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 March. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. The Novel: A Biography 6 months 2. 2. Station Eleven 6 months 3. 3. My Brilliant Friend 4 months 4. 5. The Narrow Road to the Deep North 6 months 5. 7. The Strange Library 4 months 6. 6. The David Foster Wallace Reader 3 months 7. 9. Dept. of Speculation 4 months 8. 8. All the Light We Cannot See 5 months 9. 10. Loitering: New and Collected Essays 3 months 10. - The Buried Giant 1 month Well, folks, it's happened. The enduring success of David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks has pushed the author to a Millions echelon so high that it's never before been reached. That's right: Mitchell is now the only author in site history to reach our hallowed Hall of Fame for three (count 'em!) different works. And with The Bone Clocks joining his past works, Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Mitchell's latest achievement puts him ahead of David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest,The Pale King), Junot Díaz (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, This Is How You Lose Her), Stieg Larsson (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest), Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies), Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections, Freedom), George Saunders (Tenth of December, Fox 8), and Dave Eggers (Zeitoun, The Circle), each of whom authored two Hall of Fame titles. Maybe this repeated success will be enough to coax him into a Year in Reading 2015 appearance. (ARE YOU LISTENING, PUBLICISTS?) Joining this month's list thanks to The Bone Clocks's graduation is Kazuo Ishiguro's latest novel, The Buried Giant. It's a book "about war and memory," wrote Millions staffer Lydia Kiesling in her extremely personal review of the work for this site. "But it is also about love and memory, and you don’t need to have lived through an atrocity to get it." Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that our own Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven, which is poised to graduate to our Hall of Fame next month, was the recent winner of The Morning News's annual Tournament of Books. (It beat out Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See, which is also on our Top Ten.) The novel, which has earned the praise of George R. R. Martin, took the final match-up by a score of 15-2, which should be decisive enough to persuade all of you who haven't yet bought the book to do so immediately. Join us next month as we graduate three books and open the doors for three newcomers. Will they be among the "Near Misses" below, or will they be something new entirely? Near Misses: My Struggle: Book 1, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, An Untamed State, The Paying Guests and The First Bad Man. See Also: Last month's list.
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 May. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose 6 months 2. 2. Beautiful Ruins 3 months 3. 5. Bark: Stories 2 months 4. 3. The Son 2 months 5. 4. Just Kids 5 months 6. 8. Eleanor & Park 2 months 7. 6. Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction's Most Beloved Heroines 2 months 8. 9. The Good Lord Bird 2 months 9. - A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World 1 month 10. 10. Jesus' Son: Stories 2 months In order to graduate to our Hall of Fame, books must remain on the Millions Top Ten for more than six months. The feat has only been accomplished by 82 books in the series's five year history. Within that subset of hallowed tomes, though, eight authors have attained an even higher marker of success: they've reached the Hall of Fame more than once. This accomplishment is remarkable for two reasons: 1) the Top Ten typically favors heavily marketed new releases, so it means that these eight authors have more than once produced blockbusters in the past few years; and 2) because Top Ten graduates must remain on our monthly lists for over half a year before ascending to the Hall of Fame, that means their books must be popular enough to have sustained success. (In other words, marketing only gets you far.) The names of these eight authors should be familiar to Millions readers, of course. They belong to some of the most successful writers of the past 25 years: David Foster Wallace* (Infinite Jest, The Pale King), Junot Díaz (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, This Is How You Lose Her), Stieg Larsson (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest), David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet), Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies), Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections, Freedom), George Saunders (Tenth of December, Fox 8), and — as of this month — Dave Eggers (Zeitoun, The Circle). (*David Foster Wallace has the unique distinction, actually, of having two of his own books in our Hall of Fame in addition to a biography written about him.) Even money would seem to indicate that Alice Munro is poised to join this esteemed group next. Her Selected Stories graduated to the Hall of Fame shortly after her Nobel Prize was awarded in 2013, and her collection, The Beggar Maid, has been holding fast ever since. Meanwhile, the surprise re-emergence of Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son, which has been hovering at the bottom of the Top Ten lists these past two months, indicates that maybe he'll reach that group soon as well. His novella, Train Dreams, graduated in August of 2012. Changing gears a bit: the lone new addition to our Top Ten this month in the form of Rachel Cantor's mouthful of a novel, A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World. The book, which was published last month, was featured in our Great 2014 Book Preview, during which time Millions staffer Hannah Gersen posed the eternal question, "It’s got time travel, medieval kabbalists, and yes, pizza. What more can you ask for?" What more, indeed? Near Misses: Little Failure: A Memoir, Americanah, Stories of Anton Chekhov, My Struggle: Book 1, and Tampa. See Also: Last month's list.
A curious statement was made by this year's Pulitzer Prize committee as, for the first time since A River Runs Through It failed to win in 1977, no award was given in the fiction category. Instead, Denis Johnson's Train Dreams, Karen Russell's Swamplandia!, and David Foster Wallace's The Pale King will get to split the "tie" on their records. In the history of the Prize, there have only been nine other years without a fiction winner. Meanwhile in the General Nonfiction category, Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve: How the World Became Modern took home the top prize. Here are this year's Pulitzer winners and finalists with excerpts where available: Fiction: Train Dreams by Denis Johnson - (excerpt) Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (excerpt, The Millions interview) The Pale King by David Foster Wallace (excerpt, previously unpublished scene) General Nonfiction: Winner: The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt (excerpt) One Hundred Names For Love: A Stroke, a Marriage, and the Language of Healing by Diane Ackerman (excerpt) Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men by Mara Hvistendahl (excerpt) History: Winner: Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable (excerpt, The Millions review) Empires, Nations & Families: A History of the North American West, 1800-1860 by Anne F. Hyde (excerpt - PDF) The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 and Osama Bin Laden by Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan (excerpt) Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America by Richard White (excerpt) Biography: Winner: George F. Kennan: An American Life by John Lewis Gaddis (excerpt) Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution by Mary Gabriel (excerpt) Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable (excerpt, The Millions review) Winners and finalists in other categories are available at the Pulitzer Web site.
One is tempted to attach the pop-cultural sobriquet “overnight sensation” to writer Edith Pearlman’s current moment in the sun. (She quotes comedian Danny Kaye when I used the phrase). As it is, Ann Patchett’s introduction to Binocular Vision (Lookout Books), Pearlman’s award-winning story collection and any number of reviews ask the question, “Why have I not heard of this fine writer before?” Why indeed? Pearlman has published over 250 short fictions and works of non-fiction in all the usual (and some unusual) places, and has been anthologized in Best American Short Stories, New Stories from the South, The Pushcart Prize Collection,and The O. Henry Prize Stories Collection. My own take on Ms. Pearlman’s fair-weather fame has something to do with the limited attention paid to the practitioners of short fiction -- when I grouped her in the company of much heralded short story maestros Alice Munro and William Trevor, Edith blushed (though she did not demur, false modesty is not an attribute she has). As is the case with my author colloquium, Edith Pearlman and I talked about many things – Tales From Shakespeare, Hermes typewriters, Penelope Fitzgerald, reading Dickens, the task of literature, Aunt Jemima cookie jars, and more. Okay then. Robert Birnbaum: What was the first book you remember reading? Edith Pearlman: Interesting question. I think it was Lamb’s Tales From Shakespeare. RB: How old were you? EP: I don’t know – eight. You asked about the first book I remember reading -- I am sure there were books I read before then. My aunt taught me to read at four. I think we read [Lamb] together. RB: How did she teach you? EP: Some kids are ready to read. I don’t think they need much teaching and I was one of those. My grandson is the same way. RB: Your reading career started in earnest when, at age six? EP: I suppose so. There were plenty of children’s books around -- maybe I read Five Little Peppers and How They Grew or-- RB: After reading Lamb were you a fully engaged reader? EP: Then I read the plays in order. (Both laugh). No, I think I went back to Mary Poppins. I read Lamb with my aunt. RB: And when did your writing career start? EP: It started even earlier. I started a book, I think, at the age of three. And it was called All About Jews. RB: I have recently come across three writers who began writing really young – Gary Shteyngart wrote a novel when he was six or seven. And Ben Katchor, he started early. EP: I started to write the book at three, but I didn’t get any further than the title. RB: Really – writer’s block? (Both laugh). EP: I think so. RB: Will you ever revisit that story? EP: I have revisited it often in interviews. RB: I mean All About Jews. EP: Probably not. RB: Are there generalizations with which one can describe short form fiction writers? For instance, many novelists write short fiction, but it seems that short fiction practitioners don’t often write novels. EP: It is something that clings to you and that you fall in love with. And though I love to read novels and so do my colleagues, I have no wish to write in the long form. It’s my destiny. RB: Have you ever tried? EP: I started to write -- actually I finished writing a mystery story with a friend but it wasn’t very good. And no -- I don’t think I ever have. RB: How do you know it wasn’t any good? EP: Well, nobody took it. RB: (Laughs). Alright. Writing came to you as an avocation, hobby, and obsession-- EP: It came to me as an occupation. I was making my living as computer programmer, so writing was in those days confined to letters. But my letters were rather long. RB: Do you still write letters? EP: I do still. RB: Hand write? EP: No, but a typewriter. I write my stories on a typewriter too. RB: It seems there is a renaissance of interest in typewriters EP: Yes, somebody told me that. RB: Well, at least if you pay attention to The New York Times. I have a few -- one is a [portable] Hermes 3000, which reportedly was the typewriter of choice for journalists. EP: I used to use a Hermes. I don’t remember what model it was. It was pretty old. RB: For some reason, the 3200 comes up in a few stories. EP: It was a very good typewriter. I used it for years. RB: Did you study writing anywhere? EP: I took a course in college and a course or two in my 30s. I did not get an MFA -- I took a total of three courses. RB: In the course of your writing career I read that you had written over 250 stories. EP: I have written 250 short pieces, not all fiction. RB: Is there a group of people you talk with about writing? EP: I have particular friend and colleague whom I meet with every month who is also a writer and we exchange manuscripts. That’s been going on for 25 years. RB: Any fights? EP: We have had and we are ruthless with each other. I also have a non-fiction group of four and we meet once a month too. RB: Which writers do you like to read? EP: Well, I like best to read Dickens and I read him over and over again. I have been doing that for a long time. So I have probably read each book five or seven times. RB: Rereading is a great thing. I feel compelled to keep digging in to the newly published. Although I reread 100 Years of Solitude three or four times. The last time I didn’t feel I got anything new and it made me wonder about past judgments about the book. EP: Well, in Dickens, each time I find something, some turn of phrase, a manipulation of plot or a character I hadn’t appreciated. I read them in order to live in them. My purpose is not to find new things. My purpose is to sink into them. RB: Dickens makes appearances in a number of contemporary novels -- Peter Carey's Jack Maggs. EP: That was a riff on Magwitch in Great Expectations. I don’t think Dickens appears. RB: Right. But he is in Richard Flanagan’s Wanting and in Joseph O'Connor’s Star of the Sea. EP: There is a story by Evelyn Waugh, a novel I can’t remember which one it is. The end of it is a about young people and explorers and takes place in Africa -- Black Mischief? The hero alone is captured by a crazy, fanatic ex-preacher who lives alone. And is held captive in order that the young man can read over and over and over the novels of Dickens until the old man dies. It’s supposed to be a tragic ending. To me it sounded like a wonderful life. RB: Is that the extent of your reading, you just read Dickens? (Both laugh). EP: I thought you asked who I read most or my favorite -- at any rate. RB: You gave me the impression that you aren’t required to read any particular writer. EP: Right. I don’t feel I have to read anybody. At this point I feel like I’ve probably read enough. Not enough to educate myself -- if I stopped reading, which would be a horror, I would probably not be a different person. People are made by the books they read and I think I am finished. That is to say, my making is finished. RB: Do you think the task of literature is to instruct and entertain? EP: Exactly. How did you know? RB: (Laughs). EP: I would put entertain first. RB: Richard Russo introduced the volume of Best American Stories he guest edited with an amusing anecdote about Isaac Bashevis Singer visiting the campus where Russo was teaching and answering a graduate student’s inquiry with the “task of literature is to instruct and entertain.” Apparently the gathering wanted a more elaborate answer. I think that view is actually taken from Horace. EP: Oh really? RB: Is writing short fiction important? EP: Yes. RB: Because? EP: Because literature is important. The project is important. RB: Do you have any sense that it’s being drowned out? EP: It is being attacked so to speak. Drowned out isn’t the word I would use. It’s being narrowed by all sorts of things. But it probably always was. We notice the Internet, television, and all these electronic things, but 100 years ago it was affected by farm work. Only the very rich could read. RB: That was probably the case for most of history -- that only a small fraction could benefit from reading and writing. EP: I don’t know that the percentage is any different now. RB: The percentage may not be the different but the cause may be and thus the hold it has on our civilization may be different -- more tenuous. I work with people who don’t read -- 35 year olds who play video games. EP: Well some time ago they might have been plowing the fields. RB: There is this meme of the educated working class guy who finishes his shift on the assembly line and goes home and picks up William Faulkner. In fact, that is the story of Southern writers like Larry Brown and William Gay. I don’t think that obtains any more -- especially because I don’t think one can be poor with dignity in the 21st century. EP: People do come home and read no matter what their occupation is. RB: Working class people have to work hard -- frequently taking on second jobs EP: Why don’t they have that luxury in their off hours? RB: Besides fatigue, there aren’t a lot of cultural prompts. EP: Where did people get it before? RB: This belabors the obvious, but this a world that is far different than what we were raised in. EP: My husband plays early music -- he plays the viola de gamba as an amateur. The early music crowd is eccentric and a world unto itself. And passionate and they don’t write early music -- it’s already been written, but they play it and adapt it. It is their overwhelming hobby. I think that’s what reading may become. A small group of people who love it and don’t care if they are thought of as crazy. RB: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 has seemed prescient to me. EP: It is. It is. RB: People who collect guns or Aunt Jemima cookie jars are passionate also. Today it would seem passion -- people who like reading and literature passionately began to champion the independent bookstore. That’s okay. I mean, who likes cookie cutter retailers? On the other hand, booksellers were beatified as if they weren’t merchants and capitalists. C’mon! Maybe a few were/are heroic -- Truman Metzel of the late Great Expectations in Evanston Ill., or Sylvia Beach in Paris, Vincent McCaffrey in Boston. EP: And now they have readings. Those of us who want to sell books are delighted. RB: I understand. Do you go to the annual BEA? EP: Tell me what it stands for? RB: It’s a big booksellers trade show. EP: In Frankfurt? RB: That’s the Frankfurt Book Fair. This is the big American convocation of the book industry. EP: Obviously, I don’t go to it since I don’t know what it is. RB: So, do you go to book related events? EP: I go to literary events -- mostly at colleges. I go to bookstores. I go to festivals. I go where I am asked. If the BEA invited me, I would go. RB: That does speak to the assumption that writers should help their publishers promote and sell their books. EP: Yes, right. I do it for my publisher. RB: Your publisher is blessed to be located in a civilized place like North Carolina (laughs). Wilmington? Chapel Hill? EP: Wilmington. Do you know him? RB: Ben? No. EP: I thought he introduced us. RB: Oh yeah, by email. EP: He knows you, knows of you. RB: I don’t remember the chain of events that brought us together -- it must be because you are an overnight sensation (laughs). I must have read about you in Variety. EP: No you didn’t. I am an overnight sensation of a sort. I have been writing for 40 years and this is my fourth book. And I always had a small following. And I never expected to have any bigger following. I would go to my grave with a small collection, happy. So this somehow happened. RB: You knew about Ann Patchett’s intro to [Binocular Vision]? [She writes:“My only challenge was to keep from interrupting myself as I read. So often I wanted to stop and say to the audience, 'Did you hear that? Do you understand how good this is?'”] EP: That certainly helped. RB: And there was a review in the LA Times that took the same tone. As did Roxana Robinson. I am happy for you, but that’s a bit of journalistic gimmickry. There are many artists that one can say that about. EP: Absolutely. I had the luck to be plucked. It was luck. There are writers absolutely as good as I am or better who write their books and don’t get noticed. RB: I am disturbed by that -- I am reluctantly drawn into thinking about the business part of book publishing. Success frequently is serendipitous. I am certain you know the stories of writers who have submitted their books to many publishers and were rejected. EP: Absolutely. Or 30 rejection letters for a story. RB: Tibor Fischer’s story is particularly amazing. Of the almost 50 publishers in Britain he was rejected by all except the last one he approached. How do these decisions get made? EP: By human beings. By fallible human beings. RB: It would be okay if there were some humility attached to the gate keeping of publishing. Don’t you think? EP: Yes. And the prize givers ought to be more humble and certainly the writers. In general the writers are -- they know how lucky they are. RB: You start out with a sense that there is a civilizing effect of thinking and writing and telling stories. It made life somehow better. And looking around today, it may be true but the contemplative life seems to be losing the battle. EP: It improves the individual life, I think. People who read, people who write-- RB: Wouldn’t it be nice if they were to be salvation for all of us? (Laughs). EP: I would, but I am not a proselytizer. RB: All right, I scratch that line of thought. I have three favorite stories in Binocular Vision. “The Ministry of Restraint,” in part because I didn’t know what was going to happen -- how well do you remember your stories -- pretty well? EP: I think so. RB: A guy takes a trip to some backwater town, and takes a train back to the capitol and meets a woman. The train is blocked at a tunnel and the passengers have to get off and return to the starting point -- as man and the woman walk side by side, their hands come close to touching but do not. And then over the years they meet. In final pages, you learn explicitly that they were lovers once. I was charmed by their initial close proximity which was brought to some fruition much later. EP: I’m glad you liked it. RB: And then the heart wrenching tale of a damaged infant. Why did you name her Tess? EP: I don’t remember. I don’t remember. It has a slightly angelic appeal to me. RB: Any connection to Thomas Hardy? EP: No. She wasn’t named after Tess of the D’Ubervilles. RB: How many Tesses do you know? EP: Probably none. RB: It’s an unusual name EP: Yes, it’s taken from the nickname for Theresa. RB: Was it a hard story to write? EP: Yes. I wrote it in pieces. And, of course, it’s told in pieces. And I didn’t write it in the order of its final form. RB: You chose to have a number of people tell the story. EP: Only one person speaks in her own voice -- that’s the mother. There are probably a half of dozen people who see the child -- each of them has a thought that you know about. But it’s the mother who speaks in the first person. RB: And it was hard to write because? EP: It dealt with such sad things. RB: Do you have enough time to emotionally identify with the characters? EP: Yes, I think I do. I have enough intensity to get involved. RB: I wonder about the aftermath of writing a novel, which requires a writer to inhabit lives for a period of time. How long does it take to write a story -- a year? EP: No, no. A few months. I suppose in a hardhearted way I forget the sadness of the story I have written. Life goes on and I write the next story. RB: Are you tempted to write what seems to be a current trend-- EP: Linked stories? Well I have several stories that take place in the same place -- in soup kitchen. The stories about the woman who works for the joint distribution committee -- there are four about her. It’s not a temptation so much as I am not through with that character, so I want to write another story about them. RB: Is there one thing that moves you in taking up or developing a story -- a name, an image, feeling, a memory? EP: All of those things. It’s not one -- something I dream-- RB: When you begin, do you know what is going to happen? EP: When I start out, it’s a lot of improvising and I write many pages of improvisation and then I begin to see what story I want to write. I start all over again with the knowledge that I have gotten from the improvisation. RB: Do you think the piece is finished when the story is written? EP: Well, I take them to my friend, whom I meet every month, who is ruthless with me and I with her. RB: Does she use any instruments in her ruthlessness (laughs)? EP: No, no. It’s all an abuse of the mind. And she either says, “This is almost done” or “Go back.” And I do. RB: One writer told me that she submits the draft -- her editor sends a back a few notes, which enrage her. She writes back to her editor expressing her anger. The editor doesn’t respond. And a few weeks later, the writer decides the editor was right (laughs). EP: She had to get over her rage and humiliation first. RB: Really! Where was I? EP: You were going to tell me the third story you liked. RB: Right. It was the one entitled “Chance.” It had a Torah study group card game. I enjoyed the Hassidic slant, but I really like that it went somewhere I didn’t see coming. I lost track of why the card game devolved to the temple and presentation ceremony. EP: It begins with the Torah being delivered, and so I had hoped that the Torah would always be somewhere in the back of the reader’s mind. RB: Yes, it’s mentioned in the middle of the story. I was distracted by the card game interlude. EP: Well, the title of the story is “Chance.” That’s what poker is about-- RB: And what the Torah is about (laughs)? EP: No, that’s what the destruction of Jewry was about. That is to say it was chance that some Jews lived and some died. RB: The story’s last two lines were quite powerful. Story collections are a delight because despite what is usually a deliberate sequence you can go through and begin with titles that you find appealing. I would never skip around in a novel. EP: My daughter used to read novels that way. A piece here and a piece there. And I read somewhere that Nabokov wrote his novels that way on 5x8 cards. There is a writer who found or could have found his ideal reader. RB: Movies are made that way -- out of narrative sequence. EP: When I was a girl, I‘d go to a double feature in the middle and go around for the part I missed. They don’t let you do that now. I tried and was told that the director did mean for you to see it that way. RB: In the last few years, I have relaxed my personal rule about finishing books that I begin-- EP: Many of my friends have said that [same] thing to me: “Now, if I don’t like it out it goes.” RB: It means I have shifted more responsibility to the writer. It’s always an issue, the immediacy of our reaction -- you may hate a book one day and find it quite readable the next. EP: Yes. And the things we believe today, we can expect not to believe tomorrow. RB: (Laughs) If we can remember them. EP: (Laughs). RB: Do you go back to your work? EP: Well, I do when I make a collection. Because it’s a chance to improve them. So I go back -- when a story is accepted by a magazine, it’s an opportunity to correct things. RB: You see that as a correction? EP: Improve? If it then goes into an anthology like Best American, I take an opportunity to correct or revise there -- but not much. Not wholesale revision. And then, for a collection of my own, I certainly have an opportunity to change or review. RB: Where does that impulse come from? At one point you felt the story was finished. Not perfect but done. EP: I thought it was done to the best of my ability at the time. RB: And then you got better since you wrote it? (Laughs). EP: I don’t know that I got better -- I got different. I was in an event in which three short stories were read by three actresses which was a lot of fun. I was watching one writer listening to her own story -- she said later all she could hear were the infelicities. So I am sure if that story gets re-collected she’ll change some things. RB: There is also the matter that the creator has expectations of the audience to grasp their creation in a certain way. EP: No, I don’t feel that way. I agree with the statement, "Trust the tale, not the teller.” My attitude about a story I have written may well be different from a reader’s. And I don’t mind that. RB: Would you say it should be different? EP: No, I don’t say that. It can be appreciated in many ways. Or not appreciated. RB: This recent collection was a collection of stories that already existed? EP: Thirteen new stories that had not been in a book. They had previously been published in magazines. There were 16 stories that had never been collected. RB: They had all been previously published somewhere? EP: Except for one. I can’t remember which one. RB: Some writers say they will write stories specifically for a book. EP: No, I don’t do that. I write hoping that a magazine will take it. And I don’t think about a collection until I have quite a few stories. RB: Why are writers like Alice Munro, William Trevor, and yourself admired in a way that seems different than many writers? EP: Thank you very much for putting me in that threesome. I was so dazzled by that that I didn’t hear the rest of the question. RB: (Laughs) I took your breath away. Does it strike you that there’s a craftsmanship assigned to the writers I mentioned. That short fiction writers are looked as artisans? EP: Yes, we have to have our end not only in mind, but pointed towards, within the story. Like the ones you mentioned. RB: You seem to travel a lot. EP: I'm traveling now because-- RB: You’re an overnight sensation? EP: Did you ever hear Danny Kaye’s comment when he became a success and somebody said he was an overnight sensation? He responded, “Yes, after 20 years in the Borscht Belt.” I’m not an overnight sensation, but at the moment I’m in demand. It won’t last forever, so I am responding to it. RB: How do you know? Mostly there is a six-week window of attention for books and then goodbye. Your “15 minutes” has lasted since the Spring. EP: It’s been three months. RB: That’s a long time. EP: Yes, yes. It received these very good reviews. But other books are coming along with good reviews. RB: What’s come out that has really excited reviewers? EP: The Tiger Wife. I’m trying to think of fiction -- I am sure there are others. RB: I think not. Except for David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. EP: What about David Mitchell’s book? RB: That was a while ago -- it just came out in paper. EP: I bought it in hardcover. RB: Did you like it? EP: I haven’t read it. RB: (Chuckles) You bought the book and haven’t read it. EP: I have a lot of books I haven’t read. RB: What are you reading now? EP: The Worst Journey in the World, which is about Scott’s last expedition. It’s a nice alternative to fiction. RB: Do you know Andrea Barrett’s The Voyage of the Narwhal? It’s about an Arctic expedition. EP: I’ll bet its good -- I like her short stories. Anthony Doerr got very good reviews. RB: Sure, but within the usual window of attention. And not a widespread choice. So what’s next? Any polar expeditions? EP: No, no. I have a grandchild I walk every day. I have lots of friends whom I meet for coffee. Love to go to the movies. RB: What was the last movie you saw you liked? EP: I liked The King’s Speech. I usually like movies when I see them. There are very few movies I don’t like. RB: Meaning you choose carefully? EP: No, I have a general love of movies. I love the experience. RB: Do you watch TV? EP: (Shakes her head). RB: None? EP: I don’t have one. RB: Wow. Isn’t there a whole bunch of culture you are missing? EP: I am. Yes there is. I do lead a somewhat insulated life without television. RB: Well, you have missed one of the great TV series -- The Wire. EP: Oh yeah? What’s that about? RB: Big city life in Baltimore -- drugs, unions, corruption, public schools, politics, media. There were five seasons and every season had a different focus. It was a Tolstoyan tale. EP: I am sure I am missing things that are good. I have a feeling that I'd become addicted if I started watching. And I also have a very good radio. RB: What do you listen to? EP: Music mostly. I listen to interesting interviews RB: What’s it like to be on book tour? Especially when a small amount of people show up for an event -- has that happened to you? EP: It certainly has. This [current] book seems to get a crowd. I read for my other three books a lot and seven people would be there. You do as well as you can for those seven people. I once was on a lineup that included David Sedaris and I was the first reader and he was the second. I had the experience of standing before 500 people reading my story -- all of 499 had come for him. It was fun. RB: That’s show business. EP: Thank you.
This was the year my son became a toddler -- which is to say, the year I surrendered the keys to my attention span to a traveling companion by turns delightful, dilatory, and insane. Among the casualties of this shift was an essay I had planned to write, called "How Having a One-year-old Will Change Your Reading and Writing Habits" ... along with several hundred other essays, reviews, articles, and epic poems that got interrupted partway through. But the kid has just gone down for a nap, which should buy me an hour or two, provided all goes well. And I do have my notes. (My notes! How optimistic that phrase now sounds!) What follows, then, is a kind of museum of my failures, an atlas of incompletion, a tour of the ruins of a future that never came. I call it "Reviews I Did Not Write This Year." 1. Game-Changer The single best thing I read in 2011 was Steps to an Ecology of Mind, a career-spanning nonfiction collection from the late anthropological polymath and proto-hippie genius Gregory Bateson. This may sound forbidding -- and it is, in a way. Bateson is an artist of abstraction on par with Derrida or Kant. (What the hell is an "Ecology of Mind", e.g.? Something like a way of thinking about thinking. Or thinking about thinking about thinking...) But Bateson's method is inductive; each essay builds lucidly from some specific subject -- alcoholism, Balinese art, the conversation of porpoises -- toward a larger concern with form, communication, complexity, and how they inform systems of all kinds. After 400 pages of this, "Systems Theory," which is another, uglier name for "Ecology of Mind," comes to look like the great Road Not Taken of Western Thought. Or maybe a road gone partway down, backed out of, blocked off, and erased from the map, in favor of the road that got us to where we are today. In short, this book changed my brain. I don't think it's too strong to say that it changed my life. 2. Novels Of the novels I read this year, my favorite was probably Philip Roth's Sabbath's Theater, but I've written about that elsewhere, so I guess there's no room for it here. Equally captivating were a pair of books from that nebulous period just before Joyce and Eliot and Woolf arrived to put their stamp on literary history. The first was Lucky Per, the magnum opus of the Danish Nobelist Henrik Pontoppidan. First published in 1904, it's either a late masterpiece of 19th century Realism, or an early masterpiece of 20th century Modernism ... or maybe the missing term between them. Pontoppidan gives us both a Balzacian examination of a society on the cusp of cosmopolitanism and a Kierkegaardian x-ray of the vacant place where we once imagined the individual soul. Filling that vacancy is the hero-journey of the eponymous Per, and it culminates in one of the great, strange endings of world literature. But don't take my word for it. Take Fredric Jameson's. (Inexplicably, by the way, Lucky Per remained untranslated into English until a dear friend of mine took this mitzvah upon herself. In a just world there would be a nice Oxford World Classics edition of this available for $10, but as it stands, it's a pricey import.) The Forsyte Saga, which I read this summer, covers some of the same historical territory, but in England, rather than Denmark. You won't catch me saying this often, but I think Virginia Woolf and V.S. Pritchett missed the boat on this one. Galsworthy's style -- his "port-wine irony," as Pritchett puts it -- looks pretty tasty a hundred years later, when the cultural palate tends to run either to near-beer or Jägermeister. And though he lacks the psychological penetration of a Pontoppidan (or a Woolf, for that matter) Galsworthy's astuteness as an observer of the bourgeois mores that formed him is unimpeachable. You can almost read The Forsyte Saga as a spy novel, the work of a double-agent that both informs on and sympathizes with his class. 3. Addendum I'd be remiss, too, if I didn't mention David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress, which is just as amazing as everyone says it is. This had lingered on my list for years. If it's done the same on yours, promote it to the top, post-haste. 4. Best New Fiction As far as newish fiction, my favorites were David Foster Wallace's The Pale King, Helen DeWitt's Lightning Rods, Martin Amis' The Pregnant Widow, and Haruki Murakami's IQ84. The first two I wrote about here and here, so: disqualified on a technicality. But that's a good thing, because it gives me more space to talk about The Pregnant Widow. This one struck me as a hetero version of Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty, only set in the go-go '60s rather than the go-go '80s. (If that description had appeared on the jacket, it would have been enough to get me to buy the book, as there are few things I love more than Hollinghurst, the '60s, and books about sex.) Amis being Amis, the writing is fantastic. More importantly, though, this book shows off the heart everyone says he doesn't have. It's a wistful little f--ker, at that. In fact, The Pregnant Widow would be Amis' best book ... were it not marred by an abominable coda. (Trust me on this: just stop on page 308. Bind the rest of the pages shut with glue, if you have to. Rip them out. Burn them. They never happened.) IQ84 is, similarly and just as surprisingly, also full of heart (though Murakami's temperament here runs more toward Tin Pan Alley than Let it Bleed). And, now that I think of it, IQ84 could likewise have used a nice strong edit at the end. But who's going to complain about a thousand pages of assassins, "simple meals," crazy religious cults, and "little people"? There are a million billion holes I could poke in this book, but for me, IQ84 bypassed questions of good taste entirely, en route to being often within shouting distance of the great. Just in terms of the massive tractor-beam effect it exerted on my attention, it was the most pleasurable reading experience I had all year. Away from it, I couldn't wait to get back. 5. Brief Books With European Pedigrees A wonderful new discovery for me was Lore Segal, whose Lucinella couldn't be more unlike IQ84. It's short, for one thing -- I read it back during the time I thought I would read only short books. It's wickedly funny, for another (writers' colonies may be easy game, but it takes chutzpah to make sport of the gods). Also: it's just exquisitely written. Here, the pleasure is less in the narrative burlesque than in every beautifully turned sentence. A New Year's resolution: I will read more Lore Segal in 2012. Another short, funny, weird novel I loved this year was Ludvíc Vakulíc's The Guinea Pigs, now back in print in English. Vakulíc is like Bohumil Hrabal without the soft-shoe, or Kafka without the metaphysics. Here he writes about (in no particular order), bureaucracy, family, totalitarianism, money, and guinea pigs (natch). These emerge as aspects of the same phenomenon -- an idea that struck me as weirdly apposite in America, circa 2011. At any rate, Vakulíc's comedy is relentless, disconcerting, clear-eyed, and strange. The last in my troika of great short books was Imre Kertesz's Fatelessness. This is simply the best novel about the Holocaust I have ever read: the most meticulous, the most comprehensive, the most beautiful in its scruples, the most scrupulous in its beauty. To say that it, too, is disconcerting doesn't mean what you'd think it means. Basically, you just have to read it. 6. Omissions Somehow I've gotten through the "shorter books" section without mentioning Skylark, Never Let Me Go, or The Elementary Particles, as I somehow managed to get through the last decade without reading them. I hereby rectify the former error, as I rectified the latter in 2011. You should read these, too. 7. Nonfiction Earlier this year, the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides inspired me to pick up John Lewis' memoir Walking With the Wind. This seems to me the very model of the as-told-to book, in that you really feel the cadences of Lewis' voice and the force of his insights. That this book is morally stirring is obvious. A couple things that often get lost in the narrative about the Civil Rights Movement, however, are what brilliant tacticians its leaders were and how widely their visions varied. You feel both here, powerfully. Occupiers, and for that matter Tea Partiers, could learn a lot at the feet of John Lewis. 8. Pulphead Finally: everyone is required to read John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead. I know a lot of other people are saying this, but it's true. The debt to Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again will be obvious even if you haven't read Sullivan's beautiful essay on Wallace, but the subtle subterranean orchestrations of these pieces, the way they press on and palpate the things they're really about without ever naming them, remind me more of the great Joseph Mitchell. Most of them are practically perfect on their own, and collectively they comprise something greater. If you ever feel like the breach between journalism and anything of lasting consequence is getting wider and wider, let this book be your balm. I should also say, it being the holidays and all, that Pulphead is a perfect stocking-stuffer, perfect to read on airplanes (also on subways and on park benches in cold weather), perfect for dads, perfect for moms, perfect for musicians, perfect for college kids, perfect for people with small children and a concomitant inability to concentrate. In short, a perfect gift. Oh, crap. I didn't get to talk about The Gift! But the child is stirring in the next room, the laundry is almost done, I have apparently forgotten to eat lunch. Given that my pile of half-written essays now rivals the size of my pile of half-read books, I can't say when you'll next hear from me. Next December, probably, when it's time for another Year in Reading piece. I promise that one will be shorter and more disciplined. Comparatively, haiku. But I hope this mess above will, if nothing else, give you some books to check out in the meantime. More from A Year in Reading 2011 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 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, The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
This year’s New York Times Notable Books of the Year list is out. At 100 titles, the list is more of a catalog of the noteworthy than a distinction. Sticking with the fiction exclusively, it appears that we touched upon a few of these books as well: The Angel Esmeralda by Don DeLillo (Most Anticipated)The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (The Gay Question: Death in Venice, By Nightfall, and The Art of Fielding)The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka (2011 National Book Award Finalists Announced)The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje (The Sea and the Mirror: Reflections and Refractions from a Voyage by Ship in Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table)Chango's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes by William Kennedy (William Kennedy’s Long Dry Spell Ends with Chango’s Beads and Two-Toned Shoes)11/22/63 by Stephen King (Most Anticipated)The Free World by David Bezmozgis (The Price of the Dream: David Bezmozgis’s The Free World, The Millions Interview: David Bezmozgis)Ghost Lights by Lydia Millet (Most Anticipated)Gryphon by Charles Baxter (Most Anticipated)House of Holes by Nicholson Baker (Ham Steaks and Manstarch: Nicholson Baker Returns to the Sex Beat)The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta (Most Anticipated)The London Train by Tessa Hadley (Most Anticipated)Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks (Porn, Lies, and Videotape: On Russell Banks’ Lost Memory of Skin)The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Write ‘The Marriage Plot’, Wanting it Bad: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides)A Moment in the Sun by John Sayles (Robert Birnbaum in Conversation with John Sayles)My New American Life by Francine Prose (Albania the Beautiful: Francine Prose’s My New American Life)1Q84 by Haruki Murakami (A Novelist Unmoored from Himself: Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, Reading 1Q84: The Case for Fiction in a Busy Life)The Pale King by David Foster Wallace (The Burden of Meaningfulness: David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King)Parallel Stories by Peter Nadas (Most Anticipated)Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman (Most Anticipated)The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (The Favorite Takes Home the Booker)Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta (Rock ‘n Roll Malaise: Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia)The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst (The Impermanence of Memory: Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, The Millions Interview: Alan Hollinghurst Answers his Critics)Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (The Millions Interview: Karen Russell)Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson (The Millions Interview: Eleanor Henderson)The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht (The Stories We Tell Ourselves: Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife)The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips (Most Anticipated)Train Dreams by Denis Johnson (Most Anticipated)
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 September. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 2. The Enemy 5 months 2. 3. Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric 6 months 3. - The Art of Fielding 1 month 4. 10. The Bathtub Spy 2 months 5. 5. Leaves of Grass 3 months 6. 4. The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry 5 months 8. 7. A Moment in the Sun 4 months 8. 9. How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive 2 months 9. - The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life 1 month 10. 9. Otherwise Known as the Human Condition 4 months David Foster Wallace's The Pale King graduates, along with The Hunger Games, to our Hall of Fame this month. Taking the vacated top spot is Christopher Hitchens' timely The Enemy. With Ann Patchett's The Getaway Car debuting on the list and joining another Kindle Single, The Bathtub Spy, it's becoming pretty clear that these bite-sized e-book originals are gaining some serious traction, a trend that the media has been taking note of, of late. Our other debut, meanwhile, is a plain old novel, certainly one of the big fiction releases of the fall, Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding. We first noted the book's headline-grabbing deal in early 2010, and we highlighted it in our big second-half preview. The big story next month will be seeing which heavyweight, literary new release will debut higher on our Top Ten, Jeffrey Eugenides's The Marriage Plot (read the opening lines here) or Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 (read the opening lines here). Near Misses: The Missing of the Somme, The Magician King, Swamplandia!, A Dance with Dragons, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, and The Tiger's Wife. See Also: Last month's list.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for August. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. The Pale King 6 months 2. 2. The Enemy 4 months 3. 4. Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric 5 months 4. 5. The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry 4 months 5. 8. Leaves of Grass 2 months 6. 6. The Hunger Games 6 months 7. 7. A Moment in the Sun 3 months 8. 9. Otherwise Known as the Human Condition 3 months 9. - How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive 1 month 10. - The Bathtub Spy 1 month David Foster Wallace's The Pale King remains in our top spot, but it will be headed (most likely along with The Hunger Games), to our Hall of Fame next month where it will join this month's inductee, the book I co-edited, The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books. Thanks again to all the Millions readers who picked the book up. It was a great project, and I'm glad I had a chance to share it with you. We have a pair of newcomers this week. Readers were clearly intrigued by Emily St. John Mandel's review of Christopher Boucher’s unique new novel How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive. We also have another Kindle Single on our list. Tom Rachman, whose The Imperfectionists is already in our Hall of Fame, makes the list with The Bathtub Spy, a new short story published as an e-book original. Christopher Hitchens' timely The Enemy has already had a nice showing on our list, suggesting that readers are warming to the pricing and perhaps the more bite-sized nature of this new format. Do Kindle Singles (and similar pieces offered on other platforms) undermine books or are readers now being introduced to the work of writers like Hitchens and Rachman via these low-cost "samples?" Something to ponder. Meanwhile, the stay of George R.R. Martin's latest, A Dance with Dragons, on our list turns out to be brief. Other Near Misses: The Magician King, Swamplandia!, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, and The Art of Fielding. See Also: Last month's list
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 July. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. The Pale King 5 months 2. 2. The Enemy 3 months 3. 3. The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books 6 months 4. 5. Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric 4 months 5. 6. The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry 3 months 6. 8. The Hunger Games 5 months 7. 9. A Moment in the Sun 2 months 8. - Leaves of Grass 1 month 9. 10. Otherwise Known as the Human Condition 2 months 10. - A Dance with Dragons 1 month David Foster Wallace's The Pale King is still in the top spot, and the rest of our top three are unchanged as well. New to our list is Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, which was the subject of a moving appreciation by Michael on the 4th of July. Meanwhile, Game of Thrones mania has hit our top ten, as George R.R. Martin's latest, A Dance with Dragons, lands in the tenth spot. Janet recently reviewed the epic series of books for us. And graduating to our Hall of Fame are a pair of breakout hits from summer 2010, The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman and Skippy Dies by Paul Murray. Near Misses: Cardinal Numbers, The Magicians, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, Swamplandia!, and How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One. See Also: Last month's list
It would be an interesting experiment to sit someone down in a chair and present them with a copy of Edouard Levé’s Suicide from which front and back covers, promotional blurb, author bio, translator’s afterword and other such paratextual trimmings had all been removed. Such a reader, blinkered against the novel’s context, might well find it a strange and unnerving and hypnotic read, but it would, in an important sense, be a very different experience to the one that awaits every other person who picks up Levé’s final work. Ten days after he submitted the manuscript of Suicide to his editor at the age of 42, the author killed himself. And this fact, which is presented to us on the back cover (and also, naturally enough, in everything that has since been written about the book), isn’t something we can choose not to take with us into the fiction. In an even more extreme way than David Foster Wallace’s unfinished The Pale King (to take another recent example of a work of fiction published in the shadow of its author’s suicide), Suicide denies us any chance of separating text from context. Perhaps the most compelling thing about this deeply compelling novel is the distinct possibility that Levé himself wanted actively to foreclose any such possibility of separation. To write a book about a suicide, to call it Suicide, and to then take your own life before its publication is, whatever else it is, a way of exerting an overpowering influence over how that work is received. During his life, Levé was best known in his native France as an artist and conceptual photographer. The reality of Suicide, which is his fourth prose work and his first to be translated into English, is that it functions almost as though it were one panel in a diptych, the second panel being Levé’s actual death. Reading the novel, the eye is continually drawn back to that second panel; it isn’t that the first makes no sense without it — it does, or at least it would if there were some way of viewing it separately — but rather that its presence utterly changes the way we see the first. The novel’s subject, only ever referred to as “you,” is the narrator’s childhood friend who committed suicide at the age of 25, and the narrator addresses this oddly totalizing pressure that suicide exerts on a life retrospectively considered. “Isn’t it peculiar,” he remarks, “how this final gesture inverts your biography? I’ve never heard a single person, since your death, tell your life’s story starting at the beginning.” In certain respects, the book presents itself as an attempt by this narrator to work his way past the blank exterior of facts into his friend’s inner world, into the circumstances around his taking his own life. If it could somehow be cut free of the wider context that envelops it — if we could somehow erase or bracket the knowledge that its author was almost certainly planning his own suicide as he wrote it — the opening passage of the book would still make for deeply disquieting, even painful reading: One Saturday in the month of August, you leave your home wearing your tennis gear, accompanied by your wife. In the middle of the garden you point out to her that you’ve forgotten your racket in the house. You go back to look for it, but instead of making your way toward the cupboard in the entryway where you normally keep it, you head down into the basement. Your wife doesn’t notice this. She stays outside. The weather is fine. She’s making the most of the sun. A few moments later she hears a gunshot. She rushes into the house, cries out your name, notices that the door to the stairway leading to the basement is open, goes down and finds you there. You’ve put a bullet in your head with the rifle you had carefully prepared. It’s a shocker of an opening gambit, not just for the calamity it lays out before us, but also for the pitiless and affectless clarity of the style in which it does so. There then swiftly follows a passage that is close to unbearable in its intimacy, in the access it allows us to both a scene of imagined grief and the imminent real grief it eerily foreshadows. “Your wife screams,” Levé writes. “No one is there to hear her, aside from you. The two of you are alone in the house. In tears, she throws herself on you and beats your chest out of love and rage. She takes you in her arms and speaks to you. She sobs and falls against you. Her hands slide over the cold, damp basement floor. He fingers scrape the ground. She stays for fifteen minutes and feels your body go cold.” I don’t know whether Levé left behind a wife, and I think I would prefer to continue not knowing. This is fiction, but it is fiction of a sort that raises some very serious questions about the possibility of cordoning off actual realities from imagined ones. Another way of putting this would be to say that you can’t help wondering what it must have been like — what it must have taken — for Levé to write these sentences knowing that his own cold body would soon be left behind for someone to find, and that this opening scene would be read by people aware that he was aware of this. It is dizzying and disturbing in a way that is quite unlike anything else I have ever read, and it hardly needs pointing out that this is not necessarily a good thing. We know that Levé was deeply influenced by Georges Perec, and I think it shows in strange ways; it is almost as though this book were written in response to a particularly unplayful version of an OULIPO imperative: “Write a fictional work about a suicide called Suicide and, upon completing it, commit suicide yourself.” After effecting this initial devastation on his subject, this anonymous “you,” Levé then sets about a faltering process of reconstruction. The portrait is radically unchronological, the narrative less fractured than pulverized. The narrator alights on one memory of “you,” briefly expands upon it, and then moves on to another, usually unconnected to the last (and then another, and then another). At one point, he offers a fleeting defense of this fugitive approach: “To portray your life in order would be absurd: I remember you at random. My brain resurrects you through stochastic details, like picking marbles out of a bag.” To the extent that a portrait does emerge, it is a hauntingly incomplete one, providing only isolated coordinates along the trajectory of a life toward its own end. Levé’s style — controlled and yet erratic, arbitrary and yet precise — seems to reflect art’s confrontation of the randomness and fragility of memory and the self’s nebulousness as it is experienced. What becomes apparent as this fragmentary portrait gradually takes shape is that it may be a kind of estranged and dislocated self-portrait, that the “you” may really be a displaced “I,” or perhaps a complex compoud of self and other. Certainly, the narrator couldn’t possibly know much of what he tells us about “you.” The phenomena of dissociation are central, in fact, to many of the experiences Levé relates. At one point, “you” is put on a disastrous course of medication for his depression, which results in uncanny and distressing intervals of complete self-alienation: “You tapped your fingers on your head; it sounded hollow like a dead man’s skull. Suddenly, you no longer had a brain. Or rather, it was another person’s brain. You sat like this for two hours, asking yourself if you were yourself […] You recognized your physiognomy, but it seemed to belong to someone else. Fatigue disassociated you from yourself.” To externalize and scrutinize oneself in this manner — to act out a kind of performative self-displacement, even self-erasure — is to engage in a very particular form of narcissism. And Suicide is a highly narcissistic piece of writing; in a sense, it couldn’t be otherwise, in the way that a suicide note — and a suicide itself — is unavoidably self-focused. This is not to suggest that “you” is a straightforward surrogate for the author, or that the book itself should be read as a suicide note; if Edouard Levé had wanted to write a prose self-portrait, he would have done so — and did in fact previously do so, giving it the typically utilitarian title Autoportrait. (It was originally published in 2005 and is due in translation from Dalkey Archive in March of next year). There is nothing so simple going on here as self-expression. The jacket copy insists that Suicide “cannot be read as simply another novel” — which is, I think, accurate enough — but it then also describes it as “in a sense, the author’s own oblique, public suicide note, ” which is a considerably bolder and riskier claim. It can certainly be read that way, and, as I’ve been saying, it’s often nearly impossible to avoid doing so, but whether that’s what it actually is is another question entirely. Levé’s intentions are weirdly obscure, even for a work of experimental fiction (which this book more or less is); there is a constant temptation when reading to stop and ask yourself why he wrote this thing when he wrote it. But it seems to me that this isn’t just a futile question, it’s also the wrong sort of question (why does anyone write anything, after all? What, while we’re at it, is the purpose of art?). And it’s connected to another, perhaps even more futile pursuit: the pursuit of the meaning of a suicide. When “you” is found dead by his wife at the very beginning of the novel, a possible explanation for his suicide is alluded to, but it is a lost explanation, an aborted approach to meaning. “On the table,” we are told, “you left a comic book open to a double-page spread. In the heat of the moment, your wife leans on the table; the book falls closed before she understands that this was your final message.” The deceased’s father later buys dozens of copies of this comic book and distributes it to everyone who knew “you” in the hope that someone, somehow, might be able to extract some meaning from this text, which — like Levé’s novel itself — is at once provocatively overcharged with significance and endlessly obscure: He is looking for the page, and on the page for the sentence, that you had chosen. He keeps a record of his reflections in a file, which is always on his desk and on which is written "Suicide Hypotheses." If you open the cupboard to the left of his desk, you’ll find ten identical folders filled with handwritten pages bearing the same label. He cites the captions of the comic book as if they were prophecies. This is both profoundly sad and bleakly playful, as though Levé were at once acknowledging the essential inscrutability of a person’s decision to end his or her life and shrewdly alluding to the way in which his novel, which he must have intended to be published posthumously, would be picked apart and ruthlessly scrutinized for potential explanations of what he was about to do. It’s almost funny, in fact — but only almost. And that is, in a way, the most disquieting thing about Suicide — how artful and calculating it is, how it is never quite as sincere as you would want the writing of a person about to kill himself to be. It seems almost indecent to point out that Levé’s prose is occasionally affected, even contrived; it feels somehow wrong to point out that a sentence like, for instance, “your suicide was scandalously beautiful” is in fact scandalously crass. It feels wrong in the way that it would feel wrong to point out stylistic infelicities in a suicide note. But this is not a suicide note; this is a work of art, and — despite its occasional tonal flirtations with grandiloquence — it is a controlled and pitilessly uncompromising one, too. Perhaps the most heartbreaking moment in the novel, a passage in which the narrator inquires into what has become of “your” widow, is also perhaps its most cruelly clinical: What became of her? Has she resigned herself to your death? Does she think of you when she makes love? Did she remarry? In killing yourself, did you also kill her? Did she name a son in your memory? If she has a daughter, does she speak to her of you? What does she do on your birthday? And on the anniversary of your death? Does she put flowers on your grave? Where are the photographs she took of you? Did she keep your clothes? Do they still smell of you? Does she wear your cologne? To devise such a series of questions about a bereaved wife in a work of fiction is to combine empathy with something suspiciously close to cruelty, but to ask these questions while planning to take your own life is something else again. To be absolutely truthful, I don’t know what it is; and I’m not sure, either, that I would want to know.
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 June. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. The Pale King 4 months 2. 4. The Enemy 2 months 3. 2. The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books 5 months 4. 3. The Imperfectionists 6 months 5. 6. Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric 3 months 6. 8. The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry 2 months 7. 7. Skippy Dies 6 months 8. 10. The Hunger Games 4 months 9. - A Moment in the Sun 1 month 10. - Otherwise Known as the Human Condition 1 month David Foster Wallace's The Pale King is again in the top spot, but, interestingly, Christopher Hitchens' "Kindle Single" The Enemy climbs further after its debut last month. The sudden proliferation of long-form journalism as ebook originals - Byliner has made a splash after releasing several of its own - will be an interesting trend to watch. Debuting this month were filmmaker John Sayles's massive and very well-recieved novel A Moment in the Sun and Geoff Dyer's collection of essays Otherwise Known as the Human Condition. This is Dyer's second book to crack our Top Ten, joining Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence. Graduating to our Hall of Fame, meanwhile, are Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand and Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky. Near Misses:The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, The Tiger's Wife, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and Unfamiliar Fishes. See Also: Last month's list
1. Call it a sign of the times. To compensate for dwindling sales, some bookstores are apparently starting to charge for readings. Though payment may seem antithetical to the open and accessible spirit of an event marking a book’s publication, the news should come as no surprise. Bookstores are in danger of extinction, and it only makes sense that if a writer’s habitat is in danger, readings will also struggle to survive. Yet the shift goes beyond the economic changes precipitated by e-books and extends to the realm of author branding. Modern writers are advised to blog about their process, tweet the banal details of their lives and self-promote via book trailers. Lacking an online presence is bookselling suicide, but creating an online identity also lets authors broadcast a voice vastly different from the one that resonates on the printed (or e-reader) page. If I can “meet” an author online, why bother to go to a reading in the first place? It’s not like I can get my Kindle signed. It’s ironic, of course, that as writers become more available online, face-to-face interactions may be put behind a paywall. And if open access to readings diminishes, will readers grow more familiar with an author’s brand than with the real person behind a text? Considering that packaging and promotion are just as much part and parcel with being writer as creating content, why shouldn’t an author’s public appearances be monetized? Writers have increasingly become products in and of themselves while getting paid less and less for their literary artifacts. The underlying problem with charging for readings isn’t the cost (though even a few bucks will deter the cash-strapped) but that the very notion of payment turns readings into something they are not: artistic commodities. Authors are not performers; their readings are not meant to be entertaining in a splashy musical sort of way. Readings exist to promote and sell books, but they also serve a more important function: they provide space for writers and readers to directly communicate and transmit ideas, taking the solitary slow drip of the reading process and infusing it directly into the bloodstream. However, an economic transaction implies a different sort of exchange between writer and reader. Will authors feel compelled to offer something tangible in addition to words intoned? Will they pass out cookies and break into song? Charging for readings problematically conflates books with how said books are marketed and presented, meaning that writers will feel pressure to cater to their (paying) audiences. We all want to get what we pay for, right? 2. Ever since my very first communication from an author — a purple form letter from Judy Blume — I’ve felt the need to connect with them. Exactly why I felt moved to write Blume I’m no longer sure, but I think it had something to do with Sally J. Freedman, Margaret and Blubber. How could a total stranger create characters that seemed to channel my most private feelings? After many years and countless books I no longer feel that authors are writing expressly for my validation, but the yearning to connect with those who intimately understand the landscape of my inner world hasn’t ceased. A live reading is a crapshoot, but that’s the point. There’s always the possibility that a writer I revere will turn out to be stilted, less interesting in person than on the page, or just a total jerk. But I don’t really care. I want to know how writers who echo my experiences intone each sentence. I want to discover whether or not the cadence of their voices confirms the meaning of the text in my mind. In short, I want to know who they are, and that’s different from knowing their marketing plan. Distinguishing between a writer and her brand becomes a challenge when Internet exposure reduces complex people to rough sketches. I like being intrigued by writers, and I like discovering them rather than being told how to think about their work. Tao Lin is one who knows how to remain elusive even while maintaining a strong online presence. When I went to hear Lin read, he mumbled his way through a short excerpt and made no eye contact. He spoke in a tumbling monotone that fit the terseness of his prose, and offered laconic responses to questions. The reserved demeanor stood in sharp contrast to his strong online presence. At the end, he drew a smiley face with feet in my copy of Richard Yates. I was in love, for a second. I’m especially curious to hear writers with an unconventional prose voice read. When I went to hear Aimee Bender read from The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, the story felt like an extension of herself, as though she was recalling something from a psychedelic childhood rather than reading from a book. I spoke with her afterwards, and she mentioned that when her first book came out, someone asked her what her reading persona would be. “I felt nauseous,” she told me. “It feels disingenuous. What works best is what suits you,” she explained, acknowledging the pressure to brand oneself. One of my all-time favorite readings was at Chicago’s Book Cellar, where five writers and critics paid homage to David Foster Wallace and The Pale King by reading their favorite selections from the late author’s body of work. A palpable intensity filled the room as the readers summoned Wallace’s voice through his text. I felt most connected to Wallace through Adam Levin, who seemed like he might be fun to grab a beer with, if I actually drank beer. Yet I knew part of what made it special was that Wallace wasn’t there. Think Salinger, think Bolaño: their absence — online and in the flesh— makes them all the more captivating. It’s precisely the lack of accessibility that makes readers hunger for their work — and their presence. I’m not quite sure what happens to writers — and readings — when social media self-promotion becomes not just a distraction, but part of the job description. What I do know is that being perpetually plugged in runs counter to the very nature of writing. I admire those who can disconnect and burrow inside long enough to untangle a thread of human experience with which to spin a story. It’s hard but satisfying, and that’s why I get annoyed with myself when I opt for the instant gratification of Facebook (or sometimes the refrigerator) over a sustained writing session. I worry that having to pay for readings will make writers’ online personas more valuable than the content of their work. I don’t know if I’d trust an author who was packaged with the glossy cellophane usually reserved for pop stars. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy readings, and still believe in their importance: I want to see writers without a filter and know they are flawed and imperfect, and that they struggle to get words out too — yet still carry on. Perhaps in an age of e-readers, we’ve forgotten that tired cliché about not judging a book by its cover. (Image: Podium in the screening room from spine's photostream)
1. A friend of mine told me this story. He was sitting in a medical office waiting to get a CAT scan, trying to read Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pnin. He’d started the book some years before, then lost it, found it again, and started over. He didn’t like it all that much (it wasn’t as good as Lolita or Pale Fire, the novels that had driven him to pick it up in the first place), and as he sat there reading in the waiting room, he thought about the CAT scan he was about to undergo. I may have only a few months to live, he thought. Is this the book I want to spend my remaining hours on? 2. My friend is fine, it turns out. The CAT scan came back normal. But as he told me this story, I thought back to a recent evening when I lay in my bed reading The Pale King, David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel. Like Wallace’s oeuvre in general, the book has some absolutely stunning sections that command your attention and make you feel intensely alive and aware (see chapters 6, 19, 22, or 46, e.g.), along with some that drive you batty with their dullness and perseverating detail. I was struggling with the long, tedious section in which “David Wallace” is caught in a traffic jam outside the Peoria IRS office. In the next room, my two daughters, five and seven, were not going to sleep. I was getting more and more irritated with them and their demands for water, etc., which kept interrupting me from concentrating on the book. Underlying my irritation was another anxiety: my sense that here I was, yelling at my kids to go to sleep just so that I could finish reading something that I myself found incredibly boring, a book that I had no practical need to read, a book whose own author had committed suicide before he was able to finish. A precious, irreplaceable moment of my own life was slipping away. I was declining a chance to interact with my children in a more positive way. And why? To read something that might best have been left on the cutting room floor. 3. I’ve read a fair number of short story collections. In most of them, there’s at least one and usually several stories that seem so clearly inferior to the rest that I have to wonder, Why is this in here? Does the author know that this story is bad? Is it here merely to serve as filler? These questions remind me of an old Kurt Vonnegut appearance on Charlie Rose in which Vonnegut explains that he has graded all of his own novels. Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five received A pluses. Slapstick got an F. The book he was on the show to plug at the time (I think it was Timequake) was a B minus. Vonnegut’s admirable candor makes me think that writers must have a sense of the relative merits of their works. Indeed, the placement of mediocre stories in short story collections is usually a good indicator of the grade the writers would give them. Such stories tend to be buried in the middle of the second half of a collection, or sandwiched in between two more successful pieces. But why publish them at all? Why not spare us readers that experience of feeling that we’re spending finite moments of our lives on something that is less than the best? 4. Zadie Smith wasn’t addressing these particular questions at the time, but she pointed nevertheless to one answer to them when she wrote that “writers do not write what they want, they write what they can.” If Vonnegut could have written nothing but A pluses, he would have. He couldn’t, however. No writer can. Yet Vonnegut still had contracts to fulfill, bills to pay. He had to publish books. It was in his job description. Moreover, I suspect that, for Vonnegut and for most writers, there comes a time when they just need to accept that a novel or a story or a song is as good as it’s going to get, even if it’s not an A plus. The book needs to come out. The collection of stories needs to be a certain length. The writer’s time has been spent on the piece, for good or ill. It might as well see the light of publication as long as someone is willing to publish it. Who knows: some reader or critic might actually like it. Even if no one does, the writer needs to move on to the next story, the next novel. 5. It’s a delicate calibration. When do we, as writers, accept that a piece is as good as it will ever be, even if it’s not that great? When do we decide that a piece will never be good enough to be published? As readers, when do we decide that a book or a story is simply not going to be worth reading? When do we decide to press on in the face of boredom? The CAT scan might come back normal, but in the larger sense, we’re all dying anyway. Our lives as writers, as readers, as human beings, will come to an end. What we write, what we read, what we spend our time on—these are incredibly weighty choices, though we may fool ourselves into thinking otherwise. There’s a danger in perfectionism, in the compulsive attempt to make every novel and story and essay an A plus, or to finish reading everything we start. Yet there’s also a danger in easy abandonment, in the lack of persistence needed to push through the slow parts of War and Peace or Infinite Jest, or in the lack of writerly belief in one’s powers of revision and discovery. In this way, as in so many others, writing and reading are metaphors for living. In the end, you do the best you can, and then, in one way or another, you let it go and move on. (Image: fading contrail from dnorman's photostream)
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 May. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. The Pale King 3 months 2. 2. The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books 4 months 3. 3. The Imperfectionists 5 months 4. - The Enemy 1 month 5. 4. Atlas of Remote Islands 6 months 6. 9. Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric 2 months 7. 5. Skippy Dies 5 months 8. - The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry 1 month 9. 7. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption 6 months 10. - The Hunger Games 3 months David Foster Wallace's The Pale King retains our top spot, but that's not where the real action was this month. In May, a pair of new titles debuted and a third returned to our list after previously slipping off. The biggest news story of May was the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. forces, and that event was the catalyst for the first appearance of a "Kindle Single" (or any e-book original, for that matter) on our list. Clearly, many readers wanted Christopher Hitchens' take on this event, and Amazon managed to lock down the 17-page essay he produced. The Enemy would have appeared as a magazine piece not too long ago and would likely have therefore been pretty ephemeral. It will be interesting to see if this essay's status as a Kindle Single affords it any staying power. Also debuting was The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, which our staffer Janet Potter reviewed this month. Returning to our list after a one-month hiatus is YA bestseller The Hunger Games, whose return was perhaps spurred by headlines surrounding the casting of the upcoming film version of the book. The other big mover was Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric, climbing three spots. As I wrote last month, Only Millions readers would make a book of rhetoric a bestseller. Departing from our list were The Finkler Question, Cardinal Numbers, and Unfamiliar Fishes. Finkler's Booker glory has faded; Cardinal Numbers was touted in these pages by Sam Lipsyte, but that was back in December; and Unfamiliar Fishes, with its somewhat obscure topic, lost some steam after the book's initial publicity push waned. Other Near Misses: A Moment in the Sun, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. See Also: Last month's list
Double murderer Gary Lee Rock (center) after his capture, before his unsuccessful suicide attempt. 1. There are certain experiences so mystifying, so unsettling, so flat-out weird that we can hope to understand them only through books. I had a cluster of such experiences in the late 1970s that haunted me for more than thirty years – until just recently when I came to two very different books that finally helped me understand what I'd lived through and how my response to those events shaped me as a writer. The books are Wisconsin Death Trip, a genre-bending work of history by Michael Lesy, and American Pastoral, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Philip Roth. It would be hard to imagine two more unalike books, and yet they spoke to my mystification with one voice. But before I tell you about these books, I should tell you about what happened back in the 1970s. 2. In November of 1976, on the Monday after Jimmy Carter was elected president, I reported for work as a cub reporter at Public Opinion, the daily newspaper in Chambersburg, Pa., a hamlet of 20,000 souls in the dead middle of the state just above the Mason-Dixon Line. I was spectacularly unqualified for the job. I had taken one creative writing course in college, had never studied journalism, and could offer as credentials just three short sketches I'd written for my college newspaper. But I was determined to become a writer – a real writer, a novelist – and like many before me I believed I needed to serve my apprenticeship in the whirlwind of a daily newspaper's city room. So after graduating from college I spent months knocking on newspaper doors up and down the Eastern seaboard, getting told again and again to come back when I had some experience. This was the post-Watergate season, it was a buyer's market, and I didn't have much to sell. But the editor at Public Opinion decided to take a chance on me. At $140 a week – with a strict Gannett corporate policy of no overtime pay – it wasn't much of a gamble. Naturally I jumped at the job. From the very first day I sensed that I had landed in a strange place. The paper's star reporter, Brad Bumsted, was working an ongoing story about a man named Robert Bear who'd been "shunned" by his conservative Reformed Mennonite congregation for disobeying doctrine. Church members were forbidden from doing business with Bear, and his wife and children were not allowed to talk to him, or even look at him. The poor man was coming unglued. Every day I received other reminders that I was deep in "Pennsylvania Dutch" country – bearded, straw-hatted men and their bonneted wives clopping along the rural roads in horse-drawn carriages; similarly attired men, known as "black-bumper Amish," driving black cars with blackened chrome; names like Slaybaugh and Klinefelter larding the phone book; and diners serving "Dutch" (that is, German) dishes I'd never heard of, including shoofly pie and a dubious breakfast meat called scrapple. While the Amish and Mennonites struck me as benign cults, there were other things going on that were far from benign. The first I experienced at close range was a local legend named Merle Unger, a charming rogue and petty criminal who had a history of breaking out of the county jail at night to visit his girlfriend, then breaking back into the jail before deputies counted noses in the morning. But on one of his breakouts Unger made the mistake of killing an off-duty cop during an armed robbery in Hagerstown, Md. The charm was off the rogue. The editor sent me to Easton, Md., to write sidebars while Brad Bumsted covered Unger's murder trial. After the jury returned a guilty verdict, One of Unger's lawyers got so drunk celebrating with the cops that he tipped over his chair and landed flat on his back, cackling like a hyena. The cops roared with glee. It was like an out-of-kilter drug trip: a petty criminal who breaks into jail and becomes a cop killer; a defense attorney who celebrates a guilty verdict. There were far darker local legends. Public Opinion had won a Pulitzer Prize 10 years before my arrival for its coverage of strange goings-on in Shade Gap, a tiny town tucked into the Allegheny Mountains, which begin their rise just west of Chambersburg. There, an ex-convict and ex-mental patient named William Diller Hollenbaugh – known locally as "The Mountain Man" and "Bicycle Pete" – terrorized the community before kidnapping a teenage girl and holding her captive in the wild mountain terrain for seven days while authorities mounted the largest manhunt in Pennsylvania history. Eventually they shot Hollenbaugh dead while rescuing the girl. It was like some Yankee version of Deliverance. Then there was the case of Debbie Sue Kline, a 19-year-old hospital employee in nearby Waynesboro who disappeared on her way home from work in the summer of 1976 and had not been seen since. In January of 1977, Public Opinion reported that Dorothy Allison, a well known psychic from Nutley, N.J., had come to town at the Kline family's request to help police with their stalled investigation. Allison traveled the route between the hospital and the Kline home, she visited the missing girl's bedroom, touched clothes, ran her hands over the bed sheets, slipped the girl's class ring on her finger and left it there. Allison told police they would find a skeleton on a dump or in a junkyard in a town with double letters in its name. Then she left for New York City to undergo hypnosis to help her pinpoint the exact location of the girl's remains. "Police said the woman promised to identify the car used in the alleged abduction, the license number of the vehicle, the names of the people involved, the route they took and the location of Debbie," Public Opinion reported. "Police credit Allison with 'a fantastic track record,' and said Allison revealed things concerning the investigation 'that you wouldn't believe.'" It's likely those newspaper reports made their way into the Franklin County Prison because there, on the following Wednesday morning, an inmate named Richard Lee Dodson offered to lead police to Kline's body. He took them to a landfill near the town of Fannettsburg and pointed to a frozen, nearly fleshless skeleton. Dodson said his accomplice in the kidnapping, rape and murder was Ronald Henninger, who was then serving a manslaughter sentence in an Illinois prison but had been free on parole the summer Debbie Sue Kline was killed. And finally, most spectacularly, there was the Fourth of July weekend in 1977. On that Saturday morning, Gary Lee Rock, an ex-Marine with an "expert" marksmanship rating, did something unimaginable. Unhappy in love, unhappy with his $3.50-an-hour clerk's job at the local Army depot – exactly what I was making at the newspaper – Rock awoke with a hangover in his rural home. For reasons he could not explain later, he dressed in fatigue pants, combat boots and his Marine dog tags, then flew into a rage, smashing plates and windows and furniture. He doused the interior of his home and a nearby shed with gasoline, lit them up, then crouched nearby in the woods with a 300 Savage rifle, a shotgun, a Marine Corps knife and boxes of ammunition. When a neighbor, alerted by an explosion, came running up Rock's driveway, Rock shot him once through the heart, dead. When the revered chief of the local volunteer fire department arrived in his car, Rock shot him in the head and right arm, also dead. Rock fired more shots through the windshield of the first fire engine on the scene, wounding two firefighters. Then he melted into the woods, where he was captured that evening after state troopers wounded him with a salvo of shotgun pellets. After coming out of surgery, Rock smashed an IV bottle and slashed his own wrist and neck, but failed to kill himself. Of course this lurid, nearly ludicrous spasm of violence made national news. All of this – the Mountain Man, the shunned Mennonite, the charming cop killer and his drunk lawyer, the psychic, the dead nurse, the burning house, the homicidal/suicidal ex-Marine, the dead fire chief – all of this was overwhelming to me. Kidnapping, ostracism, the paranormal, rape, murder, insanity, arson, more murder, attempted suicide – it added up to a collective nervous breakdown. And it all happened in a charming American town that looked like a Norman Rockwell painting. 3. Wisconsin Death Trip lives up to Walter Benjamin's famous dictum that all great works of literature must either dissolve a genre or invent one. The genre Michael Lesy invented with this astonishing book might be called Portrait of a Society in a State of Mental and Physical Collapse. Greil Marcus aptly described the book as "absolutely a thing in itself: its own construct, its own nightmare, its own scream." Through photographs, newspaper accounts and his own impressionistic essays, Lesy tells the story of what happened in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, in the last decade of the 19th century, the so-called "Gay Nineties." It was a time of paranoia, disease, economic upheaval and harrowing violence. For those who couldn't take it, suicide came in many flavors: arenic, carbolic acid, strychnine, morphine, an insecticide called "paris green," plus hanging, jumping in front of a train, ingesting match heads, slitting your own throat, plunging your head in a barrel of water and of course, this being America, self-inflicted gunshot wound. If you didn't kill yourself you had a fair chance of getting murdered, or starving or freezing to death, or dying from a smorgasbord of diseases that included diphtheria, smallpox, cerebral meningitis, typhoid fever and croup. Fire was as common as rain. "In the early days," Lesy writes, "people set fires for business as well as pleasure. The courthouse got burned down before it was even built in 1857. In 1861 the town's entire business block, valued at $30,000, went up in smoke." People saw ghosts, they saw 40-foot-long reptiles in the river, they were routinely carted off to the insane asylum at Mendota. The photographs of these people, taken by town photographer Charles Van Shaick, paint a bifurcated portrait of life in a small Midwestern town: on one hand there are the predictable pictures of weddings, funerals, picnics, barber shops, musical ensembles, groups of sawmill workers, men with their hunting trophies, their drinking buddies, their tractors and animals; and then there are the pictures that look like Diane Arbus prototypes, portraits of dwarves, amputees, babies in coffins, nudists, snake handlers, madwomen. Lesy's method is to lay all this out with zero inflection, just a steady drumbeat of facts that indeed darken into a nightmare. It's as though the denizens of Winesburg, Ohio went on a decade-long amphetamine bender and killing spree. By the time I got to the end of the book I had begun to see my experiences in Chambersburg in a fresh light – not as implausible aberrations, but as modern manifestations of dark impulses that have always lurked beneath the surface of every American place. What's extraordinary, Lesy concludes, is that the things that happened in Black River Falls – and, by implication, in Chambersburg – are not at all extraordinary. In a nice bit of understatement, he quotes from an 1897 issue of the American Journal of Sociology: "It is a popular belief that large cities are the great centers of social corruption, and the special causes of social degeneration, while rural districts and country towns are quite free from unmoral influence.... Yet the country has its own social evils." Or, as a close friend never tires of reminding me, "The truly weird shit rarely happens in big cities; it almost always happens in small towns and suburbia and the boondocks." I have come to believe that while this is not an iron-clad fact – the Son of Sam was terrorizing New York City during the summer of 1977 – it does pick at the scab of something approaching an unpleasant truth. I'm thinking about Dick Hickock and Perry Smith slaughtering the Clutter family in their remote western Kansas farmhouse, a horror immortalized by Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. I'm thinking about Joan Didion's unforgettable piece of reportage, "Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream," which tells the story of how weather and dislocation and history (or lack of it) led a pregnant mother of three to douse her sleeping husband with gasoline and burn him to death inside the family Volkswagen on a desolate stretch of southern California desert. Twenty miles from where I'm writing these words, police have just discovered the remains of the tenth victim of a possible serial killer on a remote Long Island beach. A few weeks ago a woman in the small upstate town of Newburgh drove into the Hudson River with three of her children in the car, killing them all. Such acts have become emblematic of what Walker Percy called these "dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A." In American Pastoral, Philip Roth puts a name to these dark American impulses. The novel tells the story of a sensationally handsome and athletic Jewish boy from Newark named Seymour "Swede" Levov who marries a former Miss New Jersey, takes over his father's thriving glove factory, and moves with his wife and daughter into a stone farmhouse in Old Rimrock, out past the suburbs, out in the gorgeous green folds of an America that still looks much as it looked before the Revolutionary War. There in 1968, as a way of protesting the Vietnam War, the Swede's teenage daughter, a life-long stutterer, plants a bomb in the local post office that kills a respected doctor, forcing the girl to go underground and effectively demolishing the Swede's immaculate world. Roth writes that the Swede becomes the victim of something unthinkable: ...the angry, rebarbative spitting-out daughter with no interest whatever in being the next successful Levov, flushing him out of hiding as if he were a fugitive – initiating the Swede into the displacement of another America entirely, the daughter and the decade blasting to smithereens his particular form of utopian thinking, the plague America infiltrating the Swede's castle and there infecting everyone. The daughter who transports him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral – into the indigenous American berserk. And so, thanks to books, I finally came to terms with the mystifying things I'd witnessed and written about in Chambersburg more than thirty years ago. Books showed me that those mysteries were not extraordinary or even unprecedented, and they actually have a name, and that name is The Indigenous American Berserk. My first published drawing: Cop killer Merle Unger (left) with his defense attorneys during his murder trial. 4. After I finished reading those books I went back to Chambersburg to scroll through microfilm of Public Opinion from the 1970s. I wanted to see if I could recapture my response to the events I'd lived through and written about, and how that response had shaped me as a writer. Microfilm is a wonderful corrective for a faulty memory. It reminded me that Merle Unger's murder trial took place during my very first weeks on the job, and that it was a dream assignment. For one thing, my name was sure to be on the front page every day. Better yet, while Brad Bumsted covered the trial I was free to write from the margins of the main event. I wrote about the ankle irons Merle Unger wore to court every day – a badge of honor for such an accomplished escape artist. I wrote about the prosecutor persuading the two local newspapers to keep a lid on pre-trial publicity so a slam-dunk murder trial wouldn't get yanked from his jurisdiction – which had the added benefit of giving Bumsted and me a virtual exclusive on the story. I interviewed Unger's grim mother as we waited for the jury to deliver its guilty verdict. I even drew a sketch of Unger and his defense attorneys in the courtroom, my first published drawing. After the bloody Fourth of July weekend in 1977, on the other hand, Chambersburg became the setting for a media circus. Like everyone on the Public Opinion staff, I contributed to the saturation coverage of the shootings and their aftermath. And I hated it, hated jockeying with other reporters for scraps of news, hated the obviousness and falseness of covering a manufactured news event. Simply put, I hated being part of a pack. As I read more microfilm, I remembered that I was always much happier writing stories about people who existed outside the news, stories that I felt were somehow my own – about a struggling mystery novelist, a taxidermist, a night nurse, a man who built a futuristic solar house, a puppeteer, a peach farmer, a teenage Emergency Medical Technician who delivered a baby in the back of an ambulance as it screamed toward the hospital. On the day of the fire chief's funeral, I wrote a by-lined story about a schoolteacher announcing his quixotic plan to run against an entrenched Congressman. The story was not big news, but it happened outside the tent of the media circus, and it was mine. The fire chief was not yet in the ground and already I was distancing myself from the pack. I now realize that this attraction to people on the margins puts me in good company. While reviewing The Silent Season of a Hero, the new collection of sports writing by Gay Talese, I noted that he was drawn to people on the downslope of greatness and to those who worked in the shadows of the sporting world – boxing referees, timekeepers, horseshoe makers, agents, midget wrestlers. Then I read an article in the current issue of GQ magazine about David Foster Wallace's posthumous novel, The Pale King. In the article, John Jeremiah Sullivan recalls what happened when the magazine assigned Wallace to write a story about a presidential candidate's speech writers: "Early in 2008, GQ asked him to write about Obama's speeches or, more largely, about American political rhetoric. It was still a somewhat gassy idea as presented to him, but Wallace saw the possibilities, so we started making inquiries to the Obama campaign, and even made reservations for him to be in Denver during the convention. Our thought was to get him as close to the head speechwriters (and so as close to Obama) as possible. But Wallace said, very politely, that this wasn't what interested him. He wanted to be with a worker bee on the speechwriting team – to find out how the language was used by, as he put it, 'the ninth guy on the bench.' It also seemed like maybe a temperament thing, that he would be more comfortable reporting away from the glare." This made perfect sense to me, this idea of wanting to talk to the ninth guy on the bench, of being more comfortable reporting away from the glare. I'm sure it makes sense to Gay Talese, too. This has nothing to do with stage fright, or a fear of going after big game, or the reporter's eternal dread of getting scooped. It's something much deeper, and maybe much darker, than that. It's an understanding that it's so hard to get another human being to open up to you, and it's so scary to crawl inside them if they do open up to you, that you're wise to get rid of as many impediments as possible. And one of the most forbidding impediments is that glare Wallace and Talese instinctively avoided. Whenever there are bright lights, clusters of cameras and microphones, spin doctors and handlers, packs of hungry rivals with notebooks, the writer's chances of getting something genuine, or even merely unique, shrink monstrously. I experienced this so many times that it is one of the few things I absolutely know to be true. I began to understand this on the Fourth of July weekend in 1977, and it explains why I feel grateful that I've never had to cover a political convention or campaign, that I've had to attend very few press conferences, and that I've had to interview just one former president and one movie star. As I learned from reading that scratchy old microfilm, I've always preferred to write about interesting nobodies. Maybe it's a temperament thing. And as I learned from reading those books by Michael Lesy and Philip Roth, the dark beast that lurks beneath the glossy surface of American life can show itself anytime and anywhere, from the smallest town to the most bucolic countryside. Because it's everywhere and it has always been with us and it always will be. Those two books also taught me that, somehow, it's a strange comfort to be able to put a name to such a thing. Which is another way of saying they taught me the power of the written word. (Images courtesy the author.)
1. “Two Paths for the Novel” It was late October, 2008, and Robert Silvers had earned a victory lap. The New York Review of Books, which he’d co-founded with the late Barbara Epstein during the New York printers’ strike of 1963, was about to observe its 45th anniversary. And equally improbably, after the tumultuous reign of Bush fils, the country seemed poised to elect a president aligned with the social-democratic politics for which the New York Review had provided life support. Interviewed by a reporter at a San Francisco restaurant, though, Silvers, 78, sounded less like an eminence grise dining out on past accomplishments than a hungry young editor on the make…or maybe the cat who ate the canary. The end of the conversation found him talking up “‘an ambitious essay’” slated to appear in the Review’s anniversary edition, “‘a daring and original piece by a brilliant mind’”—a “dismantl[ing]” (in the reporter’s paraphrase) of the literary “status quo.” “‘Some people will be slightly shaken,’ Silvers said with delight,” before “grabbing a handful of smoked almonds and making a dash for the door.” The mind in question was the English novelist Zadie Smith's, and the dismantling turned out to be a 9,000-word essay on two well-received recent novels: Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. Or perhaps “essay” isn’t the right word; as the title “Two Paths for the Novel” suggested, it was closer in spirit to a polemic. The rhetorical embroidery was dazzlingly multiform, but the gravamen ultimately rested on that old workhorse, compare/contrast. As Smith saw it, Netherland—at that point well on its way to bestsellerdom and President Obama’s nightstand—represented the excesses, the exhaustion, of “a breed of lyrical Realism [that] has had freedom of the highway for some time now.” McCarthy’s Remainder, meanwhile, was “one of the great English novels of the past ten years,” “an avant-garde challenge” meant to shake the novel out of its present complacency. It clears away a little of the dead wood, offering a glimpse of an alternate road down which the novel might, with difficulty, travel forward. In the event, I’m not sure anyone apart from Joseph O’Neill was actually “shaken." Manifestos are a dime a dozen these days—to borrow a line from Dale Peck’s manifesto-infected Hatchet Jobs, “that and $2.50 . . . will buy you a skinny mochaccino” (with adjustment for inflation)—and even before David Shields’ Reality Hunger, obsequies for “lyrical Realism” had been performed at length by Ben Marcus, the editors of N+1, David Foster Wallace, William T. Vollmann…not to mention a whole host of Continental theoreticians. Then again, to measure the success of a literary manifesto by whether or not the status quo stays mantled is fundamentally to misapprehend the genre. Its prime object and beneficiary is not “the novel” but the critic herself, and in this sense “Two Paths for the Novel” was a triumph. To other polemically minded reviewers (particularly the vicar of capital-R Realism whose name Smith had worked into an uncharacteristically juvenile pun (see above)), the essay served notice: Your boy’s club’s been breached. “Two Paths for the Novel” (with a slight adjustment of title) would constitute the longest piece but one in Smith’s first essay collection, Changing My Mind, published in 2009. Now ascended (or condemned) to the post of New Books columnist at Harper’s, Zadie Smith will no doubt have discovered the limited and erratic scope of the authority to which she’s laid claim. On one hand, her elegant dressing-down of Netherland seems to have had approximately zero effect on the novel’s reception, aside from giving people who didn’t like it something to point to. On the other, “Two Paths for the Novel” does appear, several years out, to have shifted the literary landscape in one very particular way: it’s positioned Tom McCarthy, who as late as 2005 couldn’t find a publisher for Remainder, as the English language’s leading avant-gardist. Indeed, so subtle were its powers of persuasion that no one seems to remember he was ever anything but. This was most visible last summer, when Knopf published with great fanfare McCarthy’s third novel, C. Jonathan Dee, writing in Harper’s, adjudged it “an avant-garde epic” (adding, somewhat bewilderingly: “the first I can think of since Ulysses.”) “An avant-garde masterpiece,” proclaimed Meehan Crist, in The Los Angeles Times. The redoubtable Adam Kirsch went so far as to borrow Smith’s technique, putting C. in conversation with Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. “[McCarthy] is the standard-bearer of the avant-garde novel,” he decided, “of fiction consumed by its own status as fiction, and of the avant-garde writer as an unassailable provocateur.” Aside from eagle-eyed Scott Esposito, who posted a sharp take on these reviews at Conversational Reading, no one seemed to question the idea of McCarthy as the keeper of the avant-garde flame. The “Two Paths” effect even persists, albeit subtly, in the long McCarthy retrospect Amanda Claybaugh, an English professor at Harvard, published last month in N+1. Claybaugh seeks explicitly to engage with “the claims made on behalf of McCarthy: that the problem facing the contemporary novel is the persistence of realism, and that the solution is to be found, with McCarthy, among the avant-garde.” As that last phrase suggests, though, Claybaugh leaves mostly intact the claim that underpins the others: that McCarthy himself is to be found among the avant-garde. This hints at both the brilliance and the weakness of “Two Paths for the Novel”: several of its conclusions are actually smuggled in as premises, which become ours as well. Accepting “the violence of the rejection Remainder represents to a novel like Netherland” is the price of admission. This is probably the place to declare for the record that I’m half in love with Zadie Smith’s critical voice. Also that I think Remainder is a terrific novel. But, thanks in no small part to Smith's advocacy, what’s at stake in assessing McCarthy’s burgeoning reputation is something much more than that: "the future of the avant-garde novel." The artistic avant-garde is, Adorno would remind us, one of the few free spaces we’ve got left. (That's assuming there is one.) And because its future is so important—and because, if we’re lucky, we’re going to be reading Smith’s criticism for a long time to come—I think it’s worth revisiting her premises and treating them as open questions. How, specifically, is Remainder avant-garde? And also: how avant is it? 2. Language + Matter = Death…Or Something. To the first question—how is it avant?—Smith offers one clear answer. Remainder challenges “the essential fullness and continuity of the self” that is the soul of Realism. McCarthy’s unnamed protagonist is literally discontinuous; he awakens at midlife from an unspecified accident unsure of who he’s been. This might, in run-of-the-mill amnesia fiction, inaugurate a quest: Hero Seeks to Recover Past. Remainder’s “hero,” though, mostly shrugs off concerns about identity, to subversive comic effect. Here, the comparison with Netherland is illuminating. Joseph O’Neill, too, knows better than to present his hero as a unitary psyche; one of his chief effects is the subtle altering and re-altering of perception that attend the passage of time, and the narrator, Hans van den Broek, seems troubled by a nagging lack of “fullness” in his character. Still, the debt is more to Fitzgerald and Hemingway than to Deleuze & Guattari, and so the difference between the two novels’ approach to the "self” is one more of kind than of degree. Hans van den Broek seeks communion; Remainder’s “Enactor” (as Smith calls him) seeks to secure for himself, through industry and cash on the barrelhead, those depthless sensations Frederic Jameson calls “intensities.” Here we encounter a wrinkle, though. Jameson’s essay “Postmodernism” dates to 1984, and even then, the deposition of the Realist self was well underway. Smith’s essay is liberally sprinkled with examples from the field of literature. Just the B’s: Blanchot, Bataille, Ballard, Burroughs.... In the “Two Paths” schematic, they populate a “skewed side road.” But think of another B: Beckett. Hasn’t the postwar period more or less widened the side-road of "self"-sabotage to a superhighway? Two novelists in particular, Alain Robbe-Grillet (whom Smith names) and Peter Handke (whom she doesn’t), seem to have anticipated Remainder’s characteristic “intensities.” Even decades on, though, each seems more genuinely “violent” in his rejection of the Realist “self” than does McCarthy. Robbe-Grillet is willing, unlike Remainder, to sacrifice the continuity and escalation of plot on the altar of a philosophical apprehension. And The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick finds Handke strategically discarding the continuity of language for the same reason. Of course, Handke himself has umlaut-ed antecedents in Döblin and Büchner, and I wouldn’t want to define “avant-gardism” as “that child which has no parents.” Instead, it might help to think of the avant-garde as what still has the power to disturb the settled order of things. At which point it becomes apparent that the schizoid depthlessness of postmodernism ain’t it. Think of Bret Easton Ellis. Play it as it Lays. Tao Lin. As with the Realist plenitude Netherland draws on, “our receptive pathways” for the discontinuous self “are solidly established.” There’s another way in which Smith believes Remainder to be avant-garde. It’s apparent in the word “trace,” which is to “Two Paths for the Novel” what descriptions of clouds are to Netherland: almost a nervous tic. In short, Smith feels McCarthy to have assimilated the destabilizing linguistic insights of Jacques Derrida in a way O’Neill hasn’t. (Isn't "remainder" just a synonym for "trace?") But whenever she turns to theory as such, Smith’s native lucidity gives way to an undergraduate overeagerness. Critiques of Realism, we are told, blossomed out into a phenomenology skeptical of Realism’s metaphysical tendencies, demanding, with Husserl, that we eschew the transcendental, the metaphorical, and go “back to the things themselves!”; they peaked in that radical deconstructive doubt which questions the capacity of language itself to describe the world with accuracy. Then again: The novel is made out of language, the smallest units of which still convey meaning, and so they will always carry the trace of the real. But: Remainder’s way turns out to be an extreme form of dialectical materialism—it’s a book about a man who builds in order to feel. And: [Remainder] tries always to acknowledge the void that is not ours, the messy remainder we can’t understand or control—the ultimate marker of which is Death itself. We need not ever read a word of Heidegger to step in these murky waters. Smith seems to be following the pronouncements McCarthy has promulgated as General Secretary of a “semi-fictitious” avant-garde network, the International Necronautical Society (INS). She offers an excerpt: "If form…is perfection itself, then how does one explain the obvious imperfection of the world, for the world is not perfect, n’est-ce pas? This is where matter—our undoing—enters the picture. For the Greeks, the principle of imperfection was matter, hyle. Matter was the source of the corruption of form…. In short, against idealism in philosophy and idealist or transcendent conceptions of art, of art as pure and perfect form, we set a doctrine of…materialism." The syntax of these sentences is easy enough to follow, but, in their mingling of metaphysics, materialism, and aesthetics, these are, I think, far murkier waters than Smith realizes. I confess to being on shaky ground with Derrida; the failure to find rigor in Smith’s use of the “trace” may well be my own. But the materialism here is “dialectical” in only the loosest sense, and Smith’s gloss on being-towards-death seems reductive, even hedged. At any rate, we’d do well to read more than a word of Heidegger, for whom the kind of being “the things” have - especially in the broken, obtrusive, or useless state Remainder finds them in (e.g., the "gnarled, dirty and irregular" carrot) is most important in adumbrating the kind of Being we have...which is precisely where the Necronauts are at their glibbest. Moreover, it’s difficult, reading Remainder’s handling of things qua things, to find anything more disruptive than what Viktor Shklovsky was doing in 1925, or William Carlos Williams in 1935, or Georges Perec, quite differently, in 1975. In fact, the hospitality of Remainder to allegorical readings might just as easily be read as a failure of its ability to resist metaphor, or to foreground language's inability to do so—to capture materiality in the sense of “thingness.” And again, notwithstanding the artful stammerings, elisions, and self-corrections of the first-person narrator, the linguistic subject these objects encounter is still a consistent, confessional, Cartesian (if unusually estranged) “I.” In general, then, Remainder’s formal choices seem less troubled by its theoretical convictions than Smith makes them out to be. The novel’s ideas may be novel enough, but McCarthy dramatizes them the way Cervantes did it: embody them in a character, launch him into a plot (albeit one that ends in a Borgesian loop). We might, if so inclined, read this as a conscious rejection of another of Realism’s credos: “the transcendent importance of form.” More likely, though, Remainder, like Netherland, is simply drawing on the formal vocabulary of Realism to “enact” the philosophical agenda Smith can’t quite pin down. (C. may well be another matter. I haven’t yet read it, but in Claybaugh’s account, it seems to go a step further toward assimilating theory into language and, especially, structure, with mixed results.) That philosophical agenda may itself be somewhat incoherent; even Claybaugh doesn't entirely clarify it. I’m struck by the possibility, which Smith only glances at, that the garbled quality of the INS’ transmissions is intentional—that the avant-garde to which McCarthy is authentically the heir is not Existentio-Deconstructo-Dialectico-Materialism, but the Situationism of Guy DeBord. As I've got it from Lipstick Traces, the Situationists (who their mark on the near-revolution in France in 1968) sought to expose the gaps in the seemingly solid bourgeois political and aesthetic order through acts of play and imposture—of “détournement.” You can see their legacy in attenuated form in flash mobs and Improv Everywhere and Exit Through the Gift Shop. I don’t want to suggest that McCarthy isn’t thinking in earnest about "the melancholy impasse out of which the...novel has yet to work its way"; this weekend’s New York Times Book Review cover story on The Pale King was lucid and engaged, and, notably, offered no answers. But the iron-fisted theorizing of the General Secretary may be less a way forward for the novel than a way of having us on for the baggage we bring to it—and for the ease with which even the messiest “remainder” gets assimilated into the cultural order (Remainder the novel having been picked up for a movie deal by the U.K.'s Film4.) McCarthy alluded to these slippery possibilities in a recent essay on the Belgian novelist Jean-Philippe Toussaint: “Will he turn out, ultimately, to have been deconstructing literary sentimentalism or sentimentalizing literary deconstruction?” It's likewise possible to see Remainder's avant-gardism as purposefully "semi-fictitious." By positioning his novel as a work of violent rejection, rather than of pop accomplishment, McCarthy may have insinuated into the bookshop a kind of Trojan-cum-Morse horse—a container that encodes something quite different from what it is. 3. I’ll Be Your Mirror Internally, though, Remainder is less the “antipode” of Netherland than its photo-negative. That is, each stands in exactly the same relation to its respective tradition as does the other. This is not to accuse either of mannerism, exactly, but in each case, “the obvious imperfection of the world” is brought under the government of a familiar aesthetic reflex. In Netherland’s case, the potentially meaningless gets redeemed by fine writing, in the mode of Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter. In Remainder, the potentially meaningful gets reduced to the narcotic flatness we enjoyed in the nouveau roman. Each is exactly as “aestheticized” as the other; it’s just that Smith likes one aesthetic better. Borrowing her own key terms, “identity,” “authenticity,” and “anxiety,” it’s possible to reconstruct why this might be so. The “identity” reading points to the evident seduction Continental Philosophy holds for a Cambridge alum. In the heady world of literary theorizing, Derrida opens doors. But Smith thinks like a novelist, not like a philosopher. (Indeed, she may think more purely like a novelist than any other writer we have.) Consequently, her keen attunement to the nuances of Forster and Woolf, the playfulness with which she approaches Kafka and Hurston, go rigid whenever her thoughts tend toward academe. The false notes in Changing My Mind—I’m thinking here of the essay on Nabokov and Barthes, and parts of the essay on Brief Interviews with Hideous Men—are almost always a product of her desire to force the play of her intelligence into some theoretical scheme. The “anxiety” reading points elsewhere. Smith’s shadowboxing with a certain unnamed “lapsed high Anglican,” and the NYRB’s positioning of her essay hard on the heels of a review of How Fiction Works, would seem to suggest that “Two Paths” grows out of what one blogger has called “the James Wood neurosis.” Certainly, Smith is entitled to feel that she acceded too quickly and too publicly to Wood’s criticisms from the pulpit of Realism of her own first book, the multiethnic social novel White Teeth. And it was Wood whose rapt review launched Netherland, unbothered by the considerably more conventional uses to which it put its multiethnic milieu. But the "authenticity" reading is the most revealing. In her mid-30s, Smith is still "changing her mind," working through what kind of novelist she wants to—and can authentically—be. As she herself has suggested, here and elsewhere, her considerable gifts for characterization, irony, description, and dialogue fall squarely within the Realist tradition. But perhaps she feels, rightly or wrongly, that even her most accomplished novel, On Beauty, sits too tidily on the bourgeois bookshelf. She channels E.M. Forster, but wants to be David Foster Wallace. "Anything, anything at all, that doesn't sound like me," she wrote in her response to Wood's "Hysterical Realism." "Sick of sound of own voice. Sick of trying to make own voice appear on that white screen. Sick of trying to pretend, for sake of agent and family, that idea of putting words on blank page feels important." It’s as though the “existential crisis” or “nervous breakdown” she sees O’Neill’s “perfectly done” novel inflicting on “what we have been taught to value in fiction” is her own. Fortunately for her and for us, Smith labors under a misapprehension about what it means to be avant-garde. To borrow a metaphor, she can’t quite see the forest for the “dead wood.” Here are the rhetorical questions she throws at the feet of Netherland: Is this really what having a self feels like? Do selves always seek their good, in the end? Are they never perverse? Do they always want meaning? Do they not sometimes want its opposite? And is this how memory works? Do our childhoods often return to us in the form of coherent lyrical reveries? Is this how time feels? Do the things of the world really come to us like this, embroidered in the verbal fancy of times past? These are, of course, the very mimetic questions that animate canonical Realism, from Austen to Dostoevsky to Proust. Smith’s avant-garde is a gradual convergence on what she insists doesn’t exist: the one true and transcendent Real. But look at the “disturb and disrupt” mandate I sketched above—hell, look at Smith’s essay—and you’ll instantly see that avant-gardism, like its dark twin kitsch, is always situational. In the mid-Nineteenth Century, Wagner’s innovations are disruptive; by the mid-Twentieth, they're the soundtrack for Triumph of the Will. The enemy to be rebelled against today is hardly “the transcendent importance of form, the incantatory power of language to reveal truth, the essential fullness and continuity of the self.” Rather, it is a world order that reduces form, language, and selfhood to mere options in the supermarket of aesthetic choices. And insofar as it presents an aesthetic binary—write like this tradition, rather than this other tradition, and you’re on the right path—Smith’s conception of the avant-garde is woefully insufficient. Coke or Pepsi? Mac or PC? It amounts to a game of Distinction, whose logical end is to deny that the kind of avant-garde Adorno champions is even possible. Then again, in a less theoretical mood, Smith once wrote these sentences: "We can only be who we are.... Writers do not write what they want, they write what they can." What we need, as readers and writers, is not to side with some particular “team,” and thus to be liberated from the burden of further thinking. Rather, we need ways of evaluating a novel’s form and language and ideas in light of, for lack of a more precise term, the novelist’s own burning. We need to look beyond the superfices and cultural hoopla that mark books as mainstream as Netherland and Remainder as "violent rejections" of each other, and to examine the deep places where private sensibility and the world as we find it collide. A true path forward for the novel—Zadie Smith's or Tom McCarthy's or anyone else's—will run through those trackless spaces, and we must follow it there. Otherwise, we give the status quo the victory, no matter how ardently we might wish to dismantle it. Vive la différance. From Our Archives: "Obsession, Obsessively Told: A Review of Tom McCarthy's Remainder." "The Great New York Novel?: A Review of Joseph O'Neill's Netherland." "Bulletin: Interview with Tom McCarthy, General Secretary, INS."
March of this year was bookended by two monster releases in fiction. On the front end, wunderkind Téa Obreht debuted with The Tiger’s Wife and earned near universal acclaim. Then, at the end of the month, David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, the highly anticipated final act of his too short career, appeared on scattered bookshelves and shipped from Amazon roughly two weeks ahead of Little Brown’s intended release date. But between these two, and perhaps a bit lost beneath the din they created, an American master quietly released a new collection of short stories. In the Winter 1986 issue of The Paris Review, before Obreht could write and before Wallace had published his first novel, that American master, E. L. Doctorow, sat down with George Plimpton for the quarterly’s “The Art of Fiction” interview series. For the first time in the series’ history, the interview was conducted in public at the 92nd Street Y in New York, and Doctorow drew an audience of about 500 according to the Review. After a brief introduction, Plimpton and Doctorow sat across from one another, and Plimpton, who found Doctorow “retiring,” began. “You once told me that the most difficult thing for a writer to write was a simple household note to someone coming to collect the laundry, or instructions to a cook,” he said. At this, Doctorow launched into an anecdote about a time when one of his daughters came downstairs before school and asked for an absence note. “So I wrote down the date and I started, Dear Mrs. So-and-so, my daughter Caroline . . . and then I thought, No, that’s not right, obviously it’s my daughter Caroline. I tore that sheet off, and started again.” Soon, Doctorow found himself knee-deep in drafts, panicking, while his daughter’s bus driver leaned on the horn outside. “Writing is immensely difficult,” he told Plimpton at the end of the anecdote, “The short forms especially.” All the Time in the World is proof of this. It is a collection of twelve stories, six plucked from Doctorow’s two previous collections, Lives of the Poets and Sweet Land Stories, and six that ran in magazines and journals like The New Yorker and The Kenyon Review. While we often picture our most talented writers dripping with literary genius, their divine prose flowing effortlessly from the ether to the page, each of the dozen short stories gathered here evinces the work of a craftsman who has intently chiseled out his work. Up close, the stories aren’t united by any single narrative element or plot device. As Doctorow admits in the preface, “there is no Winesburg here to be mined for its humanity.” Viewed this way, the collection is a testament to Doctorow’s breadth as a writer, which he seems to relish. “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia,” he told Plimpton. In All the Time in the World, Doctorow writes about a young woman who gets knocked about from Memphis to Vegas by a series of abusive husbands and lovers in “Jolene: A Life.” In “A House on the Plains,” he tells the story of a mother and son from Chicago who coldly turn to fraud and violence as a way to survive the lean years of (what appears to be) the 1930s. “Assimilation” features a young “mestizo” in a place like present day Little Odessa who gets tangled up in a marriage to a woman with ties to the Russian mob. But stepping back from the collection, a common thread emerges. The stories are linked through their protagonists, each of whom seems to be struggling within what Doctorow calls a “contest with the prevailing world.” To take this further, the end zone in that contest seems to have something to do with the idea of home. In addition to the stories mentioned above, there are several others that echo with this notion. “Wakefield,” the collection’s opening story, is Doctorow’s take on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story by the same name about a man who “absented himself for a long time from his wife.” Here, Wakefield retreats to the atelier above his garage for a year and subjects his wife and family to some peculiar test of authenticity, partly, it seems, to see if the mice play while the cat is away. “Edgemont Drive” features a mysterious man who returns to the home of his childhood, ingratiates himself to the woman of the house, and never leaves. The best story of the collection is “Walter John Harmon,” a first-person account of life inside a cult reminiscent of the Branch Davidians. The unnamed narrator describes how he came to follow Walter John Harmon, Doctorow’s David Koresh, and provides the logic behind offering Harmon not only his money, but also his wife, Betty, for the good of the community. Viewing the cult through the eyes of one of its devout members is a deeply unsettling experience. On the one hand, you’re disturbed by the perversion of religion and exploitation of faith. On the other, you sympathize with the narrator, seeing firsthand how such a belief system might make sense out of the world in which we live. “Walter John Harmon” also features some of the most beautiful writing in the collection. Here, Doctorow writes about the purported apotheosis of Harmon, in a gas and oil fire started at a Getty station during a tornado. As he stood by the pool of fire, the garage doors first, and then the roof and then the collapsed walls, were lifted and spun into the black funnel. Only Walter John Harmon stood where he stood, and then was slowly raised in his standing and turned slowly in his turning, calmly and silently, his arms stretched wide in the black shrieking, with the things of our lives whirling in the whirlwind above him – car fenders and machines from the Laundromat, hats and empty coats and trousers, tables, mattresses, plates and knives and forks, TV sets and computers, all malignantly alive in the black howling. And then a child flew into Walter John Harmon’s left arm and another fell into his right arm, and he held them steadfast and was lowered to the ground where he had stood. And then the dreaded wind that takes all breath away was gone, having blown itself to bits. Despite the fact that the stories included in All the Time in the World are well-paced, thoughtful, and engaging, their endings often fall short of the promise Doctorow lays out in the narrative. Some end with a deafening thud, as though Doctorow, still haunted by his daughter’s bus driver honking outside that day, simply scribbled something off to get the piece out the door. At others, they’re positively contrived. (The ending of “Assimilation,” in particular, is especially cringe-worthy.) But Doctorow isn’t really writing to please the critics. As he told Plimpton, “But no matter what kind of reaction the book receives, whether people like the book or don’t like it, nothing comes up to the experience of writing the book. That’s what drives you back.”
It seems almost silly to mention it since the book's been on shelves and discussed in the book pages for a couple of weeks now, but the "official" release date of David Foster Wallace's The Pale King is this Friday. (Our review was published today.) Meghan O'Rourke's grief memoir The Long Goodbye is out this week. And another look at our culture through the lens of our technology is now out, Steven Levy's In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives.
In the late David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King, IRS employee Claude Sylvanshine is a “fact psychic.” This means he is periodically overwhelmed with cascades of “ephemeral, useless, undramatic, distracting” information about other people. When he eats a cupcake, for instance, he knows where it comes from, who baked it, and a sprinkling of vital statistics about its baker–his “weight, shoe size, bowling average, American Legion career batting average.” As the details proliferate, it becomes obvious that the sum does not add up to a person. What Sylvanshine learns about others isn’t, and can’t be, insight: it arrives with no context and no narrative, touched off by minimal contact or none at all, and he has no means of organizing or using what he knows. The information is raw, “fractious, boiling,” and its accumulation oppresses him. Some of it presents visually, “queerly backlit, as by an infinitely bright light an infinite distance away.” Sylvanshine’s gift gives him a headache. Wallace himself, of course, was something of a fact psychic, possessed of freakishly sensitive awareness and unsure of its human use. To read his work is to encounter great drifts of detail, drifts which have contributed, along with his books’ sheer length, to the perception of his work as excessive or maximalist. Wyatt Mason notes in The New York Review of Books that those who characterize Wallace’s fiction this way sometimes imply a failure of control or restraint, as if “however smart he was, he wasn’t smart enough to write fiction that didn’t distract the reader with yieldless shows of virtuosity.” But Wallace’s canonization, now close to complete, means these criticisms no longer have much bite. Mostly we feel that Wallace’s headlong, encyclopedic, garrulous manner was born of necessity, not indulgence, that the stylistic innovations, including the massed detail, grew not from vanity but from some kind of mimetic imperative to reflect back to us our dizzy, painful, teeming, inconclusive lives. This vision of Wallace is of an artist in full possession of his art, his every choice considered and confident. Even so, D.T. Max, writing for The New Yorker, finds traces in the years before Wallace’s death of a different sort of author, one who had come to doubt the style he’d become known for and grown dissatisfied with himself as a writer, even believing, Max suggests, that he might not be “the kind of person who could write the novel he wanted to write.” How deep this unease went it’s impossible to say, though it does seem that Wallace was conscious early on of the costs exacted by his stylistic choices. In a 1993 interview with Larry McCaffery, he worried about writing “sentences that [were] syntactically not incorrect but still a real bitch to read. Or bludgeoning the reader with data. Or devoting a lot of energy to creating expectations and then taking pleasure in disappointing them.” Still, if he was aware of the risks of his approach, he seemed certain, at least in 1993, that they were worth running. About his project at the time (probably Infinite Jest), he said, “Whether I can provide a payoff and communicate a function rather than just seem jumbled and prolix is the issue that’ll decide whether the thing I’m working on now succeeds or not.” An unfinished novel almost by definition doesn’t provide a payoff or carry out its “function.” This means we can’t know whether the unfinished book was also unfinishable, an insoluble puzzle. (Though some novels--Kafka’s Castle for example--seem more eloquent and even “successful” for being incomplete.) Certainly Wallace had set himself a problem masochistic or quixotic in its difficulty: how to write an interesting novel about that byword for tedium, the IRS? And how to write a religious novel–which is what The Pale King is, in its preoccupation with grace, illumination, and purpose–about the most disenchanted and secular of professions, namely accounting? Employees of the IRS, fact psychics or not, don’t want for hard numbers. The question is whether, along with the data, they can acquire a sense of vocation and vision, of meaningful work in a meaningful world. It is a question whose implications point inward, to the novelist’s own profession, and outward, to the status of human activity generally in what we have come to call an “information society.” If Infinite Jest was about addiction, entertainment and distraction–about avoiding the truth–The Pale King is about the opposite phenomena of boredom and attention, about staring at the world instead of looking away. And if Infinite Jest was quintessentially a novel about fuckups and misfits, The Pale King is a novel about reliable employees, people who go to work each day and get there on time. Claude Sylvanshine is one of a handful of primary characters, low-level IRS employees mainly (many of them rote examiners, or “wigglers,” in IRS lingo), whose stories appear and reappear over the course of the book’s 539 pages. Among these narratives, assembled from Wallace’s manuscripts and notes by his longtime editor Michael Pietsch, glimmers a constellation of minor characters, all linked by their association with “the Service.” The relations among the cast blink on and off as the book progresses, alternately intensifying or falling away. There is no central protagonist per se, unless you count David Wallace, the self-described author of what he claims is a memoir written primarily for financial gain. Not a lot happens in The Pale King, exactly. The plot, such as it is, emerges from a left turn in early-eighties-era tax policy Wallace calls the Spackman Initiative, an attempt to narrow the tax gap (the shortfall between what is owed to the government and what is actually collected) by increasing the efficiency of collection (essentially, cracking down on non-compliance) so that the government can lower marginal tax rates without losing revenue. As their elephantine employer struggles to reinvent itself, the wigglers, in varying states of mental and bodily discomfort, writhe in place: “R. Jarvis Brown turns a page. Ann Williams sniffs slightly and turns a page. Meredith Rand does something to a cuticle.” Wallace wants us to see what the examiners, at the height of their boredom, can’t, quite: the relation of the human skeleton to the bureaucratic thumb bone turning the page. The world of The Pale King is, with a few exaggerations and inventions, our world, where the baroquely ramified division of labor has given rise to jobs only distantly related to their purpose. The low-level examiners at the Midwest Regional Examination Center suffer a common plight: jobs of drastic tedium and invisible value. Some employees try to survive, improbably but amusingly, by treating their work as a vocation in the religious sense of the term. So Chris Fogle is bewitched by the eerily composed teacher of a high-level accounting class who describes tax preparation as a heroic calling. “Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is,” the teacher declares, absurdly, as if he were a POW. In Fogle’s moment of conversion, the physical world amplifies, details announce themselves, and Fogle sees so much so keenly that he can intuit even the little he can’t see: I was aware of how every detail in the classroom appeared very vivid and distinct, as though painstakingly drawn and shaded, and yet also of being completely focused on the substitute Jesuit, who was saying all this very dramatic or even romantic stuff without any of the usual trappings or flourishes of drama, standing now quite still with his hands again behind his back (I knew the hands weren’t clasped–I could somehow tell that he was more like holding the right wrist with the left hand) and his face’s planes unshadowed in the white light. Advanced Tax isn’t the first place Fogle has looked for redemption. In his earlier “wastoid” phase, he tells us, he took a drug called Obetrol for the quality of consciousness it afforded, especially “an ability to choose what one concentrates on” which differentiated it from smoking pot. Pot made you think about whatever your eyes lit upon, but Obetrol let you select and name your perceptions–“The cigarette burn is black and imperfectly round.” It was this final level of awareness, Fogle says, which he calls “doubling”–perceiving yourself perceiving, aware you are aware–that made the feeling special. Accounting appeals to him aesthetically–it is orderly, and in its orderliness, beautiful–but also (hilariously) spiritually. A similar state of awareness possesses Meredith Rand when she engages a hyper-perceptive examiner named Drinion at a bar. Under Drinion’s observation she receives an infusion of attention like nothing she’s ever experienced. Importantly, the experience reminds her of paying attention herself. Here is another of Wallace’s spiraling (and attentive) sentences: The only kind of experience she could associate with it involved their cat that she’d had when she was a girl before it got hit by a car and the way she could sit with the cat in her lap and stroke the cat and feel the rumble of the cat’s purring and feel every bit of the texture of the cat’s warm fur and the muscle and bone beneath that, and that she could sit for long periods of time stroking the cat and feeling it with her eyes half-shut as if she was spaced out or stuporous-looking but had felt, in fact, like she was the opposite of stuporous–she felt totally aware and alive, and at the same time when she sat slowly stroking the cat with the same motion over and over it was like she forgot her name and address and almost everything else about her life for ten or twenty minutes, even though it wasn’t like spacing out at all, and she loved that cat. As Wallace inventories the varieties of distraction and absorption, he proposes that the burden of meaningfulness falls not on the task or the object at hand, but on the quality of the attention paid. It is one’s orientation to work that matters, not the substance of the work, one’s orientation to circumstance, not the circumstance itself. Happiness nests in perception. Such a proposal unavoidably implicates the experience of reading this book. Also, more generally, the experience of reading itself. Does it matter what you read, or only how? In the case of The Pale King, I discovered that my eye sometimes wanted to trace zig zags instead of mowing steadily from one page to the next. Almost invariably I took the numbers and names pertaining to tax code as atmospheric and skimmed them. I at first resented the trademark footnotes. (But grew to love them: many explain vital information, and one even contains a blow job, or footjob, as I’m tempted to call it). As one might expect given Wallace’s sensibility, events receive a swirling, almost obfuscating treatment, the event itself nearly effaced by context or interpretation. It can be hard to figure out what’s happening, who’s talking, who’s who. But what generated the most readerly friction for me was not the quantity of detail so much as the difficulty of knowing how to take it. By non-avant garde standards, a detail is doing its job if you don’t question its function, if it fills out the portrait without puncturing it. But Wallace wants punctures. To McCaffery, he said he wanted to “antagonize” the reader, then corrected this to “aggravate” for its suggestion of intensification. (Or inflammation, I kept thinking: the detail as mosquito bite or bee sting). So we are more than once reminded that what is called Level 2 of the Midwest Regional Examination Center is not, as one would assume, the second floor, but actually the ground floor, due to an aborted excavation project. Such a detail says something about the contorted bureaucratic nature of the REC, but also suggests that the information will be necessary in terms of plot, that we’ll “need” it for something later on. But these hints are more often than not teases, tricks, feints. Wallace’s characters themselves worry about such questions–what is the point of all this elaborateness? They frequently ponder the very elements that, in a less self-conscious book, would be charged with making them real to us. In a conversation about drug experiences in the sixties, an unnamed character complains, “I’m saying if I say Baxter-Bathing or Owsley or mention Janis’s one dress she wore you think in terms of data. There’s none of the feeling attached to it–this was a feeling. It’s impossible to describe.” Similarly, he isn’t concerned that “Sweater Puppies” produce no nostalgia, he’s concerned that they produce no feeling at all, that the fact, isolated, has no emotional valence. In a day-long training session the new IRS recruits are taught something similar about the insufficiency of mere information. “Get rid of the layman’s idea that information is good,” two trainers tell a batch of trainees, among whom sits the fact psychic Sylvanshine. “That the more information the better. The phone book has lots of information, but if you’re looking for a phone number, 99.9 percent of that information is just in the way.” Sylvanshine’s interest is piqued as the second trainer chimes in: “Information per se is really just a measure of disorder.” The examiner’s job is ultimately the ability to sniff out a return worth auditing. The best can bypass vast amounts of meaningless information and in the exercise of his intuition concentrate on that small subset which is meaningful, a task any virtuosic performance of which requires virtuosic powers of attention. Thus the bureaucratic import of an examiner like Drinion, whose immense powers Wallace literalizes by making Drinion actually levitate as his focus crystallizes. Drinion holds the mental secrets that, replicated, are the key to the IRS’s new goals. Capture Drinion’s tricks and the IRS can do away with its main obstacle–the limitations of the humble examiner. AAnd if the examiner’s needs are everyone’s needs–for stimulation, for a job whose value is visible, for work that requires skill and affords pleasure–there is something worrisome at work in Wallace’s fictionalized IRS. The Pale King closes, at least in Pietsch’s reconstruction, with a mysterious chapter in which an unidentified subject appears to study the techniques of deep concentration. “The way we start is to relax and become aware of the body,” a graying, pleasant-faced woman instructs. “It is at the level of the body that we proceed. Do not try to relax.” The subject must learn how to relax, presumably, so that he can work more efficiently, so that he can generate more revenue, so that the bureaucracy can grow. The mantras of meditation, co-opted in service of the Service. The unfinished quality of the book means there is something especially undecidable about such a scene. Is Wallace in earnest when he proposes that anything at all, even tax examination, can be the object of religious mindfulness? Or is he parodying such a view? Probably he is doing both. After all, the optimistic proposition that how we interpret our lives determines our experience shades easily into a more sinister one. If the burden is on us to make the best of any awful circumstance, such a suggestion can be bent to excuse any amount of awfulness. Wallace seemed truly to believe in the virtues of attention and its capacity to afford grace, as can be seen from his now-famous commencement address at Kenyon College. And yet The Pale King reveals a tormenting quality to relentless mindfulness, to an unrelieved awareness of the world. Claude Sylvanshine, buried under the clutter of everything he knows, fears there is basically something wrong with him, that he is “simply ill-suited, the way some people are born without limbs or certain organs.” He suffers because he can’t exercise any authority over his perceptions, can’t choose, can no more piece together meaning from the fact-shards raining down on him from other people’s lives than he can from his own experience. This is Sylvanshine’s lament: “What if he was simply born and destined to live in the shades of Total Fear and Despair, and all his so-called activities were pathetic attempts to distract him from the inevitable?” And in it we hear the terrible sound of Wallace’s own worry. When it first became known that The Pale King existed it seemed especially tragic that Wallace hadn’t left us with a finished manuscript, and it is. And yet the book’s inconclusiveness keeps alive his questions, and ours, in a way a completed work wouldn’t. After my first reading was over, as I returned to certain parts, seeking out this or that thing I’d liked or thought I’d misunderstood, previously opaque information revealed itself to mean something, and the book, wonderfully, seemed to move and breathe. But this is an unfinished novel, one arranged (if quite beautifully) by someone else’s hand. As much sense as it settles into, it will still escape us. It escaped him.
I can't recommend John Jeremiah Sullivan's 7,000-word article on The Pale King highly enough - not because he gets everything right, but because it's what long-form writing about books should look like: passionate, lucid, wide-ranging, and awfully fun to read. I salute GQ for running it, and hope to see more literary coverage there in the future.
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 March. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. - The Pale King 1 month 2. 8. The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books 2 months 3. 1. The Imperfectionists 3 months 4. 2. Atlas of Remote Islands 4 months 5. 3. Skippy Dies 3 months 6. 5. Cardinal Numbers 4 months 7. 6. The Finkler Question 5 months 8. 7. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption 4 months 9. 10. The Hunger Games 2 months 10. - Unfamiliar Fishes 1 month I knew it would end up atop our list, just not this month. David Foster Wallace's The Pale King debuts in the top spot, based only on those early pre-orders shipping from Amazon. Our other debut is Sarah Vowell's Unfamiliar Fishes, reviewed here on The Millions last week. Thanks to the generous interest of many Millions readers, the book I co-edited The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books vaults to the second spot on our March list (I hope everyone's enjoying it!). Graduating to our Hall of Fame is one of last summer's big books, Emma Donoghue's Room, and getting bumped from the list after a brief stay is the Mark Twain Autobiography. Other Near Misses: Lord of Misrule, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, Just Kids, and Woman in White. See Also: Last month's list
This may be a temporary thing, but David Foster Wallace's posthumously published novel The Pale King appears to be shipping now from Amazon, more than two weeks ahead of the official tax day publication date. Update: From the official Pale King Facebook page: the book "doesn't have a one day laydown: stores can sell it as soon as it's in their shop." So looks like the book is now available everywhere. Do you have your copy yet?
When David Foster Wallace killed himself in 2008, he left behind an unfinished manuscript and a number of fragments that, with the efforts of his long-time editor Michael Pietsch, has become The Pale King, to be released next month amid the high expectations of the late writer's many fans. The book's lyrical opening sentence, printed below, may be familiar to Wallace completists. It opens a brief piece called "Peoria (4)" that appeared in the fall 2002 issue of Triquarterly. That piece, which can be found in PDF form here, in its entirety makes up the opening sentences of The Pale King. (Recently, according to handful of blogs, the opening of The Pale King was read on a BBC radio program and some incomplete transcriptions of this appeared online.) The opening sentence of The Pale King by David Foster Wallace: Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the a.m. heat: shattercane, lamb’s‑quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek.
If 2010 was a literary year of big names -- featuring Franzen, Mitchell, Delillo and McEwan to name just a few -- 2011 is lining up to be more subtle. Amid a very full lineup of intriguing forthcoming books, just one stands above the rest in terms of hype and anticipation, a literary peak that's likely to be bittersweet in the form of the posthumous release of David Foster Wallace's final novel. Readers will be hoping it does justice to his legacy. In the shadow this big book are many others likely to be deserving of readers' time. While 2010 was given over to the headliners, 2011 may be a year of new discoveries. Here are some of the books we're looking forward to -- 8,000 words strong and encompassing 76 titles, this is the only 2011 book preview you will ever need. January or Already Out: Gryphon by Charles Baxter: A collection of short fiction from an acknowledged master of the form. Seven of the twenty-three stories in the collection are new; others, including the title story, are considered classics. In each of these pieces, Publisher's Weekly writes in a starred review, "the acutely observed real world is rocked by the exotic or surreal." Baxter's previous works include four novels (including a National Book Award nominee, The Feast of Love) and four prior short story collections. (Emily M.) The Empty Family by Colm Tóibín: Tóibín follows up his wildly successful 2009 novel Brooklyn with a new collection of nine short stories concerned with love and loss, memory and homecoming. The Telegraph has called this collection "exquisite and almost excruciating." (Emily M.) While Mortals Sleep by Kurt Vonnegut: In the four years since his death, the Vonnegut vaults have been raided, yielding 2008’s Armageddon in Retrospect and 2009’s Look at the Birdie. Now comes While Mortals Sleep, 16 more unpublished pieces described by Delacorte Press as “a present left behind by a departed loved one.” Perhaps. But Vonnegut’s short fiction was generally uneven, and one might be forgiven for wondering how many more presents there are. Because the further we move from his passing, the further we move from his best. Dave Eggers, in the book’s foreword, calls Vonnegut “a hippie Mark Twain”; he is also in some danger of becoming a dorm-lit Tupac Shakur. (Jacob) Night Soul and Other Stories by Joseph McElroy: Underappreciated master McElroy is known (and loved) for the challenging body of work, and these stories aren't likely to disappoint his fans, though they may have come across some of them before. The oldest story in this collection of 12 dates back to 1981 and the title story was first published in 1982. But seven of them are reportedly from the last decade, including one "The Campaign Trail" which one early review describes as imagining "the 2008 Democratic presidential primary much like a Matthew Barney film of the subject might: unnamed figures representing Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama ceremonially confront each other in a wild area of what once was Canada." (Max) February: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell: Swamplandia! is the first novel from New Yorker "20 Under 40" writer Karen Russell. It builds out of a short story from her 2006 collection St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and tells the tale of the Bigtree family, operators of an alligator wrestling tourist attraction deep in the Everglades. The family business is imperiled when the star 'gator grappler dies, setting off a chain of catastrophes that lead 12-year-old Ava Bigtree to set off through the swamp in search of her lost sister Osceola. (Kevin) Townie: A Memoir by Andre Dubus III: Andre Dubus III, of The House of Sand and Fog fame, grew up poor and hard in a Massachusetts mill town. His famous father, the late great short story writer Andre Dubus was AWOL, chasing younger tail, leaving Dubus and his three siblings to the care of their loving but overworked mother. The Townie is Dubus's memoir of growing up and learning to fight before he learned to write. Advance word coming out of Kirkus and Booklist suggests this is going to be a good one. (Kevin) When the Killing's Done by T.C. Boyle: In his thirteenth novel, T.C. Boyle turns his attention to the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara and the practice of killing non-native fauna in an effort to protect the original ecosystem. A starred review in Booklist says, “Incisive and caustically witty, Boyle is fluent in evolutionary biology and island biogeography, cognizant of the shared emotions of all sentient beings, in awe over nature’s crushing power, and, by turns, bemused and appalled by human perversity.” (Edan) The Strange Case of Edward Gorey by Alexander Theroux: Originally published in paperback in 2000, this biography of writer and illustrator Edward Gorey is being reissued by Fantagraphics Books in a new hardcover edition. Gorey was a reclusive, enigmatic figure who never married, professed asexuality in interviews, and became famous for a twisted and faintly ominous body of work -- marked by a distinctive Victorian Gothic sensibility -- that includes an alphabet book of dead children ("A is for Amy who fell down the stairs.") Alexander Theroux was Gorey's friend and neighbor for more than a quarter century. Part biography, part artistic analysis, and part memoir of a long friendship, with exclusive interviews conducted shortly before Gorey's death, this book is generally accepted as the most comprehensive portrait of Gorey ever written. (Emily M.) Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt: Perhaps you are aware that Winston Churchill called his spells of depression "black dog"? Well, Mr. Chartwell is that black dog--literally, he's a man-sized, ill-intentioned black laborador. In Rebecca Hunt's fabular first novel, Mr. Chartwell rents a room in a terrace in Battersea from a recently widowed young librarian named Esther Hammerhans: the black dog has business with the widow and with the war-weary Prime Minister. British reviewers have been quite taken with the book's whimsy and its muscular grappling with the nature of depression—through the stinking, canine bulk of Chartwell himself and the dark philosophy he whispers such that only his intended victim can hear. (Emily W.) The Illumination: A Novel by Kevin Brockmeier: A new novel from the author of A Brief History of the Dead asks the question: What if our pain is the most beautiful thing about us? On a particular Friday night at 8:17pm, the Illumination commences: wounds and bruises begin to radiate light, to glimmer and shine. The Illumination follows the journey of a private book, a journal of love notes written by a man for his wife. The journal passes into the hands of a hospital patient following a lethal accident, and as it passes from hand to hand—to a data analyst, a photojournalist, a child, a missionary, a writer, a street vendor—the recipients find their lives subtly altered by their possession of the book. (Emily M.) Portraits of a Marriage by Sándor Márai: Sándor Márai is one of those novelists, like Irène Némirovsky, about whom those of us in the English-speaking community tend to employ words like "discovered," as if they were an obscure wine of quality unearthed in a Parisian basement. When Márai killed himself in 1989 in San Diego, shortly before his books began being translated to English, it's true that his status as a great mind of an imperial age was probably unknown to the gang at his local Circle K. However, the (Austro-)Hungarian novelist was one of the premier authors of his milieu--Budapest before World War II--and English readers are the redeemed rather than the redeemers now that we can finally read his beautiful novels. Portraits of a Marriage is a chronicle of a relationship and an era on the way out. (Lydia) West of Here by Jonathan Evison: Evison's new novel is the #1 Indie Next pick for February, meaning that independent booksellers across the United States have voted it their favorite of all the books scheduled for publication that month. Set in a fictional town on the Pacific coast of Washington State, West of Here moves back and forth in time between the stories of the town's founders in the late 1890s, and the lives of their descendants in 2005. It's a structure that allows for a remarkably deep sense of history and place, and Evison handles the sweeping scope of his narrative masterfully. (Emily M.) The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale: In this buzzed-about debut novel from Twelve Books, the eponymous hero is a chimpanzee who has learned to speak, read, and enjoy the visual arts, among other human endeavors. There is apparently interspecies love (and sex!) in the book, and the jacket copy declares that it goes beyond satire “…by showing us not what it means, but what it feels like be human -- to love and lose, learn, aspire, grasp, and, in the end, to fail.” A bookseller at legendary West Hollywood indie bookstore Book Soup has raved to me about the novel’s inventiveness and its beautiful, beautiful prose. (Edan) Other People We Married by Emma Straub: This debut collection of stories is one of the first books being printed by FiveChapters Books, the new publishing imprint of the popular website FiveChapters, which publishes a story a week in five installments. Straub inaugurated the New Novella series for Flatmancrooked Press with her much-praised novella, Fly-Over State, and she proved that with the internet and some good old fashioned charm, an unknown author can sell books and win hearts. Straub’s new book includes that novella as well as eleven other stories. Straub has been compared to Lorrie Moore for her humor and playful wit, and Moore herself has called this debut collection, “A revelation.” (Edan) March: The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books edited by C. Max Magee and Jeff Martin: Yes, there's certainly a conflict of interest in naming my book one of the year's most anticipated, but what's the point of having a website if I can't use it to self-promote? And anyway, if my co-editor Jeff and I had an ideal reader in mind when we put together this collection, it was the Millions reader, passionate about books and reading and thoughtful about the future of this pastime as it intersects with the onslaught of technology. The essays we managed to gather here are illuminating, entertaining, funny, and poignant, and taken together they form a collection that is (dare I say) essential for the reader and writer invested in books at this critical and curious moment in their long history. Along with appearances by Millions staffers Garth Risk Hallberg, Emily St. John Mandel, and Sonya Chung and an introduction by me and my co-editor, this collection includes pieces by Jonathan Lethem, Reif Larsen, Elizabeth Crane Victor LaValle, Ander Monson, Tom Piazza, Lauren Groff, Benjamin Kunkel, Clancy Martin, Joe Meno, Rivka Galchen, and several others. All you technophiles: Consider making this the last physical book you ever buy. All you technophobes: This might be a good candidate for the first ebook you ever own. (Max) You Think That’s Bad by Jim Shepard: Jim Shepard will once again dazzle us with his talent for universalizing the highly particular. According to the publisher, the stories in this new collection, like those of his National Book Award nominated Like You’d Understand Anyway, “traverse centuries, continents, and social strata,” featuring, among others, an Alpine researcher, a French nobleman’s manservant, a woman traveling the Arabian deserts to track an ancient Shia sect, and the inventor of the Godzilla epics. Further, Shepard culls “the vastness of experience—from its bizarre fringes and breathtaking pinnacles to the mediocre and desperately below average.” Easier said than done, and Shepard is a master. One of the stories, “Boys Town,” appeared in the November 10 issue of the New Yorker. (Sonya) The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht: Of all The New Yorker’s choices for the "20 Under 40" list, none was more surprising than Obreht, the youngest on the list and the only author chosen who had not yet published a book. That changes in March with the publication of her debut novel The Tiger’s Wife. The novel follows a young doctor, Natalia, as she travels to a war-torn Balkan country to work at an orphanage. But Natalia is also in search of answers – specifically, what happened to her grandfather, who has died recently. With blurbs from T.C. Boyle, Ann Patchett, and recent National Book Award winner Colum McCann already secured, expectations are high for this literary debut. (Patrick) At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing from Library of America edited by George Kimball and John Schulian: Boxing writing inhabits a curious niche, resting at the juncture of sports journalism and noir. Perhaps “resting” is the wrong word, as the genre’s best examples rush toward victory or loss; even away from the arena, motion remains the thing. In a recent Irish Times article, Kimball described a 1954 John Lardner piece as At the Fights’ “cornerstone,” and delivered its opening line: “Stanley Ketchel was 24 years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.” Also on the card: Talese, Mailer, Mencken, and many, many others. (Jacob) Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell: “I’m better with dead people… than the living,” claims Sarah Vowell, only half joking. Her books often deal with historical figures, in most cases, long-dead and overlooked. In Assassination Vacation she chronicled her travels while researching the murders of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. Details such as Garfield’s assassin bursting into song during trial coated the history lessons with a good dose of social intrigue. Vowell’s latest, Unfamiliar Fishes, was borne out of a fascination with American Imperialism in 1898, a year when the U.S, annexed Hawaii, invaded Cuba and the Philippines, and acquired Guam and Puerto Rico. Vowell follows the Americanization of Hawaii from its first missionary settlers to the overthrow of its monarchy and later annexation. A quote exemplary of Vowell’s humor, to prep you for reading: “They still love their last queen, celebrate her birthday, drape her statue with leis. It can be a traditional, reverent place. And I am a smart-alecky libertine.” (Anne) Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews by Geoff Dyer: Dyer has a gained a reputation as one of our most inventive essayists (not to mention novelists). Dyer delights in bending genres and subverting expectations, and covering a 25-year span, this collection will likely showcase Dyer's impressive range. The book, published by indie Graywolf, appears to have at least some overlap with a British collection that came out last year under the title Working the Room. The Guardian called Dyer "the most productive of slackers" and described the British collection as seeming to be "constructed as a vague quest. You move through the unusually lit rooms of the author's fascinations." (Max) All the Time in the World: New and Selected Stories by E.L. Doctorow: When a new story collection arrives from an elder master, one is eager to know the balance of “new” versus “selected,” who has done the selecting, and by what criteria. But Random House has revealed little as of yet. We do know that six of the stories have never before appeared in book form; the title story appeared in the winter ’09 issue of the Kenyon Review. Doctorow is the author of 11 novels, and I for one hate to think the release of this collection signals a denouement in his novel production. On January 6, Doctorow turns 80 – happy birthday, ELD; may this be a productive year for you, for all our sakes. (Sonya) Pym by Mat Johnson: Eager readers of Edgar Allan Poe, having dispatched his short stories may have then turned to his hauntingly weird novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. As I noted a few years back, the book has been an inspiration for generations of adventure and science-fiction writers and has maintained a cultish allure to this day. It is into this milieu that Johnson's Pym arrives. Johnson wrote a pair of well regarded literary novels in the early part of last decade, turned to comics, and is now returning novels with this tale of a literature professor obsessed with the Pym tale, believing it to be true, and tracing the the journey of the doomed sailor to see what secrets might be unlocked. (Max) Day of the Oprichnik by Vladimir Sorokin: The scenes of sodomy between Stalin and Krushchev in Vladimir Sorokin’s novel Blue Lard incurred charges of pornography and sparked protests, which included protestors wearing latex gloves while tossing flowers and copies of Sorokin’s books into a papier mâché toilet. Another novel of Sorokin’s (The Norm) depicts a Russian society where coprophagy is a la mode and only outcasts and outsiders refuse to partake. Needless to say, Sorokin’s fiction isn’t restrained in its critique of contemporary Russian society. His commentary continues in his latest novel, Day of the Oprichnik, where the ruling classes incorporate futuristic technology alongside the governing strategies of Ivan the Terrible. As Sorokin describes: “I just imagined what would happen to Russia if it isolated itself completely from the Western world--that is, if it erected a new Iron Curtain…. This would mean that Russia would be overtaken by its past, and our past would be our future.” (Anne) This Vacant Paradise by Victoria Patterson: Victoria Patterson follows her acclaimed debut story collection Drift with a novel – her first – set in the posh environs of 1990s Newport Beach, California. As the title suggests, Patterson’s novel promises a social critique of the often vapid, money-laden 90s. It follows the beautiful but aging Esther Wilson as she attempts to navigate life without the aid of a wealthy man on her arm. Drift was a finalist for both the California Book Award and the Story Prize. (Patrick) The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise by Georges Perec: Georges Perec wrote: “for us, who continue to have to do with a human race that insists on thinking, writing and above all publishing, the increasing size of our libraries tends to become one real problem.” We readers will have to deal with the fortunate burden of clearing shelf-space for another novel by Perec this spring, with the first English translation of The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise. The novel depicts an office underling’s attempts to ingratiate himself to his corporate superiors, while his neuroses expand a la Woody Allen. If Perec’s astutely observed yet darkly comical catalogue of managing directors, magnates, and heads of state in his essay “The Holy of Holies” is any indication, this “account of the office worker’s mindset” will offset the disorder it imposes. (Anne) April: The Pale King by David Foster Wallace: When David Foster Wallace died in 2008, he left behind a huge, fragmentary manuscript set in and around a Midwestern IRS office and featuring a character named David Wallace. The manuscript, quixotically, takes monotony as its master-trope, much as Infinite Jest used "entertainment." Since then, Michael Pietsch, Wallace’s real-life editor, has been working to arrange the fragments in book form. Published excerpts of varying degrees of sublimity - reportedly including two stories from Oblivion - offer glimpses of a Jest-like complex of supporting characters. But these beleaguered office workers have more in common with the denizens of the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House (redundancy sic) than with the Enfield Tennis Academy’s student-athletes. A note, quoted in D.T. Max’s New Yorker piece, hints at the gift Wallace wanted to give his characters: “Bliss - a-second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious - lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom.” For readers still mourning the books he didn't get to write, may it be so. (Garth) The Free World: A Novel by David Bezmozgis: Another debut novel from a Twenty-Under-Forty'er, Bezmogis' The Free World tells the story of three generations of the Krasnansky family as they try to escape Communist Russia for the United States. They are waylaid in Rome where the characters pursue different paths through the underbelly of their adopted city, ultimately bringing them into tension with each other as they grapple with a merciless immigration system and try to decide the family's fate. (Kevin) The Great Night by Chris Adrian: Chris Adrian's last novel, The Children's Hospital, showed him to be a writer of immense daring, curiosity, and heart. Along with two other books, it earned him a spot (by a whisker – he’s now 40) on The New Yorker's "20 Under 40 List." His new book The Great Night, looks back to one of magical realism's forebears: Shakespeare. It's a retelling of A Midsummer Night's Dream, set in modern-day San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park. (Garth) Someday This Will Be Funny by Lynne Tillman: As if the publication of Lynne Tillman’s first book of short stories in nearly ten years--and her first book following her stand-out novel, American Genius: A Comedy--weren’t enough to celebrate, Tillman’s Someday This Will Be Funny also marks the debut of Richard Nash’s new publishing venture, Cursor. If Nash’s reading list, interviews, and speeches are any indication, Cursor will take publishing one giant leap into the future, with Tillman’s book at the forefront. Tillman’s new collection features appearances by Madame Realism, Marvin Gaye, and Clarence Thomas and incorporates epistle, quotation, and haiku as the stories “bounce between lyrical passages of lucid beauty, echoing the scattered, cycling arpeggio of Tillman’s preferred subject: the unsettled mind.” Tillman once said in an interview: “Writers are promiscuous with experience, absolutely.” She’s a woman of her word, and of the word. Hear, hear! (Anne) Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles and Speeches 1998-2003 by Roberto Bolaño: Anyone who read “Literature + Illness = Illness” or “Myths of Chulu” in last year’s collection The Insufferable Gaucho can attest that a Bolaño essay no more resembles Montaigne than a Bolaño novel resembles Samuel Richardson. Indeed, the closest cousin of Bolaño’s nonfiction may be his fiction, and in some cases it’s hard to tell which is which. Confusion over the genre of the short piece “The Beach” (essay? story?) seems to have been the source of the misconception that Bolaño was a recovering junkie. Either way, though, it’s phenomenal writing – a single, extended, coruscating sentence – and it appears in this Natasha Wimmer translation of a 2004 Anagrama volume, along with 340 other pages of uncollected, unclassifiable Bolaño. (Garth) The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips: Phillips hasn't quite recaptured the buzz that accompanied Prague his debut novel about expats in Budapest, but this new book just may. "The Tragedy of Arthur" is a fictional (or is it?), lost Shakespeare play about King Arthur and it is accompanied by a long introduction penned by a character (or is it the author?) named Arthur Phillips. Intertextual games ensue. (Max) The Long Goodbye by Meghan O'Rourke: In another memoir about grief, O'Rourke draws on her dual patrimonies as a poet and cultural critic. The result is a searching account of losing her mother to cancer. O'Rourke finds herself blindsided by her own grief and bewildered by her inability to "share" it. Even as she documents her own feelings, she examines the changing cultural role of grief, and comes to long for the mourning rituals that are even now vanishing. The interplay of the objective and the subjective here speaks to audiences of both Oprah and The New Yorker, where the book was excerpted. (Garth) The Basement of the Ivory Tower by Professor X: To begin, a short exemplary excerpt from Professor X's manifesto against higher education for all: "America, ever-idealistic, seems wary of the vocational-education track. We are not comfortable limiting anyone’s options. Telling someone that college is not for him seems harsh and classist and British, as though we were sentencing him to a life in the coal mines. I sympathize with this stance; I subscribe to the American ideal. Unfortunately, it is with me and my red pen that that ideal crashes and burns." And let me tell you (because I have wielded that red pen and know Professor X's bloody business: adjuncting and community college teaching) it is a sad, sad world out there in America's lesser colleges, many as crassly business-minded as Walmart and utterly delighted to have students who aren't cut out to make the grade. Of course, liberal-minded idealists will object and cry Barbara Covett! at the likes of Professor X, but having been in his trench, I know how deeply painful and demoralizing—and pointless and dishonest—it is to teach college-level curriculum to those who are not equipped for high school: It's like trying to teach the legless to dance. This is another commentary on the shoddy state of American higher education (see also, most recently, Ed Dante's "Shadow Scholar" piece at The Chronicle of Higher Ed)—sure to be an incendiary little book. (Emily W.) The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer: Wolitzer’s ninth novel is inspired by Lysistrata, the ancient Greek play wherein the women withhold sex from their menfolk until they agree to end their war. In Wolitzer’s novel, a New Jersey high school puts on a production of the play, and soon, the females in the town lose interest in coupling with their men. The Uncoupling follows Wolitzer’s bestselling novel The Ten Year Nap, about the lives of stay-at-home mothers in New York City, and I hope her latest is as funny, readable and wise as that book was. (Edan) Fire Season by Philip Connors: This debut nonfiction effort by Connors is an account of his time spent over part of each of the last ten years as a fire lookout in New Mexico in a 7' x 7' tower. Connors also happens to be a literary critic and journalist whose writing has been fairly extensively published, including book reviews in the LRB and VQR. Some of his most powerful work has taken the form of diaries, including one in n+1 that recounts his brother's suicide and another in The Paris Review about life as a fire lookout. The book takes the diary form and expands on it, with five long chapters, each one dedicated to a month he spends in the lookout tower each year. (Max) My New American Life by Francine Prose: Francine Prose, former National Book Award finalist and prolific producer of novels, short stories, children's books and nonfiction, will take us on a fictional tour of the bad old days of Bush-Cheney. My New American Life spins around Lula, a 26-year-old Albanian living in New York City on an expiring tourist visa. When she lands a job as a caretaker for a rebellious teenager in suburban New Jersey, she begins to live the American dream -- until her brothers show up in a black Lexus SUV, a jarring reminder that family and history are always with us. The novel, according to the publisher's jacket copy, captures the moment when American "dreams and ideals gave way to a culture of cynicism, lies and fear." (Bill) Swim Back to Me by Ann Packer: Ann Packer, who first burst onto the scene in 2002 with her blockbuster debut The Dive from Clausen's Pier, returns with a fourth book. Kirkus describes it as a novella and five stories in its starred review, while the publisher calls it a collection of narratives framed by two linked novellas. Whichever the case, the collection seems likely to investigate the same avenues of grief that have been a hallmark of her prior, powerful work. (Max) Bullfighting by Roddy Doyle: The title story of Doyle's collection appeared in the New Yorker in early 2008 and concerns a collection of middle-aged Irish guys blowing off steam on a guys' trip to Spain, wives and kids left behind in Dublin. When I traveled to the Mediterranean later that year and saw many a seaside watering hole advertising the "Full English Breakfast," I thought of this story. (Max) Nat Tate: An American Artist: 1928-1960 by William Boyd: Boyd, a wonderful author (Any Human Heart, Brazzaville Beach) who for whatever reason doesn't seem to get much attention outside of prize committees, made culture vultures everywhere feel like complete assholes in 1998, when he carefully constructed and published a life of a fictional American artist who died by suicide at age 32. Enlisting the help of David Bowie, Gore Vidal, and others, Boyd had a number of people who should have known better reminiscing about Tate and lamenting his early death. Evidently a lot more people would have looked a lot more stupid had David Lister (an editor at The Independent who knew about the ruse), not revealed the hoax prematurely. Boyd's great literary hoax is to be reissued this April. (Lydia) Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman: A year after the publication of his last novel, The Divine Husband, Francisco Goldman watched his wife of two years, the promising young writer Aura Estrada, die as a result of a freak body-surfing accident. The aftermath sent him back to journalism for a time. Now Goldman has trained his considerable novelistic powers directly on the tragedy of his wife’s death, and on the ineffable continuities among love, grief, and art. (Garth) There Is No Year by Blake Butler: Butler, one of the minds behind HTML Giant and author of the indie press favorite Scorch Atlas hits the big time with this new novel. The Harper Perennial catalog glosses it as evocative of House of Leaves and the films of David Lynch. A more iconoclastic "20 Under 40" list might have made room for Butler, and as for Harper's labeling 32-year-ole Butler "one of the voices of his generation," that may say more about how apocalypse-minded we are these days than it does about Butler. (Max) May: Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work edited by Richard Ford: We've reminisced in the past about the steady disappearance of the short story anthology. Once common, these pocket-sized wonders now fill shelves at the kind of used bookstore I like to haunt but are rarely seen on the new release table at your local Borders. Still, a timely theme in these economically stagnant times (employment or lack thereof) and the imprimatur of a master of the form, Richard Ford, make this collection worth looking out for. Sure, most if not all of these stories have been previously published in other books, but how nice to have Stuart Dybek, Edward P. Jones, Charles D’Ambrosio, Ann Beattie, Alice Munro, John Cheever, Richard Yates, Deborah Eisenberg, Jhumpa Lahiri, and several others, all thematically linked and between two covers. (Max) Embassytown by China Mieville Give China Mieville credit for refusing to rest on his laurels. After scoring a major hit with last year's Kraken, his seventh lushly imagined fantasy novel, Mieville will abandon the world of Bas-Lag and his phantasmagorical London and take his fans someplace altogether different and unexpected. Embassytown, he recently told a Liverpool audience, will contain "science fiction, aliens and spaceships." The title refers to "a city of contradictions on the outskirts of the universe" where humans and the native Hosts live in uneasy peace. When an unimaginable new arrival hits town, catastrophe looms. Given Mieville's track record, expect a wild ride. (Bill) Mondo and Other Stories by J.M.G. Le Clezio: The 2008 Nobel laureate's large body of work continues to make its way into English. This collection of stories was first published in French in 1978. One of the stories collected here, the atmospheric "The Boy Who Had Never Seen the Sea," appeared in the New Yorker shortly after Le Clezio's Nobel win. Like that story, the rest in this collection focus on a child protagonist who seems to see the world through a different set of eyes. (Max) To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays by Gertrude Stein: Described as “a fanciful journey through the alphabet” and originally conceived as a children’s book, Stein’s To Do “spiral[ed] out of simple childlike progression, so that by the time she reached the letter H, Henriette de Dactyl, a French typewriter (who exchanges typed messages with Yetta von Blickensdorfer, a German typewriter, and Mr. House, an American typewriter) wants to live on Melon Street and eat radishes, salads, and fried fish, and soup.” Written in 1940, the book was rejected several times by publishers for being too complex for children. A text-only version appeared in 1957 (after Stein’s death) from Yale, and in 2011, the publisher is putting out To Do with Giselle Potter's illustrations, realizing Stein’s original concept. (Sonya) Paying for It by Chester Brown: Throughout his twenty-year-long career, Chester Brown has developed a reputation as a wan and fearless confessor, presenting his lapses and failures from a dispassionate remove. Paying For It—subtitled “A Comic-Strip Memoir About Being a John”—may prove to be his most quietly self-lacerating. In exploring his penchant for prostitutes, Paying For It will likely feature little glamour, little boasting, and an understated honesty. Drawn and Quarterly predicts that the book “will be the most talked about graphic novel of 2011,” yet Brown doesn’t seem to relish controversy. When asked in 2004 why he might write so openly about his sex life, he responded, “Because it’s interesting.” (Jacob) The London Train by Tessa Hadley: Stalwart of the fiction section of The New Yorker, Hadley's latest is described as a "novel in two parts." An early review in the Financial Times calls the book "darkly elegant" with "two distinct halves reflecting, enhancing and informing each other. The social and geographical territory is familiar for Hadley, that of the bourgeoisie and their travels (and travails) as they go looping between London and Cardiff." (Max) Pulse by Julian Barnes: Barnes's latest is his third book of short stories. A preview from The Spectator explains the collection's over-arching theme: "Each character is attuned to a ‘pulse’ – an amalgamation of a life-force and an Aristotelian flaw. They struggle against or thrive upon the submerged currents of life – touched by ambition, sex, love, health, work and death." (Max) The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux: Theroux, the aging, still entertaining rake of the travel writing genre will indulge in a potentially interesting exercise here, collecting "the best writing on travel from the books that shaped him," from Samuel Johnson, Eudora Welty and Mark Twain to Peter Matthiessen, Pico Iyer, and John McPhee. Cheesy title aside, it certainly sounds like an essential tome for travel writing fans. (Max) June: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett: Ann Patchett has fearlessly ignored the admonition to write what you know. Her breakout novel, the intoxicating Bel Canto, centered around opera, Japanese business practices and a hostage situation in a South American embassy. Her new novel, State of Wonder, will have elements that sound similarly abstruse – doctors, medical students, drug development and the Amazon jungle. But at the heart of the novel is an inspiring student-teacher relationship, which, Patchett told an interviewer, is similar to the bond she had with her own writing teachers, Allan Gurganus and the late Grace Paley. "This one was a picnic," Patchett says of State of Wonder, "because I didn't have to make everything up wholesale." (Bill) The Astral by Kate Christensen The question to ask about Christensen's next novel is will it deliver up another character on par with Hugo Whittier of The Epicure's Lament? ("May we all simmer in the dark with such humor and gusto," Sam Lipsyte wrote of Christensen's immortal misanthrope.) The Penn-Faulkner Award-winning Christensen's forthcoming sixth novel promises the story of a successful Brooklyn poet, Harry Quirk, whose marriage is in crisis and whose children have been swept up in cultishness of various kinds (perhaps a sort of Freedom, redux?). As a writer who reliably turns out novels that elicit warm praise from most of her reviewers, expect (at least) a genial, smart, gently satirical tale of the joys and woes of bougie New York life. (Emily W.) The Curfew by Jesse Ball: What to expect from an author who teaches classes on dreaming, false identities, and lying? If the author is Jesse Ball, then one should expect expectations to be defied, plot summaries to fall short, and critics to use structures to describe the framework of his imaginative plottings (nesting-boxes, Klein bottle, labyrinth). Perhaps the magical realms Ball creates have something to do with his process: “to conjure up a state of affairs--a glimpse of one situated thought, where the situation is all that surrounds it in the mind.” Or with his imaginative approaches to writing, evident in his classes. Ball’s novel The Curfew depicts a father and daughter during wartime, the father risks it all to find his wife and the young daughter imagines her father’s treacherous journey. Expect for this description to only loosely conjure the realms of wonder within. (Anne) Kurt Vonnegut: Novels & Stories 1963-1973: For those seeking Vonnegut’s aforementioned best, the Library of America will bestow upon him its black-cover treatment, collecting his great early novels (Cat’s Cradle, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions) and stories into one thick volume. In this setting, it will be especially jarring to read Breakfast of Champions, whose “World Classics Library” “published hard-core pornography in Los Angeles, California.” (Jacob) The Storm at the Door by Stefan Merrill Block: The precocious Block published his first novel at 26. The Story of Forgetting, ambitious but flawed, nonetheless suggested Block might be a name to watch. Sure enough, here he is with a second novel arriving before his 30th birthday. This time around, Block will again take mental illness as a primary theme. (Max) Lola, California by Edie Meidav: Meidav is a rare thing, a less than well known writer who continues to publish big, dense, challenging novels with a major press. Meidav's third such effort weighs in at 448 pages and asks "Can an old friend carry in amber the person you were going to become?" Should Meidav be better known? Almost definitely. (Max) July: Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell: A 2009 National Book Award nod (for her collectionAmerican Salvage) landed Campbell on the radar of many a reader. Her backcountry fiction focuses on rural characters, meth-cookers, and bad jobs or none at all, all shot through with redemption and compassion. This new novel, which Campbell says has been in the works for more than four years, sounds like something of a modern-day Huck Finn, following a sixteen-year-old girl who takes to the Stark River in search of her vanished mother. (Max) Estonia: A Ramble Through the Periphery by Alexander Theroux: In his one-of-a-kind Year in Reading piece, Theroux mentioned being this year "in the outback of frozen Estonia where I was not only writing a book but, as a kind of project, undertaking a private study of St. Paul and his life." The book in question was this title, forthcoming from Fantagraphics. The book emerges from Theroux's time spent in the former Soviet republic while his wife was on a Fulbright Scholarship. Ever observant, Theroux uses Estonia and its people as a lens through which to look back at America. (Max) The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock: Former meatpacker and paper mill employee Pollock’s debut story collection Knockemstiff was a favorite amongst indie booksellers, landed on both Amazon and Publishers Weekly’s lists of best books of the year, and garnered the following enigmatic praise from the LA Times “a powerful, remarkable, exceptional book that is very hard to read.” According to his blog, Pollock's debut novel is set in the 50s and 60s and “centers on the convergent lives of a tough but morally-upright young man from Ohio, a pair of serial killers who prey on hitchhikers, and an itinerant, spider-handling preacher and his crippled guitar virtuoso accompanist.” Naturally. (Patrick) August: House of Holes: A Book of Raunch by Nicholson Baker: There’s very little info out there on Baker’s forthcoming novel, aside from some Twitter-excitement, including, “I don’t think it’s about poems” (McNally Jackson Bookstore) and “Back to Fermata territory?” (Ed Champion). So fans of Baker’s earlier (erotic) novels may be in for a treat. At Amazon, the description reads: “a gleefully provocative, off-the-charts sex novel that is unlike anything you’ve read.” (Sonya) Night Film by Marisha Pessl: My first impression of Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics was clouded by the many, many stunned reviewers who could not help but mention Pessl's beauty, often in the first paragraph of their reviews. (Indeed, it has been said that her picture was removed from advance copies of the novel to avoid just this.) Fortunately for those who do not choose books based on the bangability of their authors, while Ms. Pessl is hot, her prose is, by most assessments, hotter. Whether or not you liked Special Topics, you have to admit that the babe-authoress created one of the most startlingly distinctive fictional voices of recent years in Blue van Meer, the heroine-narrator of Pessl's academic novel qua murder mystery (Oh, the breathtaking allusiveness! Ah, the witty figurative language—almost exhausting in its inventiveness!). My fear for Night Film—according to Pessl's agent, “a psychological thriller about obsession, family loyalty and ambition set in raw contemporary Manhattan"—is that without Blue, Pessl's nothing. Can she--could anyone (think Jonathan Safran Foer after Everything Is Illuminated)--generate another voice as distinct and scintillating as Blue's? (Emily W.) Lights Out in Wonderland by DBC Pierre: After the curious panic surrounding 2003’s Vernon God Little (“It’s sort of about Columbine!” “He’s not even from here!” “It won all kindsa prizes!”), Australia’s DBC Pierre faded from American minds. Three years later, his Ludmilia’s Broken English failed to gain traction, and it seems a sensible bet that Lights Out In Wonderland—another scattershot soap-box rant—will continue the downward trend. But as Lights Out is a foggy howl against the global market (“My hair crests over my head like the dying wave of capitalism,” reads one unfortunate simile), Pierre shouldn’t get too upset if units fail to move. (Jacob) Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar: Hisham Matar, author of In the Country of Men, is the child of Libyan parents. In 1990, the novelist's father Jaballa Matar was kidnapped in Cairo and extradited to Tripoli as a political dissident. Since then, his family has endured a special hell of loss and uncertainty--scant news punctuating long periods of silence--which Hisham Matar described in a haunting piece for the Gaurdian last January. His novel, due in August, is about a missing father, and will presumably draw upon Matar's experience as the child of someone disappeared. (Lydia) Beijing Welcomes You by Tom Scocca: Slate blogger and former New York Observer Editor Scocca chronicles his years spent in Beijing, observing a city and a culture moving into the global spotlight. The book examines the Chinese capital on the cusp of its global moment, tracking its history and exploring its singular character. Since Scocca lived in Beijing in the middle of the last decade, one can assume the buildup to the 2008 Beijing Olympics figures prominently in the text. Assuming Scocca brings his typical insightful and sometimes scathing perspective (witness his epic takedown of The New Yorker for publishing Dave Eggers's The Wild Things excerpt which ran two years ago at The Awl), Beijing Welcomes You promises to offer astute cultural observation on a culture Americans would do well to observe. (Patrick) September: 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami: Murakami's three volume stemwinder came out in Japan in 2009 and sold out its first printing in a day. The first two volumes will appear in the US this fall and fervor among English-speaking Murakamians is already building. The alpha-numeric title is a play on Orwell's 1984 - in Japanese the letter Q is a homophonic with the number 9 - and the book's plot (which was a tightly guarded secret prior to its Japanese release) concerns two characters, a PE teacher and a writer, who become involved in a religious cult through which they create "a mysterious past, different than the one we know." (Kevin) The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach: In the Winter issue of n+1, Harbach published a provocative piece suggesting two paths for the novelist: MFA vs. NYC. Who needs the former, when you can ride the latter to a half-million dollar advance? Insiders have, predictably, likened Harbach’s treatment of a baseball team at a Wisconsin liberal arts college - presumably as a lens through which to view the American scene and the human condition - to the aforementioned Enfield Tennis Academy. (Garth) October: The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright: Enright, winner of The Booker Prize for the international bestseller The Gathering, explores a woman’s affair and her relationship with her lover’s young daughter. (Max) November: Parallel Stories by Péter Nadas: Péter Nádas' A Book of Memories might just be the best novel published in the '80s, and Imre Goldstein's translation into English of its massive successor would, in a just world, be the publishing event of the fall. Nádas is, simply put, a master. The freedom with which he combines the diverse idioms of realism, modernism, and postmodernism can only come from decades of discipline. More importantly - as a recent excerpt in The Paris Review illustrates - he generates a continuous, Proustian intensity of feeling and perception - psychological, philosophical, and physical. This three-volume work, structured as a set of braided short stories, tracks two families, one Hungarian and one German, across many decades. Readers looking for a fuller preview might consult Hungarian Literature Online, or Deborah Eisenberg's appreciation in The New York Review of Books. (Garth) Unknown (fall and beyond): The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee: Described by Chee – a Whiting Award and NEA Fellowship recipient, currently a Visiting Professor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop -- as a kind of “historical fairy tale,” Queen is set in the time of the Second Empire (1852-70), in Paris. Chee’s first novel, Edinburgh, focused on a young boy’s surviving pedophilia. “The Queen of the Night sort of picks up in some ways from where Edinburgh leaves off,” Chee said in an interview, “in the sense that it is about a young woman who believes her voice is cursed, and if she uses it, terrible things will happen. And then she does, and they do. And she tries to put it right as best she can.” (Sonya) The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq: Michel Houellebecq, the reigning bad boy of French letters, has been accused of every imaginable sin against political correctness. His new novel, The Map and the Territory, is a send-up of the art world that tones down the sex and booze and violence, but it does feature a "sickly old tortoise" named Michel Houellebecq who gets gruesomely murdered. The book has drawn charges of plagiarism because passages were lifted virtually verbatim from Wikipedia. "If people really think that (this is plagiarism)," Houellebecq sniffed, "then they haven't the first notion what literature is." Apparently, he does. The Map and the Territory has just been awarded the Prix Goncourt, France's most prestigious literary prize. (Bill) The New Republic by Lionel Shriver: Shriver apparently finished a draft of The New Republic in 1998. After six well-regarded but commercially ignored novels, she couldn't find a buyer for this story of "cults of personality and terrorism" and was about to give up fiction-writing altogether. Flash forward a dozen years: Shriver is an Orange Prize winner, a National Book Award finalist, and has sold over a million copies worldwide. She has been fêted by...er...The New Republic, and hailed in these pages as "America's Best Writer." Also: terrorism and cults of personality are very much on people's minds. Maybe this will be the book that lands her on the cover of Time. (Garth) Hot Pink by Adam Levin: Viewed from afar, Levin's first novel, The Instructions, looked, for good and ill - mostly for good - like a kind of apotheosis of the McSweeney's house style: playful, inventive, funny-melancholic, youth-focused. However, it also possessed a couple of attributes that set it apart from other titles on the McSweeney's list. One was its dialectical genius; another was the ferocity of its anger at the way the world is (which elsewhere in McSweeneydom often gets sublimated into melancholy). Though Levin wears his influences on his sleeve, his sensibility is utterly distinctive, and almost fully formed. Look for the stories in the follow-up, Hot Pink, to be formally audacious, occasionally adolescent, but always bracing in their passion. (Garth) The Unfolding Haggadah by Jonathan Safran Foer with Nathan Englander: The only evidence of what this might be comes from Tablet where an essay by Judith Shulevitz includes a note about this title in the author's bio. An anthology it is then. And with Foer and Englander at the helm, this is one to keep on the radar. (Max) Four Selected Titles with UK publication dates but no US date yet: Dante in Love by A. N. Wilson: Later this year, English biographer and critic A.N. Wilson comes out with Dante in Love, a study of the Florentine poet that, confusingly, shares a title with a 2005 book about Dante written by Harriet Rubin. Wilson's book will, one imagines, address Dante's exile, Beatrice, Guelphs, Ghibellines, and so on; his perspective as a very public defector from and subsequent re-convert to Christianity might bring new insight to this well-trod territory (then again, it might not). (Lydia) River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh King of the Badgers by Philip Hensher The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst So, which of these books are you most looking forward to and which great new books did we neglect to include?
Yesterday we noted that The Pale King is now available for pre-order. It turns out another new David Foster Wallace book will be out before the long-awaited final novel hits shelves. In December, Columbia University Press will put out Wallace's undergrad thesis Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will. From the publisher description: "Long before he probed the workings of time, human choice, and human frailty in Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace wrote a brilliant philosophical critique of Richard Taylor's argument for fatalism. In 1962, Taylor used six commonly accepted presuppositions to imply that humans have no control over the future. Not only did Wallace take issue with Taylor's method, which, according to him, scrambled the relations of logic, language, and the physical world, but he also called out a semantic trick at the heart of Taylor's argument."