The Flamethrowers

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Against Readability

In 2008, Anheuser-Busch ran a series of perplexing ads extolling Bud Light’s “drinkability.”  What could it mean to say that a beer is able to be drunk?  That it won’t kill you?  That it does not taste completely terrible?  That it is liquid, and so will run down your throat so long as you remain at least vaguely upright?  “Bud Light keeps it coming.”  Under most conceivable interpretations, “drinkable” seems insulting: this beer is not good, merely drinkable.  It’ll do, I guess.  The ads seemed premade for mockery, almost as if an agency staffed by craft-beer lovers had snuck a self-negating pitch past their clients.  Unsurprisingly, the campaign was widely chalked up as a failure.  One of Budweiser’s 2015 Super Bowl ads, which openly mocked craft beer -- “proudly a macro beer,” “not brewed to be fussed over” -- seemed comparatively savvy: if your product can’t be confused for good, then play the populist card and deride the good as elitist.  (And sell Goose Island, and now Camden Town, with your other hand.)  Seemingly this must have been the aim of the “drinkability” ads as well, even if they were too tin-eared to achieve it.  “Easy to drink,” “won’t fill you up,” the ads also said. “Drinkable” must mean: doesn’t have too much taste, too distinctive of a flavor, won’t slow you down, offers nothing in need of savoring. I have been reminded of these Bud Light ads repeatedly since when perusing, of all things, book reviews, where “readable” has risen to become the preeminent adjective of praise.  Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch: “brilliantly readable.”  Jonathan Franzen’s Purity: “Superbly readable.”  The Girl on the Train, Room, The Martian, Gone Girl: “compulsively readable” (too many hyperlinks to include).  A micro-history of cultural gatekeeping: once told by the censors what we may read, then by critics what we should, we are now told merely what we can read.  What could it mean to say that a novel is able to be read?  Composed of words that you can pass your eyes over one after another and comprehend?  “Readable,” like “drinkable,” seems almost an insult: this book isn’t good, but you’ll be able to finish it.  Readable books are full of familiar characters, familiar plots, and most especially familiar sentences.  They are built up out of constituent commonplaces and clichés that one only has to skim in order to process.  Nothing slows you down, gives you pause, forces you to think or savor.  Not too much description, or abstraction, or style.  A little bit literary, perhaps, but not too literary.  To praise a book as readable is really just to say that you won’t have to add it your shelf with the bookmark having migrated only halfway through its leaves, won’t find yourself secretly glad to have to return it to the library, only half finished, when your two weeks are up.  A readable book holds out the promise that you’ll be able to resist putting it down to check your email, or to look for updates on Slate or ESPN, or to turn on the television, or to give in to Netflix.  (“Compulsively readable” means “the screen rights have already been sold,” I’m pretty sure.) “Readable” has become the chosen term of praise in our times precisely because so many of us find ourselves unable to concentrate as we once could or still aspire to.  But to praise readability is to embrace the vicious feedback loop that our culture now finds itself in.  Short on concentration, we give ourselves over to streams of content that further atrophy our reserves of attention.  Soon a 1,000-word polemic seems too long to drag oneself through, and we resort to skimming.  So websites post yet shorter articles, even warn you how many minutes they will take to read (rarely double digits; will they soon warn us how long one takes to skim?).  Editors pre-empt their own taste, choosing not what they like, or think is actually good, but what they think they can sell.  Teachers, even professors, shy away from assigning long or difficult books. It might seem that “readable” is most at home as a term of praise of thrillers and beach reads.  But this is definitional: an unreadable thriller isn’t a thriller at all.  “Readable” is quintessentially a term of praise for the middlebrow: fiction that aspires to the literary, but doesn’t make its reader try too hard.  Fiction that you read to console yourself that you can still read a real book, or at least an approximation of one.  Maybe you’re with me so far -- in the abstract, that is to say.  But now it’s time to name names.  The last year alone brought new books from many of our most celebrated middlebrow authors, which is to say our most celebrated authors: Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, and Jonathan Safran Foer.  All eminently readable, all more (Chabon, Foer) or less (Smith, Lethem) diverting, all completely forgettable.  None of these books would reward being reread, studied, taught.  A provisional definition of literature: that which does. It is no coincidence that even the literary sensations of our times sit, readably, at the margins of the middlebrow.  Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels: “compulsively readable.”  You will be propelled through the text, unable to attend to anything else until finished.  Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: “intensely, irresistibly readable.”  Zadie Smith says she “needs the next volume like crack.”  Though seemingly meant as praise, Smith’s blurb actually captures well my own ambivalent feelings toward Knausgaard’s saga: after reading each new novel in a two-day binge I wonder why I had, if I took anything away from their style-less prose.  (My own backhanded blurb for Knausgaard: great airplane reading.)  Ferrante’s and Knausgaard’s projects are perhaps the most praised of our times, and this is so not despite, but because, they are not too literary.  For all their wonderful insight into female relationships, the Neopolitan novels are essentially a soap opera, their plotting determined by one love triangle after another.  The thousands of pages in Knausgaard’s My Struggle, though this wouldn’t seem possible, include remarkably little self-reflection, favoring the flat narration of events instead.  But both projects are eminently readable, neither requiring nor inviting the reader to ever pause and think, easy enough to finish, but long enough to feel like an accomplishment.  Any more style than this, and “readable” is needed to soften the potential intimidation.  Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers: “unique in its style, yet immensely readable.”  “Yet:” style and readability as contraries. What novels are not readable?  Finnegans Wake, Beckett’s trilogy, a still cut-up and unrestored William S. Burroughs?  (Those are some books I’ve not only not finished, but never really been able to even start.)  Here’s the rub: the unreadable is simply whatever the reader hasn’t been able to finish.  William Gaddis’s second masterpiece JR becomes unreadable to even a self-styled curmudgeonly elitist like Jonathan Franzen simply because he couldn’t make his way through it.  Franzen’s own novels, by contrast, are quintessentially readable.  I read Purity, and before it Freedom, in two days; at no point did either invite me to pause and think.  After being propelled through The Goldfinch, my only reaction was to wonder why I had wasted three days of my life on it.  These are the definition of “readable” books: long, and thus in need of that consoling word, but unchallenging and middlebrow, false trophies. Readable fiction is not the problem; rather, “readable” as a -- especially as our highest -- term of praise is.  Readability tells one precisely nothing about the quality of a novel.  There are good and bad readable books; high, low, and most definitely middlebrow ones.  Given the tenor of our times, it is perhaps readable books that we need least, however.  It is books that slow us down and teach us to concentrate again that we need.  Books that force us to attend to language, and ideas, and the forgotten weirdness of the world.  Don DeLillo, master of the gnomic, aphoristic sentence, each one calling for your attention, has said that he doesn’t think his first novel, Americana, would be published today, that any editor would have given up before making it through 50 pages.  A great but strange book like Tom McCarthy’s Remainder was rejected by mainstream presses and only found life, slowly, through the art world.  But these are the sorts of books we need.  To embrace a literary culture of Tartts and Franzens, even Ferrentes and Knausgaards, may not be to settle for Budweiser.  But it is to limit oneself to lager and pilsner when there are porters and stouts, black, white, and session IPAs, even sours and wilds to be had.  It is to drink Stella and Bass when Dogfish Head, Lefthand, Nighshift, and countless others are readily available.  The beer critic who claims that Budweiser, or even Yuengling, is actually worth your time is either trolling you, or a corporate shill.  So too the literati if the best they can recommend is the latest readable bestseller.  So: critics, reviewers, blurbers, tell us not what we are able to read, but what we should.  It is no accident that The Underground Railroad, rather than the far superior Intuitionist or John Henry Days, finally allowed Colson Whitehead to break through, but, if you’re only now hearing of him, read those earlier books instead, or too.  Read anything by Dana Spiotta, or Ben Marcus, or Lydia Davis, or Steven Millhauser.  Read Adam Ehrlich Sachs’s hilarious and thoughtful Inherited Disorders.  Read any of the novels recovered and republished each year by NYRB Classics.  Read Teju Cole’s Open City, and Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory.  Read the beautiful alliterative sentences of William Gass.  Read Dexter Palmer’s Version Control, rather than the 102 more popular time travel books ahead of it on Amazon.  Some of these books are readable, others less so, some awarded, others ignored, but it hardly matters.  What matters is that they resist commonplace and cliché, that they slow you down, reward attention and concentration, transfigure language and, through it, the world.  They have new ideas, and images, and phrases.  What matters is that they are good.  You should read them, whether or not you, or I, think you can. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Running in the Wake

1. When I started running, I was stately, yes, but too plump, and I took to the roads in the morning to take in the crisp air and give myself a bit more margin of error to drink beer.  About half a decade later -- a year ago now -- I found myself waving goodbye to my wife on a chilly, wet October morning as she drove out of the empty parking lot of Mount Vernon, once George Washington’s estate on the banks of the gray Potomac River, back to our warm home, 19 miles away, and our kitchen, and two cats, myself left with just a bag of water on my back, an MP3 recording of an Irishman reading seeming gibberish for 35 hours -- i.e., James Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness dirge Finnegans Wake -- and a GPS watch to track it all.  And, of course, space-age sprays and pastes slathered on my peaks and valleys to prevent chafing. I was training to run my first marathon -- 37 and falling apart, bald and still too fat in most places, but human adaptability is a glorious thing, and somehow after training all of the hot summer it seemed the old meat machine would be able to finish the race.  Knock on wood.  Trust your training.  Never trust a fart.  Etc.  I’d made it through the acute brutalities of a DC summer (85% humidity at 5:45 am, and hot) with just one long run left.  After this last monster, the worst that remained would somehow be just a non-issue 12 miler, then taper taper taper (for non-runners: heal up) and ta da, the race, and then done.  I would get my body back, and my weekends, and my mornings. Forget the aches and the pains and the miles.  The time commitment alone was real and grueling: Almost three hours of weekday mornings spent running before work, and then a long run on Sunday of another two and a half to three hours. A month or so into the 18-week grind, though, I found that the gift of this training was the gift of reading.  Hours and hours of long runs, just get those miles in, and after a while music is too complicated, the rhythms -- too often the slightest bit off -- make feet fall wrong.  So: audiobooks.  That summer I “read” better and more by listening than I had been able to in years.  As a younger man I had swallowed whole catalogues of author after author.  Since 2004 or so, though, I hardly read a book or two a year. I'll spare you and myself the excuses -- this problem (like so many other things) was my failing and not the world’s.  But eight miles on a Wednesday morning, or a Sunday 15...that's real time, for real “reading,” available nowhere else in my life.  And God bless it.  Over the course of the summer I “read” story after story from a Haruki Murakami collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, and all of Rachel Kushner’s Flamethrowers, and a good lot of Jonathan Franzen’s Purity. So back to that Mount Vernon parking lot morning.  I had reached the emotional (if not literal) end of my training.  One more long run and I‘d be done.  All that would be left would be to stay loose and rest up for the marathon.  But things had gone too well, and I wanted more.  The running books I’d read said not to push past 20 miles in your training runs, certainly not for your first marathon.  The reason: there’s no gain to be found in pushing into or through the awful last six miles, where your body and soul leave you with nothing but the one, two of foot in front of foot dragged by acid-soaked muscles and the thought that there is beer and something else at the end but I forget what.  For the sake of your emotional wellbeing, just do that once.  Save that unique joy for race day. Like I said, I felt things had gone too well.  So, for this last run, I wanted to up the mental game somehow, maybe simulate the brutality of the last six miles without running them.  What better way to test my fortitude than by hammering my head with the legendarily impenetrable Irish jibberish of Finnegans Wake?  If I can run 20 yammering nonsensical miles, then an extra six with folks cheering most of the way instead: easy, right?  Maybe easier. It seemed a good morning for my project, I thought, as my wife and I drove to Mount Vernon, cold and gray and wet.  Irish weather, maybe, myself having never seen Dublin.  And, frankly, good running weather too.  Better a chill and a wind you can fight with the fire inside than the crushing of the sun and heat. I stepped out of the car into the dreary Mount Vernon parking lot and put on the silly safety-vest-looking backpack full of water.  My wife took the wheel and drove quietly out of the parking lot, a full and sane day ahead of her.  I waved to the tail-lights as they dimmed in the mist and, trotting off towards home, I pressed play. The running was fine and predictable, the first couple miles just working through the accumulated tightness of the preceding months and past each joint’s initial grumbles.  The book pushed quickly through the first page or two that had punished me repeatedly for daring to start reading it a couple times over the years.  As the minutes passed, a sort of awareness of scene filtered through the earbuds, if only barely.  Early on, for example, a museum guide walked us (the readers) through what must have been pages of exhibits of I'm not quite sure why it mattered.  For example: “This is the flag of the Prooshi-                                                                   11 ous, the Cap and Soracer. This is the bullet that byng the flag of        12 the Prooshious. This is the ffrinch that fire on the Bull that bang       13 the flag of the Prooshious.?” This is Derek’s sullen resignation. But then we moved on through the miles, the book and I, past the museum, and... Not as bad as I thought.  Somehow, easier?  Easier even than a narrative book?  I'll admit there were times over the hundreds of miles this summer when I was not laserbeam focused on the intricacies of Murakami’s blind willow dream, or, in Flamethrowers, the Moto Valero slipping turning tumbling across the salt flats, or men of various ages, nationalities, and levels of familial relation leering at Franzen’s Pip.  Moments when I’d catch and hold an image then let it envelop me as my feet kept hitting ground, caught frozen smiling in the wave before it broke and rolled back, my attention and any context washed away with it.  Or the realities of the run took over: when stop lights or carb packets or blessed cold water was king, the audiobooks slipped to Charlie Brown teacher sounds and rhythm in the background.  But here was a book that was all a waterfall of images sound and rhythm and yes on some level so much more, but on a run it could be just sound and rhythm, and if you catch a bit in English here and there all the better.  And if not, it just enveloped me as I swerved along that last long run by the river, beating the bending path back to my castle. Other than the museum guide, the first surprise of Finnegan’s Wake to wash over me was the rap music.  Multiple times in first five miles (at my pace, the first hour of the book) I found myself thinking back to “Alphabet Aerobics” by Blackalicious.  And I could swear that Joyce namechecked at least a couple lyricists in the first 100 pages: Black Thought, and Meth.  I was surprised somehow to not hear the names Raekwon or Ghostface Killah, even though the book’s random access style shares more DNA with the Chef and Ghost than with Method Man.  But one does not get greedy when writing a paragraph about anachronistic name dropping.  Run on. In college I read Ulysses with and for and because of the secondary texts and concordances and the desk and time big enough to hold it all.  Peek under the page and see the scaffolding made of strings.  Pull a string and pull into your lap The Odyssey or Shakespeare or the intricacies of then-contemporary Irish politics.  Delight in the architecture and in your own appetite for a “difficult” book.  Impress your friends and wow (bookish) lovers.  On the run two decades later, however, my ears were just big enough to hold the dance of syllables, if that, but in that: liberation.  I could not be expected to figure it out.  And to be clear, I didn’t.  No place for concordance here.  No strings or scaffolding. Here’s what happened (I think) in what my MP3s call the first 100 pages or so: the world was created, as were people, as was Dublin.  People had a lot of sex.  People did a lot of drinking, and got drunk.   At least one person, and likely more, peed, seemingly (hopefully) outdoors.  I’m pretty sure I may have secreted to the bushes myself in the course of those pages.  Men stood trial for their offenses. Maybe the peeing was the offense, or one of them, or maybe not.  I faced no censure myself for peeing into the bushes.  Not even a judging glance. And a few miles on, after the rap, there were other echoes, this time literary.  First, of Joyce. There was a cyclops in Ulysses and a guy named Bloom, and both, or the sound of both, in the Wake.  And did I hear Dedalus?  Like Ulysses’s Bloom, another Joyce avatar.  But then echoes of other books, as I passed other stretches I’d run before training for this race.  Here, on this stretch of path near the parkway, was where Pip rode the bus out to see her mother, and here next to the airport I remember the dinner where it became clear that Valero’s mother in Flamethrowers was truly awful.  And later on, foot after foot, echoes too outside of the other books even, because here on this bridge earlier in the summer it was too hot and my water ran out in 87 degrees and I started to get deep chills in the beating summer sun, which I’m not a doctor but I took to be a bad sign.  Hard not to flash on that. Exactly halfway through, a pub.  “Stop,” the sirens wail. Many miles on, deeper echoes too of my life before all that.  I grew up here and once back up over the bridge into the city I’m seeing that little stage near the Washington Monument where I swear I conducted a marriage of two women in front of thousands of people before a Fugazi concert in 1995.  So many Fourth of July chaos evenings chasing explosions of fireworks friends and beer.  The parades and inaugurations I cheered or screamed at (W. Bush and Obama, both -- just align my reactions with yours, and read on).  All of this, and every heaving sweating awful summer run coming back with every step across DC soil.  So deep in, but almost home.  Riding the rhythm of the Wake but long past the words. And then, the gutpunch realization that I owed the gods 20 miles but home was just over 19 from where I started.  With three miles left the legs were tightening, and the red light stops more frequent, and with the tank so low how to push on when home was just a left turn away?  But one of the few things I think I remember from Ulysses and The Odyssey is that one is not home until it is earned, that physical proximity was not enough and it was the extra that makes it real.  So once at my house, 19.4 miles from Mount Vernon, and .2 from a ferociously needed shower, I kept on straight and not left, looping the park by my house in a stumble, and pushing a bit more, to get somehow to 20 miles, legs barely there, stopping immediately once the last decimal turned, and wow. done.  and stop this Irish mumbling, phone.  I want my brain back.  Just a block or two to the door.  My wife had mentioned breakfast of bacon and fruit, even though it was past noon.  And there was leftover pizza as well.  And there, my door, my house.  Home. I stumbled to the door, legs aching but still my heart was going like mad.  My wife opened the door, and I saw the bacon and pineapple and pizza warming in the oven, and she asked me would I go clean up while she poured me a beer and yes I said yes I will Yes. 2. And that was last year.  I ran the race, the 2015 Marine Corps Marathon, and finished, although I was not fast.  My wife made signs and popped up five places along the way and passed me a dry pair of socks halfway through.  They were magic, those socks, and now I know to pack a pair or two for this year.  As I finish writing this, I’m wrapping up training for the 2016 Marine Corps Marathon.  One 20-mile training run down, and the second this weekend.  I ran the first with a friend.  I may run the second with Joyce again for old times’ sake.  My wife and I have (lovingly and amicably) separated, and my training runs now also echo the many morning miles we had shared over the last few years.  And I cannot wait for it all to be over, the training, and then for it all, next year, to begin again just right where it left off. Image Credit: Flickr/daniMU.

Sweet Bitterness: Why We Need More Novels About Work

1. Season three of Peaky Blinders has a sexy, comic-book, super-villain version of a Russian Duchess. She is marooned in England after having fled the Bolshevik Revolution, and her sadistic wiles drive home a moral that is central to the gangster genre: Sure gangsters are cruel, but they are nothing next to the corruption of established power. The “Blinders” may have gotten their name from the razorblades they slice into their enemies’ eyes, but their ferocity is decidedly working-class. They have to clock in every day and break not just heads but their own backs and hearts on the labor required of a gypsy family that wants to rise above its station. Meanwhile, the Fabergé femme fatale, whose secrets are way more sinister than anything hiding in the Blinders’ newsboy caps, stays clean under an enamel of imperial stateliness. Such unambiguous class bitterness is refreshing. It’s exactly what’s missing from recent American novels about decadence. Ramona Ausubel’s Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, Emma Cline’s The Girls, Edmund White’s Our Young Man, and Sari Wilson’s Girl Through Glass are good novels, but they are all one gangster-moral short of reckoning with the 1 percent. One way that these novels manage to be about decadence without also reproaching conspicuous affluence is by ignoring work and aestheticizing idleness. Another way is by setting the stories in a distant, socio-politically empty version of the 1970s -- a world of rotary phones, full ashtrays, and irresponsible parenting that is all but untouched by Watergate or stagflation. Ausubel’s novel is about parents who accidentally abandon their children after learning they have lost their inheritance. Cline and Wilson’s debuts are about young women charmed by evil forces that nearly destroy them but somehow eventually earn the young women’s tacit respect. And Edmund White’s novel is about an immigrant’s struggle to, well, be a supermodel despite the fact that he is in his 30s. With the exception of Mira, Wilson’s bunhead-turned-visiting-assistant-professor-of-performance-studies, none of these novels’ main characters work. In the context of our very New York-centric moment of 1970s nostalgia, Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty reads like a Woody Guthrie song (albeit one about rich people) -- a tall, American tale that ripples outward from New England to California and the Caribbean. Amid such well-funded homages to the dirty-real Big Apple as Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire and the TV shows that Martin Scorsese and Baz Luhrmann are making for HBO and Netflix (though Scorsese’s has already been nixed), Sons and Daughters is an almost magic-real fantasy about what happens when a rich family loses all its money. In a sentence, what happens is this: Husband (Edgar) and wife (Fern) fly the coop on separate, post-traumatic vision quests while their accidentally-abandoned children (led by Cricket, a cross between Tina Belcher and Scout Finch) go native in the backyard. Though it’s set in the 1970s -- late summer of 1976 to be exact -- the sources of ease and plenty are decidedly pre-'70s: Edgar’s family’s money is from steel, Fern’s is from a wicked alchemy of cotton, slaves, and sugar. Edgar’s father is an honest-to-goodness “steel tycoon” against whom Edgar rebels in the form of a muckraking roman à clef. Edgar has read Karl Marx at Yale and is thus ashamed of his father. He cares about exploited workers, though he can’t tell the difference between a steel worker and coal miner. Push comes to shove, Edgar is just anti-work. He doesn’t want to claim his patrimony not because it’s evil but because to do so would mean micromanaging balance sheets, “suffering on one side and profit on the other with a thin column of vacations between.” He mourns the loss of Fern’s slave money (which has financed the first 10 years of their marriage). Slave money is better than steel money; it facilitates ennui better, allowing Edgar to transcend the acquisitive impulse and get a long, unobstructed view of how terrible human beings are. Fern is haunted by her wealth’s provenance. She thinks about what it means to buy and sell human beings, to parade naked bodies in parlors while ladies mill about in dresses and gloves. Fern has a heart of gold. For her we suspend our disbelief that it’s a burden to be a daughter of ease and plenty. In addition to the waking nightmares about slavery, good rich girls have to live according to such adages as “a good woman saw her name in the paper three times: when she was born, when she was married, and when she died” and cultivate the kind of beauty that is “for the purpose of enjoyment by men and envy by women.” They have to lead lives of dignified sorrow: “To prove that they were worthy of their wealth, they had all silently agreed to remain in the upper margins of unhappiness.” Poor little rich girls. Sari Wilson’s Girl Through Glass is about an aspiring ballerina in Balanchine’s New York. It has the requisite creepy old-dude mentor who eventually destroys the girl’s innocence. It has anecdotes about how dark the heart of Russian ballet really is: a refrain about how ballerinas in the age of gaslights sometimes caught fire and died in the wings while the show went on. Wilson’s world is a world wherein Russian expatriates have helped New Yorkers develop a palate for beautiful young girls who ritually dance themselves to death. Despite the sinister quality of the enterprise, the intense, destructive labor of being a ballerina “comes as a relief” to Mira, an 11-year-old who is otherwise abandoned on the periphery of a marriage that is falling apart, sometimes actually abandoned to shop girls by a mother who disappears with strange men. Ballet is Mira’s (very costly) ticket out of reality. In such a context, she’s not surprised that the Russian Tea Room, the place where Mira first meets George Balanchine himself, serves up blood-red soup that tastes like dirt. Everything that is beautiful and rich is served up with a dose of superfluous cruelty. The titular girls of Emma Cline’s The Girls are hardly rich, but they are Russian-duchess-level cruel. When we first meet them, en route to a dumpster dive, they are gliding through a suburban park like “royalty in exile.” They are untouched by the dirty business of doing what society expects of them, and for Evie Boyd, it’s love at first sight. The enamel in which these girls are cloaked is supplied by Russell, the novel’s Charles Manson stand-in whose imminent superstardom and fuck-the-squares philosophy is the girls’ key out of bourgeois jail (though compulsory sex with middle-aged men is the price of that key). The girls smugly, gullibly perform transcendence of ideology. They have that “vague dislike for the rich that all young people had. Mashing up the wealthy and the media and the government into an indistinct vessel of evil, perpetrators of the grand hoax.” Which is to say that the bitterness that fuels the girls’ rebellion is not a bitterness toward decadence but a bitterness toward a childish conception of “the man.” Until Russell order-66s them into coldblooded killers, their rebellion is simply an artful form of idleness. 2. Of course, artful idleness is pretty much the stuff of the modern novel. Sure Leopold Bloom had a job, but Ulysses is a decidedly post-quitting-time novel. And sure buying flowers ain’t easy and Big Ben strikes the hours, but Clarissa Dalloway never once clocked in. The Blooms and Dalloways of our time, Ben Lerner’s Adam Gordon or Teju Cole’s Julius, say, smoke hash and stalk “life’s white machine” and/or reboot the flânuer for a globalized present. Such aestheticized idleness is likewise a key feature of what Nicholas Dames calls “throwback fiction,” ambitious novels set in the 1970s. Novelists are drawn to this decade because, among other things, it “lacks the unbearable, compulsory dynamism we live under” and thus allows stories to be “ruminative rather than dynamic.” It allows novelists to write 1000-page novels about a super-particular time and place (à la Hallberg’s City on Fire). Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers (2012) is the throwback novel that almost bends idleness to a politically efficacious end. It relishes the slow passage of time while also illustrating the class dimension of aspiring to not-work. It’s a novel about how doing nothing can be a way of doing something profound. It’s a novel wherein a woman who gets hit by a meteorite while sitting in her kitchen becomes wise to time: time is more purely hers if she squanders it and keeps it empty, holds it, feels it pass by, and resists filling it with anything that might put some too-useful dent in its open, airy emptiness. This is the empowering inaction of a labor slowdown -- Kushner includes one of these in the novel (specifically, a work-to-rule strike). Not working means retreating from the tyranny of the clock. For the narrator (a 22-year-old known only by her hometown-inspired moniker “Reno”), it means gaining entry to a SoHo art scene full of middle-aged men who wear “work clothes” but don’t really care about labor: Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” is an exercise in “risking men and front loaders.” Reno’s first SoHo art project is to film limo drivers while they wait for their hires. She envies the sweaty, miserable chauffeurs: “To wait by a car and to know with certainty that your passenger would appear.” Such waiting -- spoiler alert -- is what Kushner uses for the novel’s climax, the pregnant moments of Reno waiting on the Swiss side of Mont Blanc to play getaway driver for a Red Brigade soldier. In short, The Flamethrowers turns waiting into a revolutionary act. Stephanie Danler’s debut novel, Sweetbitter, takes “waiting” in a decidedly less esoteric, more pedestrian, direction. It’s the one novel I’ve read this year that takes work seriously, that balances decadence with an honest day’s work. It is, as Gabrielle Hamilton claims, the “Kitchen Confidential of our time,” but not because it is an exposé of the restaurant business so much as because the same industry people who used their shift breaks to walk to Barnes & Noble and buy a copy of Anthony Bourdain’s book in the early-2000s will be drawn to Danler’s book. More than rewriting Bourdain for the front of the house, Danler rewrites the 22-year-old-ingénue-in-the-city plot. Where the first thing Kushner’s ingénue does when she gets to New York is make waiting into an art project, the first thing Danler’s does is get a job, waiting: I don’t know what it is exactly, being a server. It’s a job, certainly, but not exclusively. There’s a transparency to it, an occupation stripped of the usual ambitions. One doesn’t move up or down. One waits. You are a waiter. This is about as profound as Danler’s narrator gets, as Danler is more interested in capturing the voice of a young woman than she is in convincing us that young women are smarter than their misogynistic sponsors assume that they are. Danler’s narrator’s voice represents what seasoned server Simone calls the “gross disparity between the way that [22-year-old women] speak and the quality of thoughts that they’re having about the world.” The novel follows a year in the life of Tess, a newly-hired backwaitress, a year of being ignored, insulted, stoned, bumped, and betrayed by the people whom she will eventually have no choice but to call family. In short, she joins the working class. She reads the rulebook, finds hidden there such compensatory pleasures as the “shift drink.” She develops a palate (and a tolerance). She burns and scars herself. She learns that the key to good service (the 51 percent) is to be “fluent in rich people,” “versed in that upper-middle-class culture” without also misunderstanding it as something worth joining. Rich people circulate “in crowds that reinforced their citizenship.” They sleepwalk through a “movie they starred in…dining, shopping, consuming, unwinding, expanding,” while the industry people are both invisible and “on a pedestal at the center of the universe.” Reading Sweetbitter will cure you of your romance with idleness, with the first-world downtime social media engines need us thinking we love so that we will continue to generate free content. The aestheticization of idleness in recent novels reminds me of what Sean McCann and Michael Szalay, in “Do You Believe in Magic? Literary Thinking After the New Left” (2005), describe as the shortcomings of literary culture in general over the past half-century. According to McCann/Szalay, literary practitioners and scholars alike have embraced forms of retreat that started out in '60s countercultures and have become cornerstones of libertarianism. “Dropping out” may (or may not) get you beyond the reach of forces that want to shape your consciousness and dictate your aspirations, but it also leaves to fate systemic social problems that organization and planning might redress. Enlightened retreats from solvable ills still abound in recent fiction. Which is why we need more novels like Sweetbitter, novels that don’t give decadence a pass and that suggest that clocking in (not dropping out) is revolutionary, that the rulebook can set us free.

Historical Fiction and the New Literary Taboo

There’s a moment in Shawna Yang Ryan’s soaring new novel, Green Island, where the narrator is about to break away from the life she’s always known; she will shortly be leaving Taiwan behind -- emigrating across the Pacific Ocean to California. Her father comes into her bedroom as she’s packing. He has a gift, of sorts, for her. He’s brought a jar of soil from the family garden. “I want you to remember.” He set the jar atop my heaped clothing. “Don’t forget.” Don’t forget. His words were both an order and a plea. It is February 1972. Richard Nixon is on his trip to China. Visiting Hangzhou, he’s completing the diplomatic mission that will open formal relations with the PRC. Taiwan, of course, watches with concern; China is a hostile power; with the recognition of the People’s Republic by the United States, Taiwan’s sovereignty might soon be at risk. These, then, are the twin concerns of Green Island: the political and the personal. Indeed, just a few pages earlier, Nixon’s visit has been relayed by the novel’s narrative voice: Nixon stands against a metal rail and tosses food into the water with concentration and joy. He drops into a grinning reverie as if he has forgotten the entire world is watching. “Dr. Kissinger,” the translator says, “you can have a package if you want to feed the fish.” “Denmark, Denmark,” says the Secret Service. “President feeding fish.” They stand here at this moment, three of them the most important people to the fate of Taiwan -- Richard Nixon, Chou En-lai, and Henry Kissinger -- on an overcast day in Hangchow, feeding fish. Walter Benjamin wrote that it is, “more arduous to honor the memory of the nameless than that of the renowned.” And there are a number of novels, right now, that are balancing these antipodes -- that take significant, well-known historical moments, and show them through the lens of nearly powerless, "nameless" protagonists. Through individuals buffeted by the afflictions of their age. Of course, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See -- with over two million copies sold, in hardback -- is an example of this. Doerr’s novel follows two deeply-menaced protagonists -- Marie-Laure LeBlanc and Werner Pfennig -- as they move within the world of German-occupied France. Though Werner has enlisted in the Nazi army, he has done it from necessity, and his efforts to retain his decency in the face of war, in a way, end up causing his death. Marie-Laure is blind; the conflict threatens her in a bodily way; she feels wholly apart from the big geopolitical forces that are -- with generalized malice -- trying to kill her. She is a suffering witness to history. Many of the successful literary novels of the past 30 years have negotiated a similar territory, pairing small characters and big circumstances. Girl with a Pearl Earring (Griet, the fictional household servant, and Johannes Vermeer), Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (fictional Saleem Sinai, balanced against the political and social figures of the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan), Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (W.P. Inman, the wounded Confederate deserter, and the army he’s just left), Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace (the fictional doctor Simon Jordan, and the 19th-century murderer Grace Marks) even Toni Morrison’s Beloved (Sethe and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850), have all paired erstwhile anonymous, imaginary characters with unquestionably "real" circumstances. These books do not ignore history; they don’t neglect the geopolitical events that shape the societies in which their characters have "lived." Rather they thread their characters through these times, using the novel as an opportunity to show the impact of world-historical events on individual lives. In “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” John Locke says that, “the pictures drawn in our mind are laid in fading colors.” The project of the historical novel, then, is fashioned as an assault on this very fade. We, as human beings, struggle to remember, to retain a sense of the past. It has -- surprise! surprise! -- passed. But by inserting ordinary people into its great events, novelists can once again vivify and free the emotions of departed times. In a way, this is a gesture of resurrection. The text as Lazarus, stumbling -- bandaged by covers -- out of its dark cave. If the struggle of man against power is, indeed, the struggle of memory against forgetting, then the historical novel is -- imaginatively, at least -- a part of that struggle. As for the marketplace -- its appetite for this type of book is not surprising. Since the early 1990s, when publishers started calling it “upmarket historical fiction,” many successful literary novels have been set in a time -- or place -- other than our contemporary world. But the willingness of literary tastemakers to accept a work of historical fiction as "important" does feel like something new. Whether it’s Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings -- or two of the most anticipated novels of 2016: Alison Anderson’s The Summer Guest and Mark Beauregard’s The Whale: A Love Story -- it feels like there is a vast new space opening up in the fiction world, one that has the potential for both critical acclaim and strong sales. Writing last month in The New Republic, the novelist Alexander Chee touched on some of these issues. Chee, of course, has just published the historical novel, The Queen of the Night -- a book that has, as its central axis, a fictional 19th-century coloratura soprano, Lillet Berne. The book has been well-received, with positive reviews in nearly every major periodical, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, NPR’s Weekend Edition, Time, Vogue, The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle. It also went through multiple printings before its publication. Still, Chee was worried about the reaction his fellow writers had whenever he told them he was working on a novel set in the past. Writing last month in The New Republic, Chee said that it was, “as if I’d announced that I was giving up years of hard work writing literary fiction to sell out and become a hack. I had inadvertently hit on a literary taboo.” Yet both Alexander Chee and Shawna Yang Ryan took nearly 15 years to complete their novels. Labor on this scale is almost unthinkable. It is perhaps the exact antithesis of the genre model of fiction writing -- with the rapacious, regular demands of the marketplace. The bruising deadlines, the concept-driven, pre-packaged product. Clearly, these two historical novels -- with their robust intellectual projects, their deeply imagined settings -- are of a different order. The hours-per-page, per-sentence, per-word -- for both The Queen of the Night and Green Island -- would discourage any beginning novelist. In an interview with Slate, Chee said, “The longer the novel was unfinished, the more it endangered my ability to keep teaching, which was a large part of my income. It endangered my ability to get further grants. It endangered my relationship, because I had been working on the novel so obsessively for so long that my partner felt widowed by the project.” Ryan’s experience was similar. “It kind of took over my life for the last decade and a half,” she said. Building her book’s foundation was an arduous process. In a conversation with The New York Times, she described the work of structuring the novel. Her dedication to craft -- and her ceaseless evaluation and reevaluation of the project’s success -- was built on a twinning of imagination and historical exploration. “I often thought of my research as similar to unraveling a sweater,” she said. “I’d tug at one thread, and a whole sleeve would come undone.”

The Human Deep Within the Machine

Dana Spiotta’s new novel, Innocents and Others, pays homage to an early form of hacking known as “phone phreaking.” Phone phreaks would break into long-distance networks by learning the language of the telephone. With their mouths, or sometimes with whistles from Cap’n Crunch cereal boxes, phreaks mimicked the tonal frequencies and sequences that would trigger network switches. They made pitch-perfect 2600 Hz shrieks into headsets, resetting the trunk lines that would allow toll-free access to virtually anywhere. Their whistles and clicks forced phone companies to develop separate channels for carrying routing info. Their hacks began the encrypting process that has led to the recent standoff between Apple and the FBI. But Spiotta doesn’t go there. Innocents and Others is not a parable of “disruption,” nor are Spiotta’s phone phreaks the antecedents of brogrammers. Her characters phreak for love. They don’t want to exploit the system or bypass the operator. They want to find the operator. Specifically, the character known as “Jelly” wants to reach something called an “inward operator:” “People who can connect you to wherever you want to go; they are deep in the machine...they were voices, humans, somewhere in the big wide world.” Both of the main storylines of Innocents and Others feature women influencing Hollywood from somewhere in said big wide world, specifically from Upstate New York. There’s the story of Meadow and Carrie, longtime friends who become filmmakers and slowly drift apart, and the story of Jelly, former girlfriend of a pioneer phone phreak and a proto-catfisher with a heart of gold. From a darkened room in Solvay, an economically-depressed suburb of Syracuse, Jelly cold-calls Hollywood producers and seduces them over the phone. She becomes legendary and eventually attracts the attention of Meadow, who has moved from Los Angeles to Gloversville to make artsy documentaries that feed the late-20th-century desire for confession. A novel about this kind of urge to find the human deep in the machine is to be expected, considering our current fascination with analog technologies, with the kind of reaching out and touching others that involves the vibration of tone sequences through wires and hands along switchboards. Spiotta’s treatment of this desire is the next chapter in her career-long flirtation with nostalgia, but the nostalgia of Innocents and Others is less escapist, more radical, than other recent homages to the pre-encrypted world. For example, Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers (2013) turns to the art world that sprung up in the abandoned factories of SoHo in the 1970s. The novel’s masterful representation of this world participates in a recent obsession with all things New York in the 1970s, an obsession Edmund White describes in his New York Times Style Magazine essay, “Why Can’t We Stop Talking About New York in the Late 1970s?” Innocents and Others, on the other hand, does not promote longing for a super-cool era that has passed. Instead, it expresses a ruminative living with loss and longing that nurtures the kind of fellow feeling from which solidarity and renewal can grow. The inward operators of The Flamethrowers are “China Girls,” office workers whose faces are filmed (usually alongside a color chart) and spliced onto the initial frames of film reels. Though the origin of the name “China Girl” is a bit of a mystery, their purpose is pretty straightforward: film processors used their images to calibrate color densities. In the Paris Review, Kushner says this about fascination with China Girls: If the projectionist loaded the film correctly, you didn’t see the China girl. And if you did see her, she flashed by so quickly she was only a quick blur. They were ubiquitous and yet invisible, a thing in the margin that was central to each film, these nameless women that, as legend has it, were traded among film technicians and projectionists like baseball cards. The China Girl does for film processing what the inward operator does for the analog telephone network. She is the requisite drop of humanity that calibrates machines that carry approximations of humanity. The China Girl highlights the role of anonymous workingwomen in the evolution of American culture. She gives us a new way of looking at what is already at the center of culture (movies). She is a reminder that if we look closely enough at, say, a length of film, we will find women trapped into standards. Where Kushner’s China Girls represent the objectified women at the center of culture, Spiotta’s inward operators represent the radical possibilities that sound along the periphery. The voices of inward operators decentralize Jelly’s world. They signify its incredible depth and breadth. Most importantly, they carry the promise of intimate connection in a world where the means of connection are about to be encrypted. Unlike Kushner’s framed and fetishized women, Spiotta’s live beyond the reach of the subjugating dream factory. They continue to operate freely, triggering switches at the center of power -- Meadow with her movies and Jelly with her phone calls. And this interest in the radical potential of the periphery comes, I think, from the fact that Dana Spiotta has been living in Upstate New York for quite a while. Unlike such Silent-Generation writers as William Kennedy, Joyce Carol Oates, Russell Banks, or Richard Russo, whose novels preserve Upstate village life in the amber of literary realism, Spiotta understands Upstate as the living ground of revolution. It’s home to the Erie Canal, which Spiotta has called “the Internet of the nineteenth century.” It’s ground zero of the Women’s Movement, radical fundamentalist Christianity, and the back-to-the-land movement. It’s where people go change the world, not where they go to escape from it. Meadow, who fled L.A. for Upstate, is a master dissimulator who avoids being exploited, ignored, or fetishized. She makes jury-prize-winning documentaries that eventually earn her an Errol-Morris-but-in-a-bad-way rep, which spoils her chances at a long career (only one Oscar nod). She winds up living austerely Upstate -- think Nicholas Ray circa We Can’t Go Home Again (1973) minus the posse. Her friend Carrie writes empowered-woman rom-coms and pretty much lives happily ever after. Where Meadow is the alluring, complicated trickster that we hope to find in literary fiction, Jelly is unprecedented, a woman once seduced by a giant, bald, blind-from-birth, alpha phone phreak (Oz) who names her Jelly Doughnut because “she was soft and round and even sweeter on the inside.” Where Meadow maintains the magnetism of an edgy art student who only dates sultry, eyelinered boys, Jelly is never not assertively middle-aged, unattractive, and drawn to ugliness. Granted, Spiotta gives Jelly the more fulfilling sex life. But she has to earn it. Her sensuality is in part a result of a meningitis infection that caused her to lose her sight, which increased her interest in smell and sound. (It’s also the illness that brought her and Oz together.) For Jelly, there are no “good” or “bad” smells, only “real” or “cover” ones. “And she wanted everything to smell as it was. Actually. An armpit should smell of sweat and hair and skin.” Her sight eventually recovers, but her interest in feeling around for what is actual never subsides. Her relationship with Oz is intense, very haptic, very sexual. He teaches her how to whistle the phone into submission. Oz’s favorite thing about phreaking is reaching an electronic switching station, where he can click and whistle at crossbar and Strowger switches. Jelly’s favorite thing, other than reaching an inward operator, is reaching an “open-sleeve circuit,” a kind of proto-chat room: Their voices hanging in space, listening and laughing and recognizing each other. She was the only -- the only -- woman who phone phreaked. These were shy, awkward men. They gave her lots of attention, which she enjoyed, but they were never ever nasty. But her real passion, her art, is listening. After a friend who cleans houses steals some rolodex numbers from a mansion on Mulholland Drive, Jelly starts calling Hollywood players, “not the really famous ones...the names you don’t know.” Developing a language that does for human connection what 2600 Hz whistles do for trunk lines, Jelly triggers the switches of anonymous, powerful men. With strategically-deployed pauses and vocalizations, circumlocutionary skills that would impress even J.L. Austin, Jelly extracts intimacy from men who are otherwise dead inside. They have money and power, but it’s Hollywood power, which is to say that it’s the kind of empty compensation that leaves a man vulnerable to an anonymous, willing female ear. Jelly is an intimacy hacker, her pauses and “wordlets” keep men confessing not their crimes or dubious morals so much as their genuine impressions of what life feels like -- impressions that can be delivered over the telephone. Spiotta’s characters want to feel the weight of self and find that the best way to do so is to submit to the precarious tissue of intimate connection, connection that is not routed along encrypted networks or filtered through predictive analytics. Desire for such connection is what draws Denise Kranis, protagonist of Stone Arabia (2011), into the kitchen of the stranger whose sad story Denise had followed instead of attending to her own life. Stone Arabia is a novel about how we compensate for failures to connect, about how we craft the covers of our not-real lives. Innocents and Others is a novel about how intimacy works best from a distance. As is made painfully clear when Meadow coaxes Jelly into the light, direct encounter tends to dissolve what remains of the means of connection. Jelly is all but ruined, China-Girled by Meadow’s movie. This coming together of the novel’s two plots is the least compelling aspect of Innocents and Others. Its nod to narrative unity is forced, but the best part about the nod is how convincingly it suggests that we were all better off talking to each other in the dark.

Most Anticipated: The Great 2015 Book Preview

Last year offered many treats for readers: hotly anticipated new books by David Mitchell and Marilynne Robinson; the emergence of our own Emily St. John Mandel as a literary superstar; the breakout success of Anthony Doerr. 2015 offers more riches. This year we’ll get to crack open new books by Jonathan Lethem, Kelly Link, Kazuo Ishiguro, Kate Atkinson, Toni Morrison, Aleksandr Hemon, and Milan Kundera. Our own Garth Risk Hallberg will have his much anticipated debut on shelves later this year. Look beyond the hazy end of summer 2015 and Jonathan Franzen will be back with a new novel. All of these and many more are the books we’re looking forward to this year. The list that follows isn’t exhaustive—no book preview could be—but, at 9,000 words strong and encompassing 91 titles, this is the only 2015 book preview you will ever need. Scroll down and get started. January: Amnesia by Peter Carey: Carey’s new novel uses a cyberattack as the lens through which to consider the often-fraught history of the relationship between the United States and Australia. A radical hacker releases a worm into a computer system that governs both Australian and American prisoners. The doors of five thousand prisons in the United States are opened, while in Australia, hundreds of asylum-seekers escape. An Australian journalist, determined to figure out the motivation behind the attack and trying to save his career, struggles to get the hacker to cooperate on a biography. (Emily) Outline by Rachel Cusk: First serialized in The Paris Review, Cusk's new work is described by its publisher (FSG) as "a novel in ten conversations", but I prefer Leslie Jamison's description: "a series of searing psychic X-rays bleached by coastal light." The woman at the center of these conversations is a writing teacher who travels to Greece to teach a workshop. Her portrait is revealed by her various interlocutors, beginning with her neighbor on a plane en route to Athens. (Hannah)   The First Bad Man by Miranda July: Miranda July, artist, filmmaker and author of the story collection No One Belongs Here More Than You, has written a debut novel about a woman named Cheryl who works at a women’s self-defense nonprofit, and, according to the jacket copy, is a “tightly-wound, vulnerable woman who lives alone with a perpetual lump in her throat.” Cheryl also believes she’s made love with her colleague “for many lifetimes, though they have yet to consummate in this one.” In her blurb, Lena Dunham writes that July’s novel “will make you laugh, cringe and recognize yourself in a woman you never planned to be.” While you prepare for the book’s release, check out The First Bad Man Store, where you can purchase real items that are mentioned in the novel. (Edan) Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman: This new book is Bergman's second short story collection, after her heartbreakingly humane debut, Birds of a Lesser Paradise. Her new collection takes inspiration from historical figures, women who attained a certain degree of celebrity but whose stories have never been fully imagined. We meet Lord Byron's illegitimate daughter, Edna St. Vincent Millay's sister, a conjoined twin, and a member of the first all-female integrated swing band. (Hannah)   Sweetland by Michael Crummey: The award-winning author of Galore returns to the land and the past of Newfoundland in his latest novel, which follows Moses Sweetland, the one man determined to stay on an island long after every one else has left, in defiance of both their warnings and their threats. As the Vancouver Sun puts it, Sweetland “demonstrates, as the best fiction does (and as Crummey's novels always have) that the past is always with us, and that contemporary events are history embodied and in motion.” The novel also promises to be the best kind of ghost story, one in which memory and place are as haunting as the ghosts Sweetland believes he sees. (Kaulie) Glow by Ned Beauman: Multiple prize nods for each of his first two novels have set high expectations for Ned Beauman's next effort. If the plot, which slingshots through England, Burma and Iceland, is any indication, the new book will match the ambition of his previous work. The story kicks off at a rave in London, where Raf, a sufferer of a chronic sleep disorder, is trying out a new drug, the eponymous “glow.” The drug leads him on a quest to uncover a massive conspiracy involving a multinational named Lacebark. (Thom)   Honeydew by Edith Pearlman: Long a distinguished short-story writer, Pearlman emerged into the spotlight with her 2011 collection Binocular Vision. The new-found fame landed her a new publisher -- Little, Brown -- for her latest collection and a profile in the Times. It seems, in fact, that Pearlman is now assured the larger audience that eluded her for decades. (Max)     Binary Star by Sarah Gerard: An introduction to a recently published excerpt of Binary Star suggests Sarah Gerard has a reputation for tackling her subject matter with unusual ferocity. In her debut, she turns her attention to eating disorders, focusing on a would-be teacher who struggles with anorexia. When the story begins, the teacher weighs ninety-eight pounds, and she reflects on the parallels between her own compulsions and the hopeless alcoholism of her lover. Gerard heightens the intensity, meticulously listing what her characters eat and drink. (Thom) Frog by Mo Yan: In the latest novel by the Chinese Nobel laureate to get an English translation, Mo Yan takes on the one-child policy, depicting the lives of several characters throughout the lifespan of Communist China. Gugu, a gynecologist who delivered hundreds of babies during Mao Zedong’s reign, finds herself performing illegal abortions after the policy takes effect in the late seventies. Yan also depicts the sexism of the policy -- his characters work hard to have sons and not daughters. (Thom)   Watch Me Go by Mark Wisniewski: Wisniewski’s third novel channels the best of his profluent short fiction (Best American Short Stories, Virginia Quarterly Review). Watch Me Go speeds by with clipped chapters that follow Douglas “Deesh” Sharp, who helps haul the wrong junk: an oil drum that holds a corpse. Sharp does it for the money, and that bad decision haunts him until the final page of the novel. Wisniewski’s tale unfolds in the shadow of the Finger Lakes, New York racetracks, where, one character warns “in the long run, gamblers always lose.” Watch Me Go feels particularly apt to our national present, when police procedure is under constant scrutiny. Deesh is a victim of the system, and his redemption will only happen by fire. Wisniewski’s prose burns forward, but he knows when to slow the pace and make the reader feel Deesh’s injustice. (Nick R.) Hall of Small Mammals: Stories by Thomas Pierce: Pierce’s stories are reminiscent of the work of Laura van den Berg: his fiction exists in a space that’s just slightly offset from reality, not quite surrealism but not quite realism either. A woman admits to her boyfriend that she’s married to another man, but only in her dreams; in dreams she and her husband live out an ordinary domestic life. A man who works for a sinister television show that clones extinct animals delivers a miniature woolly mammoth to his mother. Pierce’s stories are beautifully written and suffused with mystery. (Emily) A Bad Character by Deepti Kapoor: “Delhi is no place for a woman in the dark,” Kapoor writes, “unless she has a man and a car or a car and a gun.” Idha, the narrator of Kapoor’s debut novel, is young, middle-class, and bored. Her car allows a measure of freedom, but not enough, and when she meets a somewhat unsuitable older man, the temptation to capsize her life with an affair is irresistible. Both a coming-of-age story and a portrait of New Delhi. (Emily)     Bonita Avenue by Peter Buwalda: Buwalda’s first novel, translated from the Dutch, traces the dissolution of the outwardly solid Sigerius clan, updating the family saga by way of technical intricacy, narrative brio, and internet porn. In the Netherlands, the book was a bestseller, nominated for a dozen prizes. The English translation has drawn comparisons to Jonathan Franzen and the manic heyday of a young Philip Roth. (Garth) February: Lucky Alan: And Other Stories by Jonathan Lethem: Jonathan Lethem has made a career of capturing transition—whether it’s Brooklyn’s gentrification or his masterful blend of genre and literary fiction. He works with similar themes in his third short story collection, but this time, it’s people—not places—that are in limbo. From forgotten comic book characters stuck on a desert island to a father having his midlife crisis at SeaWorld, the nine stories in this collection explore everything from the quotidian to the absurd, all with Lethem’s signature humor, nuance, and pathos. (Tess) Find Me by Laura van den Berg: In most post-apocalyptic fiction, the end of the world is devastating, but what if it were a chance for renewal and redemption? Laura van den Berg is the perfect writer to answer this question as she has proven herself a master of scrutinizing fresh starts in her short story collections, What The World Will Look Like When All The Water Leaves Us and The Isle of Youth. In her first novel, a lost young woman named Joy is immune to an Alzheimer’s-like plague sweeping the country. With society’s rules broken down, Joy travels across America in search of the mother who abandoned her, making new friends and a new world along the way. (Tess) Satin Island by Tom McCarthy: McCarthy’s fourth novel introduces us to a “corporate anthropologist” struggling to wrest an overarching account of contemporary existence from a miasma of distraction and dream. Perhaps he’s a stand-in for your average internet user. Or novelist. At any rate, expect ideas and delight in equal measure (assuming there’s a distinction); McCarthy’s reputation as a “standard bearer of the avant-garde” underrates how thoroughly he’s mastered the novelistic conventions he’s concerned to interrogate - and how fun he is to read. (Garth) Get in Trouble by Kelly Link: Link’s last story collection for adults, Magic for Beginners, was something like the Jesus’ Son of Magical Realism. Its publication nearly a decade ago won the author a passionate cult; since then, mostly through word-of-mouth, its excellence has become a matter of broader consensus. Get in Trouble, her fourth collection, offers a vivid reminder of why. Beneath the attention-getting levity of Link’s conceits - ghosts, superheroes, “evil twins” - lies a patient, Munrovian attunement to the complexities of human nature. (Garth) The Strange Case of Rachel K by Rachel Kushner: Before she published her two richly accomplished novels, Telex From Cuba and The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner wrote three short works of fiction that are collected in The Strange Case of Rachel K. In “The Great Exception,” a queen pines for an explorer as he makes his way to “Kuba.” In “Debouchement,” a faith healer’s illegal radio broadcasts give hope to an oppressed island populace. And in the title story, a French-style zazou dancer in pre-revolutionary Cuba negotiates the murky Havana night. The stories read like warm-up sketches for Telex From Cuba, and they’ll be of interest to Kushner’s ardent fans and future scholars. Others will be left hungering for something new from this outlandishly gifted writer. (Bill) Discontent and its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London by Mohsin Hamid: Hamid's latest is a collection of pieces that he wrote for various publications between 2000—the year his first novel, Moth Smoke, was published—and 2014. Hamid has lived in Pakistan, New York City, and London, and in works ranging from extended essays to brief op-eds, he brings personal insight and thoughtful analysis to issues ranging from the war on terror to the future of Pakistan to the costs and the promise of globalization. (Emily)   Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman Neil Gaiman is known for finding the fantastical in the everyday and the cracks in reality. So it should be no surprise that his third short story collection defies genre categorization, delving into fairy tales, horror, fantasy, poetry, and science fiction. Yet not all of it is unfamiliar: “Adventure Story” shares themes with his last novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and “Black Dog” brings him back to the American Gods world. (Tess)   Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano: Patrick Modiano, winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature, will get a belated introduction to many American readers through Suspended Sentences.  Originally published between 1988 and 1993, these three atmospheric novellas share Modiano’s recurring theme: an attempt to understand the secret histories of the Nazi Occupation of his native Paris.  “Afterimage” is the shadow tale of a young writer cataloging the work of a haunted photographer.  The title piece is a child’s-eye view of the gang of circus performers and crooks who raise him.  In “Flowers of Ruin,” a double suicide triggers an investigation into gangsters and collaborators during the Occupation.  It’s a delectably broad sampling from a writer with a doggedly narrow scope.  American readers should rejoice. Update: The release date was moved up following the Nobel win and the book has already been published! (Bill) The Infernal by Mark Doten: After ten years of near-silence, we’re now in the full roar of fiction about the Iraq War. The most notable efforts to date have taken a realist slant, but Mark Doten’s first novel marks a sharp swerve into Coover territory: its key figure channels the voices of Condoleezza Rice, Paul Bremer, and Osama bin Laden. Early readers have reached for adjectives like “deranged,” “crazy,” and “insane,” in addition to the more usual “thrilling” and “dazzling.” (Garth)   There's Something I Want You to Do by Charles Baxter: We don’t often want authors to moralize, but Charles Baxter is a fictional minister we have been devout to throughout more than a dozen works of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Virtue and vice are inextricably related in his latest short stories. The collection features ten stories, five about virtue and five about vice, with the same characters participating in both and all motivated by the book’s titular request. What Baxter wants us to do is note human frailty, ambiguity, and its shameful depths. As fellow master of the form Lorrie Moore notes, “Baxter’s stories proceed with steady grace, nimble humor, quiet authority, and thrilling ingeniousness.” (Tess) The Last Good Paradise by Tatjana Soli: The author of The Lotus Eaters (winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize) and The Forgetting Tree returns with a novel about a ragtag group of modern people attempting to escape their troubles on a remote Pacific island. Come for the scenery, the picaresque cast, and the comic reflections on the vagaries of contemporary life; stay for, as Kirkus puts it, Soli's "idiosyncratic prose style." (Lydia)   My Documents by Alejandro Zambra: “Camilo” was both the first thing I’d read by this young Chilean writer and one of the two or three best stories to run in The New Yorker last year. It appears alongside 10 other pieces in this collection, Zambra’s first book with McSweeney’s. (Garth)     I Am Radar by Reif Larsen: Reif Larsen’s follow-up to the bestselling The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet takes off from a premise halfway between Steve Martin and Judy Budnitz: “In 1975, a black child named Radar Radmanovic is mysteriously born to white parents.” But the ensuing 650 pages venture into realms of Pynchonian complexity and Irving-esque sweep. Erudite and voracious, skylarking and harrowing, they follow Radar around the world and into entanglements with some of the worst atrocities of the 20th Century. (Garth)   The Half Brother by Holly LeCraw: When Harvard graduate Charlie Garrett starts teaching at Abbott, an Episcopal boarding school in Massachusetts, the chair of the English department tells the young teacher that his students “all still believe in truth.” LeCraw’s gorgeous sentences dramatize a campus where literature stirs young hearts and minds. Charlie falls for a student, May Bankhead, daughter of the campus chaplain, and makes his feelings known when she returns home from college. Love turns to lust, and later to jealousy, when Charlie’s half brother, attractive Nick Garrett, arrives at Abbott to teach. Nick catches May, who has returned to teach at the school. “I need to be here,” she tells Charlie. LeCraw never eases the emotional tension. The novel begins with an epigraph from gifted teacher-writer Andre Dubus, who says he “learned to walk into a classroom wondering what I would say” rather than planning. The Half Brother captures his spirit, and the result is one of the finest school-set novels in recent memory. (Nick R.) The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman: Newman’s third novel is set in a world of children. Eighty years ago, a deadly pandemic swept across North America, and now every child is born with the disease; they begin showing symptoms around the age of eighteen or nineteen, and die soon after. When fifteen-year-old Ice Cream Star’s beloved older brother falls ill, she sets out after rumors of a cure. It’s a compelling story, but the most fascinating thing about Newman’s book is the language: the novel is written in the kind of beautifully warped English that one might expect to develop over eighty years without adults, and the prose often approaches a kind of wild poetry: “We flee like a dragonfly over water, we fight like ten guns, and we be bell to see.” (Emily) All the Wrong Places: A Life Lost and Found by Philip Connors: After the suicide of his brother Connors finds himself in, as the title of his second memoir promises, many incongruous and wrong places, ranging from a hot-air balloon floating over New Mexico to a desk at the Wall Street Journal. A kind of prelude to his debut memoir, Fire Season, All The Wrong Places helps to explain why spending a decade in mountain solitude was so attractive to Connors. It’s also a look at the wandering years that often follow early loss, and has already drawn comparisons toCheryl Strayed’s seemingly infinitely-popular Wild. (Kaulie) Bon Appétempt: A Coming of Age Story (With Recipes!) by Amelia Morris : As anyone who has ever creamed butter and sugar together in a mixing bowl knows, the precision of baking can also bring order to your life. With a few failed careers and a dysfunctional family, Amelia Morris needed to learn this lesson, too. From her blog of the same name to this memoir, she chronicles her transformation into an adult and cook, complete with a good dose of humor and recipes. (Tess) March: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro: It’s been ten years since Never Let Me Go, so for Ishiguro fans, his new novel has been long-anticipated. His British publisher, Faber & Faber, offered up a somewhat oblique teaser early last year: it’s a book about “lost memories, love, revenge and war”; the website, which is currently just a (kind of intense) book trailer, doesn’t help much either—but then, if Never Let Me Go is any indicator, perhaps we’d all be better off without a lot of spoilery summaries in advance. (Tess) Ember Days by Nick Ripatrazone: Nick's lovely meditations on teaching, writing, reading, and faith have come fast and furious on The Millions since he joined the site as a staff writer at the tail end of 2013. Nick is prolific--he's the author of two novellas, two poetry collections, a book of criticism, and a short story collection, which he somehow managed to write while teaching public school in New Jersey and parenting twins. His newest collection of short stories will be published by Braddock Avenue Books; you can read the eponymous story, a haunting number about atomic power and retribution, the title of which is taken from the Christian liturgical calendar, at Story South. (Lydia) The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James: Tania James’s debut novel Atlas of Unknowns and follow-up story collection Aerogrammes were both published to critical acclaim. This second novel may be her true coming out. Says Karen Russell: “The Tusk that Did the Damage is spectacular, a pinwheeling multi-perspectival novel with a cast that includes my favorite character of recent memory, ‘the Gravedigger,’ an orphaned homicidal elephant.” The elephant is not only a primary character, but one of three narrators, who also include a poacher and a young American filmmaker. Ivory trading, poaching, an escaped elephant, a risky love affair, all set in rural South India and “blend[ing] the mythical and the political"—this novel seems to have it all. (Sonya) Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes and I Refuse by Per Petterson: Since Out Stealing Horses brought him international acclaim in 2007, many more of Norwegian novelist Per Petterson’s books have been translated into English, although not quite in the order he wrote them. Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes, a collection of linked stories, was his first, published in Norway in 1987, and introduces young Arvid Jansen — a character he revisits in In the Wake and I Curse the River of Time — growing up in the outskirts of Oslo in the early 60s. I Refuse, meanwhile, is Petterson's latest novel, published in Norway in 2012. It tells the story of Jim and Tommy, whose friendship was forged in their youth when Tommy stood up to his abusive father and needed Jim’s support. When they meet by chance 35 years later, they recall those painful events, as well as a night on a frozen lake that separated them until now. (Janet) B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal by J.C. Hallman: Nicholson Baker's characteristically idiosyncratic biography of John Updike, U and I, has become a literary classic. Now J.C. Hallman, himself a gifted practitioner of eclectic non-fiction with books on topics ranging from chess to Utopia, turns the lens on Baker. Publisher Simon & Schuster calls it "literary self-archaeology" and offers up comparisons to Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage and Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, two books that have helped carve out a new genre of memoir that arrives refracted through the lens of the writers' literary obsessions. (Max) The Dream of My Return by Horacio Castellanos Moya: Castellanos Moya’s short novels are hallucinatory, mordant, and addictive - like Bernhard transplanted to warmer climes. And his translator, Katherine Silver, is admirably attuned to the twists and turns of his sentences. We’ve offered enthusiastic readings of Senselessness and The She-Devil in the Mirror. Here Castellanos Moya flirts again with autobiographical material, tracing the crack-up of “an exiled journalist in Mexico City [who] dreams of returning home to El Salvador.” (Garth) So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson: There’s a robust online conversation right now about public shaming: when someone says or does something offensive on the internet, does the collective outcry — a digital torch-wielding mob — go too far? Ronson’s previous books include The Psychopath Test and The Men Who Stare at Goats, and he’s a frequent contributor to This American Life and BBC Radio 4. In his newest book, billed as “a modern-day Scarlet Letter,” he examines the culture that’s grown up around public shaming, talking with people like Jonah Lehrer, who shook the publishing world with several rounds of plagiarism revelations, and Justine Sacco, who tweeted an offensive “joke” before boarding a transatlantic flight — and had what felt like the entire internet demanding that she be fired before her plane touched down. (Elizabeth) Young Skins by Colin Barrett: Ireland right now is ridiculously fertile ground for writers, though I guess that’s been said so often in the last century as to border on cliché. Still: Anne Enright, Paul Murray, Eimear McBride, Kevin Barry, Keith Ridgway…and 32-year-old Colin Barrett is, as they say, the coming man. This collection, winner of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Guardian First Book Award, wastes no motion in its unsparing look at youth and masculinity in the small towns of the west. (Garth)   Decoy by Allan Gurganus: In 2013, 12 years after the appearance of his last full-length book, Allan Gurganus published Local Souls, a collection of three novellas. One of these, Decoy, which Dwight Garner called "the keeper" of the bunch, is indeed being kept, appearing as a separate publication this spring. Set in the fictional North Carolina town that has housed much of Gurganus's previous work--including his beloved debut Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All--Decoy deals in small-town social relations and obscure homoerotic longings. Gurganus, known as a writer's writer (he taught Donald Antrim's first writing class), is reportedly at work on another massive full-length novel, “The Erotic History of a Southern Baptist Church.” (Lydia) Crow Fair by Thomas McGuane: A new release by gifted prose stylist McGuane should be cause for celebration by sentence lovers. McGuane long ago moved from the sardonic prose of his earlier novels (The Sporting Club) to lyric representations of the American West (The Cadence of Grass). In his own words: “As you get older, you should get impatient with showing off in literature. It is easier to settle for blazing light than to find a language for the real. Whether you are a writer or a bird-dog trainer, life should winnow the superfluous language. The real thing should become plain. You should go straight to what you know best.” The seventeen stories of Crow Fair model that sentiment. Start with the patient words of “A Prairie Girl,” but stay for the rest. (Nick R.) The Last Word by Hanif Kureishi: British man of letters Hanif Kureishi, OBE, has been, variously, a novelist, playwright, filmmaker, writer of pornography, victim of financial fraud, and sometimes reluctant professor of creative writing. His newest novel takes on another man of letters, Mamoon Azam, a fictional lout rumored to be based on the non-fictional lout V.S. Naipaul. Echoing Patrick French's biography of Naipaul, Kureishi (who has assiduously avoided drawing comparisons between his novel and Naipaul) describes an imperious and irascible master of post-colonial fiction and his hapless biographer. (Lydia) The Unloved and Beautiful Mutants and Swallowing Geography: Two Early Novels by Deborah Levy: For those who loved the oneiric Swimming Home, 2015 will be a great year as three Deborah Levy books—one new novel and two earlier works—are due to come out. Her latest, The Unloved, starts out as a sexually charged, locked door mystery set in a French chateau, then expands into a far-ranging tale about sadism and historical atrocities. Beautiful Mutants, her strange first novel about a Russian exile who is either a gifted seer or a talented fake, and Swallowing Geography, a European road novel with nods to Kerouac, are being reissued in June. (Matt) Aquarium by David Vann: Vann, whose work we have examined previously at The Millions, returns with a new novel in March. Library Journal offers high praise: "Since electrifying the literary world five years ago with his debut novel, Legend of a Suicide, Vann has racked up an astonishing number of international awards. This lovely, wrenching novel should add to that list." (Thom)     The Harder They Come by T.C. Boyle: When precisely, one wonders, does T.C. Boyle sleep? In the 35 years since his first book came out, Boyle has published 14 novels and more than 100 stories. The Harder They Come is the usual T.C. Boyle clown car of violent misfits, anti-authoritarian loons, and passionate losers set loose in a circus of serious-minded zaniness. After being declared a hero for stopping a hijacking, an ex-Marine returns home to Northern California to find that his mentally disturbed son has taken up with a hardcore member of a right-wing sect that refuses to recognize the authority of the state. (Michael) Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum: Well, the title speaks for itself.  “Controversial and provocative,” no doubt.  This is the book I wanted to edit myself, so now I’m looking forward to reading it.  Sixteen authors offer their reflections on this topic, including Lionel Shriver, Sigrid Nunez, Kate Christensen, Elliott Holt, Geoff Dyer, and Tim Kreider.  Daum published her own story of not being a parent—but rather a mentor of teenagers—at The New Yorker back in September.  The anthology’s title is likely both tongue-in-cheek and uncomfortably accurate; its cleverness, to my mind, is in the fact that the subtitle might easily omit the “not.” (Sonya) The Animals by Christian Kiefer: Christian Kiefer leaves behind the suburban cul-de-sacs of his first novel, The Infinite Tides, and takes us to rural Idaho for his follow-up, The Animals.  Bill Reed is trying to move beyond his criminal past by managing a wildlife sanctuary for injured animals – raptors, a wolf, a bear.  He plans to marry the local veterinarian and live a quiet life – until a childhood friend is released from prison and comes calling.  Aimed at fans of Denis Johnson and Peter Matthiessen, this literary thriller is a story of friendship, grief, and the desire to live a blameless life. (Bill) Delicious Foods by James Hannaham: I learned of James Hannaham’s sophomore novel back in 2013, at which point I mentioned to him how excited I was—about the title in particular: “You wrote a book called DELICIOUS FOODS?!”   “The title is slightly misleading,” he replied.  His publisher gives us this: “[A]n incisive look at race relations in America and an unflinching portrait of the pathos and absurdity of addiction.”  Delicious or not, the story of Eddie and his mother Darlene promises to be both “blistering” and “inventive”—not to mention timely. (Sonya) The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter: In Hunter’s eerily compelling new novel, an archivist at a small London museum embarks on a final project before the museum’s impending closure: she is searching for information related to a woman who disappeared over a century ago from a Victorian asylum. The project holds some personal interest: when the archivist was fifteen years old, a little girl whom she was babysitting vanished in the woods near the asylum, and the archivist has begun to suspect that the two events were connected. (Emily)   The Sellout by Paul Beatty: Back in the ‘90s, The White-Boy Shuffle, Beatty’s first novel (after several poetry collections) was one of the bibles of my adolescence - furiously funny and ineffably sad. Two subsequent novels confirmed him as a scorching satirist in the vein of his contemporaries Sam Lipsyte and Gary Shteyngart. His latest outing features, in a supporting role, “the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins” - but its deeper concerns couldn’t be more timely: the precipitating incident is the death of the hero’s father in a police shootout, and the ultimate destination is the Supreme Court. (Garth) The Last Flight of Poxl West by Daniel Torday: Torday's novella, The Sensualist, won the 2012 Jewish Book Award for debut fiction. In his first novel, The Last Flight of Poxl West, the titular character is a war hero and something of an idol to his teenage nephew, Eli Goldstein. Kirkus gave the novel a starred review, remarking, "While Torday is more likely to be compared to Philip Roth or Michael Chabon than Gillian Flynn, his debut novel has two big things in common with Gone Girl--it's a story told in two voices, and it's almost impossible to discuss without revealing spoilers. A richly layered, beautifully told and somehow lovable story about war, revenge and loss." Rivka Galchen calls it both "brilliant" and "hilarious" and George Saunders says, "Torday is a prodigiously talented writer, with a huge heart." I myself had the great pleasure of reading an advanced copy and I loved it. The final scene...what an ending! I still think about it. (Edan) Her 37th Year: An Index by Suzanne Scanlon: Delivered in a series of pithy and emphatic observations, thoughts, and quotations, Suzanne Scanlon’s Her 37th Year: An Index examines love and desire and disappointment and writers and influence and ideas and passion and affairs and depression and writing and friendship and mothering and being a woman and aging. The potential excess of all this is balanced by its lean form, with each entry a vignette, quote, or observation. As a “fictional memoir”, Her 37th Year re-imagines form and redefines boundaries in a way similar to how Jenny Offil’s Dept. of Speculation revitalized the novel: the sum of its parts is flooring. (Anne) April: God Help the Child by Toni Morrison: Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature more than two decades ago; her newest novel will be her sixth in that span of time, following 2012’s Home. A new Morrison novel, according to Slate, is “news that amounts to at least an 8 on the literary Richter scale.” It is, according to Knopf, “about the way childhood trauma shapes and misshapes the life of the adult,” and though it’s just 192 pages long, it promises to be more powerful than many books twice its length. (Elizabeth)   My Struggle: Book 4 by Karl Ove Knausgaard: There's still time to jump on the Knausgaard bandwagon! English-speaking fans of Books 1-3 have been waiting almost a year for this translation, the fourth in a six-volume autobiographical novel by Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard -- or just plain "Karl Ove" to those of us who have been following his confessional outpourings. Dwight Garner likened reading Knausgaard to "falling into a malarial fever", and James Wood remarked that "even when I was bored, I was interested." Book 4 covers Knausgaard's late adolesence as he struggles to support his writing by teaching, falls in love with a 13-year-old student, and boozily greets the long arctic nights. (Hannah) Early Warning by Jane Smiley: This is the second installment in Smiley’s Last Hundred Years Trilogy, which follows a single Iowa farming family and its descendants through the American Century, from 1920 to 2020. The first book, Some Luck, which Smiley discussed in a wide-ranging Millions interview last fall, covers the Depression years and World War II. The new book starts in the depths of the Cold War and takes readers through Vietnam and into the Reagan era. The final volume, as yet untitled, is due out this fall. (Michael) A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson: Kate Atkinson’s 2013 novel Life After Life followed Ursula Todd as she lived and re-lived her life in mid-century Britain. In this companion to the novel, we get the story of Ursula’s beloved younger brother Teddy, an aspiring poet and celebrated RAF pilot, who leaves a war he didn’t expect to survive to become a husband, father, and grandfather in an ever-changing world. (Janet) Voices in the Night by Steven Millhauser: A friend of mine keeps Steven Millhauser’s collection We Others by her bedside; she speaks of it, and Millhauser, like it’s 1963 and he’s a dark-eyed mop-top. Indeed, Millhauser inspires cult following: his stories do the impossible, getting way under your skin via immaculately simple prose and deceptively placid storylines. Voices in the Night collects 16 stories — "culled from religion and fables. . . Heightened by magic, the divine, and the uncanny, shot through with sly humor" - that promise to once again unsettle us with their strangeness and stun us with their beauty. (Sonya) Gutshot by Amelia Gray: Gray’s stories come at you like fists wrapped in sirloin to pack a punch—they’re wonderfully idiosyncratic, visceral, and grotesque, with humor added for heft. Stories in her collection Museum of the Weird feature high-end cannibalism (eating monk’s tongues), a serial killer nicknamed “God” who cuts chests open and removes a rib, and a plate of hair served with soup. With the arrival of her next collection, Gutshot, Gray’s stories threaten to knock you out. (Anne)   Academy Street by Mary Costello: Bravo to Mary Costello, a "Bloomer" whose first story collection The China Factory I wrote about here back in 2012.  Her debut novel Academy Street—the story of Tess Lohan, who emigrates from 1940s western Ireland to New York City—is drawing comparisons to Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn and John Williams’s Stoner.  Academy Street has already been published in Europe and received the Eason Novel of the Year Irish Book Award. (Sonya)   The Dead Lands by Benjamin Percy: Percy rides the increasingly porous border between literary and genre fiction in this post-apocalyptic thriller that re-imagines the Lewis and Clark expedition in an America brought low by a super flu and nuclear fallout. When word comes to Sanctuary – the remains of St. Louis – that life is better out West, Lewis Meriwether and Mina Clark set out in secrecy, hoping to expand their infant nation and reunite the States. Should be a snap, right? (Michael)   The Children’s Crusade by Ann Packer: The author of The Dive from Clausen’s Pier again displays her gift for delving into complicated families and the women who aren’t sure they want to be part of them. Narrated in turns by each of the four Blair children, The Children’s Crusade follows the twists and turns of the family’s fortunes from the day in 1954 when their father, Bill, impulsively buys a plot of wooded land south of San Francisco, through to the modern day. “Imagine, if you will, that Jonathan Franzen's excellent novel, The Corrections, had likeable characters,” says one early reader on GoodReads. (Michael) May: The Making of Zombie Wars by Aleksandr Hemon: His first full-length novel in seven years (since 2008’s The Lazarus Project), The Making of Zombie Wars is the story of Josh Levin, an ESL teacher in Chicago with a laptop full of hundreds of screenplay ideas, Zombie Wars chief among them. As Josh’s life goes from bad to worse to absurd — moving in with his girlfriend only to become entangled in the domestic disputes of her neighbors — he continues to work on the zombie movie that might get him away from it all. (Janet)   Mislaid by Nell Zink: Zink’s first novel The Wallcreeper, published by the Dorothy Project, a feminist small press, made a big splash last year. Its backstory provided the hook: a fifty-year-old expat writes a novel on a dare from her pen pal Jonathan Franzen. But Zink’s sui generis sensibility was the main event: taut, acerbic, and free. She moves to a major press for her second book, a decade-hopping Southern family novel that tackles race, sexuality, and the wilderness of youth. (Garth) The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May by Mark Z. Danielewski: On the jacket of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks is a blurb from Publishers Weekly: Is this “the most ambitious novel ever written or just the most Mitchell-esque?” One might ask the same question, mutatis mutandis, about Mark Danielewski’s The Familiar. Danielewski combines Mitchell’s fondness for formal innovation and genre tropes with an appealing indifference to questions of taste. At its best, this gives you House of Leaves, at its worst, Only Revolutions. One Rainy Day in May introduces us to “nine lives,” principally that of a 12-year-old girl who rescues “a creature as fragile as it is dangerous” - some kind of totemic/architectonic cat? Anyway, Volume 1 is 880 pages long. Word is, 26 more volumes are on the way, so this one had better be good. (Garth) The Green Road by Anne Enright: Spanning three decades and three continents, this new book by Anne Enright centers on Rosaleen, the head of the Madigan family. Beginning in County Clare, the book follows the four Madigan children -- Dan, Hanna, Emmet and Constance -- as they set off on their own lives, travelling as far away as Mali to explore their adult selves. On Christmas Day, they all come home, and the issues of their family come back to them. In many ways, it’s a premise similar to that of Enright’s Booker-winning The Gathering. (Thom) A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me by David Gates: In a year rich with surrealist romps and boundary-blurring semi-memoirs, David Gates returns with a welcome injection of “the present palpable intimate” in the form of eleven stories and a novella. Gates is a natural and capacious realist, at once ironic and warm, in a way that makes the ordinary ambit of experience, from marriage to parenthood to getting old, seem as trippy as it really is. (Garth)   Loving Day by Mat Johnson: Johnson’s Pym, an entertaining riff on race and Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel, took us all the way to Antarctica. Loving Day (the title refers to a holiday celebrating interracial love) is set in a less remote locale, a black neighborhood in Philadelphia, but promises to be no less hallucinatory than its predecessor. A mixed race man returns from Wales, where both his marriage and his comic shop have failed, to inhabit a ghost-haunted mansion left to him by his father. He soon discovers the existence of a daughter, and the pair is drawn into a “utopian mixed-raced cult.” (Matt) The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard: While Jim Shepard was a student at Brown, John Hawkes told him “You know, you’re not really a novelist, you’re really a short story writer.” Thankfully, good writers can be terribly wrong. Shepard’s long fiction is as fantastic as his classic stories. Shepard has always been a writer who exists outside of himself on the page, and this Holocaust-set novel is no different. The story focuses on Aron, a boy from the Warsaw Ghetto, who joins other children in smuggling goods to those “quarantined.” The novel also illuminates the life of Janusz Korczak, the real-life protector of Jewish children in ghetto orphanages (he once said "You do not leave a sick child in the night, and you do not leave children at a time like this."). Serious material requires sensitive hands, and Shepard’s care creates beauty. (Nick R.) Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf: Kent Haruf, who died last year at 71, will be best remembered for his 1999 novel Plainsong, a finalist for the National Book Award. It was set in the fictional eastern Colorado town of Holt, which Haruf (rhymes with sheriff) returns to yet again for his last novel, Our Souls at Night, finished shortly before his death. It’s the story of a widower named Louis Waters and a widow named Addie Moore who come together in Holt and begin sharing the aspirations, disappointments and compromises of their long lives. One critic likened Haruf’s prose to Pottery Barn furniture – with its “rustic lines,” “enduring style” and “aged patina.” His legion of fans wouldn’t have it any other way, and Our Souls at Night will not disappoint them. (Bill) City by City: Dispatches from the American Metropolis edited by Keith Gessen and Stephen Squibb: Drawn from an n+1 series of the same name, City by City offers an insider’s glance into the state of America’s urban spaces. The mix of personal and historical essays explore issues such as crime, gentrification, and culture in cities as varied and far-reaching as Miami, Florida and Gold Rush, Alaska. Described as “a cross between Hunter S. Thompson, Studs Terkel, and the Great Depression–era WPA guides to each state in the Union,” City by City provides a collective portrait of the American city during the Great Recession. (Anne) The Ghost Network by Catie Disabato: Disabato, who has written for The Millions, debuts with a high-concept mystery that looks to be a lot of fun. Pop stars aren’t known for avoiding the limelight, which is why the disappearance of a Lady Gaga-like singer inspires two women to track her down. Racing around Chicago in search of clues, they find themselves decoding arcane documents and ancient maps rather than liner notes as the disappearance turns out to involve a secret society. (Matt)   Odd Woman in the City by Vivian Gornick: For a sneak preview of Gornick's witty and unsparing observations of city life, please read Gornick's "Letter from Greenwich Village" in The Paris Review  (it's also collected in The Best American Essays 2014). A master memoirist, Gornick's latest is an ode to New York City's street life, old friends, and the fascinating joy of "living out conflicts, rather than fantasies." (Hannah)   The Edge Becomes The Center by DW Gibson: Following up his critically-acclaimed oral history of the recession, Not Working (the title is a play on Studs Terkel's classic oral history, Working), Gibson's latest oral history portrays gentrifying New York City from all sides. Gibson interviews brokers, buyers, sellers, renters, landlords, artists, contractors, politicians and everyone in between to show how urban change feels to those living through it. (Hannah) June: Black Glass: Short Fictions by Karen Joy Fowler: Fowler’s 2014 novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, won the PEN/Faulkner award and landed her on the Booker shortlist, one of two American finalists for the now American-friendly prize. This year will see her 1998 short story collection, Black Glass, re-released in hardcover. The stories — with influences and references from Carry Nation to Gulliver’s Travels to Albert Einstein to Tonto and the Lone Ranger — have been described as “occasionally puzzling but never dull,” and “ferociously imaginative and provocative.” (Elizabeth) Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg: Saint Mazie is Attenberg’s much anticipated follow-up to her bestselling novel The Middlesteins, which was also a finalist for the LA Times book prize. Inspired by the life of a woman profiled in Joseph Mitchell's Up in the Old Hotel, Saint Mazie follows Mazie Phillips, “the truth-telling proprietress of The Venice, the famed New York City movie theater,” through the Jazz Age and the Depression; her diaries, decades later, inspire a contemporary documentarian to find out who this intriguing woman really was. Therese Ann Fowler, author of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, calls the book “both a love song and a gut punch at once,” and Maggie Shipstead says it’s a “raw, boisterous, generous novel.” (Edan) The Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen: Cohen, 34, is as prolific as he is ambitious. Five years after his mega-novel, Witz (and three years after a lauded story collection), he returns with a long book about a novelist ghost-writing the autobiography of one of Silicon Valley’s new Masters of the Universe. The set-up should give Cohen’s caustic sensibility a target-rich environment, while the scope leaves his fierce intelligence ample room to play. (Garth) The Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundera: Fifteen years after the publication of his last novel, Kundera returns with a (very brief) story of four friends in Paris who talk self-importantly about “sex, history, art, politics, and the meaning of life” while simultaneously celebrating their own insignificance (Library Journal). While these themes may be familiar to fans of Kundera’s past work (of which there are many - The Unbearable Lightness of Being has been enduringly popular since its publication in the mid-1980s) it will be exciting to see fresh writing from a modern master. (Kaulie) Muse by Jonathan Galassi: Over his long literary career, Galassi has done everything except write a novel. Now the FSG publisher, Italian translator, critic and poet has checked that off his list with a story that satirizes the industry he knows so well and sounds like an updating of Henry James’ The Aspern Papers. In the novel, a publisher tries to wrestle a famous female poet away from a rival, eventually securing a meeting in her Venetian palazzo and learning a revelatory secret. (Matt)   The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida: Believer founding editor Vendela Vida’s trilogy of novels about “women in crisis” becomes a tetralogy with the debut of her latest, The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty. As in her previous novels, the story involves a woman traveling abroad (in this case, Casablanca, Morocco). When the woman is robbed of her wallet and passport, she experiences distress and also unexpected freedom. The novel dips into All About Eve territory in this part-thriller, part-novel-of-ideas when the woman finds work as a celebrity stand-in and then begins to assume this alternate identity as her own. (Anne) In the Country: Stories by Mia Alvar: Alvar is a frequent contributor to literary magazines—she’s been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize—but this is her first short story collection. In the Country focuses on the Filipino diaspora, from Bahrain to Manila to New York. Alvar considers themes of alienation, displacement, the sometimes-troubling bonds of family, and the struggle to find a sense of home. (Emily) July: The Dying Grass by William T. Vollmann: The one living novelist who makes Joyce Carol Oates look like a slacker returns with the fifth volume of his “Seven Dreams” series, about the confrontations between native people and settlers in North America. This installment swings west to investigate the Nez Perce War of the late 19th Century, and is rumored to lean on dialogue to an unusual degree. The first of the Seven Dreams was published in 1990; at this rate, the series should conclude some time in 2027. (Garth)   A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Ball: Jesse Ball’s novels are playful and clever and often quite grim, although this is not a contradiction. As he said in an interview: “a life of grief can be joyful too.” In his fifth novel, A Cure for Suicide, this again seems to be evident. A man and woman move in together: she is his guide and doctor who teaches him about life, defining for him the nature of objects and interaction and ways of being. That is, until another woman arrives and upends all he’s learned, making him question. (Anne)   Confession of the Lioness by Mia Couto : Couto, a Mozambican who writes in Portuguese, has for years been considered one of Africa’s leading writers, fusing indigenous settings and traditions with influences from abroad. His first novel, Sleepwalking Land, was named one of the best African books of the 20th Century; his most recent, Tuner of Silences, was published by the terrific independent press Biblioasis, and was longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin award. In Confessions of the Lioness, a series of lion attacks in a remote village forces an eruption between men and women, modernity and tradition. It’s Couto’s first book to be published by FSG. (Garth) Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai: Fans of 2014’s The Hundred Year House don’t have to wait too long for more of Makkai’s clever and wonderfully imaginative work. Her third book and her first story collection, Music for Wartime offers a diverse array of stories, four of which are inspired by Makkai’s family history and her paternal grandparents’ involvement in 1930s Hungarian politics. (For more on this, check out this Harper’s Magazine interview with Makkai). Overall, the collection showcases the author’s talent for the short form--which has gotten her anthologized four (!) times in the Best American Short Stories series. (Edan) August: Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh: Following Sea of Poppies (shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize) and River of Smoke, Calcutta-born Amitav Ghosh brings his Ibis Trilogy to a rousing conclusion with Flood of Fire. It’s 1839, and after China embargoes the lucrative trade of opium grown on British plantations in India, the colonial government sends an expeditionary force from Bengal to Hong Kong to reinstate it. As the force arrives, war breaks out, and with it a blaze of naval engagements, embezzlement, profiteering and espionage. In bringing the first Opium War to crackling life, Ghosh has illuminated the folly of our own failed war on drugs. Historical fiction doesn’t get any timelier than this. (Bill) The State We're In: Maine Stories by Ann Beattie: A new collection of linked stories set in Maine from one of the short story masters. Call her the American Alice Munro, call her a New Yorker darling, call this the perfect summer read. (Hannah) The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman: In her 30 works of fiction, Alice Hoffman always finds the magical in the ordinary. Her narratives have roamed from ancient Israel (The Dovekeepers) to 20th-century New York City (The Museum of Extraordinary Things). Hoffman’s new novel, The Marriage of Opposites, transports us to the tropical island of St. Thomas in the early 1800s, where a girl named Rachel is growing up in the community of Jews who escaped the Inquisition. When her arranged marriage ends with her husband’s death, she begins an affair with her late husband’s dashing nephew. There is nothing ordinary about their son: his name is Camille Pissarro, and he will grow up to become an immortal father of Impressionism. (Bill) September: Purity by Jonathan Franzen: There are few American authors who can hit all the popular news outlets simply by releasing the title of their next novel (Purity), or launch a thousand hot takes with the publication of one grumpy book excerpt in The Guardian (an excerpt which, curiously, is no longer available at its previous URL as of this writing). Franzen haters were derisive at the news of his impending novel (Gawker's headline was "Jonathan Franzen to Excrete Book Called Purity"), described by its publisher as "a multigenerational American epic that spans decades and continents," with bonus "fabulist quality." But some people believe, privately, that Franzen is such a good novelist that his detractors must just be jealous. And for those people, the new book can't come quickly enough. (O Franzen! My Franzen!) (Lydia) October: City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg: We at The Millions look forward to reading fellow staff writer Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut novel. At over 900 pages, the novel takes place in 1977 New York and culminates in the city’s famed black-out. The Guardian reports, “The polished third-person narration conjures up a cast of characters living in a New York City divided by race and money – the reluctant heirs to a great fortune, two Long Island kids exploring downtown's nascent punk scene, a gay schoolteacher from rural Georgia, an obsessive magazine reporter, a revolutionary cell planning to set the Bronx ablaze, a trader with a hole on his balance sheet and a detective who is trying to piece together the mystery which connects them all to a shooting in Central Park.” In anticipation of the book's release, I suggest you dip into Garth's essays here at The Millions, perhaps starting with his 2010 piece on long novels, “Is Big Back?” (Edan) More from The Millions: The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

A Year in Reading: Charles Finch

I read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy this year.  I read it twice, actually.  It made me want to quit writing. That sounds like the kind of cutesy thing you could say about any book you love, but in fact the reality of it was terrible, a sensation that lasted for days, a blend of nausea, fog, and loss.  How can I explain it?  Reading those books -- My Brilliant Friend, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of a New Name -- it was as if I had spent my whole life training to be a world-class swimmer, waking up at dawn to do laps, eating the right stuff -- and then, all of the sudden, swimming in the ocean one day, I had been joined briefly by a dolphin and realized, oh, of course, that’s what swimming actually is. That is: There’s a difference between naturalism and naturalness.  Naturalism is still a mode.  Ferrante’s early books are great, but they’re modal, full of the effects a novelist can use, beautifully deployed, but effects.  By the Neapolitan trilogy, those effects are gone.  As a consequence it has less immediate line-to-line dazzle than what we’re used to calling great fiction these days, The Flamethrowers, for example, or even The Days of Abandonment, but what she buys with the sacrifice is a consuming naturalness.  There’s not a single moment of falseness across all the thousand pages of the books. In general, even the best novelists enter their texts; the great ones do it almost imperceptibly, but still, behind Walter’s love of birds in Freedom, for instance, you just sense Jonathan Franzen’s love of birds, a weak but noticeable magnetic draw from character to author.  Whereas Ferrante works so closely to her characters’ motivations, more closely than any novelist I’ve ever read, that it means the books are not so much realistic as that they are a reality.  The result is intoxicating, art with all the beauties of a made thing and the authenticity of a discovered one.  It’s like a garment without seams that fits perfectly, or like those Vija Celmins rocks.  It’s like the opposite of the Pompidou Center. The last 20 years have seen the ascent of James Wood’s idea that what the novel offers uniquely is an encounter with another consciousness, and now we’ve arrived at the cultural triumph of his particular theodicy, Karl Ove Knausgaard and Ben Lerner.  Those (wonderful) authors get rid of the problem of the novel by entering it overtly, and while that allows an magical nearness to them, it’s a solution that’s also an impoverishment, because it foregoes plot.  An acceptable loss, you might say.  I wonder.  Wood’s pressure toward interiority almost seems to me to forget the structure of life, which is so crucially at once internal and external.  Life has actions in it.  In reading a novel, it’s profound to experience the self-in-other in memory or contemplation, but it’s sometimes just as profound to experience the self-in-other during moments of decision.  In Ferrante, we have both -- they’re told in the first person, but they’re the story of more than a single person, of many equally weighted people.  The plotting of their stories is so skillful, indeed so unplotted, in the sense that life is unplotted, in the sense that we don’t know the future, that as readers we suddenly exist both in other actions and in their actors’ consciousness of them.  Not the latter alone. I read a lot of things in 2014, and I would like to imagine I’ll look back on the year and remember rereading Patrick O’Brian, whose achievement as an author of historical fiction I consider as great as Hilary Mantel’s, or Six Memos for the Next Millennium and Mythologies, which have both been rattling in my mind since winter, or the mysterious and beautiful 10:04, or the funniest book I read all year, a fantastic self-published novella that if there were justice in the world would upend pro sports, Goodell vs. Obama by PFT Commenter, or the fifth volume of Marcel Proust, finally I’m almost done. But realistically, Ferrante is who will stay with me. It’s considered unsophisticated to be normative about authors.  Leave it to Buzzfeed, leave it to the Mike Trout zealots.  I get that, but at the same time I also think it’s important to believe in greatness, and I don’t think it’s always wrong to calibrate it.  I don’t know if Ian McEwan is greater than Don DeLillo, or whatever.  What I do know is that before 2014, I thought Philip Roth was the greatest novelist alive.  Now, for me, he’s second. More from A Year in Reading 2014 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

A Year in Reading: Janet Fitch

For me the best, most moving, overwhelming novel of the year was Hungarian-American Les Plesko’s No Stopping Train. Lyrical in style, tough in mood, enigmatic and structured through series of interlocking love triangles, it spans the end of WWII to the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956.  Its publication comes tragically on the heels of Plesko’s death by suicide in 2013. No Stopping Train propelled me headlong into a series of Eastern works, old and new. Nobelist Imre Kertesz’s Liquidation was the perfect follow-up, a bracing, formally inventive short novel of love and betrayal among the literati in the 1980’s in Hungary, treating many of the issues of Plesko’s book. Then I reread Sergei Dovlatov’s The Suitcase, a collection of breathtakingly funny and poignant Russian short stories which consider the provenance of eight objects he brought to America in the 1980s -- rather the way Primo Levi wrote on the elements in The Periodic Table. Looking around for something big to plunge into, I found American author Josh Weil’s first novel, The Great Glass Sea, an elegant, lush work set in a slightly alternative-future Russia, about separated twins -- one, a “New Russian,” trying to get ahead in the capitalist system; the other, whom you might see as "the Russian soul" just wanting to get back to the land and reunite with his brother -- in a land dominated by a corporation using sky-mirrors and enormous glass greenhouses to eliminate the night. Weil is a gorgeous writer on the sentence level, and creates the feel of myth and perfectly captures the texture of Russian thought. More Russia please. American Ken Kalfus’s short story collection Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies fit the bill. My favorite stories were the title one, concerning a nuclear disaster with Chernobyl overtones, and the last one, “Peredelkino,” in which a member of the official Soviet literati straddles the fence between collaboration and independence, while his wife, the ultimate reader, retreats to their treasured dacha in the writer’s village best known as the home of Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova in later years. This and Liquidation spoke to each other in my reader’s consciousness in the most serendipitous, exciting way. I admit to being the last person in America to read Denis Johnson, but I knew Les Plesko admired him. After the Josh Weil book, I craved another big one, so started with a book you don’t hear much about, Already Dead, a love song to the northern coast of California, and discovered a lush, populous, intricate work I could not stop reading -- a suspenseful, landscape-rich, emotionally accurate and often dead funny novel. Now I was ready for contemporary novels. Three of them brought it home. Dylan Landis’s edgy short novel-in-stories Rainey Royal had me jumping out of my seat. I knew girls like Rainey in school -- beautiful, bohemian, seductive yet dangerously unpredictable, your best friend one minute and then, a straight razor slashing you to bits. But who were they from their own point of view? Landis shows us -- in tight, brilliantly faceted language -- in a 1970’s New York that had resonances with The Flamethrowers. Nayomi Munaweera’s gemlike novel of the Sri Lankan civil war, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, I would best describe as a "mini-epic." The short intense novel took me deep into the life of that island nation through its girls on both sides of the conflict, daughters of intertwined families and their histories ties, which are then torn apart by the worst of all possible wars. Everyone’s a casualty in some way, even those who seem to have escaped. Deservedly shortlisted for the Man Asia prize. Lastly, a book which practically vibrated off my bedside table for the beauty of its language and the intensity of its story was Ruby by Cynthia Bond. A girl returns for New York City to her hometown, the all-black township of Liberty, Texas, only to be undone by the restless spirits of the past. Powerful and hard to shake, it lost nothing by its thematic resonances with Toni Morrison’s haunted Beloved, as well as its streak of humor in the depiction of its small-town yokels, which reminded me of later William Faulkner. I love a book that tears me to shreds -- and, on the sentence level, soars to the heavens. More from A Year in Reading 2014 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

Do Not Tell Me This Is Not Beautiful: On the Collaborative Art of Words and Images

When Walker Evans accompanied James Agee on an assignment for Fortune in 1936, the two came to a certain realization that the bounds of magazine journalism would not permit a full portrayal of the Woods, the Gudgers, and the Ricketts -- three families of poor white tenant farmers. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men grew out of that realization. Evans’s portraits of these families sit at the very front of the book, head-on shots of weathered faces, dark eyes, freckles, cheekbones. They are without text, without description. Agee’s prose flows out of and after these photos in deep contrast. It is luminous, cosmic, rhetorical, poetic. Tragic and lyrical, dense. It is direct. It speaks to the reader; it says care for these people, please. No one bought this book. It floundered and flopped until resurrected in the years after Agee’s untimely death. In 2007, the contemporary poet and photo historian John Wood published a book of photos and poems titled Endurance and Suffering: Narratives of Disease in the 19th Century. The photos are of the various patients of renowned 19th-century dermatologist George Henry Fox, photographed by O.G. Mason. They are horrifying. Psoriasis that plasters over the skin of a bearded man. An American man covered in 40 tumors, some kind of sarcoma that slowly whittled him to death. A young girl with scabies, her hands across her breast, praying in some kind of half-light. Wood uncovered these photos and writes in a tender, probing, honest way about each of them. A poem accompanies each photo, and some deal explicitly with the visceral reaction of seeing the photo, simply -- that moment before empathy comes, if it ever does. The poem that accompanies the photo of the American man with sarcoma begins, “What happened here?” It is told innocently, as if Wood wrote with a hand covering his eyes, some small slit through which he could barely see. The opening stanza of the poem about the young girl with scabies is defiant, reminiscent of Agee’s earnest and passionate defense of the divinity apparent in all humanity: “Forget medical history. / Imagine she was stung / While robbing a hive of honey. / Such beauty should be sung / Into pastoral poetry.” Similarly, the opening line of a poem about a 19-year-old girl with a severe case of elephantiasis, her legs swelled and pillowed and bloated, are simple, moving, haunting: “Do not say to me that she is not beautiful.” However, like the then-experimental project of Evans and Agee, Wood’s book, published by Galerie Vevais, a German photography publisher, did not receive the critical recognition it deserved, especially in the United States, where Wood, the founder of the MFA program at McNeese State and the two-time winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize, tried to publish it but failed. No American publisher wanted it, he says, in an interview with 21st Editions. Why, though? In the same interview with 21st Editions, Wood asserts that the photographs of Fox’s patients repelled even him, the poet, stating, “I had long known those photographs that inspired the poems in Endurance and Suffering, but they repelled me, and I couldn’t understand why anyone but a historian of medicine would even look at them. But one of them, the naked girl with elephantiasis, stayed in my head like some cruel story, the sort you’ve heard, hate to recall, and would never tell someone you love.” But it took time, and effort, and the slow dwelling on and carrying of things before that first line--– do not say to me that she is not beautiful -- came to Wood in an honest way. Readers do not have to sit with that. No one is requiring us to. So we come to photos that repel us, and we turn the page, put our hands in front of our eyes, leave no slit through which we can allow some word or image of something-that-could-be-beautiful seep into our being. Evans’s photos occupy that same landscape. His tenant farmers do not shy away from the lens. They stare through the page, and their hurt immediately pushes the pressure points of human guilt and responsibility. Now, though, the Midwest-based small publisher, Coffee House Press, is releasing a novel, House of Coates, by Brad Zellar, assisted by Alec Soth, who The Guardian in 2010 compared to both Walker Evans and Stephen Shore, placing Soth in a tradition of American open-road portraiture photography. What makes House of Coates interesting is its claim to fiction, and what that means and how that places it in the context of photography and prose collaborations. Centering on a few days in the life of a homeless drifter, Lester B. Morrison, the short novel is written with a certain authority, at times expounding the values of the drifting life, and the photographs are grainy film ones of simple things, simple homes, snow banks and sunsets, roadside diners, and clutters of abandoned trash. The photos serve as a sort of image map, and they are supposedly, for the sake of the work, taken by Morrison himself, grounding the reader in the true context of the story. There is the sense of stumbling upon a scrapbook, something collected and only important because we hold it in our hands. What adds to the mystique of the novel is the constant, recurring notion that Lester Morrison actually exists -- not merely in the fictional world, but in the actual one. House of Coates was first published by Soth’s photography-based publishing house, Little Brown Mushroom, which specializes in one-of-a-kind, limited-run art books. After its release, a Minnesota Public Radio article articulated the mystery of Lester Morrison. In the article, Soth states that he is not, as some readers attest, Lester Morrison, but the answer is still vague and generously unclear. Both Soth and Zellar claim to know Lester in a deeply nuanced way. They claim to know the results of a psychiatric test he took in 2009. And they claim, on the Little Brown Mushroom website, that the photos in House of Coatex were sent from Lester to them in a duct-taped shoebox. But Lester, by all accounts, is a now-gone mystery, and his presence, fictional or not, only exists in the pages of House of Coates, and in many ways, whether Lester exists is not the question at large. The true issue is why he matters. And, too, why all the Lesters of the world matter. Zellar knows this. In a 2012 Minnesota Post interview, he says, “Because the Lesters of the world tend to be largely inaccessible and tremendously unreliable characters, I had to make my own version of his story.” Soth’s photos (it is my belief that they are Soth’s) contribute to that continual duality between the real and fictional Lester, for in this work he abandons his normal beauty-in-the-banal style of portraiture, eliminating the human face from the frame, putting a fictional eye behind the viewfinder. It serves to suspend belief at times. It is the literary shaky-cam, the found image. And though the story is haunting and lovely and artful, it is not repelling in the same way that Fox’s medical patients were. If we are put off by it, we can hide behind the fiction. If we are willing to hear the story of a man we might be willing to forget or never encounter in the first place, then we sit with the story, and the photos, and the romantic prose, and we allow it to encompass us in our own time, allow the real to merge with the surreal until we are unsure but still empathetic, held in the white space between fiction and nonfiction but at least at some semblance of ease with that suspended state. The aim of House of Coates is similar to the aims of both Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Endurance and Suffering -- to tell the story of the never-told, to delve into the underworld of society and come out with something human, tender, heartfelt. And, like these two other works, House of Coates is still considered an experimental work, despite the fact that we are a society of the image. The compiled image. The moving image. The flashing image, the pixelated one. In a letter to the reader of the galley copy of House of Coates, Christopher Fischbach, the publisher of Coffee House Press, discusses how the original edition of the work, published by Little Brown Mushroom, was collected, not read. It was presented as a spiral-bound and limited-edition art book, and not circulated widely. It was a cherished thing. It was not passed along, given out, read, written over, read again. Fischbach says, in this letter, that House of Coates “deserves better.” Because of the story it aims to tell, and how it tells it, because of the hunting down of the never told and the taking stock of the never seen, it does. In the same way that Agee and Evans deserved better upon their initial publication. In the same way that John Wood deserved better upon his attempt at publication. Despite this, House of Coates won’t garner a great deal of national attention, though it is a jewel of a book, a ghostly one. Zellar’s prose is authoritative and incantatory and gripping. But what is more telling is that this collaborative medium between prose and photography, poetry and photography, also deserves a more established home in the spectrum of the literary world, and I worry that it will not get there, because some might not find it necessary, because others might find it too much. But consider the reliance on the photographic image in Rachel Kushner’s dynamic and powerful novel The Flamethrowers, or the scene from Don DeLillo’s White Noise where Murray and Jack stand at the most photographed barn in America, and Murray states, “We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one.” If that is the aim of the writer -- to keep an image circulating in the consciousness of the reader, long after the sentence has ended -- then it still must be the aim of the photographer, indeed, the aim of all artists at large. Murray’s questions at the end of that scene are the universal questions of artistry, of why photographers choose to photograph an object, a person, why writers chose to pick away at a story: “What was the barn like before it was photographed?...What did it look like, how was it different from the other barns, how was it similar to other barns?” The writer and the photographer are not at any sort of odds. One form does not negate the other. They are both probing the world behind the limitations of their instruments, and, perhaps more importantly, behind the limitations of their individual ability for compassion, empathy, and tenderness. To place both forms of artistry within the same bound book allows for the engagement of multiple senses and for the opportunity of more catharsis, more movement, more truth. It sounds floozy, doesn’t it? But take out Evans’s photos from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and you have a young earnest man trying so hard to make us feel what he feels. We might dismiss Agee so quickly without Evans’s careful eye. But without Agee, Evans’s photos might only be human, and never divine. House of Coates seems to be one small step in the direction that allows for a renewed attempt in combining the art of writing with the art of photography in a fulfilled literary sense. Not in the same sense as, for example, Jack Kerouac’s famed introduction to Robert Frank's The Americans, but rather as something more dynamic, reliant on the other. The photos in House of Coates reinforce the potential reality of the story, allowing us to probe if we want to, but giving us permission to suspend belief if we feel we must. In that sense, we, as readers, are secure. The hope, though, is that we sit just a little longer, each time, in whatever reality we find ourselves, and then a little longer still, until we are affirmed in some kind of beauty, whether it be in the turn of a line or the movement of syntax or the freckle on a high cheekbone or a grain of color layered upon film, or in those things combined, pointing them to a fellow reader, a friend, saying, asserting: do not tell me that this is not beautiful.

The Millions Top Ten: April 2014

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 April. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 6. The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose 5 months 2. 9. Beautiful Ruins 2 months 3. - The Son 1 month 4. 8. Just Kids 4 months 5. - Bark: Stories 1 month 6. - Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction's Most Beloved Heroines 1 month 7. 10. The Circle 2 months 8. - Eleanor & Park 1 month 9. - The Good Lord Bird 1 month 10. - Jesus' Son: Stories 1 month   Major shakeups to the April Top Ten were wrought by the graduation of six (count 'em) titles to our Millions Hall of FameThe Goldfinch, Selected Stories, The Flamethrowers, The Luminaries, Draw It With Your Eyes Closed, and The Lowland. This "March 2014" class of ascendants is noteworthy not only for being the biggest single-month Hall of Fame class ever, but also for being one of the most highly-decorated classes in series history. How decorated? Let's run the tape: Donna Tartt's novel won this year's Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Alice Munro won the last Nobel Prize for Literature. Rachel Kushner's novel was a finalist for the National Book Award. Eleanor Catton was the winner of last year's Man Booker Prize. And Jhumpa Lahiri's work was shortlisted for that same Man Booker Prize. Objectively speaking, this is the biggest and best class to date. Of course, here at The Millions, our readers have plenty of decorated authors on their "to be read" shelves, and as a result, our Top Ten doesn't so much rebuild — to borrow the parlance of a college football team — as it reloads. To wit: we're replacing a National Book Award finalist, a Pulitzer winner, and a Man Booker winner with two National Book Award winners, a Pulitzer finalist, and Lorrie Moore. Heading off this new crop of titles is Philipp Meyer's The Son, which was a Pulitzer finalist this past year, and which was met with critical acclaim for weeks after it was first published. It's a book that John Davidson described for our site as being, "a sprawling, meticulously researched epic tale set in southern Texas," and one that "leverages" a "certain theory of Native American societies ... to explore the American creation myth." Indeed, Meyer himself noted in his Millions interview that, "If there’s a moral purpose to the book, it’s to put our history, the history of this country, into a context." Additionally, the April Top Ten welcomes James McBride's The Good Lord Bird, which blew past the field at last year's National Book Awards to claim top prize overall. (The announcement of a movie deal soon followed.) For The Millions, our own Bill Morris sang the work's praises and he sang them loudly. The book, Morris wrote in his latest Year in Reading piece, is "one of the most astonishing, rollicking, delightful, smart and sad books I’ve read in all my life." Evidently you listened. New(ish) releases weren't the only new additions to our list this month, either. Sneaking into the tenth spot on our list was a classic collection from Denis Johnson, the winner of the National Book Award in 2007. It's a pity they no longer print the version that fits in your pocket. And what to say of Lorrie Moore, whose addition to the Vanderbilt faculty last Fall was overshadowed by news of Bark's imminent publication? Perhaps it's best if I let the final paragraph from Arianne Wack's profile of the author speak for itself: Exploring the demands of a life is the heart of Moore’s work, and the resonate truth of her prose has fueled a fevered desire for her books. Her characters don’t so much adventure through life as they do drift and stumble through it, making it a map of emotional landmarks, places you keep finding yourself in. One suspects that Moore is not simply writing a life, but cleverly recording yours. There is a commonality linking reader with character, an elastic boundary between her fiction and our reality that both reinforces and subverts one’s own sense of uniqueness. Coming away from one of her stories, one is reminded that we are all just doing this the best we know how. Or better yet, perhaps I should point you toward our own Edan Lepucki's summation of Moore's influence on a generation of American short story writers: We all came out of Lorrie Moore’s overcoat–or her frog hospital, her bonehead Halloween costume.  If you’re a young woman writer with a comic tendency, and you like similes and wordplay, and you traffic in the human wilderness of misunderstanding and alienation, then you most certainly participate in the Moore tradition. Lastly, the April Top Ten welcomes two other newcomers as well. Entering the field in the eighth spot is Eleanor & Park, of which Janet Potter proclaimed, "Rarely is a realistic love story a page-turner, but when I got to the end I tweeted: 'Stayed up til 3 finishing Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. Would have stayed up forever.'" (The book is being made into a movie, by the way.) Meanwhile, a collection of portraits entitled Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction's Most Beloved Heroines enters the list in sixth place, likely owing to its prominence on Hannah Gersen's list of gift ideas from last year. Near Misses: AmericanahLittle Failure: A MemoirStories of Anton ChekhovA Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World: A Novel, and Tampa. See Also: Last month's list.

Are We Entering a Golden Age of the Second Novel?

"Feminism did not need a guilty drunk!" For years I bought into the old saw that says the second novel is the hardest one to write.  It seemed to make sense.  When starting out, most writers pour everything from the first 20 (or 30, or 40) years of their lives into their debut novel.  It's only natural that on the second visit to the well, many novelists find it has gone dry. Stephen Fry, the British writer and actor, explained it this way: "The problem with a second novel is that it takes almost no time to write compared with a first novel.  If I write my first novel in a month at the age of 23 and my second novel takes me two years, which one have I written more quickly?  The second, of course.  The first took 23 years and contains all the experience, pain, stored-up artistry, anger, love, hope, comic invention and despair of a lifetime.  The second is an act of professional writing.  That is why it is so much more difficult." Fry made these remarks at the inaugural awarding of the Encore Prize, established in England in 1989 to honor writers who successfully navigate the peculiar perils of the second novel.  Winners have included Iain Sinclair, Colm Toibin, A.L. Kennedy, and Claire Messud. Fry's point is well taken, but it's just the beginning of the difficulties facing the second novelist.  If a first novel fails to become a blockbuster, as almost all of them do, publishers are less inclined to get behind the follow-up by a writer who has gained a dubious track record but has lost that most precious of all literary selling points: novelty.  Writers get only one shot at becoming The Next Big Thing, which, to too many publishers, is The Only Thing.  Failure to do so can carry a wicked and long-lasting sting. (Full disclosure: I'm speaking from experience.  My first novel enjoyed respectable sales and a gratifying critical reception, including a largely positive review from impossible-to-please Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times.  But the novel failed to land on any best-seller lists or get me on Oprah.  Five years later, my second novel disappeared like a stone dropped in a lake.  I don't think anyone even noticed the splash.  I recently sold my third novel -- 17 years after that quiet splash.) There's plenty of empirical evidence to support the claim that the second novel is the hardest one to write -- and that it can be even harder to live down.  After his well-received 1988 debut, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon spent years wrestling with a woolly, 1,500-page beast called The Fountain that finally defeated him and wound up in a drawer.  Wisely, Chabon went in a different direction and produced Wonder Boys, a successful second novel that was, technically, his third.  After getting nominated for a National Book Award for her 1973 debut, State of Grace, Joy Williams puzzled and pissed-off a lot of people with The Changeling, her unsettling second novel about a drunk woman on an island full of feral kids.  Williams blamed the book's frosty reception on the political climate of the late 1970s: "Feminism did not need a guilty drunk!"  Martin Amis followed his fine debut, The Rachel Papers, with the disappointingly flippant Dead Babies.  I still find it hard to believe that the writer responsible for Dead Babies (and an even worse wreck called Night Train) could also be capable of the brilliant London Fields, Time's Arrow, The Information and, especially, Money: A Suicide Note.  Then again, outsize talent rarely delivers a smooth ride.  Even Zadie Smith stumbled with The Autograph Man after her acclaimed debut, White Teeth. Sometimes a hugely successful -- or over-praised -- first novel can be a burden rather than a blessing.  Alex Garland, Audrey Niffenegger, Charles Frazier, and Donna Tartt all enjoyed smash debuts, then suffered critical and/or popular disappointments the second time out.  Frazier had the consolation of getting an $8 million advance for his dreadful Thirteen Moons, while Niffenegger got $5 million for Her Fearful Symmetry.  That kind of money can salve the sting of even the nastiest reviews and most disappointing sales.  Tartt regained her footing with her third novel, The Goldfinch, currently the most popular book among readers of The Millions and a few hundred thousand other people. A handful of writers never produce a second novel, for varied and deeply personal reasons.  Among the one-hit wonders we've written about here are James Ross, Harper Lee, Margaret Mitchell, and Ralph Ellison.  And in certain rare cases, the second novel is not only the hardest one to write, it's the last one that gets written.  Consider Philip Larkin.  He published two highly regarded novels, Jill and A Girl in Winter, back to back in the 1940s -- and then abruptly abandoned fiction in favor of poetry.  Why?  Clive James offered one theory: "The hindsight answer is easy: because he was about to become the finest poet of his generation, instead of just one of its best novelists.  A more inquiring appraisal suggests that although his aesthetic effect was rich, his stock of events was thin...Larkin, while being to no extent a dandy, is nevertheless an exquisite.  It is often the way with exquisites that they graduate from full-scale prentice constructions to small-scale works of entirely original intensity, having found a large expanse limiting."  In other words, for some writers the biggest canvas is not necessarily the best one. Of course, second novels don't always flop -- or drive their creators away from fiction-writing.  Oliver Twist, Pride and Prejudice, Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, and John Updike's Rabbit, Run are just a few of the many second novels that were warmly received upon publication and have enjoyed a long shelf life.  But until about a year ago, I regarded such stalwarts as the exceptions that proved the rule.  Then a curious thing happened.  I came upon a newly published second novel that knocked me out.  Then another.  And another.  In all of these cases, the second novel was not merely a respectable step up from a promising debut.  The debuts themselves were highly accomplished, critically acclaimed books; the second novels were even more ambitious, capacious, and assured. I started to wonder: With so much high-quality fiction getting written every day in America -- especially by writers who are supposed to be in the apprentice phase of their careers -- is it possible that we're entering a golden age of the second novel?  Here are three writers who make me believe we are: Rachel Kushner Rachel Kushner's 2008 debut, Telex from Cuba, was a finalist for the National Book Award.  Refreshingly free of the mirror-gazing that mars many first novels, it told the story of two insulated colonies in the eastern end of Cuba in the late 1950s, where Americans were blithely extracting riches from sugar crops and nickel deposits while Fidel Castro and his rebels were getting ready to sweep away the corrupt regime of Fulgencio Batista -- and, with it, the Americans' cloistered world. The novel is richly researched and deeply personal.  Kushner's grandfather was a mining executive in Cuba in the 1950s, and her mother grew up there.  Kushner interviewed family members, pored over their memorabilia, even traveled to Cuba to walk the ground and talk to people who remembered life before the revolution.  To her great credit, Kushner's imagination took precedence over her prodigious research as she sat down to write.  As she told an interviewer, "Just because something is true doesn't mean it has a place." While her debut took place inside a hermetically sealed cloister, Kushner's second novel, The Flamethrowers, explodes across time and space.  The central character is Reno, a young woman from the West hoping to break into the 1970s downtown New York art scene, a motorcycle racer with "a need for risk."  But Reno's artistic aspirations are merely the springboard for this ambitious novel as it moves from the 1970s to the First World War, from America to Europe to South America.  It teems with characters, events, voices, ideas.  It's a big, sprawling, assured novel, and it announced the arrival of a major talent. Jonathan Miles Dear American Airlines, Jonathan Miles's first novel, exists in an even more tightly circumscribed space than Kushner's American enclave in pre-revolutionary Cuba.  This novel takes place inside the American Airlines terminal at Chicago's O'Hare Airport -- or, more accurately, inside the brain of Benjamin R. Ford, who has been stranded at O'Hare while trying to fly from New York to Los Angeles to attend the wedding of his gay daughter and, just maybe, reverse the downward momentum of a magnificently botched life.  The novel's conceit is a beauty: furious and utterly powerless, Ben, a failed poet, a failed drunk, a failed husband and father -- but a reasonably successful translator -- decides to sit down and write a complaint letter, demanding a refund from the soulless corporation that has kept him from attending his daughter's wedding, effectively thwarting his last chance at redemption.  The conceit could have turned the novel into a one-trick pony in less capable hands, but Miles manages to make Ben's plight emblematic of what it's like to live in America today -- trapped and manipulated by monstrous forces but, if you happen to be as funny and resourceful as Ben Ford, never defeated by them. It was a deft performance, but Miles outdid it last year with his second novel, Want Not, a meditation on the fallout of omnivorous consumerism.  It tells three seemingly unrelated stories that come together only at the novel's end: Talmadge and Micah, a couple of freegan scavengers, are squatting in an abandoned apartment on the New York's Lower East Side, living immaculately pure lives off the grid; Elwin Cross Jr., a linguist who studies dying languages, lives alone miserably in the New Jersey suburbs, regularly visiting the nursing home where his father is succumbing to Alzheimer's; and Dave Masoli, a bottom-feeding debt collector, his wife Sara, whose husband was killed on 9/11, and her daughter Alexis, who brings the strands of the story together, in shocking fashion. From the first pages, it's apparent that the themes are large, the characters are vivid and complex (with the exception of Dave Masoli), and the prose is rigorously polished.  Here's one of many astonishing sentences, a description of what Elwin hears after he has accidentally struck and killed a deer while driving home late at night: It took a few seconds for the panicked clatter in his head to subside, for the hysterical warnings and recriminations being shouted from his subcortex to die down, and then: silence, or what passes for silence in that swath of New Jersey: the low-grade choral hum of a million near and distant engine pistons firing through the night, and as many industrial processes, the muted hiss and moan of sawblades and metal stamps and hydraulic presses and conveyor belts and coalfired turbines, plus the thrum of jets, whole flocks of them, towing invisible contrails toward Newark, and the insectile buzz of helicopters flying low and locust-like over fields of radio towers and above the scrollwork of turnpike exits, all of it fused into a single omnipresent drone, an aural smog that was almost imperceptible unless you stood alone and  quivering on a deserted highwayside in the snow-hushed black hours of a November morning with a carcass hardening in the ice at your feet. Want Not is a profound book not because Miles preaches, not even because he understands that we are what we throw away, but because he knows that our garbage tells us everything we need to know about ourselves, and it never lies. Charles McNair In 1994, Charles McNair's weird little first novel, Land O' Goshen, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.  It reads as if it were written by Faulkner on acid.  It's corn-pone sci-fi.  It's nasty and funny.  It's brilliant. The title conjures two locales: the place in Egypt where the Israelites began their exodus to the Promised Land; and the place where the novel unfolds, a little one-blinking-light grease stain in the piney wastes of southern Alabama.  The story is told by Buddy, a 14-year-old orphan who lives in the woods, dodging the Christian soldiers who are trying to subjugate the populace.  This future era is called the New Times, but it's a lot like the Old Testament -- bloody tooth and bloody claw.  Sometimes Buddy dresses up in animal skins and, as The Wild Thing, terrorizes the locals, trying "to wake up those tired, beaten-down old souls in every place where folks just gave up to being stupid and bored and commanded."  Buddy enjoys a brief idyll at his forest hideout with a beautiful girl named Cissy Jean Barber, but the world won't leave them in peace.  Through the nearly Biblical tribulations of his coming of age, Buddy learns the key to survival: "Sad sorrow can't kill you, if you don't let it." Last year, after nearly two decades of silence, McNair finally published his second novel, Pickett's Charge.  It's bigger than its predecessor in every way.  It traverses an ocean, a century, a continent.  If Land O' Goshen was content to be a fable, Pickett's Charge aspires to become a myth.  It tells the story of Threadgill Pickett, a former Confederate soldier who, at the age of 114 in 1964, is a resident of the Mobile Sunset Home in Alabama.  As a teenage soldier, Threadgill watched Yankees murder his twin brother, Ben, a century earlier, and when Ben's ghost appears at the nursing home to inform Threadgill that he has located the last living Yankee soldier, a wealthy man in Bangor, Maine, Threadgill embarks on one last mission to avenge his brother's death. Pickett's Charge has obvious echoes – the Bible, Twain, Cervantes, Marquez, Allan Gurganus's Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.  But this novel's most direct forebear might be Charles Portis's Norwood, another story about a southerner's quixotic journey to the North to seek justice.  While Threadgill Pickett is after something big -- vengeance -- Norwood Pratt is simply out to collect the $70 he loaned a buddy in the Marines.  Yet McNair and Portis seem to agree that folly is folly, regardless of its scale.  And they both know how to turn it into wicked fun. Of course one could argue that a half dozen books do not constitute a trend or herald a new golden age.  But I'm sure I've missed a truckload of recent second novels that would buttress my claim.  Maybe Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation, which has come out 15 years after her debut and is concerned, in part, with the difficulty of writing a second novel.  Surely there are others that disprove the old saw.  I would love it if you would tell me about them. Image Credit: Wikipedia
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