Southern Gothic: Ten Essentials Books

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When it comes to Southern gothic, it’s not the heat that gets you, it’s the humidity. It’s a genre designed to make you uncomfortable. The stories are sticky with dread and unease, and the ripe atmosphere threatens to swallow everything. Turn over a rock and you’ll find it teeming with family secrets: incest, murder, madness. Sometimes the supernatural intrudes—ghosts rise up, or the Devil himself sidles in—but the most horrific transgressions are almost always the human ones. Characters in these stories may try to ignore the past—especially America’s racist history—but it’s always encroaching, as relentless as the vines choking a decrepit plantation house.
Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe laid the foundations of Southern gothic, but the posts and beams were set by mid-century writers such as William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Carson McCullers. Every generation of writers, though, returns to the genre and reshapes it. Here are 10 of my favorites books that do something remarkable with Southern gothic, presented in the order they were published.

1. Child of God by Cormac McCarthy

In 1973, McCarthy blew up the Southern gothic in the same way he’d later blow up the western in his 1985 masterpiece, Blood Meridian. Child of God is the story of Lester Ballard, a destitute, violent man living in Sevier County, Tenn., not far from where my parents grew up. With every page, Ballard moves further out of human society until he descends into murder and necrophilia. It’s not for the faint of heart, but McCarthy’s prose carries you through. He jumps from the poetic to the brusque and brutal, speaking in the voices of many locals who knew Ballard, a man they’ve either persecuted or recoiled from. McCarthy makes you suspect that Ballard isn’t an anomaly in his community, but the inevitable product of it.

2. Beloved by Toni Morrison

Morrison’s haunting and haunted novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, and there’s no better book about trauma and the way it cannot be escaped or erased. Sethe, a former slave, made it to the free state of Ohio and has raised her children there. But when a young woman named Beloved shows up on Sethe’s doorstep, long-buried secrets come rushing out. By centering this Southern story on a Black woman, Morrison makes us reckon with the greatest sin in American history.

3. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

This 1997 book is nonfiction, but it reads like a novel, and depends on novelistic effects, such as shuffling the timing of events, to land its punches. The story is about Jim Williams, an antiques dealer in Savannah, Ga., who’s put on trial (multiple times) for the shooting of Danny Hansford, Williams’s employee and a male prostitute. The ostensible question of the book is whether it was murder or self-defense, but what I found so riveting was Berendt’s portrait of Savanah, with its white society ladies, Black debutantes, and drag queens (Lady Chablis is the most vibrant character in the book).

4. Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

A literary confession: I saw Amy Adams in the television version of Sharp Objects before I went back and read Flynn’s 2006 novel. (Isn’t that what TV shows are supposed to do for books, after all?) But Flynn’s story is the star. The novel follows Camille Preaker, an emotionally and physically scarred journalist, who goes back to her home town of Wind Gap, Mo., to investigate a pair of murders. Flynn masterfully intertwines the hunt for the killer with the revelation of Camille’s tragic past. This is modern-day Southern gothic, and I ate it up with a spoon.

5. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

One of the hallmarks of Southern gothic is outlandish and outlandishly named characters, and Russell’s 2011 novel is chock-full of them:  Chief Bigtree, an alligator wrestler with no Native American heritage who runs the struggling Everglades theme park of the title; the ghost Louis Thanksgiving and the (living) teenage girl named Osceola who’s in love with him; and a villain named Bird Man who may have supernatural powers. But much of the novel is told to us by 13-year-old Ava, the youngest child of the Chief, and it’s her precocious, hopeful, and pragmatic voice that anchors the book, and makes it so affecting.

6. Lost Everything by Brian Francis Slattery

I’m going to geographically and temporally stretch the territory of the Southern gothic so I can talk about one of my favorite books. In Slattery’s apocalyptic novel, which won the 2012 Philip K. Dick Award, the ironically named Sunny Jim travels up the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, through a fallen America ravaged by climate change, searching for his lost son. It’s the near future but feels like a doom-flooded version of a Mark Twain tale, replete with riverboat captains, preachers, and banjo players. Everyone knows the end is near; a slowly advancing storm wall they call “the Big One” has already swallowed most of the country, and it’s coming for the East Coast. Sunny Jim witnesses civilization breaking down in ugly ways, but there are moments of grace, and Slattery’s vivid prose never fails.

7. Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

Ruff’s 2016 novel blends pulp science fiction, Lovecraftian mythology, and Southern gothic sensibilities. The book opens with Atticus Turner, a Black Korean War veteran, trying to make his way through the Jim Crow South to get home to Chicago. The rest of the book, structured like an anthology, introduces us to Atticus’s parents, who publish a guide for Black travelers inspired by the Green Book, and the rest of his extended family. The Turners face off against the Braithwhites, a white family of sorcerers, but the real villain is Jim Crow. What terrors could scaly monsters hold compared to Southern cops and “sundown towns”?

8. A Lushing and Seething Hell by John Hornor Jacobs

This 2019 book is a duology of novellas, and show Jacobs, author of the Southern Gods series, at the height of his powers. The first novella, The Sea Dreams It Is the Sky, is South American Lovecraft, as if Roberto Bolaño or Gabriel García Márquez had taken a turn toward cosmic horror. My Heart Struck Sorrow is more purely Southern gothic. The story follows Cromwell, a white music archivist traveling the 1930s South gathering field recordings for the Library of Congress, who keeps finding increasingly ominous versions of the murder ballad “Stagger Lee.” Cromwell is in over his head, and Jacobs infuses every cryptic incident with dread, leading to a final encounter in the woods with something inhuman. If you want to know the future of Southern gothic, pick up anything this man writes.

9. Mexican Gothic by Sylvia Moreno-Garcia

Sylvia Moreno-Garcia, however, may have moved on from Southern gothic—her just-published new novel is Velvet Was the Night, which is 1970s Mexican noir—but if you haven’t read her bestseller from 2020, you should definitely remedy that. Mexican Gothic takes all the tropes of gothic fiction and places them in the Mexican countryside. There’s an old mansion, a depraved family, and a cornucopia of hidden secrets. What holds it together are the stylish heroine and Moreno-Garcia’s control of tone. She orchestrates a delicious slow build to a very creepy climax.

10. Moon Lake by Joe R. Lansdale

And now, something brand new from a master of Southern gothic. Lansdale has written upwards of 30 novels (I lost count on Wikipedia) and who knows how many novellas and short stories. I’ve loved his work ever since reading his short story “Night They Missed the Horror Show.” Moon Lake had me in the first two sentences: “My name is Daniel Russell. I dream of dark water.” In 1968, when Daniel was 13, his grief-stricken father tried to kill them both by driving off an East Texas bridge. The father died, but Daniel, who’s white, was taken in by a Black family. Years later, a local sheriff calls with new information and Daniel returns to the scene of the crime. Like any excellent Southern gothic, the secrets are juicy, the characters vivid, and the atmosphere is as thick as an East Texas night.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Whitehead, Jones, Williams, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Colson Whitehead, Gayl Jones, Joy Williams, and more—that are publishing this week.
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Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Harlem Shuffle: “Two-time Pulitzer winner Whitehead (The Nickel Boys) returns with a sizzling heist novel set in civil rights–era Harlem. It’s 1959 and Ray Carney has built an ‘unlikely kingdom’ selling used furniture. A husband, a father, and the son of a man who once worked as muscle for a local crime boss, Carney is ‘only slightly bent when it [comes] to being crooked.’ But when his cousin Freddie—whose stolen goods Carney occasionally fences through his furniture store—decides to rob the historic Hotel Theresa, a lethal cast of underworld figures enter Carney’s life, among them the mobster Chink Montague, ‘known for his facility with a straight razor’; WWII veteran Pepper; and the murderous, purple-suited Miami Joe, Whitehead’s answer to No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurh. These and other characters force Carney to decide just how bent he wants to be. It’s a superlative story, but the most impressive achievement is Whitehead’s loving depiction of a Harlem 60 years gone—’that rustling, keening thing of people and concrete’—which lands as detailed and vivid as Joyce’s Dublin. Don’t be surprised if this one wins Whitehead another major award.”

Palmares by Gayl Jones

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Palmares: “Jones (Mosquito) reemerges after a 21-year hiatus with an epic and inventive saga that weaves together magic, mythology, and Portuguese colonial history. Eight-year-old Almeyda is enslaved on a 17th-century Brazilian plantation when her enslaver welcomes a man who seeks the blood of a Black virgin for a cure. While an herbal drink from her mother serves as protection, the price for it comes heavy as the mother is sold and separated from her. Later, as a young woman, Almeyda is rescued and taken to Palmares, a hidden settlement for freedom seekers. There, she is chosen by settlement member Anninho and the two are married. Soon after, Palmares is razed by Portuguese soldiers and its leader, King Zumbi, is killed. While in the soldiers’ custody, Almeyda wakes to find her husband gone. Determined to reunite with him, Almeyda escapes again to journey through Brazil. She hears of a New Palmares and that Zumbi’s spirit may still be alive, perhaps transformed into a bird, and apprentices with a medicine woman who knows Anninho and gives her a lead on his whereabouts. The magical elements are difficult to get an initial purchase on, as they aren’t given much explanation, but Jones brings her established incisiveness and linguistic flair to the horrifyingly accurate portrayal of racial struggle. All in all, it’s a triumphant return.”

The Spectacular by Zoe Whittall

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Spectacular: “Whittall (The Best Kind of People) delivers a clear-eyed portrait of maternal ambivalence in her impressive latest. Missy Wood, 21, is on a mission to have her tubes tied. She’s about to go on tour with her band, the Swearwolves, and doesn’t want to worry about getting pregnant. Though two doctors say she’ll regret the move and refuse to do it, her bandmate Billy had no trouble getting a vasectomy. (‘I told him I was the lead singer in a band. He got it immediately. Isn’t that sexist?’) While Missy is held up in Vancouver by U.S. customs agents for carrying cocaine, she reads a magazine story about an ashram sex scandal that mentions her mother, who left Missy when she was 13 and whom Missy hasn’t been able to locate. Whittall switches points of view between mother and daughter as their paths gradually converge, and adds an extensive and extraneous section from the point of view of Missy’s paternal grandmother, Ruth, on Ruth’s earlier life in Turkey. Whittall is excellent at writing the small, intimate details and sharp dialogue, as well as the mostly propulsive plot, while making no bones about opinions on gender inequities. Whittall is a great storyteller, and her latest does not disappoint.”

The Wrong End of the Telescope by Rabih Alameddine

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Wrong End of the Telescope: “A Lebanese doctor travels to the island of Lesbos to help refugees and confront her past in the profound and wonderful latest from Alameddine (The Angel of History), a meditation on loss, resilience, and love. Born in Beirut but long settled in the U.S., Mina Simpson is trans and estranged from every member of her family except her older brother Mazen, who flies to the island to assist her. Soon, their paths cross that of a blocked Lebanese writer. The chapters alternate between Mina’s account of her time on Lesbos, where she treats a Syrian woman named Sumaiya who is dying from liver cancer and pleads with Mina not to tell her family, and second-person narration directed at the writer, who encouraged Mina to write about the refugees because he didn’t feel up to the task (‘You weren’t able to find the right words even after numerous sessions on your psychiatrist’s couch,’ Mina narrates). Confronted by the pain so many refugees describe, Mina recalls the lost world of her own childhood and bonds with Sumaiya over their shared desire to protect their families from the truth. As Mina and her writer-interlocutor are each consumed by the effort to communicate the horror of the refugee experience, Alameddine crafts a wise, deeply moving story that can still locate humor in the pit of hell (Mina, agreeing to let the writer tell her story, jokes, ‘Whatever you do … don’t fucking call it A Lebanese Lesbian in Lesbos’). This is a triumph.”

Kaya Days by Carl de Souza (translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Kaya Days: “De Souza’s electric English-language debut recounts Mauritius’s 1999 Kaya riots over two days as seen through the eyes of a young girl. Teenager Santee leaves her village to pick up her younger brother Ramesh in the large town of Rose-Hill, not knowing that the singer Kaya has been jailed and found dead in his cell, or that the discovery has sparked riots in town. A case of mistaken identity leads to the owner of a gambling den trying to rape her. She gets away and into the first cab that stops. Halfway through the night, after the driver ditches Santee, she meets Ronaldo moments before a group of young men flip the cab and light it on fire. Santee’s perspective is delivered in a dreamlike rush as she allows chance encounters to pull her along. In the streets, gardens, and gorges of the burning city, Santee continues her search for Ramesh. Encountering Chinese, Creole, Hindu, and Muslim Mauritians, her circuitous trek opens up the otherwise anonymous nature of the mob to find personal stories and uncover human community. De Souza’s unpredictable, propulsive tale is a rip-roaring trip teeming with beauty, anger, possibility, and helplessness.”

Inter State by José Vadi

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Inter State: “Part love letter, part indictment, this moving debut essay collection from Vadi captures the changing landscape of California. A native Californian, aging skateboarder, and poet, Vadi laments in deeply felt prose California’s transformation. ‘Standing in the Shadows of Brands’ covers the rise in homelessness in the Bay Area as the tech economy reshaped the city’s culture and skyline, while ’14th and Jackson’ describes the diminishing of a ‘decade’s worth of artistic potential’ in Oakland as the city has gentrified. The title essay bears witness to the quickly vanishing landmarks of the California to which his grandparents came as migrants from Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl—and sees Vadi heading toward ‘the only local landmark I know, a skate park.’ Things often come back to skateboarding—’but then I remember those visceral, intrinsic moments when the earth beneath our skateboards shook, and we asked one another with our eyes, Did you feel it?’—and many of his references will land best for readers familiar with San Francisco and Los Angeles. But even those who have never stepped foot in California will recognize Vadi’s anguish and frustration in watching the place change. The provocative observations will please essay fans.”

Margaret and the Mystery of the Missing Body by Megan Milks

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Margaret and the Mystery of the Missing Body: “Milks’s engaging debut novel (after the collection Kill Marguerite) blends the tropes of classic girl fiction like Nancy Drew with a 16-year-old sleuth’s tumultuous exploration of her queer identity. Margaret Worms, president of the Girls Can Solve Anything club, now spends her days alone, operating as the club’s sole remaining member in an attempt to forget her now-fractured friendships and developing anorexia. But when her disorder leads to repeated fainting spells and visits to her doctor, Margaret is shipped off to the Briarwood Residential Treatment Center, where she encounters the magnetic and rebellious Carrie, a roommate and romantic interest; kindhearted doctors; and even a suffragist ghost—all of whom prompt Margaret’s reckoning with her own body, gender identity, and desires. Weaving together flashbacks, pop culture references (GCSA originated as the Shady Bluff Baby-Sitters Club), and accounts of old GCSA cases, Milks’s dynamic, fast-paced novel beams with wonderful insight, even as its various timelines and registers do not always meld into a consonant whole. The book’s exploration of eating disorders, mental illnesses, and healing is superbly nuanced, as Milks carefully dives into the clinic’s various characters’ histories. Throughout, this is emotionally complex and illuminating.”

Assembly by Natasha Brown

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Assembly: “Brown’s provocative and lyrical debut follows a young Black British woman’s navigation of the racism and sexism at her investment banking job while she contends with a breast cancer diagnosis. Brown opens with three third-person vignettes describing an unnamed woman’s sexual harassment from a man she works with, who calls her hair ‘wild’ and her skin ‘exotic,’ then shifts to a first-person account from an unnamed woman, possibly the same one, of why she chose to work for banks. ‘I understood what they were. Ruthless, efficient money-machines with a byproduct of social mobility.’ Her ‘Lean In feminist’ work friend thinks the narrator’s white boyfriend will propose during an upcoming visit to his parents’ estate, but the narrator can tell her would-be mother-in-law hopes it’s a passing fling. Before the trip, she gets the results of a biopsy and tells her boyfriend there’s nothing to worry about. She also reflects ominously on the doctor’s admonishment on her resistance to getting surgery (‘that’s suicide’), and on the notion that a successful Black person can ever ‘transcend’ race. References to bell hooks’s writing on decolonization and Claudia Rankine’s concept of ‘historical selves’ bolster her fierce insights. This is a stunning achievement of compressed narrative and fearless articulation.”

Harrow by Joy Williams

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Harrow: “Pulitzer finalist Williams (The Quick and the Dead) returns with a dystopian saga of environmental cataclysm that is by turns triumphant, damning, and beguiling. Sometime in the near future, Khristen is sent to a boarding school in the desert of the American West by her mother, a woman haunted by the fact that she believes Khristen briefly died as an infant and came back to life. After the school is shut down, Khristen sets off across a decimated landscape only to end up lodging at a remote hotel inhabited by elderly ecoterrorists, visionaries, and would-be assassins, led by their host, Lola. Among these residents, Khristen also meets a strange 10-year-old named Jeffrey, and together they face the environmental ruination and human depravity that mark the new world these characters all inhabit, while still remembering ‘the old dear stories of possibility’ and noting how ‘no one wanted them anymore, but nothing had replaced them.’ Rollicking with language that is at once biblical and casual, this builds like a sermon to a fever pitch. Williams’s well-known themes of social decline and children in danger are polished to a gorgeous luster in this prescient page-turner. The result serves as both an indictment of current culture and a blazing escape from it.”

Also on shelves this week: Other Girls to Burn by Caroline Crew.

This Isn’t the Essay’s Title

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“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Great Crack Up” (1936)

“You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you.” —Carly Simon (1971)

On a December morning in 1947 when three fellows at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study set out for the Third Circuit Court in Trenton, it was decided that the job of making sure that the brilliant but naively innocent logician Kurt Gödel didn’t say something intemperate at his citizenship hearing would fall to Albert Einstein. Economist Oscar Morgenstern would drive, Einstein rode shotgun, and a nervous Gödel sat in the back. With squibs of low winter light, both wave and particle, dappled across the rattling windows of Morgenstern’s car, Einstein turned back and asked, “Now, Gödel, are you really well prepared for this examination?” There had been no doubt that the philosopher had adequately studied, but as to whether it was proper to be fully honest was another issue. Less than two centuries before, and the signatories of the U.S. Constitution had supposedly crafted a document defined by separation of powers and coequal government, checks and balances, action and reaction. “The science of politics,” wrote Alexander Hamilton in “Federalist Paper No. 9,” “has received great improvement,” though as Gödel discovered, clearly not perfection. With a completism that only a Teutonic logician was capable of, Gödel had carefully read the foundational documents of American political theory, he’d poured over the Federalist Papers and the Constitution, and he’d made an alarming discovery.

It’s believed that while studying Article V, the portion that details the process of amendment, Gödel realized that there was no safeguard against that article itself being amended. Theoretically, a sufficiently powerful political movement with legislative and executive authority could rapidly amend the articles of amendment so that a potential demagogue would be able to rule by fiat, all while such tyranny was perfectly constitutional. A paradox at the heart of the Constitution—something that supposedly guaranteed democracy having coiled within it rank authoritarianism. All three men driving to Trenton had a keen awareness of tyranny; all were refugees from Nazi Germany; all had found safe-haven on the pristine streets of suburban Princeton. After the Anschluss, Gödel was a stateless man, and though raised Protestant he was suspect by the Nazis and forced to emigrate. Gödel, with his wife, departed Vienna by the Trans-Siberian railroad, crossed from Japan to San Francisco, and then took the remainder of his sojourn by train to Princeton. His path had been arduous and he’d earned America, so when Gödel found a paradox at the heart of the Constitution, his desire to rectify it was born from patriotic duty. At the hearing, the judge asked Gödel how it felt to become a citizen of a nation where it was impossible for the government to fall into anti-democratic tyranny. But it could, Gödel told him, and “I can prove it.” Apocryphally, Einstein kicked the logician’s chair and ended that syllogism.

Born in Austria-Hungary, citizen of Czechoslovakia, Austria, Germany, and finally the United States, Gödel’s very self-definition was mired in incompleteness, contradiction, and unknowability. From parsing logical positivism among luminaries such as Rudolph Carnap and Moritz Schlick, enjoying apfelstrudel and espresso at the Café Reichsrat on Rathausplatz while they discussed the philosophy of mathematics, Gödel now rather found himself eating apple pie and weak coffee in the Yankee Doodle Tap Room on Nassau Street—and he was grateful.  Gone were the elegant Viennese wedding-cake homes of the Ringstrasse, replaced with Jersey’s clapboard colonials; no more would Gödel debate logic among the rococo resplendence of the University of Vienna, but at Princeton he was at least across the hall from Einstein. “The Institute was to be a new kind of research center,” writes Ed Regis in Who Got Einstein’s Office?: Eccentricity and Genius at the Institute for Advanced Study. “It would have no students, no teachers, and no classes,” the only responsibility being pure thought, so that its fellows could be purely devoted to theory. Its director J. Robert Oppenheimer (of Manhattan Project fame) called it an “intellectual hotel;” physicist Richard Feynman was less charitable, referring to it as a “lovely house by the woods” for “poor bastards” no longer capable of keeping up. Regardless, it was to be Gödel’s final home, and there was something to that.

Seventeen years before his trip to Trenton, and it was at the Café Reichsrat where he presented the discovery for which he’d forever be intractably connected—Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems. In 1930 he had irrevocably altered mathematics when Gödel demonstrated that the dream of completism that had dogged deduction since antiquity was only a mirage. “Any consistent formal system,” argues Gödel in his first theorem, “is incomplete… there are statements of the language… which can neither be proved nor disproved.” In other words, it’s an impossibility that any set of axioms can be demonstrated to be true as part of a self-contained system—the rationalist dream of a unified, self-evidently provable system is only so much fantasy. Math, it turns out, will never be depleted, since there can never be a solution to all mathematical problems. In Gödel’s formulation, a system must either sometimes produce falsehoods, or it must sometimes generate unprovable truths, but it can never consistently render only completely provable truths. As the cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter explained in his countercultural classic Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, “Relying on words to lead you to the truth is like relying on an incomplete formal system to lead you to the truth. A formal system will give you some truth, but… a formal system, no matter how powerful—cannot lead to all truths.” In retrospect, the smug certainties of American exceptionalism should have been no match for Gödel, whose scalpel-like mind had already eviscerated mathematics, philosophy, and logic, to say nothing of some dusty parchment once argued over in Philadelphia.

His theorems rest on a variation of what’s known as the “Liar’s Paradox,” which asks what the logical status of a proposition such as “This statement is false” might be. If that sentence is telling the truth, then it must be false, but if it’s false, then it must be true, ad infinitum, in an endless loop. For Gödel, that proposition is amended to “This sentence is not provable,” with his reasoning demonstrating that a sufficiently formal system of logic can’t demonstrate that proposition, regardless of its truth value, since to prove the statement is to make it unprovable, but if unprovable, then it’s proved, again ad infinitum in yet another grueling loop. As with the Constitution and its paeans to democracy, so must mathematics be rendered perennially useful while still falling short of perfection. The elusiveness of certainty bedeviled Gödel throughout his life; a famously paranoid man, the assassination of his friend Schlick by a Nazi student in 1936 pushed the logician into a scrupulous anxiety. After the death of his best friend Einstein in 1955 he became increasingly isolated. “Gödel’s sense of intellectual exile deepened,” explains Rebecca Goldstein in Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel. “The young man in the dapper white suit shriveled into an emaciated man, entombed in a heavy overcoat and scarf even in New Jersey’s hot humid summers, seeing plots everywhere… His profound isolation, even alienation, from his peers provided fertile soil for that rationality run amuck which is paranoia.” When his beloved wife fell ill in 1977, Gödel quit eating since she could no longer prepare his meals. The ever-logical man whose entire career had demonstrated the fallibility of rationality had concluded that only his wife could be trusted not to poison his food, and so when she was unable to cook, he properly reasoned (by the axioms that were defined) that it made more sense to simply quit eating. When he died, Gödel weighed only 50 pounds.

Gödel’s thought was enmeshed in that orphan of logic that we call paradox. As was Einstein’s, that man who converted time into space and space into time, who explained how energy and mass were the same thing so that (much to his horror) the apocalyptic false dawn of Hiroshima was the result. Physics in the 20th century had cast off the intuitive coolness of classical mechanics, discovering that contradiction studded the foundation of reality. There was Werner Heisenberg with his uncertainty over the location of individual subatomic particles, Louis de Broglie and the strange combination of wave and particle that explained the behavior of light, Niels Bohr who understood atomic nuclei as if they were smeared across space, and the collapsing wave functions of Erwin Schrödinger for whom it could be imagined that a hypothetical feline was capable of being simultaneously alive and dead. Science journalist John Gribbin explains in Schrödinger’s Kittens and the Search for Reality: Solving the Quantum Mysteries that contemporary physics is defined by “paradoxical phenomena as photons (particles of light) that can be in two places at the same time, atoms that go two ways at once… [and how] time stands still for a particle moving at light speed.” Western thought has long prized logical consistency, but physics in the 20th century abolished all of that in glorious absurdity, and from those contradictions emerged modernity—the digital revolution, semiconductors, nuclear power, all built on paradox.

The keystone of classical logic is the so-called “Law of Non-Contradiction.” Simply put, something cannot both be and not be what it happens to be simultaneously, or if symbolic logic is your jam:  ¬(p ∧ ¬p), and I promise you that’s the only formula you will see in this essay. Aristotle said that between two contradictory statements one must be correct and the other false—”it will not be possible to be and not to be the same thing” he writes in The Metaphysics—but the anarchic potential of the paradox greedily desires truth and its antecedents. And again, in the 17th century the philosopher Wilhelm Gottfried Leibnitz tried to succinctly ward off contradiction in his New Essays on Human Understanding when he declared, “Every judgement is either true or false,” and yet paradoxes fill the history of metaphysics like landmines studded across the Western Front. Paradox is the great counter-melody of logic—it is the question of whether an omnipotent God could will Himself unable to do something, and it’s the eye-straining M.C. Escher lithograph “Waterfall” with its intersecting Penrose triangles showing a stream cascading from an impossible trough. Paradox is the White Queen’s declaration in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass that “sometimes I believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast,” and the Church Father Tertullian’s creedal statement that “I believe it because it is absurd.” The cracked shadow logic of our intellectual tradition, paradox is confident though denounced by philosophers as sham-faced; it is troublesome and not going anywhere. When a statement is made synonymous with its opposite, then traditional notions of propriety are dispelled and the fun can begin. “But one must not think ill of the paradox,” writes Søren Kierkegaard in Philosophical Fragments, “for the paradox is the passion of thought, and the thinker without the paradox is like the lover without passion: a mediocre fellow.”

As a concept, it may have found its intellectual origin on the sunbaked, dusty, scrubby, hilly countryside of Crete. The mythic homeland of the Minotaur, who is man and beast, human and bull, a walking, thinking, raging horned paradox covered in cowhide and imprisoned within the labyrinth. Epimenides, an itinerant philosopher some seven centuries before Christ, supposedly said that “All Cretans are liars” (St. Paul actually quotes this assertion in his epistle to Titus). A version of the aforementioned Liar’s Paradox thus ensues. If Epimenides is telling the truth then he is lying, and if he is lying then he is telling the truth. This class of paradoxes has multiple variations (in the Middle Ages they were known as “insolubles”—the unsolvable). For example, consider two sentences vertically arranged; the upper one is written “The statement below is true” and the lower says “The statement above is false,” and again the reader is caught in a maddening feedback loop. Martin Gardner, who for several decades penned the delightful “Mathematical Games” column in Scientific American, asks in Aha! Gotcha: Paradoxes to Puzzle and Delight, “Why does this form of the paradox, in which a sentence talks about itself, make the paradox clearer? Because it eliminates all ambiguity over whether a liar always lies and a truth-teller always tells the truth.” The paradox is a function of language, and in that way is the cousin to tautology, save for the former describing propositions that are always necessarily both true and false.

Some intrinsic meaning is elusive in all of this this, so that it would be easy to reject all of it as rank stupidity, but paradoxes provide a crucial service. In paradox, we experience the breakdown of language and of literalism. Whether or not paradoxes are glitches in how we arrange our words or due to something more intrinsic, they signify a null-space where the regular ways of thinking, of understanding, of writing, no longer hold. Few crafters of the form are as synonymous with paradox as the fifth-century BCE philosopher Zeno of Elea. Consider his famed dichotomy paradox, wherein Zeno concludes that motion itself must be impossible, since the movement from point A to point B always necessitates a halving of distance, forever (and so the destination itself can never be reached). Or his celebrated arrow paradox, wherein Aristotle explains in Physics that “If everything when it occupies an equal space is at rest at that instant of time, and if that which is in location is always occupying such a space at any moment, the flying arrow is therefore motionless at that instant of time and at the next instant of time.” And yet the arrow still moves. Roy Sorenson explains in A Brief History of the Paradox that the form “developed from the riddles of Greek folklore” (as with the Sphinx’s famous query in Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex), so that words have always mediated these conundrums, while Anthony Gottlieb writes in The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance that “ingenious paradoxes… try to discredit commonsense views by demonstrating that they lead to unacceptable consequences,” in a gambit as rhetorical as it is analytical. Often connected primarily with mathematics and philosophy, paradox is fundamentally a literary genre, and one ironically (or paradoxically?) associated with the failure of language itself. All of the great authors of paradox—the pre-Socratics, Zen masters, Jesus Christ—were at their core storytellers, they were writers. Words stretched to incomprehension and narrative unspooling is their fundamental medium. Epimenides’s utterance triggers a collapse of meaning, but where the literal perishes there is room made for the figurative. Paradox is the mother of poetry.

I’d venture that the contradictions of life are the subject of all great literature, but paradoxes appear in more obvious forms, too. “There was only one catch and that was Catch-22,” writes Joseph Heller. The titular regulation of Heller’s Catch-22 concerned the mental state of American pilots fighting in the Mediterranean during the Second World War, with the policy such that if somebody requests that they don’t want to fly a mission because of mental infirmity, they’ve only demonstrated their own sanity, since anyone who would want to fly must clearly be insane, so that it’s impossible to avoid fighting. The captain was “moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.” Because politics is often the collective social function of reducto ad absurdum, political novels make particularly adept use of paradox. George Orwell did something similar in his celebrated (and oft-misinterpreted) novel of dystopian horror 1984, wherein the state apparatus trumpets certain commandments, such as “War is peace. /Freedom is slavery. /Ignorance is strength.” Perhaps such dialectics are the (non-Marxist) socialist Orwell’s parody of Hegelian double-speak, a mockery of that supposed engine of human progress that goes through thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Within paradox there is a certain freedom, the ability to understand that contradiction is an attribute of our complex experience, but when statements are also defined as their opposite, meaning itself can be the casualty. Paradox understood as a means to enlightenment bestows anarchic freedom; paradox understood as a means unto itself is nihilism.

Political absurdities are born out of the inanity of rhetoric and the severity of regulation, but paradox can entangle not just society, but the fabric of reality as well. Science fiction is naturally adept at examining the snarls of existential paradox, with time travel a favored theme. Paul Nahin explains in Time Machines: Time Travel in Physics, Metaphysics, and Science Fiction that temporal paradoxes are derived from the simple question of “What might happen if a time traveler changed the past?” This might seem an issue entirely of hermetic concern, save for in contemporary physics neither general relativity nor quantum mechanics preclude time travel (indeed certain interpretations of those theories downright necessitate it). So even the idea of being able to move freely through past, present, and future has implications for how reality is constituted, whether or not we happen to be the ones stepping out of the tesseract. “The classic change-the-past paradox is, of course, the so-called grandfather paradox,” writes Nahin, explaining that it “poses the question of what happens if an assassin goes back in time and murders his grandfather before his (the time-travelling murderer’s) own father is born.” The grandfather’s murder requires a murderer, but for the murderer in question to be born there is also the requirement that the grandfather not be murdered, so that the murderer is able to travel back in time and kill his ancestor, and again we’re in a strange loop.

Variations exist as far back as the golden age of the pulps, appearing in magazines like Amazing Stories as early as 1929. More recently, Ray Bradbury explored the paradox in “A Sound of Thunder,” where he is explicit about the paradoxical implications that any travel to the past will alter the future in baroque ways, with a 21st century tourist accidentally killing a butterfly in the Cretaceous, leading to the election of an openly fascistic U.S. president millions of years into the future (though the divergence of parallel universes is often proffered as a means of avoiding such implications). In Bradbury’s estimation, every single thing in history, every event, every incident, is “an exquisite thing,” so that a “small thing that could upset balances and knock down a line of small dominoes and then big dominoes and then gigantic dominoes all down the years across Time.” This conundrum need not only be phrased in patricidal terms, for what all temporal paradoxes have at their core is an issue of causality—if we imagine that time progresses from past through future, then what happens when those terms get all mixed up? How can we possibly understand a past that’s influenced by a future that in turn has been affected by the past?

Again, no issue of scholastic quibbling, for though we experience time as moving forward like one of Zeno’s arrows, the physics itself tells us that past, present, and future are constituted in entirely stranger ways. One version of the grandfather paradox involves, rather than grisly murder, the transfer of information from the future to the past; for example, in Tim Powers’s novel The Anubis Gates, a time traveler is stranded in the early 19th century. The character realizes that “I could invent things—the light bulb, the internal combustion engine… flush toilets.” But he abandons this hubris, for “any such tampering might cancel the trip I got here by, or even the circumstances under which my mother and father met.” Many readers will perhaps be aware of temporal paradoxes from the Robert Zemeckis Back to the Future film trilogy (which for what they lack in patricide they make up for in Oedipal sentiments), notably a scene in which Marty McFly inadvertently introduces Chuck Berry to his own song “Johnny B. Goode.” Ignoring the troubling implications that a suburban white teenager had to somehow teach the Black inventor of rock ‘n’ roll his own music, Back to the Future presents a classic temporal paradox—if McFly first heard “Johnny B. Goode” from Berry records, and Berry first heard the song from McFly, then from whence was the song actually composed? (Perhaps from God).

St. Augustine asks in The City of God “What is time, then? If nobody asks me, I know; but if I were desirous to explain it to one who should ask me, I plainly do not know.” Paradox sprouts from the fertile soil of our own incomprehension, and to its benefit there is virtually nothing that humans really understand, at least not really. Time is the oddest thing of all, if we honestly confront the enormity of it. I’m continually surprised that I can’t easily walk into 1992 as if it were a room in my house. No surprise then that time and space are so often explored in the literature of paradox. Oxymoron and irony are the milquetoast cousins of paradox, but poetry at its most polished, pristine, and adamantine elevates contradiction into an almost religious principle. Among the 17th-century poets who worked in the stead of John Donne, paradox was often a central aspect of what critics have called a “metaphysical conceit.” These brilliant, crystalline, rhetorical turns are often like Zeno’s paradoxes rendered into verse, expanding and compressing time and space with a dialectical glee. An example of this from the good Dr. Donne, master of both enigma and the erotic, who in his poem “The Good-Morrow” imagined two lovers for whom they have made “one little room an everywhere.” The narrator and the beloved’s bed-chamber—perhaps there is heavy wooden paneling on the wall and a canopy bed near a fireplace burning green wood, a full moon shining through the mottled crown glass window—are as if a singularity where north, south, east and west; past, present, and future; are all collapsed into a point. Even more obvious is Donne in “The Paradox,” wherein he writes that “Once I loved and died; and am now become/Mine epitaph and tomb;/Here dead men speak their last, and so do I,” the talking corpse its own absurdity made flesh.

So taken were the 20th-century scholars known as the New Critics with the ingenuity of metaphysical conceits that Cleanth Brooks would argue in his classic The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry that the “language of poetry is the language of paradox.” Donne and Andrew Marvell, George Herbert, and Henry Vaughan used paradox as a theme and a subject—but to write poetry itself is paradoxical. To write fiction is paradoxical. Even to write nonfiction is paradoxical. To write at all is paradoxical. A similar sentiment concerning the representational arts is conveyed in the Belgian surrealist painter Rene Magritte’s much parodied 1929 work “The Treachery of Images.” Magritte presents an almost absurdly recognizable smoking pipe, polished to a totemistic brown sheen with a shiny black mouth piece, so basically obvious that it might as well be from an advertisement, and beneath it he writes in cursive script “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”—”This is not a pipe.” A seeming blatant contradiction, for what could the words possibly relate to other than the picture directly above them? But as Magritte told an interviewer, “if I had written on my picture ‘This is a pipe,’ I’d have been lying!” For you see, Magritte’s image is not a pipe, it is an image of a pipe. Like Zeno’s paradoxes, what may first initially seem to be simple-minded contrarianism, a type of existential trolling if you will, belies a more subtle observation. The philosopher Michel Foucault writes in his slender volume This Is Not a Pipe that “Contradiction could exist only between two statements,” but that in the painting “there is clearly but one, and it cannot be contradictory because the subject of the propositions is a simple demonstrative.” According to Foucault, the picture, though self-referential, is not a paradox in the logical sense of the word. And yet there is an obvious contradiction between the viewer’s experience of the painting, and the reality that they’ve not looked upon some carefully carved and polished pipe, but rather only brown and black oil carefully applied to stretched canvas.

This, then, is the “treachery” of which Magritte speaks, the paradox that is gestated within that gulf where meaning resides, a valley strung between the-thing-in-itself and the way in which we represent the-thing-in-itself. Writing is in some ways even more treacherous than painting, for at least Magritte’s picture looks like a pipe—perhaps other than some calligraphic art, literature appears as nothing so much as abstract squiggles. Moby-Dick is not a whale and Jay Gatsby is not a man. They are less than a picture of a pipe, for we have not even images of them, only ink-stained books, and the abject abstraction of mere letters. And yet the paradox is that from that nothingness is generated the most sumptuous something; just as the illusion of painting can trick one into the experience of the concrete, so does the more bizarre phenomenon of the literary imagination make you hallucinate characters that are generated from the non-figurative alphabet. From this essay, if I’ve done even a somewhat adequate job, you’ve hopefully been able to envision Gödel and Einstein bundled into a car on the Jersey turnpike, windows frosted with nervous breath and laughter, the sun rising over the wooded Pine Barrens—or to imagine John and Anne Donne bundled together under an exquisite blanket of red and yellow and blue and green, the heavy oak door of their chamber closed tight against the English frost—but of course you’ve seen no such thing. You’ve only skimmed through your phone while sitting on the toilet, or toggled back and forth between open tabs on your laptop. Literature is paradoxical because it necessitates the invention of entire realities out of the basest nothing; the treachery of representation is that “This is not a pipe” is a principle that applies to absolutely all of the written word, and yet when we read a novel or a poem we can smell the burning tobacco.

All of literature is a great enigma, a riddle, a paradox. What the Zen masters of Japanese Buddhism call a kaon. Religion is too often maligned for being haunted by the hobgoblin straw-man of consistency, and yet the only real faith is one mired in contradiction, and few practices embrace paradox quite like Zen. Central to Zen is the breaking down of the dualities that separate all of us from absolute being, the distinction between the I and the not-I. As a means to do this, Zen masters deploy the enigmatic stories, puzzles, sayings, and paradoxes of kaon, with the goal of forcing the initiate toward the para-logical, a catalyst for the instantaneous enlightenment known as satori. Sometimes reduced to the “What is the sound of one-hand clapping?” variety of puzzle (though that is indeed a venerable kaon), the monk and master D.T. Suzuki explains in An Introduction to Zen Buddhism that these apparently “paradoxical statements are not artificialities contrived to hide themselves behind a screen of obscurity; but simply because the human tongue is not an adequate organ for expressing the deepest truth of Zen, the latter cannot be made the subject of logical exposition; they are to be experienced in the inmost soul when they become for the first time intelligible.” A classic kaon, attributed to the ninth-century Chinese monk Linji Yixuan, famously says “If you meet the Buddha, kill him.” Linji’s point is similar to Magritte’s—”This is not the Buddha.” It’s a warning about falling into the trap of representation, of refusing to resist the treachery of images, and yet the paradox is that the only way we have of communicating is through the fallible, inexact, medium of words. Zen is the only religion whose purpose is to overcome religion, and everything else for that matter. It asks us to use its paradoxes as a ladder to which we can climb toward ultimate being—and then we’re to kick that ladder over. In its own strange way, literature is the ultimate kaon, all of these novels and plays, poems and essays, all words, words, words meaning nothing and signifying everything, gesturing towards a Truth beyond truth, and yet nothing but artfully arranged lies (and even less than that, simply arrayed squiggles on a screen). To read is to court its own type of enlightenment, of transcendence, and not just because of the questions literature raises, but because of literature’s very existence in the first place.

Humans are themselves the greatest of paradoxes: someone who is kind can harbor flashes of rage, the cruelest of people are capable of genuine empathy, our greatest pains often lead to salvation and we’re sometimes condemned by that which we love. In a famous 1817 letter to his brothers, the English Romantic poet John Keats extolled the most sublime of literature’s abilities that was to dwell in “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” a quality that he called “negative capability.” An irony in our present’s abandonment of nuance, for ours is a paradoxical epoch through and through—an era of unparalleled technological superiority and appalling barbarity, of instantaneous knowledge and virtually no wisdom. A Manichean age as well—which valorizes consistency above all other virtues, though it is that most suburban of values—yet Keats understood that if we’re to give any credit to literature, and for that matter any credit to people, we must be comfortable with complexity and contradiction. Negative capability is what separates the moral from the merely didactic. In all of our baroque complexity, paradox is the operative mode of literature, the only rhetorical gambit commensurate with displaying the full spectrum of what it means to be a human. We are all such glorious enigmas—creatures of finite dimension and infinite worth. None of us deserve grace, and yet all of us are worthy of it, a moral paradox that makes us beautiful not in spite of its cankered reality, but because of it. The greatest of paradoxes is that within that contradictory form, there is the possibility of genuine freedom—of liberation.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

The Millions Top Ten: August 2021

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We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for August.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Klara and the Sun
6 months

2.
3.

The Copenhagen Trilogy
6 months

3.
4.

The Great Mistake
3 months

4.
5.

Subdivision
4 months

5.


Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
1 month

6.
6.

Outlawed

5 months

7.


The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois
1 month

8.


Ghost Forest
1 month

9.
7.

Women and Other Monsters
4 months

10.
9.

The House on Vesper Sands
2 months

Our own Ed Simon wrote that “the idiosyncratic contours” of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s mind were on full display in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. The work, “scribbl[ed] away as incendiary explosions echoed across the Polish countryside and mustard gas wafted over fields of corpses,” Simon continues, “is less the greatest philosophical work of the 20th century than it is one of the most immaculate volumes of modernist poetry written in the past hundred years.”

It’s also the newest addition to our site’s Top Ten, because if there’s one thing Millions readers evidently love, it’s “one of the oddest books in the history of logic.” This month, the fifth spot belongs to all of you.

Elsewhere on our list, we opened three spots because Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts graduated to our Hall of Fame while Matthew Salesses’s Craft in the Real World and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Committed both dropped out.

After Wittgenstein, those spots are presently occupied by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’s The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois and Pik-Shuen Fung’s Ghost Forest. The two novels, published in August and July, respectively, were featured in our Great Second-Half 2021 Book Preview, where Jianan Qian wrote previews for both.

Writing of Love Songs, Qian wrote:
In her ambitious fiction debut, the 2020 National Book Award-nominated poet meditates on African-American history from the colonial slave trade to our current, turbulent age.
…and of Ghost Forest:
This is a fascinating epic of a Chinese-Canadian family, heartbreaking, daring, and relieving.
Solid picks, both. Stay tuned next month to see at least two newcomers, and to find out whether Wittgenstein endures.

This month’s near misses included: Nightbitch, Something New Under the Sun, and Intimacies. See Also: Last month’s list.

Whiting Literary Magazine Prizes Name 2021 Winners

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Three print magazines and two digital publications were named winners of the fourth annual Whiting Literary Magazine Prizes, taking home a combined total of $144,000 in funding. The prizes, which are administered by the Whiting Foundation, have been awarded since 2018 to a total of 18 literary magazines to honor their “excellence in publishing, advocacy for writers, and a unique contribution to the strength of the overall literary community.”

This year’s winners, with citations, are as follows:

The Massachusetts Review (Amherst, Mass.), a “trove of finely written and imaginative stories from around the globe, exemplary in its commitment to formal experiment and traditional literary excellence, and to enriching the scope of our literature through its translations.”

Medium-Budget Print Prize Winner ($150,000-$500,000 budget)
Total prize: $60,000

Bellevue Literary Review (New York, N.Y.), “a unique venue for exploring writing about medicine and the body in illness and health, which was the first literary journal to arise from a medical setting and is now a fast-growing hub for dialogues between the medical community and the arts.”

Small-Budget Print Prize Winner (under $150,000 budget)
Total prize: $30,000

The Arkansas International (Fayetteville, Ark.), “a bright new star in the literary firmament distinguished by its exceptional fiction, beautiful design, commitment to translation, and the oasis it provides for literary culture in the American heartland.”

Print Development Grantee (under $50,000 budget)
Total prize: $15,000

Latin American Literature Today (Norman, Okla.), “an essential literary bridge across the Americas distinguished by its fully multilingual issues featuring the greatest contemporary Latin American writing in Spanish and indigenous languages.”

Digital Prize Winner (under $500,000 budget)
Total prize: $30,000

Full Stop (New York, N.Y.), “a dynamic and richly eclectic platform for book criticism, untethered to the zeitgeist but fearlessly contemporary, which brings hundreds of books that might otherwise go unnoticed into larger literary conversations.”

Digital Development Grantee (under $15,000 budget)
Total prize: $9,000

The prize money is distributed to each winner over the course of three years; the awards in the second and third years are made as matching grants, with the Whiting Foundation doubling or tripling new gifts.

“Receiving the Whiting Literary Magazine Prize during this pandemic year is an incredible honor for Bellevue Literary Review, since BLR’s focus is on health, illness and healing,” said Danielle Ofri, editor-in-chief of the BLR in a statement. “The vulnerability of illness is now part of daily life in an unprecedented manner; support from the Whiting Foundation will invigorate our work at the intersection of healthcare and the arts.”

“The Whiting Award Literary Magazine Prize will grant us the resources to explore new territories, including expanding our readership, raising honorariums, and much more,” said Arkansas International director of publicity Lily Buday. “We’re also excited to grow both our local and international presence via in-person and virtual events.”

This year’s winners were chosen from an application pool of 100 applicants. The call for applications for the 2022 prizes is now open; the deadline is December 1.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Karl Ove Knausgaard Will Not Read This Interview

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I’m a major admirer of Karl Ove Knausgaard. His memoir, My Struggle, of course, 3000-plus pages spread out across six books, each of which has its own unique character (Private ranking: 4, 2, 1, 5, 6, 3.) But I also love his short “season” books, especially Autumn and Spring, and his novel A Time for Everything, which reinvents stories from the Bible and places them against a Norwegian backdrop.

I recently spoke with Knausgaard via Zoom about his new novel, The Morning Star, a multi-perspective first-person story set in Norway in which a giant star appears in the sky and earth’s beings seem to stop dying. The novel features nine different narrators. Several appear relatively briefly, but the leads are Egil, who is writing an essay on death that appears toward the end of the book; Kathrine, a priest struggling with her marriage; Jonnstein, a nasty reporter trying to get his crime beat back; and Arne, whose bipolar wife is suffering from a mania, wandering their property at all hours of the night, and painting disturbing images. These characters each have their own dramas—but all the while the world is changing in the light of the new star, with murders, monsters, brutality against animals, and ever-rising heat.

The Morning Star is Knausgaard’s first work of pure fiction in over a decade. He was in London and I was in Brooklyn during the interview, with the sun setting as he spoke until he was in near-total darkness

The Millions: You’ve said that writing a novel is like setting a goal, then walking there in your sleep. When you were in New York a couple of years ago, you told me that you were 40 pages into a multi-perspective novel. Was that The Morning Star?

Karl Ove Knausgaard: Yeah, it was incredibly slow in the beginning until some things fell in place. Then I wrote it very rapidly, mostly during the first spring of the pandemic, from Christmas until May, I think. But before that, it was a long period where I just had it lying around and didn’t work on it.

TM: I saw inklings of the pandemic all over the book. Did you find that it impacted your process?

KOK: I didn’t think about that at the time, but I could see clearly afterwards when it was published that, yeah, very much so, I think. Because the kind of intense feeling I had and probably everybody had in the beginning was of the intimacy of the family, all of a sudden, coming together and spending much more time together. Then you have that threat outside which was really horrible, at least here in London, with all the deaths and the ambulances. Same as in New York, of course. Yeah, it must have somehow snaked its way into the novel. I had four hours a day to write, and then I had to deal with all the other stuff because we were all there. We were nine people in the house, you know?

TM: Oh my gosh.

KOK: But that was good, too. It was a good experience. You had to give it all of those four hours. I couldn’t hesitate. I had to just write whatever came into my mind.

TM: There are nine narrators in The Morning Star, so it’s interesting that there were nine people in your house.

KOK: Oh, I never thought about that.

TM: These characters have their own concerns, and they’re very much private ones. A new baby. A problem at work. Seeing a teacher you don’t want to see in the grocery store. Though it’s getting hot, and animals are acting strangely, and there’s a new star in the sky, it seems like the characters stay focused on the granular, day to day stuff.

KOK: Definitely.

TM: That did remind me of the pandemic. This idea of disaster out the window, but then at home, what are we going to eat, I’m fighting with my partner, whatever.

KOK: I think so. It wasn’t like I thought that was how I wanted to make it. I just wanted to find these people and to be in their life, and then this star appears, and I didn’t know how they would react. So, I think it was kind of—yeah, it was probably also related to what happened, really, and that very particular experience, because the funny thing is, you couldn’t share it with anyone because everybody had the same experience, you know? Couldn’t write about it, couldn’t talk about it, couldn’t call friends and say, “Do you know what’s happening here?” I never experienced anything like it. Never saw something so general in history. But this isn’t a pandemic novel at all.

TM: I was thinking about the idea of the big story, that Tolstoyan concept of the war going on in the backdrop of peace. Or the whale being off-camera for most of Moby-Dick. It’s hard, as a reader, to even picture, exactly, what the morning star is. I was wondering what it’s like to write with something on the periphery of a novel that is so giant, yet moves away right when a reader might most want to look at it?

KOK: Well, I started out and I had this idea about The Morning Star, and I wanted to have nine narrators. That was basically what I had, and then I started to tell the story and I realized, I had just started, it’s going to be more books. The Morning Star is going to be more scrutinized. I think what I struggled with the most was, and it’s probably very understandable, was credibility. That the characters could believe in the star. That’s the only thing I’m really working hard with, trying to get that star up there and make an impact on people.

TM: Have you started, I hate this kind of question, but are you writing the next part?

KOK: Yeah, yeah, I’m actually finishing it. I have a deadline for it on the first of September, so I’m really at the very end of it.

TM: Oh, great.

KOK: You have to write so much. I’ve written a lot today, for instance. I was almost done.

TM: This is a pattern book, but then you break the pattern in many ways. There’s two characters that you only spend a bit of time with, the one watching the baby and the one who was kissed by her brother-in-law

KOK: Yeah, and I felt like I’m starting a novel each time, you know? Just stop them and go onto the next. I will pick them up and go further, but I have no idea what’s going to happen, really.

TM: A technique you use in My Struggle and here is suspension. You see a big thing, you pause, and in this book, sometimes you go 200 pages before you come back to whatever the moment of suspense is. I’m curious how you juggle these moments.

KOK: I have no idea. I’m sorry, it’s very intuitive. It’s a lot about pacing, really, and what you can allow. Suspense allows you to dwell with something and to write about other stuff, and it makes it possible to get to, for me at least, everyday life. Somehow get the sense of intensity to it. For me, writing a novel is a way of creating a room or a space where I can say something that might otherwise have been incredibly banal, or not worth it all. But I never think about those terms in a technical way. Suspense doesn’t mean anything to me, really. It’s just writing.

TM: When we last spoke, you were preoccupied with making the characters feel different. You said that was the biggest challenge you were setting for yourself with this project.

KOK: Yeah, that was something I also discussed with my editor throughout, because every person is written the same way, thinking the same way. It’s like—how to create different characters in the same language?—and I didn’t want to pretend I’m going to other languages, or other ways of writing. I also didn’t want the third person, which could have been a solution, so that was something I thought about all the way through. My editor said to me, “Just write about these people and it becomes an illusion.” I mean, everybody knows you’ve written it. But I set some different parameters in the beginning, and that makes them different in a way.

TM: When you switch back and forth, are the characters waiting for you? Or do you have to write your way back into them?

KOK: No, I can just go into them, but the whole goal was to establish them, because I didn’t know anything about any of them, so I just started the situation and kind of found my way. Then something opened up, and then more, and then there was a life there. For instance, the priest, all I knew was that she would come in on an airplane, and that she had been on a conference for translation of the Bible, which I was part of. I knew this was at least authentic, in a way. That was all I had about her, I had no idea that she didn’t want to go home, that she had these troubles. It was the same with all of them, and that’s the fun of writing fiction.

TM: There’s so many moments in writing, I’m thinking of Stendhal maybe, where you have characters that seem separated by wide gulfs, and then suddenly you learn that they’re linked. For me, finding out that Egil (an important character) went to school with the priest was the kind of moment in writing that makes your heart beat a little bit.

KOK: Yeah. I had great fun with this, and there are going to be more link ups to come.

TM: I found a quote of yours in your Munch book about The Scream, I’ll just read it, because it made me think of what we’re talking about:
What is shocking about the picture…is that the entire space is subsumed into the face and the state of mind it expresses… The space is recognizable, it is Oslo with the Oslo fjord, probably seen from the ridge of Ekebergåsen, but it is greatly distorted…the perspective has been moved into a single person, and the work’s main concern is the place from which the world is viewed, reality as experienced by this single individual is the world. Everything seen is coloured by emotions and moods, which are continually changing.
KOK: Yeah, I think that’s just the way I looked at everything, really. Art, literature, and writing. Yeah. I haven’t specifically thought about that, but of course I’ve thought about the view of the world and of different worlds a lot, and that’s also an opportunity. It’s exactly that, sure. Exactly that, that you could see the same world and it’s completely different. That could be a relation. I wanted this book to exist also in between the characters, not like my previous book My Struggle, which is just one person, nothing else.

TM: I wanted to ask about the character Jostein—I’m sure he was fun.

KOK: He was fun to write, yeah.

TM: Peeing himself, drinking, hitting on girls, ignoring his son’s very clear psychiatric crisis. But then he gets this transcendent journey through a Dantean purgatory. He would have been the least likely character for me to say, “I want to see what he thinks about the river Styx.” How did that sequence come into it?

KOK: He was just this idea of journalists writing about culture while hating culture. Which I know for sure exists, and I wondered why that is, you know? I really hate it, I mean, really, really hate it, and so I had to write about it. Then I just riffed on him through the novel. And he was the obvious choice for that scene, really. I never thought of anyone else. Also, I don’t really know, but I really like it that in that scene everything has to be simplified, simplified, and simplified. He actually doesn’t remember anything. That whole trip to the other world was also very late stage in the novel, and came when I was very in the book, and he was there.

TM: The way the language shifts into something primordial when he drinks from the river was a pleasure.

KOK: Yeah, it was fun, actually, to do.

TM: Another thing that was fun was the essay at the end of the book that you show Egil writing earlier, with that little capsule story of him on the train. And I know your answer is going to be it happened organically while you were writing it, so I’m not going to ask you that question again.

KOK: Sorry.

TM: No, it’s good! I’m the same way. But the use of research and these theoretical opinings on death in a novel about people who can’t die—I do think is worth asking about.

KOK: It was stuff I was reading for the book, mainly, throughout the writing. I read, I do the same thing now, I have not a lot of time to read, so I read before I go to bed, and I have like half an hour, an hour, and that was the stuff I was reading. I knew it was going to be an essay, I wanted an essay in there. We discussed if it should be the start of the next one or the end of this one, but then I started to write it and I realized that the level of abstraction is very high when you are writing romantically about death or whatever. And death is not like that, that’s the thing. It’s not abstract, it’s not something you can really think of. It’s absolutely horrible, as everybody knows.

I needed to move that essay into a real expression, and then I remembered when I must have been 24 or something, I took a train from Oslo and there was this medical doctor. He was an anesthetic doctor. It was only him and me. We started to drink, and he started to confess from his life. Never seen him before, never seen him later. This is now 30 years ago, so I think I’m pretty safe. He just told me everything about his life, and he said, “I know I’m not going to see you again,” and then he told me about an experience he had about being on an ambulance helicopter and actually seeing people who weren’t there. I’ve always thought “I have to use this,” and there it was. Then I just expanded the story and invented a funeral, his anger and sorrow, and the death of his child. Basically, that’s how it works with fiction, you have an experience and then make use of it in an entirely different way. It was very important to end the essay in reality somehow, even though it’s an invented reality in the novel.

TM: In Fight Club, single serving friends, I think is what they call it.

KOK: I see, yeah. It was very powerful, actually.

TM: Sounds like it.

KOK: Yeah. I was very young, too.

TM: Toward the end of the novel, you write that death has been taken out of darkness, with mythological ideas of death turning into scientific processes. And I couldn’t stop thinking about your brain surgery essay about Dr. Marsh, when you’re looking at the brain through the microscope and you see this gorgeous thing. That’s a human being, but at the same time it’s science. What do you think science is doing to our understanding of death?

KOK: That’s a very good question. I’m actually reading a lot about that for the book I’m writing now, which is a very different perspective. And I don’t really want to talk about what I’m doing now, but I think there are several traits about death and about the body and about life that are very fixed in a way; they belong to each other’s department. The interesting thing, for instance, is that the idea of resurrection has always been in religion. It’s been the center of Christianity, but in a way, that idea has been impossible now, because religion has become more rational, so they can’t make it work in an old fashioned, biological, flesh and blood way. We don’t believe in it, but they did. Instead, it’s just moved into science, where it pops up in the most amazing ways. I just read, what is his name, the singularity man, who starts to think it’s possible to defy death and to beat aging. All through science, all through molecules and biology and computers. That’s doing something very weird, because for me, body is earth. Body is animal, body is primal, somehow, and very, very old.

Then you’ve got this kind of modern body, but the body is the same. We are the same. That is what I’m trying to write about again and again, the pull from the earth versus the enlightenment and the brand-new world we’re living in. When death comes, it just smashes all of that and destroys it. You face something completely different.

There’s this wonderful novel I just read, a Russian novel, by Chinghiz Aitmatov. Have you read it?

TM: No.

KOK: The Day as Long as a Century, it’s called.

TM: Oh, wow. Great title.

KOK: Absolutely wonderful. It has a very silly science fiction part, but it works, and it has an incredibly good part down on earth. It’s about a man in the Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan in the ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s, burying a friend. Going on a camel to bury him, and he kind of relives his life. Then there is a completely weird presence of rockets and the combination of those worlds side by side is absolutely brilliant.

I do have the same feeling when I read those crazy futurist American people, that really freaks me out somehow, but still it is very interesting. If you read them, you think yeah, it is possible. We are basically numbers. The scary thing is maybe this is where the hard science is going. That’s very much part of what I’m writing. It’s very existential, but also very much now. You know?

TM: Very much.

KOK: The very simple thought that death is something archaic, is something that kind of sets the rules, and it does something to us. It’s the thing I’m exploring in the first book. And the feeling I have is the same as I had in the beginning of My Struggle: it was my father’s death. It’s something you have to relate to, and it is everywhere, especially now with so many people dying around us. Dr. Marsh said—I asked him if he believed in something after death—and he said, “No, it’s over. It’s nothing. It’s just death. It’s like blowing a fuse.”

He’s seen many people die, so he knows what he’s talking about.

TM: I trust him more than me on that. When you were speaking, I was also thinking of the fundamentalist speaking-in-tongues American beliefs that still have a more spiritual approach to death.

KOK: Yeah. I was intrigued by all of them, all of that, the whole tradition you’re talking about. And Shamanism is incredibly interesting, just as a phenomenon. What it does to your view of the world, which is what I’m interested in. I’m not so interested in if it is true. It’s what it makes the world into. Turns it into something else. That’s what I want to do with this book. In a very, very mundane world, of course.

TM: A Time for Everything is one of my favorite books. You place mythological stories, Cain and Abel, Abraham, in familiar Norwegian environments. Woods that are very much like the woods in My Struggle, figures that we see again in My Struggle. In The Morning Star, too, I was having fun Googling the restaurants you were mentioning in the book and seeing the interiors you described. So, you have this surreal landscape, but it’s very, very strongly mapped onto a real place.

KOK: Yeah. I hadn’t written about many landscapes, and the lesson in my second novel, A Time for Everything, was that when I tried to write those stories, I had set them in vivid landscapes, and it was impossible, because I didn’t have the knowledge or the insight, and if you’re a bit insecure, it’s impossible to be free.

It was a bit the same in The Morning Star with writing from the perspective of women. In the beginning I wasn’t free, and didn’t know anything, so I really wrote badly because of that.

What I did in A Time for Everything was to move it to Norway. I knew the Norwegian landscape, so then I could just be free. I gave those people some traits from my grandparents and so on, as you know. When I was writing The Morning Star, I was in London, but the memories and images of where I grew up were very strong, and it gave an extra dimension.

Because to me, it is real because I was there, but it isn’t here, so I have to make it up anyway. If I have something realistic, then it’s much, much better to let something extraordinary or fantastic happen. To be free in something, I have to know it really well. I do also like a concrete, real world combined with fiction. It’s always something that I appreciate with many of the novels I like. If you read Tolstoy, for instance, you know those places exist somehow, and it’s grounded in the information of the world.

TM: How did you start to feel more comfortable writing the female characters?

KOK: I had to say, “I can’t do this,” because I was being so respectful. I asked myself, “Can a woman think this? Would a woman do this?” Then you’re fucked, because there’s no creativity, it’s just restrictions. I had to let go of all of that, and just write and be completely free, never think about if a woman could think that, would do that. Then the novel in itself started to come alive, because the first person I wrote was the nurse.

TM: One thing I was intrigued by with her was that In the Land of the Cyclops has an essay that’s partially about you working in a place that’s very similar to the place she works, a home for the mentally ill. Were you giving bits of yourself to different characters?

KOK: Yeah, yeah. That’s all over the place, really, because you need something that is true, and it doesn’t have to be true in any direct sense, but there has to be an experience of something you know. I have to have that when I’m writing, so there’s a lot of that spread out and I just use whatever comes in hand. That goes for all of the characters,

TM: You’ve written that having a family member with bipolar disorder changes the you and the I, and creates questions about what is essential to an individual’s identity. I wanted to ask about that astonishing moment where the bipolar character Turid’s painting contains a truth that no other character sees.

KOK: The thing with her is that she is psychotic. Or she is getting psychotic, meaning she is seeing something. Because it’s like a dream, but you are in the real world, and you can’t believe everything. You have the ecstasy with the shamans, and that’s also the same way, that you see something that might not be there. Or you have experiences with mushrooms or whatever, you always see something. It’s just an interesting place to be, I think, if you are in the world with everyone but you see something else. Not that that should be real, or not real, or whatever. It’s a position, and the outer world is completely dissolved.

TM: This book has strong elements of horror. The being in the woods, violence against cats. I wanted to ask about your decision to use fear in this book.

KOK: I set out to. One of my favorite books is Dracula by Bram Stoker. I think I was 14 the first time I read it, and I read it many times. I really, really loved it. I remember playing Echo and the Bunnymen when I read it, so every time I hear Echo and the Bunnymen again, I remember. I wanted to go, the gothic and the grotesque and all of that, those are places I wanted to go. And of course, The Morning Star has many elements, especially cliffhangers and supernatural stuff.

TM: And Dracula can’t die in a normal way.

KOK: That’s true, yeah. Never thought about that.

TM: I was reading your essay on Cindy Sherman’s pig person, and thinking about non-humanness as something that is really frightening as well.

KOK: Yeah. It’s just a fascination I have. We have all of these other living creatures and we’re not afraid of them. They are not us, they’re different, and we accept them and don’t think too much about them, even though it’s very weird to have other creatures that experience the world completely differently. But then think about meeting the devil, not in any fictitious way, but in a real way. If you try to think about non-human creatures like that, or a divine creature, or whatever that people have been seeing throughout history, how immensely scary that is. It’s the same with robots.

TM: I would love to ask about The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air, the Kierkegaard text. Egil, the character, writes about how strongly it impacted him, like it was seeing something for the first time. I was wondering if that follows your own journey of reading?

KOK: I actually read it in New York, and I read it English the first time because I bought it in a bookshop there. I was just blown away by it, really. I think the immediate appeal was the repetitions, the poetry. It was like I was transfixed. There is a complete impossible idea that it brings forth which I was intrigued by. I didn’t think I should use it in any way, but I did. I think it’s the common knowledge of living now, the radicality of it and Kierkegaard makes you see it, like you said, for the first time. You see the radicality in it. In The Morning Star, there are two different types of Christianity going on. The priest, Katrina, she’s very much about the social reality, very much about mercy. Then you have Egil, which is completely the opposite, which is Kierkegaard, turning away from the social and looking into the abyss, which Kierkegaard was very good at doing. And then I also did, like Egil, I bought the complete series of all of Kierkegaard’s work in Danish, which I have here on my shelves. Then I read an incredibly good biography about him. He was such a fun character as a person.

TM: Did you find that going back to fiction, was it fun, was it different, did it feel liberating?

KOK: It was fun, but it was in a way also much harder, and I also felt that I took a risk, really doing this. You know? That was part of the fun, and I really enjoyed it.

TM: When I talked to you about My Struggle, sometimes I felt a little awkward because I was asking questions about the character you to the writer you. Is this a different sort of interview for you?

KOK: Yeah, much harder to talk about fiction because with My Struggle, we can just talk about myself, you know? It’s fine, I don’t have to think. With this book, I have to find a way of talking about it and there’s so much I don’t know. I did write it very fast, really. And I haven’t talked much about it because there was a pandemic, so I did like three interviews in Norway, three in Sweden, one in Denmark, and that was it. Which is great.

TM: You don’t read anything written about you, right?

KOK: No, I don’t.

TM: So, I can do whatever I want with this.

KOK: Yeah.

TM: Is it easy to avoid pieces about yourself?

KOK: It’s easy, but sometimes there is a headline, often reviews come out like two weeks before the book, and I’m not prepared. Then I know, okay, it’s a shit review or whatever. But I don’t feel curious anymore. It’s very, very good not to read it. Even the good stuff is terrible. It’s such a good thing to do, not to read about yourself.

Bonus Links:
A Complete Visual Map of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ‘My Struggle’
You’re Not a Real Writer Until You Have Enemies: The Millions Interviews Karl Ove Knausgaard
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Seasons Quartet Is a Raw Journey through the Writing Process
Karl Ove Knausgaard Shows You What Makes Life Worth Living
Devoutly to Be Wished: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Consummation

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Rooney, Tóibín, Groff, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Sally Rooney, Colm Tóibín, Lauren Groff, 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 become a member today.
Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Beautiful World, Where Are You: “Rooney (Normal People) continues her exploration of class, sex, and mental health with a cool, captivating story about a successful Irish writer, her friend, and their lovers. Alice Kelleher, 29, has suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of her work’s popularity. After moving from Dublin to a small seaside town, she meets Felix, a local with a similar background—they both grew up working-class, and both have absent fathers—who works in a shipping warehouse. She invites him to accompany her to Rome, where he falls in love with her but resents what he takes to be her superior attitude. Meanwhile, in Dublin, Alice’s university friend Eileen Lydon works a low-paying literary job and explores her attraction to a childhood friend who seems to return her feelings but continues seeing other women. Alice and Eileen update each other in long emails, which Rooney cleverly exploits for essayistic musings about culture, climate change, and political upheaval. Rooney establishes a distance from her characters’ inner lives, creating a sense of privacy even as she describes Alice and Eileen’s most intimate moments. It’s a bold change to her style, and it makes the illuminations all the more powerful when they pop. As always, Rooney challenges and inspires.”

The Magician by Colm Tóibín

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Magician: “The Booker-shortlisted Tóibín (House of Names) unfurls an expansive fictional biography of Thomas Mann, a Nobel laureate who was devoted to family, obsessed with physical beauty, and driven by desire. Tóibín draws on excerpts from Mann’s diary entries, exposing unrequited loves and erotic encounters with male classmates and boarders as a young man in Lübeck, Germany, around the turn of the 20th century. The Mann who emerges in these pages is a man led by dangerous impulses and constantly pursued by the ‘lure of death and the seductive charm of timeless beauty’ who creates a thinly veiled depiction of a merchant family from Lübeck in Buddenbrooks, records his hypersexual attraction to a young Polish boy in Death in Venice, and draws from his visits to his ailing tubercular wife at a sanatorium for The Magic Mountain. An academic sojourn in Princeton and worldwide lecture tours lead a U.S. State Department official to tell him, ‘after Einstein, you are the most important German alive.’ But a series of traumatic events including several suicides (siblings and two of his six children) compound the effects of the wars and his struggles with his sexuality, and he goes into exile in the Pacific Palisades. The glory of music dominates much of the novel—the strains of Wagner’s Lohengrin; the ‘collision between bombast and subtlety’ of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony; and the glow said to have radiated from Bach when his music was performed, which Mann aspires to replicate in prose. This vibrates with the strength of Mann’s visions and the sublimity of Tóibín’s mellifluous prose. Tóibín has surpassed himself.”

Matrix by Lauren Groff

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Matrix: “Groff (Florida) fashions a boldly original narrative based on the life and legend of 12th-century poet Marie de France. After Marie is banished to a poverty-stricken British abbey by Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine at age 17 in 1158, she transforms from a reluctant prioress into an avid abbess. With the rhythm of days and nights regulated by the canonical hours from Lauds to Prime, from Compline to bed, Marie reshapes the claustrophobic community into a ‘self-sufficient… island of women,’ where ‘a woman’s power exists only as far as she is allowed.’ To that end, she confesses a series of 19 beatific visions that guide her in designing an impenetrable underground labyrinth as a secret passageway to the convent, building separate abbess quarters, establishing a scriptorium, and constructing a woman-made lake and dam to insure a constant water supply. Groff fills the novel with friendships among the nuns, inspirational apparitions, and writings empowered by divine inspiration. Transcendent prose and vividly described settings bring to life historic events, from the Crusades to the papal interdict of 1208. Groff has outdone herself with an accomplishment as radiant as Marie’s visions.”

How to Wrestle a Girl by Venita Blackburn

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about How to Wrestle a Girl: “Blackburn (Black Jesus and Other Superheroes) presents a variety of Black and queer voices in this provocative collection. In ‘Bear Bear Harvest TM,’ a girl’s family members have their excess body fat siphoned and sold for food processing. In ‘Biology Class,’ a girl’s classmates bully a teacher into a breakdown. The second half of the collection follows an unnamed Black queer teen through a series of linked stories as she struggles to endure after her father’s death and her mother’s neglect. In ‘Fat,’ she reacts to a white male physician’s assistant telling her she’s fat. In ‘Dick Pic’ and ‘Black Communion,’ she ponders her mother’s relationship with a pastor who sends pictures of his penis to her sister, and in ‘Halloween,’ she and her friend Esperanza intervene after witnessing a car suspiciously follow a little girl. ‘Ground Fighting,’ one of the strongest and longest stories on offer, finds the narrator coming out to a friend. Blackburn relies a bit too much on clever forms, such as crossword puzzles and lists, which tend to feel like exercises, but many entries present well-wrought narratives of young women coming to terms with their bodies and sexuality. It’s a mixed bag, but Blackburn clearly has plenty of talent.”

On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint by Maggie Nelson

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about On Freedom: “Critic Nelson (The Argonauts) traces the limits of liberty and the call to care in this expansive and sharp-eyed study. Exploring ‘structural questions’ about freedom, Nelson exposes instances where conventional uses of the term—for instance, the ‘intensely American’ idea ‘that liberty leads to well-being’—clash with the contradictions of human nature. Skillfully reading the works of such critics as Eve Sedgewick and Hannah Arendt, Nelson outlines the complexities at the heart of her subject: the paradox of sexual freedom, for example, means ‘many of our most basic and hard-earned sexual freedoms… are legally dependent on principles of individual liberty.’ On climate change, she probes the costs of personal liberty when humans are changing the planet in ‘genocidal, geocidal’ ways. Patient and ‘devoted to radical compassion,’ Nelson turns each thought until it is finely honed and avoids binaries and bromides. While the literary theorizing is rich, this account soars in its ability to find nuance in considering questions of enormous importance: ‘We tend to grow tired of our stories over time; we tend to learn from them what they have to teach, then bore of their singular lens.’ Once again, Nelson proves herself a masterful thinker and an unparalleled prose stylist.”

Hao by Ye Chun

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Hao: “Chun’s tender and skillful debut collection explores the power and shortcomings of language for a series of Chinese women in the U.S. and China over the past three centuries. In the gripping opener, ‘Stars,’ Luyao is doing graduate studies in the U.S. when she suffers a stroke and loses the ability to speak. Her speech therapist gives her exercises in English, which reminds her of when she learned the language as a child in China, though she craves the ability to speak Chinese again. In the title story, set during the Cultural Revolution, Qingxin plays a ‘word game’ with her four-year-old daughter, Ming, tracing Chinese words on Ming’s back for her to guess their meaning. ‘Milk’ depicts a young man selling roses in an unnamed Chinese city while posting commentary on his blog about anachronisms on the streets of his purported ‘world class metropolis.’ ‘Gold Mountain’ features an abstract but vivid portrait of 1877 anti-Chinese riots in San Francisco, as a woman takes shelter above a store and tries to decipher overheard English speech. While some stories feel like exercises, serving mainly to provide connective tissue for the overarching theme, Chun consistently reveals via bold and spare prose how characters grasp onto language as a means of belonging. Not every entry is a winner, but the best of the bunch show a great deal of promise.”

The Archer by Shruti Swamy

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Archer: “Swamy’s affecting debut novel (after A House is a Body) follows a woman’s interest in dance and self-determination after growing up in poverty in 1960s Northern India. At seven, Vidya encounters a class of girls learning kathak, a form of Indian classical dance. By the time she’s in her teens, Vidya has become a dedicated kathak pupil, devoted to the ‘wild, nearly unbearable pleasure’ of dance. In college, she studies engineering while continuing to work every day with a new dance teacher from Bombay. Always set slightly apart from her peers by her poverty and intensity, Vidya is surprised by the depth of her connection to another student, the solitary and brilliant Radha. Swamy writes with keen perception of Vidya’s anger and unyielding will to dance, despite her predicament (she never forgets that she is ‘dark, overeducated, unpedigreed’). Later in the book, after Vidya’s brief romance with Radha, she marries a man from a very different socioeconomic class, a decision that further illustrates how the odds are stacked against her as a young woman attempting to live on her own terms. Swamy confidently evokes the time and place with spare, precise prose. This writer continues to demonstrate an impressive command of her craft.”

Beautiful Country by Qian Julie Wang

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Beautiful Country: “In this extraordinary debut, civil rights lawyer Wang recounts her years growing up as an undocumented immigrant living in ‘the furtive shadows’ of America. During China’s Cultural Revolution, her uncle was thrown in prison for criticizing Mao Zedong, leaving his parents and younger brother, Wang’s father, to pay for his ‘treasonous’ ways in the form of public beatings and humiliation. This fueled her father’s desire to find a better life in America, the ‘Beautiful Country.’ In China, Wang’s parents were professors, but upon arriving in New York City in 1994, their credentials were meaningless. ‘Pushing past hunger pains,’ they took menial jobs to support Wang, who worked alongside her mother in a sweatshop before starting school at age seven. During her five years in the States—’shrouded in darkness while wrestling with hope and dignity’—Wang managed to become a star student. With immense skill, she parses how her family’s illegal status blighted nearly every aspect of their life, from pushing her parents’ marriage to the brink to compromising their health. While Wang’s story of pursuing the American dream is undoubtedly timeless, it’s her family’s triumph in the face of ‘xenophobia and intolerance’ that makes it feel especially relevant today. Consider this remarkable memoir a new classic.”

The Breaks by Julietta Singh

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Breaks: “In a kind of spiritual successor to the genre-defying No Archive Will Restore You, Singh, an associate professor of English and gender studies, reveals the most intimate details of her life and politics. Using the form of a letter to her daughter, Singh offers ‘alternative histories… of those who have faced annihilation and lived toward survival’ in the face of Western capitalism’s ‘wholesale destruction of the earth,’ and criticizes the ‘dominant narratives’ that have shaped mainstream culture—such as Disney’s painting of Indigenous peoples as ‘savage’ and the white man as ‘fundamentally good’ in the movie Pocahontas. To go ‘against the grain’ of these racist depictions, Singh recalls her youth fighting discriminatory aggression as a mixed ‘Brown’ child in the ‘purportedly multicultural Canada of the 1980s,’ her lifelong endurance of bodily and medical trauma, and the home she’s created with her partner—as ‘queer collaborators’ who play ‘with what constitutes family.’ Singh has a tendency to wax academic, but that doesn’t detract from the beauty of her insights as she exquisitely links theory and poetics to her own fears, insecurities, and certainty that one day her child will need to break away from her. This is a stunning work.”

The Water Statues by Fleur Jaeggy (translated by Gini Alhadeff)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Water Statues: “In this strange and shimmering nonlinear text from Swiss writer Jaeggy (I Am the Brother of XX), the lonely children of the wealthy and their eccentric employees negotiate the boundary between companionship and solitude. In Amsterdam, Beeklam grows up with only his father, Reginald, after the death of his mother, Thelma. Reginald never remarries and lives in seclusion with his servant, Lampe, a man curiously similar to him: ‘the two men had hardly met but were in perfect agreement, two finicky little plants,’ Jaeggy observes. As an adult, Beeklam stocks the basement of his house with statues and spends more and more time with them, ‘losing control of the hours and of life.’ Beeklam, too, has only one companion: his servant, Victor. After Reginald, at 70, suddenly leaves his house and abandons Lampe, Lampe goes to work for Kaspar, another widower who was a friend of Thelma’s. Through this new connection to Kaspar and a child who lives with him and may be Kaspar’s daughter, Beeklam and Victor’s small universe grows a little larger. In short, enjoyably expressionistic sections, Jaeggy sketches the emotional lives of people marooned but not content to remain entirely alone. What emerges is a fascinating and memorable portrait of a milieu obsessed with the passing of time.”

Martita, I Remember You by Sandra Cisneros (translated by Liliana Valenzuela)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Martita, I Remember You: “In this bilingual edition (written originally in English and translated into Spanish by Liliana Valenzuela) of Cisneros’s exquisite story (after Puro Amor), a woman relives her time in Paris two decades earlier via a cache of discovered letters. At 20, Corina aspires to become a writer and escape her poor Mexican Chicago family, prompting her to travel to Paris. She meets Marta, from Chile, and Paola, from Italy, and mingles with artists, dancers, and performers. She stretches her money to stay longer, realizing, ‘I can’t go home yet. Because home is bus stops and drugstore windows, elastic bandages and hairpins, plastic ballpoints, felt bunion pads, tweezers, rat poison, cold sore ointment, mothballs, drain cleaners, deodorant.’ Back in Chicago, she holds onto a photo of herself with Marta and Paola, but swiftly loses touch with them. Decades later, she discovers a letter from Marta sent shortly after she’d left, suggesting they meet in Spain, ‘in case you’re still traveling.’ Corina speaks to Marta in her thoughts and gives the rundown of her life: divorced, remarried, two daughters. Cisneros’s language and rhythm of her prose reverberate with Corina’s longing for her youth and unfulfilled promise. The author’s fans will treasure this.”

Also on shelves this week: Heart Radical by Anne Liu Kellor, Letters to Amelia by Lindsay Zier-Vogel and Misfits by Michaela Coel.

This Thing Feels Alive: The Millions Interviews Brad Fox

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I have trouble getting books in Kyiv. Not books. There are lots of those. Most of which make me wonder if the Russian nationalists burning books in Crimea might be on to something. Check that. Flip it. They’re not on to anything. They’re just assholes. They burn books because ideas scare them and books in Ukrainian and Tatar apparently terrify them.

No, I have trouble getting physical books, in English, translated or not, that are appearing on the American market. And so, last autumn, a publisher I’d never heard of offered me a physical book from a writer I’d never heard of. I read the blurb, looked at the bio, and said yes, please send it.

The blurb was fine. But that bio: Brad Fox left the U.S. at 20; came home to get an education; left again. Came back 15 years later. An American who’d spent the better part of his adult life living in places profoundly not America, doing humanitarian work. The book, and the man behind it, drew me in, in part, because their very existence—both the book’s and the man’s—cuts against the grain of a whole slew of American political and cultural orthodoxies.

And after several hours on Skype with Fox, I found out that being angry, hyperbolic, or revolutionary are not required for great prose when intelligence will suffice. In fact, I’d say the former are counterproductive to writing this strong. Particularly, when it’s a book that is destined to challenge the pieties of anyone who picks it up the way this one will.

The publisher is Rescue Press. The writer—for those just tuning in—is Brad Fox. The novel is To Remain Nameless. And for the hours spent on SKYPE chewing on every bizarre question I threw his way; for a talk that offered serious balm for the sting that comes from getting my hands on only a half-dozen physical books worth reading every year; for offering up his authentic, experienced perspective, I am grateful. Below is some of what we talked about.

The Millions: So, elephant in the room. The audacity of a man writing a woman protagonist with another, pregnant, woman as her foil…no worries about criticisms of appropriation?

Brad Fox: It came from hearing stories about birth. I don’t have kids. I was present at one birth. The parents were very close friends of mine, I helped them get to the hospital and they pulled me into the room. That’s the extent of my personal experience, other than being born myself. But I am married to a woman who worked as a birth doula. She assisted at around 40 births. She’d get a call that one of her clients was going into labor, she’d grab her kit and rush off. She’d come home 36 hours later, euphoric from sleep deprivation. And she had a routine—it didn’t matter if it was 9 a.m., she’d buy herself a couple of beers and half a rotisserie chicken. She’d show up, eat and drink, and tell me what happened. The stories of the births themselves were fascinating, how the woman made it through the process, the body versus the medical system. Then there were the other people around. Partners, family members, everyone pushed to the limit until all their defenses fall away. Who are they? And what do they see at that moment? I thought it was a perfect frame for a story. It forces all kinds of questions about life and meaning. I started looking around to see what had been done with birth narratives. There was the birth scene in Anna Karenina, and some other scattered scenes, but not a book where a birth is the narrative device. But I thought about all that later. First I just woke up one morning and wrote a couple of pages with no plan. The premise came into focus, and I thought: this thing feels alive.

TM: I’ve lived in the post-Soviet space for a quarter century, I’m required to ask: You would be opposed to a proscriptive approach to modes of expression in literature?

BF: I guess you mean the way identity is used to forbid certain kinds of writing or storytelling? There are good reasons why positionality needs to be examined. And there are reasons some people can travel more easily than others. Power dynamics are always involved. But that doesn’t mean you’re not allowed even to try to enter how somebody else thinks or feel how somebody else feels, that it’s impossible to write from the perspective of anyone who’s not strictly who you are.

TM: But, a man, you’re on some foreign soil there, no?

BF: There’s baggage in every identity. If I only write about men, that’s unbearable and wrong. Taking on another perspective is fraught, which means you have to devise an ethics about it. I did a lot of interviewing to get the birthing stuff right. I revisited the hospital ward where it was set. I asked a few writer friends who are mothers to read the book and give me notes. There’s one detail that’s inaccurate.

TM: And that is?

BF: I’d rather not say. But I’m curious if anyone spots it.

TM: I wanted to be there when my sons were born. But if that delivery scene is accurate, I wouldn’t have lasted five minutes. Didn’t matter. Ukraine is pretty traditional: No men allowed in the room. Three cheers for tradition.

BF: I wanted it to be accurate and also graphic. Because it’s the confrontation with extreme bodily reality that sets the book in motion. Most of the book takes place in the mind and memory of the birthing woman’s friend—a woman who doesn’t want to have children, who’s disillusioned with humanity, a misanthrope. To have her faced with the reality of a new child, but before that, the struggle, the smells, the weird light. What does that do to her?

TM: So, no hesitation to write about a character whose circumstances you could never fully embody?

I can’t say I did it without hesitation. I thought about the reasons. But the reasons to do it were much more interesting than the reasons not to. I spent a lot of time imagining having a different body. I knew I would need help to get it right, and that in itself was a compelling challenge. I haven’t always decided to go ahead with things.

TM: You have suppressed your own work?

BF: Yes, I have, for various reason. Abandoned things or decided not to show them around.

TM: But To Remain Nameless is different?

BF: Who knows! But I wrote it and the people at Rescue liked it. It was important to me that the editor was a woman. And it’s a book that comes from legitimate concerns, from a sense of what kind of questions a narrative operating on different levels can ask.

TM: To Remain Nameless: That title has some deep roots. Care to elaborate?

BF: I’m a student of apophatic theology. It’s an orientation toward what lies beyond thought and language. It’s more of a disposition than a way of thought. It’s a way of engaging the divine through negation, through terminal dissatisfaction with any linguistic structure. I spend a lot of time trying to read Ibn ‘Arabi, the great Andalusian visionary writer. But also Plotinus, Pseudo-Dionysius. Many others.

TM: Pseudo-Dionysius! He’s always reminded me of Sgt. Schultz from Hogan’s Heroes. You know: “I know nothing! I see nothing!”

BF: Please explain.

TM: I’m talking about absence: where else in contemporary fiction can we read an informed perspective that incorporates apophatic theology? What the Old Book describes as “the Spirit interceding in groans that words cannot express.” Mourning in contemporary fiction is typically a device—a decorative bauble, maudlin, self-pitying, not like this—it’s central to her dilemma.

BF: These are two different things. You’re right that here mourning is inseparable from beauty and human connection, the richness of life, but that’s not what I mean by an orientation beyond thought. Apophasis is a matter of using language to point beyond itself, endlessly, endlessly, so there’s a forward momentum in that. Or there might appear to be at times.

TM: Yet her assessment of her ontogeny is pretty harsh. You’re sure she’s no pessimist? Even a nihilist?

BF: She’s someone who’s seen the worst of human nature, now staring into a birthing body. Also holding on and trying to help in whatever way she can. Here is her closest friend in the world engaged in the continuation of life, which she herself has turned away from. It’s a genuine mystery to her.

TM: But the self-abnegation inherent in the work, the self-flagellation of working for an NGO, the suggestion that, well, I have this or that capacity so who cares what happens to me as long as the job gets done? Not nihilism?

BF: There wasn’t much self-flagellation among the NGO workers I knew. It was a pretty hedonistic life. A lot of burn out. But that’s something else. For her, yes, there’s a self-abnegating impetus to serve. She understands the neocolonial reality of what’s happening, sees herself implicated, and sees that any intervention may do more harm than good. Still, the concerns are immediate, and that compels her to keep at it. What else can she do?

TM: How significantly has your own experience internationally, seeing the results of the blind spots in U.S. foreign policy, bled into the writing?

BF: I left the U.S. at the beginning of my 20s. I knew nothing at all. I practically grew up in the Balkans. My sensibility was formed in Sarajevo and Belgrade and later in Cairo and Syria and Mexico and Istanbul. Often, U.S. foreign policy was a matter of life and death. I never went to Iraq, but what the U.S. unleashed with the invasion was the definitive event of the era. I moved back to the U.S. after 15 years away, which turned out to be the 10th anniversary of 9-11. It was a harsh reminder that though U.S. foreign policy may be a matter of life and death elsewhere, within the country there is little awareness of it. That fall of 2011, there were celebrations of veterans’ experiences, the trauma hero, and a sense of victimhood—what happened to us, what we’d been through—but no acknowledgment that the U.S. had rained ordnance on the rest of the world for a decade, causing permanent damage. We had perpetrated outrageous violence. There’s still been no reckoning with that.

TM: It’s like bad clams for lunch: eventually they’re going to come back up. Is that, in part, what’s happening now in the U.S., in this reconsideration of its own history?

BF: I do think the Trump phenomenon is an effect of decades of lies and denials about history and the effects of recent policies.

TM: And yet, in the book you avoid any explicit politicization of your argument. Your character’s politics aren’t ideological, partisan, but pragmatic.

BF: This book is driven by bodily knowledge, by staying close to granular realities. She sees, as anyone would, the damage all over the globe. That’s not a polemic, it’s simply the world. The novel gives space to talk about love and friendship and quotidian struggles and health issues and also politics and mortality in an open-ended way. And to see how all that mixes with desire and pleasure and humor. There are passages that are just following an energetic impulse, like dynamics in music.

TM: So, not a fan of manifestos posing as fiction?

BF: I participated in the movement to oust a group of corrupt politicians from the New York State Senate a couple of years ago. If you want to make changes in policy—and it’s a worthy pursuit, activist movements, criminal justice reform, all of it—you need to do the work of politics. Which is tireless, usually thankless, but social. Novel writing is something else.

TM: A couple more? First, the pain. Why was To Remain Nameless not picked up by a big house?

BF: I had the same question! Querying is so demoralizing. How many times can you hear “I don’t know how to sell this”? But there’s a big world of small presses in the U.S. People who are engaged, who care. For love not money. It’s not a cultural desert; it’s just hard to connect. And then Hilary Plum at Rescue Press saw it. So careful and astute, so beautiful in her attention to it. In my experience that’s really rare.

TM: A story question: That scene where Laura and Tess go out drinking in Istanbul with a couple of Swedish NGO financial guys. Is this the single greatest scene written in contemporary American literature in the last decade? Or just one of the greatest?

BF: Ha! There’s a kind of euphoria in that scene. The frustration of working in the international sector builds up until you have this kind of ecstatic release.

TM: The kiss that follows a piss. You wandering into magical realism?

BF: No, I think it’s real. You do piss out reports and meaningless tax documents, files that no one at headquarters is going to read. They are in your body until you pass them. And then—ahhhh—you feel better!

TM: Indeed, a protagonist at the breaking point but still with so much to offer. Decidedly hopeful, no?

BF: I mean, the oceans are rising, how could you bring a life into this twisted, unjust place? That’s part of her conundrum. It’s the contemplative space of the book. Its structure puts grace, faith, and the hope for something better under pressure and it’s for us to see what comes of that.

TM: A comment, not a question. I’m a snob and the stuff I like to read has to be really good. So, big house, schmig house. To Remain Nameless is a strong, thoughtful read. Honor is due.

BF: That’s gratifying to hear. Thanks.

September Preview: The Millions Most Anticipated (This Month)

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We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around). Here’s what we’re looking out for this month. Let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments!
Want to know about the books you might have missed? 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.
Palmares by Gayl Jones: A signal event in publishing, this is the first of five of Jones’s new novels to be published after 20 years without a new book from the brilliant author of Corregidora, among other novels. (Read more about Jones’s career in this piece by Calvin Baker.) Palmares is a sprawling story set in 17th-century Brazil, and follows an enslaved woman named Almeyda who escapes to a fugitive slave settlement and embarks on a journey to find her lost husband. Imani Perri says that Jones’s work “represents a watershed in American literature. From a literary standpoint, her form is impeccable; from a historical standpoint, she stands at the very cutting edge of understanding the modern world, and as a Black woman writer, her truth-telling, filled with beauty, tragedy, humor, and incisiveness, is unmatched. Jones is a writer’s writer, and her influence is found everywhere.” (Lydia)
Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead: Anyone who’s read the author’s The Colossus of New York knows no one writes more expansively and lovingly about New York City than Whitehead. Reminiscent of the work of Chester Himes, Harlem Shuffle starts with a heist and plays out in a beautifully recreated New York City of the early 1960s. A family saga, a genre-bending a social novel about race and power, and ultimately a love letter to New York, particularly Harlem. (Marie)
On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint by Maggie Nelson: Nelson returns to her signature blend of theory, scholarship, criticism, and personal revelation with a meditation on the thorny word “freedom,” and what it means in the world we live in today. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly writes, “Once again, Nelson proves herself a masterful thinker and an unparalleled prose stylist.” (Lydia)

The Spectacular by Zoe Whittall: Whittall’s third novel, The Best Kind of People, was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. She’s also a screenwriter with credits like The Baroness Von Sketch Show and Schitt’s Creek. This novel tells the story of a 22-year-old woman named Missy who is in a famous band; her mother, Carola, who is recovering from a sex scandal at a yoga center; and grandmother Ruth, who is 83 when Missy winds up crashing at her house. The three stories weave around questions about motherhood: what if you regretted it? Kristen Arnett says, “Whittall addresses motherhood and autonomy in ways I’ve never seen done before.” (Claire)

Bewilderment by Richard Powers: Powers follows The Overstory with a family story, which is also an earth story, about an astrobiologist struggling to raise his angry nine-year-old in the wake of his mother’s death, including using an experimental treatment that involves using the recorded patterns of her brain. In a starred review, Kirkus calls the novel a “taut ecological parable…A touching novel that offers a vital message with uncommon sympathy and intelligence.” (Lydia)
Matrix by Lauren Groff: Groff’s highly anticipated first new novel since Fates and Furies tackles the desire, creativity, and vision of women following “Marie of France” (based on based on 12th-century poet Marie de France) in an arc that covers actual historic event from the Crusades to the papal interdict of 1208. (Marie)

The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki: The marvelous Ozeki—novelist, filmmaker, and Buddhist priest—publishes her first novel since A Tale for the Time Being. The new book is the story of Benny Oh, who hears voices—the voices of things that surround him, voices that become more and more insistent as his life becomes more and more chaotic. With her characteristic charm, empathy, and perspicacity, Ozeki writes Benny’s story of learning to hear, and manage, the voices, and hear himself along the way. David Mitchell says “This compassionate novel of life, love and loss glows in the dark. Its strange, beautiful pages turn themselves. If you’ve lost your way with fiction over the last year or two, let The Book of Form and Emptiness light your way home.” (Lydia)

The Archer by Shruti Swamy: Following her collection of short stories, A House Is a Body, which Kiese Laymon called “one of the greatest short story collections of the 2020s,” Swamy returns with a novel set in the Bombay of the 1960s and 1970s, following a young woman named Vidya as she pursues the art form of Kathak, an exacting dance, and confronts the dilemmas that pit art against the demands of wifehood in her time and place. C Pam Zhang called the novel “lush and sensual, tasted and felt, with striking images that play out like film behind the eyes. Swamy evokes an India that resists flat stereotype and teems with exuberance, beauty, and life. The Archer is timeless yet utterly modern as it asks what it means for a woman to make a life of art.” (Lydia)
Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr: In 2014, Doerr’s breakout World War II novel All the Light We Cannot See managed to package abstruse physics and a sympathetic young Nazi into a thinking person’s literary thriller that dominated the bestseller lists for months. Seven years later, Doerr is back with another history-driven tale of a long-lost Greek manuscript, which turns up in the library of a spaceship seeking a habitable planet in the 22nd century. Other chapters take place during the 1453 siege of Constantinople and in present-day Idaho. “This is a marvel,” says an early review in Publishers Weekly. (Michael)
How to Wrestle a Girl by Venita Blackburn: The second collection by the author of Black Jesus and Other Superheroes is a series of fiercely observant stories, many of which follow a teenage girl in the aftermath of her father’s death. Set in Southern California, these stories follow her as she grapples with her emerging queer identity, along with the challenges of her life at school and her kinetic and complicated family. In other stories, we see a class of teenagers torment their teacher to the point of mental collapse, as well as another story in which a different group of teens devise a scheme to sell their excess fat and skin. (Thom)

Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney: The most widely read, discussed, and argued-about literary novelist of the last five years, Sally Rooney, returns in September with Beautiful World, Where Are You. The contours will sound familiar to anyone versed in Rooneyana: a quartet of friends—Alice, Felix, Eileen, and Simon—travel, have sex, worry about having sex, worry about themselves and their friendships and aging into adulthood in a very uncertain world. But while Rooney’s plot contrivances may occasionally, at least in summary, seem pat and prefab, her keen and tersely delivered observations about the follies of youth, sex, and friendships never are. (Adam Price)
Chronicles from the Happiest People on Earth by Wole Soyinka: The first new novel in 50 years from the Nobel laureate in literature. Chronicles, the third novel from Soyinka, best known for his award-winning plays and poetry (and life of essential political activism), is part whodunit, part social indictment, and as powerful as anything that came before. A Nigerian doctor realizes someone is selling body parts from his hospital for use in ritualistic practices, and with the help of an old friend, he begins to search for the thief—but neither realizes how far the search will take them. Toni Morrison once praised Soyinka, saying “You don’t see things the same when you encounter a voice like that,” and here that voice still has all of its power, wit, beauty, and purpose. (Kaulie)
Harrow by Joy Williams: This novel, Williams’s first in two decades, follows the unlikely (and aged) rebels who sabotage corporations for their complicity in environmental destruction. Who better than Williams to capture pure-hearted but absurd efforts to retrieve paradise lost? (Nick M.)

Misfits by Michaela Coel: I May Destroy You was some of the most powerful television I have seen in recent years, an incredible exploration of trauma, violence, work, friendship, social media, and art (complete with a storyline about writers’ block). Subtitled A Personal Manifesto, Misfits is a book from Coel, who is both the brilliant mind behind the show and its star, built off the MacTaggart Lecture she delivered at the Edinburgh International Television Festival. Coel weaves stories of her own life with a call to honesty and action for everyone who has struggled to fit in. (Lydia)

Martita, I Remember You by Sandra Cisneros (translated by Liliana Valenzuela): The legendary Cisneros returns with a novel published as a dual English-Spanish edition, a story of a woman who leaves her Mexican American family in Chicago and spends wild young days in Paris, forming a friendship with two other women that resurfaces years later with the chance discovery of an old letter. (Lydia)

The Wrong End of the Telescope by Rabih Alameddine: National Book Award finalist Alameddine’s sixth novel tells the story of Mina Simpson, a Lebanese doctor and trans woman who travels to the Greek island of Lesbos to provide aid at an infamous refugee camp. For decades, Mina has avoided traveling so close to her homeland, but she decided to visit the camp to accomplish something meaningful. But when she meets Sumaiya, a Syrian woman with terminal liver cancer, and tries to chart a course of treatment with the limited resources on the island, she’s forced to reckon with the scale of the migrants’ suffering, along with as her own limitations. (Thom)
A Calling for Charlie Barnes by Joshua Ferris: Acclaimed novelist and short story writer Ferris returns in 2021 with A Calling for Charlie Barnes. Charlie Barnes, a multiply divorced romantic and schemer whose hopes for delivery are dashed by the financial crisis and a medical disaster, gets one more chance for redemption in the form of his storytelling son. Ferris is one of the master chroniclers of our declining American empire and spirit—his special gift is delivering the bad news with both laughs and an enormous amount of empathy that, at his best, recalls the work of Emerson and Thoreau. In the words of Dana Spiotta, “Joshua Ferris is one of our best writers, and A Calling for Charlie Barnes is wonderful: fast and deep, urgent and brilliant. Ingeniously written, it had me up reading late into the night. A hilarious, intimate, and scathing takedown of so many American vanities.” (Adam Price)
The Water Statues by Fleur Jaeggy (translated by Gini Alhadeff): Even when considered alongside Jaeggy’s other singular and slim novels, The Water Statues is a peculiar book. Within, Jaeggy tells the story of family and isolation, and the inheritance of loneliness and emotional poverty that accompanies wealth (in line with Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, though that’s where comparisons end). This “strange and shimmering nonlinear text” is voluptuous yet melancholic and austere. Which seems in line with Jaeggy’s profession that, “One should be in one’s own void. Void is silence. Solitude. An absence of relationships…The void is a plant that must continually be watered.” (Anne)

The Magician by Colm Tóibín: Scribner describes Tóibín’s most recent project as “a stunning marriage of research and imagination” in this, his exploration of the life and art of Thomas Mann. Tóibín’s refined gift is about as perfect a match as could be imagined for the construction of a nuanced portrait of a complicated man and artist living in a complex period of modern history. (Il’ja)

Heart Radical by Anne Liu Kellor: Kellor’s memoir describes her travels through China as a young multiracial woman, relaying her years living in China, falling in love, speaking her mother tongue, working, traveling, and searching for what called her to a place that is both familiar and not. Cheryl Strayed said of the memoir, “I loved this book. It’s vulnerable, searching, insightful, riveting and beautifully written.” (Lydia)

Hao by Ye Chun: A collection of stories that take place in China and America within the Chinese Diaspora, spanning time and place and focusing on the lives and struggles of women as they wrestle with everything that attends migration, motherhood, and personhood. Lynn Steger Strong says of the collection, “Each of these stories is an individual world brought to life fully by the particularity of its language, by Ye’s extraordinarily far-reaching and deeply felt imagination, combined with her consistently stunning acuity and control.” (Lydia)

Kaya Days by Carl de Souza (translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman): Named for the days of protest and mourning that followed the death of Mauritian musician Joseph Réginald Topize, or Kaya, at the hands of police, the debut novel by de Souza follows a woman through Mauritius as she searches for her missing brother, delineating the many intersecting worlds of the island nation at a revolutionary moment. J.M.G. Le Clézio calls the novel “a searing, urgent, far-seeing dispatch that imprints the reality of Mauritius, at odds with its picture-postcard views, on the global consciousness. Carl de Souza is a formidable voice in Mauritian literature; his account is an indictment and a plea for understanding among its communities.” (Lydia)
The Morning Store by Karl Ove Knausgaard (translated by Martin Aitken): The mega-popular Norwegian author’s latest novel centers on a cast of characters who witness a bizarre astronomical phenomenon. On a normal night in August, a group of tangentially related people in the Norwegian resort town of Sørlandet watch as a massive star suddenly appears in the night sky. No one—including the astronomers—knows just what the star is or why it appeared. The days wear on, unusual and baffling things begin to occur, and the characters grapple with these events and their impact on their lives. (Thom)
Inter State by José Vadi: As award-winning writer Vadi examines California with anger and love in his first essay collection, he centers the ever-changing Golden State and includes wildfires, dive bars, the tech industry, farmwork, decay, and wealth. Nina Renata Aron describes Vadi as an “ethnographer-on-a-skateboard” and Publishers Weekly describes the book as “part love letter, part indictment.” Vadi’s writing style has received much advanced praise: Kirkus says that “at a line level, the book is outstanding, filled with long, breathless sentences, innovative syntax,” and Melissa Valentine recommends that “with smart prose and daring form, these are perfect essays for our complicated times.” (Zoë)

Margaret and the Mystery of the Missing Body by Megan Milks: Margaret, the once head dectective of the Girls Can Solve Anything club, is at a major crossroads in her life: her friends have abandoned her; she’s developed an all-consuming eating disorder; and she would rather solve cases than grow up. When she enters inpatient treatment for her anorexia, Margaret dusts off her dectective skills to solve mysteries—including, and especially, how to live and grow and become the person you’re meant to be. About Milks’ genre-bending debut novel, Torrey Peters writes: “What if all those nineties book series about girlhood had been truly honest about the process of growing up? You’d get this wonderful book: a comforting facade that opens into an entrancing and wildly innovative gut-renovation of the genre, with an interior that lays bare the hidden workings of life I wish I’d known on my own first run through adolescence. Brilliant.” (Carolyn)

The Body Scout by Lincoln Michel: Set in a distant (and increasingly possible) future devastated by climate change and endless pandemics, Kobo—a body-hacker who works as a baseball scout for Big Phrama-owne baseball teams—is struggling. When his brother is murdered on the baseball field, Kobo dives into a dangerous and corrupt underworld to hunt down the killer. “This novel is delightful in its brio and sharp as a tack in its inventiveness—and yet its greatest, most poignant gift is in asking: What does it mean to inhabit a body? A superb read,” says Esmé Weijun Wang. (Carolyn).

Letters to Amelia by Lindsay Zier-Vogel: Zier-Vogel’s debut novel follows 30-year-old Grace Porter, who is grieving the sudden end of her longterm relationship, as she discovers the love letters between Amelia Earhart and her lover, Gene Vidal. After Grace discovers she’s pregnant, she begins writing her own letters to Amelia—and searching for answers as to what happened to the infamous pilot. Jon McGregor calls Letters to Amelia “a wonderful novel about flight and passion, about love-letters and reaching out; a novel about how we never know quite what’s coming next, but still keep launching ourselves into the blue tomorrow.” (Carolyn)

Assembly by Natasha Brown: Assembly’s young, successful, Black protagonist is wondering how she can take control of her life while navigating a toxic career, contemplating her relationship with her wealthy white boyfriend, and worrying over potential life-or-death decision. Brown’s debut novel is a slim but affecting portrayal of the race, class, and sexual politics in contemporary Britain. Booker winner Bernardine Evaristo says: “Natasha Brown’s exquisite prose, daring structure and understated elegance are utterly captivating. She is a stunning new writer.” (Carolyn)

Other Girls to Burn by Caroline Crew: Winner of the Sue William Silverman Prize in Creative Nonfiction, Crew’s essay collection blends cultural criticism and personal essay to  explore the relationship between women and violence. Alexander Chee, who selected the collection for the prize, says: “The world turns in Crew’s vision, essay by essay, renewed or revealed in ways only she can provide, and all of it brought to us in a voice I’d follow into any topic—propulsive, lyrical, able to turn on a dime, as the expression goes. . . . An unforgettable debut. ” (Carolyn)

Beautiful Country by Qian Julie Wang: In her debut, coming-of-age memoir, Wang writes about moving to and living in New York City as an undocumented immigrant—as her family seeks out the ever-present and alluring American Dream. “Beautiful Country is the real deal,” writes Gish Jen. “Heartrending, unvarnished, and powerfully courageous, this account of growing up undocumented in America will never leave you.” (Carolyn)

The Breaks by Julietta Singh: In her newest work of nonfiction, Singh (No Archive Will Restore You) writes a gorgeous and poetic letter to her six-year-old daughter about everything from late-stage capitalism and climate change to queer families and parenting “at the end of the world.” Publishers Weekly’s starred review calls the slim books “a stunning work.” (Carolyn)

Circles of the Damned

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Maybe during this broiling summer you’ve seen the footage—in one striking video, women and men stand dazed on a boat sailing away from the Greek island of Evia, watching as ochre flames consume their homes in the otherwise dark night. Similar hellish scenes are unfolding in Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya, as well as in Turkey and Spain. Currently Siberia is experiencing the largest wildfire in recorded history, an unlikely place for such a conflagration, joined by large portions of Canada. As California burns, the global nature of our immolation is underscored by horrific news around the world, a demonstration of the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Report on Climate Change’s conclusion that such disasters are “unequivocally” anthropogenic, with the authors signaling a “code red” for the continuation of civilization. On Facebook, the mayor of a town in Calabria mourned that “We are losing our history, our identity is turning to ashes, our soul is burning,” and though he was writing specifically about the fires raging in southern Italy, it’s a diagnosis for a dying world as well.

Seven centuries ago, another Italian wrote in The Divine Comedy, “Abandon all hope ye who enter here,” which seems just as applicable in 2021 as it did in 1221. That exiled Florentine had similar visions of conflagration, describing how “Above that plain of sand, distended flakes/of fire showered down; their fall was slow –/as snow descends on alps when no wind blows… when fires fell, /intact and to the ground.” This September sees the 700th anniversary of both the completion of The Divine Comedy and the death of its author Dante Alighieri. But despite the chasms of history that separate us, his writing about how “the never-ending heat descended” holds a striking resonance. During our supposedly secular age, the singe of the inferno feels hotter when we’ve pushed our planet to the verge of apocalyptic collapse. Dante, you must understand, is ever applicable in our years of plague and despair, tyranny and treachery.

People are familiar with The Divine Comedy’s tropes even if they’re unfamiliar with Dante. Because all of it—the flames and sulphur, the mutilations and the shrieks, the circles of the damned and the punishments fitted to the sin, the descent into subterranean perdition and the demonic cacophony—find their origin with him. Neither Reformation nor revolution has dispelled the noxious fumes from inferno. There must be a distinction between the triumphalist claim that Dante says something vital about the human condition, and the objective fact that in some ways Dante actually invented the human condition (or a version of it).  When watching the videos of people escaping from Evia, it took me several minutes to understand what it was that I was looking at, and yet those nightmares have long existed in our culture, as Dante gave us a potent vocabulary to describe Hell centuries ago. For even to deny Hell is to deny something first completely imagined by a Medieval Florentine.

Son of a prominent family, enmeshed in conflicts between the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire, a respected though ultimately exiled citizen, Dante resided far from the shores of modernity, though the broad contours of his poem, with its visceral conjurations of the afterlife, are worth repeating. “Midway upon the journey of our life/I found myself within a forest dark,” Dante famously begins. At the age of 35, Dante descends into the underworld, guided by the ancient Roman poet Virgil and sustained by thoughts of his platonic love for the lady Beatrice. That Inferno constitutes only the first third of The Divine Comedy—subsequent sections consider Purgatory and Heaven—yet that it is the most read, speaks to something cursedly intrinsic in us. The poet descends like Orpheus, Ulysses, and Christ before him deep into the underworld, journeying through nine concentric circles, each more brutal than the previous. Perdition is a space of “sighs and lamentations and loud cries” filled with “Strange utterances, horrible pronouncements, /accents of anger, words of suffering, /and voice shrill and faint and beating hands” who are buffeted “forever through that turbid, timeless air, /like sand that eddies when a whirlwind swirls.” Cosmology is indistinguishable from ethics, so that each circle was dedicated to particular sins: the second circle is reserved for crimes of lust, the third to those of gluttony, the fourth to greed, the wrathful reside in the fifth circle, the sixth is domain of the heretics, the seventh is for the violent, all those guilty of fraud live in the eighth, and at the very bottom that first rebel Satan is eternally punished alongside all traitors.

Though The Divine Comedy couldn’t help but reflect the concerns of Dante’s century, he still formulated a poetics of damnation so tangible and disturbing that it’s still the measure of hellishness, wherein he “saw one/Rent from the chin to where one breaks wind. /Between his legs were hanging down his entrails;/His heart was visible, and the dismal sack/That makes excrement of what is eaten.” Lest it be assumed that this is simply sadism, Dante is cognizant of how gluttony, envy, lust, wrath, sloth, covetousness, and pride could just as easily reserve him a space. Which is part of his genius; Dante doesn’t just describe Hell, which in its intensity provides an unparalleled expression of pain, but he also manifests a poetry of justice, where he’s willing to implicate himself (even while placing several of his own enemies within the circles of the damned). 

No doubt the tortures meted out—being boiled alive for all eternity, forever swept up in a whirlwind, or masticated within the freezing mouth of Satan—are monstrous. The poet doesn’t disagree—often he expresses empathy for the condemned. But the disquiet that we and our fellow moderns might feel is in part born out of a broad theological movement that occurred over the centuries in how people thought about sin. During the Reformation, both Catholics and Protestants began to shift the model of what sin is away from the Seven Deadly Sins, and towards the more straightforward Ten Commandments. For sure there was nothing new about the Decalogue, and the Seven Deadly Sins haven’t exactly gone anywhere, but what took hold—even subconsciously—was a sense that sins could be reduced to a list of literal injunctions. Don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t murder. Because we often think of sin as simply a matter of broken rules, the psychological acuity of Dante can be obscured. But the Seven Deadly Sins are rather more complicated—we all have to eat, but when does it become gluttony? We all have to rest, but when is that sloth?

An interpretative brilliance of the Seven Deadly Sins is that they explain how an excess of otherwise necessary human impulses can pervert us. Every human must eat; most desire physical love; we all need the regeneration of rest—but when we slide into gluttony, lust, sloth, and so on, it can feel as if we’re sliding into the slime that Dante describes. More than a crime, sin is a mental state which causes pain—both within the person who is guilty and to those who suffer because of those actions. In Dante’s portrayal of the stomach-dropping, queasy, nauseous, never-ending uncertainty of the damned’s lives, the poet conveys a bit of their inner predicament. The Divine Comedy isn’t some punitive manual, a puritan’s little book of punishments. Rather than a catalogue of what tortures match which crimes, Dante’s book expresses what sin feels like. Historian Jeffrey Burton Russell writes in Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages how in hell “we are weighted down by sin and stupidity… we sink downward and inward… narrowly confined and stuffy, our eyes gummed shut and our vision turned within ourselves, drawn down, heavy, closed off from reality, bound by ourselves to ourselves, shut in and shut off… angry, hating, and isolated.”

If such pain were only experienced by the guilty, that would be one thing, but sin effects all within the human community who suffer as a result of pride, greed, wrath, and so on. There is a reason why the Seven Deadly Sins are what they are. In a world of finite resources, to valorize the self above all others is to take food from the mouths of the hungry, to hoard wealth that could be distributed to the needy, to claim vengeance as one’s own when it is properly the purview of society, to enjoy recreation upon the fruits of somebody else’s labor, to reduce another human being to a mere body, to covet more than you need, or to see yourself as primary and all others as expendable. Metaphor is the poem’s currency, and what’s more real than the intricacies of how organs are pulled from orifices is how sin—that disconnect between the divine and humanity—is experienced. You don’t need to believe in a literal hell—I don’t—to see what’s radical in Dante’s vision. What Inferno offers isn’t just grotesque descriptions, increasingly familiar though they may be on our warming planet, but also a model of thinking about responsibility to each other in a connected world.

Such is the feeling of the anonymous authors of the 2018 anarchist manifesto The Invisible Committee—a surprise hit when published in France—who opined that “No bonds are innocent” in our capitalist era, for “We are already situated within the collapse of a civilization,” structuring their tract around the circles of Dante’s inferno. Since its composition, The Divine Comedy has run like a molten vein through culture both rarefied and popular; from being considered by T.S. Eliot, Samuel Becket, Primo Levi, and Dereck Walcott, to being referenced in horror films, comic books, and rock music. Allusion is one thing, but what we can see with our eyes is another—as novelist Francine Prose writes in The Guardian, those images of people fleeing from Greek wildfires are “as if Dante filmed the Inferno on his iPhone.” For centuries artists have mined Inferno for raw materials, but now in the sweltering days of the Anthropocene we are enacting it. To note that our present appears as a place where Hell has been pulled up from the bowels of the earth is a superficial observation, for though Dante presciently gives us a sense of what perdition feels like, he crucially also provided a means to identify the wicked.

Denizens of the nine circles were condemned because they worshiped the self over everybody else; now the rugged individualism that is the heretical ethos of our age has made man-made apocalypse probable. ExxonMobil drills for petroleum in the heating Arctic and the apocalyptic QAnon cult proliferates across the empty chambers of Facebook and Twitter; civil wars are fought in the Congo over the tin, tungsten, and gold in the circuit boards of the Android you’re reading this essay with, children in Vietnam and Malaysia sew the clothing we buy at The Gap and Old Navy, and the simplest request for people to wear masks so as to protect the vulnerable goes unheeded in the name of “freedom” as our American Midas Jeff Bezos barely flies to outer space while workers in Amazon warehouses are forced to piss in bottles rather than be granted breaks. Responsibility for our predicament is unequally distributed, those in the lowest circle are the ones who belched out carbon dioxide for profit knowing full well the effects, those who promoted a culture of expendable consumerism and valorized the rich at the expense of the poor. Late capitalism’s operative commandment is to pretend that all seven of the deadly sins are virtues. Literary scholar R.W.B. Lewis describes the “Dantean principle that individuals cannot lead a truly good life unless they belong to a good society,” which means that all of us are in a lot of trouble. Right now, the future looks a lot less like paradise and more like inferno. Dante writes that “He listens well who takes notes.” Time to pay attention.

Bonus Link:—Is There a Poet Laureate of the Anthropocene?

Image Credit: Wikipedia