Memory Can Be a Second Chance: Ocean Vuong’s ‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’

“What happened happened–but it isn’t fixed in the ongoing story of our lives,” Jeanette Winterson wrote of regret, recollection, and lost love, “Memories can be tools for change. They don’t have to be weapons used against us or baggage that we drag around.”

Vietnamese-American poet Ocean Vuong stakes his debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, on a similar premise: the hope that, in the writer’s own words, “Memory can be a second chance.”

Thoughtful and tender, this autobiographical novel is framed as a letter from a son, Little Dog, to his illiterate single mother, Rose. Across three expansive parts Little Dog reflects on his turbulent youth spent in Hartford, Connecticut, and hopes that the act of remembering family history through writing might heal longstanding wounds and bring parent and child closer together. Sketching a moving portrait of a fraught bond, Vuong meditates on the powers of storytelling and reckons with the legacy of collective trauma.

“Dear Ma,” Little Dog begins, “I am writing to reach you—even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are.” A quick procession of vignettes follows: the narrator’s mother stares in horror at a taxidermy buck, she shops with him at a 50-percent-off sale at Goodwill, she beats him at age 13 for the final time. Lasting at most a few paragraphs, these scenes of affection and abuse detail the nuances of the pair’s bond, and they alternate with Little Dog’s reflections on literature, post-traumatic stress disorder, and the migratory habits of monarch butterflies.

As a mosaic of portraiture, self-representation, and philosophical musing, the opening chapter signals what lies ahead: a fragmented, elliptical text that moves around in time and considers the emotional toll of war and displacement upon Vietnamese Americans. In poetic prose, Little Dog’s letter charts not just his coming-of-age story but also the sorrows and desires of those closest to him.

In the book’s first part, which focuses on his childhood, the narrator brings to life the personalities of his separated grandparents. Across chapters he recalls how his grandmother Lan showered him with warmth and stories about her life in Vietnam, “tales cycling one after another.” He also recounts the long summer days he spent in Virginia gardening with his grandfather Paul, a “white man with watery eyes” and a “shy and sheepish” personality. Paul and, especially, Lan acted as guardians for the lonesome and fatherless child, whose mother ceaselessly worked at the local nail salon. The pair’s acts of kindness and family lore helped the boy navigate a childhood fraught with intergenerational trauma, guiding him toward an understanding of his place in history as a first-generation Vietnamese-American immigrant.

Through the lens of his grandparents’ relationship, Little Dog examines the history of the Vietnam War. At the height of the conflict, the two met by chance in a bar and found common ground, “both having been brought up by the ‘sticks’ of their respective countries.” Little Dog avoids addressing why they separated, mystifying their backstory. He instead records at length the memories they shared with him of the harrowing time; through writing, he lends their stigmatized love a second life, and testifies to the damage the imperialist war wrought upon Vietnamese society.

Roam among other recollections as he might, Little Dog returns again and again to the intense bond between him and his mother. “In Vietnamese, we rarely say I love you,” he notes, “Care and love, for us, are pronounced clearest through acts of service.” While Rose exceled at providing for her son, she rarely verbalized her love, and her fits of rage scarred him. With words, an adult Little Dog drains those memories of their power to wound him, recognizing his mother’s abuse as having been rooted in the trauma of growing up in a war-torn country.

So, too, does Little Dog seek solace in the knowledge that he helped his mother endure life in America. Having immigrated to the States as a toddler, Little Dog found himself playing the role of the “family’s official interpreter,” forced to “fill in our blanks, silences, stutters, whenever I could.” Compelled to code switch and traverse cultures, the boy learned to expertly wield English for his mother’s sake as well as his own: school bullies mocked him as effeminate and foreign, until he started to speak up.

“Memory is a choice,” the narrator asserts as he shifts to the letter’s second part, in which he recounts his first romance. If domestic drama and a fierce attachment to family defined his youth, he opts to frame his adolescence in terms of an attempt to escape a home full of pain and a history soaked with violence.

The summer he turned 14, Little Dog remembers, his sexuality blossomed after he found his first job on a tobacco farm. He quickly fell in love with Trevor, the rough-edged grandson of the farm’s owner, who worked the field to escape his “vodka-soaked old man” and dilapidated mobile home. The narrator constructs his first experience of love and labor as inextricable from each other. Together, work and romance introduced him to a seductive new world, promising independence from his mother’s outbursts and his bigoted classmates’ taunts.

Intoxicated with nostalgia, Little Dog reveals to Rose how he and Trevor trekked about the margins of Hartford for the next two years, connected to each other through their shared status as outsiders as well as their hatred of their absentee fathers. At a mesmerizing pace, Little Dog speeds through memories of late-night strolls, inexhaustible conversations, covert sex, and hits of weed and cocaine. Embedded within the narrative are bittersweet, lush descriptions of Hartford’s countryside. Just as a common rural background facilitated Lan and Paul’s romance in Vietnam, the boys bonded over their exclusion from and anger toward their town’s well-adjusted white suburbs.

The narrator makes clear that oppression and internalized shame still shadowed the relationship. Under the sway of Hartford’s toxic masculinity, Trevor conflated bottoming with femininity, femininity with weakness, weakness with all that wasn’t white and male; he demanded Little Dog always assume the submissive role in sex, insisting, “it’s for you. Right?”  Little Dog’s hope that queer love might prove a shelter from abuse collapsed; his community’s rampant racism, sexism, and homophobia thoroughly shaped his bond with Trevor. “I had thought sex was to breach new ground,” Little Dog regrets, “that as long as the world did not see us, its rules did not apply. But I was wrong.” The pain of the scene is palpable, as it is when Trevor hopes they’ll “be good in a few years,” transformed from melancholic queers into happy heterosexuals.

As Little Dog prepares for college, the fantasy of first love collapses, though the boys part amiably. Only in the book’s final part, when Trevor starts to abuse opioids, does the relationship spin out of control. Mapping out the bond’s complexities through language, Little Dog makes peace with its alternately euphoric and sorrowful prime as well as its tragic end.

Nightmarish memories of abuse endured during childhood punctuate these sections. In an especially brutal passage Little Dog, now referring to himself and his mother in the third person, describes the time he forgot to clean up his plastic toys, for which she “blasted the side of his head.” That distressing interludes such as this occur so frequently gestures toward the long-lasting aftereffects of the narrator’s early trauma.

“And then I told you the truth,” Little Dog notes at the novel’s midpoint. On a rainy day inside a Dunkin’ Donuts, near the end of high school, he confessed his sexuality to his exasperated mother, who responded in turn, “You don’t have to go anywhere. It’s just you and me, Little Dog. I don’t have anyone else.” The coming-out scene is literally centered in the narrative, but it occurs chapters before the climax; resisting the conventions of the go-to queer narrative, the novel refuses to conflate coming of age with coming out. Over the course of the letter’s second half, Little Dog shifts to reflecting on how he and Rose began to repair trust in the revelation’s wake.

Little Dog’s musings are tinged with sadness. The letter is explicitly framed as an attempt to heal wounds between mother and son and bring them closer together, and heartbreakingly, he’s sharing with Rose for the first time the secrets of his relationship with Trevor, one of his most important teenaged bonds.

While rarely citing his sources, Little Dog navigates troubling topics by using as guideposts the works of a diverse mix of writers. In a discussion of beauty, memory, and hope, for instance, he refers to the thesis of Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just: “I read that beauty has historically demanded replication. We make more of anything we find aesthetically pleasing.” Through such allusions he frames himself as curious, open minded, and in conversation with a vast body of literature.

As one of this decade’s only works of fiction written by a queer Vietnamese-American author and published by a large press, the novel offers a viewpoint long underrepresented in mainstream American fiction. The work registers frustration with the limitations of white literary standards, pointing out that hegemonic standards of taste prescribe, “to be political is to be merely angry, and therefore artless, depthless, ‘raw,’ and empty.”

As with the autofiction of Qiu Miaojin, epigraphed in the front matter, the epistolary novel blurs the line between art and life. Like Little Dog, the author grew up in Hartford, attended Brooklyn College, and recently reached the end of his 20s. The text invites readers to identify Little Dog as a fictionalized version of Vuong, even as it leaves unanswered the question of how “constructed” the story really is.

“By writing,” the author-narrator posits to his mother, “I change, embellish, and preserve you all at once.” Regardless of the truth-value assigned to On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, the work’s an affecting meditation on immigration, violence, family, and love, as well as a thoughtful exploration of the ways in which writing can reshape the self’s relationship to others and the past. With grace and insight, Vuong contemplates how memory can act as a tool for change, and establishes himself as a promising novelist.

Death Liberates in a Danish Master’s New Novel

Ida Jessen’s A Change of Time, beautifully translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken, tells the story of “L. Høy, Schoolteacher,” as she’s introduced to the reader on the book’s first page. Her story is told in the form of a diary, recounting events in her life primarily from 1927 through 1934. The story is centered around the death of her husband, the traveling doctor Vigand Bagge, and her response to this loss; we watch as L. Høy, or Fru Bagge as she’s called throughout much of the text, slowly comes out of her grief and into her new life. As the story progresses, the reader gets an increasingly fuller sense of this woman—of the vibrant life of her mind, of the great trials and frustrations of her marriage, and of what it is she’d truly like her life to be.

The text shines as an honest reckoning with the death of a spouse—but one in a deeply companionless marriage—and the life of two people who shared little but space. We see a woman working through her conflicted feelings in real time: the wrestling with who her husband was and the form their marriage took; the remembrance of things she genuinely loved about him; her regrets about their life together; her wishes that things had been different (and imaginings of what would have made things different); and the deep loneliness that still descends upon her in his absence. There are no easy answers, even as our narrator finds a certain measure of freedom and independence that her repressive, distant, self-absorbed husband refused her.

There’s a passage from the October 19 entry of Fru Bagge’s diary, only three days after she received the phone call delivering the news that her husband died in hospital, in which the reader sees her doing this kind of wrestling in real time. She begins by recounting how committed Vigand was to avoiding being a nuisance to people, and how “he could be rudely offensive in order to avoid it.” She then turns inward toward their relationship:
Such an idea is of course in every respect honorable, and yet one may ask whether the right to be a nuisance ought not to be a human right? What if we were to eradicate every nuisance? Who would then be left?

Moreover, I have wished more than anything else that he would make a nuisance of himself to me.
She then backtracks: “Not that he never did. He was a nuisance. Just not in a way I could understand. A man who needed my help, his nuisance I would have understood. But perhaps then it would not have been a nuisance at all. I have never thought of it like that before.” This passage rings true in that it reflects the ebbs and flows of recollection, the processes of working-through. It’s no straight path of self-discovery, but a winding search for understanding and self-knowledge. Through it all, Fru Bagge’s deep, earnest desire for companionship shines through, even as she wrestles with what she wishes her husband, and her marriage, could have been.

As the days and weeks go on, the diary becomes more self-reflective and focused on memory—we hear much more about what brought her to the town, what her life as a schoolteacher was like, and what sort of companionship she found with the people of the town. The diary reads as an honest personal audit at a moment of change in the narrator’s life: Who have I been? To whom have I been a blessing and to whom a curse? These questions are rarely expressed explicitly, which sets this book apart: The personal reckoning is performed by recounting a life, not via vague existential questioning.

Jessen is a tremendously gifted writer, and as the book progresses—with our narrator gaining more distance from the death of her husband—we glimpse what our narrator’s life becomes, and the writing really shines. Jessen, the Danish translator of Marilynne Robinson, among others, proves to have a keen Robinsonian streak of her own. She writes with the same narrative generosity, the same belief in the dignity and voice of characters that might usually be dismissed. Fru Bagge writes of herself in her grief, “I haven’t the inclination to look people in the eye, nor not to. I find myself in a state of shame,” and you can imagine the titular character of Lila expressing a similar sentiment. As Fru Bagge recounts a sermon by the small-town pastor—“Salvation…gives us solace, in that it does not take from us our grief, unlike happiness, which glints and glitters and is disinterested in everything but itself”—you can imagine it coming from the mouth of John Ames in Gilead.

What can occasionally get lost in work in Robinson’s tradition is a certain concreteness; as writers seek to emulate the sort of spiritual musings and fully-realized interiority that Robinson writes so well, they sometimes neglect the physical space their characters inhabit. Never Jessen. This work is firmly grounded, quite literally. The landscape, the heath surrounding Thryegod, the rural town in Western Denmark where our narrator resides, is a character in and of itself. The natural world is not neutral, simply a landscape about which our narrator feels comfortable waxing poetically. Rather, it acts on our narrator. She’s constantly aware of its presence; it dictates her moods, her stories, her movement. The reader has a real sense of the actuality of this place.

Furthermore, Jessen remains measured in her descriptions, often opting for the plainer turn of phrase—the town pastor is simply “a cheerful, ruddy man, [with] a cheerful, ruddy wife;” a companion from her school days, “talked loudly, sang loudly, laughed loudly, and was the most helpful person I have ever known;” her restrained, honest take on widowhood is simply, “We have our dead. Our hope is that we too will be someone’s.” Jessen can be lyrical when she likes, but perhaps more impressive is her restraint when it’s exactly what’s called for.

In the book’s acknowledgements, Jessen writes, “It has not been my intention to write a section of the history of the town in which I grew up, though I freely acknowledge the singular allurement of using the name Thryegod.” And that is how this book reads—before it is a glimpse into the interiority of a widow trying to reckon with her life and move forward, A Change of Time is a reflection of a place in a time that’s imbued with a personal, specific love. Jessen knows this place; she lets her reader know it, too.

What If Better Penmanship Could Make You a Better Person

Cursive is supposed to happen at the right speed for steady thought. It hits the page slower than type and faster than print, and in this happy medium, one hopes the mind will hit its stride and think clearly, rationally, linearly. But what if the idea of cursive practice was to humble, even eradicate the content of the written word? That is the project of the narrator in Mario Levrero’s novel Empty Words—recently released in translation from the Spanish by Annie McDermott—to focus on neat, regular handwriting so careful that it smooths out all digressions of the mind. Though the narrator is, like the author, a writer and crossword setter, he takes a writer’s tool and divorces it from the act of connecting with the self or world. Instead, the physical act of writing becomes about avoiding spiritual searching, which has become too onerous—in an opening poem, before he begins his “graphological self-therapy” he writes “ It’s not worth searching, the more you look /  the more distant is seems, the better it hides.”

So the narrator delves into his penmanship not in hope of being a better writer, but to “make changes on a psychological level,” ones that he claims, in a burst of optimism, “will do wonders for my health and charachter, transforming a whole plethora of bad behaviors into good ones and catapulting me blissfully into a life of happiness, joy, money, and success with women and in other games of chance.” When his exercises pick up pace, though, the neat, ordered discipline of handwriting breaks down and sloppy print letters creep into that uniform line of script. This indication that thought has begun to flow freely is not positive—it runs contrary to the two-dimensional bliss he imagines neatness can herald. He takes frequent breaks to play around with his computer, which, even though the book was originally published in 1996, is a daunting tool, “very similar to the unconscious.” Nonetheless, he claims to prefer it to his own exhausted mind: “there’s nowhere left to go when it comes to investigating my unconscious; the computer also involves much less risk, or risk of a different kind.”

To avoid this “risk” he must suppresses the content of his writing, the meaning. He tries to keep his words steady and boring, though he fails hilariously, again and again. He is in a constant state of agitation about the need to stick to his task. He dreads interruptions, mostly from the family life that hums along in the background. So he tries to write nothing important, nothing complex. But when he leaves his handwritten pages out for his wife to critique, he complains that they “naturally became a way of telling her things—hence the anxiety that makes me write too fast when I have something important to say.”

The exercise is not dissimilar to the one put forth in Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, in which a young woman decides to hibernate for a year in the name of self-improvement. Both narrators lay out stringent rules for their supposed betterment, rules that, to the reader, seem arbitrary and obviously self-defeating. The mission, for both characters, is to blot out much of life. The byproduct is a heaping dose of both anxiety and moral superiority.

In spite of the narrator’s vague resolve to be better, his discipline makes him generally nasty within his household. When his stepson looks over the shoulder, he writes on the page “Juan Ignacio is a fool.” He begrudgingly cares for his dog, even encouraging him to run away by widening an opening in the fence—an act he insists repeatedly is not metaphorical. And when he returns to his work, he complains that it is difficult to concentrate after kicking a dog. Neither the narrator nor anyone in his household is catapulted blissfully into a life of joy, but his focus on handwriting over expression protects the narrator from reflecting on these failures.

The narrator has tender moments, though. He wonders when he and his wife, Alicia, will start “living together” apart from all the “hyperactivity” of the household. The two even earmark Fridays as a time to focus on their relationship, but they can’t sustain it because the narrator brings a similar mentality to improving their relationship as he does to penmanship. And he forgets that like communication is to writing, quotidian household tasks and banal decisions are the stuff on which domestic relationships are founded. The phenomenological isolation he seeks doesn’t exist and he lashes out in frustration: he refers to Alicia’s efficient approach to daily life as a “militarization of the self” and says it is akin to pruning a tree into a geometric shape.

In another moment of frustration with a household routine he finds chaotic and distracting, the narrator calls Alicia a “fractal being.” Though he complains that fractals have not been studied enough, he never gives readers a full picture of his wife; instead he uses her as a cautionary tale, though it is he who flounders on every page. If Alicia is a “fractal,” then the things that preoccupy him, like his irregularly racing heart, can be described best in fractals. The things that comfort him aesthetically—a tree growing through a ruined piece of architecture, shattered glass, the search for patterns in the randomness of dreams—are infinitely more fractal than pure forms.

Dreams are a recurring element of the book, treated with the same distance but less frustration than the other digressions and unpredictable moments that vex our narrator. He does not explore them or elaborate on them; he even becomes annoyed when he finds himself seeking to interpret them. Levrero’s approach to dreams—his approach to writing this book even—is about as far from Latin American magical realism as one can get. Earlier Uruguayan writer (and inspiration to many of the magical realists) Felisberto Hernández molded each plot in his Piano Stories into the dreams and obsessions of his narrator; reality followed the digression. But as much as Levrero’s narrator rejects his dreams, he still nods at the tradition: the final line of the book ends with another uninterpreted, unexplored dream. The final word of the books is “Alchemy,” the thing the narrator has stripped from his writing and life, but vows in the end to return to.

And it is a thrill in the final part of the novel to see his the narrator’s penmanship exercises gather speed, to see him put aside his frustration and concentrate on specific details like the formation of the letter “R,” or to see the pages littered with strikethroughs of words he resolves to execute better. But even when the exercises have begun to absorb him, they are not what bring about a final revelation. This comes when he finally writes about his mother’s illness and death, referred to only in passing throughout the book. The narrator has let story rise to the surface of his writing, and he is able call handwriting the “evasion tactic” it is. “When you reach a certain age, you’re no longer the protagonist of your own actions,” he reports “all you have left are the consequences of the things you’ve already done.” Exerting control over one small activity does not neaten up the other strands of life, it only throws its messiness into relief.

Empty Words is a very funny, very sad reflection on the ways people try (and fail) to simplify their lives. As the narrator says at one point in the story, “you cannot become less busy by getting things done.” Perhaps that is what Levrero thinks of self-help programs, that they become one more overbearing thing on an overwhelming to-do list. In the protagonist’s case, if he was trying to find relief from the emotional and intellectual work of life by reimagining handwriting as a Zen-like practice of  “invisible work,” he picked the wrong manual task. Handwriting is the ultimate in visible work—script, scrawl, or chicken scratch, it is the tool through which thoughts grow visible and complicated.

Mark Haddon’s Latest Curious Incident Sails the High Seas

All of Mark Haddon’s fiction for adults has, until now, been rooted in contemporary realism: emotionally intelligent, yet possessed of a light touch and a sweetly British sense of the absurd. You could argue that his best-known novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, is a work of deep imagination; the book, though meticulously realistic, is told from the point of view of a teenager with Savantism. But with his new novel, The Porpoise, Haddon goes deeper still. This time he gives us the gods and goddesses of the ancient world, priestesses and pirates, carnelian and amber. It’s a different kind of storytelling, rich as brocade and powerful indeed.

The Porpoise opens on a present-day setting, though it has a quality of strangeness that, rendered in the author’s somewhat formal language, feels timeless. An extraordinarily rich man named Philippe is married to an actress named Maja, the only person he has ever loved. While very pregnant, Maja takes what should be a short flight in a light aircraft, but the pilot foolishly flies into thick clouds and crashes, killing them both. The baby, a girl Philippe names Angelica, is delivered and lives.

Grief and a monstrous sense of ownership warp Philippe’s mind, and he half believes that Maja lives on in the girl, who he begins molesting when she is small and rapes when she enters adolescence. To keep the nature of their relationship secret, he takes Angelica out of school and moves them around the world. He owns homes in Sri Lanka, Berlin, and Skiathos; he can do what he wants.

The experience of reading Angelica’s story is swiftly engrossing, heady, disorienting—a tumble down a churning whitewater. Her life is a prison, and she feels implicated in her father’s sick need for her. Angelica reads copiously, the escapism of a lonely child desperate to climb out of her circumstance and away from her thoughts. She’s not interested in books other kids her age might read; instead, she plunges into the worlds of myth and legend. As if preparing us for what’s to come, the narrator says:
Her favorite stories are the old ones, those that set deep truths ringing like bells, that take the raw materials of sex and cruelty, of fate and chance, and render them safe by trapping them in beautiful words.
When Haddon’s novel—the book we’re reading—takes us on a similar journey, should we be surprised?

The most distressing parts of the story come out in a rush. A handsome young man comes to the house. The son of a recently deceased art dealer with whom Philippe worked, Darius feels compelled to visit Philippe—not only for business, but because he’s heard about the man’s unusual, beautiful daughter. When he meets the girl and they lock eyes, it takes him only moments to understand that something is very wrong. He tries to rescue her, is nearly killed by Philippe, escapes to the coast, and ends up on a schooner belonging to an old friend who he bumps into by chance. It’s a trippy coincidence that feels just this side of unlikely, even for a rich kid who’s used to things going his way. And sure enough, after Darius sleeps off his injuries, he wakes in a fug of confusion—on a different ship, an unfamiliar one with huge sails. His head swims, full of memories that aren’t his own. He’s still dashing, still hungry for adventure, but he’s become someone else: Pericles, the prince of Tyre, out to sea on his own ship, the Porpoise.

Once we get our sea legs we understand that the novel has become—in fact already was—a retelling of Shakespeare’s Pericles, the story of a young prince who discovered that the King of Antioch was having an incestuous relationship with his daughter and was forced to flee. (The play was itself a retelling of Apollonius of Tyre, a story that was popular during Shakespeare’s lifetime and for centuries before that.)

That’s the thing about legends, ask any scholar of the classics: They get told and retold and will always reflect the attitudes of the place and time of the teller. Haddon makes these characters resonate simply by giving them a “realness” that readers of contemporary fiction crave. They may have old-fashioned names, but they’re bristling with life. When Pericles meets the Queen of Tarsus and she “stands just a little closer to him than is proper, just inside an invisible orbit of which he has never been aware before,” we readers feel the electricity between them. Sex and attraction feature prominently throughout the story, as do birth and death, terror and violence—all the elemental stuff of life that hasn’t changed one bit over the eons—and the drama feels ageless because it is.

The novel’s only obviously contemporary note is Haddon’s insistence that a female perspective shine through the stories, even—or especially—the ones that depict male cruelty toward women. One character, Chloë, is a princess who dies at sea but is pulled ashore and comes back to life, later becoming a priestess who gives the local people advice and guidance. When discussing women’s lot in life, she’s a straight shooter: “Girls have secrets…And there are plenty of men who consider their good name more valuable than a girl’s life.” Does the weight of her words come down like a hammer because Haddon is unsubtle in giving the myth a twist of modern feminism? Or is it because they’re that weighty and timeless and true? It’s stirring either way. And frankly, sometimes subtle just isn’t the way to go.

Likewise, in one of the book’s most haunting passages, Haddon floats a theory for Philippe’s abuse of his daughter.
Does he know, in some corner of his mind, that what he is doing is wrong? Or, if you have never been forbidden absolutely, if you have never been harshly criticized by someone whose opinion genuinely matters to you, if you have never had to face the consequences of your own mistakes, does the quiet, critical, contrary voice at the back of the mind grow gradually quieter until it is no longer audible?
Well shit, the author seems to say. Here we (still) are.

In a brief author’s note, Haddon—who is stunningly sensitive to not only the plight but also the interiority of all his female characters—writes that there is only one version of the Pericles story, a Breton lai written in the early 14th century, in which the princess is the hero, so to speak. Rather than serving as a plot “instigating device,” he says, she is the one at the center of the story who travels around and has “adventures.” I like the way the word adventure is used throughout this novel: It serves as a stout reminder that true adventure is dangerous and experience hard-earned.

Ultimately, the purpose of this beautiful novel is to remind us—to prove to us—that emotional truths are ageless and universal, the bedrock on which our supposedly real lives are built. The thing is, a retelling of an old story is in some ways just an update, a variation on a theme. But when it’s done very well, it’s more like a translation. The meaning of the strange symbols, which can be hard to parse across centuries and cultures, becomes plain. Maybe a woman whose coffin is fished from the ocean can’t come back to life and morph into something new. But perhaps a woman who has experienced a great trauma can walk away from it, change her circumstances in order to survive, and thereby be reborn—first in her mind and then in reality.

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.