The "Great" "American" "Novel": Reading "on National Themes" in an Election Month

In college, I was charmed into a Russian Studies double-major in part by the way all the great Russian novels seemed to be so overtly interested in the question of Russianness—there was a muddy-profound conversation, something as unstuck in time as in genre, between the readings for separate courses on nineteenth-century literature and twentieth-century history. What does it mean to be Russian, every text seemed to be frantically asking (and/or grandly answering). Who are we; what is this place. And are we sure??

 At the time I found this not only fascinating but endearingly new to me, something not present in American literature, because I was a younger and less observant reader and also so of America—and just one region of it, at that—that the questions and answers posed in our national literature, I inhaled and exhaled as atmosphere. In the years since I've aged, traveled and lived in wildly different parts of the country (with wildly different literary self-portraits), become more aware of myself as a reader and the biases, privileges, hopes, and fears I bring into a text—and mapped my reading and writing life over some truly harrowing twists and turns in American politics. 

Whether it's part of growing up no matter the era, or whether recent horrors have jump-started the process for me via disillusionment, I've become off-kilter enough in relation to my own country to be able to more clearly see "American novels" struggling with those same kinds of frantic questions—who are we? Are we sure?—where ten years ago all but the most overt instances of the dimension might have been invisible to me. 

It also seems likely that these questions are more on authors' minds than ever, these days—and I'm sure will continue to be. This is on my mind this month in particular because I've been reading contemporary prize-shortlist selections that, their other charms aside, happen to wrestle with the idea of an American national identity. It's put them in unofficial conversation with one another in my mind—a conversation that sometimes tends toward argument. The clashes aren't fair—they're completely imagined, for one thing, and ideological differences get tangled up in the books' hugely different aesthetic and narrative goals. But this in in itself feels American—a crowded "melting pot where nothing melted" (more on Tony Kushner in a minute); an ongoing argument. For what it's worth, a reading list of recent publications I have conversing with/against each other at the moment on this topic: The Mars Room, The Overstory, Invitation to a Bonfire, Confessions of the Fox, and There There. Add to this two more remotely canonized works I picked up by subconscious chance on the same day: Tender is the Night and Angels in America.

Of these works, the Kushner is haunting me the most. The reasons are legion, but among them is the fact that my (2013) edition comes with an absolutely incredible collection of paratext. The beautiful, poignant stage directions aside (I'm a novice at reading theater and in awe of everything that can be done in stage directions; the economy of language and thoughtful eye toward collaboration with a production team is astounding to me), there's an introduction, a production history, omitted scenes, notes on staging (if you also enjoy stage directions, these will send you to heaven) and a lovely essay from Kushner about the influence of others on Angels. A large theme of this final essay is the American myth of individualism. Kushner's plays are obviously hugely concerned with what it means to live as an American; his essay layers on questions of what it means to write as an American. A passage that has stuck with me:

When I started to write these plays, I wanted to attempt something of ambition and size even if it meant I might be accused to straying too close to ambition's ugly twin, pretentiousness. Given the bloody opulence of this country's great and terrible history, given its newness and its grand improbability, its artists are bound to be tempted towards large gestures and big embraces, a proclivity de Tocqueville deplored as a national artistic trait nearly two hundred years ago. Melville, my favorite American writer, strikes inflated, even hysterical, chords on occasion. It's the sound of the Individual ballooning, overreaching. We are all children of "Song of Myself." And maybe in this spacious, under- and depopulated, as yet only lightly inscribed country, the Individual will finally expand to its unstable, insupportably swollen limits, and pop. (But here I risk pretentiousness, and an excess of optimism to boot--another American trait.)

Again, I come largely bearing recommendations—the works listed above, but also whatever speaks to you. Coming up on the election next week, I just want to suggest reading fiction and nonfiction that ask these questions, or make you ask them. Read more of whatever it is that haunts you afterward. And vote.

"Experto Crede": On (Finally) Reading Middlemarch

This month I remedied one of my canonical blind spots and read George Eliot’s Middlemarch at last. Four years out of my last English classroom, on either side of the desk, it’s a kind of thrilling relief to read a book of this subject, tone, and caliber and find my instincts to think in term paper theses almost totally in remission. I say “almost”—though I read for pleasure and inspiration only; though I won’t be heading to JSTOR (or trying to sound like I have); though I only “brought the work into conversation” with anything via snarky texts to and from my friend Emily about where Eliot’s characters rank in the pantheon of Literary Bad Decision-Makers—still I may never get over the reading habit of choosing an early, favorite theme and focusing on whether and how everything else, both art and craft, works in that theme's service.

It was no contest in this case—I know I write often here about my fascination with, and love for, novels of expertise. (Are fascination and love two things? One and the same? The books themselves can help you decide!) Years ago I heard Michael Byers speak on the subgenre, and the overlap between “manners” and “expertise”—ambitions and failures of the heart and the head—in fiction. I immediately adopted the immensely useful terms and used them to parse why I love my favorite books and authors, starting with Andrea Barrett and Michael Chabon. I still hold the concept up to every work I love and/or admire, curious to map where my tastes fall on the spectrum. (It’s very possible to go too far in either direction. For instance, I’m reading a novel right now that is so preoccupied with “expertise” over emotion it feels like the author explaining his favorite hobby directly to the reader, only constructing ventriloquist dummy characters as an afterthought—it’s an unbelievable slog, particularly given that I’m not even convinced by the text that the author knows his “field of expertise” well enough to keep from stumbling in gopher holes.)

With all this in mind, it’s bonkers that it took me this long to get to the case study Byers used in his talk on the phenomenon—Middlemarch. Byers described it as a novel of expertise—a “nerd novel”—in disguise as a novel of manners. I certainly found that to be true—the success or failure of each of the novel’s marriages is wonderfully tangled up with the competence, ambition, and practical intelligence of their players. For every melodramatic twist or deliciously unlikely chance meeting, there is an equally nail-biting drama of professional talent or the lack of it—Lydgate’s frustrated medial reforms; Casaubon’s quite differently doomed Key to All Mythologies; Farebrother’s delightful side-hustle scientific hobbies, financed both by gambling and vicar-ing; Garth’s general passion for “business.” We see characters eagerly and occasionally successfully professing painting, philosophy, banking, “banking,” teaching, sewing, philanthropy, politics, estate management, child-rearing, theology...ribbon-buying, I guess we would call Rosamond’s area of expertise?, and of course hospital management and cottage design, among many other pursuits. Basically, there’s a lot of work done in Middlemarch, for an “upstairs” novel. And, heartbreakingly, there’s no static relationship between enthusiasm and success. In this, it is my very favorite kind of book.

This is a fairly straight-up recommendation; I don’t have a lot to add beyond that if you like this kind of novel, you shouldn’t wait as long as I did to crack it. But I’ll note one more thing I love about the way Eliot treats expertise in the novel. She’s non-prescriptive in her analysis of what leads to success or failure in work, just as she is about her characters’ volatile personal happiness or despair. There isn’t one factor that makes anyone in Middlemarch “good” or “bad” at their job. Education, privilege, experience, enthusiasm, self-esteem, ambition, talent, luck, or the lack of any and all—they’re all in play. (I was particularly on the edge of my seat for Lydgate’s fall from financial stability, and Eliot’s exploration of the way money troubles eat away at one’s mental bandwith for ambition and enthusiasm in other areas of life.) Farebrother, a truly amazing character, at one point intones "experto crede" in advice to Lydgate—something my edition of the novel translates in an endnote as “believe one who knows from experience,” and a phrase I've seen translated elsewhere as “trust the expert.” Eliot is occupied in Middlemarch with all kinds of complexly interlocking and entangling success and failure for her characters, personal and professional, and it’s delightful to watch an expert at work. 

3D Cardboard: Sweetbitter and Conspicuous Absence in Fiction

I just finished Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter, a NYC-transplant bildungsroman that held my attention and felt new and risky—not an easy feat in a crowded subgenre! I’ve been thinking a lot about how Sweetbitter models its form, focus, and release of information on its narrator’s psychology, so that it feels like the book and its readers are in the grip of the same obsessions and fears, going on the same benders and repressing the same unwelcome thoughts. The entire novel circles the conspicuously absent gravitational center of Tess’s past, everything she left to come to New York and why. It should be a load-bearing wall in any story of transformation—what trauma or ambition inspired the character’s need to transition to a new life—and the fact that Sweetbitter skips so lightly over the surface of Tess’s backstory is fascinating. I think it works partly because the novel is dramatizing Tess’s own priorities in its form—she’s confused and intoxicated and trying to start over, and the book is so closely allied with her that it too forgets her past. The few details we do get are surprise-triggered and unpleasantly confusing, for the readers as for her. She’s more interested in—obsessed with—her coworkers’ lives, and the novel focuses our attention there along with hers, scrabbling for crumbs of information not about our narrator but about Simone and Jake. There’s a harmony of form and content that lets something make sense that in another novel would feel like a failing.

Sweetbitter justifies its unusual form and focus partly though character, partly through setting. I know I’ve written plenty here about my fascination with novels of expertise. I love to learn about a subculture or niche field through narrative fiction; I love when dramas of manners and expertise braid together and trade tension. Sweetbitter is a wild intensification, taking as its subject the cultish world of a high-end NYC restaurant. There’s no divide here between life and work; there isn’t room or time for the characters to separate them. In part this means that they live, messily, codependently, at work. It also means that they don’t have time—or at least Tess doesn’t—for real lives. We have sketchy, cardboard versions of most characters, and again the book earns something that should be a failing by creating a world in which it would feel stilted and unnatural to know more—these people see each other at work, where they’re run off their feet, and then during dive-bar benders they fling themselves into to “recover.” Their relationships are absolute professionalism and absolute primal intimacy, nothing in between. We’re so breathlessly allied with Tess’s schedule of working, partying, and heaving herself out of bed hungover and exhausted to begin again, it does feel like a miracle for the reader as well as Tess to realize that Simone has somehow built a home, filled it with books, cultivated a personality that appears at least temporarily to exist independent from the restaurant. Since the novel’s characters only see each other at work, we only see them there as well, until any acknowledgement of their personal lives—even Tess’s—is a gut-punch.

It reminds me of Party Down, which committed to the concept of only showings its characters at work even more whole-heartedly—it might be a better fit for TV, frankly, where interiority is less expected and harder to relate. It’s less strange in a visual medium to have unanswered questions about your protagonists’ pasts and personal lives. But a novel with this unusual focus draws your attention to what is expected and missing, and it’s fascinating. Though it may not be an emotioanl success for every reader, I think it’s at least justified and purposeful here because Tess is so spottily observant, willfully ignoring the parts of herself, her coworkers, and her city that the book turns away from. It’s certainly a memorable book, memorably constructed, and it’s given me a new level of curiosity about novels of expertise—I’m on the lookout now for more books that mimic their subculture-subject in form and focus.

"Reminiscence Therapy": John Powell, Alexander Chee, and Memory in Fiction

There’s a showpiece in John Powell’s score for Solo: A Star Wars Story that samples a smorgasbord of the original films’ John Williams themes, cramming as many cues and motifs as it can into just over six minutes. The track is called “Reminiscence Therapy,” named for the process of reaching a dementia patient through exposure to familiar images, objects, or archival sound. It’s a titling choice I can’t stop thinking about, as someone who delighted in Solo with my whole id—and went in knowing I would, whatever its quality, because my heartstrings were tuned to thrum to it no matter what. “Reminiscence Therapy” is at the core of that; listening to it is positively Pavlovian. As a title it also feels gently mocking, an acknowledgement of the fact that reboots, prequels, sequels, in-between-quels, and all manner of trope-driven nostalgia-fueled fare are a kind of pandering that looks back rather than forward, that lets us pamper or distract ourselves, as though the audience is a kind of invalid. But that title also gets at something else true, and not unkindly expressed—that there’s a therapeutic function to the nostalgic and archetypical, consumed in controlled doses and with conscious intent. I’m not talking here about actual RT, or about narratives that set out to tell new stories with these themes—I just watched Coco, which couldn’t hit that nail more squarely on the head—just franchises that explicitly, with fanfare and ritual, go back to the original wellspring. Whatever else they do, these pop-cyclical narratives bring us back to ourselves, put us in contact with the people we were when we first responded to them. They let us think about how we and the world have changed since those first encounters—which tropes still resonate; which we’ve jettisoned—and how we’d like that to continue changing.

“Reminiscence Therapy”—the musical track as well as the title itself—has me thinking about narrative nostalgia as both an affliction and a treatment, in literature no less (well, maybe a tad less) than in the summer blockbuster. Fingerprints of the tropes and archetypes we grew up reading are everywhere in what we’re reading (and writing) today, whether embraced, frustrated, winked at, or aggressively jettisoned. It’s maybe most directly grappled with in creative nonfiction—I’ve been pondering this while reading Alexander Chee’s excellent essay collection How To Write an Autobiographical Novel. Chee writes about modeling plots from great myths and operas, about queering and bending familiar texts until they ring with a new resonance stronger for being both new and old at once. One recurring theme of the collection has Chee moving from one self to another to another, as a writer and as a person, receiving messages and memories and missions from past and future versions of himself—or from the universe writ large. These essays look inward, as all personal essays do, but their scope feels absolutely galactic—they are always looking forward and back, dipping a toe into the supernatural. Such is the depth of Chee's respect for the ways of the world, of writing, of the human mind.

Chee touches often on the difficulty of seeing our own lives clearly enough to analyze them. In life, in art, in writing, at the movies, we can’t have what Chee calls a clean “detachment and appraisal” of our own experiences. But maybe we can keep trying, at work and at play. And maybe we can glean something heart-swelling, something thoughtful and feeling, something therapeutic from the act of reminiscing.

Writing the City: On Never Can Say Goodbye and One Book, One New York

I’ve been working on drafting a new project this month, so I haven’t has as much time for reading as usual! But it’s also been that gorgeous NYC spring weather—and since it was also May when I first moved to the city, once upon a time, a combination of seasonal relief and nostalgia has sent me on an atypical kick of purposefully New York-focused reading. I started with the anthology Never Can Say Goodbye, which I picked up based on the contributor list. I ended up enjoying parts of it, some of which I expected to and some of which surprised me. Other essays fell flat, and for the most part repetitively so. New York in book form!

I haven’t yet read the original Goodbye to All That anthology that this one follows up. Theoretically the first was about leaving NYC, the second about staying—but to be honest the distinction seems muddy at best, since half the authors in NCSG seem not to live here anymore. I don’t imagine I'll tackle GtAT until the next time I find myself this starry-eyed about and meta-aware of living in this city. Maybe the most productive lesson for me in reading Never Can Say Goodbye was a reminder that on the page, no story is interesting unless it’s interestingly told.  I kept on thinking about John Hodgman’s maxim that “specificity is the soul of narrative." It’s a bit of a wonder to me that so many essays ended up in Goodbye to All That (and everywhere else) with the thesis—not an early observation, but an emotional climax—that many businesses in New York are continuously replaced by other businesses. That’s a real and poignant and psychologically challenging phenomenon. But that’s in real life. Observing that New York changes fast, even with an accompanying list of establishments-that-were and their replacements as evidence, is groundwork. It's not enough to make an essay ring. The essays that shone brightest in the anthology didn’t have wildly different subject matter—but they found something (anything) specific, unique, and beautiful to say about the same joyful-melancholy experience of city living.

Purely by accident—and the charms of a beautiful display at my local Brooklyn Public Library branch—I moved directly on to the latest round of One Book, One New York finalists. This was the campaign’s second year; it nominates five acclaimed books set in NYC and asks New Yorkers to vote for which one we should, theoretically, all read at the same time. This year as last year, I was impressed by the diversity and quality of the nominees—and impressed by the justice they did to the diversity and quality of life and literature in this city. This program is not refining toward a gate-kept traditional canon of what the “best” books look like. It’s living and eclectic and democratic and, both years so far, has pointed me toward at least one new-to-me title—and brought home the fact that, in literature as in life, there are infinite different New Yorks as experienced by different individuals. I’m reading Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers right now—it’s vastly different from the winning Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan, but appreciating that difference and interplay is the real jewel of the campaign for me. Having just come from the enjoyable but mostly one-note essay anthology, I deeply appreciated the One Book campaign’s mindful curation. It made me think, too, of other novels of place—and the infographic I saw once that listed the fiction “most associated with” my home state of Rhode Island as Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper. I’m guessing “most associated” in that context meant “best-selling book set in the state,” and that the infographic was benign clickbait put together in an hour of googling.  The factoid has still haunted me for years, as I’ve brainstormed other candidates for the slot and, in the process, been aware of the relative dearth and similarity of options. I know RI is small, but jeepers. Enriching the pool has been part of what motivates me in my own writing. And in the meantime, while still grumbling about the cultural spotlight on NYC being brighter than it needs to be, I’ll appreciate living in a place with enough novels set here—of enough diverse experiences—to fill out a One Book, One New York campaign with new, specific, and beautiful stories for many years to come.

"Something I Made": Nicholas John and Mozart in the Jungle

Never am I more conscious of the time I’ve spent studying fiction writing than when I try to talk about a wholly different art form and feel the safety nets of technical understanding and jargon fall away. I stop being able to name concepts and tools, lose some crucial awareness of how a piece is working on me. But that blindness sometimes serves to make me that much more appreciative of the magic—and that much more willing to call it magical, though there’s magic at work in good prose too.

I’ve had Mozart in the Jungle on my mind lately, after the most recent season plunged me right back into love with its characters and its fearful awe/rosy worship of Creativity. As a sweet highbrow-soapy melodramedy about classical music, Mozart stacks multiple art forms that I can appreciate and map enough to name the formulae at work—to squint at the how as I enjoy them—but the technical workings of which I don’t deeply understand. Then this new season added modern dance to the mix and I was really at sea. But the show began to narrow its focus onto this very question, of genre and form and purpose, of joyful participation in art and life at every level of expertise. It’s been meditating on engagement and creativity and the magic that comes out of them all along, with speeches on amateurism and “playing with the blood,” and it felt like something beautiful came to a head in the montage between Hailey’s conducting debut and Rodrigo’s improvisation of his Ballet for No Audience. John Cameron Mitchell’s choreographer was a kind of trickster god who intimidated me almost beyond understanding via his hair alone, but after a season of wondering how seriously Mozart meant for me to take him I was happy to throw that question away—or perhaps to consider it answers—and to join Rodrigo in his dance through the park.

The main new music I’ve been listening to over the past few weeks is Something I Made, by Nicholas John. It has me dancing through a lot of the same joys and questions as Mozart in the Jungle, though the musical tradition is folk rather than classical and most of the "dancing" is happening on crowded subways at rush hour. Some of its pleasures I have the words for: the lyrics are varied in mood but always grab you by the lapels, each song’s speaker full of feeling and insistent on being heard. Desperate folks more than down on their luck—heartbroken and suicidal; deep in the grip of a gambling problem; near the end of a willfully untreated illness—trade tracks with a Guthrie-style burbling parable; a knee-slapping ditty sung by a cat with no regrets; a lovely final track with verses that slide from the gory realism of a hospital-bound “scalped knee” to the Looney Tunes dream logic of eagles snatching the singer as he falls from a plane. There is also the melody of “Aquaphobia,” the first song on the album, which I’ve woken up humming on multiple occasions recently, and which springs to mind in meditative moments on the subway. There’s the timbre of John’s voice, which he bends to suit the tone of each song, and runs ragged on diesel-raw ballad “Gold Mine (Nineball Dave Gets His Revenge).” There are the countermelodies that float to the top of certain choruses and become background-centerpieces though some kind of alchemy I don’t have the vocabulary to understand.

Something I Made is a lovely album, sad and funny at once and as it means to be, and moving between listening and getting current on Mozart in the Jungle has me happy to be an amateur appreciator of so much in this life, and happier to be a student on my way to learning more.

"Did You Know He Had Cats?": On The Hemingway House and Humanizing the Literary Elementals

Literary adventures were farther afield than usual this week, as I built an artificial spring break into my non-academic schedule and traveled to Key West with CJ Hauser. CJ brought six books on a six-day vacation and then proceeded to neatly work her way through them; amazing as usual. I read along behind her in her beach library, Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists and Lauren Groff’s Florida (does it count as a #galleybrag if it was someone else’s galley?). I’ll always associate those books with the Keys, but our most place-specific venture was, inevitably, touring the Hemingway House.  

Though I’ve never traveled specifically to visit a writer’s home museum, I always enjoy them when I get the chance. I visited several in Russia, most memorably Alexander Pushkin’s (years later, though years before today, I wrote a frantic essay-thing about it here), and Emily Dickinson’s in Amherst. I grew up almost within shouting distance of CJ’s so-far favorite, the Mark Twain House in Hartford, but have somehow managed not to make it so far. I did grow up going periodically to tour Newport mansions, and then worked in college as a tour guide. So in addition to the creative-rhetorical magic for a student of writing to see a mythological figure humanized, I appreciate the selective sculpting narrative—and the patter—of a good tour. For better and for worse, writer’s home tours are also more interesting the more famous an author was during their lifetime—the earlier in the estate-planning process someone had an inkling that people would pay to see their stuff, the richer and more affecting their shrine-museum.

When we walk into a home museum, we’re looking for connection. Iconic and located on a small island more focused on general relaxation than on acute attractions, the Hemingway House walks a tough rhetorical knife’s edge—tours are a mix of folks who don’t have a particular interest in literature, diehard fans there to worship Papa, and one-foot-in folks who grate against elements of his work and worldview and arrive with side-eyes in place. (Present.) All three groups might contain international tourists who aren’t fluent in English. (It’s also a private, for-profit attraction, and I did not notice any particular effort to restrict tour size. We went very early in the day, and I can’t imagine what the crowds are like by mid-afternoon.) Like any writer’s home museum, the Hemingway House deepens its subject’s mythology—the polydactyl cats everywhere; the home office decorated as though he’d just stepped out; the penny pressed into concrete by the pool as a souvenir of a fight with his wife. And it confuses that mythology as well, finding a condensed line of best (most positive) fit through a problematic life; hosting weekly weddings on the grounds of a four-times-married misogynist; coaxing the cats with treats to lounge where they’ll be most photogenically evocative of a writer’s cozy humanity.

A well-run writer’s museum creates a branded, dynamic avatar of the writer—again for better or for worse, for a long-lived legacy or a loss of the person to the business. More than anything they give us characters to imagine, alongside and within their work—home museums let us feel we know famous and infamous writers as people, not just mythological whirlwinds who spun through history and delivered books like literary elementals. It’s powerful for a young and/or emerging writer to see where Dickinson, Pushkin, Hemingway, or Twain wrote. It’s also powerful to see their bathrooms. And in Hemingway’s case, certainly one of the reasons the cats are so popular is that they humanize a figure so removed from tourists in time, experience, and in many cases ideology that he can be hard to conceptualize. (The cats are also emblematic of something we’re always looking for in writer’s homes, a literally living “history” we’re happy to embrace despite knowing it’s been constructed for us.)

I’m sure I need to visit a few more writer’s homes—and write, and live in a few more homes myself—before I get a fuller understanding of why they affect me the way they do. But I’m also sure part of it is that it’s one more way to bolster confidence, to broaden dreams—to see more and more of the ways people have been writers and writers people, and so to imagine more for ourselves.

"When I Fall In Love This Time It Will Be Forever": The Novel as Hopeful Torch Song

In a move it’s hard not to read as both sentient and shade-throwing, YouTube recently “recommended” I check out Art Garfunkel’s cover of Stevie Wonder’s “I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever).” It had been years, but big data knows all—I actually do adore this cover, originally due to a combination of adolescent love for both Art’s solo career and High Fidelity. (If you had better taste than I did as a teenager, congratulations. And you clearly didn’t help me out at the time, so zip it.)  Anyway, right or wrong, I found myself grooving as hard as ever. It’s a good match for Art’s voice, and for the nostalgic (would you say "overproduced"? Well go say it over there) reverb and syrupy instrumental mix arranged behind it. I like the strange sentiment of “I Believe,” which is sort of a paradoxically hopeful torch song—its easy-listening groove, if you’re not into it, makes it easy to scoff right past the poignant ache of a singer hoping against hope to break a pattern. It gets me to a quiet, literary kind of big-picture hopeful sadness, something that's maybe not unusual per se, but always special, to find in pop music. Listening this time, I heard the early DNA of what would make me respond so deeply and immediately to the Mountain Goats, years after I first liked this. I believe when I fall in love—with you—this time—it will be forever. Singers alleging that everything is just about to be lovely, no matter bad it is right now—gets me, man. Every time.

Generally songs, fiction, all stories are divided between acute tension—will this risk pay off; will that terrible thing occur—and a slower, chronic, lived-in tension—will this pattern finally break; will that disappointment ever let up. Both types play on reader hopes and fears and associations, but the formulas are mixed and concentrated very differently, and I think a big part of individual taste in fiction comes down to how we each like our cocktails. By chance this month I've been reading many books salted with acute edge-of-your-seat tension, and of course it's easy to make a case for it. The diving scenes in Jennifer Egan's Manhattan Beach had me biting my nails to stubs. But they also had me disappearing maybe too fully into the emergency of the moment, washing out with an overexposure of terror the more nuanced emotional landscape Egan builds up in the rest of the novel. The mental calculus to get back to Anna's land-bound concerns after a dive was sometimes a challenge. This isn't necessarily a problem with the book—after all, that's precisely why Anna loves diving. It helps—forces—her to forget her woes. The reader's experience simply mimics hers, which is maybe profound, maybe frustrating, maybe both. 

Most literary fiction leans, sometimes too hard, in favor of chronic tension, broken-pattern tension. Stories of passive characters hoping something changes are too numerous to catalog. But I think most of us love best those stories that blend the two. That's something I just saw working beautifully, concentrically, in Julie Buntin's Marlena—a novel full of acute and physical danger, but whose most profound beats are quiet, internal. Regrets; recognitions of patterns; intentions set to break those patterns. When it's done well, no matter what else happens in a piece of writing—a deadly addiction; a low-tech dive to the bottom of New York Harbor; a soft-rock riff—the most moving and climactic moment can be a character's quiet decision to believe that this time happiness will be forever. 

Let's listen! (Don't @ me): 

New Year, New You: Books that Blow Up the World

Debriefing after The Last Jedi, my friend Charlie noted that the film had been concerned with trying to save the future of a fictional universe by blowing it up. After decades of adding layers of story (and merchandising opportunities) to the same totems and heroes, both within that galaxy far, far away and in our external fandom, we’re seeing Disney’s savvy attempt at a hard reboot. Kill the supreme leaders; force-ghost the Jedi masters; break Anakin’s lightsaber in half. Burn some…sacred texts? (I’m sure the true fans knew about those.) Roll out the new action figures; Star Wars is pivoting into (relatively) uncharted space.

I hadn’t noticed this, because Star Wars speaks directly to my id and though I’ll follow a plot if they give me one, I am mostly in it for a combination of nostalgia and aesthetic. But Charlie’s point got me thinking deeper than haircuts and droid sound effects, about the slightly trickier hoops to jump through philosophically (sorry, I’m a Trekkie first). Maybe largest among these is the reframing of a franchise about hope to make room for failure—not just tactical or strategic but personal, and not just from the guy you already knew was gonna become Darth Vader. As filmmakers, as world-builders razing a fictional universe down to its base elements, how do you decide which beams are load-bearing? What do you keep, and why? What do you toss, even if at first it seems crazy to do so?

I promise I’m not just here to talk about Star Wars. I keep seeing this in action, now—sometimes thoughtfully executed, sometimes less so, but so many works I’ve encountered lately seek to establish a world and then blow it up or turn it on its head. It’s both easiest to see and most complicated to map in matters of adaptation, like Kamila Shamsie’s novel Home Fire, which reimagines the plot of Antigone in a vastly different modern setting. But I’m also interested in how a catastrophic reboot works within a single work. Following up Home Fire I’ve been reading Y: The Last Man—a comic with I premise I’d heard summarized (every man and male mammal on Earth dies at once, except our protagonist and his pet monkey) that I was goofily shocked to begin reading and find that the central “gendercide” (oy) doesn’t occur until the end of the first issue. But of course. It’s a story about the loss and confusion after a catastrophic event—how else is the reader to feel that loss and confusion unless she’s been made to feel at home in the world before it ends.

I’m infatuated now with books that do this a little more quietly, in form rather than plot. Often, this means shifting perspectives suddenly, from one point-of-view character to another. I can’t think of a book I’ve read recently that did this more memorably or with more of a splash than Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. But I was set back on my heels in the POV-shifts after the first section of Home Fire as well, and in Emily Ruskovich’s Idaho. I just finished Lily King’s Euphoria, and gasped aloud at the turn at the end of the first chapter—after a tight 13 pages establishing us on Nell’s shoulder, she see’s a man across the room, and there’s a one sentence paragraph in its own section to end the chapter, a narrative baton-pass and sucker-punch in one: “Without her glasses, my face would have been little more than a pinkish smudge among many, but she seemed to know it was me as soon as I lifted my head.” And hello, Andrew!

When well executed, this kind of move a skillful way to set the reader back on her heels, raise tension in the universe—we don’t have only one surrogate, one ally in this world. More importantly, we can’t ever turn the page confident in our prediction of what or who we’ll find on the other side. In a novel with a successful point-of-view shift executed at just the right moment, giving us enough time to feel settled but no more, the shift itself can feel climactic and imbue the rest of the book with energy. Maybe a fitting thought for the New Year—how to build fiction by reframing it; when to set an intention and then when to blow it up.

A Character-Driven Map: Pairing Reading and Travel

I visited friends in Louisiana this month, back on the Gulf Coast for the first time since I left Tallahassee in 2014. Ahead of the trip—we spent time in Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and Lafayette—several now-fellow New Yorkers asked if I’d be revisiting Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men beforehand. I didn’t, though I do wish I had—we passed by several landmarks of Warren’s time in Baton Rouge, and of course Huey Long’s fingerprints were everywhere. But I did read, at my hosts’ recommendation, Nine Lives by Dan Baum—a braided history of New Orleans centering on Hurricane Katrina. This excellent book became its own set of annotations on our time in the city, a character-driven map layer of streets, bars, and even homes that gave me a way to feel I had my feet under me in a city a barely knew. In a literal sense, we were being shown around Louisiana by a local friend—but it felt doubly so, with Baum’s book sparking in my memory.

The trip mapped reading material over landscape in another way as well, more atmospheric than exact and much more accidental—by the cosmic magic of inter-library loan timing, the day before our flight I began reading Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing. Already wading through a swampy nostalgia of memories of the time I spent living in the Southeast, I ended up reading Ward and looking up at chapter breaks to see cypress swamps or live oaks furred with resurrection fern. I’d spin out again, overwhelmed by the pairing of fiction and landscape, both new to me.

I talked some with the friends I was visiting about the phenomenon and heard their own examples—most notable reading John Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven while traveling in Utah, an experience that sparked a deep and enduring fascinated with Mormonism in one friend. It put me in mind of the work I used to do with The Common, the collaborative maps we’d make at AWP with passers-by pinning the settings of their favorite books. It was always fascinating to see where these locations matched or deviated from the pinners’ hometowns and states. Do we prefer to read about where we’re from, or places we hope to visit—if only through the book itself?

Traveling to the setting of each book as we begin it is, of course, not a logistically sustainable way to read. But this experience has motivated me to try to pair reading—both fiction and nonfiction—with travel whenever possible. And that includes home. I was humbled by the depth of history my Louisianan friends could plumb about their home state, and aware I wouldn’t have been able to match them fact for fact about New York. Who knows, maybe it’s finally time to crack The Power Broker.

"What Did You Think Was Missing?" The Anxiety of Autobiographical Fiction

In conversations leading up to any family-gathering holiday, it’s common (at least among groups of writer-friends) after summaries of family tension and drama to hear someone say, “Oh my god, you have to write a novel about that.” Nobody ever seems to mean it literally so much as a less direct way of saying, “that sounds horribly stressful and I’m sorry.” In fact, the traditional response is a laugh and “I could never.”

The annual resurgence of these conversations has made me think about the two contexts in which I most often hear autobiographical fiction discussed—first, authors’ anxiety over writing it (“I could write the story but I could never show it to X,” or even “I’d have to wait for Y to die”); second, the anxiety of an interview in which the question is raised. Sometimes this is global, a piece’s clear autobiographical content an elephant in the room that a savvy interviewer is loath to bring up but powerless to ignore. But most often the discomfort is the author’s alone, as writers are asked broadly how much of their story is “true” or “real” and end up having to defend their work, their personal lives, and the distinction between them. This usually feels to me like an issue of underpreparation, with “how much of this really happened” standing in for a more thoughtful or specific question about the book on its own terms, asking the author to supply the nuance and direction in their answer.

In general this line of questioning isn’t especially fruitful—not just in interviews, but for readers and audiences as well. But sometimes there are rule-proving exceptions, works of such ambiguous genre that the matter of autobiography is fascinating and impossible to sidestep, even if the audience were determined to try.

I’m thinking here, today at least, of The Big Sick. The film is based so directly on Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon’s lives that to ignore the question of autobiography in fiction would feel absurd. When I’m interested in a complicated interview, I’m always happy to see Jesse Thorn at the helm—he’s thoughtful and complex, and hoo boy, if I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard one of his subjects respond to a question with an un-canned, stricken variation on “oh my god, nobody has ever asked me this.” In his interview with Nanjiani and Gordon, instead of “asking” so, this really happened to you guys, huh, Thorn asks Gordon “When you read [Nanjiani’s first draft of the screenplay], what did you think was missing from it?” After the couple gets out a few of the stricken oh my gods I mentioned earlier, her answer is fascinating, and leads to a conversation about how art grows out of life in general—and how our life experiences impact our creative work, not just in plot but in process.

I guess that’s the upshot of this being on my mind this holiday week, post-Thanksgiving and making a dent in my reading and watch-lists. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this may be the time of year we think most about why we write what we do—about what moves us in life and in art, what we're obsessed with, what’s off-limits and what’s too important to be off-limits. Nobody “has to write a novel about” anything, of course, especially their and their family’s personal lives—and in general, the percentage of autobiographical content in any work of fiction is irrelevant. But I think it’s worth asking ourselves as writers the more interesting alternatives to these pat questions—the “oh my god, nobody has ever asked me this” versions. What’s missing from our first drafts?

Believing in Ghosts: October Reads

I didn't make my October reading list intentionally spooky, so it must just be that most fiction is about ghosts one way or another and we're just particularly prone to notice around Halloween.

Some of my ghosts were literal, and in those cases also formally experimental. After first reading Lincoln in the Bardo in print form earlier this year and hearing the audiobook recommended at every turn, I finally gave it a listen. I'm now tragically curious about how I'd feel if I'd read/listened in the opposite order, but going in with foreknowledge of the plot to ground me I loved experiencing the polyphonic arguments and interruptions and soliloquies while commuting or otherwise going about my life—the way the novel's living characters do. It was a haunting.

A weirdly lovely companion to the Saunders novel was Dave Malloy's Ghost Quartet, a chamber musical whose characters circle back to each other and themselves across time, space, and states of being. Each new track deepens the audience's understanding of the characters and their relationships, until at one point it reads like a fugue and we feel we're learning things and making connections faster than the characters themselves can. Listening to Malloy and Saunders—whose Bardo residents don't realize, fundamentally, that they are dead—you end up thinking a lot about what a soul knows, if anything; what we have to learn from and tell each other; what we will or have already forgotten. Do we believe in ghosts? Do ghosts believe in us?

Ghosts are no less present, though perhaps a tad less literal, in Emily Ruskovich's Idaho. Here the haunting comes through memories treasured, evaded, invented, and lost. Dementia, prison, trauma both inflicted and survived, even one sister outgrowing a favorite game before another—this book is concerned with the ways we become half-strangers, half-family to one another. These ghostly presences, as in Malloy and Saunders, are underscored by Idaho's shifting point of view. There seems to me, as one modern reader, something inherently otherworldly about a collective, mutable, or omniscient narration. Any time the text in our hands bends beyond the singular perspective, we feel the prickly of the world beyond.

In Idaho, the effect is partly to make us believe in one of the book's own ghosts. As the narrator trades perspectives, hopping between characters searching for (or striving to forget) the missing June, the reader ends up waiting just as eagerly for her appearance—as a point-of-view character, to be thus found by us even if none of the other characters are so lucky. In Ruskovich, where characters find and lose each other in memory more than in the flesh, to imagine is to meet. Most of the book's interactions are ghostly visitations, in fact or in mood.

I finished out the month with Call Me By Your Name and Elif Batuman's The Idiot, two chilling tales of the slings and arrows of adolescence. After so many profound and ethereal tragic tales told from multiple perspectives (and planes), I felt particularly acutely the transition to the blind fumbling and mortified confusion of Batuman's and Aciman's young protagonists. The lack of information—even for the reader; the vague dramatic irony that comes when we know something is wrong but our narrator doesn't know enough to tell us what—broke my heart. As I'm sure it would have, regardless of where I'd just come from. But I found myself itching for the collective voice of my other October reads—for a chapter from Oliver's perspective, or Ralph's. I'd grown used to being a ghost of a reader, privy to everyone's thoughts—most fully aware of the scope of everyone's yearning, but held above the tragedy of it all by the distance of my own multifaceted perspective. It's an extra privilege, an extra pain to be "alive" again and wedding to one character, raw and confused and limited, trying to understand another but unable, alas, to jump into their mind. In some books, this is the haunting ache. Spooky.

"Compared Favorably to Faulkner": On Stories of Inherited Trauma

I’m moving tomorrow, which means that this month’s reading has been a little strange—a combination of stress-relief popcorn-reading and getting through the books I’ve owned for months or years without cracking open, so I can finally read them and then give them away. (I know not everyone shares this philosophy, but I prefer to downsize all but a very slowly growing shelf of sentimental-value books when I move. And after three years in my current apartment, I had accumulated quite a few to rehome.)

That said, I’ve noticed an accidental common theme in the stories I’ve been consuming this month—from Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things to Philip K. Dick’s The World Jones Made; from BoJack Horseman to N. K. Jemisin to Transparent. I’ve by chance been focusing on works about the idea of inherited trauma, the suffering, evolution, and repeated mistakes of a collective identity. This theme can be cultural, historical, familial—it can weigh on a character as broadly as millennia of Jewish diaspora weigh on Ali in Transparent or as personally as Rahel and Esthappen’s semi-shared “two-egg twin” consciousness in Roy’s novel. It’s the idea that, one way or another, characters are unconsciously motivated by memories and experiences that are not their own.

Like most psychology, this element is maybe easier to deploy—and assert as a general rule of human consciousness—in fiction than in reality. It depends a lot on dramatic irony to fully resonate, the kind of profound third-persona reader’s clarity we can only wish for in “real life.” But at the same time, it wouldn’t have such power us in fiction if it’d didn’t feel so deeply correct.

The jacket copy on my paperback of The God of Small Things lauds it, with a kind of funny clarifying adverb, as “compared favorably to the works of Faulkner.” This is relatively common praise, I’ve found, in blurbs for lyrical literary novels of family—the way all high fantasy of any merit, and some without, seems to “deserve a place on the shelf next to Tolkien.” I think now that the Faulkner comparison might have a lot to do with this idea of inherited trauma, broad or narrow, acting on and driving characters without their understanding. It looms so large in most of his work—it’s at the core of the-past-is-never-dead-it’s-not-even-past-ness.

It’s a theme I love in storytelling, and one I’m paying attention to in my own work (which, yes, has been torpedoed by the move as well. October’s revision schedule is correspondingly ambitious.) An inheritance that goes beyond genetics or learned behavior, to something subliminal or even supernatural. Pappachi’s moth; the Sugarman cabin; the Pfeffermans’ aunt lost in the Holocaust. Maybe in our new place we can build a shelf specifically for these novels on a theme: “compared favorably to the works of Faulkner.”

On Listening: Nine Lives and The Turnaround

Recently I've been experimenting more with listening to audiobooks while commuting or doing chores, trying to find a bit more time in the day for writing without losing reading time. So far, functionally, this means I've been on a nonfiction kick—I still struggle to listen to fiction on audiobook. (Though I'm convinced it's just a matter of growing that mental muscle. I'm planning to start with Lincoln in the Bardo, since a) I have the print version under my belt, and b) everyone says it's incredible.) After reading Hidden Figures to get more of the story (I knew it had to be one of the women, not Kevin Costner, who took down that sign), I've been listening to Dan Baum's Nine Lives ahead of a trip to Louisiana this December. Jonathan Yen is a great reader (by my audiobook-newbie estimation), and the book lends itself well to audio, straddling its collective-biography, magazine-feature line between fiction (or what feels like it) and nonfiction. It's been striking to listen to Nine Lives while watching events unfold this week in Houston; the book feels more timely and alive than I'd even expected it to.

Between sessions, I've also been listening to Jesse Thorn's The Turnaround—in which he talks to top-of-the-field interviewers about interviewing. Each guest has a different take on the art, sometimes fascinatingly so—between the podcast and Baum's book, which grew from a journalistic angle, I've been thinking about interviewing as useful analogy (or even tool?) for writers who tend to think first and most naturally in terms of character, not plot. (My early drafts tend to be light on Things that Happen.) Implied in Nine Lives is a point made explicit by several guests on The Turnaround—in interview-based journalism, you have to work back to "what happened?" with a person sitting still in a chair.

Hearing the work of great interviewers has gotten me to think of story as growing just as easily from a place of introspection rather than action—it's just about where you go from point A. It's helped get me past the fallacy of considering reflection and event to be separate matters.

Send me your audiobook recs, everyone! I need to get better at listening to prose! 

On Borne, The Secret History, and Spinning Central Tropes

I’ve written here before about works that make active use of their medium’s unique affordances and limitations, telling a story in the form of a novel or podcast or television show that couldn’t work in any other medium. Over the last few weeks I’ve happened on a few books that do this at a generic level, embracing well-worn central tropes and, without necessarily subverting or frustrating them, spin them like tops.

I’m thinking in this case particularly of Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne, which at its heart is an apocalyptic novel spun around the “take-in-a-monster” trope of countless children’s stories. (As a kid I myself was most partial to Steven Kellogg’s The Mysterious Tadpole.) Immediately following it, I happened to finally read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, which spins itself around the traditions of all drawing-room mysteries and especially campus novels—thrusting a stranger into the world of compelling manic-privileged intellectuals.

Both books make the reader feel comfortable, confident in where the familiar tropes will take her—whether happily so (I love a good take-in-a-monster story) or unhappily (I, by and large, tend to hate even a well-executed novel of academia). Both Borne and The Secret History use that shared cultural consciousness to create an undertone of tension or even menace as, one by one, generic signposts are added, bypassed, or moved. Borne’s opening chapters hit all the beats of worldbuilding, giving us a narrator we trust, and setting her stamp of approval—already a surrogate for ours—on the plucky little creature she finds while out salvaging. We trust and root for Borne, and for Rachel to keep him, because we know how this goes. E.T., Pete’s Dragon, The Iron Giant. We’ve seen this one. It’s a good one.

The Secret History similarly awakens memories—of countless novels of academia and privilege, lives of the mind, the glories and tragedies of overeducated youth. Tartt plays it straight and with real respect and affection for the canonical campus novel as a form.  This is not parody. But as the reader progresses she begins to hit, like bursts of hacker’s static interrupting a benign broadcast, quick, cold, offhand references to looming homicide. The disruption to an academic novel, where conflicts are usually social or cerebral and betrayals run from plagiarism to cocktail-party embarrassment to nebbish infidelity, is extreme. But Tartt has her cake and eats it too, and we end up wracked with suspense precisely because we’re hitting all the cozy, arguably annoying, pipe-and-cardigan beats of a campus novel—even while absolutely certain that our hosts are murderers.

Borne, of course, takes a similar turn—forcing the reader to reckon with the more than plausible downsides of taking in a monster, risks inherent in the plotline that I was genuinely chilled to realize I’d never considered. It broadened my reading experience beyond the individual novel, tugged my emotional responses deeper—through a cunning sleight-of-hand, VanderMeer made the trope itself feel like a something I’d welcomed for years without suspecting its sinister potential, played with happily without realizing the danger I was in.

This isn’t just a tool for novels, of course—this week I also caught the PBS-filmed broadcast of Falsettos, which we saw on stage in January. Revisiting the show, I was able to formally appreciate the way Whizzer’s AIDS diagnoses hits Act II like a grenade, leaving not a dry eye in the house—mimicking, of course, the way illness hits us outside of fiction. The contrast couldn’t come more dramatically than it does, interrupting a steady flow of trippingly hilarious operetta. And I’ve gotten deeply wrapped up in the CW’s Jane the Virgin, which mocks (and clearly adores) telenovelas while hitting the tropes that define them. But maybe because we spend more cumulative hours with a book than we do with a film or play, I think novels have a special potential to spin trope and genre into something that leaves the reader feeling pleasantly off-balance, taking a sudden turn off a familiar path to somewhere new and thrilling. (I’ll certainly never see The Mysterious Tadpole quite the same way.)

On Little Fiction and Book Trailers

My story "Cook New England" went up on the Little Fiction website this week, which means that Troy Palmer took the time and thought to make a trailer for it. I deeply appreciated it, as I did Troy's and editor Beth Gilstrap's help with getting the story ready for prime time. And I've been enjoying paging through the archives of Little Fiction's story trailers—if there's another journal that makes them this regularly, I haven't yet discovered them. 

I'm generally interested to see how book trailers evolve as a form—it seems like we've already seen them swing from earnest to ironic and back several times. It's hard to parse how to not just summarize but tease, maybe even sell, a literary product in a visual medium. (It's hard sometimes to even admit to thinking of literature as a "product," which we have to do in order to give it a trailer.) Most of the book trailers that stick in my mind do so for their awkwardness—it's often particularly odd when they depict events or characters from the book itself; I feel like my mental images as a reader are being overwritten by a "film adaptation" before I've even had a chance to crack the book. Or else I remember trailers for their metacommentary on the author's and/or publisher's discomfort with the fact that they're making one at all—most notably, of course, Gary Shteyngart's several parodic celebrity-cameo montages. However awkward the early stages of their existence, I think it's always safe to bet on new technology and new media forms, and I'm looking forward to seeing how book trailers evolve.

The way Little Fiction handles trailers—elegant, kinetic, consistent—strikes me with something I can't believe I hadn't thought of before: book trailers are much better suited to short stories than they are to novels. A story is so much more easily encapsulated—in a pull-quote, an image, a musical phrase; it's so much more realistic to "tease" a short story in a singular moment. Take a few minutes as I did to click through Little Fiction's trailer archives, and if one or several (or many) grab you, check out the stories. I'm having a blast. 

"There Was A Lot I Thought I Knew": What the Eye Hears and Pop History

Last week, in a total coincidence of timing with the Tonys, I read Brian Seibert’s What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing. I’ve always had a soft spot for pop history and science nonfiction, the second cousins of novels of expertise—starting young with bedrock-accessible “science communicators” like Bill Nye, Carl Sagan, and Neil deGrasse Tyson. Since then, as I’ve touched on a few times before on this blog, I’ve moved more and more towards books on niche interests and for niche audiences—not because I fit the niches (I often miss as much as I grasp), but because I like the breathless, earnest tone of an author hyperfixated on a huge project without a guaranteed audience. I’ve become more and more willing to read a book on anyone’s area of expertise or obsessive hobby. Sometimes this is explicitly research for fiction, or grows into it—you can easily see evidence of the pop science and music history I’d been reading before writing “Greatest Hits.” But often I’m simply filled with general inspiration by witnessing and learning from that kind of thorough passion.

Best of all, perennially, is an in-depth expert look at a subject I take delight in but understand only superficially. This was my experience this week with What the Eye Hears—which I highly recommend. I thought I knew a fair amount about tap, in hindsight just because I grew up loving Gene Kelly movies and can recognize Gregory Hines and Savion Glover. Seibert’s book runs 600 pages tracking the history and future of tap, as a developing art form and as a thread of social, racial, sexual, and aesthetic collaboration and strife. From minstrel shows to mid-century Hollywood to Glover’s rise as a a kind of dance-messiah, appropriation to reappropriation to collaboration, there was a lot—variously ugly, beautiful, and complex—that I didn’t know about this dance that had brought me lots of simple joy. As Seibert himself says in his final pages: “I didn’t know about all that when I started this book. I didn’t know how far back it went. I thought I knew what tap was: a fun activity from my childhood, a hobby of my adulthood, a way to fantasize that I was Fred Astaire. When I started to discover the vastness of what I hadn’t known about tap, it was chastening. There was a lot I thought I knew but didn’t know about the history of my country.”

It’s still a joyful feeling, considering tap dancing—but burnished now with something more meaningful; a greater vocabulary of both fact and feeling with which to understand the world. (Incidentally, Seibert is more than worth reading for his line-level wizardry describing dance routines in prose...he nails it every time.) Reading pop nonfiction--one way to put it, academia-scented books for people looking for cocktail party conversation starters--might not get me too deep beneath the surface. But I believe in learning more about the things that interest me, and "more" is a continuously, eternally relative term. Even though I may not be writing fiction about tap any time soon—though don’t put it past me—the experience of Seibert’s book will inform my work. Same goes for those old movies.

This is just a phenomenal tap routine--phenomenally conveyed in written form by Seibert. But let's just watch it; why not.

Bridging the Gap: Hannah Tinti, Groundhog Day, and the Eccentric Release of Information

Recently my main writing project has been revising and restructuring my novel draft, with a particular eye on the release of information—both to the reader and between characters. So, although Hannah Tinti’s new novel The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley and the Broadway adaptation of Groundhog Day feel about as different as possible in most ways, they struck me as narrative soulmates in that they share a dramatic keystone: the eccentric release of information, with some characters vastly more in the know than others. In Tinti’s book, Loo Hawley is constantly investigating her own past and her family’s, with the reader usually just far enough ahead to ache for her—though sometimes blindsided beside her. In Groundhog Day, of course, Phil Connors has an almost infinite informational advantage over the other characters—but is missing the one quotidian ability they all (apparently) still have, to move into the future. This ebb and flow of information makes works generic chimeras—is Twelve Lives a family drama, a bloody thriller, a mystery? Is Groundhog Day sci-fi or rom-com? (In my experience, movie rental and streaming services have a hell of a time fitting the film into their taxonomies.) As an additional mobius-strip categorization, both lead double-lives as loving tributes/burn tracks on small-town America.

Plenty of plotted narratives try to hinge on the artful release of information, so Twelve Lives and Groundhog Day are notable mostly for how well they both succeed. In each case the (im)balance of information gives us suspense and yearning, allies the audience with a character. Twelve Lives and Groundhog Day each find their respective balance points—and know exactly where on the spectrum of information/context to place the reader. Which character is our audience surrogate? (In the works that succeed the most with me, the answer to this changes unexpectedly. The shift from Loo to Samuel, from Phil to Rita—a successful POV change gets the audience deeply invested in the story before they’ve realized what’s happening.) I think the only constant is that “our character” needs to be someone struggling to solve a mystery, answer a question—whether expert or sap; whether the other characters have more information or less.

This dynamic can also go sour in terms of power, characterization, the balance of relationships—the tone or terms of a story can shift unintentionally if one character has vastly more agency or information, and thus more control. Of course this is only a “problem” if it isn’t billed as one—and it’s an issue deftly avoided in Groundhog Day, which on paper is a rom-com about one partner having thousands of times more information than the other. Theoretically it should be creepy, but it isn’t—because of the moral journey we see Phil take, and because Rita spearheads two of the best and deepest songs in the show. There’s a narrative sleight of hand—we fall in love with both Rita and Phil individually, so we accept when the story pushes them together. Our love bridges the logistical gap.

We bridge that same (and yet a very different) gap in Twelve Lives—a book structured around mysteries and secrets, in which nobody but the reader ends up with all the information. The absence of a full cathartic revelation between characters could feel like a failure, a lack of payoff—but there’s that same poignancy (again, very differently executed) making the information gap the soul of the story rather than a weakness. In these works and others like them, the reader/audience becomes a load-bearing part of the narrative itself—and it’s delightful to get so caught up. 


One of the very first—perhaps the first—formal rule I learned for writing was “show, don’t tell.” (The only contender for the spot is “write what you know.”) I’m betting that’s a common experience, and it’s rare these days that I think consciously about either piece of advice—but this week I kept running into various kinds of aggressive story-“telling,” in ways that brought me back to those adolescent workshops and made me think about how early advice still affects my writing instincts, for better and for worse.

I noticed it first in Riverdale—the CW’s dark-and-gritty take on Archie Comics, which I’m very invested in despite its target audience of…I’ll say fifteen-year-olds. Despite adult themes and a mixed audience, one of the main signs that the show is still aimed at people who are young enough to still be learning their archetypes is the writing, which tends to be more than a little ham-fisted. The characters say everything—everything—out loud, making flat masks for themselves out of what could or should be narrative subtext. (Easily more than half of Jughead’s lines are some declarative variation on “I’m weird”; “I don’t fit in”; “Sardonic humor is just my way of relating to the world.”) Characters talk about being “from the wrong side of the tracks” or “the girl next door,” and irony is almost always thin on the ground. (Benefit of the doubt: Riverdale is playing with, complicating a legacy of, these tropes and clichés. We’ll see.)

Also this week, I saw the Decemberists in concert—and had a moment of humility in my Riverdale mockery as I remembered my own teen years, listening obsessively to the Decemberists and admiring—as literature—the declarative “telling” of their songs. (The speakers of Decemberists songs tend to turn up, announce their profession [chimney sweep, engine driver, crane wife], avow a bulleted list of their life experiences, and die, usually by drowning.) I hadn’t put this together before, but this is still a kind of stagey (operatic, maybe?) storytelling I find compelling in song—the characters in Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 narrate their own physical movements and expressions as well as their motivations (“Pierre paces the room several times in silence / Anatole sits at a table, frowning and biting his lips”), and the device is as powerful to me in The Great Comet as it is cringe-worthy in Riverdale—and in my own college-workshop stories (and many of my current first drafts).

Though this isn’t purposeful, I don’t tend to read a huge amount of hard science fiction—maybe because I cut my teeth on Star Trek, I’m generally more than happy to hear that they’ve figured FTL travel “somehow” and just get on with the story. So when I read Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, I was hugely struck by the amount of “telling” that went into establishing the book’s ethos. Stephenson does more than due diligence explaining his world’s technology to the reader—usually by having characters explain it to each other, which occasionally necessitates narrative backflips to justify why one astrophysicist or another has forgotten something. In general though it’s seamless and successful, since by the time Stephenson gets to the most wildly speculative bits of the plot we trust him as someone who has done more homework than we have. It’s somewhere between technobabble and the declarative “telling” of, for instance, Little House on the Prairie. Stephenson and Laura Ingalls Wilder share a “how-to”/documentarian tone that establishes authority and lends plausibility to a speculative plot or to the assertion of a memoir.

This all interests me because of the other half of the shitty-first-drafts I map out—the ones that aren’t too “telling” but rather too empty of it, obfuscated and mealy-mouthed because I’m too wary of “telling” and so don’t spell anything out. These drafts end up muddied and insubstantial, and revision is a matter of laying foundation after putting up the wallpaper—i.e., in most cases, starting over.

Of course, it’s complicated. “Show, don’t tell” is more useful than it is limiting; it’s a good rule of thumb and I’m glad I learned it (and early). But the various extreme examples of outliers I’ve encountered recently have me thinking about when it fits the form and function of a piece to eschew it. 

Give Us More To See: Elena Passarello and the Creative Process

I once studied with a workshop leader who was (and I imagine still is) adamant that no good writing can come from having “an idea for a story”—that anything compelling had to come from a deeper heart/self/dreamspace. I took issue with this largely for its slippery-slope implications, which were enforced in workshop. Though we were assured of cultish future tiers of dream-ability, as novices we weren’t to write from anything but direct personal experience—which, aside from the creative hobbling of not being able to write characters outside our own bodies and biographies, meant that it was up to our teacher to diagnose, aloud and on the fly, which drafts and characters he felt expressed our “authentic selves” and which did not. (Over the course of the workshop this went badly in a grab-bag of ways, some foreseeable and some surprising; it never went well.)

But at least part of my issue with the system was just semantic—it sometimes seemed that this teacher was just distinguishing between good and bad “ideas,” rather than a material difference between thoughtful composition and dream-stories bubbling up from the unconscious. Given benefit of the doubt, this is an easier argument to swallow—of course there are stories worth writing and those that aren’t, drafts that amount to something meaningful and those that never quite do. Last week I heard Elena Passarello tackle this question in terms more useful and less prescriptive, and allowing space for imaginative and empathetic work rather than just self-description.

Passarello’s new book, Animals Strike Curious Poses, is a collection of essays about animals throughout (pre-)history that have been named and immortalized by humans. It’s an incredible collection, and like her previous book Let Me Clear My Throat it describes a remarkably wide swath of the human experience given its tight theme. During a Q&A at Greenlight Bookstore, Passarello talked about the essayist’s ongoing charge to find what she called a “third layer,” essentially a justification for her work’s existence distinct from her research. She described the need to move beyond the stages of finding first interesting facts, then interesting parallels between facts—beyond the stage of the writing process she summarized as pointing at something cool and saying, “Isn’t this cool?!” (It is cool that we sent a spider to space; it is cool that the public and the astronauts got attached to her; it isn’t essay-worthy until one reads between the lines of the historical record enough to credibly claim (to great effect) that spider and astronaut became more like one another in space, with humans earthbound and orbital each able to relate more easily to Arabella than to one another.) I’m not an essayist, but I write a lot of historical and/or speculative fiction, and I can easily relate to Passarello’s process—and its frustrations, as when you can’t move beyond the “isn’t this cool?!” stage but whatever you’ve found is just so cool. On those occasions, denial can be hard to escape.

This week I saw the Hudson Theater production of Sunday in the Park with George and read Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. Both were incredible, and with Passarello’s comments on my mind it occurred to me that it’s possible that neither work would have passed muster in my old teacher's workshop—two high-concept works of fictional biography, distant historical record prodded and expanded into whole-cloth creation through research and riffing and imagining a diversity of experiences. Though I’m sure he’d see the merit in the finished products (I’ll give him that), it’s unlikely that our teacher would have let early drafts out of the gate in workshop—for failing the arbitrary/semantic sniff test of beginning as an “idea” rather than a “dream.” (I know that in both works there’s plenty that could be described as stream-of-consciousness or dreamspace narration. But in neither does an arbitrary partition come down between thought and feeling—the two enrich each other, even/especially by conflict.)

This post itself wouldn’t pass Passarello’s own "third-layer" test, as all I’m really doing here is pointing out how cool it is that, if and when we hit a workshop that doesn't work for us, we aren’t required to buy into its prescriptive process. Any writing process that produces thoughtful, responsible, and meaningful work earns its use. If the third layer is there, it's there.