The Ask: A Novel

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Father’s Day Books for Dads Who Actually Read

Let’s say there’s a father in your life. Maybe you’re married to him. Maybe you’re his child. Maybe he’s just a buddy of yours. Last year, on Father’s Day, you bought him a tie in his favorite colors. The year before that, it was a calfskin wallet, which you’ve noticed he still hasn’t used. This year, with Father's Day just a week and a half away, you're leaning toward buying him a bookstore gift card because he likes to read, but you don't know what book to get him. Resist this impulse. For a lot of busy dads, a store card is less a gift than a chore, one that can be skipped. (Don’t believe me? Take a peek in his sock drawer, upper right hand corner, just behind that unused calfskin wallet: Yep, a small stack of unused gift cards.) More importantly, a gift is a way of telling someone that you value them, that you know them a little better than they realized, and few things do this better than a well-chosen book. Below are book suggestions for 11 different kinds of dads who read. These suggestions assume that the fathers you’re shopping for have read most of the more popular books about the topics that interest them and may be looking for something new. Most of the books on this list are in paperback and should cost less than $20. 1. Big Game Book Hunter Dad A certain kind of man views his bookshelves the way a leopard sees bleached bones on the veldt -- as evidence of past kills, the larger the better. Hence, the popularity of the Doorstop Novel, the 500-, 600-, 700-page social novel or family saga. Every year publishers lavish splashy advances on the latest epic that might appeal to that most elusive of literary beasts, the middle-aged male fiction reader. A few years ago, that book was Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. Last year it was Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves, which, not so coincidentally, has just been released in paperback in time for Father’s Day. Both are solid novels, and brag-worthy kills for the Big Game Book Hunter in your life, but for sheer ambition neither can touch Phillipp Meyer’s cowboys-and-Indians epic, The Son. Meyer’s nearly 600-page Western contains three overlapping narratives, but the most gripping is that of family patriarch Eli McCullough, who is kidnapped by a Comanche raiding party in 1849 and raised as the chief’s adopted son before returning to white society. A particularly fearless reader-hunter will want to pair Meyer’s tale of the settling of Texas with Canadian writer Joseph Boyden’s equally audacious novel The Orenda, a fictional retelling of the bloody clash between French missionaries and local Huron and Iroquois tribes in 17th-century Canada. 2. Literary Fiction Dad He’s read Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. He’s braved the languors of the Las Vegas chapters of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. He’s read Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon, Jennifer Egan, and Jeffrey Eugenides. Why not branch out, see a little more of the world? In recent years, American readers have been treated to a bumper crop of first-rate literary fiction by immigrants from around the globe. If the Literary Fiction Dad in your life is open to reading women, he may want to try Americanah by Nigerian-American writer Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, or The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, an American of Bengali heritage. Among male writers, Nam Le, a Vietnamese-born writer raised in Australia and educated in the U.S., wrote a gripping collection of stories, The Boat, in 2008, and Chinese-American author Ha Jin, has turned out a steady stream of novels and story collections, perhaps the best of which is War Trash, set in a POW camp during the Korean War. But the Big Kahuna of American diaspora literature is Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which has a legitimate claim to the title of best American novel of the new millennium. By turns hilarious, tender, and harrowing, Oscar Wao follows an overweight, Dominican-born sci-fi nerd in his search for love and the secret to survival in his cursed homeland. Diaz’s plot and characters are riveting, but the real pleasure of Oscar Wao is Diaz’s narrative voice, which combines slangy, high-velocity prose with penetrating insight into the political black hole that is the Dominican Republic. 3. Big Bad Noir Daddy Here’s a pro tip: To find a smart, well-written crime novel by a guy for guys, search the roster of writers for David Simon’s cable series The Wire. George Pelecanos, who was a writer on all five seasons, has somehow also found time to crank out 20 crime novels in roughly as many years, most of them set in and around Washington D.C., and focusing, with bracing honesty, on the sorry state of race relations in our nation’s capital. The Cut, from 2011, is as good a place to start as any. Another of Simon’s writers, Dennis Lehane, based out of Boston, runs hot and cold, but his 1998 novel Gone, Baby, Gone is a nicely twisted bit of noir, and 2001’s Mystic River would qualify as a work of literary fiction if a child didn’t die in the early pages. But the top thoroughbred in Simon’s stable, and arguably the finest American crime novelist at work today, is Richard Price. His books are structured as police procedurals and feature his famously razor-sharp dialogue, but Price is at heart an old-school social novelist in the mold of Charles Dickens and Émile Zola. His novels grab you by the ears and drag you into the hidden corners of modern America populated by immigrants, the poor, and those who prey on them. His latest, The Whites, written under the pen name Harry Brandt, offers a riveting look inside the minds of New York City police detectives who live their professional lives chest-deep in depravity and injustice. Price’s 1992 drug-dealer novel Clockers, later made into a Spike Lee joint, is another must-read. 4. Politically Incorrect Dad He’s inappropriate. He can’t control his appetites. He sweats a lot. His sense of humor is, well, different. But underneath all the layers of gruff and odd, beats a well-meaning heart. Meet Milo Burke, unlikely hero of Sam Lipsyte’s 2010 novel The Ask. Milo is a husband, a father of a young child, and a seething mass of misdirected grievance. “I’m not just any old hater,” he says early on. “I’m a hater’s hater.” In the opening pages, Milo loses his job wrangling donations for a third-tier university in New York City after he insults the talent-free daughter of one of the college’s wealthy donors, but is offered a chance at redemption if he can reel in a sizable gift from a rich college friend, who has, mysteriously, asked to work with Milo. Lipsyte specializes in the humor of white-male resentment, and when he misses he misses big, but The Ask is a tour de force of verbal pyrotechnics and shibboleth-skewering social insight. 5. World War II Buff Dad Big fat books about honorable wars are to grown men with mortgages what Call of Duty video games are to 10-year-old boys: mind-travel devices granting sedentary, suburban beings vicarious access to a world of danger and heroism. As with video game franchises, the options for quality reads about the Second World War are quite nearly boundless. For a broad overview, there’s Max Hastings’s Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945, but World War II was so huge and so complicated that it can be wise to take it in pieces, using, say, Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers as a window onto the American war effort in Europe or Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken to gain a finer-grained understanding of the Pacific Theater. A middle-ground approach that can satisfy the Big Game Hunter impulse while also offering a sharply observed portrait of the conflict that helped create the modern American military is Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy, which focuses on the American war effort in Europe. The three-volume set, An Army at Dawn, The Day of Battle, and Guns at Last Light, span a collective 2,349 pages, making it a prime trophy for anyone’s shelves. But Atkinson shifts so effortlessly from the panoramic to the close-up, giving the reader a day-by-day, sometimes minute-by-minute, account of what it felt and sounded and smelled like to be an American soldier at battle with the Axis powers, that trophy-hunting readers will be compelled to eat what they kill. 6. Civil War Buff Dad Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy is practically a novella compared to Shelby Foote’s three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative, which clocks in at a mammoth 2,968 pages. Everything in Civil War historiography is big. James McPherson’s single-volume history, Battle Cry of Freedom, consumes 952 pages. Ken Burns’s TV documentary The Civil War spans more than 10 hours of airtime. And that’s not even touching on the vast shelf of biographies of Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee or the rich scholarship on individual battles or lesser-known generals and leaders. This is Big Game Hunter territory, and if the dad in your life is new to nerding out on Civil War minutiae, you may want to shell out for the first volume of Foote’s epic, Fort Sumter to Perryville, a comparatively slim 856 pages. But if you are looking for new perspectives on the era, check out T.J. Stiles's Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War. As its subtitle suggests, Stiles’s biography frames the legendary bank robber not as a Robin Hood of the Wild West, but as a disaffected Confederate Army veteran bent on reviving the Lost Cause by any means necessary. Stiles writes well and is a scrupulous scholar, but he is also a gifted storyteller who reaches beyond cardboard outlaw stereotypes to bring the James boys to life on the page. 7. Business Maven Dad If the dad in your life goes in for business books, you can’t go wrong with Michael Lewis. Like his fellow bestseller-list regular Malcolm Gladwell, Lewis is perhaps too faithful to the journalist’s dictum to never let the facts get in the way of a good story, but he is a superb shoe-leather reporter and over the years Lewis’s eye for the big-picture truth has been unerring. His best book is probably The Big Short, about the 2008 financial collapse, but his 2014 book, Flash Boys, about computer-directed high-frequency trading, is also excellent. But anyone who reads business books will already have a shelf full of Michael Lewis. If you want a different take on American business, look for Beth Macy’s Factory Man, about John Bassett III, heir to a once-powerful North Carolina furniture-making company, who took on cheap imports from China and won. One longs for Lewis’s tale-spinning prowess in some of Macy’s background chapters that drag under the weight of her too-earnest reporting, but Bassett, the would-be furniture baron, is a colorful figure, and Macy’s core message, that a smart, driven factory owner willing to take some risks can beat offshore manufacturers at their own game, more than makes up for the book’s flabbier passages. 8. True Crime Dad Perhaps no section of the bookstore is more heavily stocked with schlock than the one devoted to true crime. For every classic like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or Dave Cullen’s meticulously reported Columbine, there are dozens of sensationalist gore-fests written by the likes of Ann Rule and R.J. Parker. Good true-crime writing should do more than pile up the bodies. It should use crime to shed light on an underside of a society, teaching us the unspoken rules of the world we live in by telling the stories of those who break those rules in the most aberrant ways. Few recent books do this as well, or as hauntingly, as Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls, about the murders of five prostitutes buried in shallow graves along Long Island’s South Shore. Lost Girls is an unsettling read because the murders remain unsolved, but Kolker provides a fascinating look into the shadowy world of Internet escorts. Unlike prostitutes of an earlier era, modern sex workers can connect with their johns online, eliminating the need for pimps or brothels. This means the women can keep more of their earnings and are freed from what is often an abusive and controlling relationship, but as Lost Girls illustrates, this freedom costs them the physical protection of a pimp, making them especially vulnerable to violence. 9. Sports Nut Dad As with true crime, the sports book genre breeds schlock. How many books on how to straighten out a golf shot can one man read? A good sports book, like a good true-crime book, should go beyond the details of its subject to make a larger point about society or about athletic excellence. Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights, about the subculture of high school football in Texas, does this. So does Andre Agassi’s surprisingly engrossing autobiography Open, about the trials of a man who succeeds at a sport he has come to hate. To one degree or another, all sports books try to answer the question of what makes a great athlete tick, but in The Sports Gene, David Epstein takes this question literally, using science to explore mysteries like why Kenyans win so many marathons and what it takes to hit a major-league fastball. The book’s message that there is no one path to athletic success may trouble the sleep of those Little League dads dreaming of turning their eight-year-olds into future Hall of Famers, but Epstein’s intelligent use of sports science, and his willingness to embrace ambiguity, makes for absorbing reading. 10. Vinyl Collector Dad The return of vinyl records has emboldened a generation of Boomer and Gen X dads to haul their high school LPs out of the garage and give them pride of place in the living room. But they need something to read while they’re listening to all those dinged-up copies of Kind of Blue and Exile on Main St. Launched in 2003 and now published by Bloomsbury, 33 1/3 is a series of more than 100 short books about classic albums, ranging from Tom Waits’s Swordfishtrombones (No. 53, by David Smay) to AC/DC’s Highway to Hell (No. 73, by Joe Bonomo). Each book in the series is by a different author, mostly music critics and musicians, with the occasional novelist like Jonathan Lethem (No. 86, the Talking Heads’ Fear of Music) thrown into the mix. Some books in the series put the focus on the music while others take a more biographical or social-historical approach. One of the titles, No. 28 by John Niven, on The Band’s Music from Big Pink, is written in the form of a novella, telling the true story of how Bob Dylan’s one-time backup band created its iconic 1968 album from the perspective of a fictional observer. Overall, the series skews heavily toward Music White People Like, though acts like Public Enemy (No. 71, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, by Christopher Weingarten) and J Dilla (No. 93, Donuts, by Jordan Ferguson) do occasionally appear. 11. Aspiring Writer Dad If you want to take the how-to route with your Aspiring Writer Dad, your best bet is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. While Lamott’s reflexive (and, to these ears, highly calculated) hippy-dippy whimsy can grate, she is a gifted teacher and her chapter on writing shitty first drafts is justifiably legendary. But giving an aspiring writer Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is like buying a pocket dictionary for a college-bound high school graduate: It’s a cliché, and he’s probably got six copies at home, anyway. If the aspiring writer in your life is, like most aspiring writers, already up to his ears in well-intended advice, switch gears and give him Boris Kachka’s Hothouse, a gossipy insider’s history of how the sausage gets made in New York publishing. In this dishy corporate biography of the publishing firm Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which has published everyone from T.S. Eliot and Roberto Bolaño to 1950s diet guru Gayelord Hauser, Kachka serves up enough sex and intrigue to keep the lay reader turning pages, but the book is fundamentally the story of how one headstrong publisher and a handful of talented editors struggled to maintain an independent publishing vision in a rapidly consolidating industry. Image Credit: The Athenaeum.

The Dark Quotient: On Victoria Redel and Destructive Characters

Unlike movie Mafioso Michael Corleone from Francis Ford Coppola's classic film The Godfather, who menacingly intones, "Don't ask me about my business," the Manhattan-based author Victoria Redel actually seems to enjoy answering questions about her work, which often takes the form of fiction addressing an intense -- even boundary-violating -- bond between a parent and child. But don't ask her about her personal life. Following the 2001 release of her novel Loverboy, about a mother so enmeshed with her young son that she decides to asphyxiate him in a car rather than let him go to school, Redel has found herself explaining to readers that her creation of unlikable, even destructive characters is neither a window -- nor an invitation -- into her psyche. "I do really strongly believe that to spend time examining a writer's work for insights into her private life is missing the mark," she wrote to The Millions recently about the media impulse to dig for dirt when a woman produces a chilling book. Still, 13 years after the publication of Loverboy, adapted in 2006 into a movie by the same name that starred Kevin Bacon, she continues, she admits, to field public concern. "At readings, there's always someone who raises their hand and asks, 'Do you have children?'" (Redel, 54, has two grown sons from her former marriage: Jonah, 25, and Gabriel, 21.) "I began to say, 'Yes,' she adds, 'but I don't have a garage.'" Gallows humor aside, the issue of how adults in Redel's fiction respond to children has reemerged following the recent publication of her intriguing short story collection Make Me Do Things. The compulsion suggested by the title reflects the tendency of many of her characters to lurch toward problematic, even dangerous choices. Such figures include: a married mom having an affair with a man who becomes obsessed with her young daughter; a father fantasizing about raping his wife in front of their preschool-age son; and a pregnant couple losing hold of reality and descending into drug addiction. Rather than metaphors for bad parenting, the stories are, to Redel's mind, merely reflective of human nature. Of the story "On Earth," featuring the mother who steps beyond the safe pale of her family to take on an unbalanced lover, Redel said, "She loves her kid, and she loves her husband, and yet she does this inexplicably wrong thing." The tale functions as a reminder, she adds, that "even in the best of circumstances, we can screw up." Either way, fiction is fiction, so why, beyond their highly effective and gothic nature, do Redel's tales so disturb some? Is it true, as novelist Claire Messud complained last year to Publishers Weekly, that we unfairly expect female protagonists -- or characters written by women -- to be uniformly sympathetic? Could be. But novelist and short story writer Elisa Albert floats a different theory: that we tend to confuse child-rearing with maturity. We're mistaken, she believes, when we assume becoming a parent -- she herself has a five-year-old son -- automatically flips on a wisdom switch, and we bring that misguided notion to our reading of literature. It's absurd, Albert, the 35-year-old author of How This Night is Different and The book of Dahlia, adds by email, "this idea that when you become a mother your sexual and creative judgment somehow magically improves," and that -- thanks to your new role -- "all the childish yearnings and poor object choices suddenly evaporate. Every honest woman/mother I know struggles with this mythology. Redel illuminates it nicely." But given the dark quotient to some of Redel's writing, how does her own family respond? "They've been very kind," she said, but adds that they've been jarred by her blurring lines between the professional and private. Raised in Scarsdale as the youngest of three daughters of refugees from Hitler's Europe -- one, a religious Jew from Belgium; the other, a ballerina from Rumania -- she's sometimes seeded facts from their lives into her work. One of her older tales treats a daughter's resentment of her mother's bum leg, which Redel calls "a manifestation of the [same] illness my mother had," before she died. Reading it, her father became worried about a possible connection. Of personally feeling the daughter's pique, Redel said, "That never happened." Nevertheless, upset, her father "called my sister -- my middle sister, Jessica -- and he said, 'That's not Mom.'" She replied, "'No, that's not Mom,' adding, 'This is a story.'" Her father, who's 90, remarried, and still observant, does, indeed, grasp the difference between fact and fantasy. But seeing a facet of a loved one rendered in fiction can be hard. To spare him, Redel's sister told him: "'Close the book; don't read further." Effectively shrugging his cyber-shoulders at excess sensitivity, Sam Lipsyte, 45, author of the satirical novel The Ask and the short-story collection The Fun Parts, told The Millions via email that, as an author, Redel's "got the chops to make real art" from disdaining popular notions of "what children and adults are supposed to think and feel." Drawing a connecting line from TV commercials to treacly group-think to reactions to gothic literature, Lipsyte adds: "Right now everything that doesn't resemble a Cheerios television ad disturbs some people. It's not just that she writes about dark things -- often [Redel's] work is about capturing the logic of our emotions and celebrating the exquisitely felt." But for some -- even Redel, who, Lipsyte said, creates "intense, poetic prose" -- the ability to shrug off the sensitivities of others may be less automatic, her eerie tales notwithstanding. Indeed, she remains "interested in what kind of redemption is possible." Perhaps that's why she's currently at work on a novel with a premise that sounds almost bizarrely Oprah-esque. "Some of it has to do with a woman who's trying to pick up the pieces," Redel said, one who, "despite her compete doubt in any such thing, believes she's being aided by a bumbling uncle who has passed away." Suddenly, the author of the spine-chilling reemerges. It's "a novel," she said, "about middle age." Image Credit: Wikipedia

A Year in Reading: Saïd Sayrafiezadeh

The Fun Parts by Sam Lipsyte: For the last decade, Sam Lipsyte has very slyly become one of the leading deep-sea explorers of our contemporary American society. I won’t be giving much away if I tell you that what he has so far surfaced to report back to us hasn't been very pretty. The Fun Parts, book five in Mr. Lipsyte’s opus, which includes The Ask and Home Land, continues the troubling dispatches from beneath. This collection of stories, several originally appearing in The New Yorker, are as subversive, absurd, and hilarious as his earlier work. Witness, for instance, how our fellow citizens wrestle with their weight, their families, their jobs as, say, a (male) doula. “Classic American story,” Mr. Lipsyte begins one story, “I was out of money and people I could ask for money.” You know this won’t end well, but you’ll enjoy getting there. Mr. Lipsyte has mastered the art of fusing, within one sentence, pathos and hilarity. The effect on the reader is generally a guilty ghoulish humor -- that is if they're able to avoid looking in the mirror. In “The Republic of Empathy,” a tale about a man being hounded to have a second child, Mr. Lipsyte writes, “That night, I dreamed I had another son, a bigger one, and he punched me in the neck and I stumbled off the edge of a skyscraper. I fell through the air. I could also feel myself climbing out of the dream.” This might be as good a way as any to sum up our American century thus far. More from A Year in Reading 2013 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 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, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

A Year in Reading: 2013

Another year of living, another year of reading. And, if you're like us, when you look back, you'll mark out the year in books -- weeks, months, even whole seasons that will forever be wedded in the mind to a memorable reading experience. Each book put back on the shelf becomes a postcard reminder. And now, as we kick off another Year in Reading, we become the postcard collectors, learning where the minds of some of our favorite writers and thinkers traveled in 2013. For our esteemed guests, the charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era. We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2014 a fruitful one. As in prior years, the names of our 2013 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we publish their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed or follow us on Facebook or Twitter and read the series that way. Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat. Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs. Choire Sicha, co-proprietor of The Awl, author of Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City. Alice McDermott, author of Someone. Hamilton Leithauser, lead singer for The Walkmen. Sergio De La Pava, author of A Naked Singularity Dani Shapiro, author of Still Writing. Norman Rush, author of Subtle Bodies. Gary Shteyngart, author of Little Failure. Benjamin Percy, author of Red Moon. Garth Risk Hallberg, staff writer for The Millions, author of A Field Guide to the North American Family. David Gilbert, author of And Sons. Sarah Waters, author of The Little Stranger. Jason Diamond, literary editor at Flavorwire, founder of Vol. 1 Brooklyn Mark O'Connell, staff writer for The Millions, author of Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever. Elliott Holt, author of You Are One of Them. Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, author of Brief Encounters with the Enemy. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of Half of a Yellow Sun. Michael Nye, author of Strategies Against Extinction. Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions. Hannah Gersen, staff writer for The Millions. Thomas Beckwith, social media writer for The Millions. Edan Lepucki, staff writer for The Millions, author of If You're Not Yet Like Me. Nick Moran, social media editor for The Millions. Anne K. Yoder, staff writer for The Millions. Aleksandar Hemon, author of The Book of My Lives. Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner. Edwidge Danticat, author of  Claire of the Sea Light. Charlie Jane Anders, managing editor of io9. Elizabeth Strout, author of Olive Kitteridge. Scott Turow, author of Identical. Chang-rae Lee, author of  The Surrendered. Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions. Rachel Kushner, author of The Flamethrowers. Tom Drury, author of Pacific. Gabriel Roth, author of The Unknowns. Adelle Waldman, author of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. Paul Harding, author of Enon. Janice Clark, author of The Rathbones. Reif Larsen, author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet. Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions. Matt Bell, author of In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods. Caleb Crain, author of Necessary Errors. Mohsin Hamid, author of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. Roxane Gay, author of Ayiti. Emily St. John Mandel, staff writer for The Millions, author of The Lola Quartet. Bill Morris, staff writer for The Millions, author of Motor City. Tess Malone, intern for The Millions. Adam Wilson, author of Flatscreen. Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions. Sonya Chung, staff writer for The Millions, author of Long for This World. Kathryn Davis, author of Labrador. Sam Lipsyte, author of The Ask. Marisa Silver, author of Mary Coin. Teddy Wayne, author of Kapitoil. Kelly Link, author of Monstrous Affections. Olivia Laing, author of The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking. Dara Horn, author of A Guide for the Perplexed. Kate Milliken, author of If I’d Known You Were Coming. Michael Robbins, author of Alien vs. Predator. Parul Sehgal, editor at the New York Times Book Review. Helen Oyeyemi, author of Boy, Snow, Bird. Kristopher Jansma, author of The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards. Kevin Barry, author of Dark Lies the Island. Kevin Hartnett, staff writer for The Millions. Bennett Sims, author of A Questionable Shape. Ann Hood, author of The Obituary Writer. Charles Blackstone, author of Vintage Attraction.

Word Flu: Ben Marcus’ The Flame Alphabet

Near the start of The Flame Alphabet, we find the novel's narrator fretting over the falseness of narrative. The protagonist, Sam, is part put-upon husband, part picaresque everyman. Most of all, though, he's a storyteller; one of those “reliable narrators” of old-fashioned literary lore. Keen to set the scene, Sam’s on the lookout for novelistic “motifs,” and maybe even “a fine bit of foreshadowing.” But reality falls far short of such bookish ambitions. “What is it called when the landscape mirrors the condition of the poor fucks who live in it?” he wonders. “Whatever it is, it was not in effect.” This calls to mind Samuel Beckett’s aside, mid-description: ‘to hell with all this fucking scenery.’ What’s at stake in both cases is more than merely a rhetorical reflection on the rift between life and literature. With Ben Marcus, as with Beckett, such disruptions are signs of literature itself being stretched and tensed, pressed to express the process of a writer testing his limits. Ben Marcus’ earlier books – especially his debut, The Age of Wire and String – expressed much the same thing by foregrounding their formal experimentation. Yet the marvel of The Flame Alphabet is that it reads in an even more artfully alien way, with no fragmentation of form at all. The energy of the book is entirely embedded in narrative action; in content. Put simply, Marcus has managed to craft a story so disturbing that it’s best told with absolute clarity. The plot occurs in a parallel world whose place names echo our own (New York; Wisconsin) yet whose social reality quickly, queasily slips outside of any recognizable frame of reference. Sam, Claire, and their daughter Esther are an “ordinary” Jewish family, settled in an eerily serene suburban setting straight out of The Twilight Zone. This is B-movie blank canvas suburbia; the sort of place whose existence dictates that something is about to go wrong. And go wrong it does. The children (Jews first, then Gentiles) contract a condition that infects their speech. In other words, their words become toxic. While they remain healthy, their verbal vectors sicken their parents. Soon all adults fall ill, families collapse, quarantines are called, and the infection spreads so far that any form of spoken or written language is rendered “off-limits.” Likening language to a virus is an old Burroughsian trope, of course, but in Burroughs it’s basically just a routine; a clever abstraction. Marcus makes it more forcefully, hurtfully concrete. Indeed, his creation of a fully immersive fictional world (as opposed to a formal experiment) allows him to take a real emotional toll on his readers. After all, a life without language would be one of harrowing sadness. Deep down, then, The Flame Alphabet is less about linguistics than the decay of relationships, the fracturing of familial loyalties, and the everyday heartbreak of human estrangement. All of this is affectingly drawn by Marcus - particularly the teenage Esther’s alienation from her parents, a painfully familiar part of any family drama, viral or not. But while Marcus’ transparent narrative is supple enough to capture such subtleties, it also enables events to acquire a terrifying immediacy. Those events often are truly shocking; among several stomach-churning scenes, one involving a surgical needle cries out for adaptation by Cronenberg. On a more metaphysical level, we can note that this is a world which goes on getting worse - which is, like a nightmare, both believably realistic and, as Sam puts it at one point, “impossible.” Think of the revelation of the world’s unreality at the end of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. Think, too, of the philosopher Ernst Bloch’s uneasy feeling that “the real world cannot be true.” This unreal realism, a background hum of incredulous horror, is what fans the flames of The Flame Alphabet. As Sam says, “we should have known that whatever we couldn’t imagine was exactly what was coming next.” Sure enough, the story only gets stranger. Soon it turns out that Sam and Claire aren’t “ordinary” Jews at all. They’re “Forest Jews,” members of a far-fetched mystery cult. The two of them worship alone in a hut in the woods, listening in on an “underground signalling mechanism” by means of a biomechanical “Moses Mouth.” There’s a dense web of allusions at work here. The notion of a network of subterranean tunnels is deeply engrained in both urban legend and folklore. Then there are echoes, as well, of the paranoid narrative stylings of anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. Two points are worth taking away from this. Firstly, for Marcus the Forest Jews figure a non-toxic form of communication. Far from viral, their sermons are secret, hermetic, “necessarily private” – they’re underground in both the literal and the cultural sense, like when we speak of an “underground scene.” Secondly, the entire extended metaphor perfectly represents the world of The Flame Alphabet. It’s a world that takes its cue from our own, along with most of its content. Yet that content is skewed into odd new shapes by the novel’s mythology. Every object and every occurrence accrues its own mythic resonance, such that reality is restructured in line with (to borrow from Vladimir Propp) the “morphology of the folktale.” History is similarly mythologized. The book’s back-story posits prophetic references to the virus in everyone from Augustine to Pliny, but it’s all fabricated, as if by “someone reaching back into history, rearranging the parts with a filthy hand.” Famous linguists Sapir and Whorf crop up as well, in the context of a crazed experiment that could never have happened. And Marcus’ mad scientist villain, LeBov, is presumably named in homage to William Labov, the still-living founder of sociolinguistics. LeBov himself is more myth than man, veiled in a shifting disguise of pseudonyms and split personalities. Vague mentions of “the LeBovs” hint that there’s more than one of him; in fact, he’s been made in the image of a mish-mash of fictional archetypes. Not least, he’s partly a play on a James Bond supervillain - he even has his own secret hideout, a shady scientific facility called “Forsyth.” In the world of The Flame Alphabet, LeBov was the first to theorize the contagion – for him communication per se is “the primary allergy, allergen zero.” But unlike the underground Jews, his antidote is not one of apophasis, mystical silence. Rather, he wants to extract from the earth a sort of ur-language; an original, incorruptible common tongue. Hence, deep inside Forsyth he fixates on a hole in the ground (recalling Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger), probing it with weird, jerry-rigged listening devices. So we could say that The Flame Alphabet explores two solutions to linguistic crisis: firstly, religious reticence, and secondly a scientific search for origins. Yet there is also a third, artistic alternative: the creation of an entirely new form of language from scratch. By the book’s second half, Sam has been wrenched from his family and put to work in LeBov’s laboratory. Here he’s tasked to develop and test his own avant-garde alphabets. But his search for a non-toxic system of symbols drives him to ever more desperately delicate measures: I created white text on white paper, gray on gray, froze water into text-like shapes and allowed it to melt on select surfaces – slate, wood, felt – which it scarred so gently, you’d need a magnifying glass to spot the writing... I tried pointillizing type, whitening it or darkening it, making a scattered dust of it on the page, then blowing that dust free with a bellows until it could only be read under blue light... If the point of this passage is to dramatize the difficulties of working with language, perhaps it also reveals a self-reflective, writerly subtext. After all, isn’t Sam’s trial almost a model of that of most modern novelists? One challenge faced by writers these days is, as T.S. Eliot put it, to "purify the dialect of the tribe" - or at any rate to replenish language’s freshness, in the face of its exhaustion through everyday usage. The Flame Alphabet stages a scenario where language is literally "off-limits," but isn’t our own world one in which words no longer mean what they’re meant to? Where any sincerely meant "meaning" seems on the brink of slipping into cliché? In this respect, surely our language is out of reach too; our writing worn down, our speech obsolete. Marcus has sometimes shied away, shrewdly, from using the word "experimental" to describe his own writerly style. Yet if his protagonist, Sam, is in some sense a writer-by-proxy, it’s not insignificant that he should be placed in a lab (of all places!) working on what, in a way, is an exemplary literary experiment. Critics like Mark McGurl have remarked that craft shades into technique, or “technicity,” in some subfields of post-war American letters. A technocratic cult of technique, and an ethos of “experimentalism” – these are arguably part of a cultural dynamic that’s gone some way toward shaping the cutting edge of contemporary fiction. Whatever it all means, such themes do seem expertly condensed in the image of Sam crafting his alphabets: the writer reinventing the word in a literary laboratory. But maybe I’m misreading Marcus, or rather, reading too much into him. It’s easy to ask a richly symbolic book like The Flame Alphabet to furnish us with all sorts of subtexts, yet the basic question of what the book means may turn out to be somewhat more slippery. What gives it its strength is that, in one sense, it’s densely, unsettlingly meaningful – while, in another, it remains enigmatically silent whenever we search it for some sort of “message.” This isn’t a book that delivers a didactic payload; instead, it quietly builds up an aura of strangeness around itself. How does it pull off this artistic trick? It’s a complicated accomplishment, but it could come down to a matter of style. Anyone who’s read Marcus’ friend (and Columbia colleague) Sam Lipsyte will be aware of a trademark Lipsytian trait: in a book like The Ask, an unfolding argument acquires literary force and thickness by being embedded in a finely-tuned stylistic system. This system seems to be driven by the coining of particular words and proper names that are peculiar to the world of the novel, and that any description of that world will then refer back to. That is to say, Lipsyte’s narratives always take care to touch base with their own emblematic inventions. In The Ask, one example would be the authorial act of naming a character “Vargina.” The first time we see this, it’s (apart from being funny) jarringly strange; it’s alienating, in the sense of Viktor Shklovsky’s ideal literary estrangement – what he called “östranenie.” Yet once we’re immersed in its imaginative context, the term is repeated so many times (each repetition furthering our immersion) that it makes perfect sense: it’s part of a closed circle of signs, a private language that we, the book’s readers, are privy to. I think The Flame Alphabet proceeds by means of a strikingly similar method. But, in Marcus, it’s pushed to a bizarre and beautiful breaking point. As with Lipsyte’s fictions, when reading this novel we enter a “world” by being pulled into a pact with its highly particular language. Yet where Lipsyte’s literary landscape is realistically sociological, Marcus’ is more like a mad anthropologist’s fantasy: our own world made over in the mode of misremembered myths and fairy tales. It’s no coincidence that Aesop’s Fables crop up toward the end of The Flame Alphabet. As Lee Rourke has recently argued, these archaic yarns could be read as “blueprints for our entire literary tradition.” What Marcus does is rewind literary history, recover those blueprints, and put them to perverse new uses. He borrows the terms of existing traditions and translates them into a tongue for which they were never intended. In this way that technique of “estrangement,” of stylistic disorientation, is brought to a boil and kept simmering, always perched on the brink of becoming bewilderingly extreme. Thus, a bit like Lipsyte’s books, and perhaps even more like the gnomic late works of Beckett, The Flame Alphabet can be read as a self-contained structure of signs, which only make sense when they’re seen from inside that structure. If we follow Ferdinand de Saussure, we could even claim that the book itself is a language: not an innately “meaningful” thing, more like a machine for making meaning. And this claim might be as close as we’ll come to figuring out The Flame Alphabet. In the end, Sam’s fantastical story doesn’t really mean anything in the sense of “referring” to something that makes it intelligible. This isn’t a “big book” with “something to say.” It’s one that wants to be left alone to conduct what Marcus would call its “smallwork” – subtly constructing its own inner life from the scraps of half-familiar symbols. In so doing, it doesn’t convey a definite meaning so much as a deeper, stranger sensation of meaning: how meaning “means” to begin with. Louis Sass has described how some schizophrenic patients, when confronted with a Rorschach card, don’t interpret the inkblot (“this is a horse”) but instead give a concrete account of its makeup (“this is a piece of cardboard with ink on it”). In the same way, Marcus burrows beneath the fabric of fiction to get at its grammar, which isn’t a set of rules but something more wild, freewheeling, and primitive. The meaning of The Flame Alphabet is what the philosopher C.K. Ogden once called “the meaning of meaning.” Unreal yet real, unknowable but totally tangible: this is the territory that Ben Marcus takes us to.

Tuesday New Release Day: Future, Foer, Food, Info, Boxing, Pym, Patterson, and More

My book, The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books is out today (more on that here), and also out this week is Joshua Foer's (the latest of the Foer's to throw his hat in the authorial ring) Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, buzzed about food memoir Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, a new look at the modern world's most ubiquitous commodity James Gleick's The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, Library of America boxing anthology At The Fights: American Writers on Boxing, Mat Johnson's Poe-inspired Pym, and Victoria Patterson's This Vacant Paradise. New in Paperback: Sam Lipsyte's The Ask and Chang-rae Lee's The Surrendered.
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