Edan Lepucki's Woman No. 17 is the story of Lady, a mother of two recently separated from her husband, Karl. She hires a nanny named S to watch her toddler son while she works on a memoir about raising her teenage son, Seth, who can't speak. S, who until recently went by Esther, has decided to start acting as she thinks her impulsive, hard-drinking mother would, as an act of performance art. As Lady feels the growing distance from her sons, she becomes close to S, who herself is warming to her put-on personality and finding a friend in Seth. Got that? Lepucki and I are both staff writers for The Millions. We have collaborated before on pieces about Gillian Flynn and Tana French (both of whom come up in this interview) and casting a Goldfinch movie. I was thrilled to read her insightful, funny, sometimes unsettling book, and get to ask her about it. We talked about eyebrows and makeup, performing gender and trying to control one's narrative, secret online lives, and characters with dual identities. The Millions: It seems to me like in the last few years beauty rituals have come out of the closet. Rather than just taking orders from women’s magazines, we’re all talking about what we do to ourselves to look the way we do. I know you and I are both big fans of the “Beauty Uniform” column on Cup of Jo, and I noticed in the book a lot of the characters describing their beauty rituals, or noticing other people’s. Why do you think we’ve become so upfront about it, and why did you want that in the book? Edan Lepucki: I like that this is the first question. Well I’ll say first I’ve always been really open about that kind of stuff in my life. It’s easy for me to be naked with people and talk about my body. I think the human body’s really funny. I’ve always gravitated to the other girls and women who are also like that. I’ve always been kind of shocked when someone doesn’t want to communicate about that kind of stuff. I personally find it really fun to share -- I color my hair, get my eyebrows down -- I think it’s fun to talk about that. In my book, it’s not like I set out to do that, but I also really wanted to write a book that felt exceptionally contemporary. There’s one point when Lady on Twitter talks about getting a Brazilian. When I thought of it I was so pleased by it but also really embarrassed. It’s so private and ridiculous, but if I put it in the book it feels courageous in this absurd way. One way to make the book feel contemporary was to talk about those things that are super private that are becoming more and more public. The whole book, too, is about representation and the masks we wear and the performance of our identity in all these ways, and obviously that includes gender and the ways that we put on ourselves and put on our femininity, and I wanted to show that. TM: I sort of think women got to the point where they thought, if I’m gonna go through all this and spend 20 minutes on makeup every morning and have all these expensive appointments, I want you to know why I’m doing it, or that I’m making intelligent decisions about it. People love explaining to you why their products work for them, and by talking about it we’re refusing to let it be trivialized. There’s a line in the book where you say being a woman is a lifelong education, and it’s like it takes so long to get good at this stuff, that once you have a handle on what your beauty identity is going to be, you’re so proud of it. EL: I think it is a badge of honor. I also think that when I document any beauty rituals I’m saying I’m aware that I’m spending three hours to work on my hair, and the awareness of that oppression sort of liberates me. I’m comfortable with the burdens of my gender. TM: Lady is also frequently giving spontaneous advice to S about grooming, and thinking about the advice her mom gave her. Like talking about beauty rituals is an intimate form of female communication. EL: I think one of the main qualities of Lady is that she is carrying a lot of resentment towards her mother. She believes her mother damaged her, and she’s carrying that damage into all her other relationships. She’s sort of playing out the same relationship with S that she had with her mother, so I was really interested in how she’s repeating those cycles. It’s sort of the only way she knows how to be. She’s totally barred, she won’t really let anyone in, and at the same time she’s critical of everyone else. It’s especially heightened with other women, because she lived with a mother who criticized. TM: The main reason I’m obsessed with the performative femininity in the book is that Lady and S and Kit (Lady's sister-in-law) all ostensibly have artistic projects that they’re focused on, and this is what they would tell you is their work, but in Lady and S’s cases it’s faltering. Meanwhile how they’re performing their womanhood is speaking so much more loudly. They’re trying to express themselves through these specific projects, but they’re really expressing themselves so much more clearly through the roles they play. EL: I think you’re right. Lady in particular -- her artistic project is a story of her motherhood, and it’s a story of connection and triumph, and it’s not the narrative that is true. It makes sense that the way that she’s actually coming through is not through that story, but through every day you see in the novel. Her story is really everything she’s trying to avoid. S is interesting because the question for me while I was writing was "who is S?" She’s so young and it allows her to be really reckless in what she does and she’s not fully formed, she’s like a ball of clay. At the beginning of the book she talks about how she’s a girly girl, but you never see that in the novel. She’s very ordered in her life, and then she tries to enact her mother’s version of motherhood, which, besides being drunk all the time, means that she doesn’t wear make up and doesn’t care what people think. As I was writing I realized that there were a lot of ways in which S wanted to be like her mother -- these qualities that she did not have herself -- and by becoming her mother she was able to become this different kind of woman, one who can say what she means, the first thing on her mind, and I think she gets a thrill from that. I don’t know if the disconnect between who she is and who she’s playing is causing a tension in her. TM: This is something I also ask authors who have a character who’s very secretive or is hiding something. With S, most of the time she’s a person pretending to be a different kind of person. It’s like in movies where somebody is acting like they’re a bad actor. As the author, how well do you have to know Esther, S’s “natural self,” before you can layer S on top of her? EL: It’s a similar question to how do you write a repressed character -- how do you write a character who is unable to think certain things when you as the author know what’s motivating them. Esther to me was really slippery, as she is in the book. I have a real sort of love for her. Her core for me is a real longing -- firstly, for her to have something with her mother that she doesn’t have. Immediately I could feel that from her. And secondly her heartbreak -- what really sets her off on this whole thing is that she’s getting over her dumb boyfriend. Describing her boyfriend Everett’s art projects, I could feel S -- even if she was writing them off -- I could tell that she really admired Everett. That also felt very true to her. And her relationship to her father -- every time she was talking to her dad, immediately I could lock in to S. But at other moments I was like, there isn’t a real S. I did reread The Talented Mr. Ripley, which is a book I love, because I wanted to read those moments when Tom Ripley becomes Dickie Greenleaf, and those moments when he locks into the next persona. I love those descriptions and I used them as a model. There is a blankness to S, but part of me thinks that’s just because she’s so young. Is part of that because her parents are divorced and don’t communicate and are so different that she’s had to be two different people already? That’s something that I identify with personally. My parents divorced before I was 5 and I went from one house to the next and they never spoke to each other, and I really did have two different lives with them, so I wonder what part of that slipperiness or blankness of her will always be there. I do think there’s a vulnerability to her that I sort of get, and maybe that makes me more compassionate to her than other people. TM: The characters in the book are frequently expressing themselves in different modes. With Seth it’s so literal because speech is a form of expression that’s cut off from him, and so he gets so good at communicating with facial expressions or condensing a conversation into three sentences. Do you feel like everybody in the book is doing that in their own way? Nobody else has an avenue cut off from them in such a literal way, but they’re finding ways around what they’re unable to communicate. EL: When you’re writing a book, you don’t know what you’re doing. I personally try to avoid any understanding of the themes of the book until I’m done, but then you stop and go, oh I see, the whole book is about communication and representation, feinting and dodging. Seth is such a literal version of that, he cannot speak so he has to express himself in these very specific ways. He can’t communicate and yet he’s so adept at communicating, whereas other people can talk and talk and not say anything that’s really true. Somebody who read the book pointed out that everybody is using either art of the Internet to either hide or emerge. Lady is definitely hiding in her memoir, yet weirdly with @muffinbuffin41 (her Twitter handle) she’s kind of emerging. There’s this sneaky self of hers that’s true that’s online. Esther is literally hiding behind S, but there are moments when she doesn’t know if it’s S or Esther who’s feeling something, so the attraction to Seth is really fraught because she knows she’s crossing a boundary, but she knows her mother would be really into it. Everyone is either jumping right into something -- whether a photograph or the Internet -- or they’re completely using that to shield themselves. The trick is to figure out when they’re being real and when they aren’t. TM: As soon as she decided to have a secret Twitter account, I was like, oh no that never works. EL: [Laughs.] Do you speak from experience, Janet? TM: Not personally, but in college we found a teammate’s secret LiveJournal, which she used to talk about all of us. A secret Twitter account is like a gun in the first act, somebody’s reading it by the end of the book. But what was Lady’s motivation to start a secret Twitter -- is it as simple as being lonely? EL: When I was done writing California, I was like, the next book I write is going to have technology. I want to have technology be a part of not only the everyday life of the characters, but be thematically important. My goal was to have it be part of the plot. If I was going to have Twitter in the novel, things had to be revealed in Twitter. There’s so many novels that take place in the '90s because nobody wants to deal with the Internet issue. It’s hard to write anticipation and romance and spontaneity with the Internet. I thought, I need to put this into my novel and use it to the benefit, like how does the Internet amplify all our issues, and make things more suspenseful? And one of those ways is making your Internet presence a secret. TM: Seth is diagnosed with selective mutism. Is that a common condition? EL: It’s not a perfect diagnosis. I once read Gillian Flynn or Tana French talking about doing research with homicide detectives, and she said, I don’t need this to be common, it just has to be plausible. That’s sort of how I thought about Seth’s disability. In my story he just doesn’t speak, that’s the end of it. The way he has it, I don’t know if it’s possible. I wanted to emphasize his humanity in all ways while also emphasizing that there is something he cannot do and that affects his life. I didn’t want to be like it’s not a big deal, and I also didn’t want to make him only his disability. As he tells S, he’s not a metaphor. I wanted to make him a full human character. That was one of the biggest struggles of the book: how do you write Seth? How do you write a scene with someone who doesn’t speak, how do you write dialogue with someone who doesn’t speak? How do you look head on at disability and also recognize that its not his story, it’s two people who don’t have his disability talking about his disability? So they’re going to get things wrong, they’re not going to represent him properly, they’re not going to see him full at all points. The failures of that was what I was interested in. TM: Your first book was titled California, but this book is also definitely a California novel. EL: It was such a relief to be able to describe the world as it is now. I had not been able to do that for years when I was working on California (a post-apocalyptic novel). It was almost as if I had been writing a sestina for a long time and then suddenly I got to write free verse again. I didn’t feel constrained, there was no speculation going on. I just got to look outside and describe what I see.
My Dream Book: I feel the only proper way to start this Year in Reading is by telling you that last night I dreamt about meeting Curtis Sittenfeld. As I recall, we were both in a small group conversing politely, but not directly to one another, and at one point I threw caution to the wind, grabbed her by the elbow, and said, “I just have to tell you that I loooooved Eligible,” and then enumerated the reasons for a few minutes. I did meet Curtis Sittenfeld about 10 years ago, and told her one of my top tier anecdotes, which she seemed to enjoy. I also professed my love of Eligible on Twitter earlier this year, which she acknowledged, so perhaps I feel we have a certain connection -- a connection my subconscious spun into a dream. Even so, I read Eligible in February, so why I was dreaming about it and its author nine months later is a mystery. Allow me to reiterate, however, in the cold light of day, that I did love Eligible, Sittenfeld’s modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice. My favorite thing about it is how she modernized the stakes. It’s easy to read the original, or watch the BBC version, and find it all quite charming. Your sister danced too flirtatiously at a local dance? How terribly cute. Your estate might be entailed away? How quaintly sad. You’re not married at 20? Quelle horreur. Sittenfeld translates these conflicts into a modern-day setting so that the Bennetts’ trials, embarrassments, and love lives are legitimately worrisome (until everything works out). See you in my dreams, Curtis! Best One-Day Reading Experience: I put off watching the least season of Justified for over a year, because I knew how despondent I’d be once it was over, which was exactly what happened. To ease the blow, I bought a copy of Fire in the Hole, a book of short stories by Elmore Leonard, the titular story of which is the basis for the series. On a Sunday afternoon I poured myself a glass of whisky, sat down, and read the book cover to cover. It was perfect. See you in my dreams, Boyd Crowder! Favorite Sentence of the Year: Bilgewater by Jane Gardam is a coming-of-age story about a smart, awkward teenage girl in 1970s England, although in the way of most awkward girl novels, it turns out plenty of people are in love with her. She finds herself in an amorous situation with one of them, and notes: “I was quite enchanted with myself. I had always thought I had very strong views on sexual morality. I found I had nothing of the kind.” Book I Loved Despite Not Being Able to Tell You What Happened: Long Division by Kiese Laymon happened to me. It’s very funny, there’s time travel, a book-within-a-book, young love, and an excellent young protagonist/narrator with an excellent grandmother. I was glued to every page, and am not confident I know how it ended. Please read it and contact me. While you’re at it, read Kiese Laymon’s essay about Outkast. It was in the 2015 music issue of the Oxford American. It was also anthologized in The Fire This Time. It's ostensibly about music, but it's about -- wait for it -- so much else. You’ll recognize the grandmother. More from A Year in Reading 2016 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
The Trespasser is the sixth book in Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, each of which focuses on a different detective. The Trespasser brings back detectives Stephen Moran and Antoinette Conway from The Secret Place to investigate the murder of a young woman who appears to have been killed while preparing for a date. I’ve read all of French’s books, and long after I’ve forgotten the guilty party (and sometimes the crime) in each, I remember the detectives. French writes intricate portraits of differently broken people who see the role of murder detective as less of a job than a calling. I wanted to talk to French about what she, and her characters, find so enthralling about the job. I was also dying to ask her about her interrogations scenes. Her detectives are cerebral, and as such her books always climax in the interrogation room The Millions: The daily lives of the detectives in that murder squad room feel so natural and lived-in. Does your portrayal of life as a detective come from experience or research? Tana French: I have a lovely friendly detective who answers all kinds of questions for me. He’s retired now but he was a detective with the Irish police. For the more forensic stuff I have books and do a lot of online research. But a lot of it is this guy. Most of the time I don’t know what questions to ask and he’ll just tell me stories and talk to me. That’s where you get things like the atmosphere of the squad room and the atmosphere of a case that’s not going well. The moment when it all breaks and it all comes together, and all of this energy that you pumped into the case suddenly rushes back at you like a flood. I wouldn’t have even known how to ask about that but he tells the stories and I pick up bits here and there. TM: Many of your lead characters are young detectives who are still enamored of the job. When you have older characters, the talk about how glamorous they found the job when they were starting out. What is it about the job of murder detective that they, or you, find so enticing? TF: They’re dealing with the highest stakes possible: life and death, truth and lies, justice. And they’re dealing with it all when what’s on the line is people’s lives, and justice for victims and for families. It doesn’t get much farther from my life. I was an actor, now I’m a writer. So much of what I deal with is imagination, empathy, it’s not concrete. It’s not solid and real and demanding of you. If a detective has a bad day, somebody could get killed. The common thread, on very different levels, is the search for truth. If you’re an actor or writer, what you’re aiming for is to tell the truth from someone else’s perspective. You’re always digging for truth to give to your audience. The detectives in a much more concrete and immediate way are searching for truth. A lot of the times the truth in a murder inquiry is very complex. The core truth may be objective -- A killed B -- but the circumstances around that are shades of gray, they’re complicated, sometimes the result you want isn’t necessarily the result you’re supposed to be chasing. What do you do when you’re in this vise grip where either you’re going to break some rules or something isn’t going to get done? They’re caught in the complications in what seems from the outside to be a very simple question; who killed this person? I find it fascinating that they’re digging for an objective truth that in the middle of all this chaos and complication they can hold up to the country at large and say, "Yes this is the truth." TM: You describe the murder squad room as an old boys’ club, populated by jaded middle-aged men. Frequently the lead character is outside of that type, finding a way to mold their own strengths to the role of detective. You might not say that Stephen or Antoinette would objectively make a great detective, but they find a way to play to their own strengths. What draws you to these anti-detective types? TF: In a kind of elite, tight knit group, the semi-outsider is always going to be the most interesting, because they’re going to have the most nuanced viewpoint on what’s actually going on in there. People who take for granted the shared culture aren’t as interesting because they don’t have any insight into it. It’s always most interesting to have a narrator whose position is halfway between that tight-knit group and the reader. The pull to belong would be very strong, but would also sharpen the sense of not belonging. It ups the stakes for the character. TM: In my opinion, one of your trademarks is when the book’s investigation culminates in one long interrogation scene. They’re 20-40 pages long and so fully realized -- every emotion, facial expression, and change of body language or tone of voice is catalogued, because they’re all tools the detectives are using, or clues they’re picking up on. I always get excited when I realize I’ve gotten to this scene in each of your books. Do you relish writing them as much as you seem to? TF: No! They’re the hardest to write by far. If you think about it, they’ve got limitations right from the outset. You can’t digress. If you’re writing an ordinary scene it can go off in different directions. In an interrogation scene there’s no leeway for that. You’re there for one purpose and one purpose only. There isn’t the give and take you’d have in a normal scene, with one or two or three characters pulling against each other. The detectives are driving this interrogation, end of story. That limits your options. The big one though is if you’re writing a non interrogation scene, the character’s objectives can be part of the mystery. In an interrogation scene the character’s objectives are obvious with the territory -- the detectives are trying to find out some information, the person being interviewed is trying to keep it away. The only interesting thing left is the actual information involved. I’m glad you said fully realized -- the big danger is that it will become purely functional. The narrator at that moment is all about getting that piece of information. You have to make sure that the emotional connection to the narrator is in place without letting it drag down the scene. SPOILER ALERT: The rest of the interview concerns the final scenes of The Trespasser. Go read it and then come back. TM: That’s what makes the scene where Stephen and Antoinette are interrogating McCann, their fellow detective, so interesting. They all know what information they have, and what information the other people have, and what’s in their best interest, and yet there’s still the possibility that someone’s going to slip up. And the only tools they have in that moment are their conversational wiles. TF: They don’t actually get him to admit the murder, mind you. That was a tough one. I was writing the interrogation scene and I suddenly realized that there was not a chance in hell he was going to confess to this murder. Because he just wouldn’t, not to them, he just would not do it. Now they’ve got their big grenade of information, the truth of Aislinn’s agenda, and it’s certainly going to shift the dynamic, but he’s still not going to come out and admit that he killed her, because he’s a detective, he knows how this works. There’s not a chance these two rookies are going to erode 20 years of experience. My husband is my first reader. I told him, “I have a major problem here, can we go out to lunch and discuss it?” I was laying out the problem for him and like a shot he said, “Oh, O’Kelly makes him confess.” It’s funny, so much of a book takes place in your subconscious. I had seeded O’Kelly throughout the book, he was there as this ambivalent figure who may or not be on Antoinette’s side. And of course it was obvious that he was the only person who could make McCann confess, and that that would be a revelation not just about McCann but about O’Kelly as well. All I knew was that this interrogation scene could not be a winner for Antoinette and Stephen. TM: And yet they do get under his skin. He agrees to let them interrogate him, and he does slip up a few times. What is it that you think makes people incriminate themselves TF: A ridiculous percentage of people talk to lawyers without a lawyer present. It’s something like 70%. They figure if I’m just helpful, they’ll realize that I’m a good guy. Of course the cops play to that. It’s very tempting to see the police being on your side. For McCann it’s the urge to make sure that he has some control over the story that’s out there. That the story he believes in his head isn’t completely suppressed in favor of the alternate narrative that’s coming out. TM: Right, and that’s how they needle him. They persist in presenting a different version of him and he can’t not refute it. TF: The interview room is a great place to set a scene. What you say in here matters, it will define your life forever. And so for McCann in particular, to him the interview room is an even more charged room, what he says and does there matters enormously. It’s not an environment in which he can just refuse to talk and let a completely false story of him and Aislinn find footing. TM: Was two detectives interrogating another detective harder or easier to write than a detective interrogating a civilian? TF: It’s like watching two top-level martial arts experts face off. Every single kick or strike that one of them tries, the other has known the block for for years. It did make it harder to move the scene forward, at the same time it was very very interesting to write. What tactics are they going to try next and how does he block it? Rather than being an interrogation scene with a civilian where the civilian is coming in naive, without any practice, and will deny everything or try to lie. Denial and lying are amateurs’ weapons. Here, both sides had professionals’ weapons, and that made it very interesting to write.
I finished The Mirror Thief by Martin Seay with as many questions as answers. The 600-page multi-storyline novel has drawn comparisons to the work of David Mitchell and Thomas Pynchon. I would compare it to watching Game of Thrones of my laptop -- there are just some scenes that are too dark for me to see, no matter how expertly I angle the screen or how hard I squint. So when I recognized Martin Seay from across the room at a party a few weeks ago, I was just tipsy enough to go over and say, "I'm Janet, did you write The Mirror Thief?" My first questions was, "When you meet people who've read your book, do they just pepper you with clarifying questions?" He conceded that yes, his book is very confusing, sometimes intentionally so, and offered to clear some things up. I emailed him the next day and he very generously responded with the authoritative guide to what the hell is going on in The Mirror Thief, which he also graciously permitted us to run on this site. It should go without saying, at this point, that the following contains massive, massive spoilers. Janet Potter: The main thing I felt I was missing was what Crivano felt so bad about on the boat. Was he to blame for his friend's death? Did they switch identities afterwards? It turns out that Crivano is the Lark, but what does that mean? Martin Seay: Probably best to begin at the beginning. Back in Cyprus we have a couple of best friends: Gabriel Glissenti, who's from a noble family, and Vettor Crivano, a citizen of the Venetian Republic and the son of one of Gabriel's dad's trusted retainers. Gabriel is quiet, depressive, and a little sneaky; Vettor is outgoing, well-liked, and has a great singing voice, which leads to him being nicknamed the Lark. The Lark, in fact, is the only thing Gabriel ever calls him. At this time it's becoming increasingly clear that the Ottomans are going to retake Cyprus from Venice, and the Glissenti family holdings are sooner or later going to be lost. Gabriel's dad decides to send him and the Lark to Padua to train as physicians in order to provide them with some kind of future. They get as far as Venice, where they pick up letters of matriculation that will allow them to travel to Padua and enroll in classes there (such letters being one of the only forms of official written identification that existed at the time). But before they can hit the road to Padua, they get the news that their hometown in Cyprus, Nicosia, has fallen to the Turks. They decide to chuck the whole going-to-Padua plan -- because teenage boys are dumb -- and find a galley that will let them sign on to go fight the Ottomans. Flash forward to the Battle of Lepanto, where the boys have the very poor fortune to find themselves aboard the only galley to be captured by the Turks in what was otherwise an overwhelming Christian victory. The Lark -- the charming young man born Vettor Crivano -- gets blown to pieces by a cannonball. The galley's captain, realizing that his ship is about to be taken, gives Gabriel a "match" (today we'd probably call this a "fuse") and tells him to light the powder magazine and blow up the ship. Gabriel -- who is a little weirdo under the best of circumstances and also in shock at the death of his friend -- can't get it together; he wanders down to his and the Lark's bunks instead as the Turks are coming aboard. There he comes partly to his senses, realizes what's about to happen, realizes that he's just screwed up, and in a moment of anguish, sorrow, and panic, has an idea: he'll take the Lark's certificate of matriculation and burn his own, thereby assuming the Lark's identity. He does this primarily because he expects all the nobles on board the galley to be ransomed, and because of his guilt and grief he doesn't WANT to be ransomed: he wants whatever's going to happen to the rest of the crew to happen to him, too. (He's also tired of the burden of being a nobleman and shouldering the family expectations that come with it, particularly now that he's almost certainly the man of the family, his father and brothers being dead or imprisoned. Plus he's always wanted to be the Lark, because the Lark was awesome.) Except -- curveball -- Gabriel has underestimated how pissed the Turks are: instead of ransoming the nobles, they kill them all...so stealing the Lark's identity has actually saved his life. Whoops! Gabriel -- who is now Crivano -- then gets enslaved by the Ottomans; since he's young and fairly well-educated, they make him a janissary instead of chaining him to the oars, and his long and bloody adventures in the East begin. For something like 15 years he has no more European identity at all; then the haseki sultan hatches her plan to send him back to Europe as a deep-cover agent and "restores" him to his "original" identity -- which of course is NOT his original identity, but by then everyone who'd know that is dead. So that's Crivano's deal in a nutshell, most of which I'm guessing you got, or got the rough outlines of, anyway. (Because the protagonist in the 1592 sections -- Vettor Crivano né Gabriel Glissenti -- never actually uses the original Crivano's given name, the switch is hidden from the reader. I have reasons for doing this that are not merely sneaky; they're analogous to the fact that the narration of Curtis's sections never explicitly describes his missing eye until it becomes an issue for him.) JP: Mike (Schaub) thinks that Welles is Satan, but I was thinking that Welles took Crivano's story and read too much into it, thinking that somehow with mirrors he could cross over into another plane, hence the weird mirror sex room. And Stanley was somehow more gifted than Welles, and did figure out how to use mirrors to travel through space/time, so he'll live in the mirrors forever? Am I close? MS: Regarding Welles and the mirrors...here we're in territory where I left a few things open, though not in an irresponsible way, I hope. Mike's not wrong: Welles could be some sort of demonic entity. Stanley is just about convinced of that -- although he later has that infected-leg hallucination where he modifies this suspicion and starts to think that there are TWO Welleses: one who's a sort of pretentious blowhard who doesn't really know anything, and another one that actually controls the dark magic that Stanley wants access to. The evidence of strange goings-on in Cynthia's room may be evidence of mirror-conjuring that Welles has extrapolated from a misreading of the Crivano material; it could also just be evidence of statutory rape being committed on a runaway by a dirty old man. Stanley believes both of these things at various times, and to my way of thinking the book is at some level ABOUT this effort to insist on magical, outlandish explanations when simple, sordid explanations are probably more plausible. It's very difficult to say that one or the other readings of Welles is the CORRECT interpretation -- both for the usual postmodern blah blah blah reasons, and for the specific reason that the whole book, including the Curtis and Crivano sections, is in the second-person POV of the dying Stanley. (All of the ostensibly close-third sections break into second person at least once, often in the imperative mood: "Picture him there...") We're never NOT in Stanley's head. At the end of the book, Stanley is pretty damn confident that he's about to escape from time and corporeal existence into a deathless mirror-world. Is he? Has he REALLY been able to show himself to Curtis and Albedo through mirrors, or is he making all this up? (Some of the last chapter switches to the future tense, describing what's ABOUT to happen; these predicted events include Stanley making calls to Curtis and Veronica, but the narration later tells us that he never actually has time to make those calls. Does anything else that it predicts also fail to happen?) Anyway, I tried to write it to support both readings, but to not be definitely decidable in favor of either. Is that obnoxious? Am I the worst?
The arrival of a new Geoff Dyer book is an occasion for which I drop everything. He’s known for the variety of his work -- he’s written about jazz, photography, World War I, an aircraft carrier, Venice, and film -- and for never really letting on when he’s taking liberties (some of his books are purely fiction and some are purely non-fiction, but many of them live somewhere in the middle.) His agility at handling diverse subject matter is masterful, and the appeal of his work -- to me -- is being in the company of Geoff Dyer. Whether he’s touring an aircraft carrier, imagining a mid-century jazz club in New York, or having a boring time in Tahiti, he’s witty, insightful, casually brilliant, and frequently profound. White Sands is a collection of travel writing, in which Dyer visits the Forbidden City in Beijing, the Lightning Field in New Mexico, the Watts Towers in Los Angeles, the northern lights in Svalbard, the Spiral Jetty in Utah, a philosopher’s house, and Tahiti. We recently spoke on the phone about the shifting meaning of a place, how expectations affect travel, and, perhaps inevitably, D.H. Lawrence. The Millions: How would you describe the common theme of the pieces in this book? Geoff Dyer: I think there are several ongoing concerns. The way that disappointment gives way to its opposite, perhaps. The way that places have some kind of almost special energy to them. And I guess the relationship between places that don’t change, that have stayed the same for a while, and the stuff that’s sort of changing in and around them -- and what that tends to be is the people, the various human dramas that are enacted within certain spaces or arenas. TM: Your earlier book, Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It, was also a travel memoir, but a self-deprecating one, in which you frequently highlight that you’re not a model tourist. In this book you seem to be more focused on the sites you’re visiting. Do you think you have loftier expectations for travel than you used to? GD: I’m glad I’m capable of disappointment because that shows I still have high hopes for the world. This book recalls a whole load of excited, optimistic feelings about going to places. I’ve always found certain aspects of traveling a bit of a bore, as everybody does. But I would hope that in both books that it’s not just me moaning and groaning and being disappointed. I would hope that in different ways nearly every pieces in this new book ends with me affirming that I’m glad I came, even if the thing that made the trip worthwhile isn’t necessarily the thing I went thinking was going to be great. That’s why the Gauguin piece goes first [“Where? What? Where?”, in which Dyer visits Tahiti, a place that inspired Gauguin, and is unimpressed]. It really was a worthwhile trip even though Gauguin-wise it really didn’t deliver at all. TM: Do you think there’s a different kind of value in visiting a place and not having the feeling you’re supposed to feel? GD: What I do feel absolutely is that you can’t fake it. You go to a place and you either have the great experience or you don’t. And I’ve been to a number of places where it just didn’t happen for me, and it’s very difficult to write convincingly about the experience of a place if you really haven’t had it. I guess the single most disappointing place was Svalbard, where we were hoping to see the Northern Lights, and that just doesn’t happen [“Northern Dark”]. That’s probably the most purely comic piece. So that would be a piece where the only redeeming quality the trip had was that it generated a piece of writing. TM: Both Yoga and White Sands explore both sides of travel -- some experiences are transcendent, others deeply unsatisfying. What do you think the tipping point is? What is it that can make or break an experience like that. Is it completely unpredictable? GD: Stonehenge is a place that seems so great, but the reality of it has been so consistently disappointing for so many people, compared with the great scenes that happen there in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, for example, or the painting by Turner. That’s partly the fault of the English tourism board, the way they’ve built a road sort of right next to it, and have done everything they can to shrink the place, dilute it of the great primal power it should have. So some places have a lengthy history of disappointment, other times it can be subjective. But I think that’s one of the interesting things about the best travel writing -- it’s that intersection of the sensibility of the person with the place. You get it over and over again in Lawrence, who’s such a big figure for me. Sometimes Lawrence is offering you an account of a place and it almost seems to have no objective value as an assessment of that place, it’s so obviously a projection of whatever Lawrence has going on in his head at the time. Other times he seems to just really intuit something that is going on there in the place, in the landscape, like the amazing essay called “A Letter from Germany” from the early 1920s. You can feel he gets this premonition, this feeling, of what would be the eventual rise of Nazism. He just feels it, not through any political observation at the time, just through something like the trembling of the leaves of the black forest. The key is the relationship between an entirely unreliable subjective response, a response which might actually be a projection, and something which is more susceptible to what the place has actually got going on -- I think that’s the fertile area, that meeting between a sensibility and a place. TM: A lot of the places you visit in this book have been built in the last 100 years. Do you think places like that are more likely to produce a spontaneous response because they don’t have as many centuries as connotation attached to them? GD: I guess the ultimate example of that would be Venice. Mary McCarthy famously said of Venice, "It's impossible to say anything about Venice that's not been said before...including this remark." Venice is so steeped in its own history. You don’t just see the place, you see it through the accretion of various layers of response to it, but then that also gives you something to write about. You can talk about how the image of Venice is mediated. I wouldn’t say that I’d come down on either the utterly familiar or utterly unfamiliar side of things, it’s just that individuals respond to certain places powerfully, others not, but I don’t feel it’s determined by how well known they are. TM: Whereas when you visited Gauguin’s Tahiti, it seems like it had lost layers, it was a less interesting and magical place than it had been for him. GD: At various stages of their development, place acquire and lose a kind of magic. Of course it would have been great to be with Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda on the French riviera back in the day, but now it’s been finished, I can’t imagine having a great experience there. Places are subject to history, they can lose their power. TM: As a writer, your life’s work has been creative, but I can’t go visit it. Do you think that’s part of what attracts you to these singular, physical works? GD: Not really. I just like the idea of site-specific art, of going to a place and having an experience that is unique to a certain place, as opposed to works of art that you can see in various museums around the world. I think it certainly interests me about places when people have these designs for it be one thing and then it becomes another, and I’m particularly interested in places that fall into ruin and how it is that they maintain or acquire a different charge than the one they originally had, the way that, for example, a Christian church when it falls into ruin seems to have its air of detachment extended in some ways. TM: That reminds me of what you wrote about the Watts Towers in “The Ballad of Jimmy Garrison,” that their “capacity to create legends about themselves was self-generating and inexhaustible.” GD: Right. I think in that particular case I was referring to [the Towers’] status as not being quite respectable art pieces, and there’s so much potentially unreliable information on them. I think it’s because they weren’t properly catalogued and studied in a way that serous art pieces were, they were so ripe for myths to grow up around them. But they certainly lend themselves very well to all sorts of large readings. I guess they’re emblematic in another way that we’re not quite sure how to read them. For me it’s always been an important that part of the fun of my books is that there’s some uncertainty as to what they are and how they are to be read, because what exactly are they? What kind of books are they?
Year in Reading reminds me of that cinematic device where the camera slowly backs away from the characters we’ve been following until it’s looking at them from outside their window, and then back farther still until you see into their neighbors’ windows as well, and farther still to show a whole building of occupied windows, and then a whole city, until you are looking at hundreds of little scenes in hundreds of little windows. And you think, if I contain multitudes, and there are multitudes of people, then there are multitudes upon multitudes, and your brain starts to spin. What I’m trying to say is that over the last few weeks, 78 writers have written about close to 500 books, and following the posts as they roll out is as intimidating and overwhelming one day as it is invigorating the next. Of those books, nearly half were fiction, the most popular genre by far, followed by biography and memoir, making up roughly 15% of the recommendations. Another 15% was taken up by traditional non-fiction — books I categorized as either “history,” “essays,” or “events.” And our contributors recommended 55 books of poetry during the series, a healthy list for anyone who is definitely, no take-backs, going to read more poetry in 2016. Surprising no one, Ta-Nehisi’s Coates’s Between the World and Me and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet were the twin titans of this year’s series, each being cited by 12 of our contributors. Close behind, A Little Life and The Argonauts were each mentioned eight times. What is surprising, and a little delightful, is that two contributors read Colette’s Claudine at School this year, and two more read Chelsea Girls by Eileen Myles. I’ve added Eileen Myles to my reading list for next year based on that, and because Chelsea Girls wasn’t even her only book to be recommended this year. I’ve also added Joy Harjo’s Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings based on Sandra Cisneros’s recommendation, and the line she quoted, and its awesome title. I also added Vivian Gornick, especially The Odd Woman and the City, because Hannah says it’s “about what it feels like to be lonely, and what it feels like to be free. It’s about what it feels like to change your mind, about the intellectual, spiritual, and emotional growth that comes after you’ve come of age, and even after you’ve ‘come into your own.’” It’s been a privilege for Lydia and I to edit the series this year. We hope you’ve found a few things you’d like to read, a few writers who share your tastes, and a few who don’t. Year in Reading is like drinking from a firehose of literary wonders. It always helps me start off my new year itching to get into the books I’ll write about at the end of it. See you then. More from A Year in Reading 2015 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Books I Read in One Day (or in One or Two Multi-Hundred Page Chunks) Silver Screen Fiend by Patton Oswalt Vivian Apple at the End of the World by Katie Coyle So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson The Martian by Andy Weir Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Best Depiction of Rural Indiana Marvel and a Wonder by Joe Meno Joe Meno’s latest novel is an incredible modern myth involving horses, a dying agrarian economy, and the idea of American masculinity, and it also happens to be the most spot-on depiction of north central Indiana in the mid-'90s I’ve ever read. See, I myself grew up in north central Indiana in the mid-'90s, and it’s not like I’ve spent the intervening years clamoring for its place in literature. “Will no one plumb the depths of Steuben County during the Clinton years?” was never the cry of my heart. But when I found it in the pages of this book, I was surprised by how deeply it affected me. Is this how New Yorkers feel every day of their lives? I met Joe Meno at a reading and we talked about Indiana, found out where the other person was from, and then said nice things to each other for five minutes because Hoosiers are raised to be pleasant. Favorite Learned Tidbit of Presidential History Woodrow Wilson had chronic digestive problems, which he referred to as “trouble in Central America.” Convincing Proof that I’m the Center of the Universe Sarah Vowell and David Mitchell are my two favorite living authors. Guns N’ Roses are my favorite band. Both Vowell and Mitchell published new books in October 2015. Both of those books mention Guns N’ Roses. Annual Reminder that Geoff Dyer Is a Genius It’s no secret around these parts that I love Geoff Dyer. Here’s a passage from But Beautiful that provided my most breathless two minutes of reading in 2015: The city quiet as a beach, the noise of traffic like a tide. Neon sleeping in puddles. Places shutting and staying open. People saying goodbye outside bars, walking home alone. Work till going on, the city repairing itself. At some time all cities have this feel: in London it’s at five or six on a winter evening. Paris has it too, late, when the cafes are closing up. In New York it can happen anytime: early in the morning as the light climbs over the canyon streets and the avenues stretch so far into the distance that it seems the whole world is city; or now, as the chimes of midnight hang in the rain and all the city’s longings acquire the clarity and certainty of sudden understanding. The day coming to an end and people unable to evade any longer the nagging sense of futility that has been growing stronger through the day, knowing that they will feel better when they wake up and it is daylight again but knowing also that each day leads to this sense of quiet isolation. More from A Year in Reading 2015 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
You’ve decided on a life of letters. You’ve got that manuscript you workshopped getting your MFA, an agent, and a publisher. Congratulations! You’re well on your way to being a critical darling. Now all you need is a catchy title. Lucky for you, this handy guide will help you title your book, and every book you write in your illustrious career. The first novel you write will be highly autobiographical and small in scope. You’ll be afraid it’s too short, but don’t worry, people will just call it “slim.” It will follow one character from precocious childhood right on to an adulthood of unrequited love, and the sibling characters will be the most fun to write. The Promising Debut Novel Title: (Scent of your deodorant or shampoo) on (street you grew up on) Example: Almonds on High Street (If neither your deodorant or shampoo have a named scent, substitute the word “Mornings.”) Now on to the second novel. Hailed as a new literary talent and tired of being asked if your first book’s main character was based on yourself, you’ll set your next book very slightly in the past (like the '80s or '90s, don’t get carried away) and it will center around a family secret. You have two title options, depending on whether your protagonist is male or female. The Disappointing Sophomore Effort Female Title: The (your father’s profession)’s Daughter Example: The Locksmith’s Daughter Male Title: Get out your favorite album. Rank the tracks in order of how much you like them. Take the fourth song. Print out the lyrics to that song and black out any that are well known. From the remaining lyrics, choose either the first or second half of a complete thought. Note: It must be meaningless and out of context. Example: Funny How It Never Felt So Good Your second novel disappointed a lot of people. You felt pressured to finish it quickly after the success of your first novel and in hindsight it wasn’t ready. Sure it was named a Book to Read this Month by a fashion magazine but that just emphasized how few high-brow publications paid attention to it. Jennifer Weiner tweeted that she read it on a plane. So next you’re going to publish a collection of short stories. The Reputation-Rescuing Collection of Stories Title: The (if you could have any animal in the world as a pet, what would it be?) (which of the following was your favorite school field trip: museum, zoo, symphony, circus, farm, cruise, senate, theater) Example: Owl Circus Well that worked nicely. Reviewers love pointing out which story in a collection is the best, because it makes them look smart, and that makes the book sound good. And it gave you time to really hone your third novel, which is about a group of adult friends. Some of them are married, there is at least one affair going on, someone else is terminally ill, and one person hasn’t lived up to their potential professionally. The Legacy-Building Important Literary Novel Title: The (your first job title)s Example: The Carhops (If your first job title isn’t that evocative, like “event planner” or “clerk,” add the county in which you live. Example: The Event Planners of Cook County.) Wow! Look at those awards roll in! That novel “established you as one of the most important writers of our age,” they all say! Have a little fun with the next one. The advance is big enough that you can hire a research assistant! Set parts of it in places you’ve never been! Give your protagonist a strange and metaphorical hobby, like falconry or watchmaking! Another Literary Novel to Prove the Last One Wasn't a Fluke Title: (your birth month)(third most populous city in the first foreign country you ever visited) Example: December in Marseille Your career is really humming along nicely now. Your book tours are only five cities long and you’re called upon to review young authors writing in the style of Almonds on High Street. Time to publish a collection of all those essays you wrote for Harpers and the Paris Review. Your Agent Pointed Out That You Could Make Some Money Without Writing Anything New Title: You’ll need a purse or briefcase or, if you don’t have either, open your messiest desk drawer. Close your eyes, reach in and grab whatever is in the very bottom or back. Add “The Wisdom of” before that item. Example: The Wisdom of Eyeglasses Time for a final bow. You don’t publish as frequently anymore what with your semesters spent as a Distinguished Writer in Residence and writing introductions to re-issued classics. But you’ve got time for one last book in which nothing happens and you can sneak in your ruminations on mortality. The plot is non-existent and the title is impossible to remember but you’re a household name now so people will just search by that. The Final, Contemplative Novel Title: (Your favorite season)(you’re told that someone left a rotten egg in your house; is your first questions who, what, why, where, or how?) Example: Autumnwhere Previously: "The ___’s Daughter" by Emily St. John Mandel and "Literary Fiction is a Genre" by Edan Lepucki. Image Credit: Flickr/Jo Naylor.
There are two tabs open in my browser at all times -- my email inbox and Go Fug Yourself. Go Fug Yourself is a celebrity fashion blog, co-written by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan since July 2004, a year before it became part of my daily life. Cocks and Morgan met when they were both writing TV recaps for Television Without Pity, and have both worked as producers for reality TV shows, but have been working on the site and related writing projects full-time since 2008. They started GFY as a hobby, a way to share all the snarky things you say to the television when you see a celebrity looking terrible, but it has evolved into a widely read, insightful running commentary on the worlds of fashion and celebrity, while still being routinely hilarious. They believe that anyone, regardless of age, size, or bone structure can look great, and they’re rooting for them to do so. They judge outfits less on whether someone looks awesome and sexy and more on whether they look comfortable, confident, and interesting. It’s a little more complicated than that, and being gorgeous certainly doesn’t hurt, but their core philosophy hasn’t changed -- given the resources and genetic blessings of most celebrities, they have no reason not to look good, and if you look crazy, have a reason. Cocks and Morgan can both critique an outfit on many different levels, and a typical day at GFY toggles between comedy and commentary. A few days ago, Cocks said of a weird dress on Hilary Swank: “I call this dress Introduction to Photoshop. Because I’m pretty sure it was designed by someone who was given twenty minutes, a mouse, and a mandate to figure out what each different tool does.” That’s a classic GFY post -- short, funny, and frightfully accurate. A day later, she was comparing Madonna on the cover of the 50th anniversary issue of Cosmopolitan to her appearance on the cover of the magazine's 25th anniversary issue, and critiquing how the two covers portrayed her differently as a woman and an icon. GFY has a cavalcade of running jokes, and while people looking crazy is their bread and butter, what I think merits sustained attention, and what has kept me reading for 10 years, is evaluating the decisions female celebrities make within and about their own fame, and how that evolves over time. When I spoke with Cocks and Morgan over Skype a few weeks ago, we talked about how female celebrities in particular use their fashion choices to shape the narrative about themselves. An example that immediately came to their minds was Abbie Cornish, who allegedly broke up Ryan Phillippe and Reese Witherspoon’s marriage. “For about a year afterwards,” Morgan said, “any time she showed up anywhere she was as covered up as humanly possible. She was obviously trying to de-feminize herself,” and distance herself from her reputation as a vixen. Contrast that with Kristen Stewart, Cocks says, after it was revealed that she’d cheated on Robert Pattinson with Rupert Sanders. Her next public appearance was the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, and she showed up in a sexy dress with a sheer skirt and open back “and was basically like, ‘Take your shots.’” But it’s not always break-ups. Cocks and Morgan are frequently annoyed with Julianne Moore’s penchant to cover her beautiful self in shapeless, drab things, but she looked banging for a few months leading up to her win at this year's Oscars. “My whole theory on this awards season was that Julianne, knowing it was one long victory lap, changed up her routine so as not to mess it up,” Cocks wrote in February. Everyone’s trying to send a message with their clothes, and Cocks and Morgan are expert decoders. I keep up with celebrities and fashion via Go Fug Yourself the way some people get their news from The Daily Show. Cocks and Morgan are wise, and unsparing, and have great taste. Mindy Kaling and Lena Dunham are both readers, which doesn’t spare either of them from getting zinged on the site. It’s the thinking woman’s fashion blog (or I like to think so, to justify refreshing the page every hour on the hour) that espouses a particular brand of celebrity feminism -- personified by GFY favorites like Emma Stone, Viola Davis, and Diane Krueger -- that balances the constant professional requirement to look beautiful with the ability to make personal choices within those requirements. In the last several years, no one has had to figure out that balance more publicly and suddenly than Kate Middleton, the inspiration for Cocks and Morgan’s new novel, The Royal We. Loosely based on the love story of Prince William and Kate, the novel tells the story of American college student Rebecca (Bex) Porter, who meets and falls in love with Nick, Prince of Wales, while an exchange student at Oxford. In details readers will find familiar, Nick has a mischievous, redheaded, ladies man of a younger brother, a distant father, the Queen of England as an exacting grandmother, and a tragic childhood, while Bex has a pretty, more outgoing sister who is less discreet with the press. Nick and Bex’s relationship follows the same basic timeline as Will and Kate’s, and it's easy to read the novel as a loose sort of fan fiction, extrapolating behind-the-scenes details from what we know about them -- maybe they did have that fight, maybe his dad doesn't like her, maybe she hates the queen. Nick and Bex's story is engaging and heartwarming and sometimes gasp-out-loud juicy, but, just like on GFY, underneath the frothy exterior is sharp look at the clash between modern women and the ways they are portrayed. Go Fug Yourself has been covering Kate since her engagement, and the idea for the book came from a conversation with their agent in 2013. “We were talking about all the ways her decision [to marry Will] changed her life, for better or worse.” Her role as his wife dictates where she lives, what she does, and even what she wears. Her relationship with her younger sister, Pippa, has noticeably cooled, at least publicly, as Pippa repeatedly made PR mistakes, and if the rumors are true, the queen dictates the hemline of her skirts. “It’s not an easy life,” Morgan said. “She was with him a very long time before they got married and she knew what she was getting into.” “She loved him enough to put up with it,” Cocks added. Cocks and Morgan’s first book was a YA novel, Spoiled, in which a 16-year-old girl, after the death of her mother, discovers that her estranged father is a movie star and goes to live with him in Los Angeles. I noted that, much like The Royal We, that book was about the pressures of sudden fame on someone who didn’t set out to be famous. “They’re fish out of water stories,” Morgan said. “As a writer, I don’t find ‘I want to be famous’ a really interesting direction to take your character,” but it is interesting to see how fame, which seems glamorous and desirable to so many, can affect those it is forced upon. “You can start to lose your identity,” Cocks said. “How do you hold on to you, the ordinary in the middle of the extraordinary? What do you give up and what do you hang on to?” Kate is a fascinating story because she seems to have succeeded on both fronts. As Morgan points out, “she doesn’t really have a choice about the person she presents to the public,” but she fits the role well while maintaining a happy private life (we think). Like the celebrities on GFY, Kate is figuring out how to be herself and how to be famous, and where one stops and the other begins. Bex is a way for Cocks and Morgan, and the reader, to speculate on that tension even more, to imagine how trying it must be at times, and how much fun at others. It’s not a fairy tale, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a great story.
I was working at Brookline Booksmith in Boston when the allegations surfaced that James Frey had fabricated large sections of A Million Little Pieces. It was a fun week. Frey had done a reading at the store a few years earlier, and any staff that were there for it remembered him as a jerk. That, combined with the general rarity of interesting literary scandals, meant that we were all enjoying ourselves. I also remember how many customers seemed to come in specifically to talk to us about it, their eyes aglitter with excitement. The impression I got was they just wanted to be involved. If someone was going down in flames, we all wanted to watch. That universal urge to take up your pitchfork and join the screaming mob is the focus of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, the latest book by Jon Ronson (The Psychopath Test). Public shaming has always been a part of the human experience, but 21st-century technology, specifically social media, has given it new life. Ronson first took notice when three academics from Warwick University created a spambot Twitter account using his name and picture, and then refused his request to delete the account, spouting some nonsense about layers of identity and how algorithms run the world. They did, however, agree to a filmed interview, in which they come across as the world’s biggest barfheads, the pretentious academic version of SNL’s “Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation with at a Party.” Ronson couldn’t convince them to delete the spambot, or even admit that he had a right to want them to, but when he posted the interview on YouTube, the Internet took up his case, posting hundreds of comments on how infuriating these guys were and how much physical punishment they deserved. Ronson felt liberated, vindicated. “Strangers all over the world had united to tell me I was right,” he writes. “It was the perfect ending.” (Three years later, the video is still being viewed and garnering comments, my favorite recent one being: “It would be great if at the end of the video the sofa just ate the three of them.” It would be great.) But the power of social media outrage went beyond Ronson’s trolls. As he says: “Something of real consequence was happening. We were at the start of a great renaissance of public shaming...Hierarchies were being leveled out. The silenced were getting a voice. It was like the democratization of justice.” And so he decided that the next time somebody big was publicly shamed, he would watch carefully, and a few months later Jonah Lehrer happened. Lehrer, the bestselling author of pop-neuroscience books and a staff writer for The New Yorker, was exposed as having fabricated quotes that he attributed to Bob Dylan in his book, Imagine. I remember this scandal as being less fun than James Frey, but only slightly, as Lehrer was annoyingly rich and successful for a 31-year-old, and once people started digging they found instances of plagiarism in more of his work. The apex of Lehrer’s shaming came when he was asked to give a speech at a conference as an opportunity to explain what happened and presumably apologize. The speech was live-streamed, and a screen erected above the stage displayed the live tweets of anyone using the conference’s hashtag. What this meant was that as his speech went on, and became less about apologizing and more about justifying, outraged tweets began scrolling behind his head. Tweets like: “Rantings of a Delusional, Unrepentant Narcissist” and “Jonah Lehrer is a friggin’ sociopath.” Not only was this shaming brutal, it was sort of cutting edge. People all over the world were watching his speech live, and their reactions were being instantly displayed both alongside him and, cruelly, in his sight line. It’s the sort of next-gen shaming Ronson was starting to notice everywhere, but it’s not used exclusively to fell the prideful. Sometimes it rains down like hellfire on people who make jokes about sensitive topics. Justine Sacco tweeted a thoughtless joke about AIDS before boarding a plane to Africa, and was the most reviled person on Twitter by the time she landed. Lindsey Stone was tagged in a Facebook photo flipping off the camera at Arlington National Cemetery, which eventually came to the attention of the online veteran community. An anonymous man, who goes by Hank in the book, made a “dongle” joke at a tech conference that offended the woman sitting in front of him, who tweeted the joke with a picture she took of him. Ronson spends time with Sacco, Stone, and Hank, all of whom were fired from their jobs after their e-floggings. Jonah Lehrer, like James Frey and Mike Daisey (who lied in a monologue about the Apple factory in China that he performed on This American Life, and who also appears in the book), broke a public trust. They asked for our time and money, and then delivered a fraudulent product. Daisey posits that “public shaming or humiliation is a conflict between the person trying to write his own narrative and society trying to write a different narrative for the person.” Sacco, Stone, and Hank weren’t public figures, weren’t consciously presenting a narrative for judgment, and never expected their mistakes to be picked up and broadcast by Gawker. They each admittedly acted carelessly, but the speed and totality of their downfall seems out of proportion. Unless we’re all public figures. If 21st-century technology has made public shaming easier, faster, and more random, it’s also made us all targets. We put an enormous amount of our lives on public view, expecting it to be ignored, but this book makes it clear than anything you say or do can be held against you in a court of opinion, by people who don’t know anything about you, in perpetuity. (Like all of Ronson’s books, this one is hard to put down, but you will absolutely do so at some point to Google yourself.) Ronson’s specialty has always been exploring hidden worlds, and in that way this book is what we in the business call “a departure.” While his previous books have let us spy on the world’s weirdos -- clucking our tongues at those taken in by a psychic or gleefully taking and failing the psychopath test -- this one is about us. He does chase his fascination with public shame down a few classic Ronson rabbit holes -- visiting the set of disgrace porn, taking a truly stupid workshop on “Radical Honesty,” and talking to the guys who run Reputation.com -- but while they provide the comedy and light voyeurism we’re accustomed to in one of Ronson’s books, they can come off as a little kooky and inconsequential next to the incisive and slightly terrifying stories of public shame finding the common man. The topic of shame is a much larger umbrella than Ronson has chosen in the past, and as a result, the book can read more like a series of loosely connected essays than a single argument. That hardly affects the enjoyment of the book, but the sections that hit home the hardest have the most staying power. Someone Ronson told about his book replied that it must be about “the terror of being found out,” how we’re all scared that our worst sins could be exposed to the world at any time. This must be part of the thrill of watching a public shaming -- beyond the gratification of seeing a just punishment, it’s seeing it happen to someone else, and being affirmed that you are in fact the decent person and they are not. Maybe we all deserve to be shamed for something, but pointing our finger at someone else keeps us on the other side of that line. Because, I have to say, even after reading the entire book, and having my basest instincts dissected for me, when I watched the video of Ronson’s spambot trolls, I had a powerful urge to leave a nasty comment about them. I barely stopped myself.
Marie Kondo has a method for cleaning and reorganizing your home that might be crazy and might be brilliant, but works either way. She’s a lifestyle celebrity in Japan, and her finely-tuned method is spelled out in her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Kondo’s philosophy is that you should only own things that you love, that everything else is just wasting both physical and emotional space. Although some of her advice can be eyebrow-raising (you’ll see), I decided to commit, following her advice to the letter one Saturday in January. You start with your clothes. Kondo has you take every piece of clothing you own out of your closet and dresser and pile them on your bed. Then you pick up each item one by one and gauge your emotional reaction to it. Only items that “spark joy” in your heart when you’re holding them in your hands get to stay. Kondo does concede that discerning the joy levels of your clothing can be hard at first, but she also says that you develop your gauge as you go, which turned out to be true. I started holding my skirts out in front of me and kind of being like, “This might be joy?” But after a few minutes I got to my navy silk dress with the little teacups printed on it, and sparks flew. After that epiphany, I essentially gauged my reaction to each item in comparison to my reaction to the dress. For instance, at one point I found myself trying to coax some joy out of a grey pencil skirt, because ladies’ media has told me I should own one in black and grey, but then I realized that said skirt had nothing on what I felt for the teacup dress, and it was out of my life. This is what sets Kondo’s method apart from your average declutter. You’re not merely rooting out the stuff you could get by without, you’re winnowing down to what you truly want to keep. Now I have a closet that basically smacks me in the face with joy every morning. Once you’ve done your clothes, you go through the rest of your possessions by category -- books, then papers, toiletries, electronics, household goods, photos, and your kitchen. The joy meter becomes less relevant to some of these -- after all, necessities like my phone charger, prescriptions, and apartment lease don’t light me on fire -- but the guiding principle remains the same. You consider everything you own item by item, and decide whether or not you have a compelling reason to keep it. In this way, the tidying process is a “dialogue with yourself,” as “the question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life.” Kondo has helpful insight into each category’s parameters: books -- “‘sometime’ means ‘never;’” papers — “discard everything;” gifts — “the person who gave it to you doesn’t want you to use it out of a sense of obligation, or to put it away without using it.” But everybody will have different hang-ups about different categories. Since I knit, sew, do pottery, and am generally crafty, I was hanging on to a lot of stuff just because I had made it. A few years ago I knit myself a sweater that turned out ugly and didn’t fit. I legit hate that sweater, but it was in my dresser for two years because the yarn was expensive and I spent months on it. With Kondo in my head, it made no sense to keep something that sparked hate and remorse rather than joy. Tossing it into a hefty bag, on the other hand, was pure joy. And let's be honest about this -- this is a joy that comes from privilege. The subtext of Kondo's advice, which is never stated, is that you have plenty and always will. I don't remember if she mentions money in the book, but if she does it would only be to say that monetary value is a bad reason to keep something. She does say that one of the reasons her book is necessary is that tidying up isn't a life skill that parents teach to their children like cooking or finances. In my case, at least, it's not that my parents didn't teach me about handling my possessions, it's just that they were teaching me opposite values. I grew up in a house, as did my parents before me, in which pennies were pinched, both out of necessity and the belief that it was morally superior behavior. The slightest hint of past, present, or future utility would be reason enough to keep something, no matter how unloved it was. As I was talking to my friends about going through Kondo's book, most of them had the same perspective. We live in different economic circumstances than our parents did -- summed up neatly by the fact that at my age my mom was married with three kids, whereas I spent a solid 40 minutes this morning researching how best to cover up a bald spot in my eyebrows -- but we still use their model of consumer behavior. I didn't want to use Kondo's book as a way to shuck everything they taught me about the value of money and things, but as a guide to applying those values to my own situation. And while she never mentions this either, Kondo's book has the potential to make you a smarter consumer. In the month since I decluttered, I've noticed that I'm less tempted to buy new things. Because my apartment is only filled with things I love, I can't imagine bringing home a new sweater because it's kind of cute. Imagine how inferior it would feel in my carefully curated closet! New things have to meet a higher standard to seem like a justifiable purchase, and in this way a massive purge can be read as thrifty behavior -- unless these are just rationalization gymnastics because I could picture the horrified look on my mom's face when I got rid of the handmade sweater. Kondo says that we keep things for one of three reasons: their functional, informational, or emotional value. But most of the time we’re lying to ourselves about that value. Any time I was hesitating over whether to keep something, I would ask myself which of those values I perceived in it, and then call my own bluff. Why do you want to keep these ugly pink and black plaid note cards? Because I might use them. Really? No. KONDO! Why do you want to keep this change purse? It was a gift and I like it. Really? No. KONDO! Why do you have this packet of reading materials from college? Because someday I might want to brush up on the history of the Russian intelligentsia. Really? No. KONDO! I did, at some point, start yelling KONDO! every time I tossed something onto the throwaway pile. It was a long day. According to the book, I was supposed to be wearing my favorite outfit and listening to soothing music. I was wearing my pajamas and listening to Guns N’ Roses, but I have to think at some level Kondo would just want me to do me. But I don’t know, Kondo’s a little hard to pin down. She’s simultaneously a hard-line pragmatist and a far-out child of the moon. For every no-nonsense truth she lays down -- “storage experts are hoarders” -- she comes out with an impassioned plea to stop balling up your socks -- “This should be a time for them to rest. Do you really think they get any rest like that?’” As she tells it, she’s been passionate about tidying since she was a child, staying in at recess to tidy the classroom instead of playing with other kids, reading lifestyle magazines, and getting in trouble for reorganizing her family’s closets. This lifelong, single-minded devotion to tidying has made her advice the best around, but also might have loosened her relationship to normalcy. I don’t follow her advice to kneel down and thank my apartment for keeping my possessions safe when I get home in the evening, for example, but I’m really glad I got rid of the table lamps I wasn’t using. The only time I truly wondered if I was taking the advice of a madwoman was when she was describing her evening routine, which starts with arriving home and kneeling, as outlined above, unpacking and putting away every item in her handbag, and then thanking and respectfully storing her clothes so their spirits can be refreshed. But then this: “If you can’t empty your bag sometimes, that’s all right...Just between you and me, while writing this book, there have been times when I came home and fell asleep on the floor without even changing my clothes.” Wait, what? But, for all that, she’s a good teacher. Her book is not meant to tell you what you should keep or throw away but to be “a guide to acquiring the right mind-set for creating order.” I got rid of seven trash bags and two boxes of stuff, and have continued to hone in on joyless possessions that I missed or let slide the first time. Kondo says that now that I’ve put my house in order I’ll probably find love and my dream job and lose 10 pounds, but while I’m waiting for that to happen my apartment looks great.