"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. 

Show-and-Tell

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.

Deathbed Fictions: On Reading Moonglow and Tinkers

This week I read Michael Chabon’s fictional family memoir Moonglow—the short version of this post would be to simply recommend it. I adore Chabon’s writing—like Salinger, his line-by-line is so precise and haunting that whole sentences stick in my mind apparently permanently—and this book has the special superpower he gains when he’s writing about his passions. Moonglow is driven by obsession with history (familial and global, alternate and actual), science fiction, and the Jewish Diaspora. As always when he’s at his best, Chabon’s characters are all overwhelmed with their own theories about legacy and narrative, all thoughtful—if flawed in their thinking—and compellingly tender in their own ways. I’ve written more than once about novels of expertise—Chabon is a master of the form; he’s always writing about hobbyists and devotees, about fans and obsessives. Amateurs, as he’d call them, and experts. Moonglow is delightful.

It also reminded me, sideways, of another book I love—Paul Harding’s Tinkers. The two have in common only their nominal concepts, which are nearly identical—both purport to be genre-bending novel-memoirs based on family stories, written on the occasion of a grandfather’s death. Each traces the outline of a shared experience—old New England, mid-century Jewish-American—through one family line. (Incidentally, they are also novels of expertise in the same vein, the delicate, miniature construction of worlds—Tinkers is organized around metaphors of clock repair, Moonglow around model rocketry.) Aside from the blaring and unanswerable question of how much is “true” in each—always best to assume less than you’d think, though Moonglow makes greater claims to biography and I’m guessing has less in it—the two books execute their concepts in wildly different ways. Harding sinks narrative perspective into the grandfather figure and his ancestors in turn, his book a short and lyrical collage of altered states. The narrative morphs through dreams, foggy memories, and epileptic fits. Chabon’s own (semi-)fictional avatar is always present in his book—his grandfather is only ever “my grandfather”, even in scenes set decades before “Michael Chabon’s” birth. He’s a scientist, not a poet, and the book’s structure and prose reflect that—as Chabon writes, narrating his grandfather analyzing an evening with his future wife, “when an engineer encounters his destiny or doom, it always takes the form of a puzzle.”

I love both these books individually, but held against one another they chime an encouraging message about originality. For two such theoretically similar works to feel so different in form and content—I have friends who couldn’t bring themselves to finish one who I’m confident will love the other—makes me feel energized about the plurality of narratives, the ongoing worth of telling new and old stories.

How It's Made: On Learning to Read for Structure

Since it’s one of the things I need to focus on in novel revisions, I’ve been trying to pay attention to structure recently in the books I read. Where do chapters break, and why? How is information ordered? Several of the novels I’ve encountered recently feel like books in search of a scaffolding, lovely prose and ideas mixed together like batter so the story ends up getting in its own way. What would perhaps ideally be braided narratives feel like disconnected themes interrupting one another; new chapters flash forward and back without clear reason.

Masterful structuring is often invisible—I tend not to consciously notice a chapter break, for instance, unless it’s jarring—so it’s been easiest to pay attention to the outliers. Fates and Furies, of course, is a mirrored narrative, the second half coming as both a trapdoor of a plot twist and the relief of, at last, of hearing the other side of the story. It’s in large part why so many of us responded so well to Groff’s novel—the sucker-punch of the structure, the masterful way she withholds exposition and context for thrilling delivery in part 2 without making the first half of the book feel like it’s missing any load-bearing beams. I also recently read A Canticle for Leibowitz for the first time, and was struck by—among much else—what I think is one of the most compelling uses of flash-forwards I’ve encountered. Miller jumps hundreds of years between sections, and so skillfully that his novel feels documentary. Each new section creates the impression that, rather than inventing it from whole cloth, he’s dropping a needle on actual historical record. The gap in knowledge between the characters and the reader—each with some information over the other—the lyrical passages widening scope and speeding time at the end of each section, the ending flashes of omniscience as he beings to, it feels literally, fast-forward—these are all structural decisions that feel inevitable on the page, like historical fact. A perfect and chilling fit for the book’s subject matter.  

Structure is sometimes especially striking in nonfiction, since books’ formats tend to vary more and since there’s often a rhetorical case made upfront for the way they’ve been organized. This week I read Kevin Jackson’s Constellation of Genius: 1922: Modernism Year One. (I’m not precisely sure that the title should be styled with two colons, but I don’t think there’s another way around it—emblematic of some other difficulties I had with this book.) It examines the literary and cultural events of 1922 in almost a calendar format, a kind of day-by-day diary that explains what Joyce, Woolf, Eliot, Pound, and many many others were up to on January 1, January 2, etc. It’s an impulse I can relate to, and the structure has its charms—it’s compelling, and grounding, to remember that these great writers and artists existed in the same world we do, and that they were never divorced from the other events of the day. And contextual timelines are nearly always at least a little interesting. But this level of granular detail is almost immediately at cross-purposes with the book, which has far too big a project in mind—capturing the innovations of 1922 “on all sides, and in every field”—to go through diaries and letters literally day by day and person by person. Almost immediately, footnotes begin blooming to more than half the physical page, taking us beyond individual calendar days and weeks, months, years into the future and past. These footnotes, along with the introduction and conclusion (which don’t conform to the calendar gimmick) are by far the most natural and most interesting parts of the book.

I have sympathy for Jackson in that his structure grated at me for being overthought rather than under-. It made me want to reread Bill Bryson’s One Summer: America, 1927, a book with a similar rhetorical purpose—to give a cultural history of a brief slice of the 1920s—but one that goes down like popcorn, without the granular slog of a structure at odds with its mission.

It doesn’t come entirely naturally to me to analyze structure in book-length works—I’m still in the early stages of learning to appreciate and critique how they’re built. But I’ll keep training myself to find the beams and give them a tap as I read—let me know if you have any (least) favorites of your own! 

Brain in a Jar: On Maintaining Physical/Mental Health

Once, in a high-school science class, I watched a documentary about NASA/JPL scientists—think first class period after lunch, TV/VCR cart wheeled in from the AV room. Timing suggests the film was probably about people working on the Mars Rover missions in the early/mid 2000s, but I’m not sure. What I do remember is one engineer who talked in his interview about dealing with the stress of preparing for a mission through exercise. There was B-roll footage of him on a treadmill—and using other gym equipment that I might recognize now but didn’t then, so in my memory it’s just a series of complicated blurs. “I’m in the best shape of my life,” he laughed—an emotionally neutral euphemism for the panic he was facing approaching his launch.

At the time, this blew my mind. I was not an active kid. I thought of myself, though not in this exact term, as a brain in a jar—a smart kid, a kid who read books—and didn’t see the point of exercise that wasn’t mandatory. (I also had garden-variety but chronic teenage body image issues; chicken and egg.) I’d been tacitly thinking of NASA scientists as, you know, nerds. We shared a side, in the great body v. brain conflict. Surely an astronomical engineer was the ultimate brain in a jar. What did that guy get out of running on a treadmill that he couldn’t get out of work—or, if it was relaxation he needed, television or a book? That interview segment—probably less than two minutes—has stuck with me for over a decade now, just because it made so little sense at the time. Less sense than the idea of sending a rover to Mars.

A few years later, I was active for a while—even athletic. But I joined track and cross country for social reasons, not physical—my friends were all on the team, and in order to come to practice and hang out with them, I had to join. (The way I made decisions as a teenager in general is borderline hysterical to me now. That was a commitment to six days of practice a week for years, and got me from total zero to ten-mile races. I made it with a shrug, and let it go just as quickly at the end of senior year.) I liked being on the team—I liked the cult of belonging. I worked hard; I’d feel tired and proud after a meet or a hard practice. But I didn’t feel like I was getting anything special out of the running itself. I was young and healthy and disciplined enough that I could get through the exercise required to be on the team—I was still a brain in a jar; I’d just figured out a way to use my body as a more effective tool.

Of course that’s nonsense. Too late to make a long story short, but I made it alarmingly far into my life before actually realizing that your physical state really does—get this—affect your mental state. And that it’s a hackable system! It’s really only in the last few years that I’ve discovered the actual phenomenon that poor anxious space engineer was working through in that documentary. Life is not Futurama—though to be fair, I’m sure the folks at NASA are among the closest to it. Nobody is a brain in a jar.

It still doesn’t come naturally to me to admit that physical health and mental health affect one another. It rings in my ears like pseudo-science, something adjacent to astrology. If a problem isn’t physical, how can the solution be? If I’m stressed or anxious, my first several impulses to “fix” the problem always boil down to sitting on the couch and thinking about something besides what it feels like to be me. But I’m starting—just starting!—to learn not to trust those impulses. Living in New York made an active person of me again—and once again accidentally, just because it’s hard to be here and not walk several miles a day. I’m running again—not very far or fast, but I always leave the gym feeling like a superhero, ready to write or work or even just feel peaceful for an evening.

I suppose this is mostly just advice for anyone working with the same set of factory presets I came with—a reminder that we all live in our bodies, not jars, and though that’s twice as much self to take care of it’s also twice as many ways to combat both the anxiety over things you can’t control and the bad habits you can. The last few months (at the least) have been tough on all of us, and that’s just day-to-day being in the world, background radiation—not even taking into account personal issues with work, relationships, family—or, say, novel drafts to finish and then revise.

I’ve been thinking of that NASA engineer a lot lately, on the treadmill and off. It took 10+ years for his advice to make any sense to me, but I’m glad my brain held on to it for all that time. I’ll probably never need to work through any astrophysics-related stress, but turns out it all kinda responds the same way.  

 

On the Greenlight First Editions Club and Finding New Books

I’m always on the lookout for new sources of book recommendations. It’s hard to know when to believe the hype—to trust that you’re seeing a book come up again and again on social media or in listicles and conversation because it genuinely is that wonderful, rather than because literary publicity, both official and unofficial, is a bit of an ouroboros. On the other end of the spectrum, going in without research and scanning by cover is proverbially dangerous, of course. A related hazard: I used to work in trade publishing, and it’s alarming how often I find myself drawn to a particular spine while scanning the library shelves, convinced I’ve “heard great things,” only to realize that it was in production while I was at the company—a year ago at the least—and though I’ve heard nothing since, I’m still conditioned to respond to its cover.

I seek out winners and finalists for past years’ major awards—which of course is a useful filter, but sometimes it seems that more than anything else it just teaches you the “house style” preferred by each prize. And of course it narrows each year down to just a few titles, and puts you perennially in the past.

In my experience, The Center for Fiction’s Debut Novel Prize (particularly the longlist) is a great way to find truly new fiction that you wouldn’t necessarily have encountered otherwise. In general, there might just be no substitute for voracious-reader friends you trust to steer you right. As of this month, thanks to a Christmas gift from my partner, I’m also enrolled in Greenlight Bookstore’s First Editions Club—a kind of book-of-the-month club that delivers signed copies of bookseller-selected new fiction. My first title was Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves—a book that was lovely and new, rough around the edges in a way that made me think about writing, fascinating—and also a book I would not have found my way to otherwise. Lately I’ve been concerned that the last several books I’ve read have blurred together, even in their excellence—I’ve been in a rut of style and theme, accidentally reading what felt like clone (or at least sibling) novels. I’m looking forward to injecting a more eclectic mix with advice from the Greenlight FEC. 

"Let's Be Scared Together": New Year's Recommendations

There was a lot of cathartic meme-ing about the relief of kissing 2016 goodbye, and we’re still in the part of the New Year where resolutions are unbroken and the rituals of a new beginning have maximum power. But at the same time, without the distraction of the holidays (and without whatever unhealthy coping mechanisms we’re all trying to give up or cut down on), this particular January also seems a little darker and more confusing than December was.

I wrote a little after the election about my habit of looking to stories in times of crisis. I know the impulse is a common one, and many of us must be turning to narrative now as to church or to mediation. Just a few works that have resonated with me already in 2017, for reasons large or small:

I just finished Death’s End, the final volume of Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Trilogy. I’ve written before about how the first two books affected me—the series is incredible, taking science fiction tropes I thought I was pretty familiar with (particularly first contact) and reimagining them at a sophistication and scope that is completely mind-blowing. Though it’s just one aspect of the books, I’m most haunted by Liu’s consideration of what might happen geopolitically if we were to definitively discover the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence—no matter what the aliens did or didn’t do, what havoc we on Earth might wreak among ourselves. I remember being so relieved to hear that Obama was reading The Three-Body Problem—it felt right that world leaders should have these books on file, be considering Liu’s hypothetical scenario. Now, it’s…a somewhat darker thought. But it still felt important and, yes, good to spend time in Liu’s world, a universe in crisis, as he considers for instance ‘the explosive amplifying effects of a hyper-information society when fed sensitive news.” There’s also something soothing right now about reading a book that takes place over 18 million years—it lends perspective bordering on escapism.

This weekend Julia and I saw Falsettos just before it closed on Broadway, and it was delightful—great performances, a really charming and creative use of a minimalist set. I’d had multiple people recommend the show album to me before but had never been able to get into it—it took seeing it on stage to get me there. It’s a dense and complicated show—a little paradoxically so, since the actual plot is very simple and easy to summarize verbally. But characters are woven into and out of one another’s lives in a way that doesn’t always make sense to them, let alone the blind listener. And there are elements of the soundtrack that feel dated until you can see, and thereafter imagine, the production’s visual style—a combination nostalgia/eye-roll for the 1980s, sanding it down into a self-aware period piece, and making it extra touching as the audience sees certain historical curveballs coming before the characters do. Confronting AIDS, which is already tearing through their own lives and the larger world despite a lack of terminology or acknowledgement, the company of Falsettos sings, “Let’s be scared together / Let’s pretend that nothing is awful.” Although in a very different way, it was as poignant to experience this week as Liu’s novel.

I’ve been watching the Australian television show Please Like Me, and it’s hitting a sweet spot in authentically handling both drama and comedy; both queer and straight characters; and themes of ambition, love, and mental illness in a way I’m not sure I’m seeing anywhere else on television. I think I’m getting out of Please Like Me what I’m supposed to get out of Girls—it’s a show about the struggles and charms of twenty-somethings (and their parents) where the characters are flawed but not in a way that makes you hate them, the show, and/or yourself for watching. So many of the show’s characters are self-loathing or battling demons or disorders of one kind or another, and I’m a little shocked by how deeply I’m rooting for them. It also feels right now like America is even more obsessed with itself than it has ever been, and it’s just an enormous pressure release to watch something made and set on the other side of the world.

In one way or another, Death’s End, Falsettos, and Please Like Me all confront a darkness that it’s tempting to hide from or avoid thinking about—mental illness, war, self-sabotage, a human tendency toward cruelty and bald self-interest—but in telling stories about darkness on every scale, from the individual to the literally universal, these works also bring perspective, and hope.

I’m hoping we can make 2017 the best year it can be.

La La Land, Singin' in the Rain, and the Stylish Musical

Singin' in the Rain is my favorite movie. I mean, as much as there can be a permanent answer to that question. I've loved it since I was very young and think it holds up independent of the nostalgia factor; it formed some of my other loves (favorite aesthetics, genres, tropes); its look, storyline are evergreen in a way that keeps it from feeling as dated as many films of the era (though I love plenty of those too). The songs are solid, the jokes are funny (Donanld O’Connor’s comic sidekick is a proto-crush for many a young nerd), and the performances are virtuosic—Gene Kelly may not be equally threatening on all three showbiz vertices, but he can carry a tune.

It’s a great movie, well remembered for a reason, but I always think of it first for being stylish. The colors, the costumes, the sets. It helps that it’s about show business, so the glitz on everything can be turned up to eleven. (I almost always love movies about making movies, I guess because I know nothing about that world—it rivals my general annoyance with novels about novelists.) Singin’ in the Rain is a beautiful movie, and though I love it for its craftsmanship, it’s the style of the film that won me over and, I’d argue, the style that keeps it a tier above the other excellent movies many of the same people were making at more or less the same time.

A formative aesthetic of my childhood

A formative aesthetic of my childhood

I bring this up because a few weeks ago I saw La La Land, Damien Chazelle’s homage to—and/or reboot of—an entire genre, the golden-age film musical. It’s a very charming movie, thrilling to see made today—the paradoxical mix of nostalgia and surprise to be watching a film of this genre and technical form set in today’s world is intoxicating. If you, like me, were a kid who always fast-forwarded through the dream ballets (yelling “ugh, the boring part”), then you, like me, are going to end up crying a little in the theater at La La Land. It will be a darling of awards season this year, and I see why.

But it also has me wondering about the importance of style. La La Land is great; it’s gorgeous and gripping and true to itself and successful on its own terms. It’s Technicolor-bright and seems to have been filmed almost entirely at magic hour, if that’s possible. It also made me think a lot about the film version of The Last Five Years—also a movie musical, also a bittersweet story of young love balanced against artistic ambition. It’s not quite fair to compare the two films, since they’re trying for —and both succeeding at—very different variations on those themes. But The Last Five Years sank without much of a ripple, and its songs (at least the lyrics), musical performances, and overall message are miles more nuanced and impressive than La La Land’s. The Last Five Years stays with you in a way that Chazelle's film doesn't; it just isn’t an overly stylish movie—and it needed to be, working as it was with an alinear narrative. It looked like a polished and formulaic Movie Version of something; it looked like Glee, so we treated it like Glee.

A formative aesthetic of some current childhoods, no doubt

A formative aesthetic of some current childhoods, no doubt

I don’t mean this as a style-vs-substance debate—I don’t have a solid enough sense of my opinion to make it one. It also wouldn’t be fair to La La Land or to The Last Five Years, both of which are excellent movies that got me to cry in public. I’m just interested by what grabs critical attention and what doesn’t, the slow-building cult classics and the flashes in the pan (remember The Artist? I loved it, I saw it twice in theaters. But I haven’t seen it since, and I couldn’t tell you the main characters’ names.) For now I’m feeling like I’d love it if we got to see more old-fashioned-format movie musicals. But I also wonder if anyone but Chazelle could pull this off in a way that feels real and original, with its own style.

On Finishing Bad Books

I may have at least danced around this topic in an earlier post, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently—when (if ever) is the right time to put down a book you’re not enjoying? (And is there a different answer to this question if you’re a writer? Does it matter whether the book is in your genre?)

In general, I finish every book I start, especially fiction. The few exceptions prove the rule—I don’t remember the last time I didn’t persevere through to the end of a novel, even ones I’ve actively disliked from page one. Normally I don’t have to be too thoughtful about this tendency—I read too fast and have a NYC commute to fill; a disappointing book is usually only with me for a day or two, and then I can move on to something else. But this week I’m reading Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, and have nearly 1,000 pages to think about the fact that I don't really like it. (Some combination of its size, jacket copy, and Oprah’s Book Club sticker made me think it would be more like Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and less like Dan Brown. Don’t get me wrong, Dan Brown can be fun, but not when you were had a Man Booker-winner in mind.) The prose makes me cringe; the characterization and gender politics are…dated at best; and although the plot is a I guess a page-turner, 1,000 pages are a lot to turn. (I feel okay saying all this because Ken Follett is far more successful than I’ll ever be and doesn’t need or desire my approval.) I’m about a quarter of the way through now, and don’t plan to bail—but the length of the novel is forcing me to think more seriously about why I’m so committed to finishing bad books. 

I think it stems partly from a workshop and litmag-honed conviction that you can learn as much from bad prose or failing structure as from good. Partly, it's that I’ve been trained (probably mostly by television) to want to see a story through to its end, even if I’m not enjoying it. And of course I’m also just a rabid completionist, loath to bail on a title if that means I’ll have wasted X hours reading it but don’t even get to put it on my list. I also hate the vertiginous déjà vu of hearing someone discuss a book I read part of but didn't finish—not feeling secure in my opinions or comprehension of the conversation or even my memories. (“I think I read that?” is a terrible feeling.) And though I've never experienced a reading equivalent of hate-watching, there's a grim satisfaction in finishing a book and confirming that yes, you did dislike it; you gave it every chance and still it let you down. 

I know plenty of people don’t agree. One former roommate of mine was my polar opposite on this question; her shelves were full of great books that she’d loved but had put down (“for now”) halfway through, to finish months or years later when she was in the mood again. I find this mind-bogglingly unrelatable, but she was a thoughtful and happy citizen of the literary world and I’m glad I got to see her reading habits in action, to remind me there are many more than one way (my way) to do things. It's certainly true that every minute I spend finishing Pillars is one I won't get to spend reading something better.

There’s one last reason, though maybe indefensible, to be a completionist when it comes to disappointing books. There’s always the hope, especially in the case of doorstop tomes like Follett’s, that there’s another shoe yet to drop. It might get better. Maybe there’s a keystone character or plot twist that makes it all slot into place; maybe you realize halfway through that the first half was bad on purpose. I still have 750 pages of The Pillars of the Earth to read—anything could happen. Right?