When, “midway upon the journey of our life/[He] found [himself] within a forest dark,” Dante Alighieri went epic, envisioning a descent into hell, a spiritual purgation and eventual transcendence. When the two central characters in Forest Dark, Nicole Krauss’s first novel in seven years suffer their own life crises, they head to Israel, search for meaning and for immanence, and wind up in the desert. Like the poem from which it borrows its title, Forest Dark is also epic, though in its own way: quiet, eerie, touchingly inchoate. It is an epic of loneliness, a testimony of and to longing that remains unfulfilled. The novel is bifurcated, telling, in alternating chapters, the stories of Jules Epstein—not so long ago a high-powered and wealthy law firm partner, of late a retired philanthropist looking for the right cause—and Nicole, a successful novelist plagued by writer’s block and a silently failing marriage. (It is perhaps in poor taste, but impossibly tempting, to observe that Nicole’s situation evokes Krauss’s own, given her well-documented divorce from Jonathan Safran Foer, who published his post-divorce novel Here I Am last year. It also seems important to note that, whereas Foer dealt with his hurt feelings by imagining the destruction of Israel in his book, Krauss deals in altogether more human and humane troubles.) [millions_ad] Krauss’s great innovation is that the two strands never explicitly intersect, instead running parallel, provocatively echoing each other through places and objects and ideas without ever meeting. Both Jules and Nicole spend stretches of time at the Tel Aviv Hilton, the Brutalist “rectangle on stilts that dominates the Tel Aviv Coast.” (A series of increasing close-ups of the hotel appear early in the novel.) Nicole means to write a book about the hotel (or else set at the hotel or else inspired by the hotel), a place that holds “a kind of mystical aura” for her, the place from which she imagines she might be dreaming the entirety of her daily life. But the book refuses to be written, and so Nicole takes off from her Brooklyn home, leaves behind the husband who disappoints her and to whom she is a disappointment, leaves behind the two young sons who otherwise keep her tethered, in the hopes that, in Israel, at the Hilton, she will be able to focus and finally write. Jules, for his part, intends to use the Hilton as headquarters, a base from which to award the remains of his fortune (the $2 million left over after a giving spree that has alarmed his lawyer and alienated his son) to some worthy institution or another in honor of his parents’ memory. Neither remains at the Hilton, attention caught by quixotic projects, presented by fateful encounters. For Jules, the thread begins back in New York, when, at an event for “some fifty people representing the American Jewish leadership” to confer—which is to say, have a three-course meal—with the president of the Palestinian Authority, he meets Rabbi Menachem Klausner. His last name, Klausner informs a reluctant-to-engage Epstein, marks him as one with lineage that can be traced back to the dynastic line of King David. Once in Israel, Jules reconnects with the rabbi, spending a night at Gilgul, Klausner’s retreat in Safed, the mystical desert center for Kabbalah studies. There he meets a beautiful woman, the rabbi’s daughter, Yael, who impresses him more than the rabbi’s disquisitions on the finite and the infinite. Yael, it turns out, is working on a film about the life of David, “the most complex, fully wrought, and fascinating character in the whole Bible.” (That Jules’s first view of Yael—she’s emerging from a bath—replicates David’s initial vision of Bathsheba is an effective coincidence.) And suddenly, Jules is “new again to everything—new to the blazing white light off the waves, to the crying of the muezzin at dawn, new to the loss of appetite, to the body lightening, to a release from order, to the departing shore of the rational, new again to miracles, to poetry.” Nicole, for her part, becomes involved with Eliezer Friedman, possibly a former Mossad agent, possibly a retired professor of literature, certainly a man who relates a nearly impossible-to-believe story about Franz Kafka. Friedman claims to have access to the works hoarded, in a cat-infested apartment, by Eva Hoffe, daughter of Max Brod’s lover Esther, inheritor of Brod’s estate, jealous possessor of a priceless trove of Kafka’s manuscripts. In the least outlandish of his proposals, Friedman suggests that Nicole prepare an ending to an unfinished Kafka play, which is scheduled to be made into a film. How all of this turns out is not really the point. Krauss has always been a writer interested in the hidden, spiritual dimension of things, and her work concerns itself with the mystical, the metaphysical, the mysterious. The secret inner life of people, places, and objects preoccupies her far more than the directly observable. In her last novel, Great House, a writing desk served as a totem, imbuing the lives of the individuals who posses it at various moments with the possibility of grace and tempting them with damnation. In Forest Dark, she goes even more abstract, working less towards a climax than an epiphany. The novel starts out with a great deal of texture, with meticulously arranged details; it presents, initially, as a keenly observed and reported chronicle of two accomplished but unfulfilled lives. But as it progresses, and especially as it nears the end, it abandons any pretense of interest in connecting threads and cause-and-effect payoffs. This could be annoying, perhaps, but Krauss’s great, fearless gift is to work a motif until its essence reverberates throughout. Thinking about an improbable story Friedman relates, Nicole compares the tale to the conventional, accepted one and finds that “the one Friedman had drawn struck me as having the more beautiful shape—more complex, but also more subtle, and so closer to truth. In light of it, the familiar story now seemed clumsy, overblown, and steeped in cliché.” And so too of Forest Dark: it is beautiful and complex but subtle and so closer to truth. It is perhaps not particularly believable, but it is elegant and shimmering, a slant of light shining long enough to make us wonder.
This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 1. Is there anything more intimate than cleaning out another person’s home—deciding which of her possessions, collected with love or without thought, is important enough to keep; and what, then, to do with the rest? Aside from the fact that it usually comes with some degree of sadness, the process requires a set of emotional gymnastics, a series of shifts from empathy to self-interest and back again: This thing is archival or an important memory marker; this meant something to her so it now means something to me; this did its duty but now can be set free; this has no conceivable use for anyone, ever. Family photographs are easy (keep). Recipe clippings from the 1980s are easy (dump). Books—or rather a library, as opposed to a half shelf of bestsellers in the corner of the family room—are almost never simple. A library embodies the trajectory of a life and intellect, and to sort, Solomon-like, through someone else’s story in books is a responsibility not to be taken lightly. The process, the responsibility, intensifies when this person is your mother. It took my sister and me under a minute to split up the labor of cleaning out our mother’s apartment when we finally moved her to a nursing home. Her dementia had reached the point where even a full-time home health aide couldn’t give her the care she needed, and when mom landed in the hospital after refusing to take a round of antibiotics for an infection, it was time. Fortunately, we found a great facility that accepted Medicaid. Unfortunately, that gave us a hard deadline for selling her co-op: once her Medicare-allotted time ran out, Medicaid would then siphon off all her money, including what we needed to pay the mortgage. We had a couple of months; sentiment would have to take a back seat to expediency. So my sister and I agreed: she would go through mom’s clothes, jewelry, and furniture; we’d split the kitchen; and I’d sort the office and art supplies, general paper ephemera—magazines, recipes, photo albums—and her hundreds of books. This last not only because I’m a “book person,” but because I had a long-term and complex relationship with those books of hers. Which is, I guess, exactly what being a book person means. 2. Books had always been a language my mother and I shared when she was well: we gave them to each other as gifts, borrowed, traded, talked about what we’d read. Then, as her 10-year descent into dementia accelerated, her books took on a separate identity for me, their simple presence becoming a sort of animal comfort. Whenever I found myself at a loss with her—when she snapped at me and told me to leave, or, some years later, would doze off mid-sentence, or, even later, when her aide would be cleaning her in the bathroom as mom screeched and swore and swung—I would stand by the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and read the titles over and over, cataloging them in my mind the way you rub a worry stone in your pocket. Her library was unself-conscious in the extreme—potboiler mysteries filed alphabetically with classics, paperbound galleys next to handsome hardcovers and golden-age, mass-market paperbacks from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. Her frayed clothbound sets of philosophy and history ruled the top shelves, with oversized art books stacked horizontally on the bottom. Many were gifts from me. Across the room, lined up on end tables, were more recent acquisitions—offerings to tempt her back to reading after the concussion that started her decline, though I’m not sure she ever got to them. I gave her Geraldine Brooks's People of the Book, Jean-Dominique Bauby's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. From my nephew, Peter Carey's Theft, Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind. From I-don’t-know-who, The Help—which, bless her, mom would have adored. She was a sucker for stories of love and kindness redeeming all, and equally unconcerned with subtexts of class, race, or politics of any kind. In fact, for someone who so loved the intellectual intricacies of philosophy, mom flinched at anything morally difficult. Deeply non-confrontational in real life, she let her various blind spots carry over into her intellectual life. She didn’t like to follow politics, she told me when I was a child, because “everyone is so nasty.” And while she approved of broad-brush liberal issues—civil rights, the women’s movement—she did not like anything that made her uncomfortable: cruelty, suffering, ugliness, the moral conundrum of otherwise good people behaving badly. The notes I retrieved from her philosophy books, scrawled on bits and pieces of paper, stuck firmly with the epistemological: what is reality, what is the nature of consciousness, how do I fit in with the world?—phrases and questions written out in her neat, even script, connected by endless ellipses. For all our lively highbrow discussions, there were places we just did not go. Politics was one; religion another. My father, raised an Orthodox Jew, was a vehement atheist, and religion was something of a dirty word in our house. My mother seemed to have no strong ties to religion, or faith of any kind, even after my parents divorced and she was free to practice what she liked. But I wonder, now, if the enforced nonbelief of her marriage to my father was a loss for her. She grew up in a loosely observant Jewish tradition, but I never got a sense of whether those habits—which carried through to her first marriage but not her union with my father—were a source of comfort or a burden. Even more, I wonder what, beyond her enjoyment of solipsistic thought puzzles, comprised her inner life. For all our shared talk of art, literature, anthropology, science, and the general nature of the cosmos that sparked in me a deep hunger for knowledge as a child and young adult, I don’t recall our conversations going deep. Nor did Mom and I go to the mats, ever, when we disagreed. I regretted this the moment that possibility disappeared with her cogency—what had I been thinking, not to push her to explain her beliefs, not to help me figure out some of my own intellectual lineage? 3. In his recent family memoir, The House of Twenty Thousand Books (New York Review Books, 2015), journalist and professor Sasha Abramsky draws on a similar process of reading bookshelves—as well as books—as a way in to the heart and mind of his beloved grandfather, Chimen Abramsky. The son and grandson of learned rabbis, Chimen was a renowned collector of modern Judaica and socialist literature—“modern” referring to anything published in the past 500 years—consisting of books, prints, and manuscripts. He eventually amassed an enormous private library that included Karl Marx's handwritten letters, an early edition of The Communist Manifesto annotated by Marx and Friedrich Engels, an early 16th-century Bomberg Bible (one of the first printed Hebrew bibles), and first editions of Baruch Spinoza and René Descartes. The London row house where Chimen lived with his wife, Mimi, was double-shelved, floor to ceiling, with books collected over a lifetime, and after Chimen’s death in 2010, Sasha revisited that collection, room by room and shelf by shelf—to paint a portrait of his grandfather as both scholar and family man, to tell the story of his own lineage, and—with evident discomfort—to try and puzzle out the dissonance of Chimen’s decades-long embrace of communism. Even as he and his family fled the Russian pogroms, and despite the eventual accounting of Joseph Stalin's atrocities, Chimen remained unapologetically loyal to the Party until the late ’50s. Though he regretted this in later life, eventually replacing those affiliations with a liberal humanist circle who satisfied his need for voluble dinnertime debate, that willful blindness on Chimen’s part was a sticking point for Sasha. On reading his grandfather’s 1953 obituary of Stalin in The Jewish Clarion (on microfilm at the University of Sheffield, as Chimen had—in a rare moment of contrition—burned his own originals), he recalls: What I don’t realize going in is just how phenomenally awful it really is, just how much he had bought into the cult of the personality. It leaves me gasping for breath, makes me want to run into a shower and scrub myself clean. This isn’t the sweet old man I loved so much; this isn’t the insightful humanist, so suspicious of even a whiff of totalitarianism and who so prided himself on his friendship with the great liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin. A thoughtful cataloging of his grandfather’s personal history seems to have brought him some small closure. It’s important, too, that he achieved this understanding by way of Chimen’s bookshelves. At the beginning of The House of Twenty Thousand Books, Sasha, writing in his early 40s, recalled: From my early childhood days, Chimen taught me how to interpret the world around me, how to use ideas carefully to create patterns out of chaos. And this, perhaps, is why my somewhat obsessive inventory of my mother’s bookshelves gave me comfort in her final years at home. Even if she was now largely the source of the chaos in my life, once upon a time she taught me well. 4. I siphoned books out of my mother’s library for years. Though mostly with her approval: she had boxed up a wonderful collection of art, design, and photography books during one downsize or another, and she gave them to me once I moved into a house large enough to hold them. Periodically, I’d ask and borrow random items. And in later years I just took stuff. Sometimes after an extra challenging day with her, spiriting a book home would be my reward. Sometimes my ritual gaze would turn covetous, and though there was no reason not to “borrow” whatever I wanted, the thought that I was taking from someone else’s shelves without permission felt vaguely transgressive. Still, the need to console myself was stronger than the taboo; my copy of Jo Ann Beard's Boys of My Youth will be forever linked in my mind with one early morning I had to race up to her apartment when, on one of her aide’s rare days off, mom had locked the replacement caregiver out and called the cops. And yet—once I was alone in her apartment with a stack of boxes, tasked with this move, and her books were all mine to do with as I liked, I knew one thing right away: I didn’t want them. In a different world—maybe a better one—I would have incorporated my mother’s library into my own. Not the crap, of course; not the ARCs, the mass-market potboilers, the bad sci-fi. (I did keep a galley of The Da Vinci Code for novelty’s sake, though I doubt it will ever be worth anything since mom, as she did with all her books, wrote her name in it.) But the lovely old clothbound sets, her collection of Modern Library philosophy, the mid-century novels that epitomized her generation of readers—Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike—could have come home with me. I could have bought more bookshelves and absorbed her eclectic collection into mine in a traditional, intergenerational meeting of minds. But I don’t have much sentiment for tradition, and, more practically, I’m not an aspirational reader. (My shelves and iPad give lie to that statement, of course—I own far more books than I’ll be able to read in a lifetime.) What coheres my own collection, though, is that every one of them is a book I might read. Though abstractly the possibility of reading Spinoza or Descartes or The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire lights a little fire in my heart, as I imagine the smarter, wiser, better-informed person I could become, I’m also a realist. I’m not going to read them. So I packed her books up, going through each with an eye out for personal inscriptions, dollar bills, or the photos she liked to use as bookmarks. I filled about 20 boxes from U-Haul, and dropped them off at her local library, five boxes at a time, as per Friends of the Library instructions. It took my back nearly a month to recover. I did keep a few items: a boxed set of books written by my father, none of which I owned; a lovely oversized book of Käthe Kollwitz drawings, given to mom on her birthday the year I was born and inscribed with extravagant love (“For my liebchen”) by my father; a two-volume set of 1967 Gourmet cookbooks, fat and impractical with cracked leather bindings, full of recipes I can’t imagine wanting to cook, but with a marvelously cringe-inducing ’60s inscription, again from my father: “To Rhoda, Feed me! Happy birthday, with all my love;” a trade paperback copy of Susan Sontag’s On Photography. The rest I let go. I was surprised at how easy it was. 5. My mother’s Tarrytown co-op was no house of 20,000 books, and her 600-odd-volume library had nothing on Chimen Abramsky’s. But they shared the same bloodline. They don’t call us Jews the People of the Book for nothing, and although the label is originally about Judaism’s relationship to the Torah, how for millennia it has been treated as a live text that invites engagement and discourse, there’s also a cultural reverence for books and education that—while not unique to Jews—has been a given for generations of Jewish families. My parents were certainly the product of that loyalty, products of New York public schools who passed through the City College system and eventually met at Columbia. In our family, learning—which is to say reading—meant mobility and access. My mother and Chimen Abramsky both loved those little Everyman’s and Modern Library books, with their egalitarian promises of knowledge for all: as Sasha Abramsky says, “They were books produced for every man, at a moment when it was quietly assumed that people in England of all classes and all walks of life were interested in bettering themselves intellectually.” Substitute Brooklyn or the Bronx for England, and you have my family’s intellectual history encapsulated. Like Abramsky’s, my mother's library was aleatory and curated solely around her interests. While his enthusiasms lay along more scholarly lines, and although he collected around themes—Judaica, Socialism, Marx—there was still, in both their libraries, a deep faith that had nothing to do with organized religion and everything to do with the power of the printed word to elevate, expand, and explain. And, as I am doing now, Sasha Abramsky revisited his grandfather’s library through memory only. Other than a few items that he and family members kept, the rest of his grandfather’s collection was boxed and sent off; not to the local Friends of the Library, of course, but to be appraised and sold. Utility took precedence over sentiment for Chimen’s library, as with my mother’s, and the books went on to a new life with new readers. Someday my son will have to pack up all my books and decide what he wants to keep and what goes to the library sale, if there still is such a thing. I don’t need to make his future job harder just because I like the look of an erudite collection on my shelves, or because I want to try my hand at reading what my mother read to see if that makes me any more able to imagine what she thought. It won’t, because I can’t. It’s enough that she instilled that love of far-ranging, inquisitive reading in me. And maybe someone will pick up that battered set of The Great Philosophers for $5 at the Friends of the Warner Library book sale and it will be their gateway to great thought. Or maybe it will go unread and be packed up, someday, by their children, and the cycle will begin again. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
1. What shape does hell take? In Norse mythology she—the goddess Hel—is a girl with a face half beautiful, half rotted away. Brave warriors had a place in Valhalla, whereas Hel's domain is for those who did not die honorably in battle. Greek mythology does not allow for such clear-cut distinctions. Death sends you to Hades: you are down, unless by some act of godly intervention your fragments are thrown skywards to settle as a constellation, not quite a god nor solely a symbol. But what if hell could be contained within a frame—constructed on an axis of text and image? That question of containment, of framing and fragmentation shapes the genre-defying form of Orpheus & Eurydice: A Graphic-Poetic Exploration (OE), by the artist Tom de Freston and his partner the poet Kiran Millwood Hargrave. Published as part of Bloomsbury’s Beyond Criticism series, the book is a both a study of mythic narrative structures and an act of mythmaking in its own right: de Freston’s images follow Orpheus down to Hades while Millwood Hargrave’s words give voice and agency to Eurydice. Essays by academics and cultural critics are interwoven with the narrative, and just as there is no such thing as a self-contained myth disconnected from a wider network of stories, so the book is just one part of an ongoing collaborative project. OE is an exercise in world-building, using film, performances, and exhibitions to test the dimensions of the myth: the myth of the man, the musician, who entered the underworld to rescue his wife from the clutches of death. I'm stuck on the cliché, "clutches of death." Transmitting a myth quickly will do that to language—make it portable, acritical, squeezed into conventional structures. Who's to say this is a myth of a man, his song, his rescue mission? By letting the story divide and multiply into frames and fragments, the book permits the myth its slipperiness; indeed, in the opening pages of the book, the narrative seems to have slipped from its template entirely. We see a man, a painter, willing his wife back from the dead as he daubs her image across a triptych. We will know him as Orpheus, a self-indulgent slob dressed only in a pair of grubby white briefs. The woman on the canvas is Eurydice, she wears the dress she died in. And then she too, slips—her body falling until she is no longer contained by the painting which, wiped of its image, becomes a threshold to the underworld. Orpheus enters because he has read Eurydice's poetry, which tells of a man who looks back and loses his wife forever. He sets out to remake the myth and rewrite his wife, rescuing himself in the process—and yet it seems the story is doomed from the start. A misplaced minotaur is appointed as Orpheus’s guide, a botched version of Dante’s Virgil, falling into frame in a manner reminiscent of a powerpoint presentation. Together they'll follow the thread, down to catch a wife, a wife in free-fall through a grid of graphics. De Freston's images are loud: there will be scenes of screaming beasts, crashing canvases, bodies bound in kaleidoscopic contortions. Yes, Orpheus can sing—one wailing o which extends wordlessly across several spreads—but he is unable to listen, unable to exit his self-centered orbit. His story is told in soundless freeze-frame; it is Eurydice who speaks, who utters her own images of "welling mud," "parcelled buds," "tongue through teeth." Handwritten on notepaper in a sotto voce script, Millwood Hargrave’s poems are placed unobtrusively between pages—and yet they are less like pressed flowers than gaping mouths, blooming wounds. Her language is the traumatic meeting between body and spirit, the temporal and eternal, lust and loss, a language that voices Eurydice’s ambivalence as Orpheus stumbles in the dark towards her. She knows that "an e is not just a broken o," and when o aligns with e she will not come quietly. 2. This is a radical retelling, but its radicalism is not a matter of "reinterpretation." It is true that we are inclined to read Orpheus more sympathetically—his role as lover and musician is enough to prove his virtue, and his actions appear to meet the criteria for the archetypal tragic hero: he risks all in an act of superhuman bravery, and loses the one he loves in a moment of human fallibility. However, for a story to be reinterpreted it must first be fixed, and it is the essence of myth to be shifting and contradictory. To set out to create a new version of a myth would be to misunderstand the nature of the medium—reinterpretation is inherent in the telling itself. In Plato’s Symposium, for instance, Orpheus is said to be a coward who, rather than resolving to die for love, chose to save his skin and enter Hades alive. Indeed, Orpheus’s eventual end—torn limb from limb by the frenzied female followers of Dionysus—does seem ill-suited to a hero. When his fragments were eventually gathered by the muses it is worth noting that it was his lyre, not his body, that made it to the status of a constellation, and it is this ambiguity between heroism and ignominy, pure art and bodily abjection, which has made Orpheus such a fertile subject for writers and artists. The preface to OE places the book as one part of a mythic evolution, referencing Rainer Maria Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus (1922), Jean Cocteau's Orphée (1950), Anaïs Mitchell's album Hadestown (2010) and David Almond's young adult novel, A Song for Ella Grey (2015). The writer Ann Wroe anatomized Orpheus’s shape-shifting form in her award-winning "biography" Orpheus: The Song of Life (2012), and has contributed an essay for OE in which she turns her attention to Eurydice. Looking back to the original meaning of Eurydice's name ("wisdom" or "wide ruling"), Wroe asks not what OE makes new, but what it retrieves. “This meaning of Eurydice, dark germinating wisdom, has long been lost,” she writes. “But we see glimpses of it here." And so, to retell is never truly to make new—we are bound to an eternal return, a recurring backwards glance. The radicalism of OE, I would argue, is a result of placing those remembrances of the darker parts of the myth within a structure that retains volatility, that stays unstable. The reader is thereby granted not only an alternative reading of the myth but an alternative means of constructing narrative and making sense of what we see. In short, an alternative approach to reading. 3. Existing in the shadowy space between art and literature, text and image, graphic narratives are drawn towards those dark corners, to the parts of a story usually left unseen. There is something inherently subversive about the form, due partly to its detachment from genre, partly to the potential for dissonance between text and image. This dissonance lends itself to humor—I’m thinking of the cats that appear in Regina Doman and Sean Lam’s graphic biography Habemus Papam! Pope Benedict XVI (2012), and the phallic intrusions in Piero’s graphics for Introducing Roland Barthes (2006). Even when posing as "illustration," as demonstrated in Maira Kalman’s graphics for The Elements of Style, Illustrated (2005), the temptation to “read into” the text can prove too hard to resist. [caption id="attachment_97636" align="aligncenter" width="570"] "He noticed a large stain right in the center of the rug." From The Elements of Style, Illustrated by Maira Kalman.[/caption] Whether or not we refer to graphic narratives as comics, the form has always contained elements of darkness. In their "wordless novels" of the early 20th century, artists Frans Masereel and Lynd Ward made darkness both a matter of style and content; their heavily inked woodblock prints do not shy away from scenes we might rather not see, whether a public lynching, police brutality, or a gigantic man pissing on a city. Graphic narratives are unique in their ability to combine dark humor and unflinching representations of trauma, and yet it took until 1992, when Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1986) won the Pulitzer Prize, for this quality to be taken seriously. Since then, the form has been appreciated as a powerful means of addressing political upheaval and human suffering: Joe Sacco's Palestine (1993, 1996) paved the way for the practice of graphic journalism, and important recent publications have included Threads: from the Refugee Crisis (2017) by Kate Evans and Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq (2016) by Sarah Glidden. In his reports of his experiences in Bosnia and the Middle East, Sacco does not pose as an authority or an all-seeing eye. Instead, he enters his narratives as a character, a diminutive nerd in blank Goggle glasses. Likewise, the graphic narrative’s style of “truth-telling” is less about revelation than disorientation: it makes darkness visible and disrupts conventional patterns of interpretation. As the narrative progresses across the page, time is represented spatially—the trouble is that space is liable to becomes unstable. In OE, the underworld is an atemporal zone with no fixed spatial footholds. The grid offers no protection against falling out of frame, and images transform—without warning—from line drawings, to digital renderings, to photographs—photographs that, with their deep chiaroscuro, appear to take on the quality of sculpture. That restless attitude to medium and representation is a symptom of the form’s entrenched self-referentiality; whether or not a graphic narrative is evidently “experimental,” it is always a comment on the way information is communicated and consumed. As readers fill in the gaps between frames and reconcile text and image, they, we, become complicit in the manufacture of meaning; the extent to which we are made aware of this process depends on the degree of disruption to the narrative flow. We are equally complicit when sequentially connecting the words of a line of text, or organizing the the simultaneously presented elements of an image. However, by combining these two processes, graphic narratives make the act of reading manifest. They reveal it on the surface of the page. In Nick Sousanis’s Unflattening (2015), the first doctoral dissertation to be produced “entirely in comic book form,” that self-referentiality reaches its apotheosis. As the end product of his PhD at Teachers College, the book is a radical assault on academic conventions, seeking to actively deconstruct “boxed-in” thinking with an argument that leads the reader down, diagonally, across the gutter of the page and into empty space. By allowing “the visual to provide expression where words fail,” Sousanis argues, we free ourselves from linear thought processes, creating a networked, “multidimensional” mode of thinking by combining simultaneous and sequential patterns of interpretation. “Lacking access to ‘as it is’,” he writes, in a text box surrounded by crowds of eyes, “we make do with ‘as it appears.'” Making do, in this case, is less about making the best of a bad situation than taking advantage of space between appearance and reality, and seeing what we can make it do—seeing what we will read between the lines. It took time before graphic narratives were deemed worthy of critical attention. Now, Unflattening and OE prove that the form is a mode of critical enquiry in its own right; a recognition that, in turn, makes way for a more nuanced understanding of “creative criticism.” Such criticism does more than just aspire to artistry, throwing in a few metaphors or enacting its subject matter. Instead, it weans the reader off a reliance on the text, converting them from the role of receiver to that of critical thinker: someone who is aware of their own process of reading, whether of an image, a text, or the world around them. Good philosophy has always worked in this way, pushing beyond the literal meaning of the text to force the reader to address the question on their own terms. However, what might be achieved in philosophy through complex literary techniques—I’m thinking, for instance, of Søren Kierkegaard’s use of pseudonyms—comes naturally to graphic narratives. By definition, the form works beyond the level of the text, making us readers of our own act of reading. What we read into the reading, however, depends on the world we have entered. Whereas Unflattening is a utopian world of sense-making, synthesis, and empathy, OE is less interested in synthesis than the act of ripping. In Plato's Phaedo, to live is to be torn asunder by the opposing forces of time and eternity. OE places us on either side of the rupture, and tells us to look down. The rip, the split, the tear, become an aesthetic, a subject, and a mode of thought: this is a world where making meaning is as much about rupture as it is about connectivity, where even the idealized act of "collaboration" is a type of compromise, a separation from oneself. After all, what sense is there to be made of a world where bodies break, are forgotten, exploited, and where love can tear you in two—three—four —or fragments too small to see? In this world, the “o,” the perfect whole and empty hole, is something to be feared: it is all Orpheus has left when he exits, in one piece, from the underworld, doomed to a life of singular solitude—that is, until he is torn into multiple pieces by the maenads. Perhaps, to submit to the ripping is the most honest way to live: to enter the rupture and look death in the eye. What we see is a living hell. What we see is the world we live in.
This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. I am the parent of an avid Marvel fan, and this has led me to serendipitous comic and TV discoveries—which is how I stumbled upon the world of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage. With Luke Cage it was more than just a matter of being in the room when the show was on; I transitioned to interested viewer and took notice of the various ways in which the show was pushing the envelope and tweaking expectations. A big part of that was the thrill of the character Connie Lin. In the portrayal of Connie and Jin Lin, a married couple who own Genghis Connie’s, a Chinese restaurant in Harlem, it was a delight to see Asian-American characters normalized—"SO refreshing to see an Asian character in a Marvel show that isn't a ninja or a gangster or has a thick accent,” as a fan pointed out on Twitter. The Luke Cage-Connie Lin bond in particular stands out, and actress Jade Wu earned a whole new batch of fans with that role. Fame and success may seem like overnight miracles, but perseverance and grit are always at the foundation. Wu has been working in the industry for a long time. Her journey reflects the challenges of being an Asian-American actor—finding any role at all, battling stereotypes, and elevating given roles with nuance and depth. Creative professionals always struggle with finding an audience, but the layers of challenges for people-of-color (POC) actors can be monumental. So it’s particularly exciting to see Wu finding more roles in which her ethnic identity is only one aspect of her character. Her presence on both stage and television raises cautious optimism in those of us looking for more diverse representation across the board. I was delighted to have the opportunity to interview Jade Wu via email and learn more about her personal journey, as well as her insights on the entertainment industry today. Wu’s optimism and enthusiasm for what lies ahead, backed by her willingness to shape the conversation, heartens those of us wondering about the direction of creative spaces. Her journey is a demonstration of how to be clear-eyed toward the road travelled, while focused on moving forward. The Millions: Is there variation in opportunity trends across television, film, and theater? I'm talking specifically about opportunities for people of non-white racial and ethnic backgrounds. Jade Wu: The paradigm has definitely shifted since I entered the industry over 45 years ago. I believe I was the first Asian American to be accepted into a U.S. graduate theatre program, my alma mater being UC San Diego and having theatre icons Alan Schneider, Eric Christmas, and Arthur Wagner as my mentors. I had the training and the student loans but no work. People of color barely existed in the theatre, television, and film landscape. If characters popped onto the screen, they were relegated to heavily accented, broken-English speaking, stereotypical roles as slaves, laundrymen, maids, prostitutes, geishas, or gang members. When television and film burst into everyone’s lives in digital format, production became more cost-effective. People of color had an opportunity to tell stories that no one had heard before. Independent platforms like Sundance nurtured untold stories—simple, poignant and real. Playwrights started writing heritage stories, introducing the world to cultural differences. Then, the stories grew more personal, which put struggles and challenges as universal experiences, despite cultural background. People of color became human, like everyone else. Today, the younger generation of actors and artists have roads paved for them to follow and ride. Most recently, I was mindblown by my friend Justin Chon’s 2017 Sundance Award-winning film, Gook, distributed by Samuel Goldwyn and released nationwide. Justin’s passion for storytelling and filmmaking shines in a raw, real and visceral way that audiences can’t help but be emotionally moved. And, that’s true artistic brilliance. Back in the day, we didn’t have the luxury of such creative freedom. We were too busy scrambling to land any role that dropped in the industry breakdowns. Refreshingly today, television continues to expand its casting diversity. On network television this year, for the first time in my career, I play a recurring non-Asian named character, Judge Cara Bergen, on CBS’s primetime episodic Bull. The character does not have an accent and is in a power position. Progress. The episode has re-aired three more times in the same season, an anomaly in primetime network television. There are some projects that warrant accents, but that should only be used to enhance the story that may require cultural flavor or nuance. Stereotyping is not good storytelling. Good stories are about human flaws, triumphs, struggles, uncontrollable consequences, people. And, sometimes those people have accents. In theatre, we are beginning to see a shift, but the move is slower. The writing is much more challenging, in my opinion. The characters require deeper development. I just workshopped a play that I truly adore, The Betterment Society, written by Mashuq Deen, at the well-reputed Page 73/Yale Summer Residency for Playwrights. All female roles, two are older and living away from society atop a mountain. I have an Appalachian accent. I love it. When we had our reading at workshop’s end, I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room. That is good writing. I feel so grateful to live in the creative world today, to experience its growth and be a part of the opportunities ahead. I may never be cast as Blanche Dubois in a Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire or Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but the door is open for me get an audition for those roles these days, because I’ve decades of dues-paying under my belt. I never would have had that opportunity 45 years ago. TM: It was a pleasure to see the way Luke Cage celebrated Harlem. The cast’s diversity felt integral to the story-telling. Do you find this noteworthy? JW: Cheo Hodari Coker, the show’s creator and showrunner, was intent on Harlem’s world—which is rich in history, gentrification and evolution—to revolve around truth, despite this series swimming in a fantastic superhero universe. Harlem is diverse, so Luke Cage had to live in that world. Because Cheo’s background is also heavily seasoned as an iconic journalist in the Hip Hop arena, all the episodes’ theme songs were written and performed for the show, and the episode’s music score title was also the title of the episode. Diverse casting was also paramount. [This is] brilliant and revolutionary for an episodic series. Cheo is a genius. When I auditioned for the show, I was in Washington, DC, acting in the U.S. premiere of Lucy Kirkland’s West End hit, Chimerica. So, I couldn’t physically show up for the audition and submitted a 53-second self-tape that was sent to L.A. Without a callback and physically sight unseen, I booked the role of Connie Lin. This was a role that could have easily shaped into a stereotype, but I was adamant not to have an accent, and the costume designer, Stephanie Maslansky, dressed me in elite designer dresses, a definite anti-stereotype shift. Connie is powerful, vulnerable, yet real and, most importantly, Luke Cage’s friend—another anti-stereotype of black people and Asians bonding, a truthful reflection of the real world. I could not be more proud and pleased that Cheo chose this direction for the character. TM: We have had the conversation about whitewashing—i.e. white actors being cast to play characters of color—for a while now, and it’s good to see it get more air-play. Do you think the debate has had any significant impact? JW: After Ed Skrein's Twitter announcement about dropping out of the role of Maj. Ben Daimio in Hellboy (a character written specifically as Asian), because it's the "right thing to do," I would say the airplay has finally hit its mark and is exactly the wake-up call for studio decision-makers. I find the whole notion of whitewashing abhorrent. The repertory of high caliber, uber-talented Asian and Asian-American actors can fill an Olympic-sized pool. I never understood the whitewashing concept, which stems from fear—too much of a financial risk for a multi-million dollar project to bank its success on an unknown, unrecognizable actor. I fully embrace financial responsibility, but studios need to be reminded that A-listers were not always A-listers. They started as unknowns and were molded into blockbuster commodities. With Skrein's move, we will see a noticeable tectonic shift in studio casting decisions. To drop out of a major studio project with so much income and notoriety attached is a courageous and honorable move. Bravo to him. I'd rather divert from past studio whitewashing faux pas, which all resulted in box office disasters, and move forward, embrace this new direction and authority in integrity and continue to support "doing what is right." TM: How often have you had to struggle with the dilemma of being offered a stereotypical role? JW: In the span of my career, I've taken the stereotypical roles because that's all that was offered. I have no regrets. Without that experience, I would not have grown as an artist. Humility is a key ingredient to success. Many young actors are so entitled. I think struggle is necessary to appreciate opportunity. What I don't relish are times when I have to confront a struggle that I never expected to happen in 2017. My agent sent me out for a commercial audition a few months ago. A cattle call, meaning there were dozens of people, the usual suspects in the green room awaiting their turn. When I was called into the room, the dialogue was hand-written on a large foam core poster board mounted on an easel. The casting assistant's first question to me was, "Can you read English?" For a minute, I was caught off guard. Instead of visibly reacting, I steadied myself and in a composed response said, "Yes. Can you?" Then, I walked out without auditioning. In that moment, I had to adhere to integrity. Another audition, over a decade ago, was less insulting and somewhat comprehensible. It was for a recurring role on the soap One Life to Live. The character's name was Judith Pinkham. I knew that I certainly didn't look like a Pinkham, so realistically I also knew that I would not be cast. When the casting director asked me to repeat the audition scene, but in an accent, I nodded. I understood what "accent" meant. I did the scene in a Southern accent. I already knew that I wouldn't be cast, so I had nothing to lose, except I probably should not have been so haughty about it. That afternoon, my agent called to tell me I booked the role and ABC was changing the name of the character to Judith Chen. Progress. Though changes have happened, the struggle to play against stereotype continues, but the battle these days is less scarring. TM: You are also a playwright. Tell us about your development as a writer. How do you see your dual roles as writer and actor work in expanding diverse representation? JW: I’ve been writing since I could read. In my first year of college, I failed English Composition 101. The professor didn’t like my use of words that required dictionary referencing. In other words, my words had too many syllables and she tired of having to look up the definitions, so my writing in her opinion was atrocious and lacked fluidity and structure, which I’m sure it did then. Despite her degrading reaction to my writing, I continued to write. I have an affinity for the bizarre, theatre of the absurd, the avant-garde art movement, being influenced by the plays from Eugène Ionesco and Jean Giraudoux. When I watched 1920’s films The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Un Chien Andalou, I was hooked on expressionist art and the surreal. I’ve since grown out of that genre, but some of my writing still injects some of the surreal world, which isn’t so far-fetched because much of nonfiction tends to be more incredible than fiction. The only writing in my repertoire that includes me as a character or multiple characters is my solo docu-theatre piece, which is still a work-in-progress. The premise is a montage of women whom I’ve had the fortune of knowing and whose lives have the common thread of violent struggles either in war, domestic relationship, or in the one’s own mind. It’s the most difficult piece I’ve ever tackled. In terms of dual role-playing as writer and actor, I shy away from acting in what I write. However, since acting has been my financial mainstay, I’ve had to hone my writing, directing, and producing skills to maintain a part of the industry’s creative pulse. Reinvention is an understatement for an artist. We have to go with the flow without losing integrity, personal and creative. I have written screenplays, television series, made documentary films. I have grown into a Jill-of-all-Trades, which is something that I believe boosts credibility and reputation in this industry. It’s almost a requirement these days to create work as much as act in others’ work. TM: Tell us about one of your favorite experiences as an actor. Does any one play or show stand out as having been a remarkable learning experience? JW: The most memorable theatre experience was playing one of only four female roles, the farmer's wife, in The Public Theatre's Central Park production of Mother Courage and Her Children (adapted by Tony Kushner, directed by George C. Wolfe, scored by Jeanine Tesori, starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline). I nearly wasn't in contention for the role because my mother had had a near fatal fall and emergency surgery for a fractured femur. I had to pass on two audition calls, but The Public Theatre was intent on having me audition for George. When my mother was out of ICU and in rehab, I took a dawn train from MD to NYC, auditioned, and went back immediately after. Being so exhausted, I never imagined my audition would ever be rehearsed and good enough, but I delivered as best I could. This was a lifetime opportunity to play one of the most coveted roles in the theatre world at the time. A few days later, my agent called. I booked the role. When rehearsals began, I savored every second of watching and learning from Meryl. Her dedication, generosity, and passion for acting were beyond imagination. I learned more in a few months of breathing the same air as she than I had in all of graduate school and my career. It's custom to give your cast mates an opening gift or card to launch the spirit of a successful run of a play. What could I possibly give Meryl Streep? I wrote a poem about her struggles, discoveries, and process for each scene in the play, printed it on parchment paper and had it leather bound. With 33 actors in the cast, I was sure my gift would get buried. Then, in act two, as we both sat on the picnic table backstage of the open stage, awaiting our entrances, a raccoon slithered past us. We screeched and laughed aloud. She embraced me, a tear in her eye, and said, "You are a writer. Thank you." I told her I wasn't a writer. She said, "You are. Don't stop writing." We made our entrances and never made mention of that moment again. I continue to be fueled by her support and will always write, until I can't. TM: What insights would you like to share with other artists, Asian Americans in particular? What are the to-do things you’d recommend? JW: In film and theatre, the biggest support comes from butts in seats. Buy tickets. See shows. As many as you can. For film, the first week of box office determines the life or death of movie. For theatre, it's the same. Make friends. Network. Seek mentors. Social media has become the fog horn for announcing and supporting work. Use it. Spread the word. Get butts in seats. As for television, and now this new media distribution stream, again, advice is to spread the word on social media. Entertainment industry marketers follow these posts. It's the best focus group study for major projects. It's intimate and public simultaneously, and free. Start creating your own projects, writing your own stories. With so many distribution channels, the market is hungry for content. Build your team of collaborators with whom you can work well and seamlessly. Join organizations that nurture those skills, i.e. Asian American Film Lab, Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), Asian CineVision (ACV), all Asian American film festivals, etc., and apply for grants to get your work into the creative, recognizable pool. Swim with those with whom you can learn different strokes. Photos via ZSC Entertainment.
If you’ve ever wondered how a novel gets made, from the first glimmerings in the author’s imagination to what readers say about it in their book clubs, Clayton Childress’s Under the Cover is the book for you. Childress, a sociologist at the University of Toronto, has performed a remarkable feat of investigative reporting, interviewing dozens of writers, editors, and readers, and even embedding himself for a time as an intern at an indie publishing house, to follow the tortuous path of Cornelia Nixon’s 2009 historical novel Jarrettsville from inspiration to publication and beyond. Unfortunately, because Childress is a social scientist and Under the Cover is part of the Princeton Studies in Cultural Sociology series, readers have to drill through layers of academic framing and insider jargon to find the nuggets Childress has mined from his years of research. This is a shame because, whatever his gifts as a sociologist, Childress is a first-rate shoe-leather reporter. He begins by getting inside Nixon’s head, tracing the origins of Jarrettsville back to a family story about a Maryland ancestor, Martha Jane Cairns, who fell in love with a Union soldier shortly after the Civil War, became pregnant with his child, and then, after he left her, shot him dead in broad daylight as he marched in a parade. In these early sections, Childress occasionally gets sidetracked by his academic training, as when he suggests that “in Nixon’s writing group, recompense operates largely within an economy of time and artistic attention, a gift exchange of sorts,” as if trading story drafts were a lit-world equivalent of the exchange of shell necklaces among Trobriand Islanders. But he does a superb job of showing how Nixon’s decade-long struggle to write and publish Jarrettsville transformed a raw family story into a published book. Nixon spent five long years researching and writing a draft of the novel, then called Martha’s Version, which she sent to 22 publishing houses, all of which rejected it. Childress, ever the social scientist, breaks out the positive and negative comments in Nixon’s rejection letters into a handy bar chart showing that while editors liked Nixon’s treatment of the time period and the issue of race, they felt the plot was too slow and the major characters needed work. Anyone who has ever sent out a novel for publication has created their own mental version of Childress’s soul-crushing little bar chart, and like Nixon, has pored over it looking for the signal in the noise of conflicting editorial feedback. To her credit, Nixon figured out what was wrong and overhauled the book, adding a long section from the perspective of Martha Cairns’s doomed lover. Or, as Childress puts it: “Nixon took the editors’ explanations from the field of production, and first alone and then with guidance from her social circle used them to redraft Martha’s Version into Jarrettsville.” Much of Under the Cover is written in this curiously anthropological tone, as if Childress were explaining how to eat a bowl of cereal to a race of aliens who had never seen a spoon. What is even more curious, though, is that, amid all the jargon, Childress nails the great secret of publishing, which is that it is a business fueled by special brand of infectious enthusiasm. (This might be the place to mention that Childress quotes, at some length, from a Millions piece of mine, "'A Right Fit': Navigating the World of Literary Agents".) In his chapters on Counterpoint Press, where Childress worked as an intern while it was publishing Jarrettsville, he documents how Nixon’s book passed from her agent, to her editor, to her publisher’s sales force, to buyers at major bookstores, rising and falling in value as each person in the chain fell in love with the book or didn’t. Of course, each of these people are busy professionals who can’t possibly read every page of every book that crosses their desks, so much of the time they were falling in love, or not falling in love, with the idea of Nixon’s novel. Since each person in the chain was being paid to hype a full slate of books to the next person in line, any sign of unfeigned enthusiasm—a kind comment by a proofreader, a review of half the book from a sales rep—rippled through the system, carrying the book along in its wake. In the case of Jarrettsville, the book rode this tide of readerly goodwill straight onto the high-traffic front tables at Borders, the now-shuttered bookstore chain, where it foundered, in large part due to a single bad review in The New York Times. Childress gets this deeply human element of publishing exactly right, so it’s disheartening to see it explained in sentences like this one: While most sociologists, following the theory of Bourdieu, bifurcate the literary field into artistically and commercially driven poles, it is at the organizational level within the field of production in which art and commerce are harmonized as a requisite feature of being in the business of promoting and selling books. Translated into plain English, Childress is saying that despite what people think, publishing isn’t a war between art and commerce, but a business that thrives by blending these two things. This is a core insight of his book, and he’s right, but he’s buried his point in a sentence that seems almost scientifically designed to be impenetrable to non-specialist readers. First, there’s that single-name reference to Bourdieu, tossed in without context as if the late French philosopher and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu were a cultural phenomenon like Madonna or Beyoncé, so instantly recognizable that you only need the one name to know who he is and be fully up on his theories. And if you weren’t scared off by the mononymic French dude, the rest of the sentence will stop you cold, with its weakly focused main clause (“it is at…”), awkwardly placed introductory prepositional phrases (“at the organizational level within the field of production”), passive voice (“are harmonized”), insular terms of art (“the field of production”), and ornate Latinate phrases (“bifurcate,” “requisite”). I've been teaching writing at the university level for more than 20 years and I can assure you no one writes like that naturally. You have to train people to write sentences like this, and when they regress and start making sense again, you have to ensure that their livelihoods depend on being consistently incomprehensible outside a narrow set of like-minded colleagues. Therein, to my mind, lies a small, perhaps unavoidable tragedy of how knowledge is produced and promulgated in our society. Childress was able to do such a fine job researching American publishing in part because he was heavily subsidized, first as a doctoral student at the state-supported University of California at Santa Barbara, and later as a junior professor at a research university partially funded by (Canadian) tax dollars. When he began Under the Cover, Childress explains in an afterword, he was a grad student looking for a subject, and now, many years later, he is a tenured professor at the University of Toronto, no doubt thanks in large part to the publication of Under the Cover. So the deal worked out well for Childress, and it has worked out well for cultural sociologists and their students, who now have a new text to study in their classes. But for other readers who might be interested in the subject matter of Childress’s book, particularly writers and people considering a career in publishing, it’s more of a mixed bag. On the one hand, Childress has given us a deeply reported insider’s look at how the sausage gets made in contemporary publishing. On the other hand, he has built such high walls of academic verbiage and doctrinal framing around his work that only a few hardy souls outside his area of specialty will ever succeed in climbing them.
1. I had the pleasure of starting this essay when my life was falling apart, which is the best time, I think, to return to the author who taught you who you are. My first experience with Toni Morrison was by accident: My sisters and I played the DVD of Beloved at our aunt’s house, thinking it to be something different from what it was because Oprah Winfrey was in it. Back then, I was busy searching for normal in the likes of Junie B. Jones or Abby Hayes; only now do I see that the lives of these white girls fashioned a fantasia, when really my world was our world was Toni’s world: sick, sad, and keeping on regardless. One of the first grown-up novels I read was The Bluest Eye. It was the summer before university, and I found an old copy at a thrift store and stayed up until 4 a.m. chugging through Pecola Breedlove’s heartbreaking elegy. Four years later—a few weeks ago—I bought Jazz, Love, and Song of Solomon, after checking out God Help the Child at the local library. I’ve since finished Song of Solomon and God Help the Child; Jazz is proving to be a labor of love. Toni Morrison writes prose the way Dizzy Gillespie carried a tune or Ernie Barnes paints a life. They create art that imbues with heat those who let it in. Still, Barnes’s heat emanates from the hot and heavy space between lovers; Gillespie’s within the boiling blood of dancers in Village Vanguard. Morrison derives hers from tension. Morrison’s new book of essays, The Origin of Others, shows that the sick, sad world in which her novels are set is an old one—one that she yearns to lean out of, one we’re falling right back into instead. The Origin of Others is, at once, a critique, memoir, and writer’s notebook; the Nobel Prize-winning author explicates the observations and inspirations behind some of her most prized novels. The book draws from her Norton Lectures, in which she discusses race, borders, history, and other literary heavyweights such as Flannery O’Connor and Ernest Hemingway. Readers could consider this book a companion to her Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, if they want a pellucid look at the racial minefield throughout American literature. Morrison spans the essays asking what it is to Other others, to mark the color line between them and us. What I found in this discourse was a generational rift between Morrison and us. Who is “us”? Ta-Nehisi Coates opens Origin with a foreword that claims it “impossible to read [Morrison’s] thoughts on belonging, on who fits under the umbrella of society and who does not, without considering our current moment.” He is correct in that the book envokes our collective, Trump-era anguish with almost clairvoyant clarity, but he seems to overlook how zeitgeist is geared towards winning the right to exist as Others in peace. Miles Davis once said that “sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.” In that vein, Chloe Ardelia Wofford, born February 18, 1931, became Toni Morrison with time. While the name itself was a gradual invention—she was nicknamed “Toni” in college and picked up “Morrison” when she married—the Morrison we read today was conceived in the lifelong Othering either described or hinted at in The Origin of Others; her first essay, “Romancing Slavery,” opens with a representative scene. In the early 1930s, when Morrison and her sister “still played on the floor,” her great-grandmother Millicent MacTeer visited the family and provided her with a brief lesson about race and power: Her visit to Ohio had been long anticipated because she was regarded as the wise, unquestionable, majestic head of our family. The majesty was clear when something I had never witnessed before happened as she entered a room: without urging, all the males stood up. Finally, after a round of visits with other relatives, she entered our living room, tall, straight-backed, leaning on a cane she obviously did not need, and greeted my mother. Then, staring at my sister and me, playing or simply sitting on the floor, she frowned, pointed her cane at us, and said, "These children have been tampered with."…My great-grandmother was tar black, and my mother knew precisely what she meant: we, her children, and therefore our immediate family, were sullied, not pure. This scene sets the tone for the rest of the book. She remarks on how she first considered the phrase “tampered with” exotic, until her mother rejected the assertion. “[I]t became clear that ‘tampered with’ meant lesser,” she writes, “if not completely Other.” And thus, lit the spark of apprehension that grew as I continued the book. The second essay, “Being or Becoming the Stranger,” provides us with an astute analysis as of the ways we draw the boundaries between one another. “Culture, physical traits, religion were and are among all precursors of strategies for ascendance and power,” Morrison explains. She opens the argument by analyzing Flannery O’Connor’s “Artificial Nigger,” in which a poor white man with delusions of grandeur teaches his nephew how to view black folk as lesser. She recounts the characters’ journey to Atlanta, and how Mr. Head teaches his nephew to read color. There’s one scene that stuck out, while on the train, where the two spot a large well-to-do light-skinned man who prompts the nephew to say, “You said they were black…You never said they were tan…” Morrison highlights this scene to illustrate the fluidity of racial identity, how loosely we define blackness. This scenario either posits that race always trumped class or that race cannot be confined by color or, likely, both, an argument that can lend itself to colorblindness had one taken it at face value. Today, race and class have become entangled like a ratking: dozens of outcomes fighting for recognition but none quite standing out on its own. It is true that you can be an NBA superstar who’s still likened to a gorilla, or a footballer still manhandled by the police, but it also remains true that wealth provides enough mobility within the American social stratosphere to feed one’s delusions that they don’t have to care about blackness or, at the very least, are no longer affected by the racism us working folk are. Wealthy black folks don’t have to put up with Mr. Head’s chauvinism on the train when they can book a private plane for themselves, their non-black partners, and their pretty mixed children in the achromatic utopias often afforded to them. Simply put, they don’t have to care about our problems, and they know it. Morrison then wraps up Mr. Head’s racial anxiety, that way she does so well: “Without the glue of racial superiority there seems to be no possibility of forgiveness or re-union. When, finally, they enter an all-white neighborhood, their fear of not belonging, of becoming, themselves, the stranger, destabilizes them.” This latter portion seems not to have aged at all, especially following a read of Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s profile of Dylann Roof; as blackness expands, white resentment remains static, transfixed in its original state until catalyzed by violence. The book continues like this, wherein there are prescient analyses of the cultural moment followed by claims bordering on diminutive, as though Morrison has grown tired of discussing race—which would be reasonable—and yearns for the Obama-era headway that we millennials have grown accustomed to. This is especially apparent in “The Color Fetish,” the third essay, where Morrison briefly touches upon how dark skin is utilized as imagery for anything from menace to hopelessness to sexual depravity. She highlights a few popular examples, such as how in To Have and Have Not (The Tradesman’s Return), Hemingway must point out that an otherwise-named black character, Wesley, is constantly referred to as “the nigger” to “pinpoint the narrator’s compassion for a black man” and render the white protagonist sympathetic. Any keen cultural consumer will recall a similar trope used in Deadpool (2016) and Baby Driver (2017). We haven’t changed that much. However, while she references “color-ism” once or twice, she entirely defangs and de-genders the issue, glossing over the preference for light-skinned characters—especially women—throughout American literary history, as well as the way this colorism has also been used by ostensibly black texts to alienate light-skinned protagonists from their dark-skinned antagonists, furthering Charles Chesnutt’s tradition of writing blacks with proximity to whiteness as more human. (Ann Petry’s The Street, Justin Simien’s Dear White People and—while I hesitate to list this as such—Jean Rhys’s polemical Wide Sargasso Sea come to mind.) 2. It is entirely possible that after 40-odd years of ruminating on blackness, racism, and womanhood, Morrison has become fatigued. We’re sitting in an era where 20-something bloggers need monastic practices of self-care just to keep up with the news. A philosophy major I know recently posted a diatribe against critical theory on Facebook, noting that he’d read 50 books a year for four years only to find that the Black conundrum, the why, only expanded the deeper you went, as if he were searching for the center of the universe. Oppression is exhausting and Morrison ends The Bluest Eye’s prologue by admitting this: “There is really nothing more to say—except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.” Every day, black folks are forced to parse how we’re seen, how we’re not, and how we’re to rectify these regular affronts in hopes to, one day, untie the Gordian knot that is our existence in a world designed away from us. The world Toni Morrison grew up in and immortalized in her fiction was diseased. It’s a world of fathers drunk on hate, seeking love in innocence and turning it to rot; a world of little colored girls trapped in mahogany palaces, sewing roses out of red velvet for parties they’ll never go to. It’s a world rife with ghosts of bygone traumas manifesting in cruelty. Throughout her career, she took that world and turned it into doleful prose to try to make the pain a little more beautiful. This was likely why I returned to her like a ghost back to her grave: She presented us with Negresses who were mobilizing forces in their own lives. But it wasn’t empowering; in fact, it could be incapacitating, seeing your suffering in the mirror. There was a part in “Being or Becoming the Stranger” that shed a little light on my experience with Beloved. Morrison recalls the time she met an “outrageously dressed fisherwoman” outside of her home. They chat for a few minutes and decide to chat again at some indistinct point in the future. But once the fisherwoman is gone, she never returns, and nary a soul knew she even existed, prompting minor heartache for Morrison: I immediately sentimentalized and appropriated her. Fantasized her as my personal shaman. I owned her or wanted to (and I suspect she glimpsed it). I had forgotten the power of embedded images and stylish language to seduce, reveal, control. Forgot too their capacity to help us pursue the human project—which is to remain human and to block the dehumanization and estrangement of others. I recall now why we ever thought Beloved was a family-friendly film: We had projected onto Oprah a benignity she’d likely wanted to escape from. Oprah, a woman whose success was often extrapolated from the Mammy archetype. We had fallen victim to the way the world perceived her: supplement to whiteness. 3. Black American history has been unforgiving. From chattel slavery to Reconstruction to Jim Crow to our current neoliberal dystopia—black art has always been produced as ripostes to the black condition of a given era. For poor black folk, those who can’t cull hundreds of dollars for passports that’d go largely unused anyway, their horizons extend to what’s right before them. Hopeful blacktivists open bookstores to shrink that sea of dissonance between poor folk and the diaspora, but America’s anti-intellectualism too often prevails. Morrison resists. Her prose is poetic in its simplicity and as lush with imagery as a hilltop forest. She makes a conscious effort to keep her books accessible to help black booksellers push cachet literature to the masses. “I thought to myself,” she writes, “what if I published a book good enough, attractive enough to demand black people’s attention?” She’s since reached that goal and then some, I think, but the fatigue still wins sometimes. She explains how, for example, Paradise was written as “a reverse dystopia—a deepening of the definition of ‘black’ and a search for its purity as defiance against the eugenics of ‘white’ purity…” In “The Color Fetish,” she also details how God Help the Child displayed color as “both a curse and a blessing, a hammer and a golden ring,” how the beauty in Bride’s sable skin and silky hair was not enough to make her “a sympathetic human being.” And her acclaimed short story, “Recititaf," could be declared a colorblind masterwork—in fact, it was. This time last year, a white classmate construed the story’s meaning to be that the race of the characters didn’t matter. The real meaning? It may have gotten lost in the process of writing it: I first tried this technique of racial erasure in a short story…It began as a screenplay that I was asked to write for two actresses—one black, one white. But since in the writing I didn’t know which actress would play which part, I eliminated color altogether, using social class as the marker…Later I converted the material into a short story—which, by the way, does exactly the opposite of my plan (the characters are divided by race, but all racial codes have been deliberately removed). Instead of relating to plot and character development, most readers insist on searching for what I have refused them. At the end of the day, Morrison loves her people, as discussed in that famous New York Times Magazine interview with Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah back in 2015: What I’m interested in is writing without the gaze, without the white gaze...In so many earlier books by African-American writers, particularly the men, I felt that they were not writing to me. But what interested me was the African-American experience throughout whichever time I spoke of. It was always about African-American culture and people—good, bad, indifferent, whatever—but that was, for me, the universe. And yet she appears resistant to carry on this discourse, likely because for a moment there it did feel like we were out of the woods. Imagine spending 40 years writing the brutal mores of race hatred only for it to make a comeback—immediately following the first black presidency, at that. Toni Morrison’s world—the world of Beloved and Song of Solomon, Jazz and The Bluest Eye—is an old world she yearns to abandon forever. The Origin of Others glosses over so many things that at this point should be non-factors. But alas, here we are on the bend of time’s spiral, mirroring the same shit in new clothes, all in the twilight of her life. It is not Morrison’s job to bear new burdens like colorism or misogynoir or, ironically, Nazism; it’s up to us to pick them up and smash them against the concrete, just to let her breathe.
This month, my family celebrated a milestone we long believed we wouldn’t reach: the 40th birthday of my older sister. We were gathered for our annual summer vacation at the Jersey Shore, a boisterous, humid week spent crowded together in a rental house, breaded with sand, mixing rosé spritzers and grilling steaks. I’ve learned not to expect to relax, exactly. Seven days under one roof with family—including the five small children now among us—can feel by turns like a profound gift and a penance. It’s less "reset" and more "deep dive"—into our issues, our values, our shared history. At least this year no one was in diapers. For the birthday, we bought lobsters and a sheet cake, and hung dollar-store streamers over the dining-room table while the kids jumped on the couch to Rihanna, batting around yellow smiley-face balloons and snapping glow sticks to make them luminescent. Starting when I was 13, my sister’s heroin addiction infused our lives with pain, confusion, terror, exasperation, and guilt. I spent high school sleeplessly mastering the art of codependency—a somewhat natural inclination for a middle child—absorbing my divorcing parents’ anxieties, keeping my sister’s secrets, and self-destructing in small, private ways that wouldn’t bother anyone, nursing all the while a growing set of bitter resentments. I felt as if the entire house—a giant repository of my mother’s tears—was resting on my shoulders, like one of those really big fish tanks. If I’d shifted too much beneath it, it would’ve shattered. So I didn’t. For over a decade, the family navigated the periods of hope and operatic despair that characterize life with an opiate addict. (It’s a pattern I would play out again—surprise—in romantic relationships with men.) But then, miraculously, my sister became one of the few to climb out. I spent part of our week “down the shore” reading Mayhem: A Memoir, Sigrid Rausing’s quiet, meditative new book about her brother’s drug addiction and its impact on their family. Oblivious to traffic, I stood at the kitchen island in the mornings, underlining and starring passages on almost every page. Owing to the many similarities between our lives and the profound (and rare) consolation I find in reading about addiction from the perspective of family members, I was often short of breath with feelings of identification, recognition, validation. I nodded and sometimes cried. I wanted to invite the author over for tea. Like me, Rausing is the middle of three children. Also like me, she was trained as a cultural anthropologist and her primary preoccupation was the passing fantasy of Soviet socialism. (I read her first book, History, Memory, and Identity in Post-Soviet Estonia, in a graduate seminar. In Mayhem she writes of her research site, “The state of Estonia mirrored my own internal state: there was little or no welfare and no viable security forces.”) We are both now editors. She also grew up, as I did, feeling her kinship to her siblings like a visceral charge coursing through her blood. “The three of us were made from the same basic ingredients,” she writes. It was “as though mixing my mother with my father could make only this one combination, more or less, of height, of green eyes, of brown hair.” As a result, like me, she spent a great deal of energy chasing the elusive answer to the riddle of her brother’s addiction. Those exercises in futility form the bulk of the book—riveting reading for me, though perhaps not for all readers. Unlike me, Rausing, the owner and publisher of Granta, is heiress to a multi-billion-dollar beverage-packaging fortune, and spent her idyllic childhood summers not on the coast of New Jersey, but among a cluster of family homes in the Swedish countryside. Her descriptions of those summers capture nostalgia for a strapping, athletic youth spent swimming, crabbing, and doing gymnastics in Marimekko T-shirts and shorts. They also deftly evoke the subtle sadness of wealth and the pale, modest glamour of 1970s Scandinavia. Meandering through the past and the present, Rausing tells the story of her brother Hans Kristian Rausing’s addiction to heroin and cocaine, and his ultimately disastrous relationship with his first wife, Eva Kemeny, an American socialite he met in a rehab center when they were both in their 20s. The couple married in 1992 and had four children before relapsing together in 2000 with a New Year’s Eve glass of champagne—a small, innocent gesture that can send addicts’ lives careening out of control. They were active philanthropists and steadfast contributors to addiction- and recovery-related causes. In 2007, amid concern that they were unfit parents and following an excruciating court hearing, Sigrid and her husband, film producer Eric Abraham, were granted custody of their four children. It was a major life change for all. Everything that had been “a bit ad hoc” with one child suddenly required precision. “Five children,” Rausing writes, “make a little school, a herd, a flock, a group.” Hans and Eva were devastated and angry at the loss of their children, but remained unable to achieve enough stability or sobriety to make a good-faith effort to get them back, at least according to this account. In May 2012, Eva Rausing died of a heart attack with the foil and wire wool used to smoke crack in her hand and cocaine flooding her system. Hans was there at the moment of her death but, unable to cope with the reality of the situation—and, to be blunt, almost certainly on a crack run himself—he laid her body on their bed and covered it with clothing and other household objects, and sealed off the room with tarps and duct tape. When Hans was pulled over two months later, police tracked the smoking crack pipe to the couple’s five-story London mansion, where the 48-year-old Eva’s decomposed body was found. She was identified by the serial number on her pacemaker. Hans was charged with obstruction of a proper burial, but the twin privileges of whiteness and wealth and the (surely not unrelated) goodwill of the judge kept him from serving time. Rausing has clearly written Mayhem to wrest this gruesome story back from the British tabloid media, who have already mercilessly picked it apart. But she does far more. In this slim, stoic memoir—epigrammatic and laced with literary and scholarly references—Rausing thoughtfully, painstakingly, works a deep groove into the stubborn surface of certain bedeviling questions: “How do you write about addiction?” “Who can help the addict?” Is addiction a genetic predisposition, a personality bent, a “form of possession,” a “culture of rebellion?” Why does the language of 12-step recovery so often feel inadequate to describe the anguish wrought by the illness, or to soothe? From the wreckage of her brother’s illness, she forges a new self, one she doesn’t always like—particularly as she’s fretting over the children, afraid they’ll become addicts (another thing we have in common). Against a massive, varied literature of addiction that sidelines family members’ experience, even as it drives home the notion that addiction is a “family disease,” Rausing edges gently, gingerly toward a theory of us, not just them. “I suspect that the state of not being an addict is actually as scientifically interesting as the state of being an addict,” she writes. It’s one of the most radical lines in the book. In a recent New York Times piece on Mayhem titled “A Wealthy Family’s Battle with Drugs Laid Bare, But to What End?” Dan Bilefsky explores the stakes of Rausing’s memoir, asking whether she’s “defiled the sacred rule of the 12-step universe,” where addiction is supposed to remain anonymous. It’s an inane question, given how public the Rausings’ trials, figurative and literal, have been. He also discusses the reaction of Eva’s family—her father, a former PepsiCo executive, tried to stop the publication of the book, and has recently called it a “cold, hollow and unsympathetic depiction of our beloved daughter, Eva.” He has said that he believes she would be alive if the Rausings had not taken her children from her. Bilefsky seems bored, if occasionally moved, by Sigrid Rausing’s struggle. “She fantasizes about kidnapping and saving her brother,” he writes. “She never does.” To me, these are the words of someone not in the immediate reach of this monstrous disease. If so, lucky for him, but it will be the case for fewer and fewer people as the opiate epidemic creeps insidiously into more homes. The urge to save our loved ones, and the inability to do so: this reckoning will define more and more lives. Bilefsky’s piece is brief and not wholly ungenerous, but it reminded me of the ways that addiction remains surrounded by a powerful mystique. We are more willing to take at face value and more likely to relish the first-hand accounts written by addicts and alcoholics themselves—they contain more drama, more highs, and addicts are notorious for what Rausing calls their “narrative knack”—and less inclined to want to listen to the nervous recollections of the fatigued family left behind to clean up the messes, to raise the children. The pain of the codependent is often minimized, marginalized, and importantly, feminized. At my family’s birthday dinner, I lifted my glass to make a toast and we all began to cry. I told my sister I was grateful for her, proud of her for saving her own life, excited for her next chapter. We toasted my parents, too, for their unending caring and patience. “Well, you know what they say,” my father joked, wiping tears, “the first 40 years are the hardest.” Not tough love, just love—this has been the ethos of our family, and it’s the thing to which my sister most often credits her recovery. As memoirist and recovery guru Tracey Helton Mitchell wrote of her mother in the New York Times last year, “When I was finally ready to stop drugs, she didn’t have to ‘accept’ me back. She had never quit being a guiding force in my life.” After dinner, we went downstairs into the cellar made of breakaway walls that are the requirement of post-Hurricane Sandy architecture, where the kids sat my sister beneath an open beach umbrella, crowned her queen, and performed a play. Then, accompanied by my little sister on acoustic guitar, my five-year-old nephew sang “Hallelujah,” which he’d prepared specially for the evening, his voice heading cracklingly falsetto-ward as he reached each verse’s tender crescendo. I tried not to sniffle too loudly into the iPhone video I was recording. At the end, the children encircled my sister in the dark bunker of a basement as she made a wish and blew out her candles, and we hooted and cheered. I thought of Robert, the handsome, wild-eyed fiancé she lost to an overdose many years ago, and all the birthday candles he hadn’t blown out. That tragedy spun our lives into chaos and darkness but, like the Rausings, it was both our loss and not our loss. After all, we were spared. We got to keep our girl. In that fact alone, there is tremendous guilt and a twisted grief that is still unspooling. Love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah. Each year that my family preserves in amber moments like these is one year farther out from the worst. And yet, addiction is always menacing, always right there. In many ways, Rausing’s haunting memoir is doing the only thing we can in the face of such a threat: gather our memories like specimens in a lab and work with them in various combinations, trying to stave off the disease, trying to figure something out. The passage of time shifts us in relation to events. But, as Rausing writes, “time does almost nothing on its own. You need to think it all out.” In 2014, following the publication of her second book, Rausing told the Guardian, “Addiction is a very mysterious existential condition and up close it is very hard to understand.” Striving to build an archive that might help us better grasp that mystery, or simply to live more serenely beside it, is not a thing we ought to fault her for. For some of us, it’s the only kind of vigil we can keep.
“All good novelists have bad memories.” —Graham Greene 1. Omar Robert Hamilton’s debut novel, The City Always Wins, capturing Cairo in the convulsions of the revolution, brought back a bad memory of Srinagar. In the summer of 2010, one still, sickly hot evening in the capital city of Kashmir, I found myself in the working-class neighborhood of Batamalyun. The modestly built house of bricks formed the dead-end of the dust street. I went inside and found Fayaz Rah, the 39-year-old fruit vendor who I wanted to interview. A solidly-built man, he sat cross-legged in the sitting room, his back pressed to the wall. “At eight,” he said, “one does not understand what protests during a curfew could mean.” Two weeks ago, on the afternoon of August 2, his eight-year-old son, Sameer, had left the house to play with his friends. In a back alley, Indian paramilitaries, angry that since 2008 Kashmiris had been protesting and hurling stones and slogans of aazadi, independence, at them, caught Sameer and beat him with bamboo sticks. Inside, Fayaz continued to narrate the story. Outside, the night began to fall. His quiet voice floated in the long, darkened room. I became restless and fidgety. I wanted the roof to fall down; and I wanted the walls to crumble. I wanted him to stumble or stop altogether, because in my mind I was already stumbling and failing to write the essay I so badly wanted to write. “He had bought a candy…,” the father cried. “I’d not know. But when the ambulance [van] brought Sameer home and I held his dead body in my arms, I found the candy in his mouth. It was half-broken and stuck between his upper teeth.” 2. The City Always Wins follows Khalil, an American-born young man of Palestinian origin. A lover of revolution and jazz, he, and a group of lefty friends, tirelessly film videos and record interviews of the revolution to upload a website called Chaos. Hamilton, a film maker by profession, arrests readers with auditory and visual details of the city flooded with democratic rage against Hosni Mubarak’s protracted presidency. But the novel is not just an intimate act of witness to the outpourings of the people protesting in Tahrir Square and the military brutalities and massacres that followed; the novel’s strength lies rather in the moments that unfold within the quiet of houses rather than the roar of the street, for instance, when Khalil, accompanying a French documentary crew talks to the father whose son has been killed. Abu Bassem’s dignity is somehow unbearable. He doesn’t cry or curse or swear vendetta. But he is not defeated. Khalil feels somehow animal in contrast to the older man, his stillness, that he must be enraged for him, that he must do the crying, the stumbling. During the interview, the French director, a technology-laden neo-Orientalist, gets impatient and irritated while Khalil and Abu Bassem speak in Arabic, leaving him out of the conversation. Kahlil feels “suddenly, burningly foreign, a tour operator cashing in on other people’s misery, a cheap Virgil to guide foreigners through the city’s labyrinth of martyrdom.” Journalism and reportage are arguably more suited to the act of witnessing, while fiction is a place for quieter recollection and contemplation of the self and what has become of it through said witnessing. Throughout the book, Hamilton’s voice has two distinct and somewhat conflicting tendencies. One is the desire to be a direct witness to the revolution, to report the street without the façade and filter of characters. The other is to analyze the act of witnessing by measuring the impact it has had on the lives of the characters and the decisions they make. With its quickly shifting points of view, its staccato vignettes and serrated phrases soaring into lament and lyricism, City reads best in those sections where the intensity of witnessing is informed by the mood brought about by the psychological transformation: the opening passage, for instance, wherein Khalil’s girlfriend, Mariam, grapples with the bodies remorselessly "crushed under tanks" during the march to Maspero. The urgent rendering of sensual details hits one like the miasma of death hanging in the morgue. She stopped counting the dead an hour ago. These corridors are so compressed with bodies and rage and grief that something, surely, is going to explode. Everywhere are the cries of a new loss, a shouted question, a panicked face, a weeping phone call…Blocks of ice are melting between the bodies of the fallen, vapors whispering off the flesh of the silenced. Hamilton has channeled the effusive energy of the revolution to create a narrative of stunning fragments. But because the desire to be a witness outweighs the desire to put the witness to a novelistic examination, the fragments hardly coalesce to constitute a novel. The joy lies in reading the vignettes individually, lucent and often phantasmagorical, which fail to string together to make a seamless sustained narrative in which one could follow Khalil’s physical and psychological journey through the potentially hurting landscape of the city. The result is that Khalil, though unhinged, dispossessed and selflessly utopian, is not realized to the full arc of his rage. With the rise of Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood to power, the energies of the revolution are frustrated. But as the need to replace Morsi becomes clearer and Cairo begins to cheer for Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Khalil feels lost and misdirected. After breaking up with Mariam and witnessing the death of a close friend, he returns to New York. Hamilton recreates chunks of Khalil’s beleaguered consciousness with the fidelity of an impressionist, and one’s knowledge of Khalil at the end is almost the same as it was at the beginning. Between him and the reader are the smoke-blurred, blood-spattered streets of Cairo longing for liberation, the city itself the most vocal of all the characters. Khalil’s voice is interchangeable with the voice of other characters. It is the authorial voice that dominates and diminishes him. At times, the dialogue is too dramatic to be credible. Novels make certain demands as to how to properly employ memory. To fictionalize a bad memory like the one recounted at the beginning of this essay, mere impressionistic rendering of how the boy was bludgeoned to death will not do. One must put to the novelistic scrutiny the complex churning within the self (of the father) the killing set in motion and find ways to trace the transformation over a period of years in the language of gestures, human, silent and concrete. One must dwell in the darkness of the sitting room that’ll haunt the narrator, his horror and shame untold, as he walks the roads of the city on which Sameer once walked and played. The artist, unable to tolerate reality, forgets long and forgets strong. The mind with its uncanny mechanisms, buries the bad memory under consciousness, until a familiar color or caress, a smell or a tone calls it all back again, unwarranted, and in the febrile beehive of imagination, the bright buzzing bits of memory curl into the shape of the novel. Hamilton does not forget enough what he has witnessed recently and literally. It is the memory itself that is so visceral and brutal and excessive that, in its ethereal rendering, he succeeds to shock and harangue, creating a vivid illusion of fiction.
Out this week: Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss; Katalin Street by Magda Szabó; Letters to Memory by Karen Tei Yamashita; Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke; Affections by Rodrigo Hasbún; A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe; After the Flare by Deji Bryce Olukotun; and Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. For more on these and other new titles, go read our most recent book preview.
1. A lot of fans know Edgar Allan Poe earned just $9 for “The Raven,” now one of the most popular poems of all time, read out loud by schoolteachers the world over. What most people don’t know is that, for his entire oeuvre—all his fiction, poetry, criticism, lectures—Poe earned only about $6,200 in his lifetime, or approximately $191,087 adjusted for inflation. Maybe $191,087 seems like a lot of money. And sure, as book advances go, that’d be a generous one, the kind that fellow writers would whisper about. But what if $191,087 was all you got for 20 years of work and the stuff you wrote happened to be among the most enduring literature ever produced by anyone anywhere? In one sense, there could not be a more searing indictment of the supposed rewards of the writing life: how, whether we’re geniuses like Poe or not, we suffer and rewrite and yet never realize anything even kind of approaching a commensurate value. In another sense, there’s hope for us all. Last October, in the depths of a depression so profound and overwhelming that I had to take mental-health leave from work, I started rereading Poe for the first time since I was a kid. And something happened: I encountered a writer completely different from the one I thought I knew. It turned out Poe was not a mysterious, mad genius. He was actually a lot like my writer-friends, with whom I constantly exchange emails bitching about the perversities of our trade—the struggle to break in, the late and sometimes nonexistent payments, the occasional stolen pitch. In short, I realized that Poe was, for a good portion of his career, a broke-ass freelancer. Also, that our much-vaunted gig economy isn’t the new development it’s so often taken to be. Poe’s short stories weren’t the adventure-horror tales I remembered, either. They turned out to be exquisitely wrought metaphors for despair. In “MS. Found in a Bottle,” the narrator, finding himself just about to be sucked into a whirlpool, says, “It is evident that we are hurrying onwards to some exciting knowledge—some never-to-be-imparted secret, whose attainment is destruction.” I read the line and laughed in recognition. That was 2016 for me, in a sentence. Call it a most immemorial year. I didn’t know it then, but reevaluating Poe is, in fact, a time-honored tradition. Every generation discovers its own Poe; in the 168 years since his death, the hot takes have just kept coming. R.W.B. Lewis described the phenomenon this way in 1980: “One of the important recurring games of American literary history has been that of revising the received human image of Edgar Allan Poe.” There are obvious and less obvious reasons for this continual reevaluation. For starters, Poe’s earliest biographies—some of them based on inaccurate information Poe himself provided—needed correcting in a literal sense. Poe’s literary executor Rufus W. Griswold, for whatever reason, forged letters and deliberately torpedoed Poe’s reputation. The inaccuracies and falsehoods weren’t cleared up until almost 100 years after Poe’s death, with Arthur Hobson Quinn’s 1941 biography. Another reason is, well, I’m not the only person to read Poe as a child and again as an adult and to be struck by the differences. In his magnificent Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe, published in 1971, Daniel Hoffman writes, “I really began to read Poe when just emerging from childhood. Then one was entranced by such ideas as secret codes, hypnotism, closed systems of self-consistent thought.” Later, Hoffman says, “Returning to the loci of these pubescent shocks and thrills…I found that there was often a complexity of implication, a plumbing of the abyss of human nature.” Ditto. You never enter the same Poe whirlpool twice. Much of his work has a purposeful, built-in double nature; he intended we discover “secret codes” of meaning. While Poe despised facile parables, in a review of Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1842, he allowed, “Where the suggested meaning runs through the obvious meaning in a very profound under-current, so as to never interfere with the upper one without our own volition,” such schemes are permissible. This points to the other important, less acknowledged, double nature of Poe’s work. It’s both art and commercial entertainment. Few other American writers so obviously and continually straddle the gap between high and low culture, between art for art’s sake and commercial enterprise. Which is why the Poe reevaluation game isn’t just played by academics and highbrows—including Fyodor Dostoevsky, Charles Baudelaire, T.S. Eliot, Richard Wilbur, Allen Tate, Jacques Barzun, and Vladimir Nabokov. Poe is pop, too. The Simpsons, Britney Spears, Roger Corman, an NFL team and romance novelists have all joined in the game. The Beatles put Poe in the top row, eighth from the left, on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, just slightly removed from W.C. Fields and Marilyn Monroe. I think if Poe hadn’t had to write for money, he’d probably have faded away long ago. 2. Picture this: A tech breakthrough has made mass publishing cheaper than ever before. With the cost of entry down, new publications launch with much high-flown talk about how they’ll revolutionize journalism, only to shut their doors a few years or even months later. Because the industry is so unstable, editors and writers are caught in a revolving door of hirings, firings, and layoffs. A handful of the players become rich and famous, but few of them are freelance writers, for whom rates remain scandalously low. Though some publications pay contributors on a sliding scale according to the popularity of their work, it’s mostly the case that writers don’t earn a penny more than their original fee even when their work goes viral. I’m speaking of Poe’s time, not our own. Still, I expect some of this will sound familiar. Pretty much the only piece missing is a pivot to video. Here’s something else that might sound familiar. Poe grew up writing moony, ponderous poetry and dreaming of literary stardom. Surely, he figured, the world would recognize his genius—the critics would rave, the angels would sing! The problem was he had no trust fund, no private means. Poe had been more or less disowned by his wealthy adoptive father John Allan, who would eventually leave Poe out of his will altogether. All of this meant, then as now, that Poe had to compromise his cherished ideals and buckle down to the realities of the marketplace. He would hold a series of short-lived and ill-paid editorial jobs, beginning with the Southern Literary Messenger, Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, Graham’s Magazine, and, finally, the New York Evening Mirror and the Broadway Journal. In between and after these jobs, he’d be what John Ward Ostrom called a “literary entrepreneur,” i.e., a broke-ass freelancer. As Michael Allen laid out in 1969’s Poe and the British Magazine Tradition, the story of Poe’s career is in large part the story of a writer struggling to adapt to the demands of a mass audience. His earliest literary friends and mentors had “turned him to drudging upon whatever may make money” (John Pendleton Kennedy) and advised him to “lower himself a little to the ordinary comprehension of the generality of readers” (James Kirke Paulding). Meanwhile the stakes were as high as stakes go. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that if Poe didn’t write pieces he could sell, he and his family didn’t eat. Poe’s one-time boss George Graham described him wandering “from publisher to publisher, with his print-like manuscript, scrupulously clean and neatly rolled” yet finding “no market for his brain” and “with despair at heart, misery ahead for himself and his loved ones, and gaunt famine dogging at his heel.” At one point, when Poe was ill, his mother-in-law and aunt Maria Clemm was forced to do all this on Poe’s behalf: “Going about from place to place, in the bitter weather, half-starved and thinly clad, with a poem or some other literary article she was striving to sell…begging for him and his poor partner, both being in want of the commonest necessities of life.” I’ve heard some freelance horror stories in my time, but this one takes the Palme d’Or. Even when Poe did manage to sell his literary wares, he didn’t earn very much, as this chart I assembled shows. Over time, he did his fitful best to make his art commercial; he simplified his language and tried his hand at popular forms. Some of these experiments worked and some didn’t. Poe still wrote “in a style too much above the popular level to be well paid,” as his editor-friend N.P. Willis put it. Why? The usual reasons, as I see it. A writer’s heart wants what it wants. It’s not at all a simple matter to ditch the obsessions that drive you to write to begin with, and it’s hard to change your natural register, no matter that commonplace comment in MFA programs, Maybe I’ll just write a romance novel for money. If it really were so easy to write popular stuff, wouldn’t we all be churning out viral articles and paying the rent with royalties from our bestselling YA werewolf romances? In between writing prose that makes the Nobel people tremble, I mean. Piece Year Published Original Payment Approx. Amount in 2017 Dollars “Ligeia” 1838 $10 $253 “The Haunted Palace” 1839 $5 $127 “The Fall of the House of Usher” 1839 $24 $609 “The Man of the Crowd” 1840 $16 $431 “The Masque of the Red Death” 1842 $12 $345 “The Pit and the “Pendulum” 1842 $38 $1,093 “The Tell-Tale Heart” 1843 $10 $315 “The Black Cat” 1843 $20 $631 “The Raven” 1845 $9 $277 “The Cask of Amontillado” 1846 $15 $426 “Ulalume” 1847 $20 $562 “Annabel Lee” 1849 $10 $308 Sources: “Edgar A. Poe: His Income as a Literary Entrepreneur” and In2013dollars.com 3. So, where exactly does the hope come in? It’s true Poe’s unending financial problems did not make his life happier or longer and likely constrained some of his writerly impulses. Catering to the market was hardly his first choice, and he remained ambivalent about writing for an audience and magazines he sometimes saw as beneath him. “The poem which I enclose,” Poe wrote to his friend Willis in 1849, “has just been published in a paper for which sheer necessity compels me to write, now and then. It pays well as times go—but unquestionably it ought to pay ten prices; for whatever I send it feel I am consigning to the tomb of the Capulets.” Then, of course, there were other people’s feelings. Poe’s attempt to adapt to the market did not go unpunished in his own day. “Hints to Authors,” a semi-veiled takedown, was first published anonymously in a Philadelphia paper in 1844: “Popular taste is sometimes monstrous in character…judging by the works and mind of its chief and almost only follower on this side of the Atlantic, it is a pure art, almost mechanical—requiring neither genius, taste, wit nor judgement—and accessible to every contemptible mountebank.” And the commercial stink has never quite worn off. It seems to be among the reasons Henry James and Aldous Huxley—who likened Poe’s poetic meter to a bad perm—criticized him so harshly. Marilynne Robinson has noted how “virtually everything” Poe wrote was for money: “This is not exceptional among writers anywhere, though in the case of Poe it is often treated as if his having done so were disreputable.” Yet commercial pressure arguably pushed Poe in the direction that saw him write some of the most lasting work in American history—even world history. I can only speculate, of course, but I think that if Poe had had his druthers, he’d have gone on with the pretentious poetry and abstruse dramas he initially favored. I seriously doubt we’d still be reading him now. Just try pushing through “Al Araraaf.” It’s like sitting down to a lengthy phone call with an elderly relative. You love this person, but it’s a chore. We tend to view popular success with a skeptical eye, just as many did in Poe’s day. We tend to think of commercial pressure as corrupting. What if it can be also a positive, transformative force? Certainly, the ability to speak to millions of people across 17 decades is not a bad thing. It’s a real-life superpower. We should all be so lucky. On that point, consider how conditions for freelancers and other writers have improved since Poe’s time. As Tyler Cowen relates in In Praise of Commercial Culture, today more people than ever receive basic education. Vastly more people receive higher education. The cost of art materials has fallen tremendously (think of the price of video equipment just 30 years ago compared to today). And you no longer have to go to a particular concert hall or museum to access art; you can just Google. By comparison, Poe’s couple of decades as working writer really sucked. So yeah, hope. When I first cracked back into Poe last October, my therapist begged, “Please stop reading him. He’s too depressing.” But my experience of reading Poe and other writers on Poe the last 11 months has been the opposite of depressing. It helped me climb out of a very deep hole. In the end, Poe only pocketed $191,087, but he did get the immortal fame he grew up dreaming of. And I got taken, blessedly, outside myself. If the past is anything to go by, what lies ahead is not destruction. It just might be the stuff of our wildest dreams. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Here are eight must-read books of poetry publishing in September. Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh Akbar Akbar’s poems are liminal rides, earnest and authentic considerations of what it truly means to exist in this world. In “Do You Speak Persian?”, the narrator attempts to remember his native tongue, but admits he has “been so careless” with those early words. There’s the sweet texture of grief in Akbar’s poems—how “stars / separated by billions of miles, light travelling years // to die in the back of the eye. // Is there a vocabulary for this—one to make dailiness amplify / and not diminish wonder?” I love a poet who can talk of the stars and soot, who brings God to the ground without losing a burning sense of awe. This debut begins with a sharp line from W.H. Auden about addiction, and channels that earlier poet’s sense of grandness. Isn’t that one of the purest goals of poetry—to justify our breaths? To recognize that we matter? “Sometimes / you have to march all the way to Galilee / or the literal foot of God himself before you realize / you’ve already passed the place where / you were supposed to die.” How necessary and refreshing to see a poet truly wrestle with tradition and affirmation. In “Learning to Pray,” the narrator watches his father kneel on a janamaz. “Occasionally / he’d glance over at my clumsy mirroring, // my too-big Packers t-shirt / and pebble-red shorts, / and smile a little, despite himself.” The boy looks at his father, “his whole form / marbled in light,” and “ached to be so beautiful.” Lines later in the book—“I live in the gulf / between what I’ve been given / and what I’ve received”—suggest a poet willing to do the hard work of self-examination, and finding the ambiguity of verse to be the perfect vessel. A gorgeous debut collection. Electric Arches by Eve L. Ewing This book is a complicated love letter to Chicago, the memory of a girl’s dreams of magic while riding her bike block to block. Ewing’s book feels like late '60s/early '70s poetic mash-ups, when poets pushed to stretch the page, manipulate margins, break free (I love how some of these poems, particularly memories of racism experienced during youth, break into handwriting halfway-through, as if we can follow her sigh from machine to hand, mystical dreams where those who spew hate transfigure in some form of cosmic justice). “The work of the poet is not unlike the work of being black. / Some days it is no work at all: only ease, cascading victory, / the plenitude of joy and questions and delights and curiosities.” Other days, “you wonder if exile would be too lonely.” Ewing’s poems often return to the theme of a creation story, a re-imagining of her place in a world where others have tried to claim her. “How I Arrived” offers a litany of births: “in flight from a war for my own holy self, / clinging to a steamship” and “I fell out of the dirt.” Electric Arches reminds me that magic is made of asphalt and chain-link fences, the lives we painfully live in our childhoods where imagination offers us bodily escape. “Requiem for Fifth Period and the Things That Went On Then” is tucked near the end of the book, a good spot because it contains an entire world, full of Ewing’s long but controlled lines. If you’ve ever lived a minute in a city, Electric Arches will make you nostalgic for those tight spaces—not nostalgic because your city is her Chicago, but because she’s so adept at pulling us back to our wide-eyed youths. “Sing, muse, of the science teacher / looking wearily at the stack of ungraded projects / leaning against the back wall.” Ewing sings of Javonte’s “new glasses, / their black frames and golden hinges.” Of Bo, moving a mop, “the pungent, alkaline smell of the water / and the slap when the fibers hit the floor.” The principal, whose door reads “Children Are My Business.” Where are they now? “Tell, muse, of the siren that called their joy sparse and their love vacant. / Tell of the wind that scattered them.” Silencer by Marcus Wicker Wicker is a virtuoso of poetic control: line, phrase, stanza. His range stuns, going from Tupac to God to the Charleston church massacre to how it feels when a drunk, older, white writer patronizes him: “You throw certain folks a rope / & they turn into cowboys.” He can be funny in poems like “In Defense of Ballin’ on a Budget,” and then painfully honest, as when a woman at a party says he’s “just so well spoken” or a waiter at a diner says “Sir, you ever been told you sound like Bryant Gumbel?” He thinks: “I’d take your trinket praise as teeny blade— / a trillionth micro-aggression, against & beneath / my skin.” It’s difficult to not weep at the world Wicker eulogizes. “The world changes,” one poem begins, before ending like this: “No hoods / but neighbors. Just us. All of us left / with the age-old problem of how best to / love each other.” But then I land on a poem like “Plea to My Jealous Heart,” and I’m given hope in a whisper: “What’s funny is that you think I can stop praying . . . I want to look in your face & live this beautifully always. / O metacarpal, proximal, o distal phalange, all-powerful finger / in a breastplate, touch me light as a feather, please, jog in place.” In Silencer, we can hear the sighs in his smirks, the lament in his loves, the desire for something more. Unaccompanied by Javier Zamora This book demands to be heard. Zamora begins with “To Abuelita Neli,” part apology, part affirmation. “I can’t go back and return. / There’s no path to papers.” His old friends think “I’m a coconut: / brown on the outside, white inside,” and to that he says, “Abuelita, please / forgive me, but tell them they don’t know shit.” The tension between two homes, two selves permeates this book, and births gorgeous lines: “Salvador, if I return on a summer day, so humid my thumb / will clean your beard of salt, and if I touch your volcanic face, / kiss your pumice breath, please don’t let cops say: he’s gangster.” In “Cassette Tape,” Zamora documents the struggle of Salvadoran immigration. Twenty people are packed in each boat for the 18-hour trip to Oaxaca. “Vomit and gasoline keep us up.” A masterful poem with multiple mixes, it is a torrent of self-doubt. “You don’t need more than food, / a roof, and clothes on your back,” he hears. You always need more. I keep returning to “Instructions for My Funeral,” intoned strong: “Don’t burn me in no steel furnace, burn me / in Abuelita’s garden.” “Please, no priests, no crosses, no flowers.” Instead, put his machete-cut bones in a flask, “Blast music / dress to impress. Please be drunk / [miss work y pisen otra vez].” Finally, “forget me / and let me drift.” Bone by Yrsa Daley-Ward The perfect title for a book that looks for that hard place between the will and the flesh. Bone contains long narrative poems that trace a narrator’s detachment from her Seventh Day Adventist upbringing, and bittersweet, truncated poems like “Wine:” “It’s never too late to be wise. / See how your spirit has been / fermenting.” Bone reminds us that we are born or bred into certain worlds, and because we can’t escape them, we can never truly escape ourselves. “Women who were brought up devout / and fearful / get stirred, like anyone else.” Even if the soul is willing, love turns us weak. “Some of us love badly,” she writes, because love “Turns wine to poison. Behaves poorly / in restaurants.” Love soured is still sweet, still strong: “Three years / and I can’t undo the problem of your scent.” Love “is never a / slither, never a little / it is a full serving / it is much / too much and real / never pretty or clean.” And yet. “If I’m entirely honest,” one narrator says, “I want to stay with you all afternoon / evening, night, and tomorrow,” pressed close “until I don’t know if the sweat on my / chest is yours or mine or ours.” Bone is a bounty of passionate and pained lines, narrators whose hearts have been turned, twisted, and sometimes stomped, but who remain open and willing—because how else could we live? Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith “if you press your ear to the dirt / you can hear it hum, not like it’s filled // with beetles & other low gods / but like a tongue rot with gospel // & other glories.” Smith is viscerally powerful line to line, conjuring a collection that begins midsummer “somewhere, a sun. below, boys brown / as rye play the dozens & ball, jump // in the air & stay there.” This is the world slowed down, lit up, a place where lives are always in danger, where “we say our own names when we pray.” In “dear white america,” Smith calls for a new freedom and faith, because “i do not trust the God you have given us. my grandmother’s hallelujah is only outdone by the fear she nurses every time the blood-fat summer swallows another child who used to sing in the choir. take your God back. though his songs are beautiful, his miracles are inconsistent.” He’s tired of the half-promises, “equal parts sick of your go back to Africa & I just don’t see race.” Smith’s book is like poetic rapture; one poem, “litany with blood all over,” is like a typographic psychotropic, a mind-spinning event that needs to be experienced mid-book, not here in preview. Read Don’t Call Us Dead start to finish, and if your breath takes a beat, that’s the point: Smith is here to call us out, wake us up, tear us down to what is raw. Ordinary Beast by Nicole Sealey “You hear the high-pitched yowls of strays / fighting for scraps tossed from a kitchen window. / They sound like children you might have had. / Had you wanted children.” Sealey’s poems are sources of graceful disorientation; I can never predict where they will end, but I’m in awe of her route. Ordinary Beast reveals our tenuous states of existence: “My mother asks / whether I’d want to live forever. / ‘I’d get bored,’ I tell her. ‘But,’ she says, / ‘there’s so much to do,’ meaning / she believes there’s much she hasn’t done.” I was stopped often by Sealey’s pronounced lines, as in the cleverly arranged “Cento for the Night I Said, ‘I Love You,” lines culled from various poems to create a harmonious, elegiac whole: “Dying is simple— // the body relaxes inside // hysterical light // as someone drafts an elegy // in a body too much alive. // Love is like this; // not a heartbeat, but a moan.” Ordinary Beast is finely encapsulated in the concluding lines to “In Igboland:” “The West in me wants the mansion / to last. The African knows it cannot. // Every thing aspires to one / degradation or another. I want / to learn how to make something / holy, then walk away.” The Essential W. S. Merwin This book spans from 1952’s A Mask for Janus to “Wish,” a poem from 2017, made of three perfect lines that I won’t spoil here (spend time with this collection and be offered that final poem as a wink, a dessert). Merwin’s an exquisite poet with a nearly unmatched career in the contemporary poetry world—how he perfectly shifts from short poems mapped with ethereal lines, to experimental work like “Questions to Tourists Stopped by a Pineapple Field”—so I don’t need to sing general praises here. Instead, I’ll share a few poems that particularly stirred me. The humility and curiosity of “On the Subject of Poetry:” “I speak of him, Father, because he is / There with this hands in his pockets, in the end / Of the garden listening to the turning / Wheel that is not there, but it is the world, / Father, that I do not understand.” When, in “Learning a Dead Language,” the narrator becomes a mentor, telling us, “There is nothing for you to say. You must / Learn first to listen.” Merwin’s verse, I think, is beautifully optimistic, crafted with the hope that we are connected by souls or by words, or by some mixture: “To understand / The least thing fully you would have to perceive / The whole grammar in all its accidence.” He often reaches the calm, almost otherworldly perception of W.B. Yeats (think “Politics”) in “No Believer:” “Still not believing in age I wake / to find myself older than I can understand / with most of my life in a fragment / that only I remember.” Poetry should bring us to that other place and plane, as with these affirming lines from “The River of Bees:” “On the door it says what to do to survive / But we were not born to survive / Only to live.”