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.

The Importance of Giving a Shit: On ‘Dreyer’s English’

As this review goes to press, Benjamin Dreyer’s Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, sits at #1 on Amazon’s Best Sellers list (Words, Language, & Grammar Reference). Shortly after the book’s release, he tweeted its march up the overall sales ranks, as it broke the top hundred, the top ten, and made it all the way to number two. Already in its fourth pressing, it is also currently at number two on this week’s New York Times Best Sellers list (Advice, How-to, and Miscellaneous). Think about that: a book by a copyeditor about the niceties of style elbowing up to the table with the likes of Marie Kondo and Michelle Obama. As Dreyer himself said in another endearingly flabbergasted tweet, “It’s a freakin’ style guide, for Pete’s sake.”

In one sense, I share his amazement. It would be difficult to think of a current subject that feels, superficially, less likely to top a list of best sellers (or best-sellers or bestsellers—Dreyer devotes an interesting page to the accelerated life-cycle and evolution of open, hyphenate, and closed words). We live, after all, in a paradoxically hyper-literate yet hyper-illiterate age—never before in human history have more people written more, and never before has less care gone into the production of this writing. We are inundated with emojis, unpunctuated tweets, garbled emails, and dashed-off chyrons rife with errata, not to mention the self-publishing phenomenon: hundreds of books going up on Amazon daily, thousands of Tumblr and WordPress sites, all the bloggy flotsam of the Internet’s wild reaches. The writerly ethos of the age would seem to echo Blaise Pascal’s famous apology: “I only made this letter longer because I had not the leisure to make it shorter.”

Which is not to say, reading Dreyer’s English, that it’s hard to see why people like it. Dreyer, Random House’s longtime copy chief, is funny and charming, delivering a style manual with a great deal of style. Here he is (in a passage more or less randomly chosen) on the word “bemused”:

The increasing use of the word “bemused” to mean “wry, winkingly amused, as if while wearing a grosgrain bowtie and sipping a Manhattan,” rather than “bothered and bewildered” is going to—sooner than later, I fear—render the word meaningless and useless, and that’s too bad; it’s a good word. My own never-say-die attitude toward preserving “bemusement” to mean perplexity, and only that, is beginning to give me that General Custer vibe.  

Throughout the proceedings, Dreyer is simultaneously meticulous and unfussy, a winning combination and surely a byproduct of dealing with authorial egos for the better part of his adult life. As the tongue-in-cheek subtitle implies, a good copyeditor has to both believe in their absolute correctness, while allowing for the mutability of language, authorial eccentricities, and the fact that most rules can and should be broken if they’re broken in the service of clarity. Dreyer’s tone is authoritative, yet relaxed and playful, with the presence of teacher that you do not fear, but do fear disappointing.

He is not a grammarian, and certainly not a so-called “Guardian of Grammar,” as a recent Times profile had it. Chapter Six is titled “A Little Grammar Is a Dangerous Thing,” and the first line is, “I’m going to let you in on a little secret: I hate grammar.” Grammar is, he explains, important—a firm grasp of the basic rules allows a writer to convey thought clearly; grammar jargon, on the other hand—and the oft-attendant starchiness about it—is not. Lynne Truss is a grammarian, and popular on that basis with people who see dashed-off text messages as the sign of a culture in shambles. Dreyer is not fighting this sort of proxy culture war; he simply wants people to write well.

But beyond the pleasure of Dreyer’s prose and authorial tone, I think there is something else at play with the popularity of his book. To put it as simply as possible, the man cares, and we need people who care right now. Dreyer’s English is, beyond a freakin’ style guide, the document of a serious person’s working life. At sixty, Dreyer is at the top of his game and profession, an honorable profession he has worked diligently at for more than three decades. To write a book is to care deeply and in a sustained way about something; to copyedit a book is to care deeply and in a sustained way about someone else’s deep and sustained caring. And to have copyedited books for one’s adult life is to have spent one’s adult life caring about other people’s words and the English language. As he writes in the introduction:

I am a copyeditor… my job is to lay my hands on [a] piece of writing and make it… better. Not rewrite it, not to bully and flatten it into some notion of Correct Prose, whatever that might be, but to burnish and polish it and make it the best possible version of itself that it can be—to make it read even more like itself than it did when I got to work on it. That is, if I’ve done my job correctly.

Our current era is marked by cynicism and nihilism—it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that we managed to elect the worst person in the world as president, a con artist and pathological liar who will say anything to stay in the public consciousness and keep the inverted pyramid of his shabby criminal empire from toppling down onto his empty head. Trump is an avatar of everything impermanent, incompetent, and insincere about this era, and I believe there’s a great inchoate hunger for the opposite, for someone who thinks that words and ideas matter. What Benjamin Dreyer provides in Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style is the increasingly rare and refreshing public spectacle of a person caring about their job and doing it well. Fundamentally, Dreyer’s expertise is rooted not in credentials and accreditation. As he says, “I wandered into my job nearly three decades ago…and that’s how I learned to copyedit: by observing copyeditors.” His advice is not only correct, but also, crucially, idiosyncratic and eccentric. Above all, it is personal. Its basis, and the basis of Dreyer’s English, is a lifetime of thinking and caring deeply about something, a lifetime of giving a shit.

Mr. Dreyer was kind enough to respond via email to a few
questions that came to mind as I read his book.

The Millions: In the introduction to the book, you discuss how you got into copyediting. You’d been waiting tables and bartending after college—“faffing around,” in your great phrase—and started proofreading on the side, and one thing led to another. As someone who also took a roundabout path to their profession, I’m curious if there was an “a-ha” moment, a particular book or editing experience, when you realized this was what you were really doing with your life—a moment when it felt like a calling, if that isn’t too grand.

Benjamin Dreyer: What a good question, to which I don’t quite have an answer. But I can think of one particular job that loomed, and still looms, large in my memory: One of my first copyediting jobs was a book called Not Since Carrie, which was a history of Broadway musical flops. Basically, I was born to copyedit that book, because Broadway musicals are totally my thing, but I couldn’t, back in the extremely early ’90s, possibly have been wetter around the ears. I did, if I may say so, a first-rate job of it, and the book is, still, a great favorite of aficionados. But I remember distinctly what a challenge it was for me: so many copyeditorial things to figure out that I wasn’t confident about, that I was still learning—even rudimentary things like number treatment, which is important when you’re copyediting a book full of dates and numbers of performances. Had I copyedited it just a few years later, I would, I think, have sailed through it. I’m glad I applied myself so diligently to getting it right, but I like to think about something that I guess is obvious: The more you do a kind of work, the better you get at it. Perhaps that is the answer to your question, though: Perhaps it’s then that I realized that copyediting was a thing I could do, and not merely do but do well and make a difference, a contribution.

TM: I follow you on Twitter, and was amused and charmed, as I think were many writers and followers, by your incredulous delight at the book’s runaway success. In my review, I posit that one reason it has resonated with readers is simply the pleasure people feel, in our nihilistic and cynical age, encountering someone who cares deeply and sincerely about their work. In your case, obviously, someone who has spent decades thinking about writing and developing a book’s worth of idiosyncratic ideas and opinions. Have you gotten this sense? Why else do you think it has connected with the reading public?

BD: “Incredulous” is certainly the word for it. I’m utterly floored by the book’s success. Not merely that people are buying it—and reserving it at their local library! I love being a library book!—in numbers I couldn’t possibly have expected—though, okay, there’s nothing “merely” about that. But the joy that people seem to be taking in it: Truly I beam every time someone tweets a photo of their newly arrived copy or screenshots a favorite passage. I’ve also received a number of messages from people who want to tell me how much the book means to them, and that just undoes me. I’m going to rely on the wisdom of my wise mother, who might have been the first person to articulate, at least that I absorbed, that after two years of an administration whose every utterance is an insult not merely to democracy but to the English language, people are eager to embrace a book that suggests something so simple as: Words have meaning, and a clear, effective sentence carries a kind of truth. I don’t mean to be grand about it—truly I wrote the book essentially to be helpful and amusing, not to make a statement—but it seems to have struck a nerve. (And as my mother also pointed out: That it took me a lot longer to write the book than I’d intended certainly got us to a point of, apparently, spectacular timing.)

TM: Spare a moment for the em-dash, if you would. The most popular article I’ve published at The Millions is a paean to the em (found here). People love it, as do I, though with some guilty compunction. In a brief section in the book about the em, you mention that you feel it’s overused, and I wonder if you could expand on that—is it that it’s often an approximation of more precise punctuation? Or is it just generally overused, and as an editor, why do you think that is?

BD: I too love an em-dash—not as much as (oh, look, there goes one now) I love that scamp the en-dash or my favorite piece of punctuation, the semicolon—but people do, I think, lean on them a little hard because it’s easier to drop a couple of em dashes into a sentence than get a sentence’s various parts to adhere with, y’know, words. But I’m happy to repeat here that though traditional copyediting wisdom tells you never to use more than two em dashes in a sentence, one of my own sentences, up there in the answer to question two, includes three of them, and I have no regrets about that. Sometimes you just have to do what you have to do.

TM: You are generally philosophical in the book about changes in grammar and usage, often striking a tone of resigned, if lighthearted, acceptance. Is there, however, one trend you imply can’t abide? What stylistic hill will you die on, if any?

BD: There’s remarkably little that’s occurred lately in This Our Evolving Language that bothers me, and though I’ve become aware these last few weeks that some people expect me to rail against the destruction of English as it’s being carried out daily on the Internet (which I still capitalize), I think that all that hand-wringing is utter malarkey and I have zero intention of participating in it. I suspect that my tone of resigned, if lighthearted, acceptance has much to do with the fact that I’m well aware that I’m not as young as I used to be in all regards, and not just how English works or is made to work. But okay, let’s do this: That people have come to condemn that excellent and necessary comma in such constructions as “Hello, Karen”: Well, that just boils my blood. How’s that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whole clan,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biography of a Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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