Panel Mania: ‘A Fire Story’ by Brian Fies

In October 2017, a devastating wildfire destroyed the home of cartoonist Brian Fies along with 6,200 other homes in Northern California. A Fire Story is an unflinching account of the experiences of Fies, his family, and their neighbors—from losing their homes and all their possessions to the community’s determination to rebuild—just before and in the aftermath of the destruction.
Originally published as a webcomic immediately after the fire, Fies’s bracing and detailed account has been expanded into a powerful work of graphic nonfiction, created as a tribute to the survivors.
The Millions is pleased to offer readers a 10-page excerpt from A Fire Story, which will be published by Abrams ComicArts in March. 

 

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

What Is Italian America? It’s Complicated

“For years the old Italians have been dying/all over America.” -Lawrence Ferlinghetti

On the second floor of Harvard’s Fogg Museum, in an airy, well-lit, white-walled gallery, near a slender window overlooking a red-bricked Cambridge street, there is a display case holding three portraits on chipped wood not much bigger than post-cards. Of varying degrees of aptitude, the paintings are of a genre called “Fayum Portraits” from the region of Egypt where they’re commonly found. When the Roman ruling class established itself in this Pharaonic land during the first few centuries of the Common Era, they would mummify themselves in the Egyptian fashion while affixing Hellenistic paintings onto the faces of their preserved bodies. Across the extent of the Roman empire, from damp Britain to humid Greece, little of the more malleable painted arts survived, but in sun-baked Egypt these portraits could peer out 20 centuries later as surely as the desert dried out their mummified corpses. When people envision ancient Mediterranean art, they may think of the grand sculptures blanched a pristine white, Trajan’s Arch and the monumental head of Constantine, the colorful paint which once clung to their surfaces long since eroded away. And while the monumental marbles of classical art are what most people remember of the period, the Fayum portraits of Harvard provide an entirely more personal gaze across the millennia.

If white is the color we associate with those sculptures, then the portraits here in Cambridge are of a different hue. They are nut-brown, tanned from the noon-day sun, yellow-green, and olive. Mummy Portrait of a Woman with an Earring, painted in the second century, depicts in egg tempura on wood a dark-skinned middle-aged woman with commanding brown eyes, her black hair showing a bit of curl even as it is pulled back tightly on her scalp; a woman looking out with an assuredness that belies her anonymity over time. Mummy Portraits of a Bearded Man shows the tired look of an old man, grey beard neatly clipped and groomed, his wavy grey hair still with a hint of auburn and combed back into place. Fragments of a Mummy Portrait of a Man represents a far younger man, cleft chinned with a few days’ black stubble over his olive skin. What’s unnerving is the eerie verisimilitude of this nameless trio.

That they look so contemporary, so normal, is part of what’s unsettling. But they also unsettle because they’re there to assist in overturning our conceptions about what Roman people, those citizens of that vast, multicultural, multilingual, multireligious empire, looked like. Our culture is comfortable with the lily-white sculptures we associate with our Roman forebearers which were then imitated in our own imperial capitals; easier to pretend that the ancient Romans had nothing to do with the people who live there now, and yet when looking at the Fayum portraits I’m always struck by how Italian everybody looks.

The old man could be tending tomatoes in a weedy plot somewhere in Trenton; the middle-aged woman wearily volunteering for a church where she’s not too keen on the new Irish priest, and the young man with the stubble looks like he just got off a shift somewhere in Bensonhurst and is texting his friends to see who wants to go into the city. I’ve never seen anyone who actually looks like the statue of Caesar Augustus of Primo Porta carved from white stone, but you’ll see plenty of people who look like the Fayum Portraits in North Boston, Federal Hill, or Bloomfield (the one either in Jersey or in Pittsburgh). When I look at the Fayum portraits, I see people I know; I see my own family.

Despite my surname vowel deficiency, I’m very much Italian-American. Mathematically, twice as much as Robert DeNiro, so I feel well equipped to offer commentary in answering the question with which I’ve titled this piece. Furthermore, as a second-generation American, I’m not that far removed from Ellis Island. My mother’s father immigrated from Abruzzo, that mountainous, bear-dwelling region that was the birthplace of Ovid, and his entire family and much of his fellow villagers were brought over to Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, to work as stone masons, a trade they’d been plying since the first rock was laid in the Appian Way. My grandmother’s family was from Naples, where Virgil was born, a teeming volcanic metropolis of orange and lemon trees, a heaven populated by devils as native-son Giordano Bruno wrote in the 16th century. For me, being Italian was unconscious; it simply was a fact no more remarkable than my dark hair or brown eyes.

Being Italian meant at least seven fishes on Christmas Eve and the colored lights rather than the white ones on the tree, it meant (and still means) cooking most things with a heavy dollop of olive oil and garlic, it means at least once a week eating either veal parmesan, prosciutto and melon, calamari, spaghetti with tuna, and buffalo mozzarella with tomatoes. Being Italian meant laminated furniture in the homes of extended family, and Mary-on-the-half-shell; it meant a Catholicism more cultural than theological, with the tortured faces of saints vying alongside a certain type of pagan magic. Being Italian meant assumed good looks and a certain ethnic ambiguity; it meant uncles who made their own wine and grew tomatoes in the backyard.

Being Italian-American meant having an identity where the massive pop culture edifice that supplies representations of you implies that the part before the hyphen somehow makes the second half both more and less true. My position was much like Maria Laurino’s in Were You Always an Italian?: Ancestors and Other Icons of Italian America, where she writes that “All the pieces of my life considered to be ‘Italian’…I kept distinct from the American side, forgetting about the hyphen, about that in-between place where a new culture takes form.” What I do viscerally remember is the strange sense I had watching those corny old sword-and-sandal epics that my middle school Latin teacher used to fill up time with, a sense that those strangely Aryan Romans presented on celluloid were supposed to somehow be related to me. Actors whose chiseled all-American whiteness evoked the marbles that line museum halls. Sculptures of Caesar Augustus were once a lot more olive than white as well. That classical Greek and Roman statuary was vividly painted, only to fade over time, has been known since the 19th century, even as contemporary audiences sometimes violently react to that reality. Using modern technology, archeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann has been able to restore some of the most famous Greek and Roman statues to glorious color, as he details in his Gods in Color: Polychromy in the Ancient World, but as the classicist Sarah Bond writes in Forbes, “Intentional or not, museums present viewers with a false color binary of the ancient world.” We think of the Romans as lily white, but the Fayum portraits demonstrate that they very much weren’t. That the individuals in these pictures should appear so Italian shouldn’t be surprising—Romans are Italians after all. Or at least in the case of the Fayum portraits they’re people from a mélange of backgrounds, including not just Romans, but Greeks, Egyptians, Berbers, Arabs, Jews, Ethiopians, and so on. Rome was, like our own, a hybridized civilization, and it’s marked on the faces that peer out towards us on that wall.

Last fall, at a handful of Boston-area colleges just miles from the museum, classical imagery was appropriated for very different means. Students awoke to find their academic halls papered with posters left during the night by members of one of these fascistic groups to have emerged after the 2016 presidential election, a bigotry that has been revealed as if discovering all of the fungus growing underneath a rotting tree stump that’s been kicked over. This particular group combined images of bleached classical sculpture and neo-fascist slogans to make their white supremacist arguments. The Apollo Belvedere is festooned with the declaration “Our Future Belongs to Us,” 17th-century French Neo-Classical sculptor Nicolas Coustou’s bust of Julius Caesar has “Serve your People” written beneath it, and in the most consciously Trumpy of posters, a close-up on the face of Michelangelo’s David injuncts “Let’s Become Great Again.” There’s something particularly ironic in commandeering the David in the cause of white supremacy. Perhaps they didn’t know that that exemplar of the Italian Renaissance was a depiction of a fierce Jewish king as rendered by a gay, olive-skinned artist?

Such must be the central dilemma of the confused white supremacist, for the desire to use ancient Rome in their cause has been irresistible ever since Benito Mussolini concocted his crackpot system of malice known as fascismo corporativo, but the reality is that the descendants of those very same Romans often don’t appear quite as “white” as those supremacists would be comfortable with. This is especially important when considering that the Romans “did not speak in terms of race, a discourse invented many centuries later,” as scholar Nell Irvin Painter writes in The History of White People. Moral repugnance is a given when it comes to racist ideologies, but one should also never forget the special imbecility that comes along with arguing that you’re innately superior because you kinda, sorta, maybe physically resemble dead people who did important things. What makes the case of the posters more damning is that those who made them don’t even actually look like the people whose culture they’ve appropriated.

No doubt the father of celebrated journalist Gay Talese would be outraged by this filching. In a 1993 piece for The New York Times Book Review, he remembers his “furious and defensive father” exploding after he’d learned that the Protestant-controlled school board had rejected his petition to include Ovid and Dante in the curriculum, the elder man shouting at his son that “‘Italy was giving art to the world when those English were living in caves and painting their faces blue!’” A particular twist as the descendants of those same WASPs paper college campuses with posters of Italian sculptures that they somehow claim patrimony from. But that’s always been the predicament of the Western chauvinist, primed to take ownership over another culture as evidence of his own genius, while simultaneously having to explain his justifications for the disdain in which he holds the actual children of that culture.

Since the late 19th-century arrival of millions of immigrants from the Mezzogiorno, American racists have long contrived baroque justifications for why white Anglo-Saxon Protestants are the inheritors of Italian culture, while Italians themselves are not. Some of this logic was borrowed from Italy itself, where even today, Robert Lumley and Jonathan Morris record in The New History of the Italian South, some northerners will claim that “Europe ends at Naples. Calabria, Sicily, and all the rest belong to Africa.” Northern Italians, comparatively wealthier, better educated, and most importantly fairer, had been in the United States a generation before their southern cousins, and many Anglo-Americans borrowed that racialized animus against southerners which reigned (and still does) in the old country.

As Richard Gambino writes in Blood of my Blood: The Dilemma of the Italian-Americans, it was in the “twisted logic of bigotry” that these immigrants were “flagrantly ‘un-American.’ And Italians replaced all the earlier immigrant groups as targets of resentment about the competition of cheap labor.” This was the reasoning that claimed that all Italian accomplishments could be attributed to a mythic “Nordic” or “Teutonic” influence, so that any Mediterranean achievements were written away, orienting Rome towards a Europe it was only tangentially related to and away from an Africa that long had an actual influence. Notorious crank Madison Grant in his unabashedly racist 1916 The Passing of the Great Race claimed that Italians were now “storming the Nordic ramparts of the United States and mongrelizing the good old American stock,” with Gambino explaining that “In his crackpot explanation, Italians are the inferior descendants of the slaves who survived when ancient Rome died.”

Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould writes that Grant’s book was “the most influential tract of American scientific racism” and Adolf Hitler wrote a letter to the author claiming “The book is my Bible.” A lawyer and eugenicist, Grant’s writings were influential in both the Palmer Raids, a series of unconstitutional police actions directed by the Wilson administration against immigrants suspected of harboring anarchist and communist sympathies, as well as the xenophobic nastiness of the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act which made eastern and southern European immigration slow to a trickle. Incidentally, it was the Johnson-Reed Act that, had it been passed 10 years earlier, would have barred my mother’s father from entering the United States; a law that former Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions lauded in a 2017 interview with Stephen Bannon, arguing that the banning of immigrants like those in my family “was good for America.”

In Chiaroscuro: Essays of Identity, Helen Barolini writes that “Italian Americans are too easily used as objects of ridicule and scorn,” and while that’s accurate, it’s a rhetoric that has deep and complicated genealogies. Italy has always occupied a strange position in the wider European consciousness. It is simultaneously the birthplace of “Western Civilization,” and an exoticized, impoverished, foreign backwater at the periphery of the continent; the people who first modeled a noxious imperialism, and the subjugated victims of later colonialism. A pithy visual reminder of Italy’s status in early modern Europe can be seen in the German painter Hans Holbein the Younger’s 1533 masterpiece The Ambassadors, which depicts two of the titular profession surrounded by their tools. On a shelf behind them sits a globe. Europe is differentiated from the rest of the world by being an autumnal brown-green, with the exception of two notable regions colored the same hue as Africa—Ireland and Sicily. In Are Italians White?: How Race is Made in America, coedited with Salvatore Salerno, historian Jennifer Guglielmo explains that the “racial oppression of Italians had its root in the racialization of Africans,” something never more evident than in the anti-Italian slur “guinea” with its intimations of Africanness, this implication of racial ambiguity having profound effects on how Italians were understood and how they understood themselves.

In the rhetoric and thought of the era, Italy was somehow paradoxically the genesis of Europe, while also somehow not European. As such, Italians were to be simultaneously emulated and admired, while also reviled and mocked. During that English Renaissance, which was of course a sequel to the original one, books like Baldassare Castiglione’s The Courtier and Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince, with their respective paeans to sensuality and duplicity, molded a particular view of Italianness that has long held sway in the English imagination. Consider all of the Shakespeare plays in an imagined Italy: The Taming of the Shrew, Two Gentleman of Verona, Much Ado About Nothing, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Titus Andronicus, Othello, Coriolanus, The Winter’s Tale and The Merchant of Venice, not to mention the occasional appearance of Romans in other plays. Shakespeare’s plays, and other icons of the English Renaissance, set a template that never really faded. A simultaneous attraction to and disgust at a people configured as overly emotional, overly sexual, overly flashy, overly corrupt, overly sensual, and with a propensity less cerebral than hormonal. And the criminality.

Long before Mario Puzo or The Sopranos, Renaissance English writers impugned Italians with a particular antisocial perfidy. Such is displayed in Thomas Nash’s 1594 The Unfortunate Traveller: or, the Life of Jack Wilton, which could credibly be called England’s first novel. In that picaresque, the eponymous character perambulates through the Europe of the early 16th century, encountering luminaries like Thomas More, Erasmus, Henry Howard, Martin Luther, and Cornelius Agrippa, and witnessing events like the horrific siege at Munster in the Low Countries. Most of Nash’s narrative, however, takes place in “the Sodom of Italy,” and an English fever dream of that country’s excess settles like a yellow fog. One Englishmen laments that the only lessons that can be learned here are “the art of atheism, the art of epicurizing, the art of whoring, the art of poisoning, the art of sodomitry.”

The narrative circumstances of Nash’s penultimate scene, which reads like Quentin Tarantino, has an Italian nobleman being executed for the violent revenge he took upon his sister’s rapist. On the scaffold, the nobleman declares that “No true Italian but will honor me for it. Revenge is the glory of arms and the highest performance of valor,” and indeed his revenge was of an immaculate quality. He’d first forced his sister’s assailant to abjure God and condemn salvation, and then, satisfied that such blasphemy would surely send his victim to hell, he shot him in the head. A perfect revenge upon not just the body, but the soul. Nash presents such passion as a ritual of decadent Mediterranean vendetta, simultaneously grotesque and inescapably evocative.

From Nash until today there has often been a presumption of vindictive relativist morality on the part of Italians, and it has slurred communities with an assumption of criminality. In the early 20th century sociologists claimed that the dominant Italian ethic was “familial amoralism,” whereby blood relations had precedence over all other social institutions. Nash’s nobleman is the great-grandfather to Michael Corleone in the collective imagination. Do not read this as squeamish sensitivity, I’d never argue that The Godfather, written and directed by Italians, is anything less than an unmitigated masterpiece. Both Puzo’s novel and Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation are potent investigations of guilt, sin, and evil. I decided not to join the Sons of Italy after I saw how much of their concern was with stereotypes on The Sopranos, which I still regard as among the greatest television dramas of all time. I concur with Bill Tonelli, who in his introduction to The Italian American Reader snarked that “nobody loves those characters better than Italian Americans do,” and yet I recall with a cringe the evaluation of The Godfather given to me by a non-Italian, that the film was about nothing more than “spaghetti and murder.”

Representations of Italianness in popular culture aren’t just Michael Corleone and Tony Soprano, there’s also the weirdly prevalent sitcom stereotype of the lovable, but dumb, hypersexual goombah. I enter into consideration Arthur “The Fonze” Fonzarelli from Happy Days, Tony Micelli from Who’s the Boss?, Vinny Barbarino of Welcome Back Kotter, and of course Friends’ Joey Tribbiani. Once I argued with my students if there was something offensive about The Jersey Shore, finally convincing them of the racialized animus in the series when I queried as to why there had never been an equivalent about badly behaving WASPs called Martha’s Vineyard?

Painter explains that “Italian Americans hovered longer on the fringes of American whiteness,” and so any understanding must take into account that until recently Italians were still inescapably exotic to many Americans. Tonelli writes that “in an era that supposedly values cultural diversity and authenticity, the portrait of Italian Americans is monotonous and observed from a safe distance.” The continued prevalence of these stereotypes is a residual holdover from the reality that Italians are among the last of “ethnics” to “become white.” Tonelli lists the “mobsters, the urban brute, the little old lady shoving a plate of rigatoni under your nose,” declaiming that “it gets to be like a minstrel show after a while.”

Consider Judge Webster Thayer who after the 1921 sham-trial of anarchists Barolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco would write that although they “may not have committed the crime” attributed to them, they are “nevertheless morally culpable” because they were both enemies of “our existing institutions… the defendant’s ideals are cognate with crime.” Privately, Thayer bragged to a Dartmouth professor, “Did you see what I did to those anarchistic bastards the other day?” As late as 1969, another professor, this one at Yale, felt free to tell a reporter in response to a query about a potential Italian-American New York mayoral candidate that “If Italians aren’t actually an inferior race, they do the best imitation of one I’ve seen.”

But sometime in the
decades after World War II, Italians followed the Irish and Jews into the
country club of whiteness with its carefully circumscribed membership. Guglielmo
explains that initially “Virtually all Italian immigrants [that] arrived in the
United States [did so] without a consciousness about its color line.” Victims
of their birth nation’s rigid social stratification based on complexion and geography,
the new immigrants were largely ignorant of America’s racial history, and thus
were largely immune to the anti-black racism that was prevalent. These
immigrants had no compunction about working and living alongside African
Americans, and often understood themselves to occupy a similar place in
society.

But as Guglielmo explains, by the second and third generation there was an understanding that to be “white meant having the ability to avoid many forms of violence and humiliation, and assured preferential access to citizenship, property, satisfying work, livable wages, decent housing, political power, social status, and a good education, among other privileges.” Political solidarity with black and Hispanic Americans (we forget that Italians are Latinx too) was abandoned in favor of assimilation to the mainstream. Jennifer Gillan writes in the introduction to Growing up Ethnic in America: Contemporary Fiction about Learning to be American that “American have often fought bitter battles over what it means to be American and who exactly get to qualify under the umbrella term,” and towards the end of the 20th century Italians had fought their way into that designation, but they also left many people behind. In the process, a beautiful radical tradition was forgotten, so that we traded Giuseppe Garibaldi for Frank Rizzo, Philly’s racist mayor in the 70s; so that now instead of Sacco and Vanzetti we’re saddled with Antonin Scalia and Rudy Giuliani. As Guglielmo mourns, “Italians were not always white and the loss of this memory is one of the great tragedies of racism in America.”

If there is to be any anecdote, then it must be in words; where literature allows for imaginative possibilities and the complexities of empathy. What is called for is a restitution, or rather a recognition, of an Italian-American literary canon acting as bulwark against both misrepresentations and amnesia. Talese infamously asked if there were no “Italian-American Arthur Millers and Saul Bellows, James Baldwins and Toni Morrisons, Mary McCarthys and Mary Gordons, writing about their ethnic experiences?” There’s an irony to this question, as Italians in the old country would never think to ask where their writers are, the land of Virgil and Dante secure in its literary reputation, with more recent years seeing the celebrated post-modernisms of Italo Calvino, Primo Levi, Dario Fo, and Umberto Eco. In this century, the citizens of Rome, Florence, and Milan face different questions than their cousins in Newark, Hartford, or Providence. Nor do we bemoan a dearth of examples in other fields: that Italians can hit a baseball or throw a punch can be seen in Joe DiMaggio’s homeruns and Rocky Marciano’s slugging; that we can strike a note is heard in Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin; that we can shoot a picture is proven by Coppola, Brian DePalma, and Martin Scorsese.

Yet in the literary arts no equivalent names come up, at least no equivalent names that are thought of as distinctly Italian. Regina Barreca in the introduction to Don’t Tell Mama!: The Penguin Book of Italian American Writing says that there is an endurance of the slur which sees Italians as “deliberately dense, badly educated, and culturally unsophisticated.” By this view the wider culture is fine with the physicality of boxers and baseballs players, the emotion and sensuality of musicians, even the Catholic visual idiom of film as opposed to the Protestant textuality of the written word, so that the “intellectual” pursuits of literature are precluded. She explains that what remains is an “idea of Italian Americans as a people who would never choose to read a book, let alone write one,” though as Baraca stridently declares this is a “set of hazardous concepts [which] cannot simply be outlived; it must be dismantled.”

I make no claims to originating the idea that we must establish an Italian-American literary canon, such has been the mainstay of Italian-American Studies since that field’s origin in the ’70s. This has been the life’s work of scholars like Gambino, Louise DeSalvo, and Fred Gardaphé, not to mention all of the anthology editors I’ve referenced. Tonelli writes that “Our time of genuine suffering at the hands of this bruising country passed more or less unchronicled, by ourselves or anyone else,” yet there are hidden examples of Italian-American voices writing about an experience that goes beyond mafia or guido stereotypes. For many of these critics, the Italian-American literary canon was something that already existed, it was merely a question of being able to recognize what exists beyond the stark black and red cover of The Godfather. Such a task involved the elevation of lost masterpieces like Pietro di Donato’s 1939 proletarian Christ in Concrete , but also a reemphasis on the vowels at the ends of names for authors who are clearly Italian, but are seldom thought of as such.

That Philip Roth is a Jewish author goes without saying, but rarely do we think of the great experimentalist Don DeLillo as an Italian-American author. A restitution of the Italian-American literary canon would ask what precisely is uniquely Italian about a DeLillo? For that matter, what are the Italian-American aesthetics of poets like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jay Parini, Diane Di Prima, and Gregory Corso? What can we better say about the Italianness of Gilbert Sorrentino and Richard Russo? Where do we locate the Mezzogiorno in the criticism and scholarship of A. Bartlett Giamatti, Frank Lentricchia, and Camille Paglia? Baraca writes that “Italian Americans live (and have always lived) a life not inherited, but invented,” and everything is to be regained by making a reinvention for ourselves. Furthermore, I’d suggest that the hybridized nature of what it has always meant to be Italian provides a model to avoid the noxious nationalisms that increasingly define our era.

Guglielmo writes that “Throughout the twentieth century, Italian Americans crafted a vocal, visionary, and creative oppositional culture to protest whiteness and build alliances with people of color,” and I’d argue that this empathetic imagination was born out of the pluralistic civilization of which the Italians were descendants. Contrary to pernicious myths of “racial purity,” the Romans were as diverse as Americans are today, drawing not just from Italic peoples like the Umbrians, Sabines, Apulians, and Etruscans, but also from Egyptians, Ethiopians, Berbers, Carthaginians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Anatolians, Gauls, Huns, Dacians, Franks, Teutons, Vandals, Visigoths, Anglo-Saxons, Normans, Iberians, Jews, Arabs, and Celts, among others. A reality quite contrary to the blasphemy of those posters with their stolen Roman images.

Rome was both capital and periphery, a culture that was a circle with no circumference whose center can be everywhere. Christine Palamidessi Moore in her contribution to the Lee Gutkind and Joanna Clapps Herman anthology Our Roots are Deep with Passion: Creative Nonfiction Collects New Essays by Italian American Writers notes that “Italy is a fiction: a country of provinces, dialects, and regions, and historically because of its location, an incorporator of invaders, empires, and bloodlines.” Sitting amidst the Mare Nostrum of its wine-dark sea, Italy has always been at a nexus of Europe, Africa, and Asia, situated between north and south, east and west. Moore explains that the “genuineness of the ethnicity they choose becomes more obscure and questionable because of its mixed origins; however, because it is voluntary, the act of choosing sustains the identity.”

The question then is not “What was Italian America?” but rather “What can Italian America be?” In 1922 W.E.B. DuBois, the first black professor at Harvard, spoke to a group of impoverished Italian immigrants at Chicago’s Hull House. Speaking against the Johnson-Reed Act, DuBois appealed to a spirit of confraternity, arguing that there must be a multiethnic coalition against a “renewal of the Anglo-Saxon cult: the worship of the Nordic totem, the disenfranchisement of Negro, Jew, Irishman, Italian, Hungarian, Asiatic and South Sea Islander.” When DuBois spoke against the “Anglo-Saxon cult” he condemned not actual English people, but rather the fetish that believes only those of British stock can be “true Americans.” When he denounced the “Nordic totem,” he wasn’t castigating actual northern Europeans, but only that system that claims they are worthier than the rest of people. What DuBois condemned was not people, but rather a system that today we’ve taken to calling “white privilege,” and he’s just as correct a century later. The need for DuBois’s coalition has not waned.

Italian-Americans can offer the example of a culture that was always hybridized, always at the nexus of different peoples. Italians have never been all one thing or the other, and that seems to me the best way to be. It’s this liminal nature that’s so valuable, which provides answer to the idolatries of ancestry that are once again emerging in the West (with Italy no exception). DuBois offered a different vision, a coalition of many hues marshaled against the hegemony of any one. When I meet the gaze of the Fayum portraits, I see in their brown eyes an unsettling hopefulness from some 20 centuries ago, looking past my shoulder and just beyond the horizon where perhaps that world may yet exist.

The Good Place: The Millions Interviews Elizabeth McCracken

Over the course of her career, Elizabeth McCracken has written critically acclaimed short story collections and novels. Opening one of her books to page one always brings a rush of excitement because you truly never know what to expect. Her latest, Bowlaway, is no exception. The exceptionally weird and cozy novel set near the beginning of the 20th century opens with an unconscious woman in a cemetery with 15 pounds of gold hidden in a secret compartment of a bag that also contained a small bowling ball and a slender candlepin.

Using a candlepin bowling alley as the backdrop, McCracken tracks the lives of a fictional town in the state of Massachusetts. What follows is an ode to the state, the lineage of townspeople, and how pastimes help shape our society. The novel slowly reveals the sort of dark secrets that can unravel community in an instant. It feels both timely and timeless.

I spoke with McCracken over the phone about place, humor, and community in her writing.

The Millions: What drew you to use candlepin bowling as the backdrop for this book?

Elizabeth McCracken: I used to be a candlepin bowler. I still bowl sometimes now but would bowl a lot back in Massachusetts as a kid. I miss New England. I knew I wanted to write about home, and it seemed like an interesting way in for me.

TM: Massachusetts, and New England as a whole, are very unique compared to the rest of the country. How did growing up in Massachusetts inform your reading and writing in your youth?

EM: I’ve been trying to think about this. I live in Texas now and Texas is its own thing in ways I didn’t realize before. I have kids in the public schools, and they have an entire year on Texan history. Sometimes I have friends here ask me if I studied Massachusetts history as a kid. Well, we did. The Boston Tea Party, the Revolutionary War. It’s just American history! We never devoted a year to learn about the state.

For reading though, I read a lot of Hawthorne when I was growing up. There was Edith Wharton. A lot of New England ghost stories. [With this novel] I was thinking about my love for the cramped, ill-lit rooms of New England now that I am in the wide open, brightly lit spaces of Texas.

TM: You mention New England ghost stories. American literature was very regionalized at first, then writers started to think globally. You book feels very regionalized. Was that intentional?

EM: I was definitely thinking about place more than anything I have ever written before. It was hugely a reaction to living in Texas. I wanted to write an example of Massachusetts literature.

TM: Prior to moving to Texas, you lived in many places including Massachusetts, then Iowa for school. I moved around a lot and ended up back in Phoenix. When I returned here, I felt like an outsider. I was very disconnected to my life here prior. How did moving around impact your writing?

EM:  think you’re right that you leave a place and come back to a shifted perspective. I also lived in France and spent a lot of time in Berlin and England. I don’t know, man, it was broadening. There are writers who are brilliant about writing about their home and can stay home and still find things to write about.

I’m a garbage disposal writer. I need things to put in so I can write.

TM: That makes sense because one thing I love about your writing is that I never know what to expect. A lot of authors, which is great, write about the same themes or settings. You know what to expect. With you I feel I never know what to expect on that first page. This novel starts with an unconscious woman in a cemetery. How early did that image come to you?

EM: Relatively late. There wasn’t a ton of backstory on Berta Truitt. There was some, but mostly about her childhood and she was a very mysterious character. There was a ton of problems with it. I had written an entire draft before I thought of that opening. Even after that, I kept coming back to it.

TM: What drew you to Bertha as a character?

EM: I was going through my grandfather’s genealogy and pulling out names, which is how the book started. I liked the idea of someone who was mysterious, even to herself, but also wildly confident. It was fun to write about a character who believed they could do anything.

TM: Reading through this novel, it feels very Massachusetts. Also, the voice and the tone don’t feel very 2019 but also feel very 2019. It’s a historical-ish novel…

EM: I like that term for it. Someone called it a historical novel and I responded, “well, kind of.” It feels like a disservice to people who write actual, extremely researched, and accurate novels.

Because the novel in the beginning was about genealogy, I am happy to hear it feels very of its time but not of its time. I was interested in how a generation leads to the next generation and how people are unbelievably invested in that.

Here’s this story from a long time ago and [it] ends up in a place only because people have children. It ends with people who didn’t know about that older generation. A lot of people, even if they did research, would be ignorant about how that generation is connected to them.

Even in those ghost stories I read as a kid, a lot of those stories were tied to real places. Then there are stories that sound like myths but were actual events. I wanted something to feel out of time like those pieces.

TM: Building off of that, in the acknowledgements of this book you write: “This book is highly inaccurate.” There is always some humor in every page you write. How important is humor to you?

EM: Vital. I don’t know how to write without it. I’m always telling my students that is impossible to write fiction without using skills for which you interpret the world. I can’t exorcise humor from my worldview. I can’t take it out of my fiction.

Sometimes I read a piece of fiction without any humor in it—and I don’t mean jokes, I just mean fiction that doesn’t acknowledge the fundamental absurdity of life. Fiction like that feels sterile and dead.

TM: Whenever I read or watch something that is supposed to be this big, dramatic, heart wrenching moment, I sometimes can’t help but laugh because life is funny even when it’s awful.

EM: Exactly. I also believe humor makes things sadder. It’s a way to light up your fiction before an event like that.

TM: Looping back to place, I want to talk about writing as a community. I feel the general public thinks authors are competing against each other. I’ve found it to be the opposite and authors are all champions of one another. What does your writing community look like?

EM: My community is really important. Feeling competitive with other writers is impossible to get away from entirely, but it’s such a useless emotion. There’s no way to measure it. It’s not bowling. I teach at the University of Texas at Austin. I feel that teaching has made me a better writer. To teach and read year after year really teaches you how many possibilities there are.

I also have very dear friends who are writers that I give my work to. My husband [Edward Carey] is a writer whose opinion of my work means a huge amount to me. His own work means a huge amount to me. I feel very lucky that I ended up marrying a writer whose work I loved and adored before I met him.

My dear friend Paul Lisicky is one of my first readers. His opinion and own works mean a lot to me. Ann Patchett is someone whose opinions means a lot to me. One of the perks of being a teacher and getting older is becoming good friends with former students. I have Paul Harding and Yiyun Li who are really good friends of mine and they were students of mine a long time back.

TM: That’s what is so amazing about the literary world. You’ll mention a writer and they’ll mention someone else. Then it’s six degrees of separation and before you know it, someone is saying they admire you.

EM: It’s true. Every time I meet someone who is a friend of a friend of mine, it feels like we know each other even though we’ve never met.

TM: How often are you letting your readers read your works in progress?

EM: Very little. The older I get, the more I hold my work closer than I used to. It used to be that I would want to give people my chapters as I went along. Now I feel like in order to have the privacy to write well, I need absolute privacy during the draft. I am the type of writer who does a ton of drafts. I wrote an entire draft before giving it to my husband. Then I wrote another draft before giving it to Paul Lisicky.

I usually talk about the book with people, but the way it works for me is I’d rather not have too much advice. I want to have the problems and go back myself to figure out how to address the problems.

TM: When do you know you finally have it: the final draft?

EM: I never, ever have ever thought “I really have it.” I think about a month ago I thought of something else I should have done with Bowlaway. That’s just how I am. I need to have the book taken away from me. Someone recently said to me that writers should stop working on things when they are aware they are no longer making it better. That’s true for me.

When I wrote the first draft, I knew this had a remarkably terrible end. I knew I needed to put something down. Architecturally, I had to have a big brick there just to hold up the rest of the novel so I could go back and fix things.

I do depend on my readers to help me. I’ll know something is wrong, but I don’t always know if something is right.

If on a Winter’s Night a Computer

It’s 1979 and Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is published. It is revelatory! The novel is lauded for its “post-modernist” narrative, “labyrinthine” structure, and ability to play with the notions of being “a reader.” It’s all very new and cool and futuristic. What draws less attention is the novel’s vision of AI authors, their potential role in creating apocryphal human art, and Calvino’s use of an algorithm to formulate the plot.

It’s 2016, and the art world is graced with its first piece of AI apocrypha when developers create a “new” Rembrandt portrait, except it isn’t by Rembrandt. The Next Rembrandt, as it is known, is a computer-generated 3D print-painting created using a facial recognition algorithm informed by data from 346 paintings by the man himself. It is comprised of 148 million pixels and based on 168,263 fragments of works by Rembrandt and, by referencing all his other portraits, makes a computer’s best guess at what he might have painted next. It is—I am disappointed to say—fairly convincing. But using an algorithm to create a picture is a very different process than writing a book.

If on a Winter’s Night is punctuated by the handiwork of one of its main characters, a fiendish translator called Ermes Marana, who puts the literary world into chaos by swapping translations and inserting apochrypha—his intent being to show fiction’s “pretense, misunderstanding, falsehood.” He is keen to get his hands on the latest (incomplete) manuscript by the world-famous author Silas Flannery, who is sitting on a mountaintop in Switzerland watering his zinnias and suffering from a paralyzing bout of writer’s block—much to the annoyance of Flannery’s agents, publishers, and advertisers. A commercially successful, if somewhat formulaic writer of thrillers, Flannery is an ideal candidate for the organization Marana works for: the Organization for the Electronic Production of Homogenized Literary Works (OEPHLW). Marana succeeds in stealing Flannery’s incomplete manuscript and feeds it into a computer; using this data, the computer is able to complete the manuscript “with perfect fidelity to the stylistic and conceptual modes of the author,” and thereby, has the capacity to continue to produce Flannery apocrypha.

When If on a Winter’s Night was first published, the idea of an AI author was but a twinkle in the human eye. William Gibson had not yet uttered the term “cyber-space.” The idea was speculative science fiction. But as with a lot of science fiction, it has ended up coming true: We are now witnessing the glittering inception of the AI author, and computers are taking their first clumsy steps towards literature, meaning that writers are facing the exact reality imagined by Calvino for Silas Flannery.

George R.R. Martin, writer of the Game of Thrones series, is only human, and because he is only human, he is taking a long time to deliver the next GoT installment, The Winds of Winter. Too long, some feel. Having waited since 2011, fans are so eager for his sixth book that one—Zack Thoutt, a software engineer—took fan-fiction to a whole new level: He designed a program to create it. To do this, Thoutt used a type of AI now typical for the creation of literature and computers’ comprehension of natural languages called “recurrent neural networks” or “RNNs.” These are machine-learning algorithms that mirror the neural pathways of the human brain, meaning that sequences are linked and have the ability to loop back to previous information, and therefore, inform the next sequence. The result is “obviously not perfect,” Thoutt tells Motherboard, but having input 5,376 pages of the previous five books, his program has not only successfully strung a lot of sentences together (five chapters’ worth), it mimics Martin’s style and lexicon, and makes plot predictions that have already been circulated by hardcore GoT fans. It also spouts some absolute nonsense:

“I feared Master Sansa, Ser,” Ser Jaime reminded her. “She Baratheon is one of the crossing. The second sons of your onion concubine.”

Imperfect as the results may be, Thoutt’s algorithm—like Marana’s—is mining content from an existing database, which means it had a head start. Creating original text is a more difficult matter, as Angela Fan, of Facebook AI Research, tells New Scientist: “[AI programs] write in a very simplistic way, deciding word by word what to say next…staying on topic is quite difficult for neural model networks because they have no explicit memory.” Fan’s team trains their algorithms to stay on topic by using writing prompts, such as “Aliens start abducting humans,” while Mark Reidl of the Georgia Technological Institute uses a different approach: focusing on climaxes (like a marriage, or a death of a character). Both Fan and Reidl use recurrent neural network programs and both have been successful in creating original short stories that remain on topic. But in January of last year, Fan and Riedl’s short story benchmark was surpassed with the novella The Day a Computer Writes a Novel, an original text written by AI that proved to be a convincing entrant in a Japanese literary competition. The novella’s characters may have “needed developing,” but the judges didn’t suspect that a computer had written it.

In If on a Winter’s Night, the aim of conflicted Silas Flannery is to “capture in the book the illegible world, without centre, without ego, without I.” This, supposedly, is something that AI can accomplish without too much effort. It is also something that Calvino attempted himself—probably with considerable effort. Not satisfied with merely theorizing about algorithms able to write novels, Calvino wrote If on a Winter’s Night using one: a semiotic square. Calvino was a member of the Oulipo group—Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or, Workshop of Potential Literature—a selection of mathematician-writers and writer-mathematicians who relished “the seeking of new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy.” In La Bibliothèque Oulipienne Volume II, Calvino explains that he used a code of his own, employing the model of the semiotic square to create a sequence to structure the plot of If on a Winter’s Night… .

The coding used to create the kind of sequencing capable of producing works of fiction is infinitely more complicated than Calvino’s semiotic square. Nonetheless, AI is everywhere. It is free to those who can afford it, and free to those who can’t. It is our chat bots. It is our social media feeds, our maps, our banking, our advertising. It is in our inboxes. It is our news. (Associated Press, Yahoo, and Comcast all use the “natural language generation platform” Wordsmith.) And, on the whole AI, in partnership with data, has been successfully harnessed to improve business life, to make everything quicker and better and faster and shinier. But…can data touch the human soul? Ron Augustus, director of SMB Markets at Microsoft, and part of the Next Rembrandt team posits this as a possibility. AI has already passed a Turing Test-of-sorts by duping a large proportion of unsuspecting public into thinking that its poetry was written by a human; and poetry, surely, is the most secure line to the soul.
I am a coal-truck

by a broken heart

I have no sound

the sound of my heart

I am not
This is an example of one of the better poems written by the AI poet developed by Microsoft’s Kyoto researchers. It certainly looks poem-y, the choice of vocabulary is interesting, and it has that Thomas Chatterton melancholia we tend to associate with poetry. But does it actually make you feel anything? The reason literature is currently an area that “progress” has been unable to infiltrate is not that it is “skilled labor,” but that it is human. Something that is not human could make your heart beat faster by writing a perfect thriller plot. It could possibly turn you on by writing a few racy sex-bot scenes. But could it touch our sublime instrument? I’m not convinced. It could have an effect on copyright, however.

The impact AI authors will have on writers in regard to copyright and intellectual property was discussed in articles in the summer edition of The Author Magazine and in last year’s WIPO magazine. In the U.S., to be subject to copyright an original work must have been created by a human being. But as Andres Guadamuz, senior lecturer in intellectual property law at the University of Sussex says, “Things are likely to become more complex as the machines get better at producing creative works, further blurring the distinction between artwork made by a human and that made by a computer. When you give a machine the capacity to learn styles from a dataset of content, it will become ever faster at mimicking humans.”

This “dataset of content” is important. In October, The New York Times profiled Robin Sloan, an author using AI to his advantage. With his latest novel, Sloane is assisted by a machine-learning algorithm: he takes notes such as “The bison are gathered around the canyon,” hits a button, and the computer concludes the sentence with “by the bare sky.” Which Sloan thinks is, “kind of fantastic.”

Sloane’s machine was initially given a dataset of science fiction stories from the ’50s and ’60s to draw from; now it is also informed by the likes of Steinbeck, Didion, and Johnny Cash’s poems—ostensibly a great selection. But when it comes to machine-learning algorithms, who chooses the dataset—who chooses the “good books” that inform the AI? And what about the bad books? The books we read and hate or are bored by still influence us in positive ways. By eliminating these lesser books, the selective process becomes like the echo chamber we are so familiar with in social media—built by algorithms. Furthermore, is a computer influenced by someone’s work different to a human being influenced by someone’s work? It is, of course, more calculated. Rather than being influenced or inspired, it steals—yes, “like all great artists.” The author Nick Harraway says, “We are not at risk from the rise of the robots. We are at risk of exploitation by companies and individuals who unthinkingly regard the complete, finished text as a found object and resent the idea that they should have to share the vast proceeds of its digital exploitation.”

The Copyright Office in the United States will “register an original work of authorship providing it was created by a human being.” But Hong Kong (SAR), India, Ireland, and the U.K. grant copyright to the person who “made the operation of artificial intelligence possible.” So as with Microsoft Word, it is the person who uses the program, rather than the programmer who retains copyright. But as Guadamuz points out, with the use of this particular type of AI, the person who uses the program is often doing little more than pressing a button. This could have a huge impact on the livelihoods of authors and their translators, as programs are fed enough information from existing literature to generate works that are original enough to evade copyright laws.

In If on a Winter’s Night, Calvino also introduces the concept of “reading machines,” which can not only read a book but also judge its merit. We can assume that this will also become a reality eventually, a depressing or exhilarating thought depending on where you stand. But for those of us who wish to remain autonomous, all is not lost; hard work got us so far, but it was not efficiency that got us this far. It was in the moments between productivity that genius was inspired. In If on a Winter’s Night’s closing pages there is a scene in a library where one reader says to the others, “If a book truly interests me, I cannot follow it for more than a few lines before my mind, having seized on a thought that the text suggests to it, or a feeling, or a question, or an image, goes off on a tangent and springs from thought to thought, from image to image…The stimulus of reading is indispensable to me…even if of every book I manage to read no more than a few pages. But those few pages already enclose for me whole universes, which I can never exhaust.” Our avenues of idle thought have led us to some of our greatest achievements and our most profound sentiments. We are “infinite in faculty,” as Shakespeare said. The AI author might be around for a while, and things might get pretty hairy for human writers, translators, and journalists for a while, but eventually, this too shall pass.

Aspen Words Literary Prize Reveals 2019 Shortlist

The Aspen Words Literary Prize announced its 5-title shortlist, whittled down from the 16-title longlist from late last year. In its second year, the prize aims to award $35,000 to a single work of fiction “that illuminates a vital contemporary issue and demonstrates the transformative power of literature on thought and culture.”

This year’s finalists (complete with bonus links and Publishers Weekly reviews) are as follows:

Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

Read our interview with Adjei-Brenyah and PW’s starred review:
Adjei-Brenyah dissects the dehumanizing effects of capitalism and racism in this debut collection of stingingly satirical stories. The arguments that exonerate a white man for brutally murdering five black children with a chainsaw in “The Finkelstein 5” highlight the absurdity of America’s broken criminal justice system. “Zimmer Land” imagines a future entertainment park where players enter an augmented reality to hunt terrorists or shoot intruders played by minority actors. The title story is one of several set in a department store where the store’s best salesman learns to translate the incomprehensible grunts of vicious, insatiable Black Friday shoppers. He returns in “How to Sell a Jacket as Told by IceKing” to be passed over for a promotion despite his impeccable record. Some stories take a narrower focus, such as “The Lion & the Spider,” in which a high school senior has to take a demanding job to keep money flowing into his family’s house after his father’s disappearance. In “Light Spitter,” a school shooting results in both the victim and gunman stuck in a shared purgatory. “Through the Flash” spins a dystopian Groundhog Day in which victims of an unexplained weapon relive a single day and resort to extreme violence to cope. Adjei-Brenyah has put readers on notice: his remarkable range, ingenious premises, and unflagging, momentous voice make this a first-rate collection.

Gun Love by Jennifer Clement

Read PW’s review:
In her excellent fifth novel, Clement (Prayers for the Stolen) tackles homelessness, America’s love affair with guns, and the economic despair of folks living on the dark edge of society. Pearl is a 14-year-old girl living with her mother in an old car next to a crummy trailer park and the town dump in central Florida. The car has been their home since Pearl was born. She and her mother are dreamers (“It doesn’t take too long to figure out that dreams are better than life,” says her mother), but their dreams don’t spare them from tragedy when cop-killing charmer Eli shows up and woos Pearl’s mother, coming between mother and daughter. Eli and trailer neighbors Pastor Rex and Ray are in the gun-running business, selling weapons in Texas and Mexico. When Pearl’s small, insular world is shattered by an armed drifter, she starts on a dangerous path that will change the rest of her life. Clement’s affecting and memorable novel is also an incisive social commentary that will give readers much to ponder.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Read Jones’s 2017 Year in Reading and PW’s review:
Jones (Silver Sparrow) lays bare the devastating effects of wrongful imprisonment in this piercing tale of an unspooling marriage. Roy, an ambitious corporate executive, and Celestial, a talented artist and the daughter of a self-made millionaire, struggle to maintain their fledgling union when Roy is sentenced to 12 years in prison on a rape charge he is adamant is false. Before Roy’s arrest, the narrative toggles between his and Celestial’s perspectives; it takes an epistolary form during his imprisonment that affectingly depicts their heartbreaking descent into anger, confusion, and loneliness. When Roy is proven innocent and released seven years early, another narrator is introduced: Andre, Celestial’s lifelong best friend who has become very close to her while Roy has been away. Jones maintains a brisk pace that injects real suspense into the principal characters’ choices around fidelity, which are all fraught with guilt and suspicion, admirably refraining from tipping her hand toward one character’s perspective. The dialogue—especially the letters between Roy and Celestial—are sometimes too heavily weighted by exposition, and the language slides toward melodrama. But the central conflict is masterfully executed: Jones uses her love triangle to explore simmering class tensions and reverberating racial injustice in the contemporary South, while also delivering a satisfying romantic drama.

Brother by David Chariandy

Read Claire Cameron’s 2017 Year in Reading and PW’s starred review:
Chariandy’s powerful and incendiary second novel (following Soucouyant) probes the ramifications of police violence on marginalized communities and delivers a nuanced portrait of a family struggling to stay afloat as circumstances stack against them. Set during the summer of 1991 in the Park, a suburban Toronto housing complex, the narrative tracks the coming of age of two mixed-heritage brothers as they cling to and ultimately test the patience of their hardworking Trinidadian single mother, “one of those black mothers unwilling to either seek or accept help from others.” During the boys’ teen years, sensitive Michael fumbles through his first real relationship with Aisha, a girl from the block and “the sort of girl the world considers ‘an example’ or ‘the exception,’ ” while his streetwise and volatile older brother, Francis, becomes obsessed with the city’s burgeoning hip-hop scene. Unfortunately, Francis’s passion for music doesn’t quell his problem with authority, and a run-in with the police at a local hangout turns violent, with devastating consequences. Told from Michael’s perspective, the novel presents a grim reality—gang shootings, entrenched racism and fear, lack of opportunity, and loss. But instead of relying on stale stereotypes, Chariandy imbues his resilient characters and their stories with strength, dignity, and hope. This is an impressive novel written by an author in total command of his story.

There There by Tommy Orange

Read our June Book Preview) and PW’s starred review:
Orange’s commanding debut chronicles contemporary Native Americans in Oakland, as their lives collide in the days leading up to the city’s inaugural Big Oakland Powwow. Bouncing between voices and points of view, Orange introduces 12 characters, their plotlines hinging on things like 3-D–printed handguns and VR-controlled drones. Tony Loneman and Octavio Gomez see the powwow as an opportunity to pay off drug debts via a brazen robbery. Others, like Edwin Black and Orvil Red Feather, view the gathering as a way to connect with ancestry and, in Edwin’s case, to meet his father for the first time. Blue, who was given up for adoption, travels to Oklahoma in an attempt to learn about her family, only to return to Oakland as the powwow’s coordinator. Orvil’s grandmother, Jacquie, who abandoned her family years earlier, reappears in the city with powwow emcee Harvey, whom she briefly dated when the duo lived on Alcatraz Island as adolescents. Time and again, the city is a magnet for these individuals. The propulsion of both the overall narrative and its players are breathtaking as Orange unpacks how decisions of the past mold the present, resulting in a haunting and gripping story.

They Are Not Calling to You: Featured Poetry by Paige Ackerson-Kiely

Our new series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem by Paige Ackerson-Kiely from her new book, Dolefully, a Rampart Stands. A great second-person poem is narrated both toward us and past us, its words skimming off our shoulders but leaving marks. “Murmuration” moves far for a relatively short poem—in language, in time, and in tone—a testament to Ackerson-Kiely’s skill and willingness to shift a narrative. We are fully in this world from the poem’s first lines, smooth enough that we want to look up to “the top of the oak tree / or the wires” above, and yet the poem’s route takes us to the power of sound, childhood, and shame.

“Murmuration”
They are not calling to you from the top of the oak tree
or the wires stretched from eaves to transformer 
but they are speaking all the same—
as when you were a childyelling your own name into a box fan
your voice chopped like the long slender note of a carrotin pieces on the floor
swept up by someone else, someone who scolded dirty things
should not touch the mouth—as they threw them all away.
 

From Dolefully, a Rampart Stands by Paige Ackerson-Kiely, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Paige Ackerson-Kiely.

Taking the Time: Christine Sneed in Conversation with Mandeliene Smith

Although some mainstream publishers still publish story collections comprised largely of stand-alone stories (George Saunders’s Tenth of December leaps immediately to mind), many contemporary collections published by large, New York-based presses are more likely to be novels-in-stories or linked collections.

Enter Rutting Season, a remarkable debut from Mandeliene Smith, out this month from Scribner. The stylistically and topically diverse stories in this collection demonstrate Smith’s extraordinary range, although a few commonalities are evident. Smith’s stories all take place in New England of the present or recent past and feature characters whose lives have been upended by personal or professional hardship, circumstances the author explores with compassion and occasionally with subversive humor.

Smith has been writing for more than two decades and scrupulously revised each story in this collection, several of them having taken years to complete. In an era where many writers feel the pressure—self-imposed or otherwise—to publish fast (and likewise have the opportunity to self-publish manuscripts written, in some cases, in a matter of weeks), it is heartening to encounter a writer who appears to value the creative process as much as publication and any rewards it might confer to her.

Via email and Google Docs, I had the chance to correspond recently with Mandeliene Smith about Rutting Season.

Christine Sneed: There’s such a range of character, point of view and theme in the stories in Rutting Season—for example, a young widow grieving over her husband’s sudden death, three siblings being held hostage by their dead mother’s deranged boyfriend, an African-American social worker who works in racially and economically divided New Haven, a little girl whose mother is selling off the girl’s siblings to strangers—how do you find your subjects?

Mandeliene Smith: Some of those stories, like “Siege,” “The Someday Cat,” and “You the Animal,” are loosely based on newspaper articles that grabbed me. “Siege,” for example, came from an article about a bunch of kids in Iowa who barricaded themselves in their house for two days after their mother was arrested for child neglect. I kept thinking about what it might have been like for them inside that house together with the police waiting outside—what a weird combination of danger and normalcy, to be trapped with the people they knew best. That was what I saw in that news article that hooked me: the power that family has over us.

Most of the rest of the stories are fragments of my own experience that took on a life of their own. “Mercy,” for example, came from a memory of my mother, a number of months after my father had died. She was outside, yelling at me to come down and help bury my sister’s dog, which had been killed by a car. I had had my fill of death and just wanted to skip the whole thing—there had been a number of deaths in the family that year, both human and animal—but my mother had dug a hole; she was going to bury the dog and then go on to the next thing in her day. By the time that memory came back to me, I had children myself, and what struck me wasn’t my own experience but what it must have been like for my mother in those first years after her husband died. So that was the jumping off point for that story: How does one go on after such a crushing loss? Or maybe more specifically, how does one find a way to accept one’s own need to go on?

I think the real answer to your question is that I’m drawn to subjects that trouble me, things I can’t resolve. The experiences (or articles or situations) that inspire me to write all embody something I find deeply disturbing. The writing, I think, is an effort to figure it out, or at least to lay out the pieces in a way that makes them clear to me. Maybe this is true for all artists, I don’t know. I recently saw a quote from the British director Sam Mendes in The New Yorker that I thought captured this beautifully: “There is a grief that can never be solved. And that’s what fuels you and confounds you in equal measure. It gives you a motor.”

CS: The violence in some of these stories, both emotional and physical, is strikingly raw but not histrionic—you write with admirable restraint. I’m thinking in particular of the title story, which is darkly comic but also chilling in the manner you portray the main character’s elaborate fantasy of murdering his mean-spirited boss. What draws you to the impulse in us to do others harm?

MS: When I was growing up, we spent our summers on a farm in western Massachusetts, and I would often see my parents—my good, kind parents—killing things. (Most of the animal deaths in “Animals” are drawn from actual events in my childhood.) This deep co-existence of compassion and savagery was something I puzzled over as a child. I still puzzle over it, I guess. We are often aggressive, underneath our socially acceptable demeanors: We fight about territory and our place in the hierarchy and who will get what. (That character in “Rutting Season” who is thinking about killing his boss isn’t just a nut. He’s responding, according to a certain animal logic, to what he sees as a threat—the fact that he’s at the bottom of the pecking order.) At the same time, of course, people can also be amazingly kind and generous, willing to make even the ultimate sacrifice for each other. Which side of us wins out in a particular situation, and why—that question fascinates me.

CS: You’re in your mid-50s, but you’ve been writing for many years.  How did this collection come together?  Did you assemble it and find an agent who then sold it to Scribner? Or…?

MS: I’ve been writing for most of my life (my first attempt at a novel was in third grade). It took me a long time, however, to commit to writing in any public way. I was in my 30s by the time I published my first story, and even after that I proceeded fairly slowly. (The stories in Rutting Season were written over a period of about 20 years.) I’m not a fast writer; I tend to let my stories marinate for a while. Sometimes I even put them away for a year or so, if I can’t see my way forward. There were times when I made a concerted effort to submit my work to literary magazines, but I found the rejections demoralizing, and after a while I mostly stopped trying. I did keep writing, however. This wasn’t due to any laudable trait, like grit or determination—I just need to write. If I don’t, I sort of lose my bearings. So, I kept writing, and tried to find jobs that wouldn’t tie me down too much, and let my husband carry most of the weight of supporting the family, which is a gift I hope to repay someday. Eventually, my friend Daphne Kalotay suggested I contact Rob McQuilkin, and I sent him my manuscript.

Rob was incredibly patient, I have to say. I think it was probably more than two years between our first phone call and the time when the manuscript was finally ready to go out for bid. Initially, we tried to package the stories with a novel I’m writing, the assumption being that publishers would be more willing to take the stories if they could get a novel in the bargain. It turned out, though, that Scribner wanted only the stories. That was a blessing, really. It didn’t solve the problem of needing to earn an income, as an advance on the novel might have, but it does give me the space and freedom to write without having to answer to anyone, which is pretty important for me.

CS: What has the editorial process been like for you? You’re working with the great Kathryn Belden, who is also National Book Award-winner Jesmyn Ward’s editor.  Have you worked intensely with Ms. Belden on revisions or has the book changed little since its acquisition?

MS: The editorial process was so seamless, I barely remember it. Kathy made some suggestions, which all made perfect sense, and she decided to pull one story that wasn’t set in New England, which also made sense, and that was about it. She is very easy to work with, but I try not to think about her being Jesmyn Ward’s editor. I find that intimidating.

CS: “You the Animal,” the story about the New Haven social worker, is filled with what I assume must be authentic detail about Connecticut’s foster care system—do you have experience as a social worker? Or did you interview social workers while writing this story?

MS: I was never a social worker, which is probably for the best as I don’t think I’d be very good at it, but I’m relieved to hear that the details rang true. I always worry about this aspect of my work. For the record, I did interview someone in the field, and I read a few articles that went in depth about the child welfare system, but I’m sure if you asked someone who actually works in a child services department, they’d find plenty to pick apart.

The process of negotiating this line between real-world facts and a fictional story often feels challenging to me, since the story sometimes demands things, in a dramatic sense, that don’t strictly square with reality. I also have a certain apprehension about facts, because it seems to me that any event or situation can be viewed in multiple, even contradictory ways. This really haunted me during the year or two I worked as a reporter. I’d do the interviews, go to the government meetings, etc. and then, when I sat down to write, I’d freeze. I had a set of facts and a list of quotes, and now I was supposed to choose which to highlight and how to frame them. In other words, I was to decide what the story really was, and by deciding, I would necessarily leave out, erase all other possible interpretations. Who was I to do that? And what if I was wrong? As you can imagine, I drove myself crazy. It was a good thing when I quit that job.

CS: Race, social class, alcoholism, and divorce all inform the story “What It Takes,” which features a white adolescent female point-of-view character in a racially tense New Haven high school. Reading it was like taking a master class on building narrative tension—where did this story come from?

MS: That story is largely based on my own high school experience in New Haven, Connecticut, where I grew up. While the protagonist is not me and her family and friends are made up of bits and pieces of a number of different people I’ve known, the situation at the school is pretty much what I experienced. I should say that I myself did not have the larger socioeconomic and historical understanding back then that I tried to bring out in the story. I was just afraid, and angry about having to be afraid. It was only later, after I was safely out of that situation, that I allowed myself to think about things from the black kids’ perspective, to wonder what it was like for them. So, while the confrontation that comes at the end of the story is something that did happen to me, the realization that the main character has afterwards actually took me a couple of years to reach. I had to stop feeling threatened before I could open my mind.

CS: Who are your main literary influences?

MS: That’s a hard question to answer, because it’s always changing. When I was young, there was the whole world of children’s fiction, which I would have liked to just live inside, possibly forever. Later, in high school, Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening, really struck a chord. I guess if I had to pick just three writers from the hundreds who have affected me, they might be Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, and Alice Munro. Woolf for a kind of ecstasy of imagination—the permission of that. Hemingway for the incredible restraint of his prose, which somehow still manages to be deeply emotional. And Munro—well, Munro for everything, but maybe especially for narrative structure. Those are the three who came to mind first, but already I’m beginning to think of others: Zadie Smith, George Saunders, Elena Ferrante, Elizabeth Strout. Really, it’s impossible.

CS: What are you working on now?

MS: I’m writing an historical novel about a 19th-century farm girl named Ada who defies her community to become an evangelical preacher. The story combines a place I love—the hill town region of western Massachusetts—with a tragedy that has always haunted me: My grandmother, when she was very small, saw her 15-month-old sister burn to death. The novel is not about my grandmother, but it does begin with a similar accident. Ada believes she is to blame for her sister’s death, and this sense of culpability ultimately launches her on a quest for redemption that brings her into conflict with the social rules of her family and her community.  The novel is set during a period of enormous change in our country, when capitalism was beginning to visibly erode traditional values and the primacy of community. It’s been interesting to delve into that time, and also to think about the hill towns and what they must have been like back then. I’ve really enjoyed escaping the tight confines of the short story. It’s very freeing.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Malcolm, Sudbanthad, Stern, Doten, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Janet Malcolm, Pitchaya Sudbanthad, Lindsay Stern, Mark Doten and more—that are publishing this week.

Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.

Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Bangkok Wakes to Rain: “Sudbanthad’s meditative debut drifts back and forth through time, evoking Bangkok past, present, and future. Loosely woven narratives follow Nee, a girl whose lover is killed during anti-government protests in 1973, as she navigates life in a melancholy city bleeding out its ancient culture. In one story, Nee is estranged from her sister Nok after she discovers Nok’s restaurant in Japan buys its Thai ingredients from a corrupt ex-colonel. In another, Nee goes to work managing a high-rise condo, the lobby of which is a colonial-style Thai house—the heart of this novel—once owned by one of the building’s wealthy elderly residents. When the old woman’s son comes home from abroad, he and Nee begin a disastrous affair. Interspersed among Nee’s stories (which are not presented chronologically) are beautifully wrought tales of a doctor-missionary in old Siam, whose Western faith morphs into enlightenment with the help of witch doctors, cholera, and despair. Occasionally birds will narrate a story—or an aging American jazz musician, another foreigner seduced by Krungthep, the name the Thai people use to describe their city. Though this novel’s ambitious architecture—disparate stories in shifting eras—can sometimes work against its considerable strengths, all of Sudbanthad’s characters live and breathe with authenticity, and his prose is deeply moving, making for an evocative debut.”

The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla and Chimene Suleyman

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Good Immigrant: “In this revealing follow-up to the 2015 British edition, Shukla (Meatspace) and Suleyman (Outside Looking On) invite 26 artists and scholars, who are immigrants or have ties to multiple countries, to reflect on race, ethnicity, nationality, belonging, and the legacy of colonization, mostly in the context of post-2016 U.S. Written after, and in response to, U.S. President Trump’s Muslim travel bans and references to ‘shithole countries,’ these essays string similar notes—history, memory, pride, and (non)belonging—into many different melodies. Journalist Porochista Khakpour wonders at how she has come to write about nothing but “Iranian-America.” Artists Adrián and Sebastián Villar Rojas lay out Argentina’s struggle between its indigenous roots and its desire to be Western. Teju Cole and Walé Oyéjidé offer contrasting interpretations of depictions of Africa in the blockbuster film Black Panther. French-British film director Yann Demange gives an extended answer to the question, ‘Where are you from?’ and concludes that he will keep giving the short answer, because ‘the alternative answer can take for-fucking-ever, innit.’ The strength of this collection is in its diversity—of gender, sexuality, privilege, experience, and writing style. A gift for anyone who understands or wants to learn about the breadth of experience among immigrants to the U.S., this collection showcases the joy, empathy, and fierceness needed to adopt the country as one’s own.”

Nobody’s Looking at You by Janet Malcolm

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Nobody’s Looking at You: “Malcolm (Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers) assembles an eclectic group of essays, mainly culled from the New Yorker and New York Review of Books, most of them from the past decade, into this outstanding collection. Varied and witty, the book includes profiles of such people as fashion designer Eileen Fisher, with her ‘aesthetic of elegant plainness’ and concert pianist Yuja Wang, ‘whose tiny dresses and spiky heels’ draw attention to the contrast between her petite frame and the ‘forcefulness she achieves at her instrument.’ Several essays are literary critiques, touching on, among other points, New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell’s ability to ‘bend actuality to [his] artistic will’ and how Tolstoy follows the ‘deep structures’ of dream logic in Anna Karenina. Malcolm also explores the differing ways millennials and baby boomers view sexual harassment, email etiquette, and the high-stakes drama of John Roberts’s Supreme Court nomination hearings, where little was learned about his judicial philosophy, but revelations about character emerged. With no weak selections and several strikingly prescient ones, this collection shows its author as a master of narrative nonfiction.”

Aerialists by Mark Meyer

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Aerialists: “Mayer’s high-wire debut exposes the weirdness of everyday life. In the title story, a young man about to follow his brother into the navy constructs a computer-generated simulacrum of his neighborhood. Animals are featured in several stories: in ‘The Evasive Magnolio,’ the caretaker for a town’s dying mascot, a former circus elephant, has to plan its funeral; in ‘The Wilderness Act,’ a middle-aged outdoors advocate, unfamiliar with the online dating scene, begins to date a woman who hopes to see a mountain lion. Other stories feature children, including ‘Strongman,’ in which a child of divorce falls under the influence of his mother’s friend, a female bodybuilder, and ‘The April Thief,’ in which a boy is asked to care for a disease-ridden dog until his estranged mother returns home. And then there are stories with idiosyncratic characters: Uncle Bart is a Marxist who lives in the basement and cares for his orphaned nephew along with his cancer-survivor wife in ‘Solidarity Forever.’ A divorced real estate agent has the inner life of a killer clown in ‘The Clown.’ And in ‘The Ringmaster,’ an electrical engineer has a difficult time giving away his extensive model railroad. Mayer wittily subverts reader expectations with stories told in a realistic manner about characters or situations that all share a slightly surreal bent, resulting in a clever collection.”

The Study of Animal Languages by Lindsay Stern

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Study of Animal Languages: “Stern’s latest (after Luz and Town of Shadows) is a taut, brainy tale that tracks the breakdown of an academic couple’s marriage while dissecting differences between language and communication, knowledge and truth, madness and inspiration. Forty-six-year-old philosophy professor Ivan Link drives his wife Prue’s father, Frank, from Vermont to the Rhode Island college where Ivan and Prue teach to attend Prue’s public lecture on birdsong. Bi-polar Frank is not taking his medication, but it is Prue who unsettles her audience by accusing animal language researchers of anthropocentrism, going so far as to call herself prison warden for the birds in her experiments. At the after-lecture party, Frank tries to force guests to admit animals have feelings by threatening to stab Ivan’s cockatiel with a fountain pen. The next day, at the aquarium, believing he understands what sharks are communicating, Frank destroys the shark tank. Frank is hospitalized; Ivan and Prue quarrel. Epistemologist Ivan mistakenly assumes Prue is having an affair with a visiting novelist; biolinguist Prue, meanwhile, cannot articulate the depth of her discontent. Stern’s intellectually teeming prose makes for a thought-provoking novel, though its more successful asking questions such as, ‘Can voles experience heartbreak?’ than depicting people breaking each other’s hearts.”

Trump Sky Alpha by Mark Doten

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Trump Sky Alpha: “A blistering and heartbreaking satire in which president Trump brings about a nuclear apocalypse, Doten’s second novel (after The Infernal) is by turns a dystopian nightmare, a cyber thriller, a spot-on treatise on memes, and a tragic tale of love and loss. After the president, aboard his ‘ultraluxury zeppelin’ named Trump Sky Alpha, executes a nuclear strike that kills a majority of the world’s population, Rachel, a tech journalist, receives an assignment for the reformation of the New York Times Magazine on ‘internet humor at the end of the world.’ Though she finds the idea of the piece irrelevant, Rachel accepts with the condition that she be able to travel to the field where the bodies of her wife and daughter were taken. She’s led to ‘the room with what was left of the internet’ to investigate the jokes, memes, and witticisms that were shared and posted as the global catastrophe took place, but she uncovers, instead, a possible explanation as to who was behind the cyber attacks that precipitated what becomes known as ‘1/28’— i.e., the day of the mass destruction. A group known as the Aviary, who were inspired by a 2015 novel called The Subversive, took credit for the four-day shutdown of the internet, and Rachel seems to have stumbled on some clues about their identities. Featuring a disturbing not-so-distant future, Doten’s novel is haunting, incisive, and surprisingly touching.”

Also on shelves: The White Book by Han Kang.

In Praise of Urinal Lit

The most confessional thing I’ve ever read wasn’t in someone’s diary, or journal, or their posthumously collected letters. Such writing always has an audience in mind, that audience being the future biographers that will excavate one’s inane reflections and elevate them to their proper place in the English Canon. I know this because I’m guilty as charged: I keep a journal every time I travel, and the writing tends to be both overly grand and protectively dispassionate. No, the most confessional thing I’ve ever read was in plain sight, for all the world to see…or at least all the world brave enough to enter the New Orleans bathroom during Mardi Gras where it was written. Above one urinal, someone had scrawled the message, “Toy Story 2 was ok…”

Toy Story 2 is one of the most highly rated movies in Rotten Tomatoes history. Yet someone had the audacity—and the need—to express this rogue dissenting opinion. If this person had claimed that Toy Story 2 was merely “ok” on social media, he would’ve been the subject of ridicule and disbelief. But to write these words on a bathroom wall and feel the relief of urination and proclamation at the same time—that is to really live. I have been a student of urinal lit ever since and believe it is the most underrated form of modern expression. It turns out that our most private thoughts are safest in public.

What qualifies as urinal lit? Well, technically it’s anything that someone is brave enough to scribble on a bathroom wall. I’ll admit, most of these scribbles are nonsense, as alcohol fuels a tremendous amount of urinal lit (though the same could be said, I suppose, for lit lit). Urinal lit often has a sense of urgency, as well as a clarity typically reserved for a form like haiku. The best urinal lit uses an economy of language that makes Raymond Carver seem positively prolix. The urgency of urinal lit comes from the necessary brevity of scrawling a message in a public place without being seen. Given the amount of graffiti in bar bathrooms, I’m amazed I’ve never actually caught anyone in the act. But after careful study and covert iPhone documentation (taking pictures in the bathroom being frowned upon for obvious reasons), I have unearthed several styles worthy of celebration:

Unsolicited Advice

The advice written on bathroom walls tends to read like the disgruntled work of a down-and-out fortune cookie scribe. It’s advice that sounds hard won, learned at the school of hard knocks (or perhaps hard liquor). These writers know of what they speak. Take, for example, the sage offering written above a urinal in the Cambridge Brewing Company that said, “Follow your heart, stay in school, don’t smoke rocks on weekdays.” Or the simple message that appeared above the adjacent urinal, “Be honest. Don’t be an asshole.” I know not what caused this near perfect maxim to appear on the wall, but I know that if I followed this creed and only this creed, I would lead a life well-lived.

My favorite piece of advice, however, was a message that no one likes to hear, but that we’ve all had to heed at one time or another: “Go home. You’re drunk.”

Bathroom Humor

In an era when everyone wants credit for every idea, the willingness of restroom authors to be anonymous is heartwarming. Although sometimes it’s clear why this anonymity is preferred. Urinal lit tends to skew crass, the bathroom, after all, being a pretty appropriate place for bathroom humor. But there are two kinds of crass: the kind that I would be embarrassed to include here, and the kind that is surprisingly novel. A prime example of the latter is a dictum I discovered in a bathroom stall in a Vermont bar: “Poop as loud as your anus will let you.” I found this message to be both gross and strangely inspirational. It made me feel ashamed of all the times I felt shame in a bathroom. Later, I went into the same bar’s other bathroom stall and found this very same message written again. Someone in Vermont is spreading the gospel of pooping pride.

Quasi-Profound Non-Sequiturs

As someone who majored in philosophy, I appreciate any and all opportunities for reflection. I just don’t typically expect those opportunities to come at 1:00 a.m in the dingy bathroom of a bar. But when someone writes, “What are we doing here?” at eye level, it tends to provoke an existential moment.

Other patrons at various bars in Portland, Maine have written such inexplicable yet indispensable messages as, “The spice must flow,” and “Dead rabbits live forever.” I also once encountered the phrase, “I will not write on the walls,” written 10 times in a row on the wall. Then there was the highly unlikely but nonetheless exhilarating claim I discovered in New Orleans, compete with an arrow pointing down, “Bukowski pissed here.” Such statements can make relieving yourself in a bar feel like an opportunity to discover the sacred in all its forms.

Interplay

Interplay between multiple authors is an exciting form of the urinal lit genre. This kind of layering is reminiscent of Buddhist koan study, in which generations of enlightened masters often leave behind pithy commentary for further dissection. In urinal lit interplay, the commentary may not be enlightened, but it certainly is pithy. The classic sign of interplay is different colored pen strokes. For example, in thick black marker, in the space where a mirror would typically go, I once saw the message, “I love no mirror and getting over stuff,” to which another scribe, using a thinner black marker, responded, “Get over it dude!”

Interplay can often devolve into a kind of debate. I once encountered the rather unremarkable statement, “Fuck the police,” with a remarkably polite series of responses.

“No thanks!” someone chimed in.

“Yes plz!” responded a third party.

Perhaps it’s this very spirit of open dialogue that I appreciate most about urinal lit. The Internet, once seen as a bastion for free-spirited exchange, has become a space where divisions are only exacerbated and the most offensive wheel gets the oil. But there is no tolerance for trolling in the toilet. It warms my heart to know that there is still a place where people not only feel comfortable expressing their true feelings, but that those true feelings are often so sweet. As one dude so memorably expressed on the wall of a bar in Boston, “Love ya motha, ya only get one.”

Ernest Hemingway advised, “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.” Above urinals all across this great nation, his encouragement has found its ideal, if not idyllic, medium. It is commonly expressed that we should not judge a book by its cover. Similarly, I would add, we should not judge literature by its location.

Image Credit: Gabor Monori.

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.