1. When I was in the third grade, my neighbor, Mrs. Cris -- a 60-year-old woman with grown children -- invited me and two other girls to form a weekly reading club. On Wednesdays, Mrs. Cris would serve us buttery Danish cookies, and juice in fancy punch glasses. We would sit on the floor while Mrs. Cris settled into the high-backed chair in front of the fireplace, and she would read out loud to us. We would lie about it to other kids, what we did on Wednesdays. It wasn’t because I was ashamed, it never occurred to me that a reading club might be considered uncool. I lied because I didn’t want my other friends to be envious, and because I didn’t want anyone else to be added to the club. It was our secret, my favorite day of the week. Over the next few years, we read The Hobbit, Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Secret Garden. At home, I read books almost exclusively about horses or dogs -- Black Beauty, Misty of Chincoteague, Lad a Dog, The Red Pony, Shiloh. There’s no shortage of great books about horses and dogs, but Wednesday reading club was first a lesson that books didn’t have to be about a topic you liked to be enjoyable. My mother had spent many years reading aloud to me, but this club was not bedtime reading, it was not something designed to wind us down, put us to sleep. It was a weekly afternoon party, with a certain level of formality that I enjoyed: Mrs. Cris was the only adult in the neighborhood who went by Mrs., we were expected to always sit quietly, and the snacks she served were not advertised on Nickelodeon, instead it was always the Royal Dansk cookies in the round blue tin. It also never felt like we were being babysat. I was keenly aware that Mrs. Cris was not being paid, and I felt she was not doing this as a favor for our parents (although, of course, I know my mother appreciated the time off), instead I was sure that Mrs. Cris was doing it because she wanted to spend time with us. She was not a teacher, not a relative; she was my first adult friend. 2. Reading club fell apart somewhere in middle school, when soccer practice and clarinet lessons and trips to the mall took up all our after school time. But I still liked to be read to, and I liked to read aloud, even during the awkward, moody teenage years to come. I loved when we read plays in English class, because we’d do a read through of the whole thing. I was too shy to audition for the high school play, but I thought I was a very memorable Martha when our senior English class read Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. When I got to college, my roommate, Jessica, was my only friend for a good chunk of the year. We had the kind of friendship where it felt like you didn’t need anyone else in the world but each other, so we didn’t go looking for other friends until the first year was almost up. Often, before bed, I would read Jess poems from my Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. Of course, it seems a little pretentious to me now, except that I wasn’t doing it as any kind of performance. It was just something I’d learned that friends do for one another, something that brings you closer. 3. Years after college, I visited Jessica at her studio apartment in Virginia, both of us adrift in our mid-20s. After a few glasses of wine, I read her and her new boyfriend a story I loved -- "Sea Oak" by George Saunders. “I didn’t really like your friend until she read us the story,” Jess’s boyfriend would tell her later, and she’d pass that on to me. “I wasn’t sure if I liked him either,” I teased. But I have a theory on why her boyfriend liked me by the end of "Sea Oak:" in order to understand a story that is read aloud, you must listen intently. Your mind cannot wander, you must concentrate on the words. Listening to someone read out loud is like that experiment where you stare into another person’s eyes for four minutes and by the end, you’re in love with that person. It’s too intimate an experience to share with someone you dislike. 4. During those adrift 20s, I worked in a small bookstore for two years, and listened to upwards of 50 readings. There were authors I was extremely intimidated by (Mary Gaitskill) and authors who were easy to talk to (Laura van den Berg liked my glasses and told me about her dog; Rachel Kushner complained about missing her husband while on tour, Jim Shepard hugged me). There were some great performances, some droning voices, and a few authors with overinflated egos, but I never tired of listening. Even books that I didn’t like on the page came alive during a reading. I think that’s a common experience, many of us are much more generous listeners than we are readers. There were only two times my co-booksellers and I ever liked the author less after a reading: an extremely racist travel memoir, and a local author whose crowd trashed the store. Most times, when authors left the store after a reading, I felt like they were a new friend, even if I’d barely spoken to them. Every time I hand-sold one of their books afterwards, I felt a sense of personal pride, as if my distant cousin had written the book I’d recommended, as if I was keeping the royalty checks in the family. 5. More recently, my husband and I went through a rough patch -- our beloved dog had died. I was growing more and more depressed, the election results didn’t help -- and we’d been coping by zoning out in front of Netflix with a bottle of wine. Then, I spent one night reading aloud to him, just on a whim. I plucked Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris from the shelf, since I knew I could count on Sedaris for humor. My husband lay on the floor underneath the loveseat where I perched (someday, when we’re rich, I always say, we’ll buy a full-sized couch that fits both of us) and he listened as I read. He didn’t play around on his phone. When we went to bed that night, I felt like we’d solved something. I didn’t feel so sad, and somehow life didn’t feel as meaningless. It was a way to connect that I’d forgotten about. It launched something healing for me, like a heaping serving of a comfort food. It was a bonding tool I’d been taught when I was young, back when it didn’t matter what size couch you had, because we always sat on the floor anyways, legs criss-cross applesauce. 6. When Mrs. Cris turned 80 a few years ago, our neighborhood threw a lobster bake. We blocked off the dead-end street my parents live on, we rented folding tables and set up the party on the street. We all wore ridiculous hats that night, at someone’s specific request. During the time for speeches, I stood up in my wide-brimmed Kentucky Derby hat, and talked a little bit about the reading group that Mrs. Cris started 20 years before, and what a profound effect it had on me as a reader and as a writer, and what’s more -- as a person. The Reading Club taught me the importance of careful, concentrated listening, and taught me that I could find friends outside my immediate peer group. It taught me reading a story aloud is a way to take care of someone, a kind of care-taking that isn’t overbearing or smothering, and doesn’t feel like babysitting. As adults, reading aloud to one another is something we think we might have grown out of, but that’s only because we’ve forgotten how intimate and cozy it is to be read to, or to read aloud to someone who listens. It’s a simple, low-maintenance way to connect. And if you can tell a good story, I now believe, you can win anyone over, even the most skeptical of listeners. Especially if you serve cookies. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
This year we lost a Nobel laureate, several Pulitzer Prize winners, many writers with wide readerships, and many more who never achieved the acclaim or the audiences they deserved. Happily for them all, their books live on. C.D. Wright C.D. Wright’s poetry was grounded in her native Arkansas -- she called her early style “idiom Ozarkia” -- but her work broke so many boundaries and wandered so freely that she belonged, in the words of the poet Joel Brouwer, “to a school of exactly one.” Wright, who died on Jan. 12 at 67, wrote that her poems were about “desire, conflict, the dearth of justice for all. About persons of small means.” Some of those persons were inmates she interviewed in Louisiana prisons, who inspired these lines: AC or DC You want to be Westinghoused or Edisoned Your pick you’re the one condemned Tennessee’s retired chair available on eBay. In an autobiographical prose poem from 2005, Wright, a MacArthur fellow and winner of the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, wrote this of herself: “I poetry. I write it, study it, read it, edit it, publish it, teach it…Sometimes I weary of it. I could not live without it. Not in this world.” Read: Several Millions Year in Reading contributors on Wright's work. Umberto Eco Umberto Eco, who died on Feb. 15 at 84, was a semiotician by training, a scholar who studied signs and symbols -- religious icons, clothing, words, musical scores. When he turned his hand to writing novels, Eco achieved superstar success on a global scale, never more so than with the first of his seven novels, The Name of the Rose, a yarn about murderous monks in a medieval monastery. Though it was larded with descriptions of heresies and Christian theology, it succeeded as a page-turner, a shameless whodunit that sold 10 million copies and was made into a big-budget Hollywood movie starring Sean Connery. Eco’s runaway popularity won the scorn of some critics and more than a few disgruntled academics, but he was unapologetic about wearing two hats. “I think of myself as a serious professor who, during the weekend, writes novels,” he said. In a postscript to The Name of the Rose, he added, “I wrote a novel because I had a yen to do it. I believe this is sufficient reason to set out to tell a story. Man is a storytelling animal by nature. I began writing in March of 1978, prodded by a seminal idea: I felt like poisoning a monk.” Read: An account of an in-person Eco sighting or our review of Confessions of a Young Novelist. Harper Lee Harper Lee, who died on Feb. 19 at 89, spent most of her long life claiming she was perfectly content being a one-hit wonder. No wonder. To Kill a Mockingbird won the Pulitzer Prize and has been branded “America’s most beloved novel,” with more than 40 million copies in print and a permanent place on every high school reading list in the land. The love was enormous but not universal. Flannery O’Connor dismissed the novel as “a child’s book,” which strikes me as neither unkind nor unfair. In 2015, Lee's lawyer talked her into publishing a “lost” novel, Go Set a Watchman. Reviews were mixed, to put it kindly, and many fans were dismayed to learn that Atticus Finch did not always walk on water, that he was capable, in fact, of being a card-carrying south Alabama peckerwood racist. Of course Watchman became an instantaneous #1 bestseller, but that doesn’t dispel the fact that some books should have the decency to stay lost and die a quiet death. Read: An account of a visit to Lee's hometown; an analysis of Lee's symbolism; or our review of Watchman. Jim Harrison When I heard that Jim Harrison had died on March 26 at 78, I immediately reread Revenge, my personal favorite of his many magnificent novellas, a form at which he had few peers. This one has it all: vivid descriptions of the twinned geographies of the natural world and the human heart, a torrid affair between a former fighter pilot and a dangerous friend’s wife, which leads to rococo violence, which leads to more violence during a long campaign for revenge. The novella runs just 96 pages, yet it contains worlds. Jim Harrison’s world was a moral place, as finely calibrated as a clock. Violence begets violence; violation demands vengeance; every act has its price, and that price must be paid. Harrison was also a prolific novelist, essayist and poet, author of a memoir, a children’s book, and some very funny writing about food. A shaggy Falstaffian from the wilds of northern Michigan, Harrison was a man with boundless appetites for food and wine, hunting and fishing, literature and life, a man who adored antelope liver and detested skinless chicken breasts, a man who once flew to France to take part in a 37-course lunch that featured 19 wines. French readers revere him, though his American readership is smaller than it should be. No matter. Jim Harrison lived and wrote his own way, the only way -- all the way to the brim. Read: A personal account of a decades-long friendship with Harrison. Michael Herr Many books have captured the physical horrors of our Vietnam misadventure, but only one captured its psychedelic, rock 'n' roll absurdity. That book was Dispatches, a bombshell piece of reporting by Michael Herr that appeared in 1977, nearly a decade after his tour of duty as a war correspondent for Esquire magazine, covering an unwinnable orgy of carnage the only purpose of which, as he put it, was “maintaining the equilibrium of the Dingdong by containing the ever encroaching Doodah.” Herr, who died on June 23 at 76, made no secret of his respect for what the grunts went through, or his disdain for the officers and politicians who put them through it. John le Carré called Dispatches “the best book I have ever read about men and war in our time.” A decade after it appeared, Herr co-wrote the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. He also wrote a book about his friendship with Kubrick, and a fictionalized biography of Walter Winchell. But in the last years of his life, Herr took up Buddhism and gave up writing. Read: Our look at war books and the work Herr inspired. James Alan McPherson James Alan McPherson was the first black writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, for his 1977 story collection Elbow Room. After attending segregated schools in his native Georgia and graduating from Harvard Law School, McPherson took a sharp detour into the writing life, earning a master of fine arts degree from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he wound up teaching from 1981 until his retirement in 2014. Though his short stories, essays, and memoirs didn’t flinch from the evils of Jim Crow, McPherson strove to embrace the one thing he felt could possibly bestow greatness on America: its cultural diversity. An acolyte and occasional collaborator with Ralph Ellison, McPherson wrote in a 1978 essay in The Atlantic: “I believe that if one can experience its diversity, touch a variety of its people, laugh at its craziness, distill wisdom from its tragedies, and attempt to synthesize this inside oneself without going crazy, one will have earned to right to call oneself a citizen of the United States.” Speaking of the characters in his first collection of short stories, Hue and Cry, McPherson said, “Certain of these people happen to be black, and certain of them happen to be white; I have tried to keep the color part of most of them far in the background, where these things should rightly be kept.” Read: A note on McPherson's skill as a eulogist. Edward Albee George and Martha --- sad, sad, sad. It’s unlikely anyone will ever write a more acidic portrait of an American marriage than Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. After his 1959 debut, The Zoo Story, which opened in Berlin on a bill with Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, Albee went on to write some 30 plays that shone light into the darkest precincts of well-to-do lives, where the regrets and the lies and the self-deception dwell. Though Albee, who died on Sept. 16 at 88, won two Tony Awards and three Pulitzer Prizes, he was not always embraced by critics or audiences. One reviewer dismissed Virginia Woolf as “a sick play for sick people.” Its film adaptation, starring Richard Burton as George, a bitter alcoholic academic, and Liz Taylor as Martha, his bitter alcoholic wife, captured the essence of Albee’s output. He described his work this way to a New York Times interviewer in 1991: “All of my plays are about people missing the boat, closing down too young, coming to the end of their lives with regret at things not done, as opposed to things done. I find most people spend too much time living as if they’re never going to die.” Read: A personal account of someone who got his mail from Albee (really). Gloria Naylor With her 1982 debut novel, The Women of Brewster Place, Gloria Naylor hit the trifecta: a National Book Award, a TV adaptation by Oprah Winfrey, and a wide and devoted readership. Naylor, who died on Sept. 28 at 66, spun her best-known novel around seven African-American women, straight and gay, who live in a shabby housing project plagued by sexual predators and poverty. Naylor said she regarded those seven women “like an ebony phoenix, each in her own time and with her own season had a story.” The Women of Brewster Place won the National Book Award for a first novel in 1983. A New York native and one-time Jehovah’s Witnesses missionary, Naylor said she left the church out of frustration over its limited role for women, a break that sent her into a deep depression. Like the "ebony phoenix," she rose and was saved by her writing. William Trevor William Trevor wrote extraordinary fiction about the most ordinary of people -- mechanics, priests, and farmers who lived in small English and Irish towns. Trevor, a native of Ireland who died on Nov. 20 at 88, wrote nearly 20 novels, many of them prize-winners, but he considered his true form the short story. Few would argue. “I’m a short story writer who writes novels when he can’t get them into short stories,” he said, adding, “I’m very interested in the sadness of fate, the things that just happen to people.” Like the evening a lovelorn Irish mechanic named Cahal, in the short story “The Dressmaker’s Child,” is driving a pair of Spanish lovers back from a visit to a bogus religious pilgrimage site -- and the girl of the story’s title hurls herself at the passing car. Cahal is tortured by uncertainty over what happened to the girl and what will happen to him -- until the dressmaker offers him a twisted form of absolution. Things just happen to people, and suddenly their ordinary predicaments are transformed into something startling and new. Read: Lionel Shriver on reading Trevor. And let’s not forget these notables, in alphabetical order: Anita Brookner, 87, was an accomplished art historian when she started writing novels in her 50s, many of them about women mired in gloom. Her fourth novel, 1984’s Hotel du Lac, won the Booker Prize. Read: A detailed exploration of of Brookner's considerable charms. David Budbill, 76, worked out of a remote cabin in rural Vermont for more than 40 years, writing stripped-down poems about the Vermont mountains and the “invisible” people who live there, in all their beauty and ugliness. A workmanlike writer who detested artsy pretension, Budbill was once asked about the source of his inspiration. “I don’t know where it comes from,” he replied, “and I don’t care.” Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, 74, was the author of an autobiography, but he’ll be remembered as the brash mayor who breathed new life into his tired old hometown of Providence, Rhode Island -- only to be undone by some nasty habits. He assaulted a romantic rival with a fireplace log, an ashtray, and a lit cigarette, which cost him his job as mayor. After serving a suspended sentence and winning re-election, Cianci was convicted of racketeering for accepting envelopes of cash in return for city jobs. After serving a federal prison sentence, he made a third run for the mayor’s office in 2015, but lost. His autobiography was called Politics and Pasta. Read: A personal account of meeting Cianci. Pat Conroy, 70, may have written his share of prose dripping with Spanish moss and Low Country hokum, but he attracted an army of devoted readers. he son of an abusive Marine fighter pilot, Conroy turned the horrors of his childhood into the novel The Great Santini, then followed it with The Lords of Discipline and The Prince of Tides, all made into hit Hollywood movies, all gobbled up by his fans. Asked to describe his son’s readers, the ever-charming Donald Conroy said, “That’s easy: psychiatrists, homosexuals, extreme liberals and women.” He forgot to add: and lots of them. Read: Conroy's reaction to having his books banned. Warren Hinckle, 77, was the swashbuckling, hard-drinking editor of Ramparts and other magazines who railed against the Vietnam War, published Che Guevara’s diaries and Eldridge Cleaver’s letters from prison, and helped birth gonzo journalism by publishing Hunter S. Thompson’s seminal article “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” along with Ralph Steadman’s volcanic drawings. American journalism was changed forever. Thom Jones, 71, was a recovering alcoholic working as a high school janitor when he mailed a short story called “The Pugilist at Rest” to The New Yorker. The magazine published the story in 1991, and it won the O. Henry Prize for best short story. It was a stunning beginning to a career of writing semi-autobiographical stories about soldiers, boxers, janitors, crime victims -- “people,” as Jones put it, “you don’t want living next door to you.” Read: A Year in Reading on Jones. Imre Kertész, 86, survived internment at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, then spent years writing semi-autobiographical novels about the Holocaust and its aftermath. The books, remarkable for their lack of sensationalism, languished in obscurity until 2002, when Kertesz became the only Hungarian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Read: A Year in Reading on Kertész. Florence King, 80, was one of the last of a breed that is all but extinct: the misanthropic curmudgeon. In columns for the conservative National Review and several books, most notably Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady, King skewered liberalism, feminism, and anything that smelled remotely of political correctness. Nobody could possibly agree with all of her opinions, but just about everybody admired her ability to lacerate and enrage, which, after all, is what misanthropic curmudgeons are supposed to do. She once wrote: “Feminists will not be satisfied until every abortion is performed by a gay black doctor under an endangered tree on a reservation for handicapped Indians.” Wow. Read: A detailed look at King's work and life. W.P. Kinsella, 81, wrote 30 books of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, much of it infused with his intertwined love for magic realism and the game of baseball. His best known book is the novel Shoeless Joe, which was made into the 1989 movie Field of Dreams, in which Kevin Costner plays an Iowa farmer who carves a baseball diamond into his cornfield to attract Shoeless Joe Jackson and the rest of the disgraced Chicago “Black Sox” back from the grave. One viewer dismissed the movie as “Field of Corn,” but it produced a line that lives on: “If you build it, he will come.” Read: A piece on the great writers of baseball. Image Credit: Public Domain Pictures.
When I was an aspiring fiction writer fresh out of grad school, I won a fellowship to spend a month at an artist’s colony in Montauk, at the very tip of Long Island. Known as the Edward F. Albee Foundation, the colony was founded and funded by its namesake, renowned author of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and many other wonderful plays, who recently passed away. The Albee fellowship was the biggest thing that had happened to me early in my career as a writer, a label I still felt uncomfortable wearing. In fact, during my first week at the colony, I happened to overhear another of the artists on the phone, a playwright, who was explaining to a friend who else was in residence: “There’s a poet, a sculptor, a painter from Japan, and a novelist from New York.” My ears perked up. A New York novelist? Where? Who was it? Someone famous? In my head, I started to rattle off the names of my favorite writers. It took me a minute to realize he meant me. I was the novelist. I was a novelist. Besides the sense of validation it brought, one of the perks of being a fellow at the Albee Foundation was how we got our mail. Since the colony had no regular postal delivery, all our letters came to Albee’s P.O. Box in town, which Edward Albee himself, who had a summer home nearby, would pick up and then drop off for us. Yes, for one month, Edward Albee, arguably America’s greatest living playwright, was our mailman. The aspiring playwright I’d overheard calling me a novelist -- let’s call him Joe -- had known even before arriving at the colony about this Edward-Albee-is-our-mailman arrangement, and because of this, he’d ordered everyone he knew to write him letters at the colony. That way, Joe figured, the great playwright would see his name so often on the return address that it would stick in his mind. It turned out that Albee was an elusive kind of mailman. He’d drive up to our house, quietly drop off the mail on the kitchen counter, and slip away. At first we thought he didn’t like us. Later, we learned from the colony’s caretaker this was because he didn’t want to disturb us at work. When Joe figured this out, he began doing his writing at a picnic table in front of the house, right next to the kitchen, and that’s where he’d sit all day, waiting for Albee to show up. “You should try it,” he told me. “There’s another picnic table out there you can have. It’s a bit further away, but you know, it’s there.” To further cement our bond with Edward Albee, Joe decided that we should host a dinner and invite our benefactor to come join us socially. We did, and Albee accepted the invitation. I was tasked with making the dessert, which was a challenge because Albee, who had diabetes, did not eat refined sugar. The dinner was a great success. Albee arrived with his partner Jonathan, broke bread with us, and complimented the sugar-free summer fruit cobbler with a biscuit topping that I’d made especially for him. Throughout the dinner, he maintained a polite unassuming presence, as if he were just a neighbor we’d happened to invite to join us rather than a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner. I was astounded when Albee mentioned that he remembered from my application that I was working on a story collection about Prague. He told me about when he’d visited that city before the fall of the Iron Curtain. “I attended a party where no one was there,” he said ironically. All the other guests, dissident writers and artists, had been sentenced to internal banishment, declared non-existent entities by the Communist government. After the great man left, Joe went around high fiving us all, whooping, jumping up and down. He suggested we all go to the one bar in town that was still open at that late hour and celebrate. So we all piled into Joe’s car: me, the poet, the sculptor, and the painter from Japan, whose English was not the best, but certainly far superior to any of our Japanese. Along the way, we were all saying Edward Albee this, and Edward Albee, that. And suddenly the Japanese painter broke into the conversation because there was something he did not understand. He said, “Joe, I keep hearing you mention this Mr. Edward Albee. Who is Edward Albee?” We explained that in addition to being, well, Edward Albee, he was the guy whom the colony was named after, the guy paying for us all to stay here. The guy who, despite all the fuss we’d made over him, had maintained such a quiet, dignified reserve that our Japanese friend had had no idea of his extraordinary reputation. Over the years, I have thought back many times to my time at the Albee Foundation, and specifically the comportment that Edward Albee had modeled for me, for all of us who want to pursue careers in the arts. Without words, he was letting us know, I am just like you. Writing is the work I do, not who I am. As a writer, he was famous. As a person, he was just the guy who brought us our mail, another guest at our dinner table. His calm and quiet good manners seem all the more extraordinary in our current day and age, when writers take to social media with the regularity that most people brush their teeth. Several months after my first book came out, I got a letter in the mail, forwarded to me by my publisher. It was a handwritten note on heavy cream-colored stationary. I looked at the return address and realized it had come from Mr. Albee. “Dear Mr. Hamburger:” he wrote, “I just finished reading The View from Stalin’s Head. Such good work! Congratulations! What’s next? Regards, Edward Albee” I still have that note. And every once in a while, when I have trouble believing I’m a real writer, I take out that piece of paper and then quietly get back to work. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
1. It is an innocent train ride, full of the banal chatter we save for our post-work hours, until my coworker Marthine pulls out her phone and shows me a video of her laughing son. At what she calls the “sweet spot,” those tender months between squalling and teething, Arun (whose name refers to the dawn in Sanskrit) glimpses himself in the mirror and chortles, drool pooling between his lips and chin. He is as smitten with himself as the world is with him. He observes himself; he loves what he sees. We observe him; we love what we see. There is a portion at the end of Belle Boggs’s The Art of Waiting in which, as she’s holding her infant at home, a mason says, “Imagine if there was only one baby in the whole world...Wherever that baby was, we’d put down our things and go see it.” “You’re right,” she says. “I’d go.” At 26, newly struck with baby fever, I would be there in line, craning my neck to behold. I can’t point to the moment that it started, and yet it accrues every day, the inverse of my bank account. The way I accuse men of thinking with their penises, I’ve begun thinking with my ovaries -- sidelined by tiny outfits, ogling at babies on Instagram, indulging vague daydreams about pregnancy clothes worn with wide-brimmed straw hats. I am an unfit mother: a smoker, a shopper, a too-frequent cheese eater, and bill forgetter. I inhabit (with my husband) a tiny one-bedroom in the most expensive city in the country, where we can barely afford our square footage. I’ve over-drafted my bank account buying cat food. I’ve celebrated the arrival of my period in college with cake and champagne, bought anxiety-inducing pregnancy tests at the pharmacy with nail polish and cheap beer. And yet; and yet. 2. “It’s spring when I realize I may never have children,” Boggs opens the first chapter, this forthrightness setting a precedent for the rest of the memoir. The Art of Waiting delves directly into the process of assisted reproductive technology (ART) in all its pre- and mis-conceptions, its prose like a sledgehammer cracking through drywall. She probes beyond the clinical terminology and atmosphere of the doctor’s office and takes as her subjects cicadas and gorillas, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, and Raising Arizona. She sees motherhood everywhere, like I do: it’s inescapable, especially because we do not have it. In a book that could easily become insular, instead the reader finds Boggs’s considered, holistic approach, wherein she covers families of numerous formations and facets -- different races, socioeconomic categories, and world views pepper this intelligent and insightful treatise on fertility, medicine, and motherhood, which spans years of Boggs’s life and years of research on childbearing, its successes, and its failures. Science meets narrative; the global meets the personal; the reader meets the author, or at least feels that way, a knowing closeness that builds with every revelation and dispersal of personal, painful fact. The world of reproduction is hardly beautiful, with its sanitized wands, needles, and oocytes, and yet we’re privy to it, as if standing next to the stirrups. We’re privy, too, to stories that vary dramatically from Boggs’s. There are her mentors, professors, and friends who choose to forgo children in favor of careers and lives of artistry. There is Virginia Woolf, who writes, feeling euphoric after completing The Waves, “Children are nothing to this." There are gay couples facing rampant discrimination. There are her friends who adopt from overseas, and face the harrowing knowledge that their black child will live an entirely different life in their mountain community because of the color of his skin, the story of his origins. Perhaps the most important lesson that The Art of Waiting imparted was its insistence on the long game; that the things worth wanting are worth waiting for, and that impatience is a tax we pay for arriving at our fateful conclusions. There’s a decided sense of fatedness about the entire book, a necessary corollary for a treatise on building a family. Who are we meant to be, and in relation to whom? Is a struggle with infertility a sign that we’re meant to walk a different path? Is resisting the body’s futility an act of bullheadedness, foolhardy? Boggs, who describes herself as non-religious, persists, questioning every phase of intrauterine insemination (IUI), the consideration of adoption, and eventually of in-vitro fertilization (IVF). The result is ultimately a baby -- Beatrice -- but the question lingers, essential to the book: if we’re always in the process of becoming, what are we meant to become? What if that end isn’t the one we had in mind? Boggs aptly describes the arduousness of ART without writing an arduous narrative -- she spares no detail, be it negotiating insurance coverage with a cut-rate pharmacy or injecting herself with one of many medicines each cycle. These details never become drudgery. They’re an inherent and interesting part of the narrative of modern pregnancy. It’s easy to forget, amidst the deftness of Boggs’s prose, that this book depicts a clinical process. The experience of child-rearing, of adoption, of infertility, impacts more than just the person at their center, despite the feelings of isolation they bring about. Mr. Cheek, the aforementioned mason, embodies this knowledge. “He knew something bigger, more profound,” Boggs writes. “Each baby is born not just to her parents, but to the world surrounding her. To neighbors, friends, teachers, enclosure mates. To ex-cons and allomothers and cousins and grandmothers, who will each want a peek and will each have some impact.” The same could be said of unintended childlessness; in the void created by such powerful wanting, whole communities are implicated. I pass babies in their carriages on my street and sometimes we lock eyes, as if my desire is transparent. Round-headed and wide-eyed, taking in the new world, they take me in, and I take them in right back, pining for something I’m too sacrilegious or jaded to call a miracle. Meanwhile, I care for my cats. I love my husband. I yearn, and I scheme, and I imagine what fate will deal me next year, or the year after that. In the present, I am only a collection of wants, imagining what it’s like to shape the destiny of a tiny, malleable being. “Keep trying. Be content. How do you reconcile those two messages?” Boggs writes in her epilogue. She has no exact answers; this is not a textbook. Rather, it’s a primer on waiting and wanting, something we’re arguably always doing, whether it’s for the end of the workday or whatever missing piece we feel might complete us, for whatever unknowable reasons. We’re waiting for the world to adapt, to accept all forms of family; for our bumbling bodies to perform as we wish; for fate to unfurl like a carpet, its threads and fibers as intricately, tightly woven as our own desires.
1. Couplândia “I’m not saying that the bulk of novels out there aren’t art — they are — they’re just not modern art.” Douglas Coupland, “Why Write Modern Fiction?” How ironic that Douglas Coupland, the man who popularized the term “Generation X”, turns out to be one of the least ironic novelists of his generation. His novels may, on the whole, be loaded with typographical trickery, brand names of the nanosecond, slacking youngsters, and Simpsons references, but he’s also deep into a suite of timelessly, radically un-hip novelistic themes. At the lightest readerly touch, Coupland’s smirking surfaces and visual bravado give way to a landslide of questions and concerns about, as Andrew Tate put it in his book-length study of Coupland’s writing, “conviction, community, connection, and continuity.” Take Coupland’s work as a whole and his strengths become starkly apparent. He’s especially good when writing in the voice of an actual character, not a neutral, disembodied narrator. (He’s even better when writing as several of them.) Often criticized for peppering his texts with marketing detritus forgotten or best forgotten — Tae Bo, Gap, Pets.com — he deals with the timeless human problems best when discussing them in parallel with things so disposable. His penchant for suddenly dropping protagonists into bizarre scenarios also draws reviewer heat, but when he successfully mixes the very bizarre and the very mundane, there’s nothing quite like it in literature. He’ll often steer away from the norms of plotting and typesetting tradition, and when he does, the harder he cranks the wheel, the better. The less conventionally novelly a novel Coupland writes, in short, the richer it is. He appears to understand this. “It seems the more experimental my work gets,” he writes in the blog post quoted above, “the more people respond to it.” This was borne out during my own immersion in the ink-and-paper world I’ve come to call Couplândia. The author begins his literary career at the dawn of the 1990s, a healthy yen for experimentation governing his watchful eye for the moment. This slowly weakens, bottoming out in the early 2000s. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, it returns with an new intensity, allowing him to produce novels delivering the distilled, unadulterated — and to his fans, annoyingly addictive — essence of Coupland. 2. The generational books The idea and the reality of Generation X, the novel that made Coupland’s name, are surprisingly different. While generation-flavored enough to fit under this heading, it’s only just. More apt is the oft-made comparison to Boccaccio’s Decameron, in that it’s a book of fictional characters who themselves invent fictions. Lacking prospects of a fulfilling career or even a stable identity, Andy, Claire, and Dag each independently move out to a chintzy motel-ish complex of bungalows in the (then even more geriatric-geared) desert town of Palm Springs. There, they work future-free jobs and search for conviction/community/connection/continuity — a sort of makeshift family, even — by telling each other stories. Sure, they drop references to 1960s and 1970s media culture, attempt to build identities by futilely repurposing midcentury trends, and bitterly resent the Baby Boomers, but there’s more to it than that. Take the novel’s ending, in which narrator Andy speeds toward what he thinks is the mushroom cloud civilization has spent the Cold War waiting for. He approaches and realizes that it’s just smoke from farmers burning a rice field. A pure white egret flying in front of the wall of blackness catches his eye. A bus full of developmentally disabled teens stops to watch too. When the egret swoops too low and slashes Andy’s scalp, the kids swarm, all clumsily trying to hug him at once. At first he’s frightened. Then he doesn’t want them to stop. I have come to regard this as a quintessential Coupland moment. It’s also one of the elements missing from Generation X’s 1992 follow-up, Shampoo Planet. Where Coupland’s first novel portrays an age cohort that has effectively opted out of politics and the economy, his second portrays a slightly younger one that has opted out more or less out of politics but opted way in to the economy. Its main character, named and modeled closely after Andy’s clean-living, financially grasping little brother Tyler, dreams of nothing more than heavily gelling his hair, hanging out the mall, and rising through the ranks of a large defense contractor. He’s a representative of what Coupland (and Tyler himself) terms the “Global Teens”. The book satirizes them, but — and perhaps this is evident in the phrase “Global Teens” alone — I’m unsure how well it knows them. Microserfs, however, knows its subjects, and well. Published in 1995, Coupland’s third novel is ostensibly the contents of its main character’s PowerBook. Daniel Underwood, a lowly bug-catcher employed by a Microsoft at the height of its powers, finds himself at the center of a group defection from Redmond to Silicon Valley. The move is as much mental as geographical: first they’re replaceable (but comfortable) drones in a sprawling corporate hive, then frantic (but innovative) paddlers on a leaky start-up raft. Their new company, called Interiority, produces an odd combination of programming language and 3D modeling environment called Oop! Coupland cares about the Microserfs-turned-Interiorites’ relationships with technology, with one another, and how the former and the latter interact. Some find love, some gain and lose ideologies, some get sick, some finally get in touch with their sexuality, and some get really nice shiatsu massages. Yet at the same time, the book is awash in artifacts of mid-1990s technology, geek, and popular culture: laser pointers, “Stop the insanity!”, Gak, the Virtual Boy. It’s the clearest early example of one of Coupland’s primary strengths, a Beatlesque ability to combine extreme datedness and extreme timelessness. Two more strengths are also on display. The text-as-digital-document conceit lets Coupland bust out a typographical creativity that, while glimpsable in Generation X, runs relatively wild here. Some of the pages represent “subconscious files” in Daniel’s PowerBook, which are haphazardly (or so it seems) covered by disconnected phrases like “Demonize the symbolic analysis,” “Uranium and Beethoven,” “Define random,” and “You’re smarter than TV. So what?” The novel also delivers more abrupt moments of absurdist humor than its two predecessors combined. While these have multiplied in Coupland’s more recent work, I still think none beat this passage from Microserfs: Emmett has 4,000 manga comics from Japan. They're so violent and dirty! The characters all look as if they're saying unbelievably important things — talking to God and the Wizard of the Universe — but when you translate them, all they're really doing is making belching noises. Maybe you had to be there. 3. The reverse experiments To look at Generation X, with its wonky large format and artistic-informational sidebars, or Microserfs, with its words all over the place at so many different scales, you’d assume they were the work of an avant-gardist with an unusually porous mental wall between literature and visual art. You’d be right, in a sense. Though it’s unclear how much Coupland accepts the “avant-garde” label, he’s a visual artist as well as a novelist. His two personalities aren’t usually compartmentalized, except in 1998 through 2001, when Coupland’s novelistic mind seemed to endure an uncharacteristic bout of traditionalism. Though they’re pretty much devoid of geekdom or other such subcultures, the three novels published in this period don’t suffer from particularly conventional content. They do, however, suffer from conventional form. Girlfriend in a Coma, by far the strongest of the trio, explores with startling directness a few of what have become Coupland’s signature themes. Karen, the titular girlfriend, falls into her titular coma at the end of high school in late-1970s Vancouver. Her circle of friends — and especially her boyfriend Richard, who seems to do a lot of the narration — grind through life, some aimlessly and some with blinders on, until Karen wakes up in the late 1990s. A media circus erupts around the woman, who, if you think about it, is kind of a time traveler. But in the future though she may be, Karen doesn’t like the future she sees. Through her eyes, late 20th-century society is both hardened and dissolute, filled with people drifting unmoored both from absolute values and from one another. Coupland builds toward Karen’s return to the living and confession of disappointment by riding the suspense lever with almost Stephen King-like hand. When an inexplicable, fast-spreading malady kills off everyone but Karen and those close to her, comparisons to embossed-cover types are even harder to resist. But King, Koontz, Patterson, et al. probably wouldn’t have ended a book with the ghost of a notoriously horny high school football player lecturing the characters about their failure to adequately foster the communal sphere and define nobler aims for themselves and each other. Could you call Coupland a moralist? In a sense, you could, though the moralism of a book like Girlfriend in a Coma is very much his own, and thus at least more interesting than most. Unfortunately, 2000’s Miss Wyoming picks easier targets. It tells two stories, non-chronologically and in parallel, though they eventually bend and converge. One is of Susan Colgate, a floundering television actress and former professional beauty pageant entrant. Presumed dead in an airliner crash of which she was actually the sole survivor, Susan seizes the chance to escape her life and high-gloss aspirational harridan of a mother. The other is of John Johnson, a hacky Hollywood producer, sort of a Don Simpson who bottomed out, flatlined, and went on an impoverished Kerouac-style vision quest instead of just dying. Unfulfilled to say the least by his foray into humiliating modern asceticism, he starts to suspect that Susan might be the answer to his questions about existence. Both Miss Wyoming and Coupland’s next novel, 2001’s All Families Are Psychotic, suffer from a plot problem. That is to say, they’ve got too much of it. Miss Wyoming's John and Susan, incomplete searchers both, seem always to be performing the next action in a long causal chain, which itself was a result of whatever falling dominoes happened to precede it. The same goes for the troubled, partially criminal, largely AIDS-afflicted Drummond clan at the center of All Families are Psychotic. If we aren’t watching these characters’ elaborate peregrinations and collisions, we’re on a drip feed of explanatory information about their pasts. This sounds normal, and it is; that’s the problem. It’s certainly not normal by Coupland’s standards. How I longed for the freedom from these standard novel syndromes enjoyed, for instance, by the relatively plotless Generation X. It’s a shame these novels have execution troubles, because Coupland’s interests are still there, and his interests remain, er, interesting. This is mostly true of All Families Are Psychotic, which is in parts driven by cogitation about noble lies, generational incompatibility, the disintegration of the public sphere, and crippled humanistic optimism. Janet, the enervated Drummond matriarch, laments her place as a member of “a lost generation, the last generation raised to care about appearances of doing the right thing — to care about caring.” At some hard-to-define point, she simply “stopped believing in the future,” as so many Coupland characters do, not that they always understand they’ve done so, let alone state it so baldly. Where Girlfriend in a Coma debuted Coupland’s way with multiple narrating characters, Miss Wyoming and All Families Are Psychotic are told in the third person, omnisciently. That the effect is so deadening reveals the inseparability of first-person narration (especially from several persons) from what’s great about Coupland’s fiction. 4. The calm 2003’s Hey Nostradamus!, a textbook example of that most delightful literary genre, the return to form, seems conceived down to its very structure to exploit Coupland’s skill of letting the cast write the book. Its central event is a Columbine-style school shooting. (Or, given Coupland’s Canadian-ness and his proclivity to root his books firmly in his native land from this point forward, an École Polytechnique-style shooting.) Coupland interprets this massacre and its legacy through four different consciousnesses: Cheryl, a teenage victim speaking from a life-death borderland; Jason, Cheryl’s secret husband who subsequently falls into long-term chaotic isolation; Heather, the woman with whom Jason eventually finds some degree of solace; and Reg, Jason’s dogmatically religious, monstrously domineering father. As in Coupland’s other novels, families wield less of an influence than you’d expect over their members, and when they can muster any power, it tends to be of the restrictive or damaging kind. What do the real good and ill are extrafamilial bonds and social units: young Cheryl and Jason’s marriage, made official one surreptitious afternoon in Vegas; their Christian youth group, exerting tremendous pressure and sanctimony even in adulthood; an under-the-table child-fathering arrangement between Jason and his brother’s widow; the doomed, camo-clad three-man shooting squad, their motivations refreshingly never diagrammed. It’s the same way in Eleanor Rigby, Coupland’s 2005 novel and his brief return to single-character-narrated narrative. That character is Liz Dunn, a plain, overweight, middle-aged office worker who, despite having near-unlimited spending power from well-timed Microsoft stock purchases, nonetheless remains invisible to society. Her actual family, resembling a cloud of semi-benevolent mosquitoes, does her no favors. It’s not until her long-lost, terminally ill son turns up that she experiences any real human-to-human connection. Born suddenly and almost unexpectedly twenty years earlier, when Liz was a teenager, the foster-raised Jeremy brings to this near-featureless setting an embattled but enthusiastic engagement with life and a series of apocalyptic pastoral visions about “farmers [who] had lost their belief in the possibility of changing the world.” Loneliness: it’s beyond obvious in Eleanor Rigby, but it’s evident in all of Coupland’s novels so far. Despite usually enjoying each other’s company, Andy, Claire, and Dag all live their desultory lives in response to loneliness. Despite his drive, his 100-percent modern bedroom, and his vast collection of hair care products, Tyler nonetheless finds himself trapped in moments of loneliness. Daniel and his hard-coding coterie beat down their loneliness with technology, a habit they their story overcoming. Thrust into a new and unfamiliar era by her coma, Karen can’t avoid loneliness; dragged into it by time and life itself, her friends can’t avoid theirs. Desperate to fill their own emptinesses but knowing only the frameworks others have thrust them into, Susan and John walk their lonely, (mostly) separate paths. Each of the Drummonds are embroiled in their own lonely crises, until their crises merge into one big family crisis. Lost between the living and the dead, Cheryl is doubtlessly lonely; stripped at once of both wife and belief system, Jason is lonelier still; when Jason disappears, his girlfriend becomes so lonely that she falls prey to a low-class psychic; with one son missing, one dead, and everyone else in his life driven away by control-freakishness masked as religiosity, Jason’s father is lonely indeed. But in Coupland’s oeuvre, Liz is the loneliness queen. 5. The explosions But oh, how even to sketch a context for jPod? Published in 2006, it comes a bit over a decade after Microserfs and is often discussed as an update to it. In that sense, it has a logical place in Coupland lineup of novels, but in another, more immediate sense, it seems to have sprung, spontaneously and without inhibition, straight from the man’s id. It’s 447 pages of three-letter words, classic arcade machine specifics, Chinese characters for concepts like “boredom” and “pornography,” walls of text made up of not quite non sequiturs, love letters to Ronald McDonald, and random numbers. It’s Coupland’s most divisive book, and no wonder. There’s a main narrative in there, somewhere, about a cubicle cluster of misfits at a Vancouver video game firm. (None dare mention the name Electronic Arts.) This “jPod”, so dubbed because of its J-surnamed members, is assigned a thankless task: go back and insert an edgy turtle character based on the host of Survivor into a skateboarding game already in development. Buffeted by the substantial winds blown by his marijuana-growing mom, his philandering actor dad, his nonsensical workplace, his aggressively lazy co-workers, and a threatening yet amiable Chinese people-smuggler who makes his boss disappear — not to mention a spiteful, cynical version of Douglas Coupland himself — narrating jPodder Ethan just tries to cope. Compared to jPod, any book would seem subdued, especially the epistolary novel The Gum Thief which followed the next year. But in its quiet way, it’s the stranger of the two works. Taking his multiple-voice technique to its limit, Coupland composes the book as a series of letters, journal entries, short stories, and novella excerpts passed between Roger, a fortysomething alcoholic divorcée with a dead son, and Bethany, a chunky, disaffected young goth with a dumb boyfriend. Both work at the same branch of Staples. Roger writes to Bethany, Bethany writes to Roger, Roger writes his novella, Bethany reads his novella, and Roger’s wife and Bethany’s mother are contributing their own epistles as well, each small text influencing the others. It’s a hall of mirrors, at some turns: Roger’s novella itself contains a novel whose protagonist seems a lot like Roger himself. But jeez, that novella. Glove Pond is one of the most engaging fictional bad books I’ve ever read. Though at first it simply seems inept, it develops throughout The Gum Thief into a true masterpiece of deep askewness. Something’s badly wrong with this bizarre Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? pastiche’s every sentence, but, like any art rotten at its core, it’s difficult to pin down exactly what: Within minutes, all the cheese and crackers were gone, and Gloria had eaten the two pickles. Now what would they feed their guests? Steve remembered some pancake mix at the rear of their cupboard. Was the mix beweeviled? That’s okay. Heat will kill them. Switching narrators every chapter also forms the structural foundation of Generation A, Coupland’s most recent novel. It sounds like a jPod to Generation X’s Microserfs, which isn’t far from the truth. Coupland once again brings together a group of young people to tell stories for one another, except this time it’s in a slowly emerging future setting where bees have died out as a side effect, as it were, of the production of a drug that stops its users from thinking about the future or their fellow man. The kids, loosely speaking, aren’t just North American this time; they’re from New Zealand, Canada, France, the United States, and Sri Lanka. It’s a more elaborate, international, science fiction-y version of Generation X, then? The assessment sounds dismissive, but the concept that both books share, that storytelling offers the last line of defense against a barren world of social isolation — against loneliness and disconnection — is still relevant. It’s unlikely to get less so. 6. An earnest apocalypse Are we really headed for a such a bleak future? Is it really because we’re ignoring it, because of our willful information bombardment, our mass denial of absolutes, our retreat into our individual selves, and the breakdown in our ability to hear and tell stories? It’s the scenario each and every one of Douglas Coupland’s novels warns us against. Yet somehow that never ends up being the feeling I take away from any of them. I close most Douglas Coupland novels with a mind jazzed on fresh literary possibilities, not just because he breaks so well from threadbare forms and hybridizes so well with foreign ones — especially visual “pop art,” of which his novels are an equivalent — but because he does it in a way that no small quantity of people seem to actually read. Call it a victory of slickness over substance or marketing by minutiae if you must; in experimental fiction, that’s a world-saving feat.