The grim economic prospects of being an artist are well-established, but the cold, hard numbers behind writing and publishing -- particularly in the digital age -- are mystifying even to many of the people who are trying to make a living doing it. Anything that illuminates the financial realities of the writing game becomes a precious commodity; essays featuring frank money talk tear through the internet, g-chats and Slack channels hum, aspiring novelists desperately glean what they can from Publishers Marketplace before their (tax-deductible) $25 runs out. Enter Manjula Martin, the woman behind Who Pays Writers?, a hugely valuable resource for freelancers trying to figure out the numbers behind bylines. Martin established the site in 2012 to bring transparency to the woefully opaque writing business using crowdsourcing: writers anonymously offer up the rates they were paid by various publications. The following year, Martin expanded the territory with Scratch, a magazine about money and writing co-founded with the writer Jane Friedman. This spring, Scratch the magazine became Scratch the book, an anthology on "Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living," with contributions from writers including Roxane Gay, Jonathan Franzen, Kiese Laymon, and Cheryl Strayed (we excerpted Sari Botton's fascinating essay on ghostwriting here at the site). Martin lives in San Francisco, where she writes and edits in addition to her full-time job as Managing Editor of Zoetrope: All Story, the literary magazine founded by Francis Ford Coppola and Adrienne Brodeur. Martin and I are friends -- coworkers, too, as all freelancers are coworkers -- and she agreed to speak with me about the numbers behind her book and the contradictions of making art under capitalism. The Millions: You are currently nearing the end of a book tour that has you working a full-time day job during the week and hopping a plane every weekend to a new city. Is this bonkers? Manjula Martin: Yes. But geographically and plane ticket-wise, it actually made no sense to do the tour dates all in a row. It's not cheaper. TM: And you're paying for this out of pocket. MM: Yes. TM: Is it customary for publishers to not pay for a book tour? MM: I'm told that it's common, unless you're a very big investment for the publisher. But while the publisher has not paid for it, they have been incredibly helpful in terms of booking the gigs -- the PR department has surpassed my expectations in that regard. TM: I guess that’s a form of money. MM: That is a form of money. That's labor. A lot of authors don't get book tour help at all. I was fortunate enough to get some free advice from Lauren Cerand, an amazing (not free) independent publicist. She told me, "Just do a book tour, put it on your credit card if you have to. It'll be great." So far, it's been great. She's right. TM: Could you share the numbers of the book as a whole: what you were paid, how the contributors were paid or not paid, and all of that? MM: I went into the anthology with a really solid table of contents; the book proposal I wrote had pretty much the same table of contents as the book did once it was done. The essays weren't written, but I had gotten buy-in from most of the contributors, and I had a well-developed topic. I'm convinced that this is what sold the book: the editors could see how the contents would inform the topic, and they could understand that I had access to very high-caliber contributors. There were a lot of emails right when I was first doing the book proposal along the lines of “Hey, I'm thinking of doing an essay collection. Would you like to sign onto this not knowing any of the details or timing or anything?” People said yes, which was wonderful. My agent sold the book. I got an advance. The advance was $30,000, paid in three different installments. As of this writing I’m still waiting for the last installment, the installment “upon publication.” The way my contract was set up gave me the majority chunk, on signing; a smaller chunk upon delivery and acceptance of the manuscript. (By the way, this is not when you turn in the manuscript, it's when the manuscript is done. It's not like, “Hello, editor, here's the first time you've seen it.” It's like, we've been working on it for six months and now it's done and they're going to send it into production.) Then the final installment upon publication. The way my contract is set up is, I am the "Author" of the book. My contract is with the publisher. Then I have basically subcontracted with all of the contributors. The contributors and I have separate contracts. My agent just found me a template for that contract language. TM: What were you left with after you paid all the subcontractors? MM: Each of the contributors were paid between $100 and $400 for their essays, depending on whether it was a reprint. Everyone who wrote a new essay got more. The reprints were less and usually between $100 and $200, depending on various situations including whether or not they did additional work on the piece. What anthology contributors get for that few hundred dollars: they're in the book. They can sell second serial if they want to. That’s basically it. In this particular situation my publisher owns the first serial rights. That's pretty common. We don't have a royalty agreement with the contributors. TM: So how does this all break down in the end, money-wise? MM: The advance was $30,000. Agents take 15%. That's $4,500. Contributors were $7,050 total. That leaves $18,000-ish before taxes. For 2015 and 2016, the years that cover that income, I will have paid about $8,500 in taxes. All told I will have paid probably a third of the advance in taxes, but it's been spread out over a couple of years. I can write off the agent commission and the contributor fees. That should leave me with about $10,000… TM: That's not too shabby. MM: … before book tour costs, which will probably be around $3,500, I'm guessing. So I think I'm going to end up with $6,000-$7,000 for two years of work. Plus the prior two years of unpaid work I did on Scratch mag and Who Pays Writers?. TM: That’s not a living wage. MM: No. But I also don't know what the P&L for Scratch looks like, so I don't know how much money Simon & Schuster is going to make off of it. TM: What's P&L? MM: Profit and loss statement. It’s what an editor at a publishing house does to figure out how much to pay for a book, what it’s worth, what they think it’ll make. It's how an editor pitches a book to the rest of the team; a P&L is the way they figure out, “If we pay the advance this much and then the royalties are this much, and it costs this much for the book, this is how many books we have to sell to make a profit.” Actually, Scratch just went to a second printing. TM: So you should get royalties soon! MM: [laughs] That doesn't mean that it's earned out the advance. It's a highly relative statement. TM: I went to one of your readings, where three contributors spoke. That reading became a conversation about workers’ rights and empowering women writers -- there was a lot of counsel from participants not to write for free, that you should always be paid for your work. But then [our mutual friend] Caille Millner gave advice along the lines of, "If you want to be a writer, you should expect to have a day job," which in some ways obviates the other elements of the discussion. I mean, both pieces of advice can be correct, but her comment was a tacit acknowledgment that even when you are paid for your work, it’s not enough. I don't know many writers who don't have a day job. MM: Particularly writers who don't have other support. TM: And from freelancing myself, and particularly from my years with The Millions, I have confronted the harsh truth that your/my/our work often has very little or no market value as it is assigned by our cultural and economic system, particularly as it plays out online. It certainly does not usually translate to a robust income (or big revenue for this website, for example). MM: And there's no meaningful correlation between monetary value and quality. TM: One of the contributors to the Scratch anthology, who wasn’t present at that reading, talks about this problem, and describes how she wrote for free... MM: Yes, Nina MacLaughlin. TM: ...and then got a book deal as a result. MM: Directly from that free piece. Yeah, there’s not really an answer to these contradictions, but I do think we should start airing these financial realities. And to your larger point, it’s perhaps as it should be that great writing is not necessarily something that someone wants to click on and pay for. I don't know. As you were saying before the interview, the kinds of essays that I want to write, the kinds of novels I love to read, are probably the kinds of things that are not going to be viral hits or whatever. A small number of people will read them, but they are still valuable, because they will really fucking matter to that small number of people. And hence to humanity. They way I've been thinking about it is that art doesn't necessarily fit into capitalism. There's no real profit motive in literature, even great literature. I think what we discover when we all start talking about this is that, first of all, there are tons of contradictions, as you just stated. But what concerns me is that the position of art in capitalism typically means that people, myself included, with slightly (or vastly) more economic privilege, are the only people who are writing. I am middle class (although right now in San Francisco, where I live, I am probably the very bottom of the lower middle class, but San Francisco is crazytown). I can work on a book for two years and only make $7,000 from it, because I also have a job that I work at all the time. I'm not exactly rolling in it, but I'm okay. I’m not going hungry. I don’t have to stagger which utility bill to pay every month. Not everyone is like that. Some people cannot afford to work for free, and so it becomes a real problem when an entire industry is set up that way. This works across art forms, by the way -- you see the same thing when you talk with painters. It’s maybe even harder for painters, because they have to have a physical studio and expensive equipment. So on the one hand I'm like yeah, people who do work should be paid. On the other hand…there is a way in which artistic value cannot be quantified. These two things can be true at the same time. But I think where things become far less ambivalent is when it comes to writing for publications and companies that make a lot of money off your work while you're not making money off your work. TM: Certainly. MM: Exploitation is a lot more clear-cut, and that's why I encourage people to understand where the money comes from in media and publishing (which is not to say that I myself entirely understand the deep economics of both those industries!). That's why I think Choire Sicha’s essay in the book is really great, because it breaks down the way websites actually make money. We should know this. We work for them. When I started doing Who Pays Writers?, people said "Yay, everyone's naming numbers." But I wanted more context. Why did you only get paid this much? What was the situation? Did you pitch, or did they approach you? That need for context evolved into Scratch mag. Then again, I also hear the flip side a lot, which is that freelancers just want numbers to figure out how to conduct their business. Naming numbers is a radical act and it is important to have transparency, particularly in a business where nobody knows how it works because it doesn't really work any one way for any one person, and there isn’t a set career path. But I realized pretty early on that if we restrict the conversation to just the numbers, there's a lot that we're ignoring. If you only talk about numbers, you're not talking about all of the cultural and historical, and economic, and emotional issues around money that actually really do affect how -- and whether -- people make money. TM: There are so many things about the digital economy that seem to invite exploitation, but then you also hear that many books never earn back their advance. As if the publishers are doing some sort of charity work. MM: Ha. Well, publishing isn’t a charity; someone must be making money. And, much like nonprofits, the publishing industry tends to attract people who already have financial resources. If you don't happen to come from the middle or upper classes, or an Ivy League-adjacent school, and you’d like to work in publishing -- or start out as a full-time writer -- you're fucked. Because the pay is awful. And I'm very interested in how all that affects the stories we end up reading, with journalism as well as with books. This was very much on my mind as I was doing the anthology, obviously. I wanted to make sure that I was compensating people enough for their work. I've been told that $400 is actually a really high amount to pay for an anthology essay, which is horrible and sad. TM: You’re now the “writers and money” person. Is that your forever beat? MM: Maybe? I’m not sure how I feel about that! I’m writing a novel! This wasn't a topic I set out to be an "Expert" in, or really focus on. This project evolved very organically in different ways. A lot of it was just based on me noticing that people really wanted to talk about it, and going, all right, let's roll with that and see what happens TM: You followed the market! MM: Ha. I remember when I had first had the idea to do Scratch magazine and was talking about it with Jane Friedman, who co-founded it with me, I actually thought of doing an anthology. Then I thought, No, that seems like a lot of work for no money. What if we made it a paid subscription thing and it was a magazine? There were enough stories to have it be a periodical. Then cut to a year and a half later. [laughs] I suppose for me this project could be chalked up to that cheesy “say yes” thing. While I think it can also be very powerful to say no, for me, this whole experience was very much an exercise in saying, “Well this isn't really the thing I set out to do, but it seems to be that I have a take on it that people value. Sure!” Not like, the masses are clamoring, but there was obvious interest. In terms of my expertise, all it takes to be an expert is experience. And confidence. I’ve always felt like writing is my hobby, but I have in fact made my living as a writer for many, many years -- copywriting, journalism, freelance essays -- up until now, when I'm working as an editor. At some point recently I was bemoaning my lack of Expertise to my partner, and he said, "You've been making a living as a writer for 10 years. You are an expert in this." I was like, "Oh, right. Yeah, I guess I am." TM: You didn't think of yourself necessarily as a capital-W writer. MM: Exactly. I like to tell that story because there is no capital-W writer when you're in it. Few people think they're a capital-W writer. There are so many different ways of doing it. TM: And now you’re writing a novel that takes place in Santa Cruz. MM: Yes, in the dystopian near past, also known as the late 1980s. MM: And doing a second book. MM: Yes! A seemingly random topical departure: I am writing a gardening book with my dad, who is an expert on organic gardening and farming. We're writing a guide to growing fruit trees for Ten Speed Press. Alice Waters is writing the foreword! It will be in stores in 2019. TM: I know that we've just talked about contradictions, but is there one major thing that you wish were different about the writing economy? MM: I think it's pretty clear that writers should be paid more. I don't know where that money comes from, because I don't know how much money publishers are making off of books. But, as I said, publishing isn’t a charity; someone must be making money. It’s just not always us. TM: And now there’s probably no more National Endowment for the Arts. MM: I feel that increasingly there’s no concept of how art is important in this society, even without the funding. I think that’s really scary and I think that it makes it even harder to break down some of those access barriers that we already have. TM: Your day job's model is basically one of patronage. Is that our best worst option at this point? MM: I would say it's not an option to rule out. You know, every model has its flaws and patronage is no more flawed than other models. It certainly is a long-lasting model, which Colin Dickey talks about a little bit in his essay in Scratch, where he looks into the Greek patronage system and the first Greek poet to ask to be paid by the word. But we've seen recently with places like Medium that even if you have a benefactor, the benefactor can withdraw their goodwill at any moment. That happens all the time with media companies that have venture capital funding. We need the guys who have no profit motive and want to replace the NEA out of the goodness of their rich bastard hearts. There's also the reality of writers who are funded by their spouses, and that gets into a whole other level of micro patronage, I guess you would call it. Right now my boyfriend is doing the laundry, and it was my turn to do the laundry this week, but I was like, “I have this interview.” My partner and I are also beneficiaries of a government patronage system called rent control. That's a big deal. I think about that a lot at this political moment too, that there are a few benefits left that self-employed people get from the government. And they didn’t get many in the first place! At our recent Scratch event in Texas, contributor Austin Kleon talked about having his entire family on the ACA and being really freaked out about what will happen. And he makes royalties. I guess while I think that everyone should get the money -- go get the money, please get the money -- I do fundamentally think that the arts are not necessarily a thing that should be profitable. That's not why the arts exist in our society. Part of a healthy society is one that understands that and finds ways to support its artists. With money.
My dad lives in Greece and this September we took the baby who is no longer a baby there for a visit. I was vaguely dreading the trip, even though I love Greece and miss it dearly when I'm not there, which is most of the time. I didn’t want to be so callous -- or to appear to be so callous -- as to go on vacation to a country experiencing a refugee crisis with the express intention of avoiding the crisis. “We are visiting family,” I told people preemptively. When we arrived I was surprised to see that everything looked eerily normal in my old Athenian haunts and on the island where we spent most of the trip. But while we were there, this article came out, and I was reminded that if you are not seeing the bad thing it is because someone doesn’t want you to see it, whether that someone is yourself or a group of politicians and others with whom you willingly or unwillingly collude. So we colluded, and had a nice time, and sat on a beach watching Italian package tourists doing group calisthenics, and the men we saw selling plastic clips and doodads on the beach were not refugees, or not new ones -- perhaps they were born elsewhere; now they spoke with one another in perfect Greek. During naptime I read Fates and Furies and Swing Time and Transit, and it felt like a sin to enjoy them all like I did. Later I read Exit West, Mohsin Hamid’s forthcoming novel about the refugee crisis -- a novel the surreal elements of which are only as surreal as the things people are facing in Syria and Iraq and Greece and points beyond. It’s a haunting yet spare and somehow efficient book that describes how quickly the conditions of ordinary people can change, and how few reasonable options those people have once events are in motion. I read the novel months after reading this unsparing article about the people who have been preparing for the (increasingly unlikely) day when Bashar al-Assad might be called to account. On Twitter, I see pictures of mortar-blasted infants and bloodied strollers on the ruined streets of Aleppo. I have been thinking about collusion, and bubbles, and things seen and unseen. After Greece I read Negroland, in which Margo Jefferson describes upper-middle class black families whose class bubble was insufficient defense against the effects of whiteness: Caucasian privilege lounged and sauntered, draped itself casually about, turned vigilant and commanding, then cunning and devious. We marveled at its tonal range, its variety, its largess in letting its humble share the pleasures of caste with its mighty. I read about her relatives who took the course of abdicating and living as white people, functionally erasing whole parts of their lives: “When Uncle Lucious stopped being white, my parents invited him to dinner,” Jefferson writes. After the election I read a series of astute tweets I wish I could find now about how liberal white Americans approach their lives with the same unfortunate tactics as illiberal ones; that is, they create their own enclaves and wall themselves off from elements they find unsavory. My deceased grandparents lived in a California county with a population of two people per square mile, and 71 percent of those people voted for Donald Trump. The last time we drove the hours and hours to get there I saw a huge “Kafir” flag on a lonely homestead, someone’s warning to would-be jihadists who might find themselves in the goddamned middle of nowhere, U.S.A. I try to picture life there now and experience a failure of imagination. I read Where I Was From, Joan Didion's great California book on the "vexed issue" of "a birthright squandered, a paradise lost," the illusion of which seems to animate so much of the white American psyche. (Even her investigation stops a few hundred miles short of that high-desert plain.) Since coming aboard The Millions I feel like I know the titles of more books than ever before, while actually reading fewer books. I hate this. Partly it’s because I no longer have a commute with a daily designated hour for reading, but really it's because I stare too long at my phone. Nonetheless, sometimes conditions and moods and books coincided to make memorable reading experiences. Before I quit my job I read Grief Is the Thing with Feathers over a single day's commute and wept into my jacket on the train. Over Thanksgiving, while talking heads brayed horribly from the television in my in-laws’ kitchen, I read a new edition of The Haunting of Hill House with Laura Miller’s introduction. I have the best couch in the world; on it I read Here Comes the Sun and The Last Samurai and Queen Sugar and Housekeeping and Void Star and Gold Fame Citrus over the course of precious, orgiastic pig-in-a-blanket afternoons. My husband found me bawling as I read the final page of the latter -- in addition to being a warning for the planet, I can’t think of a novel that better captures the bruising horror of loving small children. Every year I seem to read about bereaved parents. I read this beautiful essay about a random, preventable disaster, and I read this article about an inevitable one. I've fixated cruelly on the family in the second piece. I tell myself Jesus doesn't want me to politicize the death of a child, but everything is inflected by politics lately, and the rancor of a walled-off elite like myself for my non-elite white brethren is at its zenith. The rancor extends both ways, obviously; I read this heartbreaking article, and subsequently learned there are benighted people who believe it's part of a vast liberal hoax. After watching Alton Sterling’s son weep next to his mother onscreen I read Citizen -- its cover an homage to another dead child -- aware that I was showing up late and unprepared, more colluding. I felt late and unprepared again after the U.S. election, and I read this essay by Uday Jain, his reminder that “there is no single...story where if we just do this, this, and this, things will be fine.” I have been thinking about Jain’s lovely formulation: When one gives up on being a Rawlsian, absolutely transparent to oneself, perfectly good in one’s own life, autonomous liberal subject -- one gains the Platonic, the feminist, the Marxist sense of a self as constituted essentially by interdependence. I am not an individual. I am the voices and affects and legacies and bodies of everyone I’ve ever read, talked to, befriended, and loved; their parents and grandparents; the dead. Solidarity consists in this refusal of individuality -- and simultaneously the maintenance of difference that makes interdependence possible. I have wondered how to reconcile my interest in literature and my sense of it as a fundamentally bourgeois chronicle of individual concerns -- my Of Human Bondage, my The Sea, the Sea -- with the solidarity Jain describes. I don't understand exactly how literature works with politics; perhaps the answer for now is simply that literature is one of the most pleasing and enduring ways of capturing those voices and affects and legacies. Currently I’m reading Yiyun Li’s Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life; I dog-eared the page where she writes “Every word one writes, every dream and fear and hope and despair one reveals to others and to oneself -- they all end up like chicks refusing to be returned to the eggshell.” (The chicks she mentions are dead, so it's not super-hopeful, but what a line.) I can’t stop worrying all these things between my teeth. My mom says I have to log off and tune out and I snarl at her, as though everything is her fault. I feel calm when I reread A Dance to the Music of Time. In volume one I found a torn-out poem from The New Yorker by Adam Zagajewski -- "Erinna from Telos." (I like the Claire Cavanagh translation that ends with “grasshopper” and not the one on Google Books that ends with “cricket.”) The poem is about death and art and history; my mother, Miss Cheer-Up-Charlie, is the one who tore it out of the magazine (she, by the way, exclusively reads morose novels by Eastern-European intellectuals). But I wonder if she has a point when she chastises me: if there is any value in feeling sad, any point wallowing in rancor, if you are not going to be good. If you are going to know about those bloody strollers and continue to go about your business. Because I am going about my business, in spite of reading all these miserable things. The day after the election, I saw the faintest of faint lines on a pregnancy test; it disappeared within a few days, as though the egg, while trying to settle in, had been warned off by troubled vibes. This was less demoralizing than it might have been if I didn’t have a small child to parent. She just turned two, and she says, “Mommy Mommy Mommy Mommy,” and I answer, “Yes Yes Yes Yes.” She loves our cats, and she pets them and kisses them until they scratch her, and she says “scratchoo” and begs me to put a “benden” on the wound. From her I learned about that thing that Zadie Smith calls “joy” in something else I read this year: Occasionally the child, too, is a pleasure, though mostly she is a joy, which means in fact she gives us not much pleasure at all, but rather that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight that I have come to recognize as joy, and now must find some way to live with daily. This is a new problem. Once you feel joy you can’t unfeel it; I’m fiending helplessly for more. The polar ice is melting, but I want to hold another baby. I feel like the grasshopper who sang all summer. 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? 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On Tuesday night I felt briefly the old urge to find a book to deal with hard times, and took The Berlin Stories off the shelf. As is so often the case lately, the tug of my phone was stronger, and I left the book sitting on the floor after leafing through its pages. I was too jittery to do anything but scroll, and in any case the book was actually too grim for election night, both painful artifact and apparent harbinger of days to come. By its last lines, Christopher Isherwood is leaving Germany; his landlady Fr. Schroeder is inconsolable at his departure: It’s no use trying to explain to her, or talking politics. Already she is adapting herself, as she will adapt herself to every new regime. This morning I even heard her talking reverently about ‘Der Führer,’ to the porter’s wife. If anybody were to remind her that, at the elections last November, she voted communist, she would probably deny it hotly, and in perfect good faith. She is merely acclimatizing herself, in accordance with a natural law, like an animal which changes its coat for the winter. Thousands of people like Frl. Schroeder are acclimatizing themselves. After all, whatever government is in power, they are doomed to live in this town. When someone like Donald Trump is elected, I suspect that many writers are besieged with doubt about the novel’s utility as a tool of resistance. Events move quickly, and writing is slow. And even should writers have the ability to capture some aspect of the current moment with aching precision, passages like Isherwood’s remind us that they are often Cassandras, writing for a future that will marvel at how right they were and how little that rightness mattered. But still as a society we persist in believing that there are “important books,” and certain texts keep reappearing. Although the fragility of our educational system and the degraded place of the humanities therein is reported everywhere, we still pay lip service, as a culture, to the idea that American children have to read important books to participate in society. So it seems fitting to look again at the Modern Library list, which is a very flawed, sometimes bizarre, distillation of the enshrining principle, but one filled with some wonderful books. After the election I thought I’d revisit a work of prognostication based on the observed realities of the day, and I have been rereading Brave New World. The problem with reading dystopian political novels from the past is that you tend to try and match up the current circumstances with the implied prophecy of the novel. And on that count, nothing in Aldous Huxley’s novel comes close to the simple horror of Christopher Isherwood’s paragraph above. Huxley was looking ahead, past the interim nastiness of bloodshed that Isherwood recorded in real time -- after “the explosion of the anthrax bombs” that is “hardly louder than the popping of a paper bag.” Huxley imagined the fait accompli: a single world order founded on an unholy marriage of capitalism and communism, with the stated mission of “Community, Identity, Stability” and drugs for all. There are many things that match up to the world today -- consumerism, consumption -- and many things that don’t; we have not yet discarded the family as a unit of social cohesion and significance, for example. In a lot of ways Brave New World is a mess. It is now seen as an anti-science, anti-technicalization novel, but scholars have pointed out that it was in one sense an extension of Huxley's own interest in "reform eugenics" at the time. It is deeply racist, and not only in its depiction of the Savage Reservation, which is speciously deployed to highlight the comparative vulgarity of the rest of the world: a trip to the movies, the ostensible height of this vulgarity, reveals “stereoscopic images, locked in on another’s arms, of a gigantic negro and a golden-haired young brachycephalic Beta-Plus female.” It is also a deeply sexist book -- one of the ostensible absurdities of the new world is women's sexual and reproductive autonomy (hilariously, even in this utopia, contraception is the cumbersome responsibility of women, who have to carry it around in bandoliers). Whatever regrets Huxley had about the novel -- and he describes some of them in his foreword to the 1946 reprint -- they do not seem to have included those elements. Instead he notes the lack of world-annihilating weaponry in the book and the unforgiving choice it offers between “insanity on the one hand and lunacy on the other.” But despite its many shortcomings as a work of art, as a work of prophecy, a work of moral vision, the book retains power. I have been thinking as a consequence about what power means in a literary context. I don’t know how the novelists at the height of their game and fame feel about their professions, but most aspiring novelists have an internalized sense of skepticism about the pursuit. Writers are not assigned high value in a capitalist society, and among writers other harmful hierarchies assert themselves -- these are being tested and negotiated, the hard work, as is inevitably the case, being done by the writers who are working against the odds, rather than those enjoying their favor. There is one view by which we might say that Brave New World only stays so high in our collective cultural estimation because it is itself a reflection of the racism and sexism and classism that we continue to uphold, and which enabled us to elect Donald Trump. This is a more revolutionary viewpoint than I’m prepared to accept wholeheartedly, no doubt due to my own social conditioning (as Huxley might put it). I don’t want to throw this novel away, only to understand why it works, or doesn’t. I have to believe that novels are important not just because I like them, but because they contribute something irreplaceable to the historical record, both as objects of testimony and objects of study. We talk often about writing as an act of radical empathy, but I’d like to posit that Brave New World, and many novels that have endured, have been less about empathy than they have been about disdain. Disdain is empathy’s evil and more efficient twin, both borne of close observation. Novels that consider individual reactions to events must be empathetic. But any novelist who wishes to depict society must harness disdain in order to make the depiction stick for the long term. Brave New World falls apart at the end, because its measure of empathy did not match its measure of disdain in a plotline -- the "savage meeting civilization" -- that required it. It is telling that Huxley’s women are never granted the interiority of his men. But where the novel is strong and memorable, it is so because its author used pointed observations of his own society to depict a future world and the ways that people behaved therein. The unforgettable opening tour of the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre -- what volumes it speaks about the existing hierarchies of class and race as Huxley saw them. How well he captures the misfit characters, with a disdain clearly rooted in self-identification -- Bernard Marx, whose “chronic fear of being slighted made him avoid his equals, made him stand, where his inferiors were concerned, self-consciously on his dignity.” Or Hemholtz Watson, the “Escalator-Squash champion, this indefatigable lover (it was said that he had had six hundred and forty different girls in under four years), this admirable committee man and best mixer” who realizes “quite suddenly that sport, women, communal activities were only, so far as he was concerned, second bests.” Satire is the romping ground of disdain, but by no means is it its only province. Many of the books that appear on the Modern Library list are disdainful. Native Son is disdainful. The Age of Innocence is disdainful. Midnight’s Children. Invisible Man. Main Street. 1984. And disdain is alive in literature today. Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, which, arguments about its quality raging in The Millions comments notwithstanding, seems on its way to becoming a seminal American text, begins: This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I've never stolen anything. Never cheated on my taxes or at cards. Never snuck into the movies or failed to give back the extra change to a drugstore cashier indifferent to the ways of mercantilism and minimum-wage expectations. I've never burgled a house. Held up a liquor store. Never boarded a crowded bus or subway car, sat in a seat reserved for the elderly, pulled out my gigantic penis and masturbated to satisfaction with a perverted, yet somehow crestfallen, look on my face. Elena Ferrante’s immersive novels are empathetic as hell, but they are also full of disdain: “I told him that I intended to take the Pill in order not to have children...he made a complicated speech about sex, love, and reproduction.” Claudia Rankine’s prose-poetry in Citizen disdains: “The real estate woman, who didn’t fathom she could have made an appointment to show her house to you, spends much of the walk-through telling your friend, repeatedly, how comfortable she feels around her.” I have to believe that literature can be a weapon of a sort -- it explodes comfort even while it delivers comfort; it reveals hypocrisy in a way that the mere presentation of facts often cannot. And I’m beginning to think it is disdain that most effectively weaponizes a novel. So now what? In a society that does not assign significant value to writing, any writing can feel like an act of resistance. And for some people that is the case. But I’m a white American woman, and I cannot pretend my writing, driven most days by a peculiar combination of self-loathing and self-regard, is a truly revolutionary act. This is not to consign the lived experience of women to irrelevance -- that tendency was one factor in the election of a self-identified sexual predator. But we cannot weaponize literature if our only goal is mapping the territories of the individual, without simultaneously looking keenly at the world in which the individual was formed -- and without disdaining the world that would make Frl. Schroeders of us. White American writers cannot leave the vast work of (consciously, intentionally) documenting white supremacy -- that which brought Donald Trump to the White House -- at the feet of the writers who are harmed by it. People who understand political movements better than I do can parse the specific ideologies Huxley employed to prophesy about state and social power, and whether he was right or wrong. For me, it is the novel’s endurance as a literary touchstone that is intriguing now, and what it might say about power in art. We need empathy more than ever, yes, on the one-on-one, human-to-human level. But empathy for the aggregate was not useful in this election, and we cannot count on it from the politicians who will troop into the White House in January. Trump voters who don’t believe they are bigots assured themselves that it was his business empire or his placid and beautiful daughter that qualified him for the office. But his real credential was his rhetoric. The man will say anything, and he said it, and it won him the election. Somehow, fiction must reflect our disdain.
As I rode the train home from work one afternoon a little over a year ago, I read the “gnostic truth of real estate” put forth by the realtor Frank Bascombe in Independence Day: People never find or buy the house they say they want. A market economy, so I’ve learned, is not even remotely premised on anybody getting what he wants. The premise is that you’re presented with what you might’ve thought you didn’t want, but what’s available, whereupon you give in and start finding ways to feel good about it and yourself. A moment later -- timing that would have been ham-fisted had it taken place in a novel -- my phone buzzed with a text from my husband. “Pack your bags” it read, accompanied by screenshot from Redfin showing a dilapidated property with a “sold” banner plastered across. We had gone to look at this house the previous week -- a teardown monstrosity in an unhip San Francisco neighborhood adjacent to our own unhip San Francisco neighborhood. Listed for $338,000, at that moment the lowest price in the city, the house was called a “contractor’s special;” two of its three bedrooms were qualified on the listing agent’s half-assed flier as “legality unknown.” When we went to the open house, the same agent eyed my eight-months-pregnant stomach and advised me to cover my mouth and nose before stepping inside. My husband’s screenshot indicated that this house had been purchased by someone for $550,000, ostensibly in cash. Add to this the cost, whatever that should happen to be, of building an entirely new house in its place. At the time, my husband and I lived in a rented, one-bedroom, 750-square-foot house that, like any standalone single-family dwelling in San Francisco, is not subject to rent control. When we learned that we were expecting a baby, we thought we should try to find something with more space (and rent control). Our landlady, who we think was born in the 1930s, cautioned us against a month-to-month lease. Her health was not good, she told us, and she mentioned, not for the first time, an ominous set of people she called “heirs” who would swoop in from the Central Valley and sell the house out from under us in the event of her death. She also told us that she had lived in the house with her parents until she was 23 years old, sleeping in the small dining room. Her counsel notwithstanding, obsessed with bourgeois aspirations of a second bedroom, we went month-to-month and began looking at Craigslist listings. The appearance of heirs, it turns out, would cast us -- with baby, two cats, student loans, and no car -- into a rental market where a transit-accessible two-bedroom apartment could exceed $5,000 per month in San Francisco and $3,000 in the East Bay. Ludicrous prices are old hat to people in the Bay Area, who find themselves in the tiresome position of having thoroughly exhausted the topic of the housing situation but being nonetheless unable, most of the time, to talk about anything else. That is a feature of housing bubbles; in Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in that House, Meghan Daum’s account of her real estate travails in Los Angeles circa 2004, she wrote: “At the risk of making a perverse and offensive comparison, I truly don’t think I’d observed so much absorption with one topic since the attacks of September 11, 2001.” We punched numbers into questionable online mortgage calculators and began touring open houses. Houses that listed for $279,000 and sold for $365,000 (East Oakland). Houses that listed for $365,000 and sold for $500,000 (West Oakland). Houses that listed for $499,000 and sold for $700,000 (San Francisco, barely). And these were the low, low prices of 2014. Median home prices reached $1.3 million at the end of last year. People who have actually experienced home-ownership advise the uninitiated against getting romantic about it. But when you have a bun in the oven and are looking at Craigslist rentals, it is easy to invest the condition with near-sacred profundity (even before totting up the tax breaks that the government has seen fit to bestow upon the property-owning class). I began placing an outsize burden on every undistinguished property we saw; every dubious condo, every termite-eaten hovel miles from the train, none of which we could afford in any case. I pictured the dour heirs, and our growing family in one of the illegal basement in-laws listed for more than our current rent. Like V.S. Naipaul’s unforgettable Mr. Biswas, it seemed critical to find a place to call our own: “How terrible it would have been...to have lived without even attempting to lay claim to one’s portion of the earth; to have lived and died as one had been born, unnecessary and accommodated.” Unlike that of Mr. Biswas, though, this is the housing account of an intensely privileged person, in both the local and the world-historical sense. We began our search at a time when the U.S. news was just starting to register the desperate people streaming out of Syria, when there were already one million displaced Syrians in Lebanon alone. A month before the baby was born I watched a presentation at work about an entire nation’s middle class decimated in only a couple of years -- a cataclysm that will take generations to repair. And this is only the most recent and the most vivid cataclysm. There are people who have been living in camps for decades -- people whose children and whose children’s children will be born outdoors. In our local context, we are privileged because we do not live in a state of economic precarity, like many people in San Francisco and the East Bay who are being rapidly pushed out (often by people like us sniffing around for cheaper housing). Low-income people are disproportionately affected by the outlandish housing costs, and while it is a nice feature for us to live near family and friends, it's a necessity for people who cannot afford regular childcare or do not get paid sick time. Just last Monday, activists shut down the Bay Bridge in a truly breathtaking action, protesting not only police killings of black people, but gentrification; first on their list of demands was "The immediate divestment of city funds for policing and investment in sustainable, affordable housing so Black, Brown and Indigenous people can remain in their hometowns of Oakland and San Francisco." The housing concerns of people with a statistically high household income are not in and of themselves compelling, as this author points out, and if we have to leave the Bay Area we will find somewhere else to live. Like everyone we know who lives in San Francisco, we have thought -- we think every day -- about moving away. And like everyone, we hope to stay. My husband works for the City of San Francisco and I work for UC Berkeley, which seem like important local institutions. Neither of us grew up in San Francisco, but four generations of my foremothers were born in California (although if you're white, which I am, that just means your people were in on the ground floor of some original displacement). Even so, my baby, now a year old, has a grandmother and a great-grandmother a short train ride away. Why should we be the ones to move?, we think, just like everyone else. Self-righteous defiance is never a good feeling; add to it the knowledge of complicity in a fundamentally unequal society, evident in every public housing-adjacent Victorian flipped and sold for enormous profit, every gingerly-worded spiel from a realtor about Oakland neighborhoods, every crowd of white house-gawkers on streets where black people have lived for a century. Our situation is not remotely dire -- it is merely one of recalibration. Most Americans our age are letting go of the cherished, unexamined assumption that they will be able to give their own children the comforts -- or preferably more comforts than -- they themselves had. These are comforts captured in movies and books from the very recent past: I idly remember the movie Home Alone and my first thought is How the fuck did they afford that place? (Don’t get me started on Full House.) In The Sportswriter, the first of Richard Ford’s Bascombe novels, Frank is a writer and his wife doesn’t work; they have three small children and live in a house that they own: We went on vacations...We paid bills, shopped, went to movies, bought cars and cameras and insurance, cooked out, went to cocktail parties, visited schools, and romanced each other in the sweet, cagey way of adults. Yesterday’s magazine writer is today’s millionaire. As one of Meghan Daum’s friends lamented in her book: “...boomers live in mansions they bought for $67 in the early 1980s and we’re destined to live our lives paying rent to guys who wear tinted eyeglasses and Members Only jackets.” The beloved children’s writer Beverly Cleary enshrined a much humbler vision of middle-class life on Klickitat street in Portland, Ore.; her characters Ramona and Beezus Quimby live in a modest but pleasant house with parents who haven’t finished college and who have a series of jobs that couldn’t comfortably support life in most urban areas today: shop clerk, office worker for a moving company, medical receptionist. Beezus and Ramona live in Portland, but many of Cleary’s less-well-known books -- Mitch and Amy, Sister of the Bride, Fifteen -- describe middle-class families giving their children good lives in nice Bay Area dwellings, the air scented with eucalyptus. Cleary herself was a California transplant; she attended UC Berkeley and lived around the Bay with her husband Clarence. In 1948, they bought a house in the Berkeley hills. She was a librarian-turned-writer and he was a contracts analyst at the university, a job which today commands a respectable annual salary between $49,000 and $65,000. But I’ve seen a two-bedroom, 792-foot-square-foot house in the same area list for over a million dollars. After the news that our local wreck, the “contractor’s special,” sold for $200,000 over asking, I began to cling desperately to the rental we were in. Heavily pregnant, I lumbered around the place with loving purpose, directing my husband in the hanging of new curtains, adjusting the crib in the baby’s corner of our room, filling our closet with elaborate stacking drawers. I moved so far from my original position about the house’s size that I even schemed to buy it from our landlady, until it became clear that we couldn’t afford it at its current valuation. There are spiritual implications for a person’s dwelling. As Frank Bascombe puts it, thinking about this anxious clients, the home they buy will ...partly determine what they’ll be worrying about but don’t yet know, what consoling window views they’ll be taking (or not), where they’ll have bitter arguments and make love, where and under what conditions they’ll feel trapped by life or safe from the storm. I understood that the manic bursts of scrubbing and fussing and considering pillows that afflicted me during pregnancy were something called nesting, and were a known biological phenomenon. I was not expecting this mania to stick around. But, a lifetime slob, I now find myself in the kitchen making the practiced gestures of somebody else’s mother -- wiping away a piece of wet fuzz or straightening a placemat, putting all of the puzzles together and stacking them in a corner at night. Some of this, I’m sure, is garden-variety patriarchy stuff that is bound to pop up after millennia of foremothers tidying up. But I am surprised by the feeling of total, whole-body well-being that comes over me when I’m in my special corner of the couch surveying the clean living room. And by the way this feeling seems obscurely connected to the panic-making wave of love that overcomes me at odd moments as I watch my daughter play on the living room rug (a rug, as it happens, that I coveted and lobbied and hoarded for and finally bought when it went on sale). "Home is so sad," wrote Philip Larkin, but he probably never held a baby on a soft rug on a sunny day in a nice room that he made for her. I know it’s very irritating to hear people describe the ways that having a child changed them, but this is one that really caught me off-balance: I’ve become house-proud. I think of all the other house-proud women leaving their special corners and favorite rugs in Syria and Iraq, holding close their precious children and stepping into the waves. When we consider the people in camps, the people in the frigid sea off of Lesvos and Ayvalık, if we believe that all humans are brothers and sisters, none of us deserve stability in the broad moral sense. Aim the telescope back at America, where we have codified a national myth that if you have a good job you’ll have a nice place to live for as long as you want to live there. Articles like this one show how untrue that myth has been for vast swathes of our citizenry, and for how long it has been untrue. If you are a narcissist who was raised in a religious tradition you might feel that your own, absurdly mild housing anxiety is the opening sally of an absent-minded deity who has finally put down his paperback and noticed that things seem off-kilter. I know that I don’t deserve to have a nice place to live for as long as I want to live there, apart from the idea that all human beings deserve this. But that doesn’t mean I don’t -- the we all don’t -- want it real bad. The “contractor’s special” went on the market again for $850,000, and sold for $1.1 million a couple of months ago. From the outside it’s still one of the ugliest houses in San Francisco. What ended up happening to us is the thing that you find happened to any San Franciscan who isn’t rich but has a good living situation: we got unreasonably lucky. When our baby was three months old, our next-door neighbors did the almost impossible and managed to buy a short-sale house with a special loan from the city. Our landlady, who also owns their place and is a deeply decent person, let us move in without significantly raising the rent. Deus ex machina. The people, meanwhile, who moved into our old place had been evicted from their decade-plus rental in another neighborhood; they are in their 50s or 60s and clearly paying more for less space than they used to have. Last week a woman strolling up and down our block told me she had grown up a few houses over, but that she couldn’t afford to live in the city anymore. “It should be me in there,” she said, gesturing at her old house. And begrudgingly corrected herself: “I wish it were me.” We are favored, for now, in San Francisco's zero-sum housing game. We dearly love our new place, even though it has wall-to-wall carpeting and it isn’t ours. We still don’t have rent control, but we hope for the best. We walk to the BART; we walk to the daycare, where our baby learns Cantonese words from her fellow sixth-generation Californians. What will the gods exact from us, for our good fortune? The twin specters of death and heirs loom all around. But death and heirs are waiting in the wings, I suppose, whether you rent or own.
I wrote my last Year in Reading when I was about to have a baby, and now the baby is here. In accordance with all platitudes, the year has gone by very quickly, and yet its component moments were glacial, with a glacier’s way of doing a lot while appearing to do very little. Richard Ford, whose novels I re-read just before the baby came, divided Frank Bascombe's life into the Existence Period, the Permanent Period, and the Authentic Self. My year comprised three epochs which were, more or less, 1) Magic, 2) Bad, 3) Decisive. The Magic Period was all soft blankets and endless afternoons in the nest and long, slow walks across the city. The Bad was clumps of hair like hamsters in the bathtub, and tiny plastic pump pieces, and vanished milk, and finding myself on lunch break smoking cigarettes in a shrub. Then, perhaps as a consequence of this period, came a time for making plans. Motherhood is not unlike drugs in that it has caused me to question the arrangements of life in even its most privileged iterations. "Why should people go to a desk and sit in front a computer and write emails all day,” I would say to my husband, like a very young, very high person. I suppose the thing that most characterized the year, apart from the presence of the baby herself, is an overall failure to modulate, some mechanism gone haywire, so that seeing someone with a bag on a seat on a crowded train made me want to scream “The bag doesn’t get a seat!” out of all proportion. When a series of administrative fuckups created a reversible but maddening problem with my maternity leave, I felt my rage could electrify a small village. I noticed the other day that a Vanity Fair I bought in an airport seven months ago is still sitting on our coffee table, because I’ve become strangely obsessed with ensuring my husband reads an article by William Langewiesche about commercial space flight. “You’ve got to read this amazing story -- you’ll love it!” I keep telling him, and Robin Wright gazes serenely from the cover, asking me whether I need to talk to somebody. How to describe a year where I felt simultaneously so powerless and so powerful -- when the prospect of buying a stamp or fully participating in electoral democracy seemed insurmountably difficult, but writing a book seemed possible. Or moving to a new place. Or having another baby. When I felt so inept at the womanly art of taking care of my appearance, but so unexpectedly okay at taking caring of the baby (she is what they call an easy baby; I know it could have gone any number of ways). How strange it was to go to work and long to be with her; to long for solitude in her presence. I know that I read a lot this year, but I can remember almost nothing, and what I remember is tied to the epochs outlined above. Like most efforts at periodization, things fall apart when you begin serious excavations. There was plenty of magic distributed through the year; it smiled in the winter and laughed in the spring and crawled in the summer and stood up in the fall. And the Magic Period, if I think about it, was actually marked by frequent crying episodes (mine, not the baby's), like little bursts of rain against the roof. But like rain in California -- and it actually did rain, those first few weeks of her life -- there was something nourishing and necessary about the jags. During that period I read Mating, and whether it was the time or the book I don’t know but it’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever read. I loved it so much that I immediately tried to write a novel in its image, but fortunately realized, somewhere around the third paragraph, that it wasn’t a very good idea. I read Elisa Albert's After Birth, and even though it was before my own rage came home to roost, I felt the force of her beleaguered, gimlet-eyed narrator. As my milk dried up and the Bad Period began, I read Beloved and Preparation for the Next Life, and they were vivid and perfect, although they didn't make me feel less blue. I read The Ghost Network, which has as its heroine a Lady Gaga figure, and because of it I listened to Lady Gaga on purpose for the very first time. There was a stretch of about a week when I couldn’t bring myself to climb the hill to my office without blasting the song “Do What U Want," imagining myself pirouetting up the road like someone in a training montage. I mentioned how much I liked the song to a friend, who said, “It sucks that it’s R. Kelly”; I hadn’t realized that it was R. Kelly, who is known for doing what he wants with the bodies of underage women, and I understood then that verily there are no pure pleasures. I read so many sad things this year, and felt that life itself has a failure to modulate. I read Aleksandar Hemon's essay “The Aquarium,” about his daughter, and my friend Katie Coyle's essay about hers. Sad things so generously written have a way of momentarily recalibrating the haywire apparatus, so that it registers, These are the real things -- not bags on the seat, not misfired paperwork. But it's not as if there's comfort in the suffering of others; hugging your own family close only illuminates the supremely inequitable hazards of existence. Reading the news has, of course, been unspeakable, when every drowned child and murdered child assumes the characteristics of your own, and it feels like all there is to do is watch events unfold on a chyron, and read Facebook posts. As I clambered toward the Decisive Period I read Maylis de Kerangal's The Heart, which is out next year and which is breathtaking. I read J.M. Ledgard's "Terra Firma Triptych," also breathtaking in the very particular and somewhat confounding way of J.M. Ledgard (he seems to also be a person who has reached a decisive moment, but whereas mine was, “I should quit my job and write things,” he schemes to build drone ports across rural Africa, and has evidently arranged his life thus). I read a stirring article about small-boned women and ancient cousins who bury their dead. Finally, I picked up Elena Ferrante's first Neapolitan novel, which I had once put aside after a dozen pages, and discovered that she was exactly who I needed to read: a woman writing about women, their ugliness and their ambition and their promise and their rage -- their utter humanity. I ripped through the remaining volumes. You'd think a cheerful book would be the thing to pull me out of my funk, but I needed something pitiless, something about the messy arrangements of life, something about a writer trying to "imitate the disjointed, unaesthetic, illogical, shapeless banality of things," and failing up into something vital and perfectly-formed -- more lifelike, somehow, than life itself. 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.
Garth Risk Hallberg first appeared in my inbox in 2009 through the mediating voice of Max Magee, the founder of this site. Max wrote in gentle tones that, while he and his partner welcomed my contributions to The Millions, they both felt that “war is peace, bitches” was not a useful embellishment to a work of criticism (a note so self-evident that I couldn’t take it personally). In the subsequent years I’ve gotten to know Garth a little -- as an intensely committed reader, a generous colleague quick with encouragement, and the proponent of an egregious class of pun. He is also the author of criticism that I hesitate to call forbidding only because I suspect that it wounds him. Garth has a medieval intellect: free access to a vast array of texts, of points and counterpoints, which he is able to call forth from an internal commonplace book at a moment’s notice. This intellect is evident in pieces like “How Avant Is It?” or “Why Write Novels at All?”; the former references 50 names and nearly as many texts. These aren’t wielded like bludgeons, rather placed deftly and precisely around his writing -- points on a schematic drawing showing in bewildering detail something familiar you'd looked at but never really seen. Garth's intimidating schemata are illuminated by something friendly, though -- the light of a true flashlight-under-the-covers reader, one unafraid to issue calls to arms for capital-A Art: ...we need ways of evaluating a novel’s form and language and ideas in light of, for lack of a more precise term, the novelist’s own burning. We need to look beyond the superfices and cultural hoopla...and to examine the deep places where private sensibility and the world as we find it collide. When Garth wrote the above, in 2011, it’s unlikely he knew just how much cultural hoopla he would himself one day generate. The revelation of the startlingly large advance for City on Fire -- an advance unprecedented for a 900-page debut -- caused a slight distortion in the fabric of the universe. I never expected to see, as I did last week and which it will also undoubtedly wound him to mention, a photo of Garth in Vogue, wearing costly designer items and looking like a goddamned matinee idol. Garth’s previous published work, a novella called A Field Guide to the North American Family, made heavy use of photography and textual fragments to propel a surprisingly tender work of fireflies-and-cigarettes Americana. When City on Fire arrived, I noted the visual elements -- the recreated pages of a punk girl’s 'zine, a journalist’s whisky-ringed article draft, a patriarch’s handwritten letter. Taking these, with the novel’s size, with the $2 million, with the monastic vastness of the author’s frame of reference, I had, frankly, no idea what to expect. What I found was not the terrifying post-modern edifice I feared, but something warm and generous. Something beautifully written, fantastically plotted -- something suspenseful and moving and full of interesting people and ideas. It's a book written to create communion between reader and writer. It is also a book that, despite its frequent appearance in articles on the current popular interest in the New York of the 1970s -- despite its rhetorical signposts, its blighted streets, its Patti Smith soundtrack -- feels contemporary and fresh. There are other big books that have caused people to mention Charles Dickens and for which “accessibility” is actually a subtle neg; this is not the case for City on Fire, which deftly gathers up the stories of over a dozen people, half-a-dozen “scenes,” and one teeming city in careful prose, with a reverence and faith that escape naivete only because they are the things that motivate all great stories. As one of Garth's characters, the veteran reporter Richard Groskoph, puts it What he wanted above all to get right was the web of relationships a dozen column inches had never been enough to contain...He wanted to follow the soul far enough out along these lines of relationship to discover that there was no fixed point where one person ended and another began. I spoke to Garth in the weeks before publication, when he was going to a lot of matinees to kill time and, at his wife’s behest, avoiding pregnancy metaphors to describe the surreal anticipatory state he occupied. No one is more startled by all the hoopla than Garth himself. That said, I think there is a way in which, like any writer, he has spent his life preparing for the contingency (playfully referenced in his character Mercer's imaginary Paris Review interviews, daydreamed when production on the great American novel had stalled). I asked Garth how he went about transforming from critic to novelist, and how he navigated, in his novel, those lines of relationship--those deep places where the author and world collide. The Millions: When we started this conversation via email, you mentioned that you were already writing fiction when you “walked backward” into reviewing: what does that mean? I don’t think I actually know, or remember, how you got started with The Millions. Garth Risk Hallberg: That’s a bit of a long story, but basically I met Max when I was 17, in Washington, D.C. I had grown up in North Carolina, on tobacco road. “Down East.” My town was a college town, but a small one, and such elements of college culture as we got largely involved keg stands and pool halls. Both of which I came to appreciate as a teenager -- but it lacked that density of record stores and plays and paintings or whatever it was that I was probably hungry for. So I was a voracious reader from an early age: novels and nonfiction and increasingly poetry. And then the summer I was 16 I was working in a radiologist’s office, literally typing Social Security Numbers into a computer for minimum wage and spending the proceeds on, um, various forms of contraband, and my mom said, “That is not going to look very good on your college application.” I told her I wasn’t going to apply for college. We went back and forth about it, and she finally in a fit of despair suggested a residential poetry workshop at Duke at the end of the summer. I think her pitch was that it was only a week long. So I went up there, and naturally it was instantly like, “My god, a community!” What’s that line from the end of Jesus’ Son? “Freaks like us?” [Supplies clarification via email: “All these weirdos, and me getting a little better every day right in the midst of them. I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.”] Among them was a kid from Washington, D.C., named Derek, who became a close friend. And I started going up to D.C., which was about a five-hour drive from where I lived. On the weekends and in the summers, I’d drive up and find a place to crash and hang out with Derek and his friends, all of whom seemed bewitchingly well-read and creative. And also very wholesome in a strange way. I should emphasize that the teenage culture where I was from was not one of great psychic or spiritual health. Like, the group of people I’d been ratting around with included, on its periphery, a couple runaways and a small arms dealer. And I think I had a tropism for cities already, but I’d never been to New York, I’d never been to Paris or San Francisco or LA or anything -- so to me D.C. was at that point the paradigmatic big city. Max was a friend of Derek’s. So Max and I hung out a lot. And then I started using D.C. as a jumping-off point for raids on New York. TM: And when did The Millions enter the picture? GRH: I guess that was after I got out of grad school. I’d gone to NYU after having spent three post-college years in the workforce in D.C. and not liking what I’d seen. That’s actually not entirely true, but... TM: What kind of work? GRH: My first job out of college was writing Internet content, which paid shockingly well but was not good for the world. But a couple months into that came September 11. And in the aftermath, I quit that job and went to teach elementary school for two years. TM: Like how some people joined the army. GRH: Well, I’m a lover, not a fighter. In any case, I had surrendered by then to the fact that I was not, or was no longer, America’s Greatest Living Teenage Poet. But I’d been writing fiction steadily, and in the fall of 2001, for inexplicable reasons, the fiction started to feel really alive. All of a sudden, I started to feel like I was good at it. When it got to where I couldn’t split time with teaching, I applied to graduate school, which was also an excuse for my wife and me to move to New York. And then a couple years later, in maybe 2007, Max called and said, “You read a lot of books, and I’m turning The Millions into a group blog -- will you contribute?” So I did one thing, and I think we maybe got an email from the person under review, saying, “I had written off blogs as this hysterical thing, but this piece is actually thoughtful.” I’m sure you’ve gotten those emails, too; they’re gratifying. It’s a very direct connection. So I started writing reviews alongside the fiction. I didn’t really know what I was doing as a reviewer, besides thinking through questions of aesthetics. But I knew what I didn’t want to do. TM: It’s been a couple of years since I’ve read some of those works of criticism -- the pieces like “How Avant Is It?” I remember writing you some cringe-inducing emails in the past asking how you got so smart. I find it astonishing that you can write these dense essays and simultaneously be writing such an expansive and, accessible is not the word, imagine-a-better-word novel. You’re a Pierre Bourdieu in the streets but a, um, Dickens in the sheets. GRH: Well, maybe another way of phrasing your generous response to the novel is that I haven’t yet managed to hit the mark I’d like to in the critical writing. Because to the degree that there’s anything intimidating about the voice of the criticism, then I’ve failed in my attempt to make something demotic and beautiful. And I should also say, about those pieces, that maybe I manage to be more humane and given to levity in the mode of praise than in the mode of attack. It took me a long time to get over “Somebody said something wrong on the Internet” and to just find something to hold up for praise. My favorite piece I wrote for the site is probably the one on Deborah Eisenberg. And of course in the essays you cited above, I’m kind of covertly working out some ideas about my own fiction. But in any case, the rhetoric of fiction is so different. If being a passionate amateur is a rhetorical complication you have to deal with starting out as a critic, it’s an asset, or even a birthright, for the novelist. Or anyway, for this novelist. Or that’s my opinion. Instead of needing to establish you know something, you’re more credible as a novelist establishing that you don’t understand something, that you’re seeking to fathom the unfathomable. There’s more room for mystery. Things can be both true and false at the same time -- true for one character, false for another; right in one context, wrong in another. You have to be willing to be duped, Henry James says. That’s sort of my standard for “irony” in the novel, and I guess it creates kind of a gentler temperament. TM: When you say that the rhetoric of fiction is different than writing criticism -- is there a time when you sit down and say “I’m being too arch right now, I’m being too knowing, I’m using some kind of device that I would use when I’m writing criticism”? GRH: I’m tempted to say, conversely, that the voice of the fiction just comes more naturally to me, but I’d be using the adverb in a very peculiar, almost technical sense. Because writing is definitely not what we typically think of as “easy” or “natural” for the person doing it. You know this as a writer -- it’s mostly torture. You have those days when you kind of light up inside like a pinball machine or something, and all of a sudden everything is feeding back 10 times as much as it did the previous day, and you have this sense of joy and you walk out of the house and run into someone you know, or your spouse comes home and says “How was your day,” and you say, “This was a great day! The writing went well!” And then if you actually paused and walked back through the writing hour by hour you would realize, “No, it was still mostly torture, but it was a kind of exquisite and joyous torture on this day, as opposed to the gray horrible torture that it is on most days.” I tend to forget this about other writers, because I read as if the person doing the writing were speaking. So if an essay takes 45 minutes to read, I have this kind of unexamined assumption that it also took 45 minutes to produce. And then it’s like, “Damn, E.B. White is so natural, he writes with such ease, how does he do that?” But I know from experience that no, no, no, that’s an 18th draft and he spent months and months and months pulling his hair out to get there. What I can say is that fiction is the first writing I do every day. And if there’s a day -- and there have been many in the last couple of years -- when I’m only going to have room for one or the other, fiction or essay, I’m always going to choose fiction. Because writing nonfiction doesn’t make me less crazy in the way that fiction does. For me in a piece of fiction when everything is working, everything is embodied and incarnate, and sometimes ideas that are illogical or I don’t agree with or seem silly to me in real life suddenly become compelling because a fictional person believes in them. And that’s maybe part of the strangeness of the rhetoric of fiction. TM: It’s funny because I kind of think of you just sitting down and speaking the novel to an extent. I think of it as being narrated by a generous late-20th-century god with an extensive vocabulary who periodically zeroes in on the respective consciousnesses of the characters. GRH: That’s sort of what I mean about belief and the fictional person. You dig a little way into that, and it opens up all kinds of bizarre logical problems and mysteries and circles to be squared involving subjectivity and objectivity. This novel is clearly a deep attempt to be “with” the characters, but also to make them meaningful by knitting them together into something larger. So I wanted the narrative voice to be constantly modulating between the poles of total objectivity and total subjectivity -- but only ever actually touching one or the other pole in a few select places. And using a broad vocabulary gave me the room to dial up or down the degree of slanginess or rhetoric or whatever as we move in and out. To send a constantly modulating signal about vector and position. Rather than free indirect style just being a switch you flip -- now in character; now out of character -- I wanted it to have what Kurt Cobain once described as “psychedelic” dynamics. [Supplies Cobain quote via email: “I wanted to learn to go in between those things, go back and forth, almost become psychedelic in a way but with a lot more structure.”] Which is also closer to how I experience life. And somehow the interludes in City on Fire, those first-person “documents,” are related to that. I thought a lot about how the enjambment of Esther’s first-person voice and Dickens’s third-person voice works in Bleak House, even though it “doesn’t work.” Or, like, the letters in Herzog. I’m pretty sure Bellow was frustrated with having to choose first or third person, and kind of wanted the resources of both, us being both inside and outside of Herzog, and just is like, “A-ha! The letters!” As the Dude says, there are a lot of ins and outs, a lot of what have-yous. [Garbled sound of talking with phone covered.] Sorry -- the exterminator and my landlady were walking around. TM: What do you need to exterminate? What do you have? GRH: We’ve got some mice. We’ve got a few mice. TM: Aww. GRH: Which I’d rather not exterminate. Maybe rodent prophylaxis is what we’re trying to practice here. [More discussion with landlady, exterminator.] Where were we? TM: The ins and outs and what-have-yous. Which extend beyond the characters and the voice to the plot. Did you have to create a map for yourself ahead of time? GRH: Well, in a very strange way -- a way that’s almost mystical -- I already had a lot of the book ahead of time. I’d had this sort of vision, which I’ve probably beaten to death in other interviews... TM: The famous bus. GRH: Right, on a Greyhound from D.C. to New York, to scope out places to live, and as improbable as it sounds, in the space of 45 seconds or however long it was, a lot of things -- characters, architecture, images, events, scenes -- sort of all came at me at once. But it was like getting a box of puzzle pieces in the mail. You can tell how big the puzzle is going to be, roughly, and how intricate, and what the color scheme is, but you don’t necessarily know whether the piece you’re holding is the upper-left or the lower-right corner. Nor do you know how everything connects. And mapping it all out ahead of time may close off certain intuitive leaps. I had this dream -- I still have this dream -- of the novel, what D.H. Lawrence called “the big bright book of life,” being as organic as a tree. In order for a tree to achieve its shape, it has to grow and respond to all kinds of obstacles and dry years and wet years. So even in this case of extreme complication I was reluctant to do any kind of formal outlining. If I’m verbally tracing over something that’s already been outlined in schematic or graphic form the words just die. And maybe this is an overlap with how I feel about essays: the feeling of the writer being taken by surprise is a totally enchanting feeling for me as a reader, and the feeling of being taken by surprise is a totally enchanting feeling for me as a writer, because something has just emerged that I was not capable of producing through purposeful thinking. It’s bigger than me. Anyway, I just kind of wrote and wrote and arrived at a process that seemed to work, stitching together pieces and seeing what fit. And some answers would come to me very quickly, and some would come after a lot of trial and error. And some came while I was sleeping. TM: Like what, for example? GRH: Like the design stuff. I had this dream in what was probably spring of 2008, early on in the writing of the novel. And, peculiarly, I saw the finished book. This wasn’t under the sign of anxiety, as much of the rest of my life is -- it was a dream of, like, feeling joyful and at peace. Me handing the book to a reader, a specific person in my life. And inside the book, some of the pages looked a little funny. And I woke up and thought, “Well, that’s odd.” But I guess that’s what it turned out to be. TM: One thing I’ve learned about you from this is that you are kind of a Desert Father, having visions and dreams. Do you have signs and portents all the time, or were they specific to this book? GRH: It may just be that I’m very suggestible. Maybe the delinquent habit reading trains you into is to be highly suggestible, so that if someone writes that Character X is performing Action Y, you say, “Oh, yes, I can see that.” So by the same token, if my son says, “Dad, you’re stepping on the sidewalk cracks!” there’s a very real part of me that wants to call my mother. Opening umbrellas indoors, all that kind of stuff, I’m very superstitious about. I’m tempted to say very California, but I don’t want... TM: I live in California and I’m exactly the same way. GRH: Well, you’re a good reader. So you’re also highly suggestible. Of all the people writing regularly for The Millions you and I probably have the most similar relationship to literature. And superstition is also just a kind of Pascal’s Wager. You know, just in case. But that was part of the attraction to writing for me. I always saw it as intrinsically related to dreams and visions and the whole gnostic thing, the call from the beyond. I’ve basically been writing since I was six, and I think of it as a vocation more than a profession, both because it’s a preposterous profession, which remunerates very few people in ways that allow them to live in the world, and also because it just seemed like...Have you read The Gift? Lewis Hyde? TM: No. GRH: You should read it! You would love it. And not to presuppose that I had any talent as a kid, or do now, but it seemed to me from a very early age that writing was something I had to do. It felt like a gift in the sense that it was given to me, not by me -- it didn’t feel like a choice. I thought when I was a teenager that this meant I would become a poet. And I did not turn out to have a gift in the senses that are required to do that. But I still think of that -- being a poet -- as the purest and holiest and (interestingly) least professional way of being a writer. But the job posting for Poet, in the mind of the 15-year-old beatnik, is like, Duties include: Must spend lots of time walking around waiting for signals from the universe. I think a lot of that stuff has stayed with me, both because I remain inordinately attached to the person that I was when I was 17 and wanted to be Rimbaud, and also because no superior way of making sense of the universe has yet presented itself. So I remember at that age driving around at night and having the streetlights go out right at the moment I drove under them. And the rational explanation is that there was something electromagnetic going on with my car. But how do you then explain that exactly the song I needed to hear came on at exactly that moment on the radio? And I experienced that as a profound moment. No amount of disillusioning can ever persuade me that it wasn’t a profound experience. Two other things occur to me on the question of superstition. One is that the whole writing thing is just sort of magic or alchemy. I was talking to someone last night about questions that make writers groan, and this person pointed to “How much of the work is autobiographical?” and “Where do you get your ideas?” And I was thinking that, yes, okay, those questions are sort of banal (even as they underpin so many higher-order interview questions). But also that maybe there is something of anthropological interest in the fact that people keep asking them and gravitating toward them. Like, maybe one of the interesting things about the question of autobiography is that it remains a mystery -- and the reason it drives writers crazy to be asked it is that they can’t answer. Who the hell knows where the ideas come from? And who the hell knows how much of the work is you and how much of it is not? We live in an age that is mildly allergic to those kinds of mysteries. But if you sort of consecrate your life to something that brings you face to face with those mysteries on a daily basis, you learn to respect them, or leave room for them to just be, and maybe that encourages tolerance for all sorts of other weird behavior. It’s like the baseball player who doesn’t wash his jockstrap. I don’t usually wear a jockstrap when writing, and if I did I’d like to think that I’d keep it in good repair, but I understand the mentality. The second possible account of the superstition would be that it’s less a concomitant of the underlying mysteries than a mask you put on them. I’ve never been very trusting of what writers said about their own writing -- I remember this came from E.L. Doctorow and it might be apocryphal, but something about Lawrence claiming to have finished a draft of Aaron’s Rod or whatever and to have turned it over face-down on the desk and written the next draft never looking at the first one. Doctorow’s surmise was that this was probably bullshit. But in order to leave room for mysteries, maybe sometimes you kind of concoct these fictions about how and why you’re doing what you’re doing, which are not true but you believe them to be true, and they help you not to look at the real reasons or to try to find out what the real reasons are. So I feel like some of that writerly mumbo-jumbo may just be a way of attempting to preserve... I’m sounding really new-agey about this. TM: I’m hearing that writing is a kind of cult, not in the sense of Jonestown, but of Delphi, oracles, gases coming out of vents in the earth and so forth. GRH: I’m thinking more about the double-edged nature of self-consciousness. On one hand, as a writer you have to be really self-conscious. And I haven’t even figured out, and don’t know if I want to examine too closely, whether it’s a constant thing or whether you’re toggling back and forth -- but at least periodically you’re moving into the reader position and becoming conscious of yourself as you will sound to the reader. But then, too much self-consciousness is totally paralyzing. It seems practically, even if it is not empirically, a very weird and mysterious thing. And then you write the book and the book gets published and you sit down to write the next book, and the fact that you’re all the way back at the blank page trying to figure out how you did it last time just speaks to the mystery. TM: There were so many moments when I would think, “Hmm, Garth is somehow now a 24-year-old gay black man from Georgia, or a 36-year-old woman recovering from an eating disorder.” And not in some shoddy “He couldn’t stop being himself” way, but in a way that I could feel some fundamental connection and sympathy with the characters. GRH: I’m flattered, because that was very much how I thought about the ambition of the book. There’s a great Mark Singer profile of David Milch, who’s the creator of Hill Street Blues and Deadwood, and Milch is like emerging from a somewhat dissolute background of addiction and pain via a lot of crazy and superstitious ways of thinking about Art. He’s one of those guys who will capitalize Art and not put it in quotation marks. And it might be generationally just not attainable for me, but I aspire to be the kind of person who can write Art with a capital A and no quotation marks, because that’s how much it meant to me and still means to me. When I was 17 it meant that to me every day, all day -- in a very real way, it saved my life -- whereas now at 36 I fall slightly out of contact hour by hour with all that Art can mean. But when it’s really operating on me it’s definitely a capitalization-with-no-quotation-marks thing. Anyway Milch, in this profile, uses the phrase, which I think he gets from one of St. Paul’s epistles: “Going out in spirit.” And Art-making for me is a going out in spirit. With this book, I thought that -- I don’t even know where the characters came from, but they came to me in this solid form, and I thought, I have to find a way to go out in spirit to them. “Compassion” means suffering with. So I had to compassionate, or suffer, with these characters. And pretty early on, I realized the question I had to keep in mind was “How is this person me?” Because they are all me. They all have to be me, or the book won’t work. TM: The ones for whom you feel that -- or the reader feels that -- it’s all the good guys. There’s a distance between the narrator and the bad guys. GRH: That might be a failing of the novel! TM: No, because structurally it should be that way. Why should the person who is coming out with this narrative -- why should he be able to... Okay, no spoilers. Well, no, I’m not quite right, you do get some backstory for the Goulds, but that’s biography. GRH: It was complicated for me because I think I really want, philosophically, to have the bad guys, the antagonist figures, be as fully human...I think of this as the Dick Cheney Problem. It goes like this: I know philosophically that Dick Cheney is human to Dick Cheney, and to his wife and daughters and friends, and that his inner life is as rich as mine, but I’m not quite a good enough novelist to understand what it might be like to be Dick Cheney. And what you end up with if you subscribe to the Dick Cheney Problem is you have antagonists who don’t participate in the full breadth of the writer’s sympathies. This may feel a little bit 19th-century, and that’s not displeasing to me. I mean, Dick Cheney is a little 19th-century. Still... One of the books that was sort of on my mind as I wrote was Demons, the Dostoevsky book. Stavrogin has great vitality, but I don’t remember him having as much interiority as, say, Ivan Karamazov does. And I think what fascinated me about Amory Gould, the worst actor in City on Fire, is that here’s someone who, if I get inside him, has all the things that I have as his author. He has the means to know everybody’s secrets, and he has the means to plot, like a novelist does, and he is very intelligent, but he doesn’t have...he can’t go out in spirit. He’s spiritually defective. Or rather, I hope we see, damaged. And without the strange ineffable thing that we were gesturing at earlier, all of the concrete talents and drive required to make a fiction won’t work. People won’t achieve their destinies within the story because you won’t be able to understand them. But it’s nice, I guess, that the book is long enough to have problems for me as a writer, things I can’t decide whether they are what I wanted. Though that may be another enabling fiction: the book wanted it that way, and I’m the innocent bystander. Anyway, I’m glad you picked up on that Amory thing, because it definitely stood out for me. Maybe I don’t have enough evil in my soul. TM: There’s the authenticity of character, and then there’s authenticity of, I guess, scene. On that score, did you worry about the punk stuff? Is that a scene you were familiar with, in its contemporary iteration? GRH: My canon at 15 would have been Kerouac, Brautigan...you can fill in that whole canon. Hippies, proto-hippies, and post-hippies. And also heavy doses of Stephen King. But yes, when I was in D.C. and for three years after college I was kind of hanging around the punk scene there, which was still very small. Or not small, but a size where everybody knew everybody. Small enough to have that feeling of being a community. It was also intensely political and creative and just a fascinating contrast to the more louche, symbolist New York punk scene of the '70s. There’s actually a good story about Minor Threat coming up to play New York with Bad Brains and being like, “Screw this place, you guys are all junkies.” The thing that really struck me about the punk scene in the '90s was how creative it was. It was about making things, making your own bands, making your own 'zines, making your own fashions, making your own life -- and judging people not by the aesthetic content of how they presented themselves but by how much effort had gone into creating themselves. But I loved both sides of the music and both sides of the impulse, both the creative and the destructive or nihilist. The sort of Thanatos and Eros -- and those two things seemed ultimately to thread together for me most satisfyingly in Patti Smith. So when I realized I was going to write this book, one of the thrills was knowing that all these feelings about punk and what it had meant to me, the scope and variety of it, would have a place to go and live. And of course that’s just one of many things that found a home in the book. There was also all I’d been feeling about race and class and sex and coming-of-age and marriages...It was the first thing I’d ever worked on where all the parts of what was meaningful to me could find a home. TM: Speaking of marriages, I just read a little snippet of an interview with Adam Johnson. “When I’m writing, I become a terrible husband, I abandon my children.” GRH: That’s what Jenny Offill calls “the Art Monster,” right? TM: Exactly. I’m curious about how your writing works with parenting and how much your wife, who works full-time, has to pick up -- how do the logistics work? GRH: The short answer is that they don’t. The first draft of this I had nearly finished right before becoming a father. In fact, I was close enough that I probably could have finished. But I’d always known that the novel was going to end with the blackout of '77 -- that it was going to have to have this grand finale. And I thought, foolishly, “I’m going to wait and finish it after we have this baby, because that’s going to give me something I don’t already have emotionally.” This idea that the book needs a different writer at the end -- I adapted it from George Saunders, who claims it’s from Einstein, but apparently Einstein can’t be found saying it anywhere: that “no worthy problem is solved on the plane of its conception.” And in fact my older son arrives and I discover that I am different, but not in the way I’d thought. I’m instantly so much tireder and dumber and more impatient and slower. I wrote the blackout that summer. I started waking up at 4:30 or 5 in the morning, so I was writing it in the dark, in the summer, the stifling summer of 2010, and it took forever and it was a totally different kind of writing. The ratio of joy to torture was lower in a lot of places, and it took me a long time to get it right -- or what I thought was right. Maybe it’s not right still. By the time I was finishing the fourth draft and revising, our second son had come along and my wife was finishing her dissertation. So we were like a small publishing concern, only half our staff was under the age of three, and it was insane. There was no sleeping happening at all -- though that did give a kind of visionary edge to the work. I was basically hallucinating from fatigue. And we were completely broke and not happy campers in a lot of ways. It was very, very hard. We kept getting priced out of where we were living and moving deeper and deeper into Brooklyn. And people write these essays, “Why Do Writers Live in Brooklyn?” But even if I didn’t love New York, which I do, my wife was shackled to her job, which was in Manhattan, and my teaching income -- I was teaching four classes a semester at that time -- came from being in a place that has enough colleges to support that kind of adjunct-teaching load. So not to oversell this, but in those years I felt like the schlepping mascot of the new gig economy. And now I continue to wake up really early -- our basic agreement is that whatever happens before 8 a.m., I’m not responsible for. So if I wake up at 4:30 or 5 I can have three-plus hours before everyone’s awake. My brain’s very pliable at that hour, and it’s quiet. Then I take the kids and finish them on breakfast and get them ready to go and take them off to their allotted places, and am back at the desk by 9:30. But by then my brain feels like it’s been the victim of assault with a melon baller, and it can take me a dangerous 45 minutes to figure out where I was and what I was doing. And within that 45 minutes if I succumb to the temptation to glance at a newspaper, there goes the rest of the morning. But then there’s this beast that emerges at the end of every draft. I call it the Crazy Old Man of the Mountain, Jenny Offill calls it the Art Monster, Adam Johnson has his version...It’s a place of not shaving. A place of questionable hygiene, because you’re like, “I could shower or I could keep working on this for 15 minutes.” A place of not eating for long periods of time and then gorging to make up for it, a place of no sleeping. And that creature, the Crazy Old Man of the Mountain, is scary for children. Like Der Struwwelpeter, who might come and eat you out of absent-mindedness. It’s just not a healthy thing to have in the house. It’s not a model of probity or balance. Yet somehow having kids makes the Crazy Old Man worse, because you have to allocate more of your meaningful work time to overheated obsession, since you’re not getting as much done in third gear. Or you’ve been in second gear when you really needed to be in third, so then you have to make up for it by shifting into fifth gear. And fifth gear is crazy for everyone, and the kids are like, “Dad, why are you driving so fast?” So again, the short answer is, it really doesn’t work. But I look at someone like Michael Chabon or our friend Edan Lepucki. Or Dickens and Joyce -- no, wait. They were terrible fathers, so they don’t count. But people have done it. It must be a kind of muddle-through thing. TM: And now you’re done. And now it’s all starting, in a way. GRH: [Laughs.] Yes, I’m having the uncomfortable feeling that some things are being typed as we speak. And I don’t know what it’s all going to be like. I have no scale for what it will be like, how people will react. Having written a 900-page novel is already unforgivable. But in my defense, I didn’t feel like I had a choice. There’s something in the book somewhere about choice and freedom not being the same thing. So: I didn’t feel like I was choosing this. Yet on the other hand, I’ve rarely felt so free.
1. There are a few digs at you, reader, in Purity, Jonathan Franzen’s big new novel. Here’s one buried in the musings of Andreas Wolf, the sociopathic leader of a data-dumping transparency project -- one analogous to but at odds with WikiLeaks: “The more he existed as the Internet’s image of him, the less he felt like he existed as a flesh-and-blood person. The Internet meant death.” Have you read a take or a tweet excoriating Jonathan Franzen? You inhabit a world “governed...by fear: the fear of unpopularity and uncoolness, the fear of missing out, the fear of being flamed or forgotten.” Ironically, the Internet -- the thing with which Franzen's opprobrium is most frequently associated -- is also the vehicle by which his utterances become collectively memorable. The Internet is why I know, for example, that 20 years ago, Franzen expressed anxiety about cultural irrelevance in the type of tone-deaf revelation primed to annoy less-famous writers and destined to become characteristic: “I had already realized that the money, the hype, the limo ride to a Vogue shoot weren’t simply fringe benefits. They were the main prize, the consolation for no longer mattering to the culture.” No one should be permanently lashed to his or her remarks of decades past, but Franzen, with his frequent public grumping, invites a certain amount of scrutiny. And despite the easy prey of Franzen’s Vogue shoots, that essay, “Perchance to Dream,” published in Harper’s in 1996, contains an artist’s statement that remains the tidiest, most cogent thesis on the project of Franzen’s writing: “It had always been a prejudice of mine that putting a novel’s characters in a dynamic social setting enriched the story that was being told; that the glory of the genre consisted in its spanning of the expanse between private experience and public context.” Of course, nailing the “public context” was a source of considerable anxiety: I’d already worked in contemporary pharmacology and TV and race and prison life and a dozen other vocabularies; how was I going to satirize Internet boosterism and the Dow Jones as well while leaving room for the complexities of character and locale? Panic grows in the gap between the increasing length of the project and the shrinking time increments of cultural change... With Purity, the project is long, the cultural change significant, time of the essence. Time presses in all of Franzen’s novels, for reasons of health -- human or environmental -- or economics, or plate tectonics. In his latest, several plot devices add urgency: there’s a home on the verge of foreclosure, a sensational news story in danger of being scooped, more data in need of the “disinfecting” sunshine of the aforementioned Wolf’s Sunlight Project. If there’s anything that denotes a Franzen text, it’s a socio-cultural rant, and the slightly Bill-and-Ted-like deployment of the adjective “excellent.” Here’s Walter Berglund of Franzen’s last novel, Freedom, telling the employees of an Appalachian body-armor plant what’s what: 'You, too, can help denude every last scrap of native habitat in Asia, Africa, and South America! You, too, can buy six-foot-wide plasma TV screens that consume unbelievable amounts of energy, even when they’re not turned on. But that’s OK, because that’s why we threw you out of your homes in the first place, so we could strip-mine your ancestral hills and feed the coal-fired generators that are the number-one of cause of global warming and other excellent things like acid rain.' Or Chip of The Corrections, foaming at the sister who is just trying to get him upstairs for a parental lunch: 'I’m saying the structure of the entire culture is flawed. I’m saying the bureaucracy has arrogated the right to define certain states of mind as "diseased." A lack of desire to spend money becomes a symptom of disease that requires expensive medication. Which medication then destroys the libido, in other words destroy the appetite for the one pleasure in life that’s free, which means the person has to spend even more money on compensatory pleasures. The very definition of mental "health" is the ability to participate in the consumer economy. When you buy into therapy, you’re buying into buying. And I’m saying that I personally am losing the battle with a commercialized, medicalized, totalitarian modernity right this instant.' Franzen, for all that he attracts online derision, knows that nobody is irredeemable who has a sense of humor (as he told the Guardian in a recent profile, he considers himself a “comic novelist”). Comic, ranting males abound in his last two novels, but Purity as a whole is comparatively humorless in ways that are both intentional and not; humor's absence, on the intentional front, is what damns the leaker Wolf and a cruelly drawn character named Anabel Laird, the mother of the novel's heroine, Purity "Pip" Tyler. Purity is baggy -- comprising several deep, character-driven sections linked together by a series of unlikely events. Wolf's segments are in a jarring, significantly darker key than that of Franzen’s previous fiction. Wolf wrestles throughout the book with a second self he calls “the Killer;” in some especially gross moments he almost channels Jonathan Littell’s seemingly placid, ultimately depraved Nazi narrator in The Kindly Ones. Here's Wolf recalling his troubled mother: "He remembered remembering, when he saw her pussy in the rose garden, that this wasn't the first time he'd seen it -- that something he's thought was a disturbing dream from his early childhood hadn't actually been a dream." Or here, exercising his sexual frustrations about Pip: "It was a relief to stop fighting the Killer and submit to the evil of his idea; it turned him on so much that he went to the spot on the floor where Pip had stood naked and used the panties she’d left to milk himself, three times, of the substance he hadn’t spent in her...” Purity's "public context," as Franzen put it in 1996, also feels more urgent than that of his previous work; there’s a polemic built into Wolf that his character is finally a bit too flimsy to support. You'd think that someone like Wolf would worship the Internet for its purifying possibilities; but its potentiality is more obliterating -- more like the state in George Orwell's Oceania -- than it is a vehicle for liberation. In Wolf’s conception, the Internet is aligned with the totalitarian system that characterized the East Germany of his youth: “If -- and only if -- you had enough money and/or tech capability, you could control your Internet persona and, thus, your destiny and your virtual afterlife. Optimize or die. Kill or be killed.” In a keystone passage, Franzen intersperses a description of East Germany under Socialism with the tech orthodoxies and infelicities of the present day: The real appeal of apparatchikism was the safety of belonging. Outside, the air smelled like brimstone, the food was bad, the economy moribund, the cynicism rampant, but inside, victory of the class enemy was assured. Outside, the middle class was disappearing faster than the icecaps, xenophobes were winning elections or stocking up on assault rifles, warring tribes were butchering each other religiously, but inside, disruptive new technologies were rendering traditional politics obsolete. Inside, decentralized ad hoc communities were rewriting the rules of creativity, the revolution rewarding the risk-taker who understood the power of networks. The New Regime even recycled the old Republic’s buzzwords, collective, collaborative. Axiomatic to both was that a new species of humanity was emerging. On this, apparatchiks of every stripe agreed. It never seemed to bother them that their ruling elites consisted of the grasping, brutal old species of humanity. It's unclear, ultimately, why Wolf, with his mistrust of the Internet's role in society, has spent so much time, so much effort, to set up his Bolivian hacker's commune. (Because he's a little insane, basically.) And his Sunlight Project, apart from the spectacular descriptions of its setting in a Bolivian valley, takes place essentially in front of a green screen, cobbled together with references to a “private fiber-optic line,” a “network of malcontents and hackers,” “facial-recognition software,” or an “impenetrable maze of electronic red herrings to protect the source.” Perhaps due to generational differences, something about Franzen’s “public context” has never quite rung true to me -- his college freshman’s September 11th in Freedom didn’t match my freshman self, staring blank-faced at the television in week two of college. But it has also never much mattered to me, because I think Franzen’s ability to convey the private experience is often transcendent and perfect. I can just look at the final paragraph of The Corrections and start crying -- Alfred and Enid and the ice chip and the changes she’s going to make in her life. Goddamn. But in Purity, like Freedom, the world is sometimes only an echo of a world that should be familiar. Gertrude Stein said of Oakland that there was “no there there,” and Franzen seems content to take her at her word. Pip, too, occasionally lacks a “there;” in the end she works as a character -- you root for her happiness -- but Franzen includes oddly few context clues for her. Who were the friends that Pip slowly broke up with via aloof text messages and hangout-cancellations? What clothes did they wear; what things did they read; what shows did they watch? Barring financial constraints, would Pip see Magic Mike XXL in the theater? $130,000 in student loans is alleged to loom over Pip, clouding her future happiness, but the day-to-day math of her straitened circumstances is missing, with none of the lovingly crafted accounting of pitiful finances that resulted in Chip Lambert's memorable salmon-down-the-pants scene in The Corrections. Nothing about the description of the Oakland squatters’ domicile that Purity inhabits -- or her co-residents -- necessarily convinces the reader that Jonathan Franzen has embedded with Occupiers and freegans. Purity sang for me in its least overtly culturally relevant moments -- like the complex romantic history of Pip's mentor (and Wolf's brother/foil) Tom Aberant, or that of his partner Leila Helou, who blooms into brilliant life for one section and then more or less fades away. There's the twisted romance of Tom and Pip’s mother, Anabel, put forth in a memoir saved on Tom’s hard drive as “A river of meat.” Like Patty Berglund in Freedom, Tom's explosive personal document drives events in the text. This is a vengeful -- on Franzen’s part, it seems -- piece of writing that describes Tom's long marriage with a comically unhinged harpy. Anabel is an artist; for much of their marriage she is at work on a decade-long performance piece visually documenting every centimeter of her own body: “You need to do whatever it takes to be finished,” Tom tells her. “You know I've never finished anything in my life,” she says. She beat her fists on her offending head. It took me two hours to talk her down and then a further hour to emerge from the sulk she’d put me in by suggesting that my aesthetic was vulgar. Then, for three hours, I helped her block out a rough schedule for completing her project, and then, for another hour, I began the transfer of important thoughts from the first of her forty-odd notebooks into a new notebook, written by me. Then it was time for her three hours of exercise. It's cruel, but it works. We never get Anabel’s point of view, although Pip more or less corroborates Tom’s account with her experience of being Anabel’s dutiful child. But unlike Tom, Pip has access to Anabel’s most endearing feature: "The pure, spontaneous love in that smile, every time she’d caught sight of Pip...Her mother had needed to give love and receive it...Was that so monstrous?" 2. In a recent article in Harper’s, William Deresiewicz lamented the neoliberalism that has taken over the university campus. “For all its rhetoric of freedom and individual initiative, the culture of the market is exceptionally good at inculcating a sense of helplessness. So much of the language around college today...presumes that young people are the passive objects of economic forces. That they have no agency, no options.” Franzen gives Pip a healthy dose of agency, considering the challenges posed by her financial situation and her difficult mother, but he also gives her a Dickensian surprise, making a millennial fairy-tale out of the story that somewhat corroborates Pip's oblivious young-person-ness: “The flight, in a too-small jet, dodging thunderstorms, cured Pip of any desire for future air travel. She expected death the whole way. What was interesting was how quickly she then forgot about it, like a dog to whom death was literally unimaginable...” As Pip hits tennis balls with a young man in a touching, chaste courtship, Franzen gives us all tacit permission to stop caring about the big stuff; it's nearly an acknowledgement that the big stuff, globally speaking, is never really what matters in his novels -- not nearly so much as love, anyway: “All over the state, reservoirs and wells were going dry, the taste and clarity of tap water worsening, farmers suffering, Northern Californians conserving while Orange County set new records for monthly consumption, but none of this mattered for the hour and a half that she was on the court with Jason.” Franzen's last book was The Kraus Project, an annotated translation of essays by the Viennese writer Karl Kraus. In one of these, Kraus lashes out against a style of brief, impressionistic journalism ascendant in his day. “Writing feuilletons means twining curls on a bald head,” Kraus grumped, and thus provided a point of entry for Franzen’s own celebrated brand of grumping. By coincidence, mere days after the release of Purity, New Directions will publish a collection of feuilletons by Joseph Roth, the great Austro-Hungarian novelist and journalist -- and a contemporary of Kraus -- beautifully translated by Michael Hofmann. Roth was a master of shedding light onto the "public context" in the uneasy interwar moment when Germany was gearing up for the great smash-up, when "in these assembly halls, where people used to go to smooch and drink, they [were] now daubing swastikas and Soviet stars on grimy walls." I read this haunting compilation -- one which utterly gives the lie to Kraus’s denigration of the feuilleton form -- concurrently with Purity. About Germany in this awful, pregnant moment, Roth wrote: Anyone who has sat at the bedside of a sick patient will know that the hours are not all pathos and anguish. The sick man will talk all kinds of nonsense, ridiculous, trivial, unworthy of himself and his condition. He is missing the regulating consciousness. That’s just want is missing in Germany: the regulating consciousness. I can't say how well Franzen writes Germany -- according to Roth in 1923, it is the "least understood nation in all of Europe" -- but I know that he is interested in the “regulating consciousness.” The noble art of journalism practiced well, the good sense of Pip, whatever it is that keeps Tom from strangling Anabel, whatever it is that's lacking from Andreas Wolf’s strange brain -- these things are that consciousness embodied. Franzen is also, I think, interested in creating the kind of luminous societal prophesy that animates Roth’s short, wondrous pieces. But Roth himself knew the pitfalls of that effort: From time to time I think of describing the ‘German,’ or defining his ‘typical’ existence. Probably that isn’t possible. Even when I sense the presence of such a thing, I am unable to define it. What can I do, apart from writing about individuals I meet by chance, setting down what greets my eyes and ears, and selecting from them as I see fit? The describing of singularities within this profusion may be the least deceptive; the chance thing, plucked from a tangle of others, may most easily make for order. I have seen this and that; I have tried to write about what stuck in my senses and my memory. I think Jonathan Franzen is a wonderful novelist. I don't know him, but I often feel like he knows me, and for that I love him. His work is most vulnerable to attack when it tries too visibly to be the chief diagnoser and prognosticator of "the culture." It is most meaningful when it deals in those "singularities within the profusion." Still, it endeavors always to do both -- and therein, I think, lies its essential goodness, its essential purity.
Last week my husband and I were having breakfast with our seven-month-old baby, sticking bits of fruit into her mouth and prattling inane words of love. For a couple of months now the baby has been smiling big, open-mouthed smiles that show her two teeth and animate her entire body; her feet kick and her chubby hands wave and the recipient feels the smile like the warmth of a cheerful little sun on a minor planet. “Pretty baby,” my husband said to her that morning, when she beamed thus at him. “What a pretty little girl.” There is a common evocation of beauty during the very new newborn period. Babies emerge as slightly mottled fruits that have been sitting in their syrup too long. But if you are very lucky and the things happen that are supposed to happen, they unfurl and dry off and fill out and within a few days or weeks they’ve become those velvet-skinned, bright-eyed beings in the first and most tender season of human beauty. I never recoiled, in that first season, to hear the nice people on the bus say “beautiful baby,” to us in reverent tones. It’s a thanksgiving for safe passage, a prayer for all new defenseless things. In any case, the adjective is usually invoked without its invoker seeing much more than a scalloped ear or a tiny scrumpled face. And even if the baby alarms you with its rawness, “beautiful baby” is really the only thing to say. The new mother doesn’t need to hear “Nice prune,” or “You must have squeezed ‘er good coming out.” But after a few months have passed, when the word “newborn” must be set aside with the tiny hats and receiving blankets and impossibly small onesies, faint suggestions of the adult visage emerge. Friendly strangers and the baby’s own parents and relatives eagerly fixate upon recognizable features. And if you have a girl, the specter of beauty, or the looking-for-it, begins to hover. Girl babies grow and the observations about their looks are freely traded -- comments about eyes and future heartbreaking. At a certain point a more furtive category of looking makes itself felt. When Cal Stephanides, the hero/ine of Jeffrey Eugenides’s wonderful novel Middlesex recalls his dark-eyed, aquiline-nosed loveliness as a young girl, it is not the beauty that is remembered so much as the world’s response to it: I can only remember a time when the world seemed to have a million eyes, silently opening wherever I went. Most of the time they were camouflaged, like the closed eyes of green lizards in green trees. But then they snapped open -- on the bus, in the pharmacy -- and I felt the intensity of all that looking, the desire and the desperation. When Callie enters adolescence -- before her male secondary sexual characteristics manifest -- she undergoes a subtle transformation that likewise transforms her way of being in the world: To paraphrase Nietzsche, there are two types of Greek: the Apollonian and the Dionysian. I’d been born Apollonian, a sun-kissed girl with a face ringed with curls. But as I approached thirteen a Dionysian element stole over my features. My nose, at first delicately, then not so delicately, began to arch. My eyebrows, growing shaggier, arched, too. Something sinister, wily, literally ‘satyrical’ entered my expression. Like most brilliant novels, Middlesex manages to describe a very particular set of circumstances -- the sex misidentification and eventual transformation of Callie to Cal Stephanides -- in a way that highlights their universality. When Callie describes her turn to the Dionysian, she is contrasting her elfin looks with those of the "normal" girls growing breasts all around her. But the feeling she described is familiar to me from girlhood -- that feeling of change from being a beautiful baby, petted and cooed over, into something crooked and frizzed and untoward, requiring braces and other, more secret interventions. And before long, the eyes are back. If you are Callie, switched over to Cal, they come from a predatory subculture that looks for runaway waifs in highway truck stops. If you are a young woman, your new, marginally adult female body becomes public property, free for comment by men and other women alike. Lest you think I’m in the middle of an extended humblebrag about my own looks, recall The Blind Assassin, wherein Margaret Atwood’s wizened narrator identifies the appeal of very young women, whether they are celebrated as beauties or not: "The three of them were beautiful, in the way all girls of that age are beautiful. It can't be helped, that sort of beauty, nor can it be conserved; it's a freshness, a plumpness of the cells, that's unearned and temporary, and that nothing can replicate." In this conception of beauty, we might see parallels to the reverence for the newborn -- the instinctive and uncheckable response of humanity to its own most new and unsullied, and then its most fertile, members. You might say that there’s a purity to this response, the way that there’s a purity, at the most basic level, to youth. But as Atwood’s narrator goes on to point out, there is the essential beauty of youth, and then there is the ideal of beauty that interferes with a woman’s view of herself: “None of them was satisfied with it, however; already they were making attempts to alter themselves into some impossible, imaginary mould, plucking and pencilling away at their faces. I didn't blame them, having done the same once myself.” In On Beauty and Being Just, Elaine’s Scarry’s short, poetic refutation of the "political critique of beauty” -- and the title inspiration for Zadie Smith's On Beauty-- Scarry states that “the moment of perceiving something beautiful confers on the perceiver the gift of life." Her “something,” in this formulation, can be a person, or not a person: “faces, flowers, bird-songs, men, horses, pots, and poems.” Human beauty is merely one “site” of beauty; it has, in Scarry’s reckoning, “site-specific” attributes that cause us to keep it separate from pots and bird-songs, and in doing so wander into ontological errors about beauty. These errors, Scarry argues, make people want to expel beauty -- that is, the acknowledgment and discussion of beauty -- from our classrooms and lecture halls. It was this current against which On Beauty and Being Just was penned. A major beef of the anti-beauty brigade, says Scarry, is the “gaze" (as in "the male gaze") -- the idea that “when we stare at something beautiful, make it an object of sustained regard, our act is destructive to the object.” Scarry argues that it is a mistake to take this negative, “site-specific” byproduct of human beauty and apply it to the entirety of the humanities, or to "a mourning dove, or a trellis spilling over with sweet pea, or a book whose pages are being folded back of the first time." According to Scarry, the rejoicing in the beauty of our little baby is motivated by the same benevolent and generative impulse that causes people to “get upset about the disappearance of kelp forests they have never even heard of" -- a net positive. Scarry’s book is a work of philosophy, a discipline in which I am not at home, and she writes in theorems, which are likewise alien. It is also not addressing itself to the problems of female subjugation, but to the role of aesthetics in scholarship. In one sense I found On Beauty and Being Just to be a sort of refreshing bath for the mind; it sluiced away the noise and arterial plaque of the day-to-day and affirmed, for example, my love of books or paintings. But I’m a woman, and not a pot or a bird-song, and as such I have a special relationship to those "site-specific" problems of human beauty, the pursuit of which makes Atwood’s cellularly plump sprites whittle away at themselves. Site-specific things are on my mind right now, more than university debates between desconstructivists and positivists. People who have grievances dislike for their grievances to be disappeared by thought-exercises, even highly successful and elegantly composed ones. And in my site-specificity, I can rejoice in the beauty of the kelp, but fear the implications of human beauty. Beauty obligates, either in its presence -- wherein it is the obligation of the beautiful one to be looked-upon, and to retain her beauty -- or in its absence, in which case it must be perpetually sought. In The House of Mirth, Lily Bart’s penniless mother reminds her daughter of this obligation: Only one thought consoled her, and that was the contemplation of Lily’s beauty. She studied it with a kind of passion, as though it were some weapon she had slowly fashioned for her vengeance. It was the last asset in their fortunes, the nucleus around which their life was to be rebuilt. She watched it jealously, as though it were her own property and Lily its mere custodian; and she tried to instil into the latter a sense of the responsibility that such a charge involved. In Scarry’s section on the effect of the “gaze,” she argues, rather speciously, that the gazer is as affected by the gazing as the gazee: “It is odd that contemporary accounts...place exclusive emphasis on the risks suffered by the person being looked at.” After all, she points out, Plato sees a beautiful boy and “shudders and shivers.” Dante Alighieri, laying eyes on Beatrice, feels his “senses go into a huddle.” And those things do sound hard, but I doubt that two drunken 20-something men ever crabwalked over to 14-year-old Dante and his buddy on the metro and argued freely over which one was “the hot one.” I doubt one of Plato’s male friends told him when he was 15 that “some of the boys in school think you’re really ugly, but some of them think you’re really hot.” When Dante was in college and unhappy and padded with Keystone light and cheeseburgers, it’s unlikely that a male visitor to his room looked at his prom photo and marveled at how hot he “used to be.” Plato didn’t try Zumba and Body Jam and Cardio Kickboxing and Barre Method and Dailey Method and Cardiobarre, or give up beer for months before his wedding. Dante never sorrowed over the absence of his thigh gap, or purchased Groupons for laser hair removal and teeth whitening. To conflate human beauty with rape is to make the same error as conflating rape with sex; rape is about power and ownership and rage. But all of these things are knotted together in a way that makes it difficult to disentangle the skeins. The artist Eric Gill wrote that “the beautiful thing is that which, being seen, pleases, and it is man that is pleased.” You know what else Eric Gill did? Molested two of his daughters. You know who else “shivered and shook” from the effects of his gazing? Humbert fucking Humbert. But back to my baby. It’s currently my job, along with her father, to mediate the world for her until she’s old enough to do it herself. So I’m, obviously, her gravest liability, the one most likely to do damage by loading her up with a bunch of my own baggage. And she is a lovely little baby, with big blue eyes, eyes with no bearing on her father’s brown or my own brindled orbs. I exhort her father not to call her pretty, but I look at her and find myself knocking wood, saying mashallah to ward off the evil eye in a way that is in itself a recognition of beauty. But I want her never to feel that she is with all of womanity on a ladder that equates beauty with worth. I want her never to join the oppressors by talking casually about her friends’ looks, or to instinctively perform a half-predatory, half-defensive assessment of every other woman within a 100-yard radius. And yet I want her to appreciate the many modes of human beauty -- not only the boobs and butts and legs of Garry Winogrand's deceptively titled Women are Beautiful, but the unexpected lines of an eyebrow or a hand. I want her to feel unencumbered by anyone's opinion of her beauty or lack thereof. And yet I also want her to feel beautiful, to wear whatever she wants, to luxuriate in a sense that her chosen mate finds her irresistible, to never fear a dressing room or bathing suit or florescent light. And I want somehow for all this to be accomplished without conferring those heavy, killing, Lily Bart obligations. So that morning at breakfast, I panicked and chastised my husband for an innocent remark, one that people will make again and again about my baby, as they will do about any woman's baby. And then I fumbled around in my psyche and pulled out something worn and démodé -- highly problematic, in its way, but functional and attractive, like an ivory crochet hook or a whalebone stay. I looked at my seven-month-old and spoke into her uncomprehending face that almost-true thing that people have only ever said to women: “Pretty is as pretty does.” Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
I'm sure there is a point after which it is universally felt to be tedious to read about someone’s baby. I had, in fact, no intention of mentioning mine when I sat down to write this essay, which has nothing to do with babies and which a more serious person would have managed to produce without thinking about themselves at all, progeny or no progeny. But the fact remains that all the reading I did this spring I did with a small baby occupying much of my time and psychic energy in ways I have yet to fully understand. I didn’t have postpartum depression; I had postpartum elation, which then settled into a sort of dismal feeling -- perhaps my normal condition -- after I resumed work and my hair fell out and my boobs departed and my period returned and it was just time to go about my business as though something very altering had not recently taken place. I mention this because I am sensitive to bummers right now -- am possibly a bummer myself -- to the extent that for several months I was unable to reader Harper’s magazine, where every article was about melting ice caps and war and hideous injustice. And yet somehow during this time, when reports of reality were too painful to allow into my own comfortable nest, I read two unbearably sad books, books I heard about again and again until it seemed necessary to read them myself. From the reverence with which people spoke about them, I understood them to be tremendous bummers, but beautiful, transcendent ones, offering up almost baptismal benefits to their readers. The first of these was Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, a 700-pager following the lives of a group of close friends in New York City. I read Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees, which I found very, very good, and I expected to be similarly impressed by A Little Life, if not overwhelmed and made over in its image. It’s always unsettling to find yourself totally at odds with an opinion that seems to be shared by many people with whom you might be expected to agree. A Little Life has stayed with me, not because I found it so sad, but because I found it so strangely bad, and have spent significant time wondering if what I perceive to be its badness is in fact a function of a bold narrative experiment that, to quote James Wood on Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, “invents its own category of badness,” and thus deserves a very particular set of laurels. I am not being facetious; I was so impressed by Yanagihara’s other novel that it was conceivable to me that she might be up to some kind of perverse occult experiment with this one. I admired how dark The People in the Trees was, how gross, how resolute. There is darkness, and grossness, and resoluteness in A Little Life, but its resoluteness is to a very particular, self-important sort of melodrama. The level of authorial commitment necessary for keeping this up over 700 pages is, paradoxically, what kept me interested in the novel even though I found it maddening and sometimes silly. A Little Life has been lauded as a subversive masterpiece depicting the irreparable spiritual and physical damage of sexual abuse, of which the novel is unflinching in its portrayal, if irritatingly coy in the pace with which it unveils its horrors. Its protagonist and the victim of its suffering is Jude St. Francis, abandoned as a baby, taken in by pedophilic monks; rescued by the Feds, taken in by a pedophilic social worker; escaped; taken in by a pedophilic sociopath; rescued by a saintly social worker; sent to college; taken in by a saintly law professor; taken in by the delightful, suspiciously accomplished bunch of bright young men who become his star-studded adoptive family. Jude is ravaged by his godawful past, and outstanding in spite of it (also very physically beautiful, it is suggested again and again). Both his misery and his excellence are exaggerated to occasionally cartoonish proportions; a new wound opening up on his legs every few pages; a new superhuman feat of professional prowess; a new demonstration of endless warmth and love for his friends; a new horror from his past suggested with a kind of lurid reticence: “He had heard stories from Brother Luke -- he had seen videos -- about things people did to one another: objects they used, props and weapons. A few times he had experienced these things himself.” Jude is a Mary Sue of suffering; the blood that flows from his unceasing bouts of self-harm is a stigmata. I was not moved by the style which Yanagihara chose to put this story forth. The creepy, formal voice she sustained throughout the The People in the Trees revealed that she is a writer with a great deal of technical control. This makes the high melodrama in A Little Life all the more baffling. Here is Jude’s friend JB, following a conflagration with Jude and his best friend Willem: Oh god, he thought. Oh god. What have I done? I’m sorry, Jude, he said in his head, and this time he was able to cry properly, the tears running into his mouth, the mucus that he was unable to clean away bubbling over as well. But he was silent; he didn’t make any noise. I’m sorry, Jude, I’m so sorry, he repeated to himself, and then he whispered the words aloud, but quietly, so quietly that he could hear only his lips opening and closing, nothing more. Forgive me, Jude. Forgive me. Forgive me. Forgive me. Forgive me. Or here’s Jude, describing one of the acts of sadism that defined the first half of his life: Back at the house, the beating continued, and over the next days, the next weeks, he was beat more. Not regularly -- he never knew when it might happen next -- but often enough so that coupled with his lack of food, he was always dizzy, he was always weak: he felt he would never have the strength to run again. There are other odd narrative choices, like the rare first-person accounts of the man who eventually adopts Jude dotted throughout an otherwise third-person omniscient voice. There is the seemingly random hopping back and forth between the third-person present tense -- “One weekend at the end of September, he drives out to Caleb’s friend’s house in Bridgehampton, which Caleb is now occupying until early October. Rothko’s presentation went well, and Caleb has been more relaxed, affectionate, even. He has only hit him once more, a punch to the sternum that sent him skidding across the floor…” -- and the third-person past: “The days slipped by and he let them. In the morning he swam, and he and Willem ate breakfast.” Moments and decades pass with these disorienting leaps, in a way that, like much about this novel, hovered right on the border between something that felt deliberate and interesting, and something that felt bungling. There are the odd names, made odder by their frequent appearance in list form, in a number of permutations, at art galleries, at restaurants, at house parties, in Willem’s affirmations for Jude: You’re Jude St. Francis. You are my oldest, dearest friend. You’re the son of Harold Stein and Julia Altman. You’re the friend of Malcolm Irvine, of Jean-Baptiste Marion, of Richard Goldfarb, of Andy Contractor, of Lucien Voigt, of Citizen van Straaten, of Rhodes Arrowsmith, of Elijah Kozma, of Phaedra de los Santos, of the Henry Youngs. (There are two people in the novel named Henry Young; there is only one person named Citizen van Straaten.) The novel's extended cast reminded me of a less waspy but no less elite version of Donna Tartt’s fancy people, who have the names of animals and are sometimes two-dimensional. That said, one of A Little Life's virtues is that it is comfortably populated with multiple people of color, achieving effortlessly that thing over which, for example, the show Girls struggled so mightily. If there is a subversive brilliance to Yanagihara's novel, I found it in the way that she makes the reader, or this reader, embody the qualities of the main villain of Jude’s adult life, his cinematically evil boyfriend Caleb, who is repulsed by weakness and made savage by Jude’s use of a wheelchair. I called Jude a Mary Sue up there; why didn’t I use the male equivalent, a Marty Stu or a Gary? This brings me to the only defense of this novel to which I am somewhat receptive -- Garth Greenwell’s claim that A Little Life is “the great gay novel.” Greenwell argues that “to understand the novel’s exaggeration and its intense, claustrophobic focus on its characters’ inner lives requires recognizing how it engages with aesthetic modes long coded as queer: melodrama, sentimental fiction, grand opera,” a point that is well-taken. What I saw as a sort of unlikely friendship of a too-good-to-be-true crew of loving overachievers, all of them rich and famous in their own right, all of them helplessly devoted to Jude, Greenwell sees “the communities of care formed by LGBT people in response to the AIDS crisis.” I see the way in which this novel may be speaking to a mode of friendship and male experience to which I don’t have access, and I see that, from certain angles, my sense that this novel was long and overwrought was the result of some latent instinct to belittle "modes long coded as queer," the same one that is finally exasperated rather than moved by Jude’s fatal insecurity and damage. But Greenwell loses me with his closing comparison to the “great gay art” of Marcel Proust and Pedro Almodóvar. Almodóvar’s genius, apart from the great beauty of his aesthetic (think of Penélope Cruz lip-syncing Volver), lies in his use of high camp to beatify a rag-tag assortments of losers and rebels. A Little Life lacks any measure of humor -- fundamental to Almodóvar's work -- and its prose, which is simultaneously breathless and strangely bloodless, can’t compare to Almodóvar’s mastery of his medium. And let’s leave Proust -- his miniaturist’s perfection -- out of this altogether. A Little Life eventually becomes a hostage situation; things happen that are so sad that, even if you are me and skeptical of the whole enterprise, you shed tears when they happen. But despite all of its open wounds and razor cuts and burned skin and exposed muscle and grotesque sexual violence, and even my tendency this spring to be left sobbing by a sad commercial, I found it a curiously sterile, curiously anodyne experience. When I finished A Little Life, I read the second book I had seen similarly venerated, and which I also found to have a relentless quality. About Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life, one Amazon reviewer cautioned: "Have prozac at hand or at least a city park and dont do what the author does which is only look at the shards of glass, the rotten garbage, the yellow crabgrass. Look at least at one thriving graceful tree." It’s true that the squalor starts right away, as Lish opens on the daily life of his protagonist Zou Lei, a half-Uighur, half-Han Chinese illegal immigrant to the United States, who is employed in a China Buffet-type joint. They gave her a shirt with an insignia and visor, the smell of vaporized grease in the fabric. Everyone told her you have to be fast because the bossie watching you. They didn’t speak each other’s dialects, so they spoke English instead. Her first day, her worn-out sneakers slipped on the grease. She dropped an order, noodles popping out like worms, and that night she lay with her face to the wall, her jaw set, blinking...Squatting, she washed her clothes in the bathtub, wringing them out with her chapped, rural, purple-skinned hands, and hanging them up on the shower curtain rod with the others’ dripping laundry, the wet sequined denim and faded cartoon characters. Lish makes the stakes of this unpleasant little existence evident immediately by having Zou Lei picked up by the police, and thrown into a carceral limbo where bodily harm, perpetual imprisonment, and spiritual annihilation are only a piece of paperwork or some guard’s malicious whim away. These dismal stakes are evident right away, and so is Lish’s commitment to an immersive immediacy of place and experience; I soon found the novel so moving and threatening and lovely that I would look up in the train to see if other people’s eyes were shining too. There’s an abrupt macho fever to Lish’s writing that is the reverse of the style of A Little Life and which, had you described it to me, I would have predicted disliking intensely. But I found it hypnotic: She started moving with the crowd, looking above their heads and seeing that she was going into a Chinatown, a thicket of vertical signs, the sails of sampans and junks, too many to read, a singsong clamor rising. No English. There were loudspeakers and dedications and banners for Year of the Dog. Voices all around her, calling and calling. Here, here, here, come and see! Someone spitting in the street. Crying out and running along next to her, pushing and pleading, grabbing the sleeve of her jacket. They put flyers in her hands and she dropped them. Missing teeth, younger than they looked. Illegals from the widow villages. Body wash, foot rub, Thai-style shower, bus to Atlantic City. A neon sign for KTV turned on in the dusk. The saw the endless heads of strangers, the crewcut workmen, running crates of rapeseed out the back of a van. I don’t read very much poetry, but a few poems imprinted on me at a young age. I thought often of T.S. Eliot’s “Preludes” while reading this novel, imagining Lish as a remote god who had “such a vision of the street/ As the street hardly understands," who writes "the conscience of a blackened street/ Impatient to assume the world.” And I was “moved by fancies that are curled/ Around these images, and cling:/ The notion of some infinitely gentle/ Infinitely suffering thing.” It would be so easy for a book like this to be only brutal, or racist and othering in its brutality. And it is very brutal: Zou Lei falls in love with Skinner, a traumatized Iraq veteran whose head is filled with horrors: "What had been done to the bodies was not possible to reconstruct. They had been wrenched by giant hands, smashed, severed, filled with gas, perforated, burned, flung across space. A limb lay on a seat...A pile of organs, a liver in the red clothes...Everything had been blasted free of its identity..." But there remains something gentle and expansive in Lish's characterizations. Here is Zou Lei, making a home of sorts with Skinner: She was not the mother type. When she collected their empties one day and took them to the redeemer, it was because she was enterprising, not because she felt she should clean up after him. With the dollar and change she made, she bought a chicken skewer and saved it for them to eat together, half each, the meat cold by the time she had walked there with it through the small houses covered in Spanish graffiti. She was logging all these miles and it was good. Spring was coming, the big wheel of the city starting to turn. I sort of hate to make so much out of an out-of-left-field novel about immigrants by a white man who is both a literary outsider and a pedigreed scion -- a bald, muscular Marty Stu, if you will. It feels like a cliché. But I am powerless to deny that I found Preparation for the Next Life a beautiful, vital book. When I began reading, the continual squalor, the sense of doom, the guilty feeling in the pit of my stomach that made me close a Mother Jones tab made the book seem meaningful to me in a way that that A Little Life, although sad and similarly relentless, couldn’t do. I thought about them as a pair. What makes a book moving, and what makes a book mawkish? In A Little Life, the dirt is on the inside, hiding in a shadowy group of monks and suburban pedophiles, and in the psyche if their victim; in Preparation for the Next Life, it’s on the outside -- it’s on our streets and our food and our national conscience. Preparation is dealing in a physical squalor, the literal residue and dregs of crowded urban life, in a way that sometimes brought to mind, oddly, Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer. But where Miller upholds a sort of exuberant filth, a gleeful comic nihilism that leaves you feeling itchy from bedbugs but energized and ravenous, Preparation is as humorless, in its way, as A Little Life. More than that, Lish's novel is implicating: Have you eaten at a grimy Chinese joint? Have you unthinkingly tossed out the Styrofoam clamshell box and the plastic bag stapled with a scribbled receipt, without wondering who put it there? Did your tax dollars fund the Iraq war -- the war that both brings Zou Lei’s love to her and destroys him? In Yanagihara’s novel, squalor and degradation are the ruinous individual exception in a world of summer houses and talent and hard work that gets you somewhere; in Lish’s, they are the baseline condition of the life we have made on our planet. I considered the depressing books I know and conducted a small Twitter survey. There’s An American Tragedy. There’s Native Son and The Bell Jar and The Kindly Ones and Of Mice and Men. There’s McTeague and Sophie’s Choice and Rabbit Run and House of Mirth. And there’s the destroying queen of sad books, Beloved, which I re-read in the course of my survey, my baby asleep in her pack n' play, and felt things happen inside of my heart and brain. That novel is as huge as mother-child love; its horror has texture -- the "pulsating...baby’s blood that soaked her fingers like oil." And talk about implicating. As with A Little Life, people in Beloved do things that must be the absolute limit of human awfulness; unlike Yanagihara's novel, though, Beloved's awfulness has an exponential, an infinite quality -- right from its very dedication, "Sixty Million and more." And even though A Little Life describes horror that in some ways is a systemic horror, and even though its protagonist is caught up in an underground network of monsters that must also exist in real life, it never manages to feel like more than one person's exceptional, uncanny bad luck. There is no context in which to put Jude's suffering but the frantic love of his friends and family. Obviously, a novel that documents the individual's response to American slavery, or American poverty, or the fallout of the Iraq War, is a different beast than a novel that documents the individual's response to his own very particular and comparatively finite set of circumstances. A Little Life is the latter kind of novel. And perhaps it is logical that, at a time when even people who are staggeringly well off in the scheme of things can’t buy a home or feel assured of college for their children, a novel about a group of friends comprising a famous artist, a movie star, a “starchitect,” a corporate lawyer, and all of their well-to-do friends -- a story that is intentionally stripped of historicity and chronological markers -- would have to really bring it in order to seem tragic. But if there’s any kind of suffering to arouse sympathy and pity in human hearts across class lines, it’s the kind endured by Jude. And yet I still came up against some barrier, beyond the absurd names, beyond the tense-jumping, that kept me from feeling Yanagihara's novel the way it was meant to be felt. Perhaps I have some kind of liberal hypocrites’ need for a political angle, some guilt around which to marshal all of my ineffectual sorrow. But let's return for a moment to my recent quavering heart -- my avoidance of the news, my pile of unread magazines. How did I cope with these devastating novels, when a 1,500-word article often proved too much for me this spring? Here is the cowardice of the novel-reader. While Preparation for the Next Life indeed made its way to a terrible crackup, it still ended on a redemptive note -- a new life built around that time-honored American impulse to go West. Beloved, too, makes a little room for life to creep in: Paul D holds Sethe's hand and says, "me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow." Any redemption available in A Little Life is far more abstract -- a purring cat, a blooming flower. I accuse A Little Life of melodrama, but maybe, in my newly maternal state, I’m the sentimental fool needing succor -- something that gives the lie to Henry Miller’s tossed-off prophesy: “We are all alone here, and we are dead.”
Kazuo Ishiguro writes novels set in a diversity of realms -- the Japanese underworld, the Central Europe of Franz Kafka, the English countryside of Oswald Mosley. But no matter their territory, his stories share a few key features: they all deal with the complexities arising from a seemingly simple proposition, and they are all sad as shit. A butler takes a trip to solve his staffing issues; he faces the be-waistcoated shambles of his life. A woman reflects banally on her schooldays, while organs are harvested all around. A man arrives in a city to give a concert -- he can’t do it, but why? In The Buried Giant, an elderly man and woman set out on a visit to their son. But this journey is a production. They live in a way-back-England where Christians and pagans and ogres mingle. Their village, and all neighboring villages, have been enveloped in a mist that makes everyone forget what they have done and what they are about to do (Ishiguro is the king of maddening obstacles). This mist is, according to various theories, the result of God himself forgetting his people, or the enchanted breath of an elderly dragon named Querig. Mist notwithstanding, the couple, Axl and Beatrice, are spurred by some deep and nameless instinct to visit a son they only vaguely remember, convincing themselves en route that he is eagerly anticipating their arrival. Along the way they also get mixed up with mythical characters, Arthurian and older, and contemplate the nature of their love for one another. At some moments, I felt I had found an apocryphal eighth Chronicle of Narnia, written by a particularly cheerless, possibly aphasic disciple of C.S. Lewis. While Ishiguro’s “turn to fantasy” has been compared to J.R.R. Tolkien and, heaven forfend, George R.R. Martin, the Christian allegory and honor-bound Britishness of Lewis is where I think the novel is more at home. If you remember Eustace Scrubb and Jill Poole and Puddleglum making their way across the terrible moor and through the ruined giant city, you’re there with Beatrice and Axl as they struggle across the Great Plain where the giant lies buried, always on the lookout for enchantments. Even the narrative perspective nods, intentionally or no, to Lewis, in its occasional breaks to address the reader, breaks that are just enough to remind you that you aren't alone in the room. The third-person omniscient narrator Ishiguro employs for much of the novel places the reader in time in much the same way that Lewis's did: "Once inside it, you would not have thought this longhouse so different from the sort of rustic canteen many of you will have experienced in one institution or another." Compare to Lewis's friendly signposts: "You have never seen such clothes, but I can remember them," or "They came out on one of those rough roads (we should hardly call them roads at all in England)". If, in a Narnian finale, everyone gets to be together again, in an Ishiguran one, everyone is destined to be apart. But in any case, Ishiguro’s "turn to fantasy," if that’s what we want to call it, is not what is odd about this novel, which is of a piece with his established weirdness, his postmodern genre flirtations. Ishiguro has a reputation for spare, even aggressively unadorned prose. In the very perfect novel The Remains of the Day, Stevens the butler explains the beauty of England, in what might be a uniquely oblique authorial humble brag: And yet what precisely is this ‘greatness’? Just where, or in what, does it lie?...I would say that it is the very lack of obvious drama or spectacle that sets the beauty of our land apart. What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, of its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it. The Buried Giant is so restrained that it sometimes has a soporific effect not unlike the mist that is its central proposition. Moreover, there are some strange and disorienting perspectival shifts. We are with Beatrice and Axl very closely at the beginning, seeing things from Axl's point of view as they are relayed by a seemingly featureless and disinterested narrator ("As she said this, softly into his chest, many fragments of memory tugged Axl's mind, so much so that he felt almost faint."). It is jarring then, half-way through the novel, when this perspective shifts to another character, or gives over to the first-person musings of Gawain ("Was she not that way, the one I sometimes remember when there stretches before me as much land, empty and companionless, as I could ride on a dreary autumn's day?"). The story becomes difficult to follow when the action picks up, at a monastery full of monks who engage in a perverse and memorable bird-related form of penitence; we occasionally jump forward slightly in time and then recover lost ground using the past perfect tense ("They had met in the chilly corridor outside Father Jonus's cell.") Since they are written by Kazuo Ishiguro, these shifts must at heart be measured and purposeful -- but they seem haphazard; they are sometimes confusing. Unless you have utterly professionalized as a reader, the books you read are always going to be about what is going on in your life, to the extent that deluded readers like myself will see the hand of divine providence or some otherwise cosmic coincidence in their reading. I think that had I been in another frame of mind I may have dismissed this novel, placed it on a lower shelf in the Ishiguro cabinet of curiosities. But I happened to finish The Buried Giant the day after I returned to work from maternity leave, with a 10-week-old baby still at home. So, for one, I am in a state of high emotion such that I was inclined to read the novel as a love story about old people and dead children, and weep accordingly. (Without spoilers, I will say that the ending of the novel is very much like a very sad poem by Billy Collins called "Bermuda"). The final line is the book's loveliest: "Wait for me on the shore, friend, I say quietly, but he does not hear and he wades on." In The Buried Giant, the mist functions as a prophylactic against bloodshed -- the Britons and Saxons had hitherto been embroiled in perpetual and gruesome war -- but it does not feel like benevolence. In an interview published in The Times, Ishiguro said that he wanted to write about collective memory without the limitations of a contemporary setting: “I wanted to put it in some setting where people wouldn’t get too literal about it, where they wouldn’t think, oh, he’s written a book about the disintegration of Yugoslavia or the Middle East.” Grotesque human behavior is always lurking around the edges of the novel and in the memories of its characters, as one of the knights graphically explains: But they know in the end they will face their own slaughter. They know the infants they circle in their arms will before long be bloodied toys kicked about these cobbles. They know because they've seen it already, from whence they fled. They've seen the enemy burn and cut, take turns to rape young girls even as they lie dying of their wounds. They know this is to come, and so must cherish the earlier days of the siege, when the enemy first pay the price for what they will later do. In other words, Master Axl, it's vengeance to be relished in advance by those not able to take it in its proper place. That's why I say, sir, my Saxon cousins would have stood here to cheer and clap, and the more cruel the death, the more merry they would have been. If an imagined world at the back of a wardrobe gave C.S. Lewis the basis for drawing all of Christianity, Ishiguro found a way to amplify his Arthurian moment to a universal scale. The Buried Giant is about war and memory, but it is also about love and memory, and you don't need to have lived through an atrocity to get it. While the various knights are concerned with the mist's implications for tribal enmities, the real constant in the story is Beatrice and Axl's marriage. Whatever wrongs they may have committed against one another are in the past; what we see now is Axl's constant use of the endearment "princess," the way he doesn't want to leave her side. The problem is that all of their past happiness is obscured by the mist, along with all of the wrongs. Memory has been on my mind lately. Our weeks home with the baby were an enchanted time, the joys and the terrors achieving religious proportions. Life was a welter of soft skin and wooly socks and blankets and delight, interrupted here and there by the jagged edge of existential dread, the raw surprise of a sore nipple against a flannel shirt, or a torn muscle, or a panic about measles. Every day of my precious 10 weeks I told myself “you have to remember this." But as I approached the moment when I would have to resume my business casual and normal life, the feelings began to ebb; the memory of the newness and wonder of those first days lost a bit of its technicolor brilliance. I look at pictures on my phone and am surprised by the little face as it was on day two and day five and day 21. I can call back the moment of her birth and picture how the room was arranged, but I can no longer examine it from different angles; I can no longer feel just exactly how I felt. This is terrible, but I suppose it is also a mercy; you can't go about your ordinary life in that kind of heightened state. Another thing that is terrible: I had heard all about how hard it is for many new mothers to leave their infants at home in exchange for workplace squabbles and awkward half-hours spent half-clad, crying and seething alone with breast pump in a dingy supply closet. But that part was fine; it wasn’t until I returned home that first day, my steps quickening to a run up our dark street toward my baby, that I felt for the first time the mute and terrible pull that must be at the root, I suppose, of parenthood -- the feeling that made Beatrice and Axl up and set off across the bewitched Great Plain to their son. And it wasn’t until I got home to find the baby already asleep that I faced up to the new arrangement of my life and felt the profound devastation of being apart, a feeling that I could only pray would fade, even as part of me felt it shouldn't fade -- because shouldn’t I feel that it's terrible, if it is in fact terrible? Shouldn't I live with the badness, and try to correct it? This is exactly the choice with which the characters in The Buried Giant must contend. Ishiguro often writes about memory, about the deeply revisionist histories of people who are only poking around the edges of the truth of their lives. Already, as I type this, a seasoned working mom with a week under my belt, each homecoming is increasingly less fraught, the deep sense of futility and sadness I felt on that first day away from the baby has faded, just as that raw, panicked love I felt those first few days after birth has faded, just as the pain in my nether-regions has faded. Ishiguro wrote about the erasure of misery and joy from our memory. But in an ordinary life you don’t need a dragon’s breath to wipe all that away. It's time that does it, and it only takes a moment.
1. I read a lot of headlines about the Sony data hack before I mustered the interest to read anything else about it. There are so many things to click, and the headlines seemed to concern only empyrean Hollywood types, and I am on maternity leave and partially brain-dead. Someone was racist, a woman made less money than a man, something about Angelina Jolie. But eventually the headlines became so relentless that I finally clicked, like an old bloodhound heaving her bulk from the porch and loping off in the direction of a rumpus. I began with one exchange of emails between Sony bigwigs Scott Rudin and Amy Pascal and was immediately so enthralled that I went hunting for others that had been published on the various news sites. Last year I was sent a copy of the highly experimental Nanni Balestrini work Tristano, the result of a machine randomly shuffling 10 different chapters of an already experimental 1966 novel to create eerie nothings like this: A long thin rivulet of water slowly advances on the asphalt. She moves slowly under his body. The woman answered no certainly not. I found Balestrini’s novel alien and repugnant because I am wedded to more traditional narratives; for me all intention and meaning had been stripped from its words by virtue of its reshuffling. But Pascal and Rudin's emails, which are basically incomprehensible to anyone outside of their industry, are somehow more compelling by virtue of their incomprehensibility, Amy Pascal’s sibylline utterances full of a surprising sort of illiterate pathos and mystery: I would do this for you You should do this II [sic] Miranda July capitalized on the seductive nature of other people's mail in the summer of 2013 with "We Think Alone," an art project whereby people could sign up to receive forwarded emails from celebrities' inboxes. This was an inspired choice; snooping around people’s emails hits pleasure centers arguably more primal than those tapped by schlepping to a museum, paying $25, and getting a headache after 30 minutes looking at a pile of cat food cans welded together. And while for some people it's the snooping itself that makes other people's mail interesting, readers with qualms about privacy could feel secure in knowing that the celebrities themselves had provided access. (N.B: while personal correspondence should be off-limits unless the recipients have consented or are dead, I feel okay about quoting from the Sony leak, and the Wikileaks emails below, because they are ostensibly corporate records, and not personal ones.) Some commentators observed that Miranda July's curated emails did not reveal anything particularly titillating about these celebrities (among them Kirsten Dunst and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), but I found the voice of their communiques as compelling as the things disclosed therein. Note the lilting, seemingly non-native English of Kirsten Dunst's email here: I also have some great experiences from yesterday as I was in a photo shoot for Bulgari, and there were so many elements and people. I have very strong Ideas to talk about. I'll do the second assignment tomorrow, I have a night flight to Boston and it's hard for me to get in a comfortable place in sleep to dream. If Kirsten Dunst’s email selections revealed that there is a level of fame at which you don’t really need to worry about what you sound like, to the extent that you are willing to forward your strange musings to thousands of strangers, Pascal and Rubin’s emails indicated that the more money and prestige are attached to your job, the more your professional correspondence is likely to be composed and punctuated like a comment on a Huffington Post article. But more importantly, they show a mode of communicating that has been molded by the melodramatic conventions of the very industry that produced it, plaintive lines like "Don't pretend all thoes things didn't happen cuz it makes me feel like I'm going crazy" or "Why are u punishing me"; admonitions like "You're involving yourself in this massive ad pointless drama that is beneath you"; or the more ominous "You're about to cross a line that won't get uncrossed after you do it." In 2012, Wikileaks published millions of emails harvested from Stratfor, a global intelligence research firm in Texas. Wikileaks and the news media were interested in these emails for their geopolitical implications, but they also represent a veritable cornucopia of narrative pleasures, all the more delectable because they are strange and secret and real. They likewise reflect a very particular professional sensibility, sometimes self-conscious, often comic, and full of bravado. Even a fractional survey of the emails' subject lines is evocative: “Fucking Tajikistan;” “Fucking Europe;” “Fucking Russian Defense Guys;” “Fucking Abottabad;” “fucking Mubarak;” “fucking guatemalans;” “fucking Belgium;” “fucking kangaroos;” “fucking hipsters;” “what a fucking shit show;” “Get ready to be hit in the fucking face with a fist full of friendship;” or the succinct command, “pay the fucking utility bill.” There is no way that a person could read all of them, and random clicking might yield all sorts of tantalizing fragments, à la Balestrini by way of Graham Greene: I mean look, I never said that the fact these camels/horses came from tourists meant it wasn't organized, right. I was just saying that the horses/camels don't mean anything in of themselves. There are horses/camels near the city and in considerable numbers. These are corporate records, but they are also full of human currents, intimations of complex, even tender relationships: Reading this, I get the sense that you, in some sense, fear and crave change at the same time. You find beauty in the concept of change, but to a limit. You fall back to the comforts of familiarity, the languid porches. 2. The joy of reading other people’s mail is a well-known, well-documented phenomenon. Anyone who has spent time in an archive has found themselves wandering through the hedge maze of correspondence, which can lead either to fruitful new projects or simply leave the reader floundering in some voyeur's backwater, pointlessly obsessing over the sheer novelty of the way that people communicate with one another. We have epistolary novels, of course -- themselves a product of human interest in other people's mail and the narrative possibilities thereof. No sooner had the novel been invented than it had been given the epistolary treatment, in Samuel Richardson's Pamela and Clarissa. Contemporary novels use correspondence not only to drive a story, but to attempt the herculean work of capturing the spirit of an age -- past, present, or future. Some of these are convincing -- better, even, than reality -- like A.S. Byatt's divine Possession, built around an amazing fabricated correspondence that works to make the novel simultaneously a mystery, love story, and postmodern work of criticism. Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story constructs a textual future English patois, told through the "Globalteen" messaging accounts of two young women. But these and other wonderful novels that have successfully used the epistolary format cannot scratch the very specific itch of the leaked email, the archived letter. As Shteyngart's sad sack anti-hero Lenny Abramov writes in his diary, describing his new electronic device: "I'm learning to worship my new äppärät's screen...the fact that it knows every last stinking detail about the world, whereas my books only know the minds of their authors." There is a fundamental inauthenticity to the epistolary novel; we cannot forget that it sprang from the mind of its author. The ludicrous Tumblr, "Texts from Bennett", which purports to be the SMS record of a Midwestern white boy with delusions of hood status, seems cognizant of the disappointment that undergirds epistolary works of art, guaranteeing in its header that it is "100% Real." It's not real, though, and its offerings are ultimately unconvincing, a collection of zany, "urban"-inflected bon mots: like I said I luv anamels alot 2. i used to rescue rockwilders im one of da highest paid members of PITA. If "Texts from Bennett" is obviously fake, it is grasping at the heart of leaked mail's allure. The Tumblr was so popular that it was in fact turned into a novel, one with a surprising number of positive reader reviews, many of which expressed sentiments along these lines: "We all know an incredibly white person who attempts to act as ghetto as possible, but Mac Lethal knows whats up with Texts From Bennett." (Reading Amazon reader reviews, like Internet comments, comes close to scratching the epistolary itch. Reading comments can be irresistible, not for the opportunity to wallow in outrage about the ignorance or malevolence of your fellow clicking public, or not only that, at any rate -- it's that intimate glimpse at the way people communicate, the things that they say and the ways that they say them. There is nothing like a YouTube comment for revealing our humanity in all its forms.) Most correspondence we have the opportunity to read is of the highest caliber, composed by great minds and published (perhaps even written, at some level) for the public's edification. So we have the letters of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, or Rilke, or Patrick Leigh Fermor and Deborah Devonshire née Mitford. These are gorgeous pieces of writing, but they assume an unrealness by virtue of the genius of their authors; they are artifacts of an age and class for which correspondence was understood as an art form. I remember the surprise, the electric thrill, of reading, at of one of my many past part-time archival jobs, a letter written by a regular enlisted man in World War I. Far from the texts of my college Modernism curriculum -- the majesty of the war poets, the self-conscious zip of BLAST or the raffish style of the Wipers Times -- the letter was rife with misspellings and homey sentiment, the product of a semi-literate young man sending a short and melancholy message home to his mother. I had never thought about what a normal person might sound like during that era. There can be great style and meaning in unstylishness, "Texts from Bennett" notwithstanding. (The Telegraph published a batch of WWI letters written in a similar vein: "I am very sorry for what I done when I was at home and will pay you back when I get some more pay.") We are awash in narrative these days. We are in a golden age of television, where highly polished narratives are whipped up by streaming video companies, tailored to our mined preferences, and basically guaranteed to be addictive. Even our news gets a narrative now: something happens -- like the Sony leaks, for example -- and we have not only the text, but the meta-text, the commentary on ethics and implications. We have lovingly and expensively produced radio plays based on real-life murder cases, and rounds and rounds of narrative about whether they are bad or good and what they say about our culture. Forget the forest/trees taxonomy; we are so spoiled for narrative that we have multiple forest visualizations -- time, space, temperature. Readers and writers, I think, are particularly susceptible to the narrative delights of real correspondence, which will always exceed the limits of any one novel's philosophy. A building of Paris' Palais de Chaillot is inscribed with a verse of Paul Valéry: It depends on those who pass Whether I am a tomb or treasure Whether I speak or am silent The choice is yours alone. Friend, do not enter without desire. Archives are a public good, but they are predicated on this desire. In one sense, my interest in the recent leaked emails is narrative hunger taken to its most pathological reach. Rather than lament the implications of the Sony emails (that insanely rich and powerful white people are still a bunch of crummy racists; that people spend millions of dollars to make shitty movies while the world burns) or the grim findings of Wikileaks (that there is a revolving door between the government, business, and security sectors), I treat these documents as another avenue for narrative desire. But there's nothing like the magic of an authentic human document. We are surfeited on the "what" of the narrative. Leaked emails give us that rare and precious thing, the "how." Image Credit: Flickr/Jason Rogers