The streets of Boston call out for tales of explorers and settlers — especially the streets surrounding Harvard Square. Even though the cobblestones of the colonial era are now paved over, the promise of settlement and self-improvement is evident everywhere. The buildings set in copper-colored brick that manage to be both imposing and cozy and the pastoral setting within Harvard Yard carry with them the promise that education transforms environment. By entering the sacred ground of the university, you are entering a realm where books, information, can make the difference between a mediocre present and an extraordinary future. It’s interesting, therefore, with so much mythical promise in its most famous institution, that so few narratives about Harvard have ever been told from the non-elite, unassimilated experience. Such a void is, finally and wonderfully, filled by Andre Aciman’s brilliant new novel. Harvard Squareis a novel of education and isolation, sad and funny and sure to provoke nostalgia for anyone’s college years. Though the narrative is framed in flashback, the majority of it takes place in the late 1970s, as our unnamed narrator, a Jew from Alexandria, struggles to complete his PhD in English literature at Harvard. (Aciman shares much of his narrator’s backstory.) He has already failed his graduate exams once, and though he wishes to complete his degree and become a professor in the States, he finds himself easily distracted by the lives around him, the neighbors he meets but dares not befriend, and the many beautiful young students to whom he’d never utter a word. While poring over his books at Café Algiers (a Middle-Eastern coffeehouse in Harvard Square, a real institution to both students and locals), he meets Kalaj (short for “Kalashnikov”), a hot-tempered, passionate cab driver from Tunis with a rapid-fire wit and temper, coming out in streams of French, Arabic, and English, depending on how much coffee or wine’s he’d had. And what a figure to follow when you feel all alone: with Aciman’s florid descriptions and sharp, vivid dialogue, Kalaj quickly becomes the most compelling American cultural critic since Alex Perchov in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated. Kalaj criticizes everything about American culture, lambasting everyone for being “jumbo-ersatz,” all artificial, worthless, and consumed in bulk. And yet Kalaj is not a naysaying Bartleby, but rather possessing of a keen wit and a charisma that puts everyone around him to shame. The narrator is immediately drawn to Kalaj as his brother in unassimilated arms, except that Kalaj expresses himself in all the ways the narrator thinks he cannot. He may not have a degree, or even a full-time job, but he’s not a phony. “He was in-your-face; I waited till your back was turned. He stood for nothing, took no prisoners, lambasted everyone. I tolerated everybody without loving a single one.” In a neighborhood of overeducated elites, Kalaj is the wise fool whose skills can’t be learned by going back to Widener library. Kalaj knows how to win arguments, find cheap booze whenever necessary, make a fun afternoon on a few dollars, and most importantly, how to bait women, to pick them as if in a game of penny poker. With Kalaj, “seduction was not pushing people into things they did not wish to do. Seduction was just keeping the pennies coming. If you ran out, then, like a magician, you twirled your fingers and pulled one out from behind her left ear and, with this touch of humor, brought laughter into the mix.” Kalaj scoffs at the lauded literary history of Massachusetts, the art of leaf peeping, the isolation of Walden Pond. He finds beauty, and pleasure, in engaging with his fellow immigrants, in debating at Café Algiers with the narrator about woman, music, wine, what makes a man a man. Café Algiers becomes, in Kalaj’s words, Chez Nous, a respite from the university just a few streets away. “It was not always easy to step out of Café Algiers after such an interlude in our imaginary Mediterranean café by the beach and walk over to Harvard,” the narrator recounts. “But, on those torrid mornings with the blinding sun in our eyes, it seemed constellations and light years away.” And yet the narrator never gives back to his teacher Kalaj — for, like all students, the teacher is merely a footnote in the greater education. While Kalaj’s charisma drives the story, Aciman gives us almost no details about what Kalaj wants except to impart his own wisdom; we only know him by what he means to the narrator. Kalaj drives his cab around Boston, clearing enough money to keep the nights at Café Algiers going, yet he pursues nothing permanent — even after the narrator sets him up with an adjunct professor gig teaching French at Harvard, he eventually argues himself out of the position. All the while, the narrator fears being found out for clinging to Kalaj as a convenient friend, a fellow immigrant in a strange town, making “fallback fellowship in a fallback city filled with fallback lives.” The narrator switches codes constantly, between touting his Harvard pedigree to attract potential girlfriend, and committing Kalaj’s philosophies of seduction to memory. Kalaj’s curriculum cannot be reconciled with the narrator’s professional goals. After breaking up with a woman he’d just begun to love, the narrator wonders: Why had I even started with her? To be with someone instead of no one? To be like [Kalaj]? Or had I already always been like him, but in so different a guise that it was just as easy to think us poles apart? The Arab and the Jew, the ill-tempered and the mild-mannered, the irascible and the forbearing, the this and the that. And yet, we came from the same mold, choked in the same way, and in the same way, lashed back, then ran away. In this friendship, simpatico and yet fundamentally unequal, Aciman has built a bildungsroman on what a university education might mean: equal parts lazy-day reading on rooftops, fevered debates in crowded cafes, one-night stands and unkept promises, half-learned lessons in masculinity, both academic and anarchistic. It should be no surprise that the novel is not called “Harvard,” but instead takes its name from the slightly larger realm of the square itself, encompassing both the academy and its side alleys. And Aciman seems to understand this better than anyone: that wisdom might be sought anywhere, so long as the mind is impressionable and there are long, argumentative, passionate teachers to hold forth. I had plenty of terrific professors in college, but never one quite like Kalaj, and upon closing Harvard Square, I had to wonder if I was at fault for never seeking out the teachers whose office hours were harder to find.
Anyone picking up Fiona Maazel’s Woke Up Lonely will wonder if, among her many talents as a writer and critic, Maazel also serves as a fortune teller. What else could explain the multitudes of eerily spot-on predictions in this melancholic tale? How, in crafting a story of espionage, religious fanaticism, and long-lost love set during the Dubya presidency, did she also manage to know that we’d be reading her book next to headlines about Korean dictators, Scientology, and labiaplasty? A novel doesn’t need to be spot-on with its cultural references, especially a novel as sharply funny or mournful as this one -- but all the more credit to Maazel, then, for doing that while also delivering one of the best pieces of fiction and social satire of the year. On the surface, Woke Up Lonely reads like a spy vs. spy thriller. Thurlow Dan is the leader of the Helix, a Scientology-like religion that promises to cure loneliness. Loneliness is much more than a momentary sensation, says Thurlow, who may be one of the mildest and most romantic cult leaders imaginable. It is the product of “an age of pandemic and paradox. [We are] more interconnected than ever and yet lonely than ever...Loneliness is changing our DNA.” Thurlow knows loneliness well: his childhood love and ex-wife, Esme, left him 10 years ago, just after giving birth to their daughter, Ida. Of course, Thurlow has no idea that Esme is still tracking him as an undercover agent. This job perfectly suites Esme’s skill set: her distrust of people, her tendency to eavesdrop and undermine, and her lack of fingerprints -- and yet she longs for Thurlow, and tries to keep him safe from government inquiry. (The investigation of Thurlow stems from an ill-advised visit to North Korea, where a Helix fundraising trip looked like espionage and treason.) When Esme sends a team of bumbling government agents into Thurlow’s Cincinnati compound, she silently prays for them to botch the operation. Yet when Thurlow decides to take the agents hostage, asking to trade them for Esme and Ida, the story veers into an epic battle: not of wits, but of contradicting impulses. Who will win out -- the man who wants his family back at the expense of his organization, or the woman who will stay away just so the man she loves can be safe? As Thurlow notes, “The very thing that lets you apprehend feelings for other people also tends to keep you severed from them.” Maazel has crafted a band of super-sensitive misfits to negotiate this notion. Esme’s team of agents includes Anne-Janet (who longs for a romantic partner yet cannot escape the shame of her own body), Ned (whose recent discovery of a long-lost twin sends him reeling), Olgo (whose long-standing marriage may be challenged by his wife’s commitment to the Helix), and Bruce (an aspiring filmmaker who would rather capture other lives than his own.) Every character carries a personal burden that makes it impossible for them to do their jobs, most of all Esme. She may be cut from the same cloth as a Carrie Mathison, fiercely independent yet terrified of cutting ties completely. As she recovers from a concussion, she writes notes detailing her espionage, which Maazel lays out as though it were whispered in a confessional. Instead of seeking out Thurlow, she had “ignored the need, boxed it up, put it away, acquired new experiences to box and pile until her tower had grown nine thousand boxes high and there was no chance she could feel that first box on the bottom, right? Princess and the pea.” Of course, all this longing can get a little sappy -- and Thurlow especially can be as florid as a boy band. “I’d rather treat loneliness like the air I breathe, and breathe it with you.” But Maazel pulls away from any treacle by grounding the narrative in specific details of loss. (The framing device of the eerily prescient international threat helps as well -- reminding these characters that time is short, that “all it takes is one North Korean twink with a pompadour, and wham: the day after.”) When Thurlow kisses Esme’s knuckles in her hospital room, and when Esme peels her prosthetic disguise off with her fingernails, you see just how many layers are standing between these people and their ability to have real relationships. One of the most beautiful moments comes as Anne-Janet, held hostage in the Helix compound, removes her burlap hood and gazes at Ned in longing. She tilted her head as though they were lying next to each other and tried, just for a second, to imagine herself into the miracles she’d heard about. You wake up in the morning and someone else is there. Maybe this someone is already up and looking at you. And because you are loved, you do not have to think about the crust in your eyes...just that this person is pressing your forehead to yours and saying hello...this person who loves you has just woken you up in elegy and homage for the happiest you have ever been. A musician friend once told me that he stayed away from dating because the music didn’t come if he didn’t need it to feel better. As I lost myself in Maazel’s gorgeous, dryly comic prose, it made me wonder about all the great love songs of the past: do we not write songs about the ones that come easy? Or do we hope that in capturing loneliness, as Maazel does so very well, we can better understand it, face it, and appreciate its possibilities?
In most love stories, a man pursuing a woman is depicted as gallant, noble, and deeply romantic. When a woman pursues a man, we call her “crazy," “obsessed,” and “unstable.” Why one gender is gallant and the other nutso, I’m not sure, but one thing is clear: the female gone mad with love makes for one hell of an unconventional narrative -- or as William Congreve put it in The Mourning Bride, "Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned / Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.” And when that scorn can manifest in emails, comments, and digital subterfuge, the girlish chase becomes a sinister manhunt. In James Lasdun’s memoir, Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked, we get a story half crime procedural, half memoir of attack. Lasdun’s story focused on how his reputation was systematically destroyed by a former writing student called “Nasreen.” Lasdun sees her writing, exploring themes of Iranian and American love, as a sign of true talent, and he genuinely supports her work. Nasreen graduates, two years go by, and Lasdun receives her email asking for help in securing a literary agent -- an initial overture that soon turns more personal and romantically suggestive. When Lasdun gently declines her advances, Nasreen’s emails accuse him of student favoritism, then sexual harassment and assault, then racism, then full-blown plagiarism and criminal activity. When Lasdun declines to answer her emails, Nasreen incorporates her threats into everything from Amazon reader comments to university review boards, spreading her anti-semitic, tawdry comments to all of Lasdun’s friends and colleagues. Soon she infiltrates every part of his life, spreading lies and gossip and threatening to expose “the truth” behind his web of lies. As Lasdun noted in his recent interview with The Millions, this book was “written right from the thick of the experience,” and the immediacy of the tale’s telling imbues each detail with a palpable sense of dread. Lasdun builds plenty of suspense and momentum -- not only as each blistering attack lands, but also as Nasreen’s motivation remains indecipherable. The glimpse of their real-life interaction is extremely brief -- in person, she is demure, even appreciative of his time. It is only when the firsthand communication disappears, and they transfer their relationship to email, that lines become blurred and the power dynamic begins to shift. When Nasreen coyly insinuates that Lasdun had snapped at her in class (a lover’s quarrel, in her mind), Lasdun is equally coy in his response. “Are you sure I didn’t just push you to declare an opinion on something? (I remember you being rather reticent.)” He then adds, semi-prophetically, “As George Eliot said, the last thing we learn in life is our effect on other people.” Nasreen’s early impressions of him become Lasdun’s downfall, and he is sent reeling by how easily she insinuates herself into his life -- at work, at home, and in his online likeness (impersonating him on various websites, sending racist and sexist articles using his email address). If, as noted in his Millions interview, this is the story of “two novelists who are, in different ways, trying to create each other as characters,” Nasreen’s greatest crime is becoming too powerful an author. “One has no control over the use other people make of one’s image or the sound of one’s voice or any other outward manifestation of oneself,” Lasdun writes, as he finds himself a character rather than the captain of his own story. She has hijacked his very sense of self. “Life, death, honor, reputation. Such, at this point, are the terms and stakes of the challenge.” However, in order to paint Nasreen as a mad woman with a powerful grudge, Lasdun takes an unnecessarily dry and impersonal tone, using supplementary texts on the nature of obsession to further his case. (On his reading list: Tintin -- the books with Arab villains, natch -- Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, D.H. Lawrence’s personal biography, or Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. Perhaps we should give Lasdun credit for not citing Fatal Attraction and Sunset Boulevard.) As he goes into his analysis, painting Nasreen as a stalker and himself as a heroic naïf, the more he starts to sound like Humbert Humbert, more complicit than innocent, more culpable than defensible. There are moments where his humility cannot help but sound like a humblebrag: “I want to know what she thinks she is doing. [ . . . ] What happened—between us, or to her alone -- to make my unremarkable existence matter so much to her?” He does acknowledge that in trying to write this story, his motivation is as cloudy as Nasreen’s: I have a strong vested interest, after all, in claiming that Nasreen was fundamentally sane. I want to hold her responsible for her behavior. [ . . . ] But I also have to admit that if I didn’t, I would probably feel uncomfortable writing about her. Uncomfortable not only from a personal point of view but also from a litery one. Heaven forbid that Lasdun’s literary ethics be violated in depicting the actual truth -- perhaps this is the problem when the author is also the main character. In trying to mount a self-defense, Lasdun’s case rests on giving Nasreen full agency -- an impossibility, given that throughout her attacks, he never once confronts her directly. “I wasn’t thinking about the effect of my not answering,” Lasdun noted in his interview, “[nor] the effects of silence on someone who is obsessed with you.” Incidental or not, Lasdun’s silence allows him to be the “bigger guy” in this scenario, and so his descriptions of Nasreen are anything but empowering: he compares her to a groundhog, “defiantly present in my garden every morning.” In the final section, set during a trip to Israel, Lasdun tries to provide a global context for Nasreen’s behavior, and in doing so overly simplifies her crimes to a simple clash of cultures. (Comparing Nasreen’s missives to the Wailing Wall is even more grating.) In the very act of writing down his “side of the story,” Lasdun denies us the chance to cross-examine him. So what did really happen? Yes, Lasdun was pursued; yes, he was attacked; yes, he remains wary of Nasreen’s next move even today; and yes -- he will continue to represent himself as victim even as he promotes this book. It’s a pity that while so many stories of female victimization (sexual and otherwise) are grouped into the “women and gender studies” category, Lasdun may sit front and center on the “New in Nonfiction” table . . . a categorization that only holds up as well as you can believe that a one-sided story can be taken as irrevocable truth. Lasdun himself does express doubts at the very writing of this story: “It is a recurrent anxiety of mine, this fear of irrelevance, and I have no argument against it other than [ . . . ] that sometimes the urge to write these very private things is stronger than the doubts about whether they are worth writing.” Only Lasdun can tell us whether the story was worth it -- the bigger question, the one that snakes itself to the front of my mind at each line of flowery recrimination, is whether Lasdun should’ve taken his story public. “Was I am objective, impartial observer, a purely neutral participant in those early months of our exchange?” he asks, and then answers: “I was not. Nobody ever is.” And so I wonder, as the praise-laden reviews roll out, if a certain former student is clicking onto Amazon and Goodreads and slowly, methodically, conducting her own self-defense.
After I wept over the last page of Emma Donoghue’s extraordinary 2010 novel Room, I took a break from reading altogether. The break was more for self-preservation than anything else: Donoghue had managed, over the course of her horrific tale of a mother and child’s sadistic imprisonment and wrenching return to the world, to lock me into a tiny cell, a knot of intensely plotted turns and hypnotic language so tight that other novels could not unravel it. After living in Room, I saw all my environments differently. Locks clicked with more finality, and large spaces suddenly left me gasping for air. I put the book away, fleeing to nonfiction for several months afterwards. Fiction had taken me too deep down the rabbit hole. So it’s with some relief that I can say that Donoghue’s Astray poses no similar threat. Instead of pulling the reader close into a whispered narrative of despair as she did in Room, Donoghue now throws the windows of the world open in fourteen stories of wanderlust, exploration, and possibilities promised by new and unknown lands. The stories are split into three sections “Departures,” “In Transit,” and “Arrivals and Aftermaths,” and each stage of travel poses questions of why we travel, migrate, and drive forward into new territories, and what cost. Where once she constrained us to an eleven-by-eleven-foot cell, Donoghue’s stage is expansive and generous. She notes in her lovely afterword, that our wanderlust is really about the desire to find our fates: “Travelers know all the confusion of the human condition in concentrated form...Moving far away to some arbitrary spot simply highlights the arbitrariness of getting born into this particular body in the first place: this contingent selfhood, this sole life.” Each of Donoghue’s storytellers goes on great journeys, yet she tethers them before they — and we — ever know it. Each story, shifting in time and location across the last four centuries, concludes with a note from Donoghue, revealing the factual roots that inspired it. In “Man and Boy,” she shows us the poignant bond between the trainer Matthew Scott and his ward, the famous elephant known as “Jumbo,” just as the future circus magnate P.T. Barnum is making an offer to bring the beast into his American tour circuit in 1882. Donoghue slips, Zelig-like, into each story and embellishes the historical skeleton with perfectly attuned language: as the trainer Scott strokes Jumbo’s trunk, he murmurs, “We don’t mind the piddling tiddlers of this world, do we, boy? We just avert our gaze.” The “based upon a true story” hook makes the stories wildly informative and engaging. It’s not necessarily the case that narrative needs truth for maximum impact, but finding the kernel of reality in each tale makes the bigger tale even more resonant. In “Onward,” a young mother turns from a life of prostitution and wins her ticket to Canada by way of Charles Dickens. In “The Widow’s Cruse,” a young lawyer sees only what he wants to see in a young Jewish widow seeking his help. (Donoghue digs deep into the lawyer’s intentions, giving us the delicious description of his lechery. “The days that followed were full of pleasurable anticipations, and the nights brought scalding dreams. His sheets were dreadfully stained; he had to send them out for laundering.”) Donoghue knows how to employ the very best descriptors, all while perfectly mimicking the tone of her story’s time and place. “The Widow’s Cruse,” set in 1735 New York, sounds just as Edgar Allen Poe might lay it out, perfectly noble on the surface and subtly sinister below, just as “Snowblind” is pulled straight from the mouths of doomed prospectors as they trudge into the frozen Yukon during the 1896 Gold Rush. Jack London would be proud. Some stories are less provocative than others — the moment of a mother’s journey across the Gulf of Saint Lawrence (juxtaposed with her dying husband on shore), or the story of grave robbers going after Abraham Lincoln’s corpse, fall too much on our pre-established pathos and recognition to move the uninformed reader. But where Donoghue really gets us is in the stories that challenge their very contexts. I found unanticipated humor and intrigue in “The Long Way Home,” the story of Mollie Monroe, a cowgirl who also acts as a bounty hunter for wayward husbands in 1870s Arizona, and who agrees to an unlucky trade with one of her targets. The story’s resolution is unexpected in its modern bravado, and Donoghue’s revelation of its true-to-life source — an apocryphal story about a female bounty hunter later committed for insanity (aka cross-dressing, promiscuity, and alcoholism) only makes it more entertaining. But the most startling of these tales, and perhaps the most consequential, has to be “The Lost Seed,” the account of a settler in Cape Cod in 1639, who begins his time in the New World a good Christian, forgiving and compassionate for his neighboring colonists. “If we do not help each other, who will help us? We are all sojourners in a strange land...in this rough country we stand together or we fall.” But as time passes, “each household shuts its doors at night,” and so the man shuts his heart against his former friends. He is scorned by a girl he fancies, and later turns and accuses her and another woman of lewd behavior, of laying together with “not a hand-span between their bodies. It is time now to put our feet to the spades to dig up evil and all its roots.” It would seem that despite the initial clean slate of the new world, it would only take a single man’s wicked and petty mind to sully the entire enterprise. Once part of a community, he now wanders “across the fields for fear of meeting any human creature on the road. And it seemed to me the snow was like a face, for its crust is an image of perfection, but underneath is all darkness and slime.” Perhaps travel is what produces the desire to settle down at all, in that finding oneself without territory can be profoundly destabilizing. The same impulse that would drive us to travel, to form new communities in new lands, is the same that would have us cling to our tiny plots and ward off interlopers. Accord and antipathy may grow from the same tree, if the soil allows it to be so. A new home, a new land, promises a chance at new definition, a chance to clear old disappointments away and start again. As Donoghue notes in her Afterword, perhaps written as she tours the globe telling stories, “I don’t know where I am. I peer out the little window at the flat landscape hurtling towards me several thousand feet below, and I think, where on earth is this? . . . Emigrants, immigrants, adventurers, and runaways — they fascinate me because they loiter on the margins, stripped of the markers of family and nation; they’re out of place, out of their depth.” By giving us true stories of wanderers and vagabonds in search of broader vistas, Donoghue has given narrative weight to both the journey and the destination. And in offering up history newly made into stories, Donoghue makes the journey of literary reinvention into its own reward.
When I pick up a new piece of fiction, it’s hard to resist a story of girls gone bad. Stories of young women, brimming with newfound beauty and sexuality, and lacking means of escape, make for fascinating fiction. Just think of the desperately sad and self-destructive Lisbon sisters of The Virgin Suicides, who one by one chose to remove themselves from a world that wouldn’t let them fly free. Their allure is in their violent and completely comprehensible exit strategies: as the boys who loved them later said, “We felt the imprisonment of being a girl, the way it made your mind active and dreamy, and how you ended up knowing which colors went together... We knew, finally, that the girls were really women in disguise, that they understood love and even death, and that our job was merely to create the noise that seemed to fascinate them.” These dreamy girls hold a special place in the hearts of all female readers, right next to the girl gang of Joyce Carol Oates’s Foxfire, the scorned Abigail Williams and her band of pretenders in The Crucible, and in the residents of McLean hospital in Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted. The tendency towards violence, towards rebellion, is the same tendency as a caged animal would throw against the bars. For readers, no other circumstances are required to make the actions of these women plausible — and heartbreaking. It seemed, initially, Mary Stewart Atwell would take the same direction in her novel, Wild Girls. Focusing her narrative on the small Appalachian town of Swan River, Atwell gives us a community famous for its regular outbursts of violence, destruction, and death -- all propagated by terrifying teenage girls. Kate Riordan, our protagonist and mild-mannered resident of Swan River, is willing to concede that the history of violence is the strongest thing the town has to recommend it. "It was our thing, our trivia fact, and it occurs to me now that if the Chamber of Commerce had known what they were doing, people could have come to us the way they go to the Massachusetts town where Lizzie Borden axed her parents." The town has a significant economic and privilege divide, between the residents able to send their young daughters to the posh Swan River Academy and the residents from the wrong side of town, the part that includes the Bloodwort Commune, a small community of down-on-its-luck former hippies who dabble in illicit drugs, sex, and even the occult. Kate is a local girl attending the Academy, and so she regularly fluctuates between a resentment of the Academy's elitism (and its queen bee cliques, lead by her wealthy friend Willow) and a fear of the threats emerging from the Bloodwort compound, which suffers from its own wild-girl initiated violence at the beginning of the novel. Each girl in Swan River is a ticking bomb — with the lore of the wild girls comes the assumption that every girl is at least a little bit susceptible once she hits puberty. “When you turned sixteen everybody started to look at you as if you were the suicide bomber at the checkpoint, the enemy in disguise.” Crystal Lemons, a girl from the Bloodwort community, was always a bit of a threat; she had, Kate says, "an interesting ripeness about her, an early voluptuousness...grown up too soon." When Crystal becomes a wild girl and burns down a huge portion of the commune, it comes as no surprise. For if what makes a Swan River girl go wild is her circumstances, then it makes everyone in the town and academy an accessory to the violence. Kate's friend Willow is exceptionally pretty and popular, but her chameleon-like tendency to adapt to please others raises a red flag. Changing her eye color with contacts, talking about summer homes and dressage with the Academy's trust fund babies -- Willow is playing roles with everyone, including Kate, and the sense that all girls have to negotiate their identities carefully in this community would drive anyone to madness. The threat of going "wild," of exploding under the pressure of performance, is more powerful when Atwell treats the conditions as the cause. Gossip, prejudice, extreme poverty, and limited opportunities -- all are present in Swan River, and so there's plenty of fodder for a hotbed of violence and insurrection. In building up an Applachian crucible of backstabbing and suspicion, Atwell seems to be dabbling in the territory of Daniel Woodrell, Bonnie Jo Campbell, and Donald Ray Pollock. The Swan River setting, by turns bleakly abandoned and claustrophobically crowded, makes for a perfect prison for the girls to rail against. If Atwell had stopped right there, Wild Girls would be a treatise on female rage, a rage justified by years of subjugation and humiliation. But on top of this sociological mystery, she spreads a thick layer of supernatural schmaltz, neutering the real-life explanations for the violence and taking away the female agency in it. When Kate's older sister, Maggie, shifts from being a motivated student and driven young woman to a wild girl, it is attributed not to a condition, but to a sudden supernatural occurrence. Kate awakes one evening at the Academy to find her sister glowing, "not focused like a flashlight beam but diffused, sourceless...the room got as hot as a sauna. Maggie knocked over the bookcase, smashed the CD player, and grinned up at us from the wreckage, hands on hips." A few seconds later, she takes a leap out the window, the glass holding "the outline of Maggie's body, the lines clean as if cut by a torch." Maggie had no incentive to flee, to act out, to become a "wild girl" -- she had her whole future ahead, and yet Atwell has her saddled by a glowing light and a sudden desire to destroy property. When Atwell lays out the rest of the mystery, linking the Academy girls together in a cult-like plot to destroy the town, she gives too much credit to all the wrong forces: to a handsome and manipulative Academy teacher, a series of suspicious clues at the Bloodwort commune, and multiple acts of horrifying violence. All the circumstances about poverty, education, and female expression come to naught. It may be that true-to-life stories of teenage rage don't interest Atwell -- and it's problematic that, regardless of their execution, stories like these can quickly fall into Lifetime movie-of-the week territory. (After all, where would Drew Barrymore and Tori Spelling be without their "good-girls-gone-bad" miniseries?) But substituting supernatural forces for real circumstances removes what was initially, for me, the true delight of Wild Girls: the exploration of how small communities can become pressure cookers for young women, and how the roles we’re expected to play during the journey from little girls to teenagers could drive anybody to violence. The supernatural and mundane can live side by side; writers like Karen Russell and Shirley Jackson manage to do this in all their stories, imbuing small towns and Florida swamps with mythical, lyrical language and extraordinary possibilities. But they all begin with supernatural launching pads: we know, when we enter Karen Russell’s Swamplandia, that it’s not merely economics contributing to the Bigtree family’s woes. But I believe more in natural horror, the gut-wrenching retreat we long for at the end of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, when we discover that human failure can be just as violent, as cruel, and as devastating as anything that might emerge from a deep dark cave or a scorching wildfire. A few weeks ago, in many towns like Atwell’s Swan River, Halloween brought a special attraction to town: a fundamentalist Christian tradition known as "Hell House." This "scared straight" performance is designed to keep teenagers away from sinful behaviors by showing off their dangerous consequences. The tableaus of horror and gore require no monsters and demons -- instead, we see a girl lying in a pool of blood, the victim of a botched abortion after having premarital sex. Or a girl takes drugs at a rave -- she is later raped, and then commits suicide in despair. After each of these tableaus, Satan appears and drags the victim off to hell. One in five attendees at a Hell House vocalized a renewed commitment to Jesus. If Atwell contributed a tableau to a Hell House, it might go like this: a handful of girls giggle and gather over an old spell book or Ouija board, prodding each other to up the supernatural ante. Dabble in the occult, and you'll later be served up as a human sacrifice. Granted, this tableau has a lot of flash to it, but I personally find the horrors of real life to be far less giggle-inducing. Why build a hellmouth when you already have high school?
We lost a great soul in the world of writing with the passing of David Rakoff, a writer who wrote with equal measures moody nostalgia and clear-eyed nihilism. Rakoff was no Hunter S. Thompson, or even David Sedaris -- his stories did not come from great calamities of family, or of the road, or of a hijinks-ridden life. Instead, they emerged, like slow-cooked barbecue basted in sugar and vinegar, from Rakoff’s perspective on everyday life. He was the quintessential essayist, one whose voice made any subject worth attending to, and that voice made the incidentals of any experience worthwhile. Writers that can draw inspiration from within, not from without, are rare, and we’ll be hard-pressed to find an heir to Rakoff’s legacy. Many memoirists seem to find their material through premeditated sprees of fuck-up-itude, going on the premise that “everything is copy,” and letting things fall to pieces in the hopes that it’ll eventually be memoir-worthy. Such is the case in Davy Rothbart’s My Heart is an Idiot, a collection of essays focused on chronicling relationships -- romantic and platonic -- that never settle out the way they should. There’s nothing wrong with writing about bad romances or bad sex -- after all, they don’t write songs about the loves that come easy. But the laziness with which Rothbart’s hookups and hangouts are depicted, highlighting major moments of failure without meditating on their significance, indicates a troubling trend in young memoirs. It takes more than experience to make a narrative voice, and not every failure or triumph should be destined for memoirization. The unifying theme, if there is any, of Rothbart’s collection is of the frustrated and interrupted searches for love and connection in the modern world. Some of these moments play out like great capers, as in the best essay, “Human Snowball,” in which Rothbart, a 110-year-old bus passenger, a Chinese family, and a buddy destined to end up in prison all cram into a Ford Explorer in search of a long-lost love and find a winning lottery ticket instead. Serendipity seems to guide most of Rothbart’s escapades, and when his renegade optimism is not rewarded, he goes off the rails. When Rothbart discovers that a writing contest turns out to be a scam, his form of vengeance involves, among other things, mailed bottles of Nantucket Nectars filled with his own urine. Not all the stories show Rothbart at his most infantile, and the most moving of them all, “New York, New York,” details a bus ride from Chicago to New York in the days immediately following 9/11. Rothbart’s not shy about interacting with his fellow passengers, who range from utterly shell-shocked to fully loquacious. But at the very moment he seems to be genuinely connecting with people, the narrative always withdraws, makes itself impersonal once more. As the passengers disembark at Port Authority, Rothbart says, “On a thousand-mile bus trip like that, after all those interviews and brief but intense conversations, I would’ve gathered a slew of e-mail addresses and made a dozen new Facebook friends. But that was another time, before the souls we cross paths with could be collected like passport stamps, and I never saw or heard from any of those people again.” Instead of digging deep into a moment of transitory friendship, into the dazed confusion of those early days of national uncertainty, Rothbart briefly reduces his experience to a moment of failed networking. This is not to say that Rothbart is cavalier about his relationships -- but rather, he lacks the ability to communicate his emotional investment, whether powerful or non-existent, to the reader. You especially feel this in stories about his romantic escapades, where his admiration -- of a girl’s hair, lips, swing of her hips -- gets only slightly more space than his rejection or remorse. He can fall for a girl through a series of exchanged emails (as in the essay “Shade”), only to decide upon meeting her that “our whole chemistry seemed off.” (The title comes from the movie Gas Food Lodging. A character from that film, a trailer-park teen girl named Shade, utterly bewitches the young Rothbart, a character he called “the love of my life.” The guy bought stock in the Manic Pixie Dream Girl at seventeen, and hasn’t been able to shake the obsession since.) The depictions of these kinds of women aren’t so much misogynistic or even offensive -- there’s not enough attention to them to become deeply invested in their fates or in what Rothbart thinks of them. Moreover, the moments that might prompt greater description, or greater examination on what drives love, or lust, or obsession, are almost always abbreviated, to the point where the reader is regularly prompted to ask, “Is that all there is?” Skimping on the details that would take the stories from attitudinal to authentic -- in the essay, “Tarantula,” which chronicles a drunken hook-up, a waterlogged corpse, and the title spider among other things, the best moment comes in transit. Rothbart’s girl of the night, a bartender as “skinny as a signpost” with a “sideways smile” tells him to hide under a tarp in the back of her pickup truck, so they can leave for the night without her fiancé hearing about it later. Rothbart complies, and she slips into the truck 30 minutes later and they take off. I peeled off the tarp and lay on my back looking at the dull comets of orange streetlights overhead, until we hit a dirt road and they trailed off, replaced by a few cooling stars. Thinking back, this was probably the only worthwhile, positive part of the night -- the thrumming anticipation, the cold air ripping over my face, the truck’s surefire vroom-vrooms as we tore like a shot arrow toward somewhere mysterious. This brief description, one of the few that details a landscape or perspective more than a friend’s tattoos or a girlfriend’s eyeliner, hints that Rothbart knows what parts of the story might drive anticipation. Yet his voice remains so passive, so stage direction-y, that such moments lose their power almost immediately, and are never expanded upon later. He tips his hand at the description’s intended effect before he moves us, and the foreshadowing is wasted. The impulse to memoirize isn’t a bad one, even on the part of the young and reckless -- I’ve spent hours on end devouring the first season of Girls and underlining sentence after sentence of Sheila Heti’s extraordinary How Should a Person Be? What makes stories worth telling is not what happened, but how what happened made something else happen to the teller. And the true stories that we remember -- from the Burroughs, the Karrs, the Nabokovs and Rakoffs of the world -- didn’t just serve up the events of their day planner or black book. They spun them into glittering tales of experience. “I needed a cover story,” Rothbart said in “Shade,” and you can see it in every story in this collection, each essay that yearns to be “collection-worthy.” “What I craved and had been chasing...was the exquisite misery I’d felt when I’d first seen Shade on the screen. That wrenching longing was its own perfect drug, and as long as a girl kept me at arm’s length and maintained a distance, some veil of mystery, then my excruciating and exhilarating ache could be preserved.” In the last volume published before his death, the morbidly funny collection of essays, Half Empty, Rakoff had wise words for a writer like Rothbart. “Even the most charmed life is a veritable travelogue of disappointment. There will always be an inevitable gulf between hope and reality. It is how we traverse these Deserts of Letdown that show us what we are made of (perhaps almost as much as does choosing to characterize them as Deserts of Letdown).” The thing that makes great memoir is not the road we journey down, but the details and attitude we use to chronicle the journey. I’d be curious to see if Rothbart, turning his attention to a more mundane story -- a flat tire on the side of the highway, a dead-end desk job, a delayed flight to a nondescript city -- would suddenly reveal himself to be a born storyteller, telling tales that served up more than highs and lows, but all the mysterious moments in-between.
Very few religious texts ever leave the place of worship. If you consult the Kol Nidre any night other than on Yom Kippur, it sings a little less powerfully. It seems inappropriate and off-putting to read over the Passion at any time beyond Easter. The line between holy writ and popular lit is drawn in stone, pitting our reading inclinations tablet against text, and so your choice becomes one of either total secularity or total Orthodoxy. So the stories that compel us are limited to their moment of application -- Yom Kippur transforms into a fast and break-fast, and Easter turns into a celebration of bunnies and chocolate. Only one form of religious storytelling is ever permitted to bleed into the secular space -- the Haggadah, the story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt, and the book of prayer to accompany the Passover Seder. This story gains new complexity and unanticipated fluidity in The New American Haggadah, edited by Jonathan Safran Foer and translated by Nathan Englander. Foer and Englander’s edition is less a makeover than a workout -- by opening up the Passover story, giving stiff words new flexibility, and prodding the text’s eternal questions, they have given readers, both devout and secular, a newly rich and provocative text, one that can be enjoyed long after the afikomen is found. The book is classically laid out, with Hebrew text on the right-hand page (gorgeously illustrated in texturally rich watercolor by the Israeli typographer Oded Ezer) and Englander’s translation on the left. At the top runs a timeline from Mia Sara Bruch, a scholar of Jewish history at Stanford University, charting the history of the Jews from 1200 BCE to present day, from the moment of the actual diaspora’s commencement to the reading of the Haggadah today, creating a throughline of historical relevance for the reader. Some readers may feel the text is wanting for a transliteration, but its book is an engaging read despite its absence. I found myself turning the pages in all directions, searching my years of Hebrew school for a language I’ve forgotten, and lost myself in the experience of the text. The New American Haggadah’s strengths are especially prominent in the commentary dispersed throughout the text. Each major portion of the Seder is accompanied by four perspectives -- Middle-East historian Jeffrey Goldberg (“Nation”), director of the Center of Jewish Studies, Nathaniel Deutsch (“House of Study”), novelist and scholar Rebecca Newberger Goldstein (“Library”), and novelist Lemony Snicket (“Playground”). These contrasting voices bring out the multitudes of questions and quandaries inherent in the Passover story, and by secularizing the commentary, giving it over to political, liturgical, literary, and elementary analysis, they have made this into a vitally relevant piece of philosophical inquiry. Goldberg’s “Nation” contributions are especially vital, contextualizing the Seder as a moral code that we as global citizens have tried (and failed) to uphold. (Sharp eyes will immediately scan the text for his take on the Israel-Palestine quagmire.) And Snicket’s witty asides bring the perfect amount of snark to the text -- it will keep the antsy adolescent attendee entertained throughout the Seder while keeping them engaged with the evening’s message. (Especially great is the retort to that ever-condescending narration of the Four Children -- Snicket offers, as an antidote, “The Four Parents.”) Ending the Seder with Snicket’s Seinfeldian examination of the bizarre Aramaic song, “Chad Gadya,” lets you leave the table with a belly laugh -- made even more enjoyable after the required four glasses of wine. What makes this volume such a pleasure to read, and what makes it the best book of modern religious thought in recent memory, is its demand that dialogue be a central part of worship. “Tonight is the night,” Goldstein says, “that we sanctify storytelling,” and nowhere is this more clear than in Englander’s translation, framed with the essence of narrative-in-community in mind: “Adonai” becomes “Lord God-of-us, King of the Cosmos.” The latter half is a bit grandiose, but the first part is spot-on. The voice of the storyteller-as-representative of the audience is central, and the translation of the Seder’s outline suddenly clarifies why each part is crucial -- reading each stage as one line of dictation, “Sanctify and wash; dip split and tell; be washed and bless the poor man’s bread; bitter, bundle, and set down to eat; hide it and bless; praise it; be pleased.” Prayers are translated leniently, as if preparing for the not-so-adherent Jew, i.e. if you fail to dispose of all the leavened bread in your house, it’s no big whup. And he lets the beauty of the language flow, turning prayers into poems. In a prayer for compassion, the plea is to “rescue and recover them -- delivering them from gorge to meadow, from darkness to light. Break them free of their shackles and lead them on to salvation. Do it with speed and in our days, and let us all say, Amen.” Within each newly framed line, however, is a question -- not one of the four questions, not even the major one, “Why is this night different than all other nights?” The question is the ambivalence of our worship: how, in a universe where chosen people were forgotten and made to toil under the yoke of slavery, and where their exodus came only at the price of further slaughter and plagues of suffering, do we believe and enact justice as spiritual citizens? The question of how to be good in a world that has not been good to us, colors Ezer’s powerfully violent illustrations for the 10 plagues. And yet these unanswerable questions do not defeat us as readers, but emboldens us. Ambivalence is empowering, for it demands that we debate and engage with our faith. In Englander’s translation on the Shema, the holiest of prayers; he says, “Blessed is the One that is Space and the Source of Space, the One that is the World but whom the World cannot contain…” In the complexity of our devotion are the unanswerable details of how we maintain faith. The most provocative sequence, in which a single illustrated word vibrates in pale green and which Englander translates to “With how many layers of goodness has God blessed us?,” made me run to several different books in attempting to find the exact Hebrew transliteration, all to no avail. Yet in the searching for the transliteration, I felt more connected to the Passover story than ever before. As Foer notes in his introduction, “Here we are, as night descends in succession over all of the Jews in the world, with a book in front of us.” No other holiday is so centered on storytelling, so focused on the power of narrative and the responsibility that narrative bears. And so this night becomes a living narrative, and so each time we gather around the Seder table to tell it, we imbue it with new possibility. “Here we are,” Foer says, “individuals remembering a shared past and in pursuit of a shared destiny. The Seder is a protest against despair.” Though we may wish to parcel out our moments of religious contemplation, leaving the big questions for the synagogue, The New American Haggadah makes worship a radical act of intellectual inquiry. Goldstein says, “It is the intimate spaces that the unwelcome and necessary revelations come, and we withdraw from those intimate spaces at our peril.” By bringing old stories and new questions together at the Seder table, we ask the unwelcome questions, and the revelations come in multitudes. Image Credit: Wikipedia.
What is Jewish life, if not unanswered questions and unending struggles? Please don’t take offense -- I say this as a Jew and as, more problematically, a Jew in post-Holocaust America. I do not, in general, find myself plagued by religion; I grew up fairly lapsed and secular, absorbing more in the context of Jerry Seinfeld, Woody Allen, and Barbra Streisand than of the Mishna and Gemara, Rashi or Rabbeinu Tam. But even a modern Jew lives under the cloud and the baggage of the past -- the loaded history of a people so put upon that all subsequent actions seem fraught with meaning, with responsibility, and with obligation to honor…something bigger than our daily experience. It’s a duty I feel stirring whenever I dip into the story of the Golem, interrogate one of Philip Roth’s many kvetching young men, or lose myself in the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man, a film about the futility of finding happiness in a world defined by doubt. The story of Job, the righteous yet put-upon recipient of God’s trials, remains ever-present in all these narratives, and like it or not, becomes the central problem in every piece of contemporary Jewish fiction. Why, despite our best efforts to avoid trouble, does it follow us everywhere? In Shalom Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy, the trouble that plagues us is history itself -- and history’s cue to make itself felt is our desire to run away from it. Auslander’s version of Job, the amusingly named Solomon “Solly” Kugel, moves to an old farmhouse in the town of Stockton, N.Y., with his wife and young son. This town promises a clean slate, for it is a place “famous for nothing, presumably untouched by history, entirely unburdened by the past.” Solomon does bear one burden with him to Stockton: his ailing mother, who clings to memoirs of her time in the concentration camps despite having been born after the war’s end (and in Brooklyn, no less). For her, history gives her a story to tell, a reason to live; for Solomon, it is a story to escape, and he is more obsessed with his potential last words than any words of the past. Yet when he goes up to the farmhouse attic to investigate a rotten scent, he is confronted with history made flesh, in the form of a skeletal, craven, and crabby old woman claiming to be Anne Frank. And claiming to be her is enough -- for now Solomon cannot toss her out, and she becomes his albatross, a millstone of history that he must hear, smell, and fight to forget. Shalom Auslander has always been a prime candidate for the position of the contemporary Isaac Bashevis Singer: he writes about the struggle to find something to believe in while wanting to shirk the stuff you can’t stand -- and there’s no religion like Judaism (save for maybe Roman Catholicism) that is so much about the conflict between tradition and modernity. Auslander has his finger on this very particular kind of Jewish anxiety -- the desire to start over, and to never find oneself unprepared for the world’s challenges. Solomon’s obsession with his last words is borne out of self-preservation: “He didn’t want to be caught by surprise, speechless, gasping, not knowing at the very last moment what to say...Anything but an ellipsis.” Yet how could one be anything but surprised at the appearance of dear old Anne? For Auslander’s Anne isn’t so much a character as she is a collection of reminders -- the sound of her talon-like fingernails on the keyboard, her hacking cough and noxious smell trickling through the air vents of the house. What sympathy we have from her is based on our idea of her virtuosity, both as a Holocaust martyr and a preconscious yet emotionally transparent young girl. She never fully grows up, which is why Solomon never fully throws her out. Anne snarls, “It’s a lot easier to stay alive in this world if everyone thinks you’re dead.” And for Solomon, the good Jew, to toss out one of the most famous Jewish storytellers of all time on his doorstep would be beyond sacrilege. It would be a shanda fur die goy, a scandal for the goyish as well as the Jews. And Anne knows how to capitalize on Solomon’s guilt just so -- “you feel guilty for not suffering atrocities,” she says. It stings, with the same acidity as that classic Seinfeld episode about making out while watching Schindler’s List, and with the same message: that if you’re not moved to tears by your history, you might as well be a denier. This is heavy stuff for a comic novel, which begs the question: does the joke work? If you’re willing to sacrifice history’s most sacred cows, and to let your imagination wander far enough to contemplate the Holocaust’s signature martyr as a squirrel-eating, bottle-throwing old crone, then yes, you’ll chuckle at Solomon’s dilemma. It’s a cheap trick of a comedic conceit, but Auslander builds the hilarious frustrations set upon Solomon like a well-stewed brisket. As Anne-as-attic-dweller becomes worse and worse, he becomes more and more frenzied even as his compassion grows. “If you don’t learn from the past,” Solomon thinks, “you are condemned to repeat it. But what if the only thing we learn from the past is that we are condemned to repeat it regardless? The scar, it seems, is often worse than the wound.” It is the scar of history, and the subsequent hope that we can heal, that makes tragedy out of modern life, and makes Anne an unmovable part of Solomon’s life. Early in the novel, Solomon’s friend Professor Jove argues that Hitler was history’s greatest optimist, and that only optimists change the world for the worst: “Have you ever heard of anything as outrageously hopeful as the Final Solution? Not just that there could be a solution...but a final one, no less!...I tell you this with absolute certainty: every morning, Adolf Hitler woke up, made himself a cup of coffee, and asked himself how to make the world a better place. We all know his answer, but the answer isn’t nearly as important as the question...Pessimists don’t build gas chambers.” The monsters are the ones that think you can actually revise and improve upon the past -- and so to be a virtuous person, the argument follows, you must live in the past’s shadow. Such a classically Jewish problem was never so depicted, a problem created by a sense of both despair and inevitability. And therein lies the brilliance of Auslander’s novel: Hope: A Tragedy is about the fact that you can’t escape your own legacy, no matter how great your desire for a better world. Though some might argue that any book that suggests Anne Frank survived, even satirically, should be deemed verboten, the feeling you get at the close of Auslander’s novel is one of responsibility, not horror or disdain. The most famous line from Anne’s Diary, the one affixed to her image for all eternity, has been this: “In spite of everything I still believe people are really good at heart.” That’s all very well, but there’s a second line to that quote: “I simply can’t build my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death.” Perhaps Anne wanted to leave a little bit of the past behind as well -- for denial of the past allows us to steamroll ahead into the future. Blindly, maybe, but still galvanized with optimism. It brings me back to a phrase uttered over and over by my grandparents growing up -- they were the children and grandchildren of immigrants, just barely out of the Holocaust’s grasp and still with enough proximity to feel its devastation. Over and over again, I’d hear them say, “So, nu?.” It can mean “what’s new?”, or it can mean “What can you do?” An expression to suggest change and stasis, hope and resignation, all at once.
“What do you do?” Of course, the question isn’t “What do you like to do?” It isn’t even “Who are you?” that grandest and most open-ended of personal inquiries. It’s the suggestion that we are, as productive human beings, always in a place where we should be doing something, and that what we do with our time is an essential expression of who we are and who we hope to be. Of course, anyone that’s worked a temp job, a data entry job, a telemarketing job, a retail job, a janitorial job, might not say that the way they make money is really who they are. Or they might feel a deep affinity with the clerking, the shoveling, the building, the frying, and declare themselves proudly for it. Because the answer to the doing question is almost always answered with an “I am” statement. I am working. I am busy. I am needed, somewhere. The multitudes of working life are beautifully chronicled in Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work, an anthology of short stories edited by Richard Ford. Ford, the next best thing to the late great John Updike when it comes to stories of the middle-class American wage earner, dedicates the anthology to Raymond Carver, no small irony since one of his stories, “Elephant,” was not permitted to be included in the collection, due to the Carver estate withholding permission. Nevertheless, Ford, in his blue-collar brilliance, has collected 32 stories that swirl around examining exactly what it is we do—for a living, for a life, lived long-term or day-to-day. In his introduction, Ford notes that, as he watched his father working as a traveling salesman in the 1940s and 50s, the symbolic value of work was as significant as its monetary ends. “Work—having a job, being employed, making a living—became virtually synonymous with its gifts, and as such became a virtue in itself.” If who you are is how you assert your right to participate in the world, suggests Ford, then the work and careers we pursue represent our individual quests to find purpose, to find our place. “Work is near the heart of human things,” Ford says, and in the stories included in this collection, we see work for pay and work for promise constantly confused. Certain jobs must be dispassionately communicated—Jeffrey Eugenides’s “Great Experiment” is less about the work of accounting and more about what a man does to squeeze every last (illegally) obtained drop of profit from it. Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies,” the classic story that launched her into the literary world, could make anyone with an interest in character studies run out and start a tour guide-for-hire business. And James Alan McPherson’s “A Solo Song: For Doc” delves deep into the details of waiting tables—the authority of those masters of the form, who can “take the shit without getting hot.” But then there are the jobs that make for revelations. Edward P. Jones’s inclusion, “The Store” turns a teenage boy’s first job in a grocery store into a lesson in the consequences of adulthood. Z.Z. Packer’s “Geese”, a tale of twenty-somethings in Japan, dwells so long on what food means to the near-starving that you savor each bite with them, lingering on “the warm disk of banana from side to side in his mouth until . . . it had grown so soft that he swallowed it like liquid.” Stories of employment—and unemployment—often become experiments in how long you are willing to go without doing something—without stealing, without lying, without prostituting yourself or your deepest held beliefs. Annie Proulx’s “Job History” follows a lifetime of career choices, watching a progression from scraping together funds as insurance for a good life to unavoidable, unanticipated tragedies. And no degree of care can prevent late-breaking disasters, and no career is idiot proof, despite what Lewis Robinson’s “Officer Friendly” might suggest. The best stories, and the ones that stay with you the longest, are the ones in which the details of the work drive the tiny moments of character development. Donald Barthelme’s hilarious “Me and Miss Mandible” explores the student-teacher relationship as a problem of interoffice romance (in which one can be studying fractions and functioning as a claims adjuster at the same time.) Barthelme’s hero notes, “I return again and again to the problem of my future.” The same is true for Richard Bausch’s sheriff facing accusations of sexual harassment, the professional disgrace seeping into his home life as poisonous as a nest of yellow jackets hidden in an unreachable perch. Though the melodrama that encircles the story isn’t completely earned, the festering rage of the accusations drive every other reaction towards an inevitable implosion. But a career is also character-building in an imaginative sense, letting you play at an identity before committing to it. Ann Beattie’s “The Working Girl” makes the case that the work you do is only as valuable as the impression you make. And yet Beattie teases out the possibilities within the “working girl” designation by imagining all the different narratives futures that career choice might portend. We know how this story will end. How will it end? It will end badly—which means predictably—because either the beautiful wife will triumph, and then it will be just another such story, or the wife will turn out to be not so interesting after all, and by default the working girl will win. When is the last time you heard of a working girl triumphing? The most haunting inclusion in this anthology is Elizabeth Strout’s “Pharmacy,” which chronicles the sad longing-filled friendship of a pharmacist and his young assistant. Through Henry’s eyes, we come to fall in love with the day-to-day of the workplace. “The ritual was pleasing, as though the old store—with its shelves of toothpaste, vitamins, cosmetics, hair adornments, even sewing needles and greeting cards, as well as red rubber hot water bottles, enema pumps—was a person altogether steady and steadfast.” His desire to keep the world in balance by way of running his store, and his inability to rescue his assistant Denise from her troubled life, turns his workplace into more than just a place of business—instead, “a healthy autonomic nervous system in a workable, quiet state.” The business becomes the place of redemption, and the graveyard of missed opportunities. When the job becomes important enough, it becomes its own story. And no story may be so appealing or maddening as that of the story of writing, the daily grind of creative production, as much a desk job as a vocation or a calling. John Cheever’s classic story “The World of Apples” represents the mandatory inclusion in this volume, as a poet finds it impossible to escape from his writing impulses even when in retirement and on vacation in Rome. “Two admirers—a young married couple—came at five to praise him. They had met on a train, each of them carrying a copy of his Apples. They had fallen in love along the lines of the pure and ardent love he described. Thinking of his day’s work, Bascomb hung his head.” The same story emerges at the opposite end of the spectrum, the experience of the young writer just hitting his stride, in Nicholas Delbanco’s “The Writers Trade.” This story reads like the Wall Street of foreboding tales of the creative process, as a young writer, with all the glittering arrival of a career in its nascence. “All this was bounty, a gift.” And later, the melancholy realization: “Between self-pity and aggrandizement, there is little room to maneuver.” Such is the case in any profession, and in every piece in this sparkling collection, we negotiate the hazy space between what we do and what we think we can do. As Andre Dubus’ newspaper boy makes his way down a quiet street, as Eudora Welty’s traveling salesmen panics when he has to shack up with strangers, as the editorial assistant and the line cook and the bus driver wonder what, if anything, comes next, we examine stories of work as maps, for new highways to travel on, or upcoming dead ends. And we fear asking ourselves the question of Cheever’s too-accomplished poet, “Had the world, as well as he, lost its way?”
For the last three weeks, I’ve kept my distance from Meghan O’Rourke’s The Long Goodbye , reading it in batches, then putting it out of my reach until I could bring myself to pick it up again. I ran scared from this book, not because I didn’t think it would be worth reading, but because when I read it, I unraveled. When my father died in a swimming accident during my sophomore year at college, I gave myself a solid mourning period to sit shiva, be alone in my thoughts, and compose a list of wants and needs that would clue friends into what I was going through. And then time was up: I had to go back to my regularly scheduled, pleasantly affable life. Now over seven years later, I felt sorrow freshly nipping at my ankles each time I gingerly cracked open O’Rourke’s book. But as much as I wanted to avoid it, her book haunted me, nagged at me. It was a constant reminder of what I wasn’t doing: stopping and acknowledging a sadness that has never really gone away, and is something that will never be managed or contained. O’Rourke’s book doesn’t tell me what to do with my grief, or provide overly generalized statements on what it means to mourn—and in that sense it might be one of the least judgmental memoirs I have ever read. Instead of judging, O’Rourke presents the intimate details of the loss of her mother, and by diving all the way down to the bottom of her sorrow, O’Rourke steeps the reader in her experience. Because every line she writes is so truthful, so unblinkingly direct, every sentence knocks the reader right back into her own aching memories. It was impossible to keep my own experiences on the sideline, or to annotate O’Rourke’s prose with scribblings of recognition. Every time I tried to become a detached reader, my thoughts kept coming out like the flat, well-intentioned but useless condolences that the mourner often receives. But O’Rourke isn’t out to solicit my sympathy or even praise, and she has no interest in being an authority on grief. “I know that I am one of the lucky ones. I am an adult; my mother had a good life,” she says, “Knowing I was one of the lucky ones didn’t make it much easier.” Instead of providing you with a guide to grief, O’Rourke volunteers the story of her mother’s death from colorectal cancer almost in real time. Taking in her thoughts, you get the sense that you are sitting opposite from her on a whispering bench: she quietly murmurs the most intimate thoughts to herself, and you hear them crisply at a very long distance. It is a secret meant to be shared among members of a club that no one ever wants to join. As she chronicles the three years from her mother’s diagnosis to death, and the mourning period that followed, O’Rourke alternately laces her sorrow with wit, sarcasm, and rage—and never hides it away from the reader. The narrative is almost keening with every emotion one could feel as someone they love slips away: anger, frustration, wishful thinking, deep regret, and even deeper denial. Even though her mother is sick, she throws herself into an affair with a man across the country, laying out a deliberate distance between herself and reality. As I was doing all this, the watcher in me—the part that now and then stepped back and observed my life—thought my actions betrayed how fundamentally irrational human experience is. No one I loved had ever died. Perhaps I believed that if I changed everything, the inevitable would not come, whereas staying put meant acknowledging the awful trajectory we were on. O’Rourke beautifully elaborates on the strange unreality she experienced throughout her mother’s illness, constantly wondering if everyday moments were meant to become more poignant, more dramatically evocative. A longtime critic and poet, O’Rourke has a flair for employing lyric, but she finds that imposing such beauty and emotional highs strips her experiences of their true value. She wants to leave herself open to the pain, as though the universality of death might make it less personally devastating: “I told myself that my pain was the pain of a lucky person whose life was about to be touched by the ineluctably real for the first time. I was thirty-two; I shouldn’t be so destroyed by what was happening. And yet this kind of mental calculus had no impact on my limbic system.” Knowing that the only certainty of life is death doesn’t make it any easier to her to bear the loss, and there’s no narrative structure that can contain all of O’Rourke’s thoughts. So it spins outward, becoming achronological and unruly. She can’t invent an alternative ending “as if had I pushed harder at one of these moments, had I been more aware, all would have changed…it is what I am still doing, rummaging through the bric-a-brac of my mind for possible alternatives, the family silver that was put aside in the attic but still gleams unseen in the autumn sun.” Maybe she gets led astray by her poetic impulses, but the grieving heart can’t help but become a little florid. And I get where she’s coming from: when you grieve, you’re constantly imagining ways in which you could’ve dodged the current state of things. If there was something that could’ve been said, you would’ve said it. If you could’ve known the tide was too strong, you would have stayed on shore. The magical thinking sustains us not just because it’s more pleasant, but because it’s less possible, less real than what you’re experiencing now. But even in the moments of highest fantasy and fanciest prose, the real details of who we’ve lost remain. And though the memoir of her passing gets rhapsodic from time to time, the real presence of the late Barbara O’Rourke anchors us. Rather than incorporating her mother as a ghost, Meghan O’Rourke revives her, bringing in beautifully specific qualities and memories to cherish. Her mother notices tiny details in Monet’s painting The Magpie; she pulls her young daughter out of an overly long bath with a tall tale and a fluffy towel; she guides her children with a measured pragmatism, telling them to “hasten slowly” toward their destinies; she possess a beautiful, frightening frailty as she tries on new clothes in the last months of her illness. Barbara is everywhere, but never solely for the purpose of illustrating grief: she was vibrant and funny and smart and undeniably alive, and her corporeal absence only serves to remind us that there will be no new memories created with her. But mourning her is not so circumscribed, O’Rourke realizes, and though her mother’s body may be gone, her influence is much harder to keep track of. Months after her death, as she and her siblings get ready to throw her mother’s ashes to the wind, they start to worry about the Big Lebowski effect—the ashes blowing back in their faces, getting woven into their hair and mouths, hard to brush off. But her father gets it—mourning is messy. “You do this, and it just feels real—it’s part of real life, too. There’s wind, it’s messy. And you realize you can’t avoid the Big Lebowski effect.” The grief blows back over her, gets tangled up in her daily life, becomes inseparable from her daily life. You never really get over this kind of loss, because it never really goes away. And nothing’s messier than that. But it’s her willingness to get messy—to get real, with the experience of grief—that makes O’Rourke shine. She does take time to consult other authorities on grief—C.S. Lewis, Sigmund Freud, even Emily Dickinson, “a women who knew what it meant to carry a burden”—and though their writings give her new directions for her grief to follow, they cannot carry the same immediacy or relevance when placed alongside her own. She may respect these authors, but it’s her voice I came for, because she’s speaking to me as a fellow member of the club. And as she moves out of the immediacy of her mother’s death and into the present day, the narrative structure gently crumbles about her. This seems right: show me a structure to the end of grief, and I’ll show you a road with no destination in sight. Mourning becomes part of your everyday life—wishing someone was there; someone could laugh with you, notice the things you’re noticing. Their presence becomes an aspiration, a thread of hope and desire and longing that makes it impossible to move forward at the same speed. A few weeks after my father died, my mother started finding the pennies. She found them in odd places—in shoes in her closet, on the sidewalk by her car, in pockets of pants that hadn’t been worn in a very long time. She said they always appeared when she was thinking about my dad, especially in moments of real doubt and anxiety. “I would wish he was there,” she’d say, “and then there were pennies everywhere.” It took a long time for me to see a stray penny without thinking “Oh, there he is.” Maybe I’m meant to keep seeing it this way, to stop and notice the pennies, and to let his absence stick around. But there's no possible way to sum up his death, his loss, his memory and my still being here to feel it. These things are just too messy to fit into a tidy synopsis.
It is easy to write about the arrival of desire. You can spot its presence right away: it reddens cheeks, quickens pulses, and makes a cold room hot. Discovering lust is naturally dramatic in any story, and writers from D.H. Lawrence to Danielle Steele have discovered all the tricks to make our hearts race and palms sweat. But how do you write about desire’s disappearance? When the central characters of your love story left their virginity behind long ago, what is left to discover? And when the sheets go cold, what generates emotional highs? The tension comes from what is absent, and so the story without sex is populated by apparitions, suggestions and possibilities of satisfaction whispering in the wings. Desire haunts former lovers, and becomes an embrace from which they cannot escape. This kind of desire-in-absentia serves as the engine of Meg Wolitzer’s extraordinary new novel The Uncoupling, which may prove a new classic for our oddly old-fashioned modern times. At the novel’s outset, Robby and Dory Lang are the model of a modern marriage, one traditionally structured yet propelled by a steady passion. Contented in each other’s company, they assumed that desire would always be there, that “they would sleep together frequently, happily, and not just gently, but with the same gruff, fierce purpose as always.” They teach in the English department at Eleanor Roosevelt (“Elro”) High School in Stellar Plains, New Jersey, and hardly register the arrival of a new drama teacher with plans for a production of Lysistrata, the Aristophanes comedy about the women of Greece going on a sex strike to end the Peloponnesian War. Though the themes of the play contribute a great deal, Wolitzer spends more time playing with the broader exploration of desire, and when a cold wind sweeps into the town and steals away the women’s lust, what ensues is a supernatural happening with devastating consequences. Wolitzer’s principal assumption, even in the happy beginnings of the novel, is that desire fades as love marches forward into middle age, that even the most content of couples will find themselves wanting less of each other. “People like to warn you that by the time you reach the middle of your life, passion will begin to feel like a meal eaten long ago, which you remember with great tenderness.” Dory never had to suffer through this odd nostalgia, and so when the cold wind sneaks into her bed, she is disarmed by its presence. “It was as if the words had been supplied to her by some hidden prompt,” and what most torments her is that though her affection for Robby remains, the easy passion has vanished. Dory finds herself stuck in memories of how their love used to be, apologizing to Robby but unable to move forward. “She couldn’t tell him about wanting to shake everything up, or about what she now knew, which was that once you realize you are different from the way you used to be, then you can never be that earlier way again. Awareness changes you forever, and instead of being spontaneous during sex, you will forever be a little self-congratulatory.” This new reality, this never being able to go back to the spontaneity of sex, stops up her lust completely. “You could dress love up, but always you would have to confront desire—its absence or presence.” Robby’s desperate purchase of a Snuggie-like blanket is all that Dory has to see to really give up and give in to the despair of a sexless future. “He had bought it because they were now in a period of life in which they could use it. They were seeking warmth from someplace other than each other.” As the spell sweeps through Stellar Plains, anxieties grow over passion stretched over too many years, sex that has become too lived-in, and too accustomed. Wolitzer manages to get the adult perspective on teenagers just right, full of half-correct sugar-coated predictions, and uses their misperceptions to kick the sexual anxiety up a notch: Robby says of his daughter’s generation, “They’re all like someone in a dream,” and it’s a statement born more out of wonder than condescension. Yet their daughter Willa is also touched by the spell, just as she begins a tender romance with the drama teacher’s son. They come together as avatars in a virtual forest, and Willa’s first sexual experiences give her a new awareness of her body and her desires. “She felt as if she were unfolding, unclasping, being saturated, falling to bits, intensely whirled around like someone blindfolded and about to smack a piñata... ‘Going the distance’ seemed a good way to think of what it would be like. It—sex, actual sex, created a distance between you and everyone except the other person. You were in a hot-air balloon, and you waved goodbye to your sweet but clueless mother and father, and even your dazed and innocent old dog.” This is the poignant, trembling awareness of teenage love and the first awakening of desire. Through Willa’s eyes, Wolitzer gives us a character who gets to experience everything fresh, and Willa blossoms through love and sex with a surprising amount of tenderness and humor. This, of course, becomes all too tragic when the chill forces her into a jaded nihilism, thinking, This is never going to last. Oh, what is the point? She withdraws from what she has just discovered, and you want to reach through the page and shake the spell off of her; no one should have to suffer this loss, especially not someone who has so much left to explore. The spell makes its way to all the main female characters, and in each person’s cooling and retreating, Wolitzer gives specific, very real reasons to recoil from intimacy. Ruth the gym teacher is performing a dance for her handsome husband and three small boys when the cold air rushes into her kitchen and all over her skin. “She realized now that she had been overtouched; she was like a computer with a thousand fingerprints on the screen. How did anyone tolerate being touched? It was terrible, all that touching.” The revulsion sweeps in so suddenly that it literally knocks her to the floor and leaves her weeping, begging her husband to leave her alone. The alluring school psychologist Leanne, juggling three men at once, suddenly senses that “one of these days it’s going to look bad, and I’ll seem like this predatory person. And that will be terrible and humiliating.” A sad little worm of self-doubt clings to her, a reminder that “one day, not terribly long from now, she would be older, and she would be considered someone a little wild and embarrassing. A cougar, perhaps... Men could get away with sleeping with various women, but not the other way around.” And poor Ed and Bev Cutler, the long-married long-dispassionate, suddenly have the disappointment of their relationship stripped bare to them, the cold wind no longer worth fighting back. They retreat to opposite sides of the bed, no longer hoping for something better. But even as the husbands begin to ache with longing, and the wives tears their hair out in frustration, the adults unite in a mutual fear of a new, colder world encroaching on their former, warmer ways. They wish to be more like their children, like their students, like the newer generation that might be on the verge of discovering something fresh to lust after. “You weren’t supposed to think that life was worse now; it was ‘different,’ everyone said. But Dory privately thought that mostly it was worse.” The adults fear that they are too old for passion or pleasure—and so they envy the teenagers who have everything ahead of them to look forward to, and nothing behind them to mourn. Dory sees this all too clearly: Lucky them for the future, and the love that lay waiting. They could make whichever analogies they chose: the love that lay waiting like a web page as yet undesigned, or maybe even like a forest as yet unwalked in. A bafflingly simple forest green and virtual, or one wet and dark and real. Lucky them. She had underestimated them, and now she felt only regret. If the language of desire is spoken with a vocabulary honed over many years, then inevitably women got tired of talking. What was there that was new to say? Wolitzer brilliantly executes the premise of the magic spell, but with feelings articulated this clearly, she doesn’t need supernatural sorcery to transport the reader. And only in a peripheral plot or two does the novel falls short. But Wolitzer’s achievement is extraordinary—finally, a novel about true yearning that doesn’t belong solely to the young. She creates an original parable without ever leaning on her source material, and explores all the life stages of desire: the long relationship that has somehow maintained its energy; the first tremors of teenage lust; the quick excitements of one-night stands; and the frustrated marriage with all its inevitable droops and disappointments. She has built for us a community defined by desire, and in taking that desire away, she turns what could be a mundane story into something mythic. Though much of what the town of Stellar Plains faces is painfully recognizable, on every page this reader found it “thrilling, it was all cracking open, and in their lifetimes, which was so terrific. How wonderful to be there for the show.”