlem to black communities nationwide, fueled by the Great Migration. That same year, a Detroiter named Berry Gordy borrowed $800 from his family to start a record label that would become Motown.

The World According to Fannie Davis is partly a love letter to a larger-than-life woman and partly an explanation and defense of the “lucrative shadow economy” of the numbers game, which was an ingenious way for African Americans to circumvent the economic barriers white society had placed in their path. Black Detroiters were the last hired and the first fired from the city’s factories, and they were often forced into ratty housing with exorbitant rents. “It’s impossible to overstate the role of Numbers in black culture,” Davis writes, adding that the money generated by these black-controlled enterprises stayed in the black community to help launch “insurance companies, newspapers, loan offices, real estate firms, scholarships for college, and more.” Fannie Davis was known to her loyal customers not only for her honesty—she always paid winners, even when the hits were big—but also for her generosity. She was, in her daughter’s words, “consumer, lender, employer, philanthropist.” She was also a big believer in the importance of dreams, always a rich source of inspiration for players of the numbers.

But the numbers were illegal, and running an operation came with stress. There was the perpetual fear of big hits, of police raids, and, since it was an all-cash and no-tax business, the fear of robbery. Fannie owned two guns, and since secrecy was vital to survival, she drummed an edict into her children: “Keep your head up and your mouth shut. Be proud and be private.” Ultimately the biggest fear came to pass when the state of Michigan decided it wanted in on this lucrative action and, in 1972, created a legal lottery. It’s a testimony to the loyalty of Fannie Davis’s customers that they continued to bet numbers with her, and her operation survived this monster hit. It also offered Fannie an opportunity to philosophize: “Well, we already knew that when white folks want to do something bad enough, they can just create a law to get away with it.” Amen.

The proceeds from Fannie’s flourishing numbers operations allowed her family to live in a rambling house full of fine furnishings and friends and good times. Fannie and her husband John drove nice cars—Buicks, because flashy Cadillacs would have drawn the wrong kind of attention. Bridgett M. Davis describes herself as “a very privileged and spoiled little girl,” a member of what she calls “the blue-collar black-bourgeoisie.” Their west side neighborhood was solid. Diana Ross and her fellow Supremes owned houses just around the corner.

But trouble was in the air, and Davis doesn’t try to sugarcoat her hometown’s exhaustively documented ills. She witnessed the ravages of a declining population and job base, white flight, vandalism, arson, drugs, and violent crime. In the decade after the bloody rebellion of 1967, which left 43 people dead and much of the city in ruins, the murder rate quadrupled to more than 800 a year. The Motor City became known worldwide as Murder City. One of Davis’s brothers slid into heroin addiction, and the entire family felt the “pervasive sense of danger” pulsing in the streets.

This book, for all its abundant strengths, does have flaws. Davis writes that her mother drove a Pontiac Riviera, while GM’s Buick division produced the elegant Riviera. And she describes trips across the Ambassador Bridge to eat at Chinese restaurants in Quebec, while the Ambassador Bridge connects Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. A competent copy editor would have caught such slips, but that doesn’t mitigate the damage they do to a writer’s authority. I’m speaking from experience. In my first novel, a work of realism, I placed the University of Notre Dame in Terre Haute, Indiana, while I’ve known since boyhood that the school is actually located in unincorporated Notre Dame, near South Bend. Nearly 30 years later, the gaffe still rankles.

Davis makes a more serious misstep when she describes “booster” shops, where Detroiters sold shoplifted clothing and accessories in makeshift stores in their basements. “In a city of hustlers,” Davis writes, “where the lines of legality and illegality stayed smudged, these boosters—all women—made good livings, with numbers folks as their key clients. (One booster named her store Jackie’s Finer Designs and she had guards watching customers, to make sure no one stole the merchandise that she had stolen.) I visited a booster’s shop with Mama at least once, but she preferred store-bought clothes.” This passage unsettled on several levels. Yes, Detroit is a city of hustlers where the line separating legality from illegality has always been smudged, but this story seems to elevate booster shops to the level of the numbers game, which fed its wealth back into the black community. Sorry, but boosters were petty thieves looking to line their own pockets. And Davis misses the opportunity to explain why her mother preferred store-bought clothes over boosters’ offerings. Was it a moral stand? Merely a matter of taste and class? Unfortunately, Davis doesn’t say.

But such slips do nothing to dull the luster of this important book. It’s worth noting that Davis’s achievement isn’t arriving in a vacuum. It’s part of a recent crescendo of inspired writing by African Americans about African-American life in Detroit, including Herb Boyd’s superb blend of memoir and reportage, Black Detroit: A People’s History of Self-Determination, Stephen Mack Jones’s bracing debut crime novel, August Snow, Angela Flournoy’s decorated debut novel, The Turner House, and the revelatory plays of recently minted MacArthur fellow Dominique Morisseau. With her new book, Bridgett M. Davis has started running with some very fast company.

The Choir of Man: Max Porter’s ‘Lanny’ Wants You to Listen

Max Porter’s second novel, Lanny, begins with an awakening. The semi-mythical village spirit “Dead Papa Toothwart,” known to children through cautionary rhyme, wakes from his centuries-long sleep and at once begins to shapeshift:
He splits and wobbles, divides and reassembles […] He slips through one grim costume after another as he rustles and trickles and cusses his way between trees. He walks a few paces as an engineer in a Day-Glo vest. He takes a step in a dinner suit, then an Anderson shelter, then a tracksuit, then a rusted jeep bonnet, then a leather skirt. […] [He] wanders off, chuckling, jangling in his various skins.
This isn’t just a fitting introduction to Porter’s style, but an accurate description of it. His 2015 debut, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, was a genre- and form-bending work, sitting somewhere on the border between novella and narrative-poem. Beyond formal concerns, it is stylistically shapeshifting, riffing on ideas from Ted Hughes’s The Crow, and full of heavy allusion, reference, and wordplay. The publication of Porter’s debut was both a major publishing event and a commercial success, despite its avant-garde leanings, and he gained a deserved reputation as a literary heavyweight.

It is therefore no surprise that Lanny, published in the U.K. by Faber, opens in language that owes as much to poetry as to the contemporary English novel. Every word is chosen not just for its meaning but for its feel and its sound.

But in Lanny, the most striking formal choice is its typographical quirks. As he approaches the village, Dead Papa Toothwart listens for the sounds of human conversation, and what he hears is conveyed to the reader by the words spreading themselves across the page as though floating through the air. Banal snippets of conversation wind in and out of each other, overlap, and run backwards or upside down between other paragraphs in a way that’s impossible to faithfully quote. It’s the kind of innovation that could be called a gimmick. But it’s also substantive. It helps us imagine how Dead Papa Toothwart experiences “his listening.” As readers, the shape of the words affects how we read them, and somehow influences the way it sounds. Of course, it doesn’t sound like anything, unless read aloud. But in doing so, Porter reminds us that our language is not primarily a written form of communication. Language is, above all, spoken. In these sections, words mimic the way they would travel toward the ear, the way the various villagers pronounce them, their country accents. They stretch out in the middle, or gracefully fall down the page like a descending scale. We feel as much audience to their everyday conversation as the enigmatic Dead Papa Toothwart does:
He swims in it, he gobbles it up and wraps himself in it, he rubs it all over himself, he pushes it into his holes, he gargles, plays, punctuates and grazes.
This focus on character as conveyed to the reader through narrative voice is a central concern of the novel. Porter uses language and form as a means to convey the spirit of the village, as faithfully as possible, in text. Following our introduction to Dead Papa Toothwart, the novel splits into several first-person narrative strands, taking on the voices and thoughts of “Mad” Pete, an octogenarian and retired artist; “Lanny’s Mum,” Jolie; and “Lanny’s Dad,” Robert.

The eponymous Lanny, seen by adults around him as an unusually inquisitive, maybe even gifted child, isn’t given his own sections, though he is central to the events of the novel, and to the thoughts and words of its characters. He is, of course, the main concern of his parents. Lanny’s dad, commuting every day from this small village into the center of London, thinks about his son all day, but often finds his playfulness, his sense of wonder, and his strange profundity a frustrating contrast to the supposedly sensible, practical concerns of everyday life. Lanny’s mum works from home—writing her crime novel—where Lanny continually interrupts with his comings-and-goings, “stinking of pine tree and other nice things” like a woodland sprite. And Pete, their eccentric neighbour, is tasked with giving the child art lessons, though they are as much conversations as they are lessons.

And Lanny is what Dead Papa Toothwart is most interested in, too—perhaps the reason he’s awoken after centuries of sleep. Out of all the voices in “his English symphony,” Lanny’s is the most delicious: “he wants to chop the village open and pull the child out. Extract him. Young and ancient all at once, a mirror and a key.”

In a novel made up of first-person voices, sometimes all streaming in at once, overflowing across the page, Lanny is never given a voice of his own. His character and his thoughts are always mediated through the words of others. To them, Lanny often feels less like a person and more like a thing that happens to them. Pete even notes that “[At] times like this Lanny seems almost possessed.” Rather than a fully-fleshed out character that we have direct access to as readers, Lanny is instead the thread that winds all the other characters and the overall structure of the book together. Like most children, he is implicitly patronised in this way: often more spoken about, and spoken for, than he is listened to.

The narrative pace speeds up in the novel’s second act. The once clearly distinct strands are replaced by long, unadorned sections. Character’s voices become brief vignettes without clear signposts as to who is speaking. We learn to infer from their idioms, their habits of speech, accents and turns-of-phrase. Here the whole village comes into play as a chorus of voices which butt in on the main characters with casual conversation, speculation, thoughts, and insults surrounding a dramatic event.  Without knowing who’s speaking, we get the same sense of familiarity. In the most powerful passages, from the perspective of Mad Pete, there is no separation at all between voices, and events take place as one long stream: What’s thought, what’s said, and what’s heard by Mad Pete are distinguished only by tone and content.

It’s unsurprising how well-suited Porter’s work has become for theater. Lanny’s launch at London’s Southbank Centre will feature a dramatized reading. Grief Is the Thing with Feathers’s most recent iteration is a stage-play starring Cillian Murphy. Lanny in particular has plenty in common with George Saunder’s Man Booker-winning Lincoln in the Bardo, which reads as much like a script as it does a novel, featuring a cast of more than 100 characters with almost no third-person exposition. Similarly, both of Porter’s novels lack an authoritative third-person perspective and are instead mediated through the voices of their characters alone. In doing so, Porter highlights the importance of character in his work. For him, it is the way in which these voices are realised, rather than the content of what is said, that is most relevant.

Lanny, more than Grief, takes this idea of narrative voice as its subject and problematizes it. When the world of the novel is mediated through its characters, it fundamentally affects the nature of that world. There’s a moment midway through the novel that really draws this out. Lanny’s mum goes to her neighbour Mrs. Larton in a moment of emergency. Their confrontation is conveyed to the reader twice. The paragraphs alternate between Mrs. Larton’s voice and Jolie’s, both of whom see themselves as the more virtuous and innocent victim of the other’s rudeness. Even the specific wording of their conversation is contradictory. And afterward, they each reduce the wider problems of society to the small differences between them:
Oh god, you horrible crone, you are the worst thing about living here, you are the worst thing about this English village. You are the worst thing about England. And villages. I wish you would die so somebody nice could move in here.

[…]

I’d like to tell her about the real community around here, a community that is dead and gone thanks to people like her, buying up the houses and putting in ridiculous open kitchens and glass walls […] she may as well be a bloody foreigner. I worry about the impact on the community. I worry about the standards slipping. I worry about this country. I wish she would get bored and let somebody decent move in.
If language is an unfaithful lens into reality, Lanny and Dead Papa Toothwart, two characters who aren’t given their own unmediated first-person voice, are best understood by the reader as manifestations of, or reflections of, the people who describe them. The way Lanny is seen by the reader isn’t necessarily the way he actually is. Instead, he’s as much a reflection of the essential nature of the village as Toothwart is. Mad Pete, early in the novel, says of Toothwart:
He’s real if people believe in him. So yes. Just as mermaids or Springheeled Jack or the Green Children of Woolpit are real if people have thought about them, told stories about them. He’s part of this village and has been for hundreds of years, whether he’s real or not.
Both Toothwart and Lanny come to us as embodiments of the village itself—Toothwart because the villagers invented his legend; Lanny because their version of him is the only version we get. Lanny and Toothwart reflect the village’s essential, timeless character that is ultimately ambivalent to the temporary concerns of the humans that live in it. Both Lanny and Toothwart have an innocence and an ambivalence to them that reminds me of Miyazaki’s Forest Spirits in Princess Mononoke. Somehow ancient, and yet at the same time, they are an amalgamation of the villagers themselves, with all their contingent, messy humanity.

At one point, Jolie sees this: “and she realises their life at home, his time at school, what she thought of as his real existence, was only a place he visited.”

It’s a line that could only have been written by a parent: that realization that something you thought of as entirely yours is an independent being. That your children exist when you’re not there. That they have a life beyond you. That for them, as for everyone, they are the absolute center of their own experience.

Porter extends this idea to the village at large but conveys it in the exact opposite way. He presents it to us, in Dead Papa Toothwart’s all-hearing, typographically experimental prose, as “A tapestry of small abuses, fights and littering, lake-loads of unready chemicals piped into my water bed, green and decline, preaching teaching crying dying and walking the fucking dogs, breeding and needing and working.”

By giving us this stream of unfiltered human self-involvement, Porter show us the nature of a village as a microcosm of human society, and he shows how difficult it is for people to live with one other. The existence of characters—such as Lanny and Dead Papa Toothwart—who seem more attuned to the world, suggests that there might be a way out. Lanny’s character in particular implies that while self-centredness is intrinsically human, it’s not an inescapable part of the human condition—maybe something learned rather than innate. Early in the novel, Mad Pete gestures towards it: “Maybe it’s just Lanny taking things from wherever he’s been listening, soaking up the sounds of this world and spinning out threads of another.”

Max Porter’s Lanny is an attempt to capture a village, entirely, in language, and it does so by trying to represent the village’s breadth of narrative voices. It’s an ultimately empathetic, even humanist project. But its representation isn’t always positive. People are human. They’re unsympathetic, rude, racist, ungenerous, speculative. They beat up pensioners and make false accusations and invite hysteria and sensationalism. They can be judgemental neighhors or maybe self-aggrandizing, polluters or gardeners. But in the act of reading, we’re made a mute witness to them. Like Lanny and Dead Papa Toothwart, or Porter himself, we are made active, careful listeners. In doing so, we give them space to speak.

We can’t live each other’s experience. But we can start by listening to them.