Big Machine: A Novel

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How Should We Grade Creative Writing?

What distinguishes an A poem from a B poem? Should a student writer’s final portfolio be rewarded for revision and growth if the final product remains inadequate? Should a poem receive a high grade if the instructor thinks it demonstrates the potential for publication -- or if it merely reflects the elements stressed within the coursework? Do we need to distinguish between students taking an errant creative writing course on the way toward a degree in physics versus students who plan on pursuing an MFA? We so often debate if creative writing can be taught: that is a romantic question of inspiration versus training, and allows us to comfortably bicker while knowing that creative writing programs are not actually going to disappear. I propose a more practical, immediate debate: how should we grade the work of creative writing students in undergraduate creative writing programs? Despite the nightmarish state of the tenure-track market in the discipline, it is reasonable -- and I would argue essential -- that we consider the MFA a professional degree. That is another discussion. But what about our undergraduates? Are they being trained to become professional writers? Does that affect how we assess their work? According to the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP), undergraduate students should be given grades “for most assignments.” Grades “for revised work should depend on how well students demonstrate that they have transformed their processes for composing and revising.” Many creative writing professors -- including myself -- have used such a method. A student submits a story early in the semester that is melodramatic and sentimental. They use tags like “shrieked” and “chortled.” The plot of the story goes nowhere -- or it goes everywhere, without any control. The prose is as purple as a priest’s vestments during Lent. By the end of the term, the student’s dialogue has more punch. They write with a little more detail. A maudlin ending has become more ambiguous. They are a better writer. Does that mean they get an A? When I teach creative writing, I am always pulled in two directions. Part of me wants to let undergraduates roam free. We might start with the opening scene of Big Machine by Victor LaValle or “Royal Beatings” by Alice Munro before setting aside examples and precedents and taking a more mystical approach. Writing without grades. The other part of me -- an ethos passed down by generations of my working-class family from the Bronx and Newark -- wants my students to create works that others will read. To -- God forbid -- think they should make money from writing. I want them to stop being private writers and become public writers. I think my best semesters as a teacher are a mixture of the two methods. Yet a teaching method doesn’t immediately translate into a grading method. Is competency in creative writing a C? Do students who take undergraduate creative writing courses expect those courses to be an easy A? Why does it feel like I am breaking some taboos in even asking these questions? I want this short essay to start, not end, debate. I know most professors have tried and true approaches to grading. I am not suggesting unilateral grading standards for creative writing -- a concept that is naïve, unrealistic, and probably not helpful for students. I am certainly not suggesting rubrics (20 points for exemplary dialogue; 15 points for adequate dialogue...). We don’t need to take this to the extreme, but we should have this conversation. If professors are serious about preparing our students to succeed as writers -- and if you are not, you should get the hell out of a classroom -- we need to be serious about our discipline. That includes how students are graded. One grading approach that I’ve returned to is placing a value on sentences. I try to teach students to write the best sentences that they were meant to write. That means a lot of close reading of published and student work, some critical writing, and a significant amount of line-focused revision. The least we can do as creative writing professors is to teach students how to write for an audience: the audience of their professors, their peers, and the often invisible audience of literary magazine editors and readers. Sure, a story can often be made better -- but if we always think of creative writing as a sequence of works-in-progress, we avoid the tough decisions that are necessary to grow, and to publish. Yes, to publish. Undergraduate creative writing students should know the difference between work that has the potential to be published, and work that is nowhere near reaching an audience. We should not only give an A to publication-ready work, but I fear that we are so afraid of talking too much about publication with young writers that we delay the inevitable. Some might say these debates are better left to intra-department squabbles. But so often those debates are intellectual exercises, and forgotten before the next semester’s syllabus is distributed. We can do better. Grading has a practical purpose, but in this context, it is a measure of when writing is successful, and when it is not. We should give creative writing -- this weird, beautiful art that has the power to stir souls -- the academic respect it deserves. We owe it to our students. Image Credit: Flickr/Rhoni McFarlane.

All of This Is Mine: A Conversation with Victor LaValle

Victor LaValle has a knack for colliding the mundane and the horrific in works that marry fantasy with social realism. In his last novel, The Devil in Silver, the uncanny horrors of an asylum are shown to be the product of late-capitalist decline. His latest offering, a novella called The Ballad of Black Tom, continues this journey into darkness with a “love letter-slash-rebuke” to H.P. Lovecraft, the progenitor of a particular brand of dark fantasy, and an author who is enjoying a kind of revival that remembers his work while reviling his racism. The Ballad of Black Tom is based on Lovecraft’s “The Horror of Red Hook.” While absent Lovecraft’s most famous monster, Cthulhu, “The Horror at Red Hook” features vague glimpses of supernatural horrors, “half-formed shapes of hell that strode gigantically in silence holding half-eaten things whose still surviving portions screamed for mercy or laughed with madness.” But these supernatural horrors are clearly symbols for Lovecraft’s more mundane terrors: the increasingly diverse inhabitants of New York. Red Hook’s real horror, for Lovecraft, “is a babel of sound and filth,” a population that is “a hopeless tangle and enigma; Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements impinging upon one another.” This supernatural horror as allegory for virulent racism is what has increasingly tarnished Lovecraft’s legacy, and what makes LaValle’s rebuke so sharp. Unlike Lovecraft’s story, The Ballad of Black Tom is resistant, like all of LaValle’s work, to allegory. Black Tom, both the hero and the villain of this novella, delivers LaValle’s rebuke to Malone, the police officer who is the protagonist of “The Horror at Red Hook,” and who shares the center of LaValle’s revision with Black Tom himself. Tommy Tester, as Black Tom is known at the beginning of the book, is seduced by the supernatural in part out of a desire for revenge. A small-time, self-described hustler, Tommy lands on the wrong side of a pair of detectives, who turn out to represent a much more terrifying evil than any ancient god, killing Tommy’s father in his bed and justifying the killing by claiming to have seen a gun. This murder, sanctioned by the same ugliness that motivated Lovecraft’s work, quite explicitly drives Tommy to Lovecraft’s supernatural realm, “Outside,” a terrifying world invisible to those without knowledge of the occult. At the end, Tommy, now Black Tom, tells Malone, “I’ll take Cthulhu over you devils any day.” I spoke with LaValle about his lexicon of horror and how it shapes his thinking about narrative and language (during a reading at McNally Jackson promoting his novel Big Machine, he screened 12 minutes of John Carpenter’s The Thing). Representing monsters is one of LaValle’s strengths, from the Devils of the Marsh in Big Machine to the buffalo-headed demon that torments New Hyde hospital in The Devil in Silver. Not surprisingly, LaValle’s monster references come from an exhaustive knowledge of horror. “A few summers ago I reread the first six or seven Stephen King novels,” he told me. “In Salem’s Lot, there’s a moment when the main character finally, finally, finally sees the vampire, the count. And he does this amazing thing. He’s brought you -- with all the tension -- up to the house, this abandoned house, and then the guy breaks into the house, and he’s going up the stairs, and then there’s the moment when it appears -- and I’ve noticed he does this all the time -- he then picks a thing that is disgusting or horrifying, or weird, but is completely normal, realist...So he might say, the Count came out and it felt like when a cat licks you on the back of your hand with its tongue. It burns at your skin and sort of cuts. And the point is not that he’s seven feet tall and has fangs, it’s that you probably know what this feeling of the cat tongue is, and it’s not a pleasant feeling. And it’s visceral.” That visceral horror of suggestion is quite different from Lovecraft, who tends toward the overblown: “In the blood of stainless childhood the leprous limbs of phosphorescent Lilith were laved.” This couldn’t be more of a departure from Tommy Tester’s Harlem cool: “This is how you hustle the arcane.” I ask about this contrast, and about Lovecraft’s appeal. I began reading him in my early teens, as did LaValle, yet if I tried to include prose like Lovecraft’s in my courses for first- and second-year college students, I’m sure they would rebel. LaValle theorizes that Lovecraft’s tone -- “someone who comes in and says, like, ‘THE WORLD IS SO BIG!!!!’” -- is “not cool” for people at the skeptical ages of 19 or 20: “I had friends who would laugh at me at 14 or whatever because I loved Lovecraft, and then they turn around and love The Smiths. And it’s the same thing!” LaValle’s horror lexicon allows The Ballad of Black Tom to pay homage to its source, while also transcending Lovecraft’s own paranoia, in which throngs of immigrants overrun the good, “Aryan,” in his word, inhabitants of New York, using supernatural horrors as allegory for overwhelming racist paranoia. I ask whether LaValle thinks that good horror is possible without Lovecraftian allegory, without a pathological fear: “I can’t think of any good horror, any horror that has lasted with me that isn’t based on some kind of ugly terror.” But LaValle expects more of existential terror: “One of the reasons that ‘The Horror at Red Hook’ is not one of his best is because he doesn’t do quite enough of the magic.” Pathological fear should be universal, LaValle thinks. “His really good stories, are also about a lot of fear, but the fear might be about the fear of the scientific revolution going on at the time. Even if he loved it and he was himself an atheist, it still rattled him to find out, or have proof of the insignificance of humanity in the larger realm of things. But by embodying it in Cthulhu or in the Old Ones and all this stuff, he finds a way to not just have a guy sit around saying, like, ‘isn’t it crazy! We’re insignificant!’” The racism underlying “Red Hook" is too parochial to resonate; LaValle’s paraphrase is apt: “I’m being rattled in my cage by my fear of non-whites, and my fear of human insignificance. Here’s a giant octopus head.” LaValle’s assertion of ownership doesn’t supersede Lovecraft, but rather situates him, forcing him out into the violent, messy world he was so afraid of, showing him what’s really frightening. LaValle’s current work-in-progress is about the particular, modern terrors of the Internet, dealing with fears at once more benign and ubiquitous than the monsters of The Devil in Silver and The Ballad of Black Tom. The new book is about parents posting pictures of their children on Facebook, something he does regularly. “It’s about the technology but really even more particularly it’s about what are the ways that we volunteer to lose control or we choose to open a door to monsters. You know, a vampire can’t enter your home unless you invite it in, that kind of thing.” True to form, however, LaValle is quick to see through any moralizing about whether or not parents invite and thus deserve these monsters. Such moralism, LaValle observes, “is a way of policing each other,” and, in particular, a way of policing women. In the new book, “the father is more often than not applauded or rewarded for exactly the things that the mother is punished for.” Finally, I ask whether we will see more work in this LaValle-Lovecraft universe. LaValle has said elsewhere that, although he intended Tommy Tester to die at the end of The Ballad of Black Tom, his editor suggested he leave things in a more ambiguous place. LaValle’s response is profoundly revealing in its reckoning with Lovecraft -- not only the world he created, but the world in which he lived. While he expresses enthusiasm for supernatural ghost stories, the real monsters, the ones to which LaValle lays the strongest claim, are not imaginary: “There would be a certain pleasure in expanding that universe and continuing the story, continuing a story. And certainly there’s tons of ghosts. But there’s also human violence. So much violence. So many people getting shot up. Cut. Drowned. Die of drink. Die of cocaine. All this great stuff. What if you could take all of that in, Lovecraft too, and just say, ‘all of this is mine.’”

When Students Workshop Their Teacher

Nothing can keep a writer as honest as a classroom full of teenagers. Students know when they are being lied to; they know when the person standing in the front of the room isn’t genuine. I’ve spent the past decade teaching at a public high school. Most graduates of MFA programs long for college classrooms, and while I won’t deny the occasional pull of that world, I have found that teaching high school has kept my feet on the ground. When the bell rings and class starts, I am not an author or a literary critic. I am an English teacher. One course I teach, advanced creative writing, began as a novel-writing course; an ambitious, perhaps stubborn attempt to help high school students draft a novel within a single academic year. For two years, students submitted 150-page manuscripts that ranged from polished drafts to rough attempts. Their work effort was impressive; their talent was clear. But we all seemed to burn out. In reaching for quantity, we had not quite forsaken quality; we had forsaken time and patience. We rushed art. I then changed the focus of the course from drafting a novel to writing and polishing several short stories. Students had more room to breathe, and, overall, produced better work. Without the fear of training for a marathon, they could jog and discover their craft. Yet the course is now actually more demanding than its previous incarnation. I respect the art of fiction too much to make any creative writing course a simple endeavor. I’ve taken the ethos of the great teacher and fiction writer, Charles Johnson, to heart: creative writing should be: a labor-intensive 'skill acquisition' course, emphasizing the sequential acquisition of fiction techniques and providing the opportunity to practice them. The curriculum should be capacious, allowing for instruction in all styles, genres, and subgenres of fiction. I believed that apprentices learned best (as in music or the martial arts) through oldfangled imitation of master craftsmen, through assignments aimed at learning a repertoire of literary strategies, and by writing and revising prodigiously. I saw the goal of a (literary) art class as the creation of artists who were technicians of form and language; it was the preparation of journeymen, not one-trick ponies, who one day would be able to take on any narrative assignment -- fiction or nonfiction, screenplay or radio drama, novel or literary journalism -- that came up in their careers. And such a class should make clear that writing well was always the same thing as thinking well. Workshop became an essential feature of my course. I think the workshop model is an imperfect method for teaching fiction, but it remains the standard style of undergraduate and graduate fiction courses. One of my responsibilities as a high school teacher is to prepare my students those courses. Our class meets five days a week, 40 minutes per class from September through mid-June. Workshops begin in February. We have two workshops a week, so the first round, short fiction, runs until April (this year standardized testing has stolen a month of instructional time). Depending on the interests and strengths of the students, the second round is flash fiction or creative non-fiction. A successful high school fiction workshop requires months of preparation. Before we sit for workshop, students read a healthy amount of short fiction. We read “Refresh, Refresh” by Benjamin Percy to see how a story can be a deep examination of a character’s longing to be reunited with his Marine father, as well as a complex portrayal of a small town. We consider a scene from Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show that evolves from awkwardness to sentiment in a few pages. We examine solid openings from Big Machine by Victor LaValle, “Royal Beatings” by Alice Munro, and The End by Salvatore Scibona. We contrast voice-driven, monologue-style pieces like “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid and “Boy” by Bret Anthony Johnston. And that’s only in the first two weeks. We read a ton, in hopes that students won’t learn by prescription, but that they’ll connect with the style of one or more of these writers. Students draft their own work, and we begin with informal responses to handwritten paragraphs and pages. Before I give them the work of another student, I photocopy a sample story from an undergraduate literary magazine. It is a published work, but the students know that published doesn’t often mean finished. I ask them to read the story and put comments in the margin, as well as write an end note that summarizes their overall reaction. They read, write, and edit, and then only when they are finished do I give them my sample response to the story. I stress the need to be constructively critical, to always tie those criticisms to specific words, phrases, or character actions, and to articulate those criticisms as reactions and explanations, and not as judgments. (I save the writing of literary criticism for later in the course). In February, after midterms come and go, students know it is time for workshop. Rather than one student reading his or her work, the entire class will have copies, and will speak about the story for an entire period. I winnow down our months of sporadic peer responses into four elements of workshop reading. First is copyediting. Copyedits can take the form of alternate word suggestions, punctuation changes, misusage, or misspellings, suggestions to cut a word, observations about clarity of language and content, and format cleaning. I ask them to avoid grammatical comments, unless a consistent and distracting pattern is observed. I remind students that they are not proofreading the entire work: that is the job of the writer. The second element is the line comment. Line comments are copyedits with commentary. These are reactions to phrases and sentences, or responses to lines of dialogue. Line comments can also be quick reactions to the actions, decisions, or desires of a character, as well as questions, although they should not have all, or even most of their comments be questions. Margin comments are next. These margin notes are expanded reactions: responses to paragraphs, pages, or the story as a whole. Students might call for expansion or excision of a paragraph, or they might note contradictions in characterization. These margin comments are usually two to three sentences, and help articulate their reading reaction to the text as a progressive, not static, action. The final element is the end note. This five- to seven-sentence note is addressed to the writer, and explains the reader’s overall reaction to the text. It is easy for students to get lost -- and misled by -- the minutia of copyediting, and not tell the writer what they think of the overall work. Students might discuss character, plot, or style, but they are always doing so in a way that leaves the writer sure of their total response. For all four levels of edits, I remind students that they are engaging the work on its own terms, within the fictional parameters created by the writer: they are not changing the story to fit their own interests or style. Next, we read excerpts from “The Writer’s Workshop,” an essay by Frank Conroy, who led the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for 18 years. Although my MFA is from Rutgers-Newark, many of my undergraduate and graduate teachers attended the Iowa program (one of my teachers, Jayne Anne Phillips, called it the Conroy “ripple effect”). Their blessings and biases inform my own method, so it is healthy for my students and me to question the workshop method, and its potential travails, even before we begin. Conroy sees workshop as a way to talk about writing using concrete examples: We ruminate on the seductiveness of the first person, how it seems easy initially but subsequently becomes very hard. We look at texts in which the author seems trapped in the first person, unable to find a way to look around the narrator, or rise above the narrator. We discuss strategies to avoid such pitfalls. Such a word as “strategies” might appear more at home in an MBA program rather than an MFA workshop, but I respect Conroy’s willingness to unfold the garment of workshop, to show the stitches and imperfections. Some might wonder why students couldn’t learn from reading a work by James Baldwin or Marilynne Robinson; they could, but they also need the agency and immediacy of reading the work of their peers. Conroy isn’t naïve enough to think that workshop creates art by committee. He knows “Workshops cannot teach the magic of making thrilling metaphors, but they can at least discuss their function, what it is they’re supposed to be doing. Precision.” He cautions that “the student who is 'up' should not be looking for solutions from the other students or from the teacher. The student should be looking for problems in the text that he or she had not been aware of.” We leave Conroy’s essay with a belief that workshops are best thought of as way to test the clarity of a story. Granted, this is only one slice of fiction, but is it not an essential one? Students are now ready for the theoretical end of workshop, but they need practical format and experience. Our workshop cycle has three days, and is meant to be an experience out of the norm for their education. First is their submission date, when the student e-mails me a 1500 to 2000 word story. By having students e-mail the story, it gives them a window into how it feels to send a submission over the transom to a literary magazine. The second date is part reading day, part conference. Students read and edit the submission in the back of the classroom while I conference with the writer in the front. We talk about the story, although I hesitate to force a “master” reading of it during this conversation. I try to note elements the class might discuss, ask questions about the process behind the story, and query her confidence level. We talk about books and writers she enjoys, what she hopes to study in college, what she hopes to accomplish for the rest of the year. Some students can’t help but sneak a look back -- it is somewhat disarming to know an entire class is reading your words in your presence -- but the class does a nice job of playing it straight. They read and mark in silence, and submit their work at the end of the period. I check their comments -- not that they wouldn’t be good editors for altruistic reasons, but guidelines and grades never hurt -- and then return their copies on the third day, the workshop date. On that date, the 14 of us sit in a circle and talk about the student’s story for nearly 40 minutes. The student is not allowed to speak until the end of the period; when she may offer clarification or answer questions, but she is not to defend her story. She receives the copies back with comments, thanks the class, and then the bell rings. Once students understand the process, I show them the workshop schedule, and they request a date. Many are still understandably nervous. It would be unkind, and pedagogically unsound, for me to send them blind. They need a model. Each year, I am the sacrificial lamb of workshop. I put up a story draft of my own so that students can see what it’s like to talk about someone’s work to his face. I follow the same three-day model (other than conferencing with myself at the front of the classroom), and certainly don’t speak during the actual workshop. This year I chose a story draft, “Weights and Measures,” about Derrick, a college student working for his town’s road department. In a backyard, the student discovers a dead body buried in mulch, and he is thrown into an investigation into local drug deals gone bad (Derrick himself was on probation for streaking across his college town). From a writer’s standpoint, I chose the story because I haven’t been able to figure out the center of the narrative. I didn’t want it to become a cheap imitation of the “A&P” variety story, the seasonal job as parable. From a teacher’s standpoint, since the mock workshop is meant to introduce the workshop style and format, to observe student tone in reacting to a manuscript, and to create an environment that would reveal strengths and weaknesses, I selected a story that I knew was approachable, but that had a challenging narrative arc and incomplete characterization. “Weights and Measures” is also an example of “literary fiction” -- fiction driven by character and language, more so than by plot -- with a touch of noir or crime fiction. I don’t love these categorizations, but ignoring them is a disservice to students who will encounter them later. At first, some students lift their eyebrows at the idea of critiquing their teacher. It is almost endearing to see this hesitancy, but they soon recognize that they are not critiquing me, they are critiquing the story. That’s a necessary lesson for them to learn, both as editors and as writers. I distributed my story, and they spent the period reading and editing. I hid behind my computer, working on future handouts -- not because I was nervous, but because I didn’t want to make them uncomfortable. They submitted their manuscript copies at the end of the period, and I spent some time that night going through their comments. They were fantastic: specific, layered, thoughtful. Skepticism and praise when appropriate. Now a student wouldn’t have the luxury of seeing these comments before their workshop, but this mock workshop is for the class, not me. This year’s class is full of talented writers and readers, kids passionate about books. That passion sometimes leads to volume; after reading a story, “The Princess and the River Queen” by Phedra Deonarine, the class erupted into competing interpretations of the lyric narrative, drowning out any hopes for understanding. But I will take impassioned responses for apathetic silence any day. Unfortunately, successful workshop sessions, as a whole, require a linear discussion. We don’t need to proceed paragraph to paragraph through a story, but we do need to have a larger argument and narrative to our discussion, a sense that we are building a conversation about a story that will leave the writer with material for reconsideration and revision. After a few minutes of focused discussion at the start of my mock workshop, it devolved into a succession of concurrent conversations. I couldn’t hear what any single student was saying. They all had strong and smart opinions about the story, but I couldn’t follow them. I was actually a bit frustrated; I valued their advice, but I couldn’t hear it. The next day, I gave students my reactions to their individual written and spoken participation, and spoke to the class as a whole. I explained that their written comments were brilliant, but their spoken workshop was rough to the point of being frustrating. They nodded their heads; they knew what went wrong. I reminded students that the goal of workshop is helping the writer improve his or her story, and that can only happen if the writer can follow the conversation. As their teacher, I would be doing much of this guiding during the workshop of other students, but for workshop to succeed, they must rise to the level of teaching each other. Workshop can turn good readers into confident, skilled readers. It also shows students that helping other writers is a noble act. Student workshops began soon afterward. We’ve read stories about revenge, battling sisters, and fractured families. They don’t seem like the same class that conducted my mock workshop. They are patient, pointed, and able to grasp the heart of each story. I am proud of them. I recognize that some teachers will hesitate to cede power to their students in this manner. But if I am willing to let a classroom of teenagers read, edit, and critique my work, then undergraduate and graduate instructors might consider it. The mock workshop brings students and their teachers closer in this literary art; it shows students that great fiction -- other than the rare inspired work -- is crafted, not the result of immaculate inspiration. It shows that their teacher is humble enough to allow the students to run the show for a day, and that he respects them enough to listen to their advice. Some will say that high school is too early for fiction workshops. Others might scoff at the idea that students could have the credibility or ability to critique their instructor. But year after year, I go home with a stack of marked manuscripts from students who want to make my stories better. Some of those stories end up in drawers, never to be touched again. Others have been revised and reworked, and published in literary magazines. Workshop was the final nudge those stories needed. Granted, student fiction might need more of a push than a nudge, but students need to see someone listen to criticism without responding to that criticism. We save debate for published work. Our drafts need to weather the storm of careful readers. By putting my own work up for critique, I show my students that we are in this together. Image Credit: Flickr/Nic McPhee

Most Anticipated: The Great 2012 Book Preview

2012 is shaping up to be another exciting year for readers. While last year boasted long-awaited novels from David Foster Wallace, Haruki Murakami, and Jeffrey Eugenides, readers this year can look forward to new Toni Morrison, Richard Ford, Peter Carey, Lionel Shriver, and, of course, newly translated Roberto Bolaño, as well as, in the hazy distance of this coming fall and beyond, new Michael Chabon, Hilary Mantel, and John Banville. We also have a number of favorites stepping outside of fiction. Marilynn Robinson and Jonathan Franzen have new essay collections on the way. A pair of plays are on tap from Denis Johnson. A new W.G. Sebald poetry collection has been translated. And Nathan Englander and Jonathan Safran Foer have teamed to update a classic Jewish text. But that just offers the merest suggestion of the literary riches that 2012 has on offer. Riches that we have tried to capture in another of our big book previews. The list that follows isn't exhaustive - no book preview could be - but, at 8,400 words strong and encompassing 81 titles, this is the only 2012 book preview you will ever need. January or Already Out: The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus: No venom seems more befitting an author than words, words, words. In Ben Marcus’s Flame Alphabet, language is the poison that youth inflict on adult ears. Utterances ushered from children’s mouths have toxic effects on adults, while the underage remain immune to the assault. The effects are so harmful that The Flame Alphabet’s narrator, Sam, and his wife must separate themselves from their daughter to preserve their health. Sam sets off to the lab to examine language and its properties in an attempt to discover an antidote and reunite his family. Marcus’s uncharacteristically conventional narrative makes way for him to explore the uncanny eccentricities of language and life. (Anne) The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq: Michel Houellebecq, the dyspeptic bad boy of French letters, has been accused of every imaginable sin against political correctness. His new novel, The Map and the Territory, is a send-up of the art world that tones down the sex and booze and violence but compensates by introducing a “sickly old tortoise” named Michel Houellebecq who gets gruesomely murdered. The book has drawn charges of plagiarism because passages were lifted virtually verbatim from Wikipedia. “If people really think that (is plagiarism),” Houellebecq sniffed, “then they haven’t the first notion what literature is.” Apparently, he does. The Map and the Territory was awarded the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize. (Bill) Distrust That Particular Flavor by William Gibson: One of our most prescient and tuned-in writers of science fiction is coming out with his first collection of non-fiction. Distrust That Particular Flavor gathers together articles and essays William Gibson wrote, beginning in the 1980s, for Rolling Stone, Wired, Time, The Whole Earth Catalog, The New York Times and other publications and websites. There are also forewords, introductions and speeches, even an autobiographical sketch. While these pieces offer fascinating glimpses inside the machinery of Gibson's fiction writing, their central concern is technology and how it is shaping our future, and us. "What we used to call 'future shock,'" Gibson writes, "is now simply the one constant in all our lives." (Bill) The Last Nude by Ellis Avery: With starred reviews from both Booklist and Library Journal, Ellis Avery’s second novel The Last Nude imagines the brief love affair between the glamorous Art-Deco Painter Tamara de Lempicka and the young muse for her most iconic painting The Beautiful Rafaela.  Set in 1920s Paris, among the likes of Jean Cocteau, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach, and a fictional American journalist named Anson Hall (a sort of Ernest Hemingway type), Avery explores the costs of ambition, the erotics of sexual awakening, and the devastation that ensues when these two converge.  Critics have praised The Last Nude as riveting, elegant, seductive, and breathtaking. (Sonya) Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander: Auslander has made a name for himself with side-splitting appearances on This American Life and his equally funny memoir Foreskin's Lament that have marking out a fruitful career as a Jewish humorist. Auslander's new book is his first novel, which New York says is "kind of about the lighter side of collective Holocaust guilt" Kirkus, meanwhile, has called the book, which explores the Holocaust as "an unshakable, guilt-inducing fixture in the life of any self-aware Jew," "Brutal, irreverent and very funny. An honest-to-goodness heir to Portnoy's Complaint." (Max) Smut by Alan Bennett: Given the existence of Nicholson Baker’s House of Holes, a new book entitled Smut would seem to have a lot to live up to—at minimum, it should descend into dimensions so filthy and moist that they would cause Baker’s own thunderstick to droop in disgusted admiration. Instead, the absurdly prolific, versatile, and esteemed writer of The History Boys and The Madness of King George provides a pair of very English stories about the sexual adventures of two middle-aged, middle-class British women. So, rather than a lightspeed journey smack into a rigid “Malcolm Gladwell,” Smut is, in the words of the Guardian, a “comedy of false appearances.” And that’s probably not such a bad thing. (Jacob) Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts by William H. Gass: Random House will publish Gass’s latest collection of non-fiction this January. In Life Sentences, his tenth non-fiction book, Gass explores the work of a number of his own favorite writers, with essays on Kafka, Proust, Stein, Nietzsche, Henry James and Knut Hamsen. Gass, the author of Omensetter’s Luck and The Tunnel, is a central figure in postmodern literature, and his critical essays have been hugely influential (he coined the term “metafiction” in his 1970 essay “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction”). (Mark) At Last and The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. Aubyn Edward St. Aubyn is probably neck-and-neck with Alan Hollinghurst for the title of "purest living English prose stylist." However, where Hollinghurst traces a line of descent from the prodigious Henry James, St. Aubyn's leaner style harkens back to the shorter comic novels of Waugh and Henry Green. For 20 years, he's been producing a semiautobiographical series whose chief interest - one of them anyway - is seeing all that fineness applied to the coarsest of behaviors: abuse, addiction, abandonment. Booker nominations notwithstanding, readers on these shores have paid little attention. Then again, Hollinghurst took a while to find his audience, too, and with the publication of the final "Patrick Melrose novel," At Last, St. Aubyn should finally get his due. Latecomers can prepare by immersing themselves in the new omnibus edition of the previous titles: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother's Milk. (Garth) February: Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan: In addition to being shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Edugyan's sophomore novel was and nominated for all three of the major Canadian literary prizes, and won the Scotiabank Giller award for best Canadian novel published this year, whose jury said “any jazz musician would be happy to play the way Edugyan writes.” Praised by The Independent for its “shimmering jazz vernacular, its pitch-perfect male banter and its period slang,” Half-Blood Blues follows the dangerous exploits of an interracial jazz band in Berlin, Baltimore, and Nazi-occupied Paris. (Emily K.) The Recognitions by William Gaddis: Fifty-seven years after its first publication, Dalkey Archive Press reissues William Gaddis’s classic with a new introduction by William H. Gass. Gaddis’s mammoth work of early postmodernism (or very late modernism, depending on who you ask) is one of the key entries in the canon of American postwar fiction, and a major influence on the likes of David Foster Wallace. Set in the late '40s and early '50s, the novel is a thoroughly ruthless (and ruthlessly thorough) examination of fraudulence and authenticity in the arts. Given its influence on postmodern American fiction, Dalkey Archive Press seems a natural home for the novel. What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander: Nathan Englander, 41, burst onto the literary scene in 1999 with his widely praised collection of short stories For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. This February he releases his second collection of stories, eight in all, that draw on themes from Jewish history and culture. The title story, about two married couples playing out the Holocaust as a parlor game, appeared in the December 12 edition of The New Yorker. The collection as a whole is suffused with violence and sexual desire. In a starred review Publisher’s Weekly wrote, “[Englander] brings a tremendous range and energy to his chosen topic. (Kevin) Satantango by László Krasznahorkai, translated by George Szirtes: What is it with Hungary? It may not have produced the highest number of Nobel Peace Prize candidates, but it almost certainly boasts the highest population-density of contenders for the Nobel in Literature. There are the two Péters, Nádas and Esterhazy. There's Imre Kertesz, who deservedly took home the laurels in 2002. More recently, English-language monoglots have been discovering the work of László Krasznahorkai. Susan Sontag called The Melancholy of Resistance, "inexorable, visionary"…(of course, Susan Sontag once called a Salade Nicoise "the greatest light lunch of the postwar period.") More recently, James Wood hailed War and War and Animalinside as "extraordinary." Satantango, Krasznahorkai's first novel, from 1985, now reaches these shores, courtesy of the great translator George Szirtes. Concerning the dissolution of a collective farm, it was the basis for Bela Tarr's 7-hour movie of the same name. (Garth) Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo: Pulitzer Prize-winner Katherine Boo, a staff writer for The New Yorker and an astute chronicler of America's poor, turns to India for her first book, a work of narrative nonfiction exploring Annawadi, a shantytown settlement near the Mumbai airport. Behind the Beautiful Flowers follows the lives of a trash sorter, a scrap metal thief, and other citizens of Annawadi, and delves into the daily life and culture of a slum in one of the world's most complex and fascinating cities. In a starred review, Publisher's Weekly says "Boo’s commanding ability to convey an interior world comes balanced by concern for the structural realities of India’s economic liberalization...and her account excels at integrating the party politics and policy strategies behind eruptions of deep-seated religious, caste, and gender divides." (Patrick) Varamo by Cesar Aira: With a new book out in translation seemingly every time you turn around, the Argentine genius Cesar Aira is fast achieving a Bolaño-like ubiquity. And with more than 80 books published in his native land, there's more where that came from. Aira's fascinating writing process, which involves never revisiting the previous day's writing, means that his novels lack the consistency of Bolaño's. Instead, you get an improvisatory wildness that, at its best - as in Ghosts - opens up possibilities where there had seemed to be brick walls. Varamo, recently reviewed in The Quarterly Conversation, features "a Panamanian civil servant [who] conceives and writes what will become a canonical poem of the Latin American avant-garde." The great Chris Andrews translates. Flatscreen by Adam Wilson: "But maybe Mom's not the place to start..." So begins the fast, funny debut of Adam Wilson, who's recently published fiction and criticism in The Paris Review and Bookforum. The story concerns the unlikely...er, friendship between ADHD adolescent Eli Schwartz and one Seymour J. Kahn, a horndog paraplegic and ex-TV star. In the channel-surfing argot that gives the prose much of its flavor: Think The Big Lebowski meets Catcher in the Rye meets that old cable series Dream On. (Garth) No One Is Here Except All of Us by Ramona Ausubel: A graduate of the MFA program at UC Irvine, Ramona Ausubel brings us a debut novel about a remote Jewish village in Romania. The year is 1939, and in an attempt to protect themselves from the encroaching war, its residents—at the prompting of an eleven-year-old girl—decide to tell a different story, to will reality out of existence, and imagine a new and safer world. Last April, Ausubel published a strange and beautiful story called “Atria” in The New Yorker, and I’ve been anticipating her novel ever since. (Edan) Stay Awake by Dan Chaon: Once called "a remarkable chronicler of a very American kind of sadness" (SF Chronicle), the author of Await Your Reply has slowly built a reputation as one of the most incisive writers of our time, specializing in characters who are dark, damaged, and perplexing, but making the reader feel protective of and connected to them. Populated with night terrors, impossible memories, ghosts, mysterious messages, and paranoia, Stay Awake heralds Chaon’s return to the short story with delicate unease. (Janet) Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room by Geoff Dyer: Geoff Dyer shows no signs of slowing down after seeing two stunning books of essays published in the U.S. in 2011, Otherwise Known As the Human Condition and The Missing of the Somme. This English writer, blessed with limitless range and a ravishing ability to bend and blend genres, is coming out with a peculiar little book about a 30-year obsession. It's a close analysis of the Russian director Andre Tarkovsky's 1979 movie Stalker, and Dyer calls it "an account of watchings, rememberings, misrememberings and forgettings; it is not the record of a dissection." Even so, Dyer brings some sharp instruments to the job, and the result is an entertaining and enlightening joy. (Bill) The Lifespan of a Fact by John D'Agata and Jim Fingal: A book in the form of a duel. In 2003, John D'Agata was commissioned to write an essay about a young man who jumped to his death from a Las Vegas hotel. The magazine that commissioned the story ultimately rejected it due to factual inaccuracies. Is there a difference between accuracy and truth? Is it ever appropriate to substitute one for the other in a work of non-fiction? The Lifespan of a Fact examines these questions in the form of a seven-year correspondence between D'Agata and his increasingly exasperated fact-checker, Jim Fingal; the book is composed of the essay itself, Fingal's notes on the essay, D'Agata's responses to the notes, Fingal's responses to the responses. (Emily M.) Dogma by Lars Iyer: Lars Iyer's debut novel Spurious was published last year to considerable acclaim, and was short-listed for The Guardian's Not The Booker Prize. Spurious concerned a narrator named Lars Iyer, also a writer, his friend W., their certainty that we're living in the End of Times, their longing to think a truly original thought, the mold that's taking over Lars' apartment, their parallel searches for a) meaning and b) a leader and c) quality gin. Dogma—an altogether darker work, the second in a planned trilogy—picks up where Spurious left off. (Emily M.) The Guardians: An Elegy by Sarah Manguso: In this brief book, Manguso, who already has a memoir - the acclaimed Two Kinds of Decay - two poetry collections and two short story collections under her belt, offers a rumination on a friend named Harris who had spent time in a mental institution before killing himself by stepping onto the tracks in front of a commuter train. Kirkus says the book asks the question: "How does the suicide of a friend affect someone who has come perilously close to suicide herself?" (Max) March: When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson: The exalted author of Gilead and Home claims that the hardest work of her life has been convincing New Englanders that growing up in Idaho was not “intellectually crippling.” There, during her childhood, she read about Cromwell, Constantinople, and Carthage, and her new collection of essays celebrates the enduring value of reading, as well as the role of faith in modern life, the problem with pragmatism, and her confident, now familiar, view of human nature. (Janet) Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton: In his new book, Alain de Botton argues for a middle ground in the debate between religious people and non-believers: rather than dismiss religion outright, he suggests, a better approach would be to steal from it. de Botton, himself a non-believer, suggests that "while the supernatural claims of religion are of course entirely false," religious doctrines nonetheless contain helpful ideas that an atheist or agnostic might reasonably consider borrowing. (Emily M.) Arcadia by Lauren Groff: Previewed in our July 2011 round-up of most anticipated books, Arcadia follows Bit Stone, a man who grows up in an agrarian utopian commune in central New York that falls apart, as they generally do. The second half of the novel charts Bit’s life as an adult, showing how his upbringing influenced and shaped his identity. A starred review in Publishers Weekly says, “The effective juxtaposition of past and future and Groff’s (Delicate Edible Birds) beautiful prose make this an unforgettable read.” Hannah Tinti calls it “an extraordinary novel.” (Edan) Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru: Hari Kunzru's always had an interest in counterculture. His last novel, My Revolutions, concerned '60s-era unrest and its consequences. That countercultural energy not only pervades the plot of his new novel; it explodes its form. Structured in short chapters ranging over three hundred years of history and several dozen different styles, Gods Without Men has already been likened to David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas - but with "more heart and more interest in characterization" (The Guardian.) And the centrifugal structure gives Kunzru license to tackle the Iraq War, Eighteenth Century explorers, hippie communes, and UFOs. (Garth) Suddenly, A Knock on the Door by Etgar Keret: Etgar Keret's choice of position while writing--facing a bathroom, his back to a window--reveals much about his fiction. He stories are absurd, funny, and unearth the unexpected in seemingly everyday situations. Many stories from his forthcoming collection are set on planes, “a reality show that nobody bothers to shoot,” and deal in wishes and desires. In “Guava,” a plane crashes, a passenger is granted a last wish and is then reincarnated as a guava. Another story involves a wish-granting goldfish, an aspiring documentary filmmaker, and a Russian expatriate who seeks to avoid having strangers knock on his door. Keret’s stories are brief inundations of imagination, an experience that holds true for Keret as much as it does for his reader. Keret says he becomes so immersed while writing that he's unaware of his surroundings, regardless of his view. (Anne) Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison: As a young writer, Harrison gained fame for her tales of incestuous love, which turned out to be based in part on her own liaison with her father, which she described in her controversial memoir, The Kiss. Now, Harrison tackles a different kind of troubled family in this tale of doomed love between Masha, the daughter of Rasputin, and sickly Aloysha, son of the deposed Tsar Nicholas II, while the Romanovs are imprisoned in St. Petersburg’s Alexander Palace in the months following the Bolshevik Revolution. (Michael) Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway: Nick Harkaway's second novel—his first was the sprawling and wildly inventive The Gone-Away World—concerns a clockwork repairman by the name of Joe Spork, a quiet single man in his thirties who leads an uneventful life in an unfashionable corner of London, and a nearly-ninety-year-old former spy by the name of Edie Banister. Their worlds collide when Spork repairs an especially unusual clockwork mechanism that effectively blows his quiet life to pieces and immerses him in a world, Harkaway reports, of "mad monks, psychopaths, villainous potentates, scientific geniuses, giant submarines, determined and extremely dangerous receptionists, and threats to the future of conscious life in the universe." (Emily M.) The New Republic by Lionel Shriver: After a run of bestsellers, including the Columbine-inspired We Need to Talk About Kevin, which was recently made into a movie with Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly, Shriver is digging into her bottom drawer to publish an old novel rejected by publishers when she wrote it in 1998. The New Republic, written when Shriver still lived in strife-torn Northern Ireland, is set on a non-existent peninsula of Portugal and focuses on terrorism and cults of personality. (Michael) The Sugar Frosted Nutsack by Mark Leyner: It's been 14 years since Leyner's last literary release, The Tetherballs of Bougainville, though he's been busy co-authoring the series of ponderously quirky human anatomy readers that started with Why do Men Have Nipples: Hundreds of Questions you'd Only Ask a Doctor After Your Third Martini. With The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, Leyner returns to fiction, takes on the geographical and cultural contradictions of Dubai, and writes down the mythology of what he's calling our "Modern Gods." Also included: a cameo from the Mister Softee jingle, and a host of “drug addled bards.” (Emily K.) The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits: The fourth novel from Believer editor Julavits tells the story of an academy for psychics and the battle between two powerful women, the masterful Madame Ackermann and her most promising -- and hence threatening -- student Julia Severn. After Ackermann forces Julia to relive her mother's suicide, Julia flees to Manhattan where she works a humdrum job in exile. Soon, her talents are needed to track down a missing artist who may have a connection to her mother. Powell's Bookstore included a galley of the book as a pairing with Erin Morgenstern's enormously popular The Night Circus, noting that The Vanishers "has magic, darkness, whimsy, and flat-out great writing." (Patrick) New American Haggadah edited by Jonathan Safran Foer and translated by Nathan Englander: This new translation, brought to us by Foer and Englander (with design work by the Israeli “typographic experimentalist” Oded Ezer), represents an unusual confluence of youthful, modern American Jewish thought. Featuring essays and commentary by an intriguingly diverse group (Tony Kushner, Michael Pollan, Lemony Snicket), the New American Haggadah should deliver an infusion of fresh intellectual energy into the traditional Seder narrative. (Jacob) Hot Pink by Adam Levin: Adam Levin works on his short game with this follow-up to his 1,030-page debut novel The Instructions. Hot Pink is a collection of short stories, many of which have appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly and Tin House. From his own descriptions of the stories, Levin seems to be mining the same non-realist seam he excavated with his debut. There are stories about legless lesbians in love, puking dolls, violent mime artists, and comedians suffering from dementia. Fans of The Instructions’ wilder flights of invention (and devotees of the legless lesbian romance genre) will find much to anticipate here. (Mark) Reading for My Life: Writings, 1958-2008 by John Leonard: For anyone who aspires to write book reviews - that orphaned form stranded halfway between Parnassus and Fleet Street - the late John Leonard was an inspiration. Tough-minded, passionate, at once erudite and street, he was something like the literary equivalent of Pauline Kael. I'm assuming here we'll get a nice selection of his best work. (Garth) April: The Cove by Ron Rash: For the poet, novelist and short story writer Ron Rash, this could be the break-out novel that gives him the name recognition of such better-known Appalachian conjurers as Lee Smith, Robert Morgan, Fred Chappell and Charles Frazier. The Cove, set in the North Carolina mountains during the First World War, is the story of Laurel Shelton and her war-damaged brother Hank, who live on land that the locals believe is cursed. Everything changes when Laurel comes upon a mysterious stranger in the woods, who she saves from a near-fatal accident. "Rash throws a big shadow now," says Daniel Woodrell, "and it's only going to get bigger and soon." (Bill) Farther Away: Essays by Jonathan Franzen: From Franzen, a collection of essays and speeches written primarily in the last five years. The title essay generated considerable attention when it appeared in The New Yorker in April. In it, Franzen told of his escape to a remote, uninhabited island in the South Pacific following the suicide of his friend David Foster Wallace. Two pieces in the collection—“On Autobiographic Fiction” and “Comma-Then”—have never been published before. Others focus on environmental devastation in China, bird poachers in Cyprus, and the way technology has changed the way people express intimate feelings to each other. (Kevin) Immobility by Brian Evenson: Genre-bender Evenson (Fugue State, Contagion) returns with an inventive mystery centering around a brilliant detective wasting away from an incurable disease and, consequently, frozen in suspended animation for years. Thawed out by a mysterious man, he must solve an important case with enormous stakes, and he must do it all in time to be frozen again before his disease kills him. There's little information out there on this book, but he has described it as "another weird noir." (Patrick) The Secret of Evil by Roberto Bolaño: Published in 2007 as El Secreto del Mal, The Secret of Evil is a collection of short stories and essays culled posthumously from Roberto Bolaño's archives. Due this April, the collection joins the steady torrent of Bolaño material that has been translated and published since his death. The stories revisit characters from The Savage Detectives and Nazi Literature in the Americas, and feature other members of Bolaño's now familiar cast. Some have argued that the embarrassment of posthumous Bolaño riches has occasionally bordered on, well, the embarrassing, but Bolaño's English-language readers hope for the best. (Lydia) As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 by Susan Sontag: Susan Sontag said that her books “are not a means of discovering who I am ... I’ve never fancied the ideology of writing as therapy or self-expression.” Despite her dismissal of the personal in her own writing, Sontag's life has become a subject of cultural obsession. The first volume of her journals captivated readers with tales of youthful cultivation, spiced with reading lists, trysts, and European adventures. In the interim since, we’ve fed on reflections like Sigrid Nunez’s Sempre Susan and Phillip Lopate’s Notes on Sontag. As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh, Sontag’s second volume of journals, picks up in 1964, the year of “Notes on Camp” (which also marked her debut in the Partisan Review) and follows as she establishes herself as an intellect to reckon with. (Anne) HHhH by Laurent Binet: Winner of the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman, Laurent Binet's first novel was recommended to me by a Frenchwoman as an alternative to Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones or William H. Gass' The Tunnel. In fact, it sounds like a blend of the two. It concerns the assassination of Hitler's henchman Reinhard Heydrich - and a writer's attempt to navigate the straits of writing about the Holocaust. (Garth) Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems 1964-2001 by W.G. Sebald. This collection was published last November in the UK to coincide with the tenth anniversary of Sebald’s death. Translated and edited by Iain Galbraith, it brings together much of his previously uncollected and unpublished poetry. Writing in The Guardian, Andrew Motion cautioned against seeing these poems as having been “written in the margins” of the novels. The collection, he wrote, “turns out to be a significant addition to Sebald’s main achievement–full of things that are beautiful and fascinating in themselves, and which cast a revealing light on the evolution and content of his prose.” (Mark) Wish You Were Here by Graham Swift: With promising reviews from The UK -- “... an exemplary tour guide of unknown English lives, a penetrating thinker, a wonderful writer of dialogue and description, a nimble craftsman” (The Telegraph), “ quietly commanding... burns with a sombre, steady rather than a pyrotechnic flame” (The Independent) -- Swift's ninth novel signals a return to the themes of his 1996 Man Booker prize winning Last Orders: Wish You Were Here chronicles a man's journey to Iraq, in 2006, to collect his estranged soldier brother's body, and examines the resurfacing of a both personal and international history. (Emily K.) Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down by Rosecrans Baldwin: In the grand expatriate tradition, Baldwin went to Paris looking for la vie en rose and found himself in a McDonald’s. The editor of The Morning News and author of You Lost Me There moved his family to Paris for a copywriting job and soon learned that it’s not all croissants and cathedrals. Learning to live with constant construction, the oddities of a French office, the omnipresence of American culture, and his own inability to speak French, Baldwin loses his dream of Paris but finds a whole new reality to fall in love with. (Janet) The Hunger Angel by Herta Muller: Nobel winner Herta Müller has written a novel about a young man in a Soviet labor camp in 1945. Müller's own mother, a Romanian-born member of a German minority in the region, spent five years in a Soviet camp, although Müller's novel is based upon the accounts of other subjects, particularly the poet Oskar Pastior. Despite its provenance and heavy subject matter, the novel, which is already out in German, has received middling reviews from German critics. (Lydia) Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd: Out in April, Waiting for Sunrise, the newest novel from British author William Boyd will take readers to pre-WWI Vienna and on to the battlefields of Europe. The novel follows the fortunes of a British actor cum spy, as he visits the analyst's couch, meets intriguing beauties, has coffee with Freud, and battles ze Germans. Exciting stuff from the author of Any Human Heart, a Whitbread winner and Booker shortlister. (Lydia) Mortality by Christopher Hitchens: Perhaps because Christopher Hitchens was writing so honestly and movingly of his illness right up until his death, we were surprised when it came, even though it seemed clear all along that his cancer would be fatal. Hitchens' essays, in his final year, helped humanize and soften a writer who welcomed conflict and whose prose so often took a combative stance. This memoir, planned before his death, is based on those last Vanity Fair essays. The UK edition is said to be coming out "early this year" and Amazon has it listed for April, while the timing of the US edition is unclear. (Max) May: Home by Toni Morrison: Morrison’s latest is about a Korean War veteran named Frank Money who returns from war to confront racism in America, a family emergency (Money’s sister, in crisis, needs to be rescued and returned to their hometown in Georgia), and the after effects of his time on the front lines. Morrison, 80, has been reading excerpts from the novel at events since early 2011. At an event in Newark in April, she read a few pages and remarked, "Some of it is soooo good — and some of it needs editing." (Kevin) Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel: Those of us who gobbled up Hillary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall eagerly await the release of its sequel, the ominously-titled Bring Up the Bodies. In Wolf Hall, we saw the operatic parallel rise of both Thomas Cromwell and Anne Boleyn in the court of Henry VIII. In Bring Up the Bodies, Anne’s failure to produce a male heir, and Henry’s eternally wandering attentions, present Cromwell with the challenge of his career: protecting the King, eliminating Anne, and preserving his own power base. How we loved to hate Anne in Wolf Hall; will her destruction at the hands of the king and his chief minister win our sympathies? If anyone can effect such a complication of emotional investment, Mantel can. (Sonya) The Passage of Power by Robert Caro: The much-anticipated fourth volume of Caro’s landmark five-volume life of Lyndon Johnson appears just in time for Father's Day. This volume, covering LBJ's life from late 1958 when he began campaigning for the presidency, to early 1964, after he was thrust into office following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, comes ten years after The Master of the Senate, which won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. The new volume, which focuses on the gossip-rich Kennedy White House years, will no doubt be another runaway bestseller. (Michael) Canada by Richard Ford: Richard Ford fans rejoice! A new novel set in Saskatchewan is pending from the author of the Frank Bascombe trilogy. The first of Ford's novels to be set north of the border, Canada will be published in the U.S. by Ecco, with whom Ford signed a three-book deal after his much-publicized 2008 split from Knopf. The novel involves American fugitives living on the Saskatchewan plains, and according to Ford it is inspired structurally by The Sheltering Sky. Ford, who calls himself "a Canadian at heart" talked about the novel and read an excerpt on the Canadian Broadcasting Company program Writers and Company. (Lydia) The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger: Freudenberger is famous for taking a knockout author photo and for catching all the breaks (remember the term “Schadenfreudenberger”?), but she has turned out to be an interesting writer. The Newlyweds, which was excerpted in The New Yorker's 20 Under 40 series, is loosely based on the story of a Bangladeshi woman whom Freudenberger met on a plane. The woman, a middle-class Muslim, married an American man she’d met through the Internet, and the novel follows their early years of marriage in fictional form, marking Freudenberger step away from stories about young women and girls and toward those about grown women living with the choices they’ve made. (Michael) The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey: Two-time Booker Prize winner Peter Carey returns in May with The Chemistry of Tears, his first novel since 2010’s much-loved Parrot and Olivier in America. As in Parrot, Carey again stokes a conversation between past and present, albeit more explicitly: in the wake of her lover’s passing, a present-day museum conservator throws herself into the construction of a Victorian-era automaton. If the parallel between the sadness of death and the joy of rebirth might seem a tad “on the nose,” expect Carey, as always, to swath the proceedings with sharp observation, expert stylistics, and a sense of genuine sorrow. (Jacob) Railsea by China Mieville: The British fantasy writer China Mieville, as we noted in a recent career retrospective, is an equal-opportunity plunderer of the high and the low, everything from fellow fantasy writers to mythology, folklore, children's literature, epics, comics, westerns, horror, Kafka and Melville. Never has his kinship with Melville been more apparent than in his new young adult novel, Railsea, in which a character named Sham Yes ap Soorap rides a diesel locomotive under the command of a captain obsessed with hunting down the giant ivory-colored mole, Mocker-Jack, that snatched off her arm years ago. Fans of Mieville's previous YA novel, Un Lun Dun, should brace themselves for another whiplash ride. (Bill) A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava: Is self-publishing the new publishing? Not yet. Still, De La Pava's audacious debut, called "one of the best and most original novels" of the last decade by Open Letters Monthly and subsequently heralded by the blogosphere, may upend some assumptions. This one began life as a self-publication, and though many self-published authors seem to feel they've written masterpieces, this might be the real thing. It's simultaneously a Melvillean tour of the criminal justice system, a caper novel, and a postmodern tour de force. Now that University of Chicago press is reissuing it, heavy-hitting critics like Steven Moore are starting to take notice. (Garth) The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel: This spring brings a third, dazzling novel from our very own Emily St. John Mandel. It’s 2009, and disgraced journalist Gavin Sasaki, “former jazz musician, a reluctant broker of foreclosed properties, obsessed with film noir and private detectives and otherwise at loose ends,” returns to his native Florida where he gets embroiled in the mystery of an ex-girlfriend and her missing daughter—who looks a lot like Gavin. The Lola Quartet has garnered high praise from booksellers like Joe Eichman of Tattered Cover, who says, “This sad, yet sublime, novel should bring Emily St. John Mandel a widespread readership.” (Edan) The Lower River by Paul Theroux: Theroux’s latest is about sixty-year-old Ellis Hock who retreats to Malawi, where he spent four Edenic years in the Peace Corps, after his wife leaves him and his life unravels back home in Medford, Massachusetts. The book appeared first as a short story in The New Yorker in 2009. In it Theroux returns to a theme he’s mined so successfully throughout his prolific career—the allure of ex-pat life, and the perils of living as an outsider in a foreign country. (Kevin) Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk by Ben Fountain: In this follow-up to his PEN/Hemingway award-winning short story collection Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, Fountain delivers a satirical novel about a 19-year-old soldier from Texas, home on leave and, along with his army squad, a guest of honor at a Dallas Cowboys game. Karl Marlantes, author of Matterhorn, calls it “A Catch-22 of the Iraq War.” Here's a more in-depth description of the novel. (Edan) Our Lady of Alice Bhatti by Mohammed Hanif: Booker longlister Mohammed Hanif wrote Our Lady of Alice Bhatti on the heels of his celebrated debut novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes. His second novel, also set in Pakistan, tells the story of Alice Bhatti, a spirited crypto-Christian nurse of lowly origins who works at the Karachi Sacred Heart Hospital for All Ailments and endures all manner of indignities at the hands of her colleagues and compatriots. Part absurd and unfortunate love story (between the titular Alice and a body-builder ruffian), part searing social commentary from a promising writer. (Lydia) In One Person by John Irving: Irving returns to first-person voice for the first time since A Prayer for Owen Meany to tell the story of a lonely bisexual man working hard to make his life “worthwhile.” The story is told retrospectively as the man, approaching 70, reflects on his life and his early years growing up in a small Vermont town in the 1950s. The novel is being described as Irving’s “most political novel” since The Cider House Rules. (Kevin) June: The Dream of the Celt by Mario Vargas Llosa: This historical novel by the Nobel Laureate “sits in the tradition of Vargas Llosa's major novels […] in its preoccupation with political issues and its international scope,” according to Faber, who released it in Spanish this past fall. The Dream of the Celt explores the life of Irish revolutionary Sir Roger Casement, who was knighted by the British Crown in 1911, hanged five years later for treason, and disgraced as a sexual deviant during his trial. His crime: mobilizing public opinion against colonialism by exposing slavery and abuses in the Congo and Peru to the world. At a lecture, Vargas Llosa said that Casement made for a “fantastic character for a novel” -- if for no other reason than the influence he had on the eponymous dark view that filled his friend Joseph Conrad’s own best-known novel. (Sonya) The Red House by Mark Haddon: Early reviews tell us that Mark Haddon’s The Red House renders modern family life as a puzzling tragicomedy. Enough said for this reader, but here's a little more to entice the rest of you: a brother invites his estranged sister and her family to spend a week with him, his new wife and stepdaughter, at a vacation home in the English countryside. Told through shifting points of view, The Red House is “a symphony of long-held grudges, fading dreams and rising hopes, tightly-guarded secrets and illicit desires” with the stage set “for seven days of resentment and guilt, a staple of family gatherings the world over.” Just what we all need (a little catharsis, anyone?) after the holidays. (Sonya) How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti: In spite of its name, Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? is neither etiquette book, self-help manual, nor philosophical tract. It’s a novel and yet it's a novel in the way that reality TV shows are fictions, with Heti as the narrator and her friends as the cast of supporting characters (even some of their conversations have been transcribed). With the Toronto art scene as the backdrop, Heti ponders big questions by way of contemporary obsessions--genius, celebrity, blow jobs, what is the difference between brand and identity, how is a story told? Read an excerpt (via n+1) to whet your appetite. (Anne) Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter: Jess Walter' 2009 novel The Financial Lives of the Poets is one of the funniest books ever written about the assisted suicide of the newspaper business. His sixth novel, Beautiful Ruins, unfolds in 1962 when a young Italian innkeeper, gazing at the Ligurian Sea, has a vision: a gorgeous blonde woman is approaching in a boat. She's an American movie starlet. And she's dying. Fast forward to today, when an elderly Italian man shows up on a Hollywood studio's back lot searching for the mystery woman he last saw at his seaside inn half a century ago. The publisher promises a "rollercoaster" of a novel, which is the only kind Jess Walter knows how to write. (Bill) New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and their Families by Colm Tóibín: Family has always been a presiding theme in Colm Tóibín’s fiction. With this forthcoming essay collection, he explores discusses its centrality in the lives and work of other writers. There are pieces on the relationship between W.B. Yeats and his father, Thomas Mann and his children, J.M. Synge and his mother, and Roddy Doyle and his parents. The collection also contains discussions of the importance of aunts in the nineteenth century English novel and the father-son relationship in the writing of James Baldwin and Barack Obama. (Mark) Soul of a Whore and Purvis: Two Plays by Denis Johnson: Johnson is, of course, best known for beloved and award-winning fiction like Jesus' Son and Tree of Smoke, but he also spent a decade (2000-2010) as the playwright in residence for the Campo Santo Theatre Company in San Francisco, a relationship that began when the theater staged two stories from Jesus' Son. While there, he wrote six plays that premiered at the theater, two of which are collected here. Soul of a Whore is about the Cassandras, a classicly Johnson-esque family of misfits and outcasts, while Purvis is about the real FBI agent Melvin Purvis who went after John Dillinger and Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd. (Max) July: Broken Harbor by Tana French: According to this goodreads interview with the author, Broken Harbor will be the fourth book in French's Dublin Murder Squad series; this time it's Scorcher Kennedy--a minor character from Faithful Place--whose story takes center stage. On Irish writer Declan Burke's blog, French summarizes the premise this way: "A family has been attacked and the father and two children are dead, the mother’s in intensive care and Scorcher, who is still not one hundred per cent back in everyone’s good books after making a mess of the case in Faithful Place, has been assigned this case with his rookie partner." (Edan) A Million Heavens by John Brandon: Brandon’s first two novels — Arkansas and Citrus County — both focused on criminals, but with his third he turns his attention to a comatose piano prodigy. Lying in a hospital bed in New Mexico, he is visited by his father while a band of strangers assemble outside, vigilants for whom he is an inspiration, an obsession, or merely something to do. Watched from afar by a roaming wolf and a song-writing angel, Brandon’s collection of the downtrodden and the hopeful become a community. (Janet) Office Girl by Joe Meno: At a glance, Joe Meno’s Office Girl might seem like something you’d want to skip: there’s the title, which calls to mind the picked-over genre of office dramedy, with its feeble gestures of protest beneath fluorescent lights. The doe-eyed specter of Zooey Deschanel somehow also looms. But you’d be wrong to dismiss anything by Meno, author of The Great Perhaps, Hairstyles of the Damned, and The Boy Detective Fails. His latest promises to return us to a postcollegiate moment when a simple sideways glance can reveal the fallacy of our dreams—and how we stubbornly choose to focus instead on the narrowing path ahead. (Jacob) Mother and Child by Carole Maso: Carole Maso houses beautiful American sentences in unusual, experimental structures - her masterwork, AVA, is an underground staple. The forthcoming Mother & Child is apparently a collection of linked short-shorts, whose two protagonists are, one has to figure, mother and child. (Garth) You & Me by Padgett Powell: Padgett Powell's eighth work of fiction is a novel called You & Me that consists of a conversation between two middle-aged men sitting on a porch chewing on such gamey topics as love and sex, how to live and die well, and the merits of Miles Davis, Cadillacs and assorted Hollywood starlets. Since his 1984 debut, Edisto, Powell has won comparisons to Faulkner and Twain for his ability to bottle the molasses-and-battery-acid speech of his native South. One early reader has described You & Me as "a Southern send-up of Waiting for Godot." Which is high praise indeed for Samuel Beckett. (Bill) Sorry Please Thank You by Charles Yu: A short story collection from the author of the highly praised debut novel How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, involving a computer-generated landscape, a zombie that appears—inconveniently—during a big-box store employee's graveyard shift, a company that outsources grief for profit ("Don't feel like having a bad day? Let someone else have it for you"), and the difficulty of asking one's coworker out on a date. (Emily M.) August: Lionel Asbo: The State of England by Martin Amis: Martin Amis is dedicating his new novel to his friend Christopher Hitchens, who died in December at 62 after a much-publicized battle with cancer. Amis's title character is a skinhead lout who wins the lottery while in prison, and a publishing source tells the Independent on Sunday that the novel is "a return to form" that is by turns "cynical, witty, flippant, cruel and acutely observed." Among the plump targets of this dark satirist are the British press and a society in thrall to sex and money. Sounds like we're in for a straight shot of 100-proof Amis. (Bill) The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle: Victor LaValle, the award-winning author of Slapboxing with Jesus and The Ecstatic, as well as the ambitious and monster-fun Big Machine, returns this August with a new novel, The Devil In Silver. In 2009, LaValle told Hobart Literary Journal: "It's the story of a haunted house, in a sense, but I guarantee no one's ever written a haunted house story quite like this." Sounds like another genre-bending delight to me. (Edan) Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation by Rachel Cusk: In 2001, the acclaimed English novelist Rachel Cusk published a memoir called A Life's Work, a highly praised – and vilified – examination of the pitfalls of becoming a mother. At the time she said, "I often think that people wouldn't have children if they knew what it was like." Now comes Cusk's third work of non-fiction, which flows from A Life's Work and examines marriage, separation, motherhood, work, money, domesticity and love. The British publisher says, "Aftermath is a kind of deferred sequel, a personal/political book that looks at a woman's life after the defining experiences of femininity have passed, when one has to define oneself all over again." (Bill) Fall 2012 or Unknown: Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon: East Bay resident Michael Chabon has spent the past several years working on his novel of Berkeley and Oakland, titled Telegraph Avenue for the street that runs between the two communities. Chabon titillated readers with an essay on his adopted hometown for the Ta-Nehisi Coates blog at The Atlantic, which reveals nothing about the plotline but assures us that the new work will be, if nothing else, a carefully conceived novel of place. Chabon had previously been at work on an abortive miniseries of the same name, which was said to detail the lives of families of different races living in Oakland and Berkeley. (Lydia) Ancient Light by John Banville: Having published a string of popular crime novels under the pseudonym Benjamin Black over the last five years, John Banville returns again to serious literary fiction with Ancient Light. In the novel, the aging actor Alexander Cleave remembers his first sexual experiences as a teenager in a small Irish town in the 1950s, and tries to come to terms with the suicide of his daughter Cass ten years previously. With 2000’s Eclipse and 2002’s Shroud, Ancient Light will form the third volume in a loose trilogy featuring Alexander and Cass. (Mark) The Book of My Life by Aleksandar Hemon: The brilliant Aleksandar Hemon (MacArthur Genius, PEN/Sebald winner) is reported to be working on his fifth book and first collection of non-fiction pieces. The title, The Book of My Life, alludes to, and will presumably include, his 2000 New Yorker essay of the same name--a short, powerful description of his mentoring literature professor turned war criminal, Nikola Koljevic. This will be Hemon's first book since the familial tragedy documented in his heartrending 2011 essay "The Aquarium," also for The New Yorker. (Lydia) Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures by Emma Straub: If you spent any time on the literary part of the internet in the past year, the name Emma Straub will ring out to you. She's a regular contributor to Rookie Mag, among other places, and Flavorwire called her "The Nicest Person on Twitter" (Sorry, Bieber). Her debut novel is about a Midwestern girl who moves to Los Angeles and, at great cost, becomes a movie star in 1940s Hollywood. Straub's story collection Other People We Married, originally published in 2011 by 5 Chapters Press, will also be rereleased by Riverhead Books early in 2012. (Patrick) Alt-Country by Tom Drury: There isn't much information on Drury's fifth novel, but rumor has it that Alt-Country will be the third installment of tales about the residents of fictional Grouse County, Iowa, where The End of Vandalism and Hunts in Dreams are set. The book is tentatively slated to come out in the fall of 2012. Let's hope Drury revisits not only Tiny and Joan, but also Dan and Louise, as well as the many odd and memorable minor characters that people his fictional Iowan landscape. (Edan) Your Name Here by Helen DeWitt with Ilya Gridneff: This long, compendious, delirious "novel" - co-authored with a rakish Australian journalist - should by all rights have been DeWitt's follow-up to The Last Samurai, but publishers apparently balked at the novel's enormous formal dare. So the enterprising Miss DeWitt simply began selling .pdfs on her website - a kind of late-capitalist samizdat. Jenny Turner of the London Review of Books wrote a long review of the novel a couple years back that makes it sound like absolutely essential reading. And N+1 ran an excerpt. Now Noemi Press has shouldered the considerable challenges of publishing the whole thing. And if you're one of the lucky few who has the .pdf already, the money you PayPaled to Helen will be deducted from the cost of the printed book. There's no telling how many complications are involved in getting there, but in the end, everybody wins! (Garth)

Cultic with a Chance of Rain: The Novel and Cults and Novels about Cults

1. “I think it’s going to be cultic,” Philip Roth said recently on the future of the novel.  “I think always people will be reading them but it will be a small group of people.  Maybe more people than now read Latin poetry, but somewhere in that range.” Of note is the fact that Roth was speaking to Tina Brown, master of ceremonies at The Daily Beast, an online attention-mill that roughly a year after running the quotation in question subsumed old school bearer of the magazine journalism standard Newsweek (inviting visions of joint enterprise, DailyNewsBeast).  If the universe online can seem to undercut cherished notions of a solitary speaker delivering polished wisdom and revelation from the mountainside, by democratizing the availability of virtual mountainsides and slaking the requisite for polish - diversion always just a finger’s click away (hey, look at that…) - then it may well fall to the serious novelist to play early Christian to, for lack of a better imperial throne, Gawker’s Rome. Where, after all, are the fictional characters more obsessing than Charlie Sheen and the commentary he provokes?  Good novels are the shields we raise in Charlie Sheen’s defiance. To snag an allegory from Adam Levin’s The Instructions (as the early Judeo-Christian/Rome analogy is likewise snagged, 10-year-old protagonist Gurion Maccabee wrestling with his role at the head of such a defiance), reading a novel is akin to entering a defile, “a thin breach through which only one person could pass at a time, a space that an army would have to break ranks in order to trek.” It is the solitary nature of a novel’s undertaking - the enchantment and transport of fiction, a shared secret – that gives it such formative weight for the individual reader. Days, weeks, months spent reading a book can’t be replicated by the blaze of movie-viewing, slippery ephemera, an experience vertiginous for want of words.  Fiction can trigger strong feeling, and with a book in your lap, you own it – you read where you want to read, the story proceeds when you will it to proceed.  In marginalia, you can record what a given sentence means to you.  No such option exists in a movie theater, save for what gobbledygook you manage on your cell.  Consciousness of any feeling the story elicits can slip away in the light of the lobby, the smell of popcorn, your companions’ faces, seen again as if for the first time… Chase that insight later (rent the movie, cue it up on your laptop), and what you may end up with are actors and pretense and motions, the drama of it all, minus what it was you brought to that moment originally, your own feelings made strange, superfluous. “Charlie Sheen,” you may find yourself saying, should Charlie Sheen be the star of the movie in question, “Remind me again of who it is I am.” But Charlie the F18 – he doesn’t know either. What you need, truly, is quiet and a book.  What you need is a room of your own with a view of the bay.  What you need is an apple and a bowler hat, a footstool on which to cross your ankles.  Do such prescriptions, undergirded by the assumption that you need to be told what’s worth valuing, sound “cultic”?  See how slippery is the off-ramp from the mass-media superhighway. 2. Sometimes, taking ourselves less seriously is a good idea.  Rather than binding everything in the filigree of words, pure excitement has its time and place, a place free of time - always among the young, and who doesn’t want to linger in youth’s hop-along self-assurance?  To be undifferentiated, one of the smiling among the smiling, eyes sleepy, comfort a given. A book, in contrast, appears a tying down.  What happens to you alone, the very aspect that gives a novel its sway, can be felt never to have happened at all, should there be no other face to acknowledge it.  So mass media derive their dominance, for no matter the quality of the entertainment, you can turn to your companion exiting the theater and say, "Hey, how about that?" In contrast, a book that you read, one less than well publicized, becomes a kernel carried around for months, or years, before reciprocal consciousness is encountered. The deepening of feeling that goes with carrying that something, a novel’s two covers arguably the very foundation of the private self, may mirror, on its release into the everyday, the fanaticism of the true believer.  Have you read the Levin?  You must read the Levin. (Mind, this is a hypothetical voice; I’m not telling you that you have to read anything.) Four recent novels, Adam Levin’s The Instructions among them, take the cultic as their departure point: Justin Taylor’s The Gospel of Anarchy, Victor LaValle’s Big Machine and Will Self’s The Book of Dave, being the other three.  (Somewhere around the bend awaits Fiona Maazel’s Woke Up Lonely.)  While The Gospel of Anarchy and Big Machine portray cult largely as madness - albeit a seductive sort of madness - The Instructions and The Book of Dave render cult as that other thing it can be: the basis of a new religion (madness, be damned).  All four invite reading, tongue-in-cheek, of sections of their text as scripture.  The Instructions, naturally, is entirely scripture. 3. Taylor, in his debut novel, is a soul well familiar with the online storm, formerly a brave of HTMLGiant.  That would be neither here nor there were his novel not so clearly a nod to the force the web holds on the mind. The Gospel of Anarchy opens with a drum solo: David, an ambivalent telephone survey operator in Gainesville and aficionado of online porn (“I imagined the girls in a kind of march, an endless parade celebrating—what?  Themselves, I guess, or me.”) in the way that Jake Barnes saw bull and finely coiffed matador, decides to share nude photos he has of his ex with a listserv of fellow pervs.  He only takes the courtesy of blackening out her face beforehand (a nod to Tucker Max?: “In so doing I had made her anybody—nobody.  She was raw material now.  She was YOUR FACE HERE.”).  Self-destruction attained, he walks out the door and into the street, destination nowhere: “This was my life,” David reports. Until making some new friends, that is, residents of a commune called “Fishgut.” New friends, and new lovers, Katy and Liz, dynamo and devotee, who take him into their bed and belief system, a work in progress.  For the first time in his life, David finds himself in church, there discovering “veneration of presence, the breaking down of the walls that make each of us one and one alone.  A thing that is three that is also one.  Godhead.”  But this apprehension of religious experience (see the novels of Marilynne Robinson) seems a glaze, to race on its way to truer interest: the commune’s own encompassing mythos, “anarcho-mysticism,” the fervor for its founder’s return. “On Hypocrisy,” “A Different Trip Another Time Another Rain” and “The Moral” read the entry headings of the journal left behind by the mystery man. Taylor excels at deploying the word “still,” which is appropriate for a writer so gifted at depicting whimsy and volatility.  Or, put another way: freedom, terrible freedom.  Soon enough, The Gospel of Anarchy departs from David’s point of view, the narrative never quite touching down with such sure footing. Uneven as the web itself, a bold casserole of sensual encounter and deranged proclamation (“My silence was the secret of the secret, the silence of the mystic rose that was fully blossomed within me…”), the fact that Anything is still Something in Taylor’s work figures as nothing short of miracle.  Loudly, even rapturously, Taylor succeeds in making the clamoring passion of his characters real, their raw, mercurial yearning a cry for “a world newly established.” In terms of acts of God, The Gospel of Anarchy is a tornado, tearing up the hill where rock ’n roll and cult meet.  As Katy muses about an old Indian folktale evidently doctored by Christian conquerors: There’s something beautiful about it also, sort of running concurrently with the monstrosity.  She can’t put her finger on it exactly, but it has to do with ideological miscegenation, how all cultures are just hodgepodges, collages, patch jobs.  Try putting it this way: the monstrosity is the beauty. 4. Victor LaValle’s Big Machine, on the other hand, has the feel of earthquake, low, rumbling tremors years in the building.  The Millions’ Edan Lepucki endorsed this one not long ago, duly citing its principal charm: voice.  As a play on James Wood’s hysterical realism, a category that dates most certainly to Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, Big Machine lets loose a zany, nonsensical plot that never fails to stay grounded in the mind of narrator Ricky Rice.  If the plot flabbergasts, LaValle’s attention to character will not, even to those of bit players simply passing through.  His novel, like Taylor’s, takes fanaticism as its focus. “To be an American is to be a believer!” a vagrant portentously shouts at the novel’s outset. “But y’all don’t even understand what you believe in.” Spinning off tropes of serial noir and horror (e.g. vagrant as prophet), LaValle pits sweet good against callous evil, semi-recovered heroin addict Ricky (“Almost three years without a kiss.  That’s a lot of love to lose.”) dropping his job as janitor in Utica, NY, to make for the great north woods of Vermont.  Happy to ditch the grit of janitorial work, Ricky still entertains doubt after receiving mysterious summons: “When he gets you out into the country, well, there’s too many tales about this going badly for a guy like me, and I couldn’t help but ponder the possibilities.” The possibilities lead to a compound miles from anywhere - not so different from a writers’ colony, actually (LaValle makes the likeness overt in his acknowledgments) - where Ricky finds he has been selected to take part in a special directive to cull weird and captivating headlines from the mundane: “The Washburn Library doesn’t care who you were, only who you want to be.  Out here we don’t call you cons.  Out here you’re Unlikely Scholars.” When the library’s existence is threatened by a former disciple named Solomon Clay, Ricky and an authoritative white-haired stunner named Adele Henry are sent to the fictitious Bay Area peninsula, Garland (like Oakland just across from San Francisco), to try to sort things out.  Devils who might be angels, a doomed millionaire and vagrants willing to act as suicide bombers all figure in the ensuing mayhem. The present action notwithstanding, Ricky’s repressed past functions as counter narrative: Ricky was raised in a cult, one whose three matriarchs (“the Washerwomen”) rewrote the Bible to conform to a more familiar context: “Finally you actually listen and ask yourself, Was there really a woman named Josephine in the Bible?  Malik and his coat of many colors?  Luther parted the Mississippi?” With humor and the deliberation of the self-doubting, Ricky grapples with his abrupt emergence on the world at large. Ungrounded, he is prone to manipulation by the Dean of the Unlikely Scholars, a man running his own sort of cult.  If “Taxation Without Representation Is Tyranny” was the rallying cry against the British, then “Love Without Reciprocity Is Madness” could be that against Cult.  And what a kind of madness it is. Late in the novel, Ricky wonders what his father saw in the Washerwomen’s doctrine, a passage that Taylor’s novel directly echoes: Their main idea was pretty straightforward: the Church is broken.  Which one?  Take your pick.  All choices were correct.  The Church, that abiding institution, had stopped working.  A new church had to take its place.  Something small and defiant and renewed with concern.  Which is about as traditional an idea as Christianity has. 5. The Book of Dave explores civilization on the post-apocalyptic island of Ham, where the engraved ravings of a mentally unbalanced, 20th century taxi driver named Dave have been taken as revelation.  As such, all children must split time between their mothers and fathers, who live in gender-segregated communities, Dave’s wife having left him and taken their boy some five hundred-plus years before. The Book of Dave would have made an excellent novella or short story.  The satire wears thin after page 100 or so (the word “irony” crops up again and again, the Hamites’ manner of denoting metal - for a while, a good joke) and the dialogue, rendered between English slang and text message (“Eye bin 2 ve playce vair ee berried ve Búk, an ee cum 2 me, an ee giv me anuvvah Búk – yeah, a nú I”), is often virtually indecipherable.  Regardless, The Book of Dave headed the pack of this most recent spate of novels chronologically, and its take on the virulence of misogyny is more resonant than nicety allows. 6. Reaching back, what are the seminal 20th century novels about cults?  Charlie and The Chocolate Factory (capitalism and its never-ending wonders as cult), and, long live the Chief, Tom Wolfe’s novelized non-fiction The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.  It’s all there: charismatic leader (Ken Kesey), enforced belief (be groovy), claustrophobic togetherness (are you on the bus or…?). The drama of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is Kesey’s reckoning with just how cult-like the following he has garnered is, a lesson on spectacle and enthrallment that must speak directly to the modern gods of pop culture - and their marketing gurus. One lesson to take away? Wear cool pants. Counter to Wolfe’s classic, the anti-heroes of each of the more recent titles are on the inside. They drink the Kool-Aid (if not in quite as dark a sense as that phrase connotes today). The stubborn skepticism of LaValle’s Ricky Rice is the closest thing to Wolfe’s cock-a-doodle-dooing at a remove, outsider on the inside and the outside at once. Of the Pranksters and the fervor of their belief in Kesey, Wolfe writes, setting the undercurrent of his antic history: “And still the babies cry.”

A Year in Reading: Laura van den Berg

I especially loved two deliciously strange novels this year: Victor LaValle's Big Machine and Jean-Philippe Toussaint's Running Away. Big Machine was an impulse buy at the bookstore, after I read jacket copy describing a “band of paranormal investigators comprised of former addicts and petty criminals, all of whom had at some point in their wasted lives heard what may have been the voice of God.” For obvious reasons, I was hooked by the description and curious as to how LaValle would manage to pull all this off. But pull it off he does. From the first sentence, I fell happily under the spell of the novel’s protagonist, Ricky Rice, and soon I was deep in the world of janitorial duties at Union Station in Utica, New York, and secret orders in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont and haunted pasts. This is a novel of tremendous ideas and tremendous heart—and, for me, an extraordinary introduction to LaValle. One of my New Year’s resolutions will be to read everything he’s ever written. Running Away had an equally hypnotic effect. Previous Toussaint novels—Television in particular—had already made me a fan, and Running Away struck me as being at once very Toussaint-esque and startling new. While Television is largely concerned with stasis, Running Away is devoted to movement. Set in China and the Mediterranean, this novel bounds from one locale to another, laying down connections that are bewildering and enigmatic and, in the end, perplexingly enduring. A side note: the book is worth reading just for the final act, which takes place in Elba. Holy god, it’s amazing. Both Running Away and Big Machine resist practical logic; they cannot be “made sense of” in the traditional manner. And that was precisely why I found both books to be profoundly transporting: I was so swept away by Toussaint's and LaValle’s worlds, I stopped caring about the hows and the whys and the what ifs, about matters of plausibility; I only wanted to be there. More from a Year in Reading 2010 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions

A Year in Reading: Aimee Bender

Home, Marilynne Robinson: I loved Gilead, and it is a pleasure and feels like a gift to spend time with this prose.  Reading Robinson, for me, takes a lot of focus, and I find myself rereading lines often, but the reward for this pace is a calmness lifting up off the pages, and a careful generous dipping into a deep and beautiful well.  She is the opposite and maybe even an antidote to fast-paced technology. Big Machine, Victor LaValle: A wonderfully interesting and resonant read.  Two scenes in this book in particular are still so vivid to me that I could probably tell you about them in detail without glancing at the pages; they are etched on the brain.     When You Reach Me, Rebecca Stead and The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins: Two satisfying, inventive, page-turning YA reads. About a Mountain, John D'Agata: The momentum he builds, by the end!  The layering, the surprises, the way he does not use the double space break...  somehow this book feels like he's thinking/dreaming up facts on the spot; they are that available to the prose, that effortlessly flowing along. Dearest Creature, Amy Gerstler: There's an amazing poem about a dog's view on shit that is full of dignity and depth.  But I kept rereading the first poem-- it took awhile to move past it, I found it so moving. The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway: I'd never read this one before-- still am thinking about what a simple, deep story he tells.  The story has the classic mythic feel of a long-lasting fable or tale, in how it's hard to imagine it didn't exist before-- like he plucked it off a tree, or dug it from the ground.  But it's also a complicated study of regret and disappointment and aging, so even though the plot movement is direct and unfussy, there's real nuance in what lingers with a reader. More from a Year in Reading 2010 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions

20 More Under 40

One might have imagined that the emergence of an online kommentariat would have made The New Yorker's 2010 "20 Under 40" Fiction Issue, released last week, an even bigger buzz engine than its 1999 predecessor. For some reason, though - high humidity in the mid-Atlantic? the preponderance of Knopf and FSG authors? the preexistence of a Granta theme issue with significant overlap? the nebulous formulation "writers who we believe are, or will be, key to their generation"? - the magazine's list of the best young American fiction writers has met mostly with polite golf clapping. To be sure, it's hard to begrudge these 20 terrific writers their honor. We've been excited to read in the issue new work from friends (and interested to observe the generational influence exerted by 1999 honoree George Saunders). But, as the accompanying Comment suggests, "to encourage . . . second-guessing is perhaps the best reason to make lists." And, wishing to see more such second-guessing, we've decided to rise to the bait and offer our own, non-overlapping, list of young-ish writers to watch. The exercise gave us a new appreciation for The New Yorker's editorial staff: It turns out to be damn hard to figure out who to call American. (There's also a shocking number of writers who are 40 this year: Brady Udall, Nathan Englander, Ed Park, Danzy Senna, Paul LaFarge...). It's nice to be reminded, however, as we all wring our hands about the future of fiction, of the preponderance of of thirtysomething talent out there. So, with apologies for obviousness, we hereby present an informal, unscientific, alternate-universe "20 Under 40" list. Calvin Baker's three works of fiction range fearlessly across the expanse of American experience from the Middle Passage forward. In Dominion, one of several recent novels to tackle the antebellum period, Baker finds his own, hybrid solution to the challenge of voicing the past. Jesse Ball's first two novels, Samedi the Deafness and The Way Through Doors, both reviewed here, show off a fabulist sensibility that's somehow both minimalist and maximalist - Paul Auster by way of The Arabian Nights. Ball won The Paris Review's Plimpton Prize for fiction in 2008. Chris Bachelder, author of Bear vs. Shark and U.S.! wields the two weapons all great satirists need: an eye for the absurd and a deep moral sense. For what it's worth, Bachelder's remarkable lexicon had at least one reader convinced for a few weeks in 2007 that he was a pseudonym of David Foster Wallace. Mischa Berlinski's first novel, Fieldwork, like the best fieldwork, moves beyond the parochial concerns of the American writing program without resorting to exoticism. It was a National Book Award finalist. Berlinski is currently in Haiti, we're told, working on another. Tom Bissell, who has lately published nonfiction in The New Yorker, might have been a plausible candidate for inclusion on its list. His first collection of short fiction, God Lives in St. Petersburg, was a finalist for the Believer Book Award. Judy Budnitz is one of America's great unsung short-story writers. Her two collections, Flying Leap and Nice Big American Baby marry Kafka-esque premises with a ruthless willingness to follow them to their conclusions. Also a novelist, she made the Granta list a couple years back. Joshua Cohen, a prolific (and quotably bellicose) 29-year-old, just published his sixth book, a Ulyssean 800-pager called Witz. Expect serious reviews to start appearing in the fall, when people have actually finished the damned thing. Kiran Desai is now a permanent resident of the U.S....or so says Wikipedia. Her 2006 novel, The Inheritance of Loss, was a Booker Prize winner and was on a lot of people's year-end lists. Myla Goldberg may have lost some credibility with literary mandarins when her first novel, Bee Season, became a Richard Gere vehicle. However, her second novel, Wickett's Remedy, shows that her ambitions extend well beyond orthography. Sheila Heti, a puckish Canadian, can be on our list if David Bezmozgis can be on The New Yorker's. Her first collection, The Middle Stories, featured fables skewed sui generisly. She's since published a novel, Ticknor, and appeared as Lenore in Leanne Shapton's Important Artifacts. Samantha Hunt's most recent novel, The Invention of Everything Else, was a fabulist meditation on Nikola Tesla; her previous piece, The Seas, was similarly inventive. Like Heti and Bissell, she cut her teeth in McSweeney's. Porochista Khakpour's debut, Sons and Other Flammable Objects, showed off her acrobatic voice; recent work in Guernica suggests more of the same. Benjamin Kunkel, aside from having mastered the voice of bemused neuroticism in Indecision, has one of the most interesting minds around, as evidenced by his far-ranging criticism in The London Review of Books. A play, Buzz, is forthcoming from N+1. Victor LaValle's third book, the splendidly eccentric Big Machine, has been his breakout. A Publisher's Weekly best novel of 2009, it has won him many fans, including our own Edan Lepucki, who reviewed it here last fall. Fiona Maazel's Last Last Chance is one of the most ambitious debuts of recent years, covering plague, addiction, and chicken processing. Maazel was a Lannan Foundation fellow in 2005. Joe Meno, unlike any writer on the New Yorker list, published his first few novels with an independent press, Brooklyn's Akashic Books. A writer of considerable range, the Chicago-based Meno last year published a rollicking family novel, The Great Perhaps, which occasioned an interview with and profile by Edan. Julie Orringer spent the several years of radio silence that followed her feted story collection, How to Breathe Underwater, productively. Her expansive first novel, The Invisible Bridge, has been hailed for its historical sweep and intimate portraiture. Salvador Plascencia's memorably and typographically strange novel, The People of Paper, rivals Chris Adrian's The Children's Hospital for the title of Most Interesting Novel McSweeney's Has Published (Non-Eggers Division). We have no idea what he's working on now, but we look forward to it. Eric Puchner is the author of Music Through the Floor, a collection that won the NYPL's Young Lions Award. This year, he published the similarly well-received novel Model Home. His wry essay about being married to the novelist Katharine Noel can be found here. Anya Ulinich's debut, Petropolis, rendered the life of a post-Soviet expatriate with Bellovian figurative brio. She's got a great story called "Mr. Spinach" floating around out there somewhere...hopefully part of a collection?

Climbing a Tree, Uncovering a Duck: Writers on Writing

In class the other day, a student compared novel writing to climbing a very large tree.  You're on one branch, she said, and it's wobbly.  You don't like it, it makes you uncomfortable--if not totally freaked out.  Your hands are probably chapped by now, and the ground below grows more and more distant.   Above you, there are sturdier spots, breathtaking vistas, but you have to climb carefully.  You don't want to fall out of the tree, do you? A couple of weeks ago, I figured something out about the structure of my very-new novel that left me feeling exhilarated and ready to move forward.  I'd been working and working on a certain section until--exhale--something changed.  It felt like when I get a Thai massage, and the masseuse, upon discovering a particularly tough archipelago of knots, goes to town, grinding her fist (or--wait-- is that an elbow...or...her teeth?)  as I try to hold back tears.   This time, though, I was the masseuse, and I was massaging the hell out of my novel.  I couldn't see its knots, I could only feel them, sliding and resisting beneath my fingertips.  I didn't stop, though--I would smooth them out, I would get to the bottom of this.  When I was done, my novel did feel better.  Also, it needed an aspirin. I've always sought out writing metaphors and similes because they articulate the strangeness, joy, and frustrations of such an abstract activity, one that requires you to dream and to focus at the same time.   It's the not-exactly quality of figurative language, the pairing of two alien contexts to create a new familiar, that seems appropriate for a process that is at times so maddening.  What is writing?  It seems to exist in a liminal universe, where words slowly turn into worlds. I have some favorites.  There are many gems in The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard, which begins, "When you write, you lay out a line of words.  The line of words is a miner's pick, a woodcarver's gouge, a surgeon's probe."  Lorrie Moore has said that a short story is "like a mad, lovely visitor with whom you spend a rather exciting weekend."  (Not sure I agree--but, lord, do I wish I did.)  In an interview, Ron Carlson said, "Today, my writing day felt like pushing a big rock that was flat on every side, and heavy. Oosh. All I can say is: here’s my shoulder once again."  And was it Ann Beattie who compared writing a novel to walking into the ocean to die?  (Now, that's one I can relate to.) Of course, no essay on this topic can exclude Franz Kafka's "A book should be the ax that breaks the frozen sea within,"  but I prefer Joy Williams' take, included in the contributors' notes of Best American Short Stories 1995: This was an extremely difficult story for me to write, and I could not get out, I could not get out of the story.  Writing it did not break up the frozen sea within, this is no ax, the sea remains as heavy and unyielding as ever. Everything here seems to me to be cold and helpless and unresolved.  There is such a difference between the living and the dead, it cannot be traveled really.  So I perpetrate a lie here. I pretend to traverse some of the distance the living share.  All art is about nothingness: our apprehension of it, our fear of it, its approach. We're on the same trail here, we hurry along, soon we'll meet.  There are details along the way, of course.  Even here there are tattoos and hairdressers and ice cream and dogs with slippers.   But these are just details, which protect us as long they can from nothingness, the dear things. Isn't that just exactly how it feels?  Upon reading these descriptions, and others, I feel less alone. I decided to ask some contemporary writers for their own writing metaphors.  In his reply to my email query, Ben Fountain, author of Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, asked me, "Is the metaphor supposed to relate to the act of writing, as in, it's like pulling your hair out one strand at a time?  Chewing chalk?"  Yes, I wrote back, that's precisely what I mean.  Peter Bognanni, author of the debut novel The House of Tomorrow, was more practical:  "Writing fiction is writing life," he said.  "Except characters don't go to the bathroom as often."   (Amen to that.  I always think, if I made myself into a fictional character, she would  have to pee every 35 minutes... talk about squandering the drama.) I received a few outdoorsy metaphors--maybe being chained to a desk sends our minds there immediately.  Kate Christensen, most recently the author of Trouble, has been working on a  new novel, which she compares to climbing a mountain. I started in September at base camp with a full, heavy pack and lots of equipment. It was a long uphill slog through an avalanche, a blizzard, crevasses, and a couple of wrong turns. Last week I finally made it to the summit, oxygen-depleted and cautiously euphoric. I'm heading down the other side now, and I can see the ending at the bottom, but they always say the descent is the most dangerous part of the whole undertaking. Antoine Wilson, author of The Interloper, is also working on a new novel.  He compared writing to "fishing with a bent nail and cut hot dogs for bait. All nibbles, a constant feeling that things are getting away from you, a long slow day. And then someone hands you a spear gun. You realize you weren't really fishing before, just preparing."   A surfer boy from way back, Antoine says he also relies on the adage, "Ride the wave you're on." Hyatt Bass, who, aside from being the author of The Embers, may just be my doppelganger, compared writing to canoeing through a swamp:  "It looks gorgeous from a distance, and you can't wait to delve in. You start off fast and strong. Soon you're totally lost, scared, worn out, covered in mosquitoes, and you can't stand the smell of yourself. If you're lucky, you find your way out and the swamp still looks good enough to lure you back several more times." Jennifer Egan, whose new novel A Visit From the Goon Squad comes out this week, told me she often compares writing to physical exercise:  "If you do it regularly," she said, "you can't imagine not doing it. But if you fall out of the habit, you're no more inclined to write than you would be to run when no one is chasing you." Matthew Specktor, author of That Summertime Sound, gave me an architectural metaphor.  Regarding the revision of his new novel, he said, "I feel I'm picking up a very large house, with all its support beams intact, and moving it fifteen feet to the left.  The structure's the same, only all its views are shifted."  Emily St. John Mandel, fellow Millions contributor and author of The Singer's Gun, also had a revision-specific metaphor: I saw a television segment when I was a kid about a man who carved very realistic ducks out of blocks of wood. There were a few before-and-after shots (block of wood, then duck), and the interviewer asked the man how he did it. The man said, "Well, I start with the block of wood, and then I just cut away everything that isn't the duck." For some reason that's always stayed with me, and since cutting away extraneous parts is such a large part of the revision process for me, I think of that television segment all the time when I'm polishing my work -- I think of the process of revising a novel as getting rid of everything that isn't the duck. Victor LaValle, author of Big Machine, is usually quite the jokester, but when I asked for a metaphor, he got serious on me. "Writing is a self-inflicted wound," he said.   Ouch, I thought.  And also:  Man, that's true. Now that I have visualized writing as tree-climbing, mountaineering, running from a murderer, and self-mutilation, among other things, I am feeling pumped to get to work.  How about you?
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