July 25, 2022 § Leave a comment
For the Ploughshares blog I wrote about Jeff Chon’s 2021 novel Hashtag Good Guy With a Gun, a book that probes the dark cells of toxic internet masculinity while uncannily immersing the reader in its codes, creating the sense that we are operating on someone else’s turf—and we aren’t likely to find our way out anytime soon.
May 18, 2022 § Leave a comment
At the Ploughshares blog, I wrote about Atticus Lish’s 2015 novel Preparation for the Next Life, and the author’s technique of using different points of view to give a feeling of concurrency to the overlapping narratives taking place.
April 16, 2022 § Leave a comment
At the Ploughshares blog I wrote about Maggie Nelson’s On Freedom, published last year, and how Nelson’s attempt to reject binary thinking with regard to freedom leads to a complicated and problematic consideration of a word that is reduced to a weapon.
February 11, 2022 § Leave a comment
At the Ploughshares blog, I wrote about Nicholson Baker’s long essay ‘Lumber,’ included in The Size of Thoughts (1996). It’s an essay I’ve read a number of times, one that never ceases to fascinate me for all the directions it goes in, as Baker sorts through endless dictionaries, databases, and indexes to track use of the phrase lumber room and its application as a metaphor (for the dead weight of knowledge stored in the mind) passed from one writer to the next, from Dryden to Pope to Goethe to Arthur Conan Doyle.
“Lumber” is a celebration not just of linguistic legacy; it also celebrates how knowledge can be stretched, extended, and just how much can be extracted about the most particular of subjects. In this way, the essay picks up on the mental dynamism shown off by The Mezzanine. That book, while structured as a work of fiction, is a paean to the vastness and rapidity of thought, as we follow a man returning from lunch-hour errands as he rides an escalator to his office building’s second floor. In those few narrative seconds, we are provided discourses on all manner of minor subjects that flash into his brain as he proceeds: the design of shoelaces and plastic drinking straws; the consistent way that light reflects off a moving object; the satisfying mechanics of vending machines. While for most of us such thoughts are fleeting, the energy more in the question than the answer, The Mezzanine, with its rabbit-hole structure, allows Baker (through his nominal character Howie) to offer deep meditations about all of these commonplace things, about which it turns out there is an astonishingly great deal to say.
A thing I came to appreciate as I re-read ‘Lumber’ was that Baker published it before Google was a thing. There’s something pleasing about the way he goes about his research, using CD-ROMs of all things. Part of my essay is about that.
February 6, 2022 § Leave a comment
My Facebook friend Jane Hammons shared a cool link: Johs Enevoldsen’s Literature Clock, which updates every minute with a literary quote that contains the time at which you are looking at the page. It appears that there isn’t a quote for every minute of the day, and it also includes quotes with vague indicators such as “around ten o’clock,” but enough minutes are represented to make the page interesting to follow, and they must have taken an enormous amount of work to dig up.
Enevoldsen’s site credits the idea to Jaap Meijers, who invented a table clock from an E-reader that similarly flashes a quote with the time every minute.
Both concepts are essentially a literary-text version of the idea behind The Clock, Christian Marclay’s 24-hour film installation from 2010 that is a supercut of film scenes that include clocks or watches or mention the time. The film itself works as a clock, synchronized to have each scene play at its corresponding time of day. I’ve never been able to see it in person; there clips available on Vimeo and YouTube, but for the full effect you’d have to synchronize the playback yourself.
At Craft Literary, Alix Ohlin alludes to Marclay’s film in an essay about using time as a mechanism for structuring plots.
January 11, 2022 § Leave a comment
When I got the alert on my phone that Joan Didion had died, I was slicing cheese on a cutting board in our kitchen, which made me think of the footage in the Netflix documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, where Didion is in her kitchen, also at a cutting board, slicing up a sandwich into strips. She already looks tiny, her small, knuckled hands using a big knife, and it is scary to watch her try to manage this chore with the way she places her fingers near the blade. In a voiceover, she tells us that people have been concerned that she hasn’t been eating.
The problem with trying to find anything to say about a writer so studied, so beloved, so woefully imitated, is that the proper distance to do so feels impossible. Didion herself, ironically, was probably better than anyone at maintaining that distance.
I began the year by rereading The Year of Magical Thinking, which was the first book of hers I had ever read. After the first time I read it—in 2015, the year after my mother died—I worked backwards through the Didion oeuvre, into The White Album, then Slouching Towards Bethlehem, then After Henry, then the novels. It is an experience to read the shellshocked widow in Year—coping with the death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, and the hospitalization of her comatose daughter, Quintana Roo, at the same time—then to go back and read the disapproving adult who bought hamburgers for the hippies in Slouching. Didion brought to the sixties an adult detachment and a coddled neurosis. Whatever she aimed to get by following the hippies around, it wasn’t the truth—it was the sum of the affectations they wanted to cultivate. Even though “Slouching” is the essay Didion is known for, it is nothing like her other essays, which are more critiques of how events look—how they are portrayed and impressed upon the public mind.
Much of Year is about a woman so used to controlling narratives going down desperate paths to control the narrative of her grieving, an effort undertaken by living overnight in hospitals and eating from vending machines and researching obscure medical disorders. My father died six years before I read Year for the first time, and all of this was familiar to me as I remembered how my mother sought ways to control her own grief story.
Didion has a way of seeing a pattern and then making everything else that she subsequently sees fit into that pattern. For most writers, this is thought of as reductive and hazardous. Most, I think, are too busy trying to emerge, work from the inside-out, to see any pattern at all. But it becomes clear as you read her that she has already gone through all the linear thinking needed to find that pattern. Her sentence structure encourages this thinking: Didion’s manner, in both her fiction and her essays, is to play with restatements, swapping out a word or phrase or extending an abbreviated thought with context or elucidation. In Year, that practice helps her sort through her own faulty memory events:
The autopsy did not take place until eleven the next morning. I realize now that the autopsy could have taken place only after the man I did not know at New York Hospital made the phone call to me, on the morning of December 31. The man who made the call was not “my social worker,” not “my husband’s doctor,” not, as John and I might have said to each other, our friend from the bridge. “Not our friend from the bridge” was family shorthand, having to do with how his Aunt Harriet Burns described subsequent sightings of recently encountered strangers, for example seeing outside the Friendly’s in West Hartford the same Cadillac Seville that had earlier cut her off on the Bulkeley Bridge. “Our friend from the bridge,” she would say. I was thinking about John saying “not our friend from the bridge” as I listened to the man on the telephone. I recall expressions of sympathy. I recall offers of assistance. He seemed to be avoiding some point.
This style of circling back, repeating a line by tweaking a word or two, fits with her willingness to hammer upon themes. In her second-to-last book, the slim volume South and West, the South represents stagnation:
We crossed the Demopolis Rooster Bridge over the Tombigbee River, another still, brown river. I think I never saw water that appeared to be running in any part of the South. A sense of water moccasins.
Running water and the ability to cleanse seems to be a point of where things matter. She takes note of all the swimming pools in all the motels—“in Eutaw there was a white swimming pool and a black swimming pool”—and notes the algae and cigarette butt floating in another.
In Oxford, Mississippi, she submerges:
Later when I was swimming a little girl pointed out that to me that by staying underwater one could hear, by some electronic freak, a radio playing. I submerged and heard news of the Conservative victory in Great Britain, and “Mrs. Robinson.”
She pits the two extremities of the country against each other and finds that one way she finds comfort in the West is that she can “pronounce the names of the rivers, and recognize the common trees and snakes.” It is critical to know which snakes can kill you and which cannot. Maria Wyeth, in Play It As It Lays, shares the same obsession on the very first page:
Why should a coral snake need two glands of neurotoxic poison to survive while a king snake, so similarly marked, needs none. Where is the Darwinian logic there.
At The Nation, Emma Hager points to another passage:
I recalled a well-known passage from the middle of Where I Was From , where she dispassionately examines the inherited, and slightly brutal, regional conduct: “If my grandfather spotted a rattlesnake while driving, he would stop his car and go into the brush after it. To do less, he advised me more than once, was to endanger whoever entered the brush, and so violate what he called ‘the code of the West.’”
Suburban sprawl has since devoured so much of the rattlers’ rightful habitats, including good portions of the grassy San Joaquin Delta sloughs that the Didions have been traversing since long before the advent of cars. But regardless, wasn’t this network of Joan devotees some newer—probably inevitable—iteration of “the code of the West”? That’s what this social fabric has always felt like to us, at least, and especially those of us who demonstrated, sometime in our early teens, a small and nagging interest in writing.
So many of her books come with so much white on the page, so many single-line paragraphs—it was Didion’s way of creating her own punctuation, of making you look at the part of the sentence you too often skip over. The phrase “it was said” – one of the tools the irresponsible journalist employs to introduce innuendo –turns up with drinking-game frequency in so many Didion books, especially in After Henry. For Didion it functioned as a way to place herself in a story that started before she got there and that she knew would continue after she left. It’s a tool used in her fiction, too, especially in her books about imposter power brokers like The Last Thing He Wanted and A Book of Common Prayer. Every character gets spotted –it was said, overheard, rumored—drinking martinis in an airport lounge. A forced omniscience, an eye of God.
California is droughts, gold, Mormons, movies, and the white line between glamour and its pretense. There is no water and the dry land catches fire and they still decided that was the place they wanted to make movies. The desert was where they wanted to gamble, to show that they could.
She has done the acid you didn’t even know where to buy; she has followed the money to understand why California will never have pure public drinking water. She has sat and writhed and contemplated in all of the hospitals and the waiting rooms, navigated all the freeways. She had read the same papers and did no extra research on Howard Hughes or Manson or Patty Hearst or the Central Park jogger case; she merely drew lines between the dots and made us see pictures everyone else refused to see. And was so quiet about where the real work began, coy about how she did it. Which is why she’ll be imitated woefully by so many lesser writers. So many that it will be embarrassing.
January 8, 2022 § Leave a comment
McCracken’s willingness to reach for such artful language, and her grace in achieving so, is a benefit to the reader: even words vanish—they vanish as their referents die away, as their speakers die away, as younger generations turn to newer words to prick up the listener’s ear. And with that vanishing the writer loses a way to convince future readers of the value that bowling alleys and Punch and Judy shows and PEZ dispensers and mechanical dolls once had.
I have a new monthly gig writing for the Ploughshares blog this year. For my first post, I wrote about my favorite book from last year and how words work as souvenirs.
June 15, 2021 § Leave a comment
Last month I (along with my colleague Ammon Shea) had the privilege of chatting with author Elizabeth McCracken about her new collection of short stories, THE SOUVENIR MUSEUM, for the Merriam-Webster Book Thing. The chat is now loaded to YouTube for those who were unable to attend.
THE SOUVENIR MUSEUM, with its stories set in places near and far, ended up being a rich subject for this project, as it is peppered with regionalisms and dialect that felt true to the character’s universes. We talked about using thesauri, the challenge of writing in first person versus third person, and using language that is true to oneself.
There was so much I didn’t get to ask! Like her use of visual puns, as when, in “The Irish Wedding,” Sadie refers to her sleeping arrangements (a sleeping bag and an air mattress) as a “disaster sandwich,” and then we read on and meet the groom and he happens to be eating a real sandwich. Plus I learned what a swazzle was.
I became a fan of Elizabeth’s work after enjoying her last novel, BOWLAWAY, and though it is not shown here, I was particularly thrilled to get to talk to her about candlepin bowling, a subject we both love dearly.
December 31, 2020 § Leave a comment
For the third straight year, presented in the approximate order I finished them, here is an unasked-for list of my favorite books that I read for the first time this year.
DREYER’S ENGLISH by Benjamin Dreyer. A guide to grammar, punctuation, and style written by the Random House copy chief, who approaches his subject with a keen wit and a sensibility that in the object of clarity, not every rule is meant to be steadfast.
NINTH STREET WOMEN by Mary Gabriel. Intimate in its details yet vast in its scope, this 944-page tome looks at the careers of five painters who scratched for their places in the gallery, and the conversation, amid the male-dominated world of mid-20th century American abstract art.
THE SECRET HISTORY by Donna Tartt. One of the more thrilling campus novels, with an interesting backstory, this paperback was a fun book to carry in my hoodie and read when I was out and about, back when we did such things.
MEANDER, SPIRAL, EXPLODE by Jane Alison. An analysis of plot structure and the variety of patterns that a narrative can follow, backed up by the author’s close and insightful reading of example texts, opens up a trove of strategies for the writer looking to advance their prose.
THE GREAT BELIEVERS by Rebecca Makkai. A novel about AIDS and its immediate and everlasting impact on a community. With characters seeking hope and forgiveness against a climate of dread and judgment, the friendships are some of the most believably rendered I’ve read in fiction.
NOTES OF A CROCODILE by Qiu Miaojin. A novel of intense young love and desire among Taiwanese college students, cleverly structured and freshly irreverent against the backdrop of post-martial-law Taiwan.
SONTAG by Benjamin Moser. A richly researched biography of a writer who refused to be reduced, one that elevates its subject by keeping a balanced focus on the passions that drove her: love, curiosity, and a hunger for an erotics of art.
THE GREEN HOUR by Frederic Tuten. Fluidly written novel about an art historian pursuing her romantic obsessions in Paris, cliched in just about every possible way, and yet despite its melodramatic twists I found quite an enjoyable read.
BORROWED FINERY by Paula Fox. A memoir of the novelist’s childhood and early adulthood, when she was raised by a succession of odd guardians until her volatile, wayward parents barge back into her life. The narrative looks in unexpected places and avoids tropes.
CROOKED HALLELUJAH by Kelli Jo Ford. Set against a vividly rendered landscape, this novel uses snappy language to tell about four generations of hard-bitten Cherokee women as they run from brush fires, look for escaped mules, and deal with unreliable men.
LATER by Paul Lisicky. A memoir of the writer’s years spent in Provincetown, Mass.; the friends, artists, and lovers he meets there; and the community’s response as the AIDS crisis swells in the 1990s. An honest book about the struggle to both live fully and survive.
INSIDE by Alix Ohlin. A novel about strangers and the psychology of connection, loss, forgiveness, and redemption. Set across continents and decades, it brings together a series of characters who might otherwise have nothing to do with each other in an artful and effortless way.
BROWN ALBUM by Porochista Khakpour. Frank and lyrical essays of the experiences of growing up as an Iranian-American immigrant, and the dismaying challenges that arise in a society that assigns you an identity before you are given a chance to develop your own.
YOU WILL NEVER BE FORGOTTEN by Mary South. Remarkably fresh stories that get ahead of modern trends and tropes with savage humor, pinning down uncanny situations that are familiar yet nameless, taking a razor to the kinds of real-life characters who suck the air out of the room.
NIGHTS WHEN NOTHING HAPPENED by Simon Han. A story of a Chinese immigrant family in Plano, Texas, this novel manages to evoke the silences of nighttime through its gentle register and yet artfully haunts its neighborhoods with the horrors of rumor, kid logic, and racism.
FLIGHTS by Olga Tokarczuk. Wryly observed meditations on travel, airplanes, and the spaces and headspaces that we occupy in between other spaces. This turned to be a well-timed read as it evoked the kind of feelings that were denied to those of us who stayed home this year.
My top three might be the Makkai, the Tokarczuk, and the Gabriel, all of which coincidentally have bright yellow covers.
I also dug into Shirley Jackson for the first time (apart from “The Lottery”), and Arthur Koestler, Doris Lessing, and Graham Greene. I re-read THE PILGRIM HAWK, THE JOY LUCK CLUB, and Camus’s THE STRANGER, which felt aptly lonely and disorienting.
I read 41 books in all, which is more than usual for me, though at one point it felt like I might break 50. No bowling leagues, no travelling, and I didn’t watch sports because they didn’t feel worth the stakes. So I puttered around on my novel and read books.
Our first full year owning Federal Street Books—a store whose crowded shelves and cramped aisles invite one to get lost and wander into other people’s spaces—was interrupted by a pandemic that made that very activity dangerous and irresponsible. We got a harbinger of what was coming when my wife picked up a bag of books that someone left to “donate” and got her hand bitten by a brown recluse spider. (It was very painful, but she recovered.)
Stories meant so much more this year, they provided what rare chance we were afforded to get out of our doom-clouded heads. Through books this year I got to visit Chicago, Algeria, Texas, Taiwan, Uganda, and a host of other places. I miss overhearing conversations in bars, the lacquer-scent of a bowling alley. This year’s voyage required so much imagination, and now I fear imagination has taken over in a darker direction—people are imagining their own election results, their own narratives of evil, and talking themselves into comfort with living in a different reality from the rest of us. I want the idea of fiction to return to the page and the screen, where it belongs, to remind us of what we can do, not what can happen to us. I want to go home.
November 29, 2020 § Leave a comment
I enjoyed Simon Han’s debut novel, Nights When Nothing Happened, about an immigrant Chinese family living in the suburbs of Plano, Texas, in the early aughts. I got to know Han a little when I met him at Bread Loaf in 2018, but I don’t remember if he spoke much about his project then.
As the title suggests, many scenes in the book take place at night, and the gentle register of Han’s prose evokes an effort to avoid disturbance. The Cheng family has two children, older brother Jack and younger sister Annabel. Liang is a portrait photographer and Patty works long hours in the semiconductor business. Annabel has taken to sleepwalking, and her brother must set out into the neighborhood in the wee hours to find her.
Much like Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, the characters are trying to maneuver through a suburban landscape that promises safety on the surface, but that gloss only makes it harder to spot the dangers that lurk. A disruption occurs in the middle of Nights When Nothing Happened that amounts to the book’s only real plot point, and as in Little Fires, rumor, misunderstanding, and racism contribute to a tense confrontation with the potential to harm lives.
As though we are trying to pay mind to a sleepwalker, the book is artfully devoid of clamorous sentences. Rather, Han creates uncanny moments of silence with his language, opting for his sentences to be let down softly.
But tonight the moon was missing, and the sky had never seemed so big. Big and black and interrupted by roofs and satellite dishes and crosses. Starless and full of folds, blue-black hiding spots. Liang’s shirt clung to him with sweat. He imagined the wind ferrying warmth from the Panhandle, swirling with the evaporated salt spray of the Gulf. How long had it been since he’d breathed air with conviction. There was no such thing as a Texas sky; there was only sky.
There is also a significant amount of dialogue spoken by children—more than is typically attempted in a novel for adult readers. Many of these lines are spoken to each other, with no adult present—and it seems like each line isn’t meant to direct us anywhere, but is there to dizzy the reader with its range of interpretations heard through the sonic fuzz of kid logic.
“Not today,” she said to Elsie. “I’ll break my arm after Thanksgiving.”
“Do you… have to?”
“I got to do it before Christmas. Then Santa will give me a big and beautiful cast greener than Kermit. And you can put your stickers on it.”
Elsie was on the verge of tears. “But I wanted to put my stickers on m lunch box.”
“Hey.” Annabel was almost a heard shorter than Elsie, but when she brought her hand up to the girl’s face, Elsie winced. “It hurts so so so much to break my arm. I’ll feel better with your stickers.” Annabel gave the girl’s cheeks a light sweep. “You’re my friend, right?”
You can read the first chapter of Nights When Nothing Happened at Electric Literature.
At NPR, you’ll find Scott Simon’s interview with the author as well as this thoughtful review by Leland Cheuk. Lastly, Han has an essay at The Paris Review blog that gives context to the immigrant experience in Plano.