The Ambassadors (Penguin Classics)

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Robert Birnbaum and Darin Strauss

As is frequently the case, having met and yakked with young novelist and NYU writing mentor Darin Strauss back in 2002, on the occasion of the publication of his second novel The Real McCoy, he and I kept in touch and resumed our conversation for his 2010 memoir Half a Life. Though, for a number of reasons, Strauss' tome is not my kind of story — the memoir recounts a profound event in his life when, as a teenager, he runs into and kills a bicyclist — as Strauss is a bright, thoughtful, and engaging conversationalist, I was pleased to talk with him again. In the course of the chat that follows, we talk about this event that has been central in his life, its aftermath, why he wrote the book, readers' responses, his own post-publication conclusions, and a wide swath of topics, literary and non-literary. Robert Birnbaum: If I didn’t know you as a writer of three well-regarded novels, why would I want to read this book, a memoir? Darin Strauss: Well, I think this book [Half a Life] has had more commercial appeal than my novels. I am not a fan of memoirs in general. I am a novelist and I will remain a novelist but I think this story — I should say what it’s about. I was in a car accident in high school — I was driving in the far left lane. A young girl on a bicycle on the shoulder swerved across two lanes of traffic into my car and she died. RB: Does the sentence “I killed her” apply to this? DS: Well, yeah. That was the thing I couldn’t say for a long time. The first sentence of the book is, ”Half of my life ago I killed a girl.” Which is something it took me 20 years to be able to say. I think she was at fault but I was driving a car and hit her and she died — it's linguistic cowardice to avoid that sentence. RB: Saying you killed her doesn’t assess responsibility. Blame is a separate issue. DS: Yes, I think I blamed myself in the past more than I do now. But to answer the first question, the reason I wrote the book is because of the response I got. I did something on This American Life about the accident. Which was the first time that I had done anything publicly about it. The first time I told anyone besides the people close to me was on National Public Radio. I thought I would just do a radio thing about it, but I got hundreds of emails asking me for the text saying they thought it would help them or someone they knew who was going through some sort of grief. And so I thought I should maybe do it as a book — I was always as a kid going through this wishing there was something I could read that would help me. There isn’t anything specifically for people who are survivors of these accidents. Which police call dart-out accidents. And there are 2,000 of those a year and people who are in these dart-outs, or no fault deaths as the insurance companies call them — people who are not at fault are more likely to suffer post-traumatic stress. And so, there was no book for me and so I thought I will write a book for the 18-year-old me who didn’t have the book. And the response has been amazing. Overwhelming. I got emails from people who were coming back from Iraq suffering PTS, or someone whose brother committed suicide. There’s something beneficial in reading a story about someone who is going through grief if the story is told honestly. RB: What is the benefit? DS: There are things that I hadn’t seen written about that I wanted to write about. The performative nature of grief — how people don’t feel sad 100% of the time but have to pretend that they do because society expects you to act a certain way. How also we have inappropriate thoughts at these moments, inappropriate actions. I hadn’t seen that written about or examined enough so I wanted to look at that. It's funny, my editor said I should cut something out of the book that was about that. The girl cut in front of my car. I hit her. She died. But as she is lying there in the street some pretty 18-year-old girls came over to me and asked me if I was okay. I can only explain it by saying I was in shock, but these girls were cute and I started flirting with them. As the bicyclist is dying in the street waiting for the ambulance. That’s something I was always embarrassed about but felt I should write about because it was one of those inappropriate moments that I think reveals something about the way we were designed not to deal with grief. But the book’s editor wanted to cut that out because it made me look too unsympathetic. RB: Isn’t that the point? DS: If the book is only about me trying to look sympathetic then there is no reason to write the book. I didn’t want to write an advertisement or a piece of propaganda for me. I wanted to write about the young me as I would write about a character in a novel. And look at all that person's flaws and hold them up to the light. Because I think that’s what we get out of good fiction, too. Good fiction teaches you how to live. What I turn to good fiction for is not the plot really — that’s what hooks you into the story. But it’s the observation of how people go through the world. And you learn by seeing people be imperfect and so that’s what I wanted to do. Hopefully — I didn’t set out to write a self-help book but if — RB: Those tend not to hit their target. Are there stories that shouldn’t be told? Or needn’t be? Years ago Stephen Dixon wrote a book called Interstate, in which two infants are shot and killed in a drive-by and the father who is driving the car descends into a pit of despair. My son had just been born and I just couldn’t read past the first chapter. DS: I remember the book — it’s the first chapter played out again and again, with different ways the father would handle it. Yeah I think there are some stories that are — but even that handled really well could be great. RB: Even handling it well — DS: I know what you are saying. That’s why memoirs for the most part turn me off. When memoir opens itself up to criticism it’s because it's prurient or self-aggrandizing or salacious in some way. So this was an attempt not to — I wanted to make it an anti-memoir. I was going to do the book with Penguin but I ended up doing the book with McSweeney’s — RB: Why? DS: I said, I don’t want to write a memoir, I just want to write about this accident and what I learned from it. And I want to do that because people responded really well to the This American Life thing. I wanted to examine it a little more deeply than I did on the radio. (I am actually embarrassed now — having written the book I think the early piece was kind of glib.) But I am not sure how long it’s going to be — it might just be 50 pages. It’s just going to be about the accident. My editor said, that’s great but it has to be 200 pages. We are happy to print it — we need for it to be a viable paperback. It’s got to be 200 pages. I said, what if the story is only 50 pages? He said, well you can pad it. I said, forget it, but then Dave Eggers contacted me or maybe it was Eli [Horowitz] — and McSweeney’s said they would publish it at 50 pages. I said, that’s great, and it ended up being 200 pages. It’s longer than I thought it would be but it's still a short book. RB: Why are there no chapter headings or numbers or titles? DS: I wanted it to have a disjointed feeling in the manner that you feel when you go through something like this that life comes at you in a disjointed way. RB: Can you start anywhere in the book and move backward or forward? DS: I don’t think so — I hope that there is an arc to it. The challenge was to — every book is a magic trick. Every realistic novel pretends to be realist but is actually a complete fabrication. The trick is to make it seem like it's not. [In] this book [it] was more difficult to do that because I wanted to remain truthful and to be respectful of the girl in the incident, but also I was very aware that I wanted it to be a good reading experience — not just to be a therapy exercise for myself. So I thought, I have to make an arc and a dramatic structure and all that but I wanted it to be less visible. And wanted it to be somewhat disjointed especially in the beginning because that’s the way we experience these things. So hopefully it was mirroring that. RB: How firm is that border between fiction and non-fiction? DS: Ah, I’m not a non-fiction writer for the most part, so my wife who is a journalist would laugh and say, “Are you sure you are not making things up? Are you being truthful?” So that was the real challenge — to remain absolutely faithful to the facts. I didn’t want to make anything up. RB: Two of your novels were based on historical figures or characters — DS: Chang and Eng, my first book, which was about two famous conjoined twins, I took a lot of liberties. RB: I noticed you refrained from using “Siamese twins.” [laughs] DS: Yeah, because I was corrected a lot. People from Thailand are sensitive about that. I sold the book to Thailand — it's not very often there’s an American book about Thailand. They were going to make a big deal of it and fly me out for a Thai book festival, and then they translated it [laughs] and I kept hearing from the translators that they were having a lot of problems: ”You’re making stuff up here. This is not what happened in Thailand back then.” And so I never got the invite. I took a lot of liberties with old Siam, too. I wrote that book when I was 26 and broke and couldn’t afford to fly there. So I bought a Let’s Go Thailand and used that as my research and invented stuff. Which is okay. A novelist doesn’t have to tell the truth. The beginning of Kafka’s Amerika is the Statue of Liberty holding up a big sword. There is a debate of whether he was trying to make a point or he didn’t know. RB: Alan Furst, who rigorously researches his novels, says he doesn’t take any liberties because as he says, “a lot of blood was shed” in these stories. And beyond that readers still have unwarranted expectations — DS: I think we talked about this four years ago [more like nine years]. There is a quote from [E.L.] Doctorow where he said, “that historical novelists should do the least amount of research they could get away with.” The key part of the sentence is what you can get away with. You don’t want to make ridiculous mistakes. You don’t want to embarrass yourself or take the reader out of the situation. But you can take liberties because it says “novel” on the book. RB: More and more it says, “Such and Such, a novel.” And less and less do people pay attention. DS: It’s true. Although writers go into a publisher and say “novel,” and the publisher kind of slides out into another room. I have a number of students trying to sell novels and they have been told to say it’s a memoir, it's easier to sell memoirs. But Doctorow once told me that he received a letter from someone saying, “In Arizona there aren’t X kind of cactuses which you had in your book.” He said, “There are in my Arizona, madam.” Which is a dashing way of saying he screwed up but he didn’t care. RB: Tom Franklin [for Hell at the Breech] pointed out that readers would heckle him about armadillos and the shape of a cigarette tin. DS: Yeah, yeah. Bellow said he was tired of being crucified on the cross of American Realism. Hopefully a novel gets to deeper truths than the shape of a Lucky Strike container. But you do want to be truthful enough — if it’s not plausible the reader will lose confidence and then the book is lost. I was just talking to someone about Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, where she apparently makes tons of mistakes about Boston geography, saying something like Harvard was in Porter Square and things like that. Which took Boston readers out of the book. I didn’t notice it because I am not from Boston. So I thought it was a great book. RB: Who am I to say something is irresolvable. But I was reading an essay by Curtis White [The Middle Mind] and he refers to William Shawn as the publisher of the New Yorker. I didn’t think it made the rest of his remarks without value, but I wondered about what editors or fact checkers were doing. DS: I know there are fewer and fewer fact checkers. My wife works at Newsweek and they hire younger and younger people and they have fewer and fewer people to catch mistakes at these magazines. There has been a loosening of standards across the board but that’s a different conversation. RB: There is always Edward Jones — he spent 12 years writing The Known World, intending to research from a long list he had, and he never used that list. And he most definitely made stuff up. But I dare you to identify it. DS: Exactly. RB: [chuckles] Though a history professor from Texas was upset that in my various online citations of my chat with Jones I had no problem with his approach. DS: I don’t know why people come to fiction with that expectation — that it’s going to be the same as a biography or something. And have the same standards of factualness when it’s a fairy tale — what Nabokov called his books. Peter Carey told me when he writes about his hometown he purposely puts in mistakes just to piss people off. That’s kind of funny. RB: The other side of the coin is that you can get a certain kind of pleasure out of a book that is about a place with which you are familiar. I loved [the late lamented] Eugene Izzi, a Chicago crime story writer, or I suppose people in Boston like Robert Parker and they expect everything to be as they know it. DS: A lot of Jon Lethem’s popularity came from taking Brooklyn as his literary subject before anyone else had, and people turned to Motherless Brooklyn — I’m from Brooklyn now so it feels his territory because he wrote about it. So there is a pleasure for natives in reading about their home turf. RB: So we have variable valences of why we derive pleasure from reading — some are higher than others but when we talk about this stuff we are supposed to say smart things — DS: Yeah hopefully we turn to books for the writing or the moral truths or whatever you get out of it but there is something nice about saying, “Oh I know that street.” RB: I find I have learned more history from Gore Vidal, Edward Jones, Alan Furst, John le Carré, John Lawton, and Philip Kerr than as an undergraduate history student. DS: I was talking to a writer friend David Lipsky. He wrote a book called Absolutely American about West Point and the book about David Foster Wallace where he traveled with him [Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself] — kind of a new way of doing biography. It got good reviews, but I am not sure reviewers understood how revolutionary it could be. Even when people say the novel is in trouble and there aren’t as many readers, which people have been saying as long as there has been a novel around, I am sure more people read about the French-Russian war than read War and Peace, but nobody goes back to read the newspapers. These made-up stories are the way future generations find out about these things. I am sure more people read Libra by Delillo about [Lee Harvey] Oswald than anything else. RB: Than the Warren Commission Report [laughs]. DS: Exactly. Or anything. If you think about it like that then we have a certain responsibility to be honest. RB: There is a mistake about the way history is taught — the emphasis is on minutiae and not narrative — not the juicy stories about human frailty and foibles. And what do you know after you know all the details? DS: Look at the political discourse. It seems like people know nothing. RB: I see signs calling for the impeachment of the president. And I am sure that the sign carriers know nothing about impeachment. The House decides there is to be a trial — DS: — based on crimes and misdemeanors. It’s not like saying we don’t like the guy. It’s like if the president is unpopular he should be impeached. The memories are so short — the Clinton impeachment was 10 years ago or so. He was impeached but not forced to leave office. I don’t what it is — there is something narcotized about this country. RB: I look at James Howard Kunstler’s website ClusterFuck Nation and he decries the public conversation, and he recently asked, “Where did all the sensible people go who used to stand up against the kind of radical silliness that is so prevalent now?” DS: It’s very strange. Where are the country club Republicans who were fiscally conservative but didn’t want to get rid of public education or meddle in social issues? Didn’t want to overthrow the government? RB: Sold out? Went to ride their horsies? They supported McCain. DS: The thing about McCain that was so weird — there’s a great McCain piece by David Foster Wallace — he was honorable enough to do the right thing — RB: — once in his life. DS: But in the worst circumstances. To have his fingers broken and to refuse medication — after all this torture to say, “I’m not the first in line so [other] people should go home before me." Which is the most noble thing I can imagine. And then to totally sell out, which makes me think if you can stand up to Viet Cong torture but not attack ads, it says something interesting about power. RB: And that we are more complicated. I think in some twisted way McCain feels entitled because of his war experience. He is convinced of his own nobility and that the rest of it is just politics. And in a way it is just politics. DS: It is just politics although he did bring Palin onto the national stage. And so if she is the next president we have him to thank. RB: My son brought home a chart from school in which he was asked to evaluate himself in ten categories and his teacher would also. The point of the exercise was whether the world was better off with you in it. His self-score was 96 and his teacher scored him 89. They were obviously close, but the class participation was scored a 5 by the teacher. I bring this up because how we see ourselves is a fluctuating thing. And I wonder about this when I try to assign a value to a book like yours. If I understand you correctly the people who benefit from this book are people who have had a similar experience. DS: Most people have had a similar experience — it doesn’t have to be as spectacular. Everyone carries something that they are guilty about. RB: You’re extending the franchise of this book. DS: I’m telling the response I have gotten. People that carry something they are guilty about around or feel a grief they don’t know how to express. It’s been more universal than I thought. Which has been nice. It’s strange for a fiction writer. If you write a novel and people email you it’s generally, I liked it or didn’t like it. Not, here’s my terrible story please tell me what you think. I was doing Philadelphia NPR, and they took callers and each call was sadder than the one before. One woman called in saying her son was killed in a car accident and she had never seen grief written about in that way and she thanked me. That was weird since I wasn’t sure that people who lost kids in car accidents were a demographic for the book. And then a guy called in whose daughter was killed in a car accident and his wife was made quadriplegic and he is taking care of his wife now and his daughter is gone. I didn’t know what to say and he asked me if he should reach out to the driver. I said, “I am only a story teller, I don’t know. If it would make you feel better I think you should.” It sounds like Dr. Phil but I didn’t know how to respond. RB: Well, you wrote the book – need you say anymore? Or what more is there to say? DS: I don’t think so but these kinds of books open you up to that. Right before I published I heard from A.M. Homes, who wrote a really good memoir, and she said, ”Be prepared. It's exhausting.” And Dave Eggers who edited the book with me — RB: He has his own story. DS: He said you have to prepare yourself. People want to talk to you in a way that they don’t with novels. In a way, it's better if they don’t meet the novelist because the novel stands as its own thing and meeting the novelist can muddy the feeling you get from the book. But if you are writing about yourself, people want to meet you and talk to you to see if you compare to the you in the book or how you are now after you have written the book. So it’s much more intimate. RB: With the expectation that you have some expertise. DS: Surprisingly that’s happened a lot. Maybe I just choose subjects that are arcane. My first book about twins — anytime conjoined twins are separated around the world I would get a call from some reporter asking about conjoined twins. And I would say, I’m a novelist. RB: The world’s foremost authority — DS: — on Siamese twins. For my third book, a novel called More Than It Hurts You about Münchausen by proxy where a mother injures a child, I was on Good Morning America talking about Münchausen’s disease with an expert. I kept saying I’m happy to go on TV but I’m no expert on this. But maybe that’s not true — Roth said one of the jobs of the novelist is to be smarter on the page than he is in real life. So I had to become an expert — at least temporarily. RB: It does also speak to the efficacy of the so-called talking cure. DS: That’s been one of the moving things. I kept a file with hundreds of emails now and a number of them have said, I haven’t told anyone this. I’ve never met you but I haven’t told my husband or something like that. That’s a validation of the talking cure. I had terrible experiences with therapy. Another reason I wrote the book — to figure out what I think about this. That’s the way I do it. Since I’m a writer, to understand how I see something I write it down. It’s much more effective than therapy — sitting at the computer working my way through something. RB: People certainly organize their perceptions of the world differently — some effortlessly. To me everyday is a new day, almost like starting over again. DS: Maybe that’s why people look for help — they don’t know how to organize their lives into stories until they see someone else do it. With this book I stumbled into therapeutic cures that I didn’t know about. Not that the book should be therapy for me. If it’s just therapy for me then I should write it and not publish it. I hope it has value beyond being cathartic for me. In this disorder called complicated grief therapy, which is a fancy way of saying people are sad, the therapy for that is that you are to talk into a tape recorder and say what makes you sad and then play it every night for 16 weeks. It sounds like torture — it’s thought to be effective because you have a tape, a physical object that you can turn off and put away. I didn’t know about it until I was researching the book. But writing the story every day and turning the computer off at night was a version of that therapy. The book is like my tape. And then talking about it to you and on the radio and to crowds at readings is like A.A. — making a public confession. So to me it was a great therapy. You said something about organizing life; my friend David Lipsky was saying anyone who teaches writing by saying you should show and not tell is going to fail. As he put it, “life is showing all the time, what literature does is tell you what that show means.” Movies are a show, life is a show. What books can do is tell in a way the others can’t. RB: Where do these clichés come from, like “write what you know”? What do you know? DS: Exactly. It’s bad advice for other reasons too. If you only write what you know, you will never know anything new. That’s the weird thing about our education system — right now in the Army they force you to take classes all the time as an adult. Which makes sense — why only be taught for 16 years of your life and then never be taught anything again? That’s to last you for 70 years. Why is that the method? Why wouldn’t you want to keep learning? RB: There is some science that holds if you continue to learn that is in fact a benefit to your brain. DS: Yeah, I read about a study that said you should try to switch things up every week just to keep your mind active without taking a course. Open doors left-handed one week and right-handed the next — just to teach yourself even in the most minor way something new to keep your brain active. RB: When I drive to places I try to take different routes each time. I leave enough time so I may get lost or just wander around. So when will you be done with this? DS: I was taking to Dani Shapiro who was nice enough to review the book for the Times. I didn’t know her beforehand, but I thanked her for the review and we got to talking and she was saying memoirs kind of never end. A novel is over when your next novel comes out but people still talk to her about the memoir she wrote ten years ago. Because it’s personal, and you are opening up your closet. We’re a voyeuristic society. I find most memoirs distasteful — it’s strange I ended up writing this. I thought, I will never write about this, I am a novelist. Not only that but I don’t read non-fiction a lot so I would never want to write a memoir. Something about this story was very insistent, asking to be told. I realized in writing the book that I had been writing about this all along. The girl’s parents at her funeral told me, we will never blame you — don’t worry about that. But whatever you do in life you have to live it twice as well because you are living for two people. And then they sued me for millions of dollars after that. After they said they wouldn’t blame me. The important thing from that is I took that very seriously, living for two people. I think that’s why I wrote Chang and Eng. That book deals with how we are different people at once. The end of the book — “this is the end that I have feared since we were a child.” So the “I” and the “we” means they are both one and two people. My second book was about a guy who lives in NYC and becomes an imposter and doesn’t tell anyone about his past. I had this accident in high school, went to college, and then moved to NYC and never told anyone about this. My third book is about a family from the suburbs with a secret that no one knows — I was growing up in the suburbs and had this secret, so obviously this has been informing my writing, in a way I hadn’t realized, forever. I wonder how stark a line it will draw in my fiction. RB: Have you started the next novel? DS: I have — I wanted something light after this. We’ll see. Writers often have this one thing they obsess about. Roth seemed to be writing the same book for a time — now he is writing obsessive books about being older. I wonder if my obsessions will change — a lot of writers have their one subject and keep writing around it, circling it. Bellow, no matter where his books were set, wrote about what it means to be a thinking person in a society where thinking people are not valued. And Updike had his pet obsessions — they seemed to be about a good boy being naughty. What does that mean? Bellow also said he didn’t want to go there because he didn’t want to know why he was writing what he was writing. Now I know and I wasn’t Bellow to begin with. RB: Have been teaching since we last spoke? DS: I went to Columbia as an adjunct for a while and came back when this new director of the creative writing program [of NYU] Deborah Landau, who amazingly re-energized, not even re-, she energized NYU faculty and brought in a bunch of people. I was lucky to be hired by her. She brought in Junot Díaz and Zadie Smith and Jonathan Safran Foer — she brought in this amazing constellation of people. On the poetry side she brought Anne Carson and Charles Simić. It’s an amazing place to work. I have my office there because I can’t work at home — I have three-year-old twin boys. And I go to work and it’s almost stiflingly overwhelming because you know these incredible people are doing incredible work — that’s both energizing and terrifying. RB: Yeah. DS: In some ways it’s beneficial to the writing — it forces you to return to first principles all the time. You have to tell students why you think something works and why it doesn’t. It gives voice to your aesthetic in a way that helps you form it. Also, it keeps you open-minded because you are reading people who have a different aesthetic. And you try to help them not by saying how you would write it yourself but try to get them to figure out how to be more successful in what they wanted to do. It can also be stultifying. It’s like when you try to walk up the stairs if you spend the day telling people, ”Well you put one foot in front of the other, and then you lift up your knee and move it forward and put the other foot down.” When you walk the stairs next you will be pretty self-conscious about it. It’s a balancing act. RB: You use novels in your courses. DS: In the Crafts classes — I often use books that I think are flawed. I teach Marry Me by Updike which is a good book but not his best. RB: Glorious failures? DS: Yeah. I wouldn’t say the book is a failure — but when you see a great writer make mistakes it can be instructive. I teach some all-out masterpieces. I shouldn’t say this but with modern academia you are also expected to have from many different — from both genders and a lot of different ethnic groups. You have to fill those slots. RB: You feel that is an obligation? Are you conscious of it? DS: Yes, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing — you want students from all different backgrounds to feel you are not being exclusionary. But I wouldn’t teach an author I don’t like. RB: Right, it’s not like the choices are limited. DS: I teach Jhumpa Lahiri and Zadie Smith. I like Zadie’s work better. RB: I wasn’t impressed by Lahiri’s stories. I liked the film of her novel, The Namesake. DS: Her stories are well-constructed. They are ingenious but they aren’t exciting language-wise. RB: How well-read are your students? DS: It varies. A lot of undergrad students are well-read, but I am often shocked at how they are not. A lot of people want to be writers who don’t care about why or how to get there. So when you come across someone who is paying a lot of money to go to grad school and one assumes they are trying to make that their life, it’s very strange to see that they haven’t read that much. RB: Assuming it is a prerequisite of being a decent writer? DS: Yes. It’s kind of like saying I want to be a professional baseball player but I don’t watch or practice much baseball. I just want to put on the glove and play. It’s fine if you are doing it as a social activity. When you make a commitment to be a writer then it’s strange you wouldn’t want to learn about it. RB: Despite the warnings and evidence, your students still aspire to become writers? DS: Yes, that’s something I feel guilty about in teaching in these programs. RB: How many students have you had over the last ten years or so? DS: 30 a year for nine years. Whatever that is. RB: 270. Of those, how many have published one book? DS: Two so far. But a lot of them were undergrads and they are not 30 yet. I think more will do that. It’s a good grad class if two or three publish. RB: And what are the rest doing? DS: I don’t know. That’s what’s scary about these programs. They are expensive, although NYU is good about giving money and they are working on making it free for everyone. Then I would feel less guilty about it. You can get a lot out of learning how to write and learning to be a reader. RB: That’s one self-justification of teachers — you get better readers. DS: Michael Thomas [Man Gone Down] tells all his students that if they are taking these courses to be writers, it’s a bad idea. This will help you become a smarter reader and if you chose to become a writer, good luck. RB: Being a smarter reader is a great benefit. DS: It sure is. But the issue is, is it worth the money? NYU is very competitive to get into — 30 fiction students out of about 800 are accepted. RB: Like the Writer’s Workshop. DS: Yeah, and once you are in that circle of fire you are expected to get somewhere. Maybe two out of 30 will publish one book and one of those two will have a career. It’s very tough. RB: To quote Fats Waller, “One never know, do one?” DS: [laughs] RB: Thomas hasn’t been heard from since he won the IMPAC award in 2007. DS: That was recently. He teaches at Hunter. RB: That’s an interesting place. They have — DS: — Peter Carey — RB: — Colum McCann. DS: A small department [Tom Sleigh and Gabriel Packard]. McCann won the National Book Award last year and Peter was nominated this year and they are both really, really good. RB: McCann is Mr. Exuberant. DS: He really lives up to the image of the Irish raconteur, try to go out drinking with him and you won’t make it home. A great writer. Peter, too. He was a teacher of mine at NYU. It ended up working out for me, but when students ask if should they get an MFA I never give an unqualified yes. RB: If someone asked me I’d ask, what are the choices? Go into plastic. DS: I did a reading with Jennifer Egan and she hasn’t gotten her [MFA] and she wondered if she missed out. It hasn’t hurt her. She is having a good career. I tell students if they need the time to write and have people read their stuff then it’s great. I was talking to someone taking a course from Oscar Hijuelos, and he was considered the worst one in the class and the teacher was hard on him saying he shouldn’t be a writer and then something switched and one day he came in with the beginning of his first book and he was great all of a sudden. There shouldn’t be anyone who is an arbiter, saying you can’t write because sometimes it takes people a while. RB: Isn’t it the same with editors and buying books? Think of all the stories about writers who have gotten 20 to 30 rejections and then one editor says, “Yeah” and they are off. DS: Proust had to self-publish the first volume of Remembrances of Things Past. One of the things that’s great about him is that everyone said his sentences are too long, that’s why we can’t publish him, [both laugh] so at the beginning of the second book, the sentence is one of the longest in the entire book. What a great fuck you. RB: It’s fascinating that these literary chats are an attempt to regularize an exploding array of characters and stories. It seems like an untameable beast. As we talk here, what are we explaining or clarifying? The best stuff is maybe what we can’t explain. DS: That’s true. Writing can be taught to a degree. The best thing it can do is save you years of self-discovery — which may not be a good thing. Maybe you should learn on your own. You can teach people tricks you have learned from reading but obviously you can’t teach talent. Maybe you can help students achieve the maximum from their talent. RB: Talent can be overrated. There’s something to be said for perseverance. DS: Lethem who taught at NYU said this to me once: talent was kind of meaningless. Whether you publish or write good books it’s the people who keep trying, keep trying. There’s that Malcolm Gladwell theory — which sounds kind of glib — 10,000 hours at something will make you great at it. I don’t know where that number comes from but it’s probably true. If you sit in the chair for 10,000 hours and that translates over four or five hours a day for eight years, six, seven days a week — RB: Well, that’s from the outside, from an external observer. Our sense of that time must be indescribably different. DS: The first 7- or 8,000 hours are fumbling around being terrible — people who are talented might not progress because they are too embarrassed to do the apprentice period. They can’t allow themselves to be bad. RB: Or someone tells them they are crap and they believe it. DS: Or someone tells them they are great and they believe it. You really have to get in there in those hours whatever the magic number is, and force yourself to work hard. When I was a grad student it wasn’t the most talented people who moved on — it was the people who could take their first draft and make it a second draft. For example everyone at that level can do a pretty good first draft. It’s people who listen to criticism and say, “Fuck that, I’m good enough” who don’t go on to make a good first draft into a great second draft. RB: Writing fiction must be about delayed satisfactions — writers take five, eight, twelve years to finish a novel. DS: The problem with Foer and Zadie Smith being as good as they are – and I think they are both really good writers and I’ve heard they are good teachers – they are dangerous examples because of their early success. RB: Don’t try this at home, kids. DS: Exactly. RB: There seems to be an attitude about Foer in the literary world. Have you noticed that? Jealousy? DS: Yeah. RB: In addition to the normal quotient of anti-Semitism? [laughs] DS: I ran into Jonathan Wilson, a professor of mine, and he was planning on giving talks on new takes on anti-Semitism. I asked, what was he going say? He said, “It exists.” [laughs] If there is bad feeling toward Jonathan [Foer] it's because he has outsized success. That’s hard for people to take. I’m sure a lot of the anti-Franzen griping is the same thing. You make the cover of Time and people will grumble — that’s the way it is. RB: I remember getting into it with a writer when they retracted a review of Foer’s second novel and came up with a negative one. DS: I hate when people retract reviews. My first book was badly reviewed in the Washington Post for what I thought were silly reasons. The reviewer didn’t like three things about the book — I named certain characters after my friends (I thanked friends in the afterword) and very minor characters had similar names. The reviewer asked, “Is he playing games or writing a serious book?” I thought, well why are those things in opposition? Second, how am I as a white male in the 20th century qualified to write about Asians in the 19th century? And third, she claimed five words I used were not in currency in the 1800s. She was wrong about that. Those words were found in Shakespeare. I was really pissed off. I was doing an interview somewhere and this reviewer who is also a novelist was there also, doing an interview. And they said such and such is here, she wants to meet you. I said that’s okay and I sneaked out the back. RB: [laughs] DS: And she came around and ran into me in the parking lot. She said, “Hey I am so-and-so and I gave your book a bad review.” I said, “Yeah, I remember.” She said, “I’m really sorry I kind of liked the book. I was in a bad mood and my husband is Asian, and I thought I should say something about that.” I thought it was crappy she liked the book —she was entitled to her opinion but to apologize for it was even worse. RB: Do you write reviews? DS: I wrote a few that I regret — not that the book was good. It’s not good karma to write negative reviews. I am going to stop doing it. I wrote a good review of Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project, which I thought was a good book — that was fun. RB: As I have said many times, I think book reviewing, especially in newspapers, is a degraded enterprise. DS: [Martin] Amis has a great quote about that. He said something like, “Reviews are the only forum where the practitioner is working in the exact same mode as the art itself but generally doing it less well.” You don’t have movie critics making a movie about the subject of their reviews. So yeah, I think it’s degraded. There was a recent review of Roth where the reviewer wrote, "I never read any Roth until this book was assigned. I dismissed him without thinking about it.” This is Philip Roth, maybe the greatest living American writer. Not having read Roth, having dismissed him, shouldn’t that disqualify the reviewer? RB: I recently reviewed the new Cynthia Ozick and according to the dust jacket it was an homage and reworking of Henry James’ The Ambassadors. I hadn’t read that book. It bothered me that other than an epigram from The Ambassadors, I had no clue of anything Jamesian. I see that quite often, that certain stories are tied to an older work. Why tell the reader — if they are familiar with the referred-to book they should recognize it and if not they should not be distracted? DS: On Beauty is supposed to be an homage to an E.M. Forster book, which I never read. But I liked Smith’s book. It might be a way to spark your imagination. Doctorow’s Ragtime’s plot was lifted from a 19th century novella by Kleist. RB: And you know this, how? DS: I took a class from him and he said so. RB: But was it on the dust jacket? DS: No. RB: Does it improve your enjoyment of Ragtime? What does it do for the reader if he knows? DS: It’s a way of coming clean. Lifting plots is as old as Shakespeare but now people are so afraid of even the whiff of plagiarism they feel if they are upfront about it it's okay. It’s okay whether you own up to it or not because there are only 36 stories out there anyway, and certainly Zadie and Doctorow made something new. But I don’t know why people feel that compunction to own up to stuff. This is something that I have noticed that’s new — even novels are listing all the books used for research. But why bother, it’s a novel. RB: Over the weekend I read a book that very much resembles [Cormac] McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men — an unstoppable psychopathic killer searching for the protagonist — even when that came to mind I wasn’t put off because the writing was crisp and propulsive. But I could already imagine reviewers taking the author to task for lack of originality. DS: When I said there were 36 plots, that’s based on this crazy French book called The 36 Dramatic Situations — the author, Georges Polti, spent his life doing a scientific study of writing and came up with the fact that there are only 36 possible stories and there is a wide berth within those. Number 1 is revenge and number 1A is revenge, father against son. You know there is a limited scope within which to work, so what? Why not do what Shakespeare did and use famous stories? There is something energizing about having every plot and format to work with. RB: Do you ever think about what you would have done if your writing hadn’t panned out? DS: Oh wow! Well, when I was a kid I thought I might be a lawyer — RB: — and then you were sued — DS: — and then I was so turned off by the lawsuit — I wasn’t angry with the parents, they had just lost their daughter and were very vulnerable. But I was certainly angry with the lawyer — he knew they had no case and he actually screwed them over because he told them they could make millions. But they ended up getting the most nominal sum from the insurance company just to make them go away. Which they could have gotten at the outset. And so they had to take five years of legal fees out of that. So they received almost nothing. It was just awful. The police said I wasn’t at fault, five witnesses said I wasn’t at fault. He tried to say I was drunk — 10 o’clock in the morning on a Saturday. Then he tried to say that the policeman who said I wasn’t drunk, was drunk. RB: [laughs] DS: It was just an awful experience, dragging me through the mud. And so I thought I am not going to be a lawyer, that’s an awful thing. But I don’t know what I would have done. I don’t know that I could do anything else, so it’s hard to say. RB: Sold insurance? DS: I could have done something like that. RB: A trader or speculator? DS: That might have been more satisfying. Writing is great in so many ways — being your own boss — RB: As Shaw said, you don’t have to dress up. DS: Yeah, so in all the obvious ways it’s great. It is also a job where you are never not working. So I kind of envy those people who are 9 to 5. RB: How much has your writer life changed now that you are a writer dad? DS: A lot. The book is short — RB: [laughs] DS: The book is short. I started it when my kids were one — to have one-year-old twins in the house means all hands on deck. RB: One of the challenges of journalism is to write within a word limit. DS: Thank you so much for having me back. RB: My pleasure.   Image credit: Robert Birnbaum

The Million Basic Plots

In 1826, the philosopher John Stuart Mill had a nervous breakdown, and one of its causes was pretty odd. “I was seriously tormented by the thought of the exhaustibility of musical combinations,” he wrote in his autobiography. The octave consists only of five tones and two semi-tones, which can be put together in only a limited number of ways, of which but a small proportion are beautiful: most of these, it seemed to me, must have been already discovered, and there could not be room for a long succession of Mozarts and Webers, to strike out, as these had done, entirely new and surpassingly rich veins of musical beauty. In a way, Mill was being prescient: within a hundred years, serialist composers would forge onward, like the Vikings colonizing Greenland, to combinations of semi-tones that were not conventionally beautiful. But in another way, Mill was being ridiculous: no, a contemporary composer can't use a tune that Mozart also used, unless it's a deliberate allusion, but she can certainly use a tune that Weber also used, because no one listens to Weber any more. Mill's nightmare of permutational famine would only be a real danger if any motif that any composer invented was registered permanently in some sort of giant musical database. Perhaps such a database does now exist, but no composer would be silly enough to check it. I only wish the same were true for narrative art. Discovering that the website TV Tropes began as a Buffy the Vampire Slayer messageboard is like discovering that Borges' "Library of Babel" began as a one-volume cricketer's almanac. Since 2004, TV Tropes has swollen into a frighteningly comprehensive taxonomy of all known plot devices across all known media. Every story that's ever thrilled you is there in microscopic cross section. In some respects it resembles books like Georges Polti's The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations or Christopher Booker's The Seven Basic Plots, but it's not nearly so reductive: it's maximalist not minimalist, always delighted to add new categories. Really, its closest cousin is the Aarne–Thompson classification system, which attempts to anatomize all the world's folklore into about 2,500 elements. And as a writer, I find it impossible to browse TV Tropes without feeling like Mill: how will anyone ever come up with anything new? This fear isn't abstract. Recently, I was on the point of starting my second screenplay when I thought I might as well check at the patent office for any prior art. On the TV Tropes page for Double Reverse Quadruple Agent, I came across a listing for Cypher, a 2002 film I'd never seen by Vincenzo Natali, director of the terrific Cube. The best twist in my outline was sitting there in Cypher. Dejected, I gave up on the screenplay. TV Tropes may have saved me from wasting my time on an idea that had already been wrung dry, but it may also have prevented me from developing that idea far enough that I could find something in it that was uniquely my own. So far, the same thing hasn't happened with my prose fiction, but perhaps it's only a matter of time. Of course, this is only a problem because my writing happens to be so preoccupied with plot. Most literary fiction is inoculated against TV Tropes. When Zadie Smith updates Howard's End in On Beauty or Cynthia Ozick updates The Ambassadors in Foreign Bodies, they are assuming that the storylines are not by any means the most gripping things about those novels. I once interviewed the critic James Wood, and he told me that in his reviews he deliberately describes the entire book because he likes “destroying the tyranny of plot.” In other words, if TV Tropes gives you writer's block, then maybe you're not much of a writer. And you can even make that same argument starting from the other side of the field. I recently asked the author China Miéville about TV Tropes, on which he has his own lengthy entry; because his work wallows in plot, I thought he might find the website as lethal as I do. In fact, he told me that he loves TV Tropes but he doesn't worry about it. You don't need a database, he said, to prove that it's almost impossible to come up with anything truly original – just riffling through the canon will do that. Your task is just to force new tricks on old dogs. (After all, both Cypher and my abandoned screenplay were basically variations on Philip K Dick. TV Tropes itself has an entry for this called Older Than They Think.) And I agree with Miéville up to a point. But a lot of the joy of his novel The City and the City, for instance, arises from its ingenious premise. If he'd read on TV Tropes that The Twilight Zone had used the same plot in 1961, he would probably still have written his book, but I find it hard to believe he wouldn't have been disappointed. And the horrible thing is, it doesn't stop there. There's a remark somewhere by (I think) Martin Amis about how all young writers have to confront the fact that there just aren't many new ways left to describe an autumn sky or a pretty girl. It's like peak oil for lyricism. And in the age of Google Books and Amazon Search Inside, we have to confront this even more brutally. Every time I come up with a simile that feels like it might be too obvious, I can put it into the search box and find that a dozen romance novelists have used it before me. The answer, I think, is to think more about your audience. The average reader just isn't as obsessive about precedent as the average writer. She is less likely to notice an echo, and if she does notice, she is less likely to mind. In other words, she is saner. To invent some contorted new plot twist because your previous one was already on TV Tropes, or some cumbersome new metaphor because your previous one was already on Google Books, is just self-indulgence: you like your book a bit more, but everyone else likes it a bit less. It's best to spend just enough time on TV Tropes that you're anxious to do something original, but not so long that you're paralyzed. That's easier advice to give than to follow, however, and whether or not I succeed, there is one pretty humbling circumstance I have no choice but to acknowledge: that the biggest existential challenge that I currently face as a novelist comes from a website that started life as a place for people to talk about whether Buffy should really have got together with Spike. Previously: Trope is the New Meme Image credit: bo foto/Flickr

Tuesday New Release Day

Already on shelves ahead of its "official" release date is Mark Twain's long embargoed Autobiography. Also new this week are The Petting Zoo, a posthumously published novel by punk poet Jim Carroll; a new collection of Selected Stories from master of the form William Trevor; Cynthia Ozick's "retelling" of of Henry James’ The Ambassadors, Foreign Bodies; and, in time for election day today, Matt Taibbi's collection of biting political journalism, Griftopia.

Most Anticipated Summer Reading 2010 and Beyond: The Great 2010 Book Preview Continued

2010 has already been a strong year for fiction lovers, with new novels by the likes of Joshua Ferris, Don DeLillo, Ian McEwan, Lionel Shriver, Jennifer Egan, and David Mitchell. Meanwhile, publishing houses offered up posthumous works by Ralph Ellison, Robert Walser, and Henry Roth, and the font of Roberto Bolaño fiction continued to flow. The second half of 2010 will bring much anticipated work by Gary Shteyngart, Antonya Nelson, Salman Rushdie, and especially Jonathan Franzen. So that readers may set their literary calendars anew, we've selected a few dozen books we're looking forward to. (The writer of each preview is noted in parenthesis.) July (or already available) The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman: I first took note of Allegra Goodman's off-kilter prose thanks to a New Yorker short story five years ago. As it turns out, that story, gently poking fun at the exuberance of the late 1990s, but also quietly weighty, touching on pain, religion and the whole idea of being “centered,” was a piece of Goodman's new novel, The Cookbook Collector. The book focuses on a pair of sisters at the turn of the millennium toiling on either end of the technology continuum, one the founder of a dot-com startup, the other an antiquarian book dealer. PW loves the book, calling it "Goodman's most robust, fully realized and trenchantly meaningful work yet." (Max) The Four Fingers of Death by Rick Moody: The Four Fingers of Death is a 700 page supercollider. It brings together the various interests Rick Moody has explored in his eight previous books: metafiction, domestic drama, satire, the entertainment industry, and the Way We Live Now...er, tomorrow. The framing tale, set in the year 2025 (yes, man is still alive), concerns Montese Crandall, a self-involved writer-type who will be familiar to readers of Moody's short stories. The longer, framed section is a Vonnegut-inspired sci-fi romp. Gradually, one imagines, the two converge. Mutual illumination ensues. (Garth) Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr: Doerr came to the attention of many readers with his debut collection of stories The Shell Collector. Now, after a novel and a travel memoir, he's back with another collection that includes two novellas and four short stories. As with The Shell Collector, Doerr's scope in Memory Wall is global. A recent profile with Boise Weekly -- Doerr is wrapping up his tenure as Idaho's writer in residence -- places the action in China, South Africa, Germany, Korea, Lithuania, Wyoming and, of course, Idaho. (Max) Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart: The author of the critically acclaimed and deliriously off-kilter novels The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Absurdistan returns with a third novel set in an apocalyptic near-future. Books are all but extinct and America is functionally illiterate, there are riots in Central Park and National Guard tanks on every Manhattan street corner, and the narrator is, as the Random House publicity department puts it, “the proud owner of what may well be the world’s last diary.” It’s difficult to resist the book’s opening lines: “Today I’ve made a major decision: I am never going to die. Others will die around me. They will be nullified. Nothing of their personality will remain. The light switch will be turned off.” (Emily M.) Faithful Place by Tana French: Faithful Place is the #1 Indie Next Pick for the month of July. (This is a big deal—it means that independent booksellers across the United States have picked French’s new novel as their favorite out of all the books being published in the US in July 2010.) This alone should be enough to make us sit up and take notice, but the plotline is particularly beguiling: when Frank Mackey was nineteen, he made plans with his girlfriend Rosie to leave the poverty and dysfunction of their lives in Dublin’s inner city and flee to London. But Rosie never appeared on the night they were supposed to meet, and Frank, assuming that she’d changed her mind, went on to England without her. Twenty-two years later, a suitcase is found behind a fireplace in a run-down building on the street where Frank grew up; when it becomes clear that the suitcase belonged to Rosie, Frank returns home to try and unravel the mystery of what happened to her. French is also the author of two previous critically-acclaimed novels: In the Woods, which won the Edgar, Barry, Macavity, and Anthony awards, and The Likeness. (Emily M.) The Thieves of Manhattan by Adam Langer: Adam Langer, who is the author of the well-received Crossing California and two other books, will publish The Thieves of Manhattan this month. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called it "an über-hip caper that pays homage to and skewers the state of publishing and flash-in-the-pan authors... Part Bright Lights, Big City, part The Grifters, this delicious satire of the literary world is peppered with slang so trendy a glossary is included." (Edan) The Return and The Insufferable Gaucho by Roberto Bolaño: The frenzy of posthumous Bolaño publication continues. The Return (July) is a new volume of short stories. And The Insufferable Gaucho (August) -- more stories, plus two essays -- was apparently the last book Bolaño delivered to a publisher. And we hear there's more "new" Bolaño to come in 2011. (Max) August My Hollywood by Mona Simpson: Simpson, author of Anywhere but Here and Off Keck Road, among others, took ten years to write this new novel about Claire, who has recently moved to Los Angeles with her husband and young son, and Lola, their Filipina nanny. In Publishers Weekly, Simpson said, "There are thousands of women who are here working, often with their own young children left behind. That leads to a whole different vision of what it is to raise a child, what's important." (Edan) Hollywood by Larry McMurtry: Although Texas epicist Larry McMurtry has written dozens of novels, he’s best known for the films that have come from them: The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment, Hud, and the CBS colossus "Lonesome Dove." Over the last five decades, he’s turned others’ work into triumph (Brokeback Mountain), seen his own ground into pabulum (Texasville), and written a screenplay for The Cougar (John Mellencamp’s Falling From Grace). In short, he’s a veteran of the L.A. movie wars, and in Hollywood—his third memoir in as many years—he’ll share the stories behind them. Or, at least, he should: in a harsh review of his second memoir, 2009’s Literary Life, The New York Times wrote, “Too often… Mr. McMurtry will sidle up to an interesting anecdote and then tell the reader to wait for his third and concluding memoir, Hollywood… He’ll explain then.” (Jacob) I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson: Petterson has been on the road to international literary stardom for a few years now and that means his new novels get translated into English with relative alacrity. The book won the Norwegian Brage prize and, according to a “sample translation” on Petterson’s agent’s website, it begins: “I did not realize that my mother had left. There was too much going on in my own life. We had not spoken for a month, or even longer, which I guess was not that unusual, in 1989, when you consider the things that went on around us back then, but it felt unusual.” (Max) Encounter by Milan Kundera: Fans of Milan Kundera’s previous essays on the power of art (particularly that of the novel), memory, mortality, and human nature can look forward to Encounter, his newest collection, which was released in France in 2009 and will land in the English-speaking world in August. Kundera’s devotion to modernism is a particular focus here, with reflections both critical and personal on the work of established masters – Francis Bacon, Leo Janacek, Garcia Marquez, Dostoevsky, and Fellini – as well as homages to those he considers unsung, including Anatole France, Curzio, Malaparte, and Celine. (Both the Malaparte and Celine sections apparently hone in on episodes involving dogs – the dignified way in which animals face death, in contrast to human posturing and vanity – which I especially look forward to). In a review last year, Trevor Cribben Merrill described Encounter as “a self-portrait of the artist as an old man […]the most personal of Kundera’s essays.” (Sonya) You Lost Me There by Rosecrans Baldwin: In this debut novel by the co-founder of one of The Millions' favorite sites, The Morning News, Alzheimer's researcher Victor Aaron discovers his late wife's notes about the state of their marriage. Her version of their relationship differs greatly from his own, and Victor is forced to reexamine their life together. Wells Tower says the novel "is a work of lucid literary art, roisterous wit, and close, wry knowledge of the vexed circuits of the human mind and heart." (Edan) Sympathy for the Devil, edited by Tim Pratt: This anthology will collect stories from an impressive roster of writers -- Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Kelly Link, China Mieville, Michael Chabon, and others -- with the devil being the common thread. This being a reprint anthology, fans of the individual authors included may find nothing new, though they may appreciate the clever theme and may encounter work by writers they don't regularly read. (Max) The Thousand by Kevin Guilfoile: While many readers might associate Guilfoile with McSweeney's, where he's a frequent contributor, or The Morning News, where with John Warner he provides essential commentary for the Tournament of Books, his fiction occupies a space that some readers might not associate with these latter-day literary tastemakers. Case in point, the titular Thousand are "a clandestine group of powerful individuals safeguarding and exploiting the secret teachings of Pythagoras." That may sound like Dan Brown fodder, but you'll be getting something much, much smarter. (Max) September Freedom by Jonathan Franzen: Freedom, Jonathan Franzen's first novel in nearly a decade, is a love story - albeit one surrounded by more ideas and insights and plot-lines than many novelists manage in a career. As he anatomizes the marriage of Minnesotans Patty and Walter Berglund, Franzen also looks at environmentalism, politics, sex, gentrification, and the pains and pleasures of growing up. And though a youthful anger animates his writing on the Bush years, his patience with Patty, in particular, suggests a writer who has done some growing himself. Franzen's longest book is also, for great swaths of pages, his best. (Garth) Bound by Antonya Nelson: If two women can bond by mutual disdain for a third, then reading Antonya Nelson’s fiction is like being the second woman listening as Nelson dishes tales of family, friends, and small town life with precision, venom, and humor. Typical to Nelson is a swift and biting portrait that’s as honest as it is unsentimental--consider this line from her story “Incognito” for example: “My mother the widow had revealed a boisterous yet needy personality, now that she was alone, and Eddie, least favorite sibling, oily since young, did nothing more superbly than prop her up.” Nelson’s latest novel, Bound, returns to her hometown of Wichita, Kansas, and depicts the turmoil of a couple on the rocks--the wife haunted by her past and the husband a serial adulterer--while a serial killer, the BTK (Bound Torture, and Kill), reappears after a long silence, taking vicious to a new level. (Anne) Zero History by William Gibson: Zero History will round out a trilogy that also includes Pattern Recognition and Spook Country. Gibson recently laid out how the three books fit into our 21st century milieu: "If Pattern Recognition was about the immediate psychic aftermath of 9-11, and Spook Country about the deep end of the Bush administration and the invasion of Iraq, I could say that Zero History is about the global financial crisis as some sort of nodal event." (Max) Ape House by Sara Gruen: Following her surprise hit with Water for Elephants, Gruen earned a $5 million advance for Ape House and whatever she writes next. Whether or not Gruen earns back that hefty advance, the new book sounds like madness: super smart apes -- bonobos, specifically -- escape a lab in an explosion and not long after, a mega-hit reality TV show appears featuring the missing apes. This reminds me of that movie Project X. (Max) C by Tom McCarthy: One of Tom McCarthy’s many roles in addition to novelist includes acting as the General Secretary of the International Necronautical Society, who in their first manifesto declared: “our very bodies are no more than vehicles carrying us ineluctably towards death” and that “the construction of mankind’s sole chance of survival lies in its ability, as yet unsynthesised, to die in new, imaginative ways.” In keeping with these moribund tendencies, McCarthy returns with his second third novel, C, which in general terms deals with technology and mourning. In McCarthy’s own words, “C is about the age of the wireless: the roar of transmission, signals flung from towering masts, global reaches crackling out of earphones. And empire. And insects. And incest.” Simultaneously a bildungsroman and an anti-realist period novel, C follows the life of Serge Carrefax, the son of a man who runs a school for the blind, who grows up to become a WWI radio operator for reconnaissance planes, is imprisoned by the Germans, and escapes. The book jacket designer, Peter Mendelsund, claims that if MacCarthy’s first novel, Remainder, recalls Beckett then C reads like Joyce. McCarthy says that if Remainder is his French novel, then C is his German. If one can judge a book by its cover and anticipatory buzz, C will be one to remember. (Anne) True Prep by Lisa Birnbach with Chip Kidd: The Official Preppy Handbook had that rare spark of wit that makes a good joke many things to many people. Actual preppy people were chuffed to find themselves the subject of a well-drawn lampoon (or earnestly concerned with inaccuracies), the great unwashed found an arsenal or an atlas, depending on their aspirations, and people somewhere in the middle could feel a sheepish pride in being kind of sort of related to a tribe important enough to have its own book. People with real problems, of course, didn't care either way. Now, True Prep is upon us, and if it fulfills the 1.3 million-print run promise of its precursor, Knopf Doubleday and authors Lisa Birnbach and Chip Kidd (original collaborator Jonathan Roberts did not participate, fearing the project wasn't true to the subversive intention of the Handbook) stand to rake it in. But the popularity of the original book, the shifting sands of American society and wealth, and the proliferation of lifestyle blogs by people with no sense of humor or irony have created a monster simulacrum of "prepdom," one without easily defined parameters. Will the sequel be able to paint such a sharp and comic portrait as the first Handbook, or will it be yet another non-book littering the aisles of Borders? (Lydia) All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost by Lan Samantha Chang: Chang, who is the author of one other novel, Inheritance, and a story collection, Hunger, is also the director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Perhaps the Workshop inspired her new book, which is about poets at a renowned writing school. At just over 200 pages, this slim novel examines the age-old question, "What are the personal costs of a life devoted to the pursuit of art?" (Edan) By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham: Cunningham's last novel Specimen Days didn't quite replicate the critical and commercial success of The Hours. This new novel was initially called Olympia, and a long excerpt of it was published in the inaugural issue of Electric Literature. Discussing the novel, Cunningham told Entertainment Weekly, "Peter is the central character. He’s an art dealer and he finds that he is increasingly drawn to his wife’s very much younger brother, who evinces for him everything that was appealing about his wife when he first met her. He’s not gay. Well, he’s probably a little gay because we’re all a little gay, right? But it’s certainly eroticized. It’s not because he wants to f— this boy. The boy is like the young wife." (Max) Salvation City by Sigrid Nunez: In early 2009 in these pages, Sana Krasikov considered the contention the women aren't known for writing novels of ideas. Her rejoinder to this was Sigrid Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind, "a book that, in addition to being beautifully written, was as much about ideas as it was about characters." This new novel exploring a dystopia -- it's set in the near future after a flu pandemic has ravaged the world and a sheltered, but cultish community has survived the carnage -- seems likely to extend Krasikov's thesis. (Max) The Elephant's Journey by Jose Saramago: From the late Nobel laureate, this novel "traces the travels of Solomon, an Indian elephant given by King John III to Archduke Maximilian II of Austria." (Max) October Nemesis by Philip Roth: This latest novel from Roth should prove to be more accessible than his last, The Humbling. The book is set during a war-time polio epidemic in Newark, New Jersey in 1944. At the center of the book is a 23-year-old playground director who sees polio ravage the children he looks after. The book has been in the works since at least early 2009, when it was first described by Roth. (Max) Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier: If, like me, you were wowed when you read in The New Yorker Ian Frazier's expansive, two-part travelogue of a trip across Siberia at the turn of the millennium, then you'll be thrilled to find out that this massive piece was likely just a small fraction of Frazier's forthcoming 544-page book. Frazier's entertaining guides Sergei and Volodya (they are a pair of lovable, though sometimes frightening, curmudgeons), his insistence on traveling by car (which lent Frazier's NYer piece many comic moments but also an unimpeachable authenticity), and the moment in history when his trip takes place (he arrives at the Pacific on September 11th, 2001), seem likely to make this book a classic. (Max) Listen to This by Alex Ross: If New Yorker music critic Alex Ross’s second book Listen to This lives up to its title essay, then we’re in for a treat. I remember being floored and invigorated by that essay in 2004; Ross’s depth of knowledge, passion, and youth – just 36 then – converted me to his cause in a blink. “I hate ‘classical music,’” he wrote, “not the thing but the name. It traps a tenaciously living art in a theme park of the past... Yes, the music can be great and serious… It can also be stupid, vulgar, and insane. Music is too personal a medium to support an absolute hierarchy of values.” In other words, no music, classical or otherwise, is categorically superior nor the moribund realm of rich ladies; all great music is by definition “something worth loving.” In Listen to This, Ross reaches beyond “classical” (his award-winning first book The Rest is Noise explored 20th century classical composers) into a more eclectic canvass -- in Ross’s words, a “panoramic view” – of music worth loving, including Verdi, Brahms, Marian Anderson, Chinese classical music, Kiki and Herb, Led Zeppelin, Björk, Radiohead, Mitsuko Uchida, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Bob Dylan. (Sonya) Picture This: The Near Sighted Monkey Book by Lynda Barry: For the visually patient—those who inspect collage, squint into details, and willingly sift through doodles—Lynda Barry’s work is a unique gift. The cartoonist/novelist/lecturer’s Picture This: The Near Sighted Monkey Book will continue the thread begun with 2008’s What It Is, her bust-out graphic memoir-cum-instructional. As What It Is encouraged the act of writing, Picture This will push the reader to draw and remind us of the happiness it once could bring. Remember when you filled your looseleaf margins with rough Darth Vaders and ridiculous monsters? If anyone can get us to put down our phones, pick up our pencils, and get back to that pleasure, it’s Barry—whose boundless, cramming technique is evidence of both the work and reward of creation. (Jacob) The Masque of Africa by V.S. Naipaul: V.S. Naipaul, hoping to reach "the beginning of things," traveled to six sub-Saharan African countries and examined the belief structures found therein for The Masque of Africa, a travelogue and treatise on the role of religion in culture. Apparently Naipaul learned much from this project, which complicated his sense of an old-new dichotomy and his notion that religious practices varied greatly between nations. Naipaul's detractors have accused him of being a colonial apologist, so it will be interesting to see how this work of non-fiction will engage with complex ideas of faith and progress, neither of which can be separated from Africa's colonial past, nor, as Naipaul concedes, from the present-day politics of the nations he explores. (Lydia) Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak (translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky): Pevear and Volokhonsky's vigorous translations have turned new editions of the Russian greats into publishing events, and we've watched as their translations of classics like War and Peace and The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories climbed our otherwise contemporary-leaning top-ten lists. Last year, we interviewed the husband and wife team and got a sense of their unique process. In an interview around the same time with the Wall Street Journal, the couple called Zhivago the toughest of the 16 books they've translated: "The issue is the prose. It's not that rich or ornate, but it's extremely difficult to translate. His language is very studied. Even when it looks simple, it's not. The sentences aren't long or complex, but it's the quality of the words. It's never what you expect." (Max) The Great House by Nicole Krauss: Bestselling author of The History of Love, Nicole Krauss returns with The Great House, a novel about a desk that, according to the publisher's description, "contains the secrets, and becomes the obsession, of the lives it passes through... a desk of enormous dimension and many drawers that exerts a power over those who possess it or give it away." Krauss was one of The New Yorker's "20 under 40" writers, and "The Young Painters," published in the magazine's June 28, 2010 issue, is an excerpt from her forthcoming novel. You can read a Q&A with her here. (Edan) X’ed Out by Charles Burns: I once saw a comics panel discussion in which Charles Burns complained, fairly wryly, about the amount of effort he forces into his work: in one issue of Black Hole, he said, he spent hours applying his sharp black inks to an endpaper image of twigs—a picture that each reader would spend “maybe three seconds on,” then move along. Such frustration is understandable, but I don’t know that he was actually right. Each page, each panel, of Burns’ work claws you in; each line is unsettling in its perfection. He cannot be read casually. His newest, X’ed Out, will touch on typically Burnisan themes: quiet distress, eerie isolation, a heavy apocalyptic oddness. But, as always, the look of the book is the thing: we’ll be gripped by its feel as much as by its story—and, yes, take our time with its potent renderings of splintered boards, broken walls, and specimens shut in jars. (Jacob) False Friends by Myla Goldberg: We included Goldberg on our own "20 under 40" list and suggested that "literary mandarins" put off by her smash-hit debut Bee Season take a look. Another opportunity to do so will arrive in October with Goldberg's third novel. (Max) If You're Not Yet Like Me by Edan Lepucki: In October, Millions contributor Edan Lepucki will publish her novella If You're Not Yet Like Me under Flatmancrooked's New Novella imprint. The title will initially be available for limited edition presale under Flatmancrooked's LAUNCH program, designed for emerging authors. (Max) November: Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie: In the wake of the fatwa and accompanying media frenzy that followed the publication of The Satanic Verses, Rushdie, apparently at the prodding of his then nine-year-old son, shifted gears to focus on something much less contentious, a children's book called Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Now, twenty years later, Rushdie is returning with a sequel to the book he wrote for his son. Fatherhood has once again inspired Rushdie, who, according to bookseller.com, decided to write this new book for his "youngest son, Milan, who was born in 1999." (Max) Autobiography of Mark Twain: On April 21, 1910, Mark Twain died of a heart attack. His death brought to a close maybe the greatest literary life America has ever known, and it started the countdown to the publication of Twain's autobiography, which Twain instructed was not to be released until he had been good and gone for 100 years. Well, the waiting is finally over, and from early reports it appears as though it might have taken an entire century to wrestle the mass of writing Twain left behind into publishable form. This November, the University of California Press will release the first volume in a trilogy that Twain wrote according to the rambling dictate, "talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment." (Kevin) The Box: Tales from the Darkroom by Gunter Grass: The publisher's description of this one lays out its unique premise: "In an audacious literary experiment, Günter Grass writes in the voices of his eight children as they record memories of their childhoods, of growing up, of their father, who was always at work on a new book, always at the margins of their lives." It's another journey into autobiography for Grass, whose Peeling the Onion set off a furor in Germany and elsewhere with its revelation that Grass had been a member of the Waffen-SS during World War II. (Max) Life Times: Stories, 1952-2007 by Nadine Gordimer: FSG will collect the "best" short fiction from the South African Nobel laureate in this hefty volume. (Max) The Petting Zoo by Jim Carroll: Readers mourned the death of punk poet Jim Carroll last year. As Garth wrote in these pages, "Before he was a screenwriter, Carroll was a diarist, a frontman, an addict, and a poet, and he left behind at least a couple of very good books." For Carroll fans, this posthumously published novel that takes the late-1980s art scene as its inspiration, will at the very least be another opportunity to experience his work and at best may be another one of those "very good books." (Max) Selected Stories by William Trevor: This volume will collect nearly 600 pages worth of short stories from this verable master of the form. (Max) Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick: This forthcoming novel from Ozick is framed as a nifty literary trick. It's a retelling of Henry James' The Ambassadors, but, according to the publisher's description, "the plot is the same, [but] the meaning is reversed." (Max) December: Dead or Alive by Tom Clancy: It's actually been seven years since the last Tom Clancy book came out, the longest gap of his career. This fact plus the usual excitement from Jack Ryan fans could make this more of a publishing event than expected. (Max) My Prizes by Thomas Bernhard: This collection of essays was originally published in 1980 but never in the U.S. The book will be a balm to those worked up by literary prizes and the teapot tempests they tend to foment. Bernhard's focus here is the myriad prizes he collected and his bemused, sardonic reaction to them. The book seems likely to stand as an irreverent footnote at the intersection of 20th century literary history and 20th century publishing culture. A review of the German edition of the book suggests: "Although it’s a barrel of laughs, it’s also a serious book about what drove Bernhard to become the writer he eventually turned out to be." (Max) February 2011: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell: Karen Russell was just 23 when she had a story in The New Yorker's 2005 debut fiction issue. Since then, she has published an acclaimed collection of stories, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, and been named to The New Yorker's 20 writers under 40 list. With the accolades already piled sky high, this will be one of the more anticipated debut novels in recent years. The publishers' description suggests we should expect big, ambitious things: "think Buddenbrooks set in the Florida Everglades." (Max) Townie: A Memoir by Andre Dubus III Dubus, already much feted for his short stories and novels, will be trying his hand at the memoir. In this case, the trajectory is from hard-bitten youth to redemption in writing. Fans can expect perhaps to gain some insights into the genesis of Dubus' fiction. (Max) March 2011: You Think That's Bad: Stories by Jim Shepard: You Think That's Bad will be Shepard's fourth collection of short stories, and from the Knopf catalogue description, it sounds like it won't disappoint; there's a story about a farm boy who "becomes the manservant of a French nobleman who’s as proud of having served with Joan of Arc as he’s aroused by slaughtering children"--need we say more? Shepard's previous collection, Like You'd Understand, Anyway, was nominated for the National Book Award. (Edan) The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht: Obreht secured a special place in the literary pantheon not just by being on The New Yorker's recent 20 under 40 list, but by being, at 25, the youngest one on it. With her debut novel, readers will get a larger sense of what the praise for Obreht is all about (an excerpt of the novel, in the form of a peculiar story of the same title, appeared in the magazine last year). (Max) Unknown: The Pale King by David Foster Wallace: When he died in September 2008, David Foster Wallace left behind more than 1,000 pages of notes and drafts of an unfinished novel that he had given the preliminary title The Pale King. The book had been in progress for more than a decade and one of the last things Wallace did before taking his own life was to tidy what he written so that it would be easier to sort after he was gone. Since then the manuscript has been in the hands of Michael Pietsch, Wallace's longtime editor at Little, Brown, and it is expected that a version of the book running about 400 pages will be published late this year or early next. Four confirmed excerpts from The Pale King have appeared in The New Yorker and Harper's. They suggest a story centered around IRS agents at a Midwestern processing office struggling to deal with the "intense tediousness" of their work. (Kevin) There are many other exciting books coming out in the coming months not mentioned here – let us know what books you are most looking forward to in the comments section below.

A Year in Reading: Joshua Ferris

Joshua Ferris' debut novel, Then We Came to the End - one of The Millions' Most Anticipated Books of 2007 - was a finalist for this year's National Book Award. It's due out in paperback this spring. Mr. Ferris' shorter fiction has appeared in the Best New American Voices series and the New Stories from the South series, and in The Iowa Review and Prairie Schooner. He lives in Brooklyn.The Ambassadors by Henry James is every bit as melancholy and masterful as it is exasperating and windy. You need one determined machete to make it through and at times the style is so overwrought and unnecessarily filigreed that I nearly gave up. But James is fiction's paradigm for the satisfaction of fighting the good fight, as by the end of The Ambassadors the entire world has been hauled into that thicket. I chose The Ambassadors as opposed to the other James I read this year because its subject is one of my favorites: life not lived to its fullest, squandered life, the search for how best to live. I also read Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays for the first time, a gift from my friend Ravi, for which I'll always been thankful. And Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones, the collection that includes "An Orange Line Train to Ballston," a story as deeply affecting as any I've encountered.More from A Year in Reading 2007
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