1. A lot of fans know Edgar Allan Poe earned just $9 for “The Raven,” now one of the most popular poems of all time, read out loud by schoolteachers the world over. What most people don’t know is that, for his entire oeuvre—all his fiction, poetry, criticism, lectures—Poe earned only about $6,200 in his lifetime, or approximately $191,087 adjusted for inflation. Maybe $191,087 seems like a lot of money. And sure, as book advances go, that’d be a generous one, the kind that fellow writers would whisper about. But what if $191,087 was all you got for 20 years of work and the stuff you wrote happened to be among the most enduring literature ever produced by anyone anywhere? In one sense, there could not be a more searing indictment of the supposed rewards of the writing life: how, whether we’re geniuses like Poe or not, we suffer and rewrite and yet never realize anything even kind of approaching a commensurate value. In another sense, there’s hope for us all. Last October, in the depths of a depression so profound and overwhelming that I had to take mental-health leave from work, I started rereading Poe for the first time since I was a kid. And something happened: I encountered a writer completely different from the one I thought I knew. It turned out Poe was not a mysterious, mad genius. He was actually a lot like my writer-friends, with whom I constantly exchange emails bitching about the perversities of our trade—the struggle to break in, the late and sometimes nonexistent payments, the occasional stolen pitch. In short, I realized that Poe was, for a good portion of his career, a broke-ass freelancer. Also, that our much-vaunted gig economy isn’t the new development it’s so often taken to be. Poe’s short stories weren’t the adventure-horror tales I remembered, either. They turned out to be exquisitely wrought metaphors for despair. In “MS. Found in a Bottle,” the narrator, finding himself just about to be sucked into a whirlpool, says, “It is evident that we are hurrying onwards to some exciting knowledge—some never-to-be-imparted secret, whose attainment is destruction.” I read the line and laughed in recognition. That was 2016 for me, in a sentence. Call it a most immemorial year. I didn’t know it then, but reevaluating Poe is, in fact, a time-honored tradition. Every generation discovers its own Poe; in the 168 years since his death, the hot takes have just kept coming. R.W.B. Lewis described the phenomenon this way in 1980: “One of the important recurring games of American literary history has been that of revising the received human image of Edgar Allan Poe.” There are obvious and less obvious reasons for this continual reevaluation. For starters, Poe’s earliest biographies—some of them based on inaccurate information Poe himself provided—needed correcting in a literal sense. Poe’s literary executor Rufus W. Griswold, for whatever reason, forged letters and deliberately torpedoed Poe’s reputation. The inaccuracies and falsehoods weren’t cleared up until almost 100 years after Poe’s death, with Arthur Hobson Quinn’s 1941 biography. Another reason is, well, I’m not the only person to read Poe as a child and again as an adult and to be struck by the differences. In his magnificent Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe, published in 1971, Daniel Hoffman writes, “I really began to read Poe when just emerging from childhood. Then one was entranced by such ideas as secret codes, hypnotism, closed systems of self-consistent thought.” Later, Hoffman says, “Returning to the loci of these pubescent shocks and thrills…I found that there was often a complexity of implication, a plumbing of the abyss of human nature.” Ditto. You never enter the same Poe whirlpool twice. Much of his work has a purposeful, built-in double nature; he intended we discover “secret codes” of meaning. While Poe despised facile parables, in a review of Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1842, he allowed, “Where the suggested meaning runs through the obvious meaning in a very profound under-current, so as to never interfere with the upper one without our own volition,” such schemes are permissible. This points to the other important, less acknowledged, double nature of Poe’s work. It’s both art and commercial entertainment. Few other American writers so obviously and continually straddle the gap between high and low culture, between art for art’s sake and commercial enterprise. Which is why the Poe reevaluation game isn’t just played by academics and highbrows—including Fyodor Dostoevsky, Charles Baudelaire, T.S. Eliot, Richard Wilbur, Allen Tate, Jacques Barzun, and Vladimir Nabokov. Poe is pop, too. The Simpsons, Britney Spears, Roger Corman, an NFL team and romance novelists have all joined in the game. The Beatles put Poe in the top row, eighth from the left, on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, just slightly removed from W.C. Fields and Marilyn Monroe. I think if Poe hadn’t had to write for money, he’d probably have faded away long ago. 2. Picture this: A tech breakthrough has made mass publishing cheaper than ever before. With the cost of entry down, new publications launch with much high-flown talk about how they’ll revolutionize journalism, only to shut their doors a few years or even months later. Because the industry is so unstable, editors and writers are caught in a revolving door of hirings, firings, and layoffs. A handful of the players become rich and famous, but few of them are freelance writers, for whom rates remain scandalously low. Though some publications pay contributors on a sliding scale according to the popularity of their work, it’s mostly the case that writers don’t earn a penny more than their original fee even when their work goes viral. I’m speaking of Poe’s time, not our own. Still, I expect some of this will sound familiar. Pretty much the only piece missing is a pivot to video. Here’s something else that might sound familiar. Poe grew up writing moony, ponderous poetry and dreaming of literary stardom. Surely, he figured, the world would recognize his genius—the critics would rave, the angels would sing! The problem was he had no trust fund, no private means. Poe had been more or less disowned by his wealthy adoptive father John Allan, who would eventually leave Poe out of his will altogether. All of this meant, then as now, that Poe had to compromise his cherished ideals and buckle down to the realities of the marketplace. He would hold a series of short-lived and ill-paid editorial jobs, beginning with the Southern Literary Messenger, Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, Graham’s Magazine, and, finally, the New York Evening Mirror and the Broadway Journal. In between and after these jobs, he’d be what John Ward Ostrom called a “literary entrepreneur,” i.e., a broke-ass freelancer. As Michael Allen laid out in 1969’s Poe and the British Magazine Tradition, the story of Poe’s career is in large part the story of a writer struggling to adapt to the demands of a mass audience. His earliest literary friends and mentors had “turned him to drudging upon whatever may make money” (John Pendleton Kennedy) and advised him to “lower himself a little to the ordinary comprehension of the generality of readers” (James Kirke Paulding). Meanwhile the stakes were as high as stakes go. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that if Poe didn’t write pieces he could sell, he and his family didn’t eat. Poe’s one-time boss George Graham described him wandering “from publisher to publisher, with his print-like manuscript, scrupulously clean and neatly rolled” yet finding “no market for his brain” and “with despair at heart, misery ahead for himself and his loved ones, and gaunt famine dogging at his heel.” At one point, when Poe was ill, his mother-in-law and aunt Maria Clemm was forced to do all this on Poe’s behalf: “Going about from place to place, in the bitter weather, half-starved and thinly clad, with a poem or some other literary article she was striving to sell…begging for him and his poor partner, both being in want of the commonest necessities of life.” I’ve heard some freelance horror stories in my time, but this one takes the Palme d’Or. Even when Poe did manage to sell his literary wares, he didn’t earn very much, as this chart I assembled shows. Over time, he did his fitful best to make his art commercial; he simplified his language and tried his hand at popular forms. Some of these experiments worked and some didn’t. Poe still wrote “in a style too much above the popular level to be well paid,” as his editor-friend N.P. Willis put it. Why? The usual reasons, as I see it. A writer’s heart wants what it wants. It’s not at all a simple matter to ditch the obsessions that drive you to write to begin with, and it’s hard to change your natural register, no matter that commonplace comment in MFA programs, Maybe I’ll just write a romance novel for money. If it really were so easy to write popular stuff, wouldn’t we all be churning out viral articles and paying the rent with royalties from our bestselling YA werewolf romances? In between writing prose that makes the Nobel people tremble, I mean. Piece Year Published Original Payment Approx. Amount in 2017 Dollars “Ligeia” 1838 $10 $253 “The Haunted Palace” 1839 $5 $127 “The Fall of the House of Usher” 1839 $24 $609 “The Man of the Crowd” 1840 $16 $431 “The Masque of the Red Death” 1842 $12 $345 “The Pit and the “Pendulum” 1842 $38 $1,093 “The Tell-Tale Heart” 1843 $10 $315 “The Black Cat” 1843 $20 $631 “The Raven” 1845 $9 $277 “The Cask of Amontillado” 1846 $15 $426 “Ulalume” 1847 $20 $562 “Annabel Lee” 1849 $10 $308 Sources: “Edgar A. Poe: His Income as a Literary Entrepreneur” and In2013dollars.com 3. So, where exactly does the hope come in? It’s true Poe’s unending financial problems did not make his life happier or longer and likely constrained some of his writerly impulses. Catering to the market was hardly his first choice, and he remained ambivalent about writing for an audience and magazines he sometimes saw as beneath him. “The poem which I enclose,” Poe wrote to his friend Willis in 1849, “has just been published in a paper for which sheer necessity compels me to write, now and then. It pays well as times go—but unquestionably it ought to pay ten prices; for whatever I send it feel I am consigning to the tomb of the Capulets.” Then, of course, there were other people’s feelings. Poe’s attempt to adapt to the market did not go unpunished in his own day. “Hints to Authors,” a semi-veiled takedown, was first published anonymously in a Philadelphia paper in 1844: “Popular taste is sometimes monstrous in character…judging by the works and mind of its chief and almost only follower on this side of the Atlantic, it is a pure art, almost mechanical—requiring neither genius, taste, wit nor judgement—and accessible to every contemptible mountebank.” And the commercial stink has never quite worn off. It seems to be among the reasons Henry James and Aldous Huxley—who likened Poe’s poetic meter to a bad perm—criticized him so harshly. Marilynne Robinson has noted how “virtually everything” Poe wrote was for money: “This is not exceptional among writers anywhere, though in the case of Poe it is often treated as if his having done so were disreputable.” Yet commercial pressure arguably pushed Poe in the direction that saw him write some of the most lasting work in American history—even world history. I can only speculate, of course, but I think that if Poe had had his druthers, he’d have gone on with the pretentious poetry and abstruse dramas he initially favored. I seriously doubt we’d still be reading him now. Just try pushing through “Al Araraaf.” It’s like sitting down to a lengthy phone call with an elderly relative. You love this person, but it’s a chore. We tend to view popular success with a skeptical eye, just as many did in Poe’s day. We tend to think of commercial pressure as corrupting. What if it can be also a positive, transformative force? Certainly, the ability to speak to millions of people across 17 decades is not a bad thing. It’s a real-life superpower. We should all be so lucky. On that point, consider how conditions for freelancers and other writers have improved since Poe’s time. As Tyler Cowen relates in In Praise of Commercial Culture, today more people than ever receive basic education. Vastly more people receive higher education. The cost of art materials has fallen tremendously (think of the price of video equipment just 30 years ago compared to today). And you no longer have to go to a particular concert hall or museum to access art; you can just Google. By comparison, Poe’s couple of decades as working writer really sucked. So yeah, hope. When I first cracked back into Poe last October, my therapist begged, “Please stop reading him. He’s too depressing.” But my experience of reading Poe and other writers on Poe the last 11 months has been the opposite of depressing. It helped me climb out of a very deep hole. In the end, Poe only pocketed $191,087, but he did get the immortal fame he grew up dreaming of. And I got taken, blessedly, outside myself. If the past is anything to go by, what lies ahead is not destruction. It just might be the stuff of our wildest dreams. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Artists are often mythologized for their neuroses—picture James Joyce scrambling to the printer with corrected pages of Ulysses or Orson Welles toiling over his unfinished feature length of Don Quixote. Following the release of his seventh studio album, The Life of Pablo, Kanye West continued tweaking the supposedly finished product for several weeks. Track titles and lyrics changed. New guests appeared throughout the album and some songs were divided into new tracks entirely. West tweeted that Pablo was a work of “living breathing changing creative expression,” giving critics ample room to ponder the plastic nature of art and the definition of completion. Pablo became more than a well-received addition to West’s eclectic discography—it also became an experiment on the revision process itself. Modern technology has made it possible to hone published work on an ongoing basis. Whereas one cannot edit typos or misinformation from print in real-time, Internet content is rife with constant revision and deletion, both by artists (writers, videographers, graphic designers, etc.) and publishers. The public stream of information and opinion is in perpetual update, so that the final product is often never, in fact, final. While many editors are hesitant, if not flat out resistant, to altering published work, certain exceptions are granted as new information becomes available; the wiggle room for limitless amendment lends itself to the indefatigable 24-hour news cycle, because accuracy is subject to change. When Iris Murdoch published her first novel, Under the Net, in 1954, she seemed to recognize the inherent permanence of her creation. The book is padded with graceful examinations of the imperfections of the written word. Indeed, the book’s title, a direct reference to the restrictions of language, also hints at the author’s own feelings of being trapped, caught beneath the confines of the finished manuscript. She not only gives credence to the idea that a finished product gains value simply in its own completeness, but also warns that—while flawed—language is the best tool we have for shaping universal understanding. No matter its complexity, language never serves as a perfect representation of sentience, but it does make the world navigable. While Under the Net is considered a picaresque novel, following the exploits of down-and-out writer Jake Donohue as he tries to find housing and make a living in London, Murdoch deftly weaves complicated ideas about nominalism and the philosophy of universals throughout the text, making the value of language central to Jake’s dilemma. Jake’s adventures send him rubbing shoulders with mimes, translators, and fellow novelists, all of whom reveal different perspectives on art, communication, and mediums of representation. Murdoch lays this groundwork on several levels, both through direct plot work and more abstract considerations. Most prominently is Jake’s self-prescribed falling out with a close friend, Hugo Belfounder, because Jake is afraid Hugo will hate how he is depicted in Jake’s fictional novel, The Silencer. Clever title aside, The Silencer is Jake’s attempt to recreate lengthy intellectual conversations he had with Hugo while they were both subjects in a medical experiment. Hugo believes language is intrinsically corrupt, and, after The Silencer’s publication, Jake avoids him due to resounding feelings of guilt. As a fireworks manufacturer, Hugo’s occupation is also of symbolic importance. Jake opines, “There was something about fireworks which absolutely fascinated Hugo. I think what pleased him most about them was their impermanence. I remember his holding forth to me once about what an honest thing a firework was.” Like a casual conversation, a firework’s ephemeral nature results in its details fading into the darkness. It’s Murdoch’s sly demonstration that she is not only interested in language as an imperfect attempt to recreate thought, but also in the inherent lying and generalizing that comes along with being a writer. It’s unsurprising then that Murdoch’s most direct theorizing takes place at the meta level within dialogue found in The Silencer. This layering grants Murdoch a certain level of distance from the prose itself, deflecting any fault in language to her fictional protagonist. In the passage given, Annandine, a thinly veiled version of Hugo, explains to Jake’s stand-in, Tamarus: 'What I speak of is the real decision as we experience it; and here the movement towards truth. All theorizing is flight. We must be ruled by the situation itself, and this is unutterably particular. Indeed it is something to which we can never get close enough, however hard we may try, as it were, to crawl under the net.' Tamarus, on the other hand, believes language is a necessary social currency for civilization. In this debate—dialogue in work of fiction found within a work of fiction—Murdoch is perhaps providing clues to her own insecurities and artistic compromises as a debut novelist. Time and time again, she appears to forewarn readers of the flaws she sees in her own work. Ironically, Under the Net would end up being one of her best-received novels. Of course, one of the tragic realities Murdoch also appears to recognize is that this burden weighs heaviest on the author herself. When Jake finally confronts Hugo near the work’s end, expecting to be harangued for his betrayal, Hugo instead says, “I forgot, really, what we talked about then, but it was a terrible muddle, wasn’t it? Your thing was so clear. I learned an awful lot from it.” Jake thus learns that Hugo’s memory of their conversations is as fleeting as his own. In this regard, it is primarily the author who knows what ultimately didn’t make the page, the musician who knows what tracks were cut from the album, or the director who knows which scenes didn’t make the final cut. The same could be said for visual artists, chefs, and anyone tasked with bringing a creative vision to fruition. That is to say the divergence of artistic vision and conception is often a deeply personal matter. Murdoch’s fascination with language is particularly important in the ever-evolving landscape of communication today, for the themes in Under the Net dig at the core of contemporary attempts to defy archaic limitations on language. Paramount to this inquiry is the philosophical exploration of universals and generalizations. One could argue Murdoch attempted to assuage any potential negative criticism of Under the Net by denigrating the system necessary to the novel’s existence. Words simply don’t do justice to any memory, argument, or work of fiction concocted in the mind. Language is an inadequate but necessary solution for addressing our disparate versions of reality. Yet, if there is an unlimited set of resources available for this creation, along with malleable means of publication, then hypothetically artists could continue revising work for a lifetime in hopes of coming closer to perfection. But the long-term risks of consistent tinkering are aesthetic dilution, overwrought vision, and disparate focus. In other words, the project might become too extensive and ponderous to remain cohesive. On some level, perpetual revision and authoritarian artistic control limit these stakes and extinguish the value and integrity of criticism. Consistent workshopping of a published project becomes a tiresome attempt to achieve universal subjective approval. Murdoch suggests that criticism is an inevitable part of any form of creation, and that accepting the limits of language is a reciprocal contract between the artist and audience.
1. The natural history museum is a buffet of symbolism that writers of fiction find it difficult to resist: shelves upon shelves of animals, rocks, and plants are primed for metaphor, while the gruesome behind-the-scenes drama of pickling, skinning, and other acts of specimen preparation provide copious fodder for allegory. It should come as no surprise then that writers are mining the displays for material, and that the public is enthusiastic about the results. Anthony Doerr’s mega-hit novel All The Light We Cannot See, published in 2014, owed much of its charm to the young Marie-Laure, who follows her locksmith father to work everyday at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. There she wanders the halls learning about mollusks, geodes, and fossils before losing her eyesight to cataracts shortly before the start of World War II. Suddenly the boon of bringing a blind child to a natural history museum everyday becomes clear: with her father “continually placing some unexpected thing into her hands: a lightbulb, a fossilized fish, a flamingo feather,” Marie-Laure’s other senses grow stronger until she is capable of navigating through the museum, and then her Parisian neighborhood, completely blind. All The Light is one of two books published recently in which the natural history museum plays a crucial role in the characters’ developing identity. The other, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, allots only 20 pages to the natural history museum, but it nonetheless plays a pivotal and altogether different role; Whitehead’s natural history museum is embedded with political messages about the dark past of natural history itself. Both books made The New York Times bestseller list, meaning both reached a large audience with their very different messages about the role of natural history in fiction: one inviting the natural history museum into the discourse of the novel, skeletons and all, and the other allowing natural history to remain as so much window dressing, despite copious evidence of its role in perpetuating the violence at the heart of the novel. 2. The oldest, most venerable institutions devoted to studying natural history have long histories of exploiting human subjects in the name of knowledge; the same museum in Paris where Marie-Laure learns about mollusks was the site of Georges Cuvier’s hypersexualized examination and dissection of Saartjie Baartman (also known as the “Hottentot Venus”) roughly a century prior. In the United States, natural history museums have been instrumental in constructing the narrative of an upstart country with copious natural resources poorly defended and cared for by indigenous tribes—resources that were only properly named, catalogued, and displayed upon the arrival of Europeans. One highly publicized story from the turn of the century—natural history’s boom years— involved Minik, an Inuit boy, who was nine years old when he and his father, Kishu, were delivered to the American Museum of Natural History by arctic explorer Robert S. Peary in 1901. Minik’s father soon died of tuberculosis after living sequestered in the museum’s attic, and curators lost no time in dissecting and preparing Kishu like a specimen, going so far as staging a fake funeral to dupe Minik into thinking they had buried his father with traditional Inuit rites on museum grounds. In reality, the museum kept his bones and, the story goes, young Minik stumbled upon his father’s skeleton mounted in a display case. Baartman and Minik are just two of the more notorious instances of natural history museums exploiting indigenous people and people of color in the name of science, to say nothing of the hundreds upon thousands of nameless bones that have traveled the world in the satchels of grave robbers cum physical anthropologists. Such histories are latent within every literary natural history museum, whether or not the author consciously engages with them. In The Underground Railroad, Whitehead confronts the racism of the 19th-century natural history museum head on, and uses it to make a point about the African-American subject in the popular American imagination. Cora, who’s living in a South Carolina boarding house for black women after escaping enslavement on a Georgia plantation, is recommended for employment in the Museum of Natural Wonders by her house proctor (an institution apparently imagined by Whitehead as an amalgam of various 19th-century natural history museums) because she has “adapted” better than her housemates. But Cora isn’t wanted at the museum for her manual labor, as she assumes, but as a “type” to be employed by Mr. Fields, the curator of “Living History.” As a living exhibit, Cora pantomimes an imagined version of her history for a white public in three dioramas: “Scenes from Darkest Africa,” “Life on the Slave Ship,” and “Typical Day on the Plantation.” For hours at a time she plays her part, sometimes across from white mannequins (the white people on display are always dummies, never real people) while museum-goers file past. Having lived the horrors of a plantation while in bondage, Cora questions Mr. Fields on the inaccuracies of his exhibit: Mr. Fields did concede that spinning wheels were not often used outdoors, at the foot of a slave’s cabin, but countered that while authenticity was their watchword, the dimensions of the room forced certain concessions. Would that he could fit an entire field of cotton in the display and had the budget for a dozen actors to work it. One day perhaps. Mr. Fields’s use of the word “actors” is an interesting shift away from “types,” one that indicates an attempt to rephrase Cora’s job description as one of pure theater. But Mr. Fields cannot shed the discourse of the natural history museum so easily, as day after day Cora endures the “white monsters on the other side of the exhibit [...] pushing their greasy snouts against the window, sneering and hooting.” The white public, for whom the exhibit is intended, observes Cora as a specimen, which, despite her signs of life, shares more in common with the taxidermied animals and mannequins from “plaster, wire, and paint” than a living person with emotions. Mr. Fields’s employment of black women as living exhibits, coupled with the lack of white types, indicates clearly to Cora, the white public, and the reader that black specimens are to be observed without the veneer of human dignity or respectability, even outside the museum’s walls. Indeed, the logic went, because curators saw African-Americans as more “natural," and therefore closer to mankind’s shared animal relatives, they were more deserving of display within a natural history museum. Whitehead’s Museum of Natural Wonders may have been imagined, but Mr. Fields’s practice of displaying people was not. Human zoos were popular sites at World’s Fairs throughout the later half of the 19th century and well into the 1900s, often meant to demonstrate to the public the supposedly uncivilized nature of indigenous and non-white people. Humanity’s position within the pantheon of natural history museum displays has long been fractured along racial lines. Museums are largely products of colonialism and European cultures that sought to dominate “exotic” cultures by harvesting archeological treasures and human remains for the edification and amusement of the general white public. Throughout the late 1800s and early 20th century, eugenics masqueraded under physical anthropology as figures like Aleš Hrdlička erected exhibits of human remains to demonstrate the separation of the races at the American Museum of Natural History and the San Diego Museum of Man. Whitehead makes the connection explicit; while working at the Museum of Natural Wonders, Cora learns that white doctors are making sterilization mandatory for black women with intellectual disabilities or more than two children. This kind of bodily control is enabled by the politics of display inside the natural history museum, a logic that allowed white doctors and curators to dehumanize the black subject to the point of denying them autonomy over their own reproduction. Consider the moment when Mr. Fields “gives his types a proper tour of the museum.” As she’s shown around the different exhibits, Cora occupies the position of the white public looking at dioramas depicting scenes from American history: Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock, the Boston Tea Party, and the supposedly peaceful seizure of indigenous lands. Cora comes to her own conclusions about the history these exhibits portray: “Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood.” It’s a moment of the black subject functioning as both critical museumgoer and “type” specimen; the living exhibit returning the gaze and critiquing. Cora’s position does not allow her to be behave as a passive observer like the white visitors; having been categorized by Mr. Fields as a member of the collection herself, she has a far more personal stake in the interpretation of said collection. Her taxonomy becomes one of “how are these things positioned in relation to me, and what does it say about my selfhood?” Yet despite all this, Cora’s is never allowed behind a microscope or to give any input on her own display. 3. For Doerr’s Marie-Laure, it would seem the natural history museum’s politics of display are irrelevant; in fact by the end of Doerr’s novel she has gained considerable agency over the natural history museum’s holdings she once wandered about blindly. Marie-Laure returns to Paris after the war to work in the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, where she establishes her own laboratory to study mollusks. Doerr informs us that she has published monographs on “the evolutionary rationale for the folds in the West African cancellate nutmeg shells” and an “oft-cited paper on the sexual dimorphism of Caribbean volutes.” Marie-Laure is given authority over an entire subset of African mollusks by virtue of the many hours she has been able to devote to the study of the creatures over her career—a career only made possible by many long hours spent in laboratories and traveling to collect specimens, both activities that Cora, as a “type” whose value only registers within the confines of the museum exhibit, is unable to participate in. Much separates the experiences of Marie-Laure and Cora within their respective museums, not least of which is a roughly 80-year period during which many of the more grisly activities of natural history museums were curtailed and swept under the rug (although grave robbing remained in good health). Anthropologists have for awhile made their names in softer ways: Franz Boas, who often paid Hrdlička for the skulls he brought back from the southwest and Latin America, gradually moved away from seeking out racial logic in physical anthropology, becoming more interested in the customs and traditions of different cultures. Today, many anthropologists look to philosophy and the social sciences for their conclusions, like Donna Haraway, whose The Cyborg Handbook points out the many ways in which humans and technology are both “natural.” But this is not a comparison of ‘"had it worse," Cora or Marie-Laure. Rather, I want to examine the choices these writers made in depicting the natural history museum, and how this impacts the message behind both novels. Take, for example, the treatment of Charles Darwin in All The Light. When the Nazis swoop in and occupy the French town of Saint-Malo, Marie-Laure and her great uncle endure de facto home imprisonment inside his chateau. To pass the time they recite passages from Voyage of the Beagle—“the variety of species among the jumping spiders appears almost infinite”—and act out exchanges with Darwin himself, whom Maire-Laure loves to imagine “at night, leaning over the ship’s rail to stare into bioluminescent waves, watching the tracks of penguins marked by fiery green wakes.” It’s a whimsical picture of a naturalist at work, understandably appealing to a child under stress, but one that curiously overlooks the connections between Adolf Hitler’s drive toward racial purity and the mission of many early naturalists and natural history museums. It’s no secret, for example, that the Nazis found inspiration in American eugenics of the sort that permitted Cora’s encounter with forced sterilization; even the eye color charts used by the Nazis can be traced to charts displaying the separation of the races in the American Museum of Natural History's Darwin Hall in a 1926 exhibit curated by Hrdlička for the International Congress of Eugenics. If Doerr intends to draw this connection between natural history, eugenics, and Nazism, it’s ultimately smothered by the overwhelming sentimentality of the novel’s dependence on the natural history museum’s role in preserving Marie-Laure’s sense of wonder at the world. Doerr’s description of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, in which “fossilized dinosaur femurs” sit across the hall from “two-hundred-year-old herbarium sheets bedecked with orchids and daisies and herbs” and “a meteorite on a pedestal [...] as ancient as the solar system itself,” sounds strangely similar to Mr. Fields “holding forth on the cross-sections of pumpkins and the life rings of venerable white oaks, the cracked-open geodes with their purple crystals like glass teeth, the tiny beetles and ants the scientists had preserved with a special compound.” Both descriptions collapse time and space and generally confirm the view of the natural history museum as infinite, a place where all corners of the universe, from the depths of the ocean to deep underground, can be intimately known. The natural history museum reduced to a grocery list of specimens to be plucked off the shelf abdicates all responsibility for horrors committed in its name; if just anyone can come along and make their own selection from the vast collections, then it’s no fault of the museum and the curators and anthropologists who built the institutions if those selections are used to fatal ends. But natural history is not just a grab bag; it’s not neutral, and it’s important that in fiction it not be allowed to become a playground where white people, characters, and authors can retreat into an allegorical fantasy land, as it has functioned in real life for hundreds of years with extreme consequences. 4. Museums of all kinds play their specific role in constructing the broader understanding of the human subject by housing, displaying, and labeling the residue of humanity in a delicate hierarchy. You’ll never find a Jackson Pollock exhibited alongside a woolly mammoth skeleton, just like you rarely find indigenous beadwork or sculpture in the main halls of the Louvre or MOMA, even though they are equally products of humanity’s ingenuity. We assume that anthropologists and curators are more sensitive now regarding framing and positioning, but as I write this, there are articles being published in The New York Times in which scientists are quoted saying that a recent hominid fossil discovery has the face of “somebody you could come across in the Metro.” Interestingly, Whitehead writes that “the stuffed coyotes on their stands did not lie, Cora supposed. And the anthills and the rocks told the truth of themselves. But the white exhibits contained as many inaccuracies and contradictions as Cora’s three habitats.” Cora backs away from a sweeping statement about the the discipline of natural history in general, even though it’s highly suspect that even a taxidermied coyote, after being killed, skinned, preserved, stuffed, and displayed, has not acquiesced to the great white lie of American domination of nature. It’s Cora’s grandmother, Ajarry, who in the early pages of the novel sounds a more complex note: She knew that the white man’s scientists peered beneath things to understand how they worked. The movement of the stars across the night, the cooperation of humors in the blood. The temperature requirements for a healthy cotton harvest. Ajarry made a science of her own black body and accumulated observations. Each thing had a value and as the value changed, everything else changed also. A broken calabash was worth less than one that held its water, a hook that kept its catfish more prized than one that relinquished its bait. In America the quirk was that people were things. Ajarry comes to her own conclusion, both philosophical and material, that people and nature occupy a muddy space together, but for different reasons than Hrdlička or Darwin. Ajarry’s perspective is born of watching the white man’s scientists carry out their experiments on her very body, the same as they would on cotton and cows. It’s an embodied knowledge born from the experience of being treated as chattel and object, and it’s a perspective that natural history museums, and the books about them, would be wise to explore further.
1. Hisham Matar’s The Return opens with the author waiting at Cairo International Airport for a plane to take him back to Benghazi, in Libya, following the fall of Col. Muammar Qadaffi. It is 33 years since Matar, then eight years old, left the country for exile in Egypt and Europe. In 1990, Matar’s father was kidnapped by the Egyptian Secret Service and handed over to Libyan authorities, where he became one of Col. Qadaffi’s many political prisoners. Matar has not heard from his father since 1996. Matar, born in New York but now resident in London, understands he was always going to return to Libya, because never returning “meant never allowing myself to think about [my father’s disappearance] again, which would only lead to another form of resistance, and I was done with resistance.” The result is a memoir that won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for autobiography, as well as the Rathbones Folio Prize. The Return is an emotional but measured narrative of the disappearance of the author’s father, interwoven with Libya’s recent history. I begin reading it on a train between London and Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city. A return to Glasgow is not a return for me in the same strong sense that Libya is for Matar. My first visit there was 10 years ago, just after my own father went missing. It is his city. I caught the tiny orange underground metro, so "wee," as the Scots say, you can’t stand up straight in the carriage’s centre. I got off in the borough of Ibrox; I had a vague sense that, as my father had supported Glasgow Rangers Football Club, whose stadium is in this part of the city, then this was the suburb in which he would have grown up, and disappeared into. To call it a suburb is generous. Many of the apartments in Ibrox are two-storied breezeblock structures with boarded up windows, although people still live inside; on that first visit there were no cars on the streets, and the trash of chip packets and Irn Bru soda cans filled the front porches up to the window sills. It was a frightening glimpse of a poverty-stricken city where the life expectancy for men can reach as low as 39. Ten years ago, I searched for traces of my father but found nothing. Glasgow was impenetrable. 2. Young Hisham Matar is the autobiographical model for the protagonist of his first novel, In the Country of Men. The boy, Sulaiman, is the son of a dissident Faraj, and “the Guide’s” eyes and ears see and hear everything that his family say or do. The novel (and Matar’s second, Anatomy of a Disappearance) explores how State repression under Qadaffi threatened everything, especially love and trust. “I don’t remember a time when words were not dangerous,” Matar wrote last year in an essay. “But in the late 1970s, when I was a young schoolboy in Tripoli, the risks had become more real than ever before. There were things I knew my brother and I shouldn’t say unless we were alone with our parents...Men were locked up for saying the wrong thing or because they were innocently quoted by a child.” For six years after his father was arrested there was contact via letters smuggled out of Abu Salim prison (where the majority of Qadaffi’s political prisoners were detained). Then in 1996, the letters stopped. In what I can only describe as an inverse echo of our stories, in 1996 I was writing to my father to tell him to not contact me, precisely as the Abu Salim massacre—in which it is likely Matar’s father was executed—was taking place. One son desperate for a father’s safe return; another son desperate to break off all communication. “I had never felt more capable of stillness,” Matar writes while waiting for the boarding call for his plane to Benghazi. I had never felt capable of stillness, I write melodramatically as I sit in a Glasgow café near Queen Street train station, waiting until I can check in to my hotel. Matar suggests it takes a conscious effort to remain still. “On the plane from London to Cairo,” he writes, he finally understood “the logic of the contradiction” that had caused his lifelong restlessness: "home" always felt impermanent. “It turns out that I have spent all the time since I was eight years old, when my family left Libya, waiting...A feeble act of fidelity to the old country, or maybe not even to Libya but to the young boy I was when we left.” Still: to calm, quieten. Also: still, even now. Ten years after his disappearance my father remains missing. On the anniversary, I’ve come back to Glasgow to look for him, with Matar’s words for company. 3. My father’s disappearance was nothing like Matar’s. My father was not a great man, a dissident whose disappearance made it into The Times, who had the U.K. and U.S. governments and international NGOs involved in attempts to secure his release. My father was an accident-prone engineer and lifelong alcoholic with his own inherited family trauma, who was finally thrown out by his second wife after 30 years of marriage when he came home after a three-day bender and fell asleep outside the house in the gutter. Like the ghost in the flat where my father first lived after leaving my mother (a ghost who, incidentally, stole all the tea towels), my father was a presence that could not be counted upon. He slipped through the net of our ambivalent care a few months later. “When your father has been made to disappear for nineteen years, your desire to find him is equalled by your fear of finding him,” writes Matar. “You are the scene of a shameful private battle.” When my father first disappeared we only half-hoped it would not be for long: he was an embarrassment most of the time, never violent, but unpredictable, always disappointed in everyone around him. He would, my uncle, his brother, assured me, “Come back when he’s licked his wounds.” But that did not happen, and as the years passed, I tried my best to ignore the “shameful private battle” of not quite looking for him hard enough. I turned to books as both education and evasion. I sunk into Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son with the intention to never forget its call for intellectual freedom from a father’s overbearing influence; it was some justification for refusing to devote my time to searching the dry hostels and homeless centers. I read and re-read Andrew O’Hagan’s Our Fathers, about three generations of Glaswegian men torn apart by alcohol and ambition; and O’Hagan’s The Missing, about lost persons, especially those, in a brutal exposé, who were victims of mass murderers Fred and Rosemary West. I convinced myself, and others, that if I were reading about fathers, especially the absent kind, the drunken, lying kind, as in John Burnside’s A Lie About My Father, then mine was a search of sorts, a reconnaissance into the mindscape if not the cold doorways of where a missing, stubborn, alcoholic might be. I kept this charade up for nine years. And then my mother died. 4. Matar’s books, despite the loved mothers, real and fictional, and the steadying influence of his wife, Diane, are stories about men: sons and fathers, despots, uncles, family friends and brothers, cousins killed during insurgencies, politicians, and, in a large section of The Return, Seif Qadaffi, son of the Colonel, who pretends, at best, but mostly dissimulates, to try to find out what happened to Matar’s father. There is an ease that Matar exudes in the company of men. I envy him. I grew up in a female household, my father absent beginning when I was two years old. I have no problem with yoga classes, but all-male bonding is a strain. This is even more true now in the middle of a cycle of therapy prompted by the death of my mother. My mother’s death at 68 was not a surprise. She lived a difficult working-class life, with two or sometimes three menial jobs to support her two children, and always, we learnt later, carrying the sorrowful body-burden of being forced to give up her first child for adoption when she was only 16. I grieved my mother’s death well, if measured by a lack of diversionary tactics (I haven’t spent the last year reading Sons and Lovers). But the loss of one parent forces attention to your relationship with the other. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the therapy focused on unburdening myself of the psychological armor I’d fashioned in childhood as protection against an unpredictable and alcoholic father. Therapy exposed me to reality in a way that reading books about missing fathers could not—and was not meant to. In a year of curative work, I began, with the mental equivalent of a child’s brightly-coloured plastic hammer, to chip away at that over-protective armor. I still didn’t think I was ready to look for my father. But yet here I am, in my father’s city, 10 years after he stepped out of our lives. In my hotel that night I delight in picking up Matar, my newfound travel companion. I relish travel for the contradiction Matar writes about; having the distance to reflect upon home as impermanent. Like Matar it was not “a casual desire for travel” I sought, “not a tourist’s curiosity for sites and landmarks and languages and new faces, but a precise and uncomplicated conviction that the world was available to me.” Wasn’t the world available to me now I’d sloughed off the chainmail that had, for 30 years, defied my father’s afflictions, but at high personal cost? Matar’s thoughts about travel come when he is back in Libya, and they surprise him: “Wasn’t this an odd thing to think now, now that I was finally home? Or is this what being home is like: home as a place from which the entire world is suddenly possible?” Almost asleep, I read Matar’s story of watching a football game between Bayern Munich and Glasgow Rangers. Matar chooses to support Rangers (my father’s team) because they have a black player when such things were unusual. “Here was an eighteen-year-old Arab Muslim praying in an English pub for a Scottish team because they had a black player who might or might not be African, while his Libyan family, exiled in Cairo, were rooting for a German team,” writes Matar. And here was an English atheist lying in a Glasgow bed reading a book by a Libyan man whose words jar memories of a missing Scottish father who could be homeless on the streets of London, or (albeit unlikely) imprisoned in Libya. I put down The Return and think of Matar’s New York Times essay railing against the philistinism of Donald Trump: “Books have invited me into different countries, states of mind, social conditions and historical epochs,” he writes, “they have offered me a place at the most unusual gatherings.” This is what The Return offers, a more affecting book than either of Matar’s novels. In the fictions, the control of emotion in the narrative stymies empathy with the protagonists; in the autobiography, it is much clearer that this control is the author’s attempt not to lose his mind to a grief held in limbo. Sometimes parsing life through literature reveals the greater truth. But, just as often, it does not. For 10 years I have avoided looking at the faces of the homeless men in Glasgow and London. But the paradox of having removed the armor with which I protected myself from his drunken outbursts (“You’re a child of hate!”) and the disappointment he could spear me with, with just that shake of his head, is this: now I no longer have the armor to protect myself, I am ready to face him. 5. And the next evening, there he is. After a day walking the streets and staring at people in cafés, I am leaning against the door of a packed metro carriage and look across to see my father. His greying hair is brushed back over the balding head. He’s wearing loose workman clothes, baggy blue jogging bottoms and a knitted jumper too big for him but worn to keep him warm while laboring. It’s splattered with flecks of white paint, as are his arms. His jumper sleeves are pushed up to his elbows like he always used to, especially when driving. He’s holding the rail above his head and I see one of the same hairy arms that I’ve inherited, crooked arms that don’t straighten at the elbow despite various yogis’ attempts to unbend them. Most importantly, he still has his yellow, drooping mustache. It makes him look sad, like Hulk Hogan post-sex tape. He’s carrying a newspaper rolled up in his other hand. He grimaces with fatigue. The lines around his eyes crease into that resigned expression I know so well but have not seen since 2007 when my uncle and I registered him as missing. I watch him over the heads of the crowd. Impatient at the slow-moving train, he looks and sees me staring. What color are my father’s eyes? I can’t remember. The metro pulls into the next stop. I stare again. Once or twice he catches my eye. Does he recognize me? There are too many people to move closer. Are those his ears? Does my father have ears that big? I’m running through the synchronicities that have brought me here; that I am here means that my father does have ears that could belong to a donkey. I’ve come to believe in synchronicity, in some special power of love to connect across time and dark distances. Why else would we both be here? I can’t keep staring. What do I do? What I’ve done for the past 10 years? The carriage pulls into Buchanan Street station and he maneuvers to alight. The doors open. I get out and stop so that he can pass. I make a show of having to pull up my trousers, as if anyone is paying attention. Two hundred people are heading for the exit. He walks past and I follow. I tell myself I have to do this. I follow up a flight of stairs. There’s a throng of people. I think I’ve lost sight of him. I don’t know where—then, there he is. Then we’re at the top of the stairs and he’s walking away. The crowd thins out on the concourse. There’s a space where an approach won’t bring embarrassment. I’m going to do this. I know what I’m going to say. I walk faster. Is this how tall my father is? Did he have that much hair left? Are those his ears? I tap him on the shoulder. I ask if his name is Phil. It makes sense to him now why I was staring. He smiles. He doesn’t have the bunched front tooth I inherited. He doesn’t speak English that well. He shakes his head. Says no, I think. But I don’t really hear him. Sorry, I tell him. I thought you were a friend of my father. He puts an awkward, friendly hand on my arm, then turns and exits to the street. A bubble of blackness surges from my abdomen, where it has always been, hidden behind that armour. I’m in the middle of the concourse so I push it down and with it the tears. I say in my head, I’m really upset. I’m really upset but I don’t cry. I’m okay, I tell myself. I’m 41 years old, and I feel like a child again. At 2 a.m., I’m sitting on the hotel’s broken toilet seat shitting out everything I’ve eaten for the past 24 hours. In the next two hours I go back and forth between bed and toilet 15 times, taking The Return and reading the same pages over and again. “The dead live with us,” writes Matar. “Grief is not a whodunnit story, or a puzzle to solve, but an active and vibrant enterprise. It is hard, honest work. It can break your back. It is part of one’s initiation into death and—I don’t know why, I have no way of justifying it—it is a hopeful part at that.” Sitting sniveling on the toilet seat I cannot see much hope left. Yet I went up to that man who I thought was my father. At least I did that. “What is extraordinary,” Matar continues, “is that, given everything that has happened, the natural alignment of the heart remains towards the light. It is in that direction that there is the least resistance. It is somehow in the body, in the physical knowledge of the eternity of each moment, in the expansive nature of time and space, that declarative statements such as ‘He is dead’ are not precise. My father is both dead and alive. I do not have a grammar for him. He is in the past, present and future.” At 4:30 a.m. I climb back under the covers to find myself without warning crying deeply and painfully, sputtering through tears and snot and vomit: I wanted it to be him. I wanted it to be him. 6. “The truth was, at that moment I didn’t believe Father to be dead. But the truth was also that I didn’t believe him to be alive either,” writes Matar as, back in Benghazi, he hears what he has always feared: that those who last saw him in the Abu Salim prison did not see him come out alive when the remaining prisoners were finally released. About two thirds of the way through The Return, Matar raises the idea that one should know the moment one’s father dies. It troubles Matar because he has not, he believes, felt the moment his father was killed. Matar recounts the story of a Syrian poet who he hears talk on the radio about the way he (the poet) knew the moment when his mother passed away. The poet was in London to give a reading, and took a stroll around Grosvenor Square. “I walked under the trees. It was a beautiful day. But I could not get rid of a desperate sadness. I longed for my mother. When I returned to my room I found a message telling me that she had just passed away.” Matar agrees and thinks it “impossible that I should fail to detect the moment when someone I love dies.” And yet, he adds, “now that it is unimaginable that my father is alive, I am unsettled by the failure.” Matar is not a consistent diary keeper, but he did at times maintain a journal. He goes back to look at his entry for the day on which his father most likely died, at the Abu Salim massacre on June 29, 1996. At that time Matar was going to the National Gallery five days a week to practise a form of looking at art where he would sit in front of one painting for 15 minutes every day, and not move on until he felt he had exhausted the picture. He did this on June 29. Here is his entry: “Could not get out of bed till noon. Walked up to NG. Done with Velásquez. I’ve switched to Manet’s Maximillian. Never speak about money worries again.” The time is out of joint: an early riser, Matar couldn’t get out of bed. Strictly private about financial affairs, the night before he was moaning about money. On the day that the massacre of 1,270 prisoners took place, including most likely his father, “I chose to switch my vigil, which by then I had been keeping for six years, to Édouard Manet’s ‘The Execution of Maximillian’, a picture of a political execution.” I wonder if I’ll know the moment of my father’s death? “Trust thyself,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Every heart vibrates to that iron string.” For a son to know his father’s moment of death, such a connection must have been threaded with iron strings. My father loved me despite the unpredictability, the curses, the dissatisfactions. Has a whisper of my father’s last breath come to me? The next morning I check out of the hotel, sit in a café and finish The Return. “We need a father to rage against,” writes Matar. “When a father is neither dead nor alive, when he is a ghost, the will is impotent...I envy the finality of funerals. I covet the certainty. How it must be to wrap one’s hands around the bones, to choose how to place them, to be able to pat the patch of earth and sing a prayer.” Standing in the middle of Buchanan Street, in my father’s city, I say it out loud: “My father is dead.” There’s still no answer.
Reviewing John Irving's Avenue of Mysteries (2015) for an Irish newspaper a couple of years ago, I found myself wondering: why are the titles of novels by fictional novelists always so mysteriously unconvincing? The protagonist of Avenue of Mysteries is Juan Diego, a globetrotting writer of Irvingesque stature; his most famous book is called A Story Set in Motion by the Virgin Mary. Encountering this, I thought: No commercial publisher would ever append so clunky a title to a popular book. My suspension of disbelief was shaken. Why, I wondered, couldn't Irving—the man responsible for titles as instantly memorable as The World According to Garp (1978) and The Hotel New Hampshire (1981)—come up with something better? It was a feeling I'd had before. Novels by fictional novelists (and there is, as we know, no shortage of fictional novelists) always seem to be saddled with ersatz, implausible titles—so much so that I find myself doubting whether such unhappily-titled books could ever actually exist. Frequently—to compound matters—we are supposed to accept that these books have been bestsellers, or that they have become cultural touchstones, despite their awful titles. Take the case of Nathan Zuckerman: in Philip Roth's great trilogy (The Ghost Writer , Zuckerman Unbound , and The Anatomy Lesson ), we are asked to believe that Zuckerman has published successful books entitled Mixed Emotions and Reversed Intentions. Reversed Intentions! What a terrible title! You find similar clunkers popping up all over the literary map. In Martin Amis's The Information (1995), the narcissistic litterateur Gwyn Barry has achieved bestsellerdom with a book unconvincingly entitled Amelior (and his rival, Richard Tull, has published novels with equally shaky titles: Aforethought and Dreams Don't Mean Anything). In Graham Greene's The End of the Affair (1951), the fictional novelist Maurice Bendrix is supposed to have published novels called The Ambitious Host, The Crowned Image, and The Grave on the Water-Front: all of which sound like the titles of Graham Greene novels that didn't quite make it out of a notebook. In Claire Kilroy's All Names Have Been Changed (2009), the legendary Irish writer P.J. Glynn has published a novel with the discouraging appellation of Apophthegm. In Stephen King's The Dark Half (1989), the haunted writer Thad Beaumont is the author of The Sudden Dancers, a title so prissily literary that you can imagine finding it on the contents page of an anthology of work by earnest high-school students (but not, surely, on the cover of a book from a major publisher). King, in fact, is a repeat offender: Ben Mears, in 'Salem's Lot (1975), is allegedly the author of a novel called Billy Said Keep Going; Mike Noonan, in Bag of Bones (1998), has given the world The Red-Shirt Man and Threatening Behaviour; and Bobbi Anderson, in The Tommyknockers (1987), has produced a Western entitled Rimfire Christmas, which is my personal nomination for worst fictional title of all time—although another close contender must surely be Daisy Perowne's imaginary collection of poetry in Ian McEwan's Saturday (2005), which is called (oh dear!) My Saucy Bark. Even the imaginary writers created by Vladimir Nabokov are not immune to the terrible-title virus. Sebastian Knight, the elusive protagonist of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941), is responsible for books entitled The Prismatic Bezel and The Doubtful Asphodel (although Success, the title of another of Knight's fictional books, is so good that Martin Amis stole it for one of his own actual books). The bibliography of Clare Quilty, in Lolita (1955), boasts, beside The Enchanted Hunters, an unappetizingly-titled play called The Strange Mushroom. And in Look at the Harlequins! (1974), the Nabokov-avatar narrator counts among his backlist Esmerelda and her Parandrus and Plenilune—titles that a real-life publisher would surely blue-pencil the instant the manuscripts landed on her desk. There are, of course, honourable exceptions: fictional writers whose fictional books are so convincingly titled that you can imagine chancing upon tattered mass-market paperback copies of them in the dusty corner of a used bookstore. Take Henry Bech, the self-tormented writer-protagonist of John Updike's wonderful Bech stories. Bech's first novel, a '50s motorcycle epic, is called Travel Light. His second is called Brother Pig ("which is," Bech tells a Bulgarian poet in "The Bulgarian Poetess," "St. Bernard's expression for the body"). And Bech's blockbuster bestseller (Updike's alliterative Bs are contagious) is called Think Big—a title so punchy it's practically Presidential. In the Bech books, Updike, characteristically, pays scrupulous attention to recreating the textures of the real. The appendix to Bech: A Book (1970) supplies a complete bibliography of Bech's published work, including such echt-realistic entries as ""Lay off, Norman," New Republic, CXL.3 (19 January 1959), 22-3." In general, though, it seems as if the titles of imaginary novels will inevitably tend towards the offputtingly cheesy (Billy Said Keep Going), the ludicrously recherche (The Prismatic Bezel), or the embarrassingly portentous (like the novel embarked upon, and abandoned, by Anna Wulf in Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook , which bears the dubious moniker The Shadow of the Third). It sometimes feels as if all of these novelists are writing stories set in the same alternate universe, the distinguishing feature of which is that all novels have terrible titles. What is it with this world of imaginary writers and publishers? Why can't its inhabitants come up with better titles for their books? Perhaps it's simply the case that novelists greedily reserve their most inspired titles for their own actual, real-life books—which are, after all, far more important than any works ascribable to fictional characters within them. Why go for The Grave on the Water-Front when you can have The Heart of the Matter, or, indeed, The End of the Affair? Why call your book Dreams Don't Mean Anything when you can muster a title as good as The Information? Why settle for The Shadow of the Third when you've got The Golden Notebook? A successful title—and all novelists know this instinctively—does much more than simply name the finished product. A successful title seduces. It creates a mood. It stakes a claim. A great title (Pride and Prejudice; A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; A Clockwork Orange) will seem to have been around forever. No novelist, I suspect, would happily waste a great title on a book by an imaginary writer—even if they've dreamed that writer up themselves, along with all the ghostly volumes on her nonexistent shelf. Or perhaps a certain ironic distancing is at work, when it comes to imaginary novels. In many cases, I think, we are given to understand that a fictional novelist may be perceptive, responsive, and strong-willed--but not quite as lavishly gifted as his or her creator. Clare Quilty, for instance, is hardly meant to be a genius on the Nabokovian scale (although he does collaborate with his creator's anagrammatic alter ego, Vivian Darkbloom, on a play called The Lady Who Loved Lightning—and look at that! Another lamentable title!). Poor old Maurice Bendrix, in The End of the Affair, is certainly meant to be a second-rate novelist, and his dud titles confirm it (you can easily envision finding a copy of The Crowned Image, falling out of its old-fashioned binding, in a charity shop or hospital library: unreprinted, unread, invisible to posterity). And Thad Beaumont, in The Dark Half, doesn't begin to tap the wellspring of his talent until he forsakes the bland lit-fic of The Sudden Dancers and gets his hands dirty writing the Stephen-King-like Machine's Way (now that's a title). There is also, of course, the limitation adduced by Norman Mailer, in his marvelous book on writing, The Spooky Art (2003): "Jean Malaquais [Mailer's mentor] once remarked that you can write about any character but one. 'Who is that?' 'A novelist more talented than yourself.'" But none of these theories really offers a satisfactory explanation for the badness of so many imaginary titles. Looking more closely at some of these spectral designations, I think we can often discern a profoundly literary reason for their terribleness. The titles of Nathan Zuckerman's early novels—Mixed Emotions and Reversed Intentions—not only camouflage Philip Roth's own early books (respectively, Letting Go  and When She Was Good ); they also summarize a recurring theme of the Zuckerman novels themselves. Writing out of mixed emotions, Zuckerman frequently reverses his intentions—although by the time he does, of course, it's generally too late to undo the damage his fiction has caused. Similarly, in Look at the Harlequins!, each appalling title parodies an actually existing Nabokov novel: Plenilune (i.e. a full moon) conceals The Defense (1930), and Esmerelda and her Parandrus (a parandrus being, in medieval bestiaries, a shapeshifting beast with cloven hooves) surely encodes Lolita. (Perhaps the wittiest of these parody-titles is The Red Top-Hat, which mocks Invitation to a Beheading ). These titles, in all their awfulness, alert us to fictional strategies. They invite us to examine more attentively the texts in which they appear. Comparably, in The Golden Notebook, the title of Anna's novel, The Shadow of the Third, points us towards one of Lessing's central thematic concerns—the hidden ethical quandaries that bedevil any monogamous sexual relationship between a man and a woman. The titles of Richard Tull's novels, in The Information, offer clues to his revenger's nature, and to his eventual fate: Richard plots the destruction of Gwyn Barry with aforethought, and by the end of the novel, he has come to believe that dreams, in the sense of hopes, don't mean anything. And the phrase "a story set in motion by the Virgin Mary" exactly describes the plot of Irving's Avenue of Mysteries: in the form of Juan Diego's imaginary title, this phrase lurks inside the primary text, as if to remind us, periodically, of precisely what sort of novel we are reading. Titles of imaginary novels, then, aren't called upon to perform the same tasks as titles of real novels. They aren't intended to seduce, or to stake a claim. Nor are they designed, generally speaking, to be "realistic" (in the sense that Henry Bech's book titles, in Updike's stories, are designed to be realistic). Imaginary titles, more often than not, are items of fictional furniture, like characters or leitmotivs or symbols. They do double-duty: they name the works of a fictional writer, and they illuminate the narrative in which that fictional writer appears. For a novelist, the chance to create an imaginary title is another chance to be witty, or inventive, or amusing; more importantly, it's another chance to enrich the texture of the work at hand. Of course, that doesn't mean we shouldn't take a moment, every now and then, to be grateful that we don't live in a world—the world of Thad Beaumont, the world of Nathan Zuckerman—in which everyone seems to think that The Sudden Dancers, or Reversed Intentions, is a perfectly acceptable title for a novel. Now—has anyone seen my copy of Rimfire Christmas? Image Credit: Wikipedia.
It's the waning days of summer, you've got your towel, your beach read, your canned rosé in an insulated Angry Birds lunchbox you stole from your child. But the question remains: where to set up camp? Beaches are getting awful crowded these days, and "beach-spreading" is on the rise; writer Amy Rosenberg of the Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the canopy-and-BBQ-grill-wielding beach spreaders' main victims are the "towel-and-a-book minimalists" (her delightful coinage). Thus, while trying to avoid the point end of someone else's beach umbrella, you may be jonesing for a little more undisturbed quiet. What can you do if you aren’t New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who famously closed all the state beaches on the beachiest of beach weekends, July 4, citing budget problems, and was subsequently photographed enjoying a beautiful state beach, Gilligan's Island-style, with just sand, surf, and his nuclear family. But just as no man is an island, no beach is totally "owned" by someone. Even the famous stars in Malibu, with their yards fronting the beach, can't yell, "Get off my beach-lawn"—although they've tried. Yes, part of that beach belongs to you, Joan Q. Public. Many people don't know this, but pretty much every state has at least some version of California's Public Trust Doctrine that codifies the public's free access to the beach. California's doctrine in fact decrees that there is no such thing as a private beach. Even walking in front of, say, Jennifer Aniston's house (we assume she lives on the beach), there will still be a strip of sand that his public, and often, way more than a strip (often, owners have to grant easements—i.e., more beach!—when they do things like overbuild). I'll use California's beaches as an example because they are plentiful and because it's an income inequality issue: Los Angeles, land of the outdoors, ranks a pitiable number 74 (behind Reno Nevada!) for access to public park space. Compare that to New York City—-skyscraper town—where I live, which comes in at number seven. So what precious public park space there is, is mostly THE BEACH. Yet many wealthy homeowners in coastal areas (but particularly wealthy areas like Malibu) actively want to mislead you into thinking you're the one trespassing by deploying things like NO TRESPASSING and NO PARKING signs, posting intimidating guards and co-opting local police. I remember doing a writers’ residency where a walk along the seashore was a welcome way to end the day. But one day when I came around a bend that was usually underwater during high tide, I was surprised to see a guard. She told me I wasn't allowed to walk any further. There was also a huge sign saying the beach belonged to a ranch. This was not true, I know now. In that state, the beach was public up to the high tide line, and so at low tide, there was a nice piece of beach for me to read on. Even if I hadn't been aware of these laws, "wet sand" is almost always considered public beach. Most people are like me and don't know that there's a lot of beach out there, waiting for your towel and book. Thanks to organizations like LA Urban Rangers, who lead urban "safaris" and otherwise help educate the public about their rights of access, the tide is turning, so to speak, and the public is learning what they have been missing—or been illegally shooed away from—for years or decades. Most recently, this guy, a billionaire, just lost his case trying to keep one of the prettiest beaches in Northern California all to himself when he didn't even live on the property. So how to you figure out what's what? WET SAND: "is generally considered public land and the state holds it in 'trust' for the public benefit," according to Angela Howe, Legal Director of the Surfrider Foundation. After that, it's a specific state issue. You can check out Beachapedia for the laws in your particular coastal state. Similar to wet sand, you will most likely be on a public beach if you pack your book and towel into a boat, a kayak, or a Huck Finn-type raft. According to Ms. Romans: If you arrive at a beach via boat or from the ocean side, you are staying within the public trust lands. Basically, before you go, brush up on your state's laws. Know your rights, but (a) keep in mind that even being right doesn't always win you the day; and (b) there've also been situations where the guards will call the police who will then show up and be unfamiliar with terms like "mean high tide line" and "public access." Some beaches even have an app that can help you with access (and will have official documents you can show the guards/cops), e.g., Our Malibu Beaches, which comes with both iOS and Android versions. There is also the YourCoast App that the California Coastal Commission created, and a print California Coastal Access Guide. Okay: beach read, check; towel, check; rosé, check. But what if you feel bad lounging and reading on the beach in front of some billionaire's house while his wide-eyed family stares at you? Well consider, besides the fact that people like David Geffen had promised to build a public access path to the Malibu beach next to his property in return for a remodeling permit—back in 1983!—and instead he has been spending all this time trying to keep people from lawfully accessing what has been acerbically known as "Billionaire's Beach." Spending money keeping people from a public beach is a particular crime in an urban area that has such little access to public green space—this small loss of privacy is a well compensated tradeoff for the loveliness and the guarantee of non-development that accrues to one lucky (and rich) enough to live in a house that abuts a public park. Can you imagine if rich New Yorkers tried to block access to Central Park with boulders (yes, someone did that to hide a beach access point) or complained about the noise from Shakespeare in the Park? In Florida, when the state deposited tons of new sand on eroding shorelines, they declared this new, replenished land government property, and therefore public. It makes sense; we all have to share the consequences of our climate-change and rising sea levels, why not enjoy the beaches that our taxes pay to shore up? It’s your beach, people. Grab your book and get beach-reading. Image Credit: Flickr/Anne Adrian.
From April through November, Central Park becomes my office. Confined from writing indoors during the winter months, nothing makes me happier than when the sun peeks through and gives enough warmth to bring my laptop to an enclave off Cedar Hill and the 79th Street entrance, where my favorite tree awaits to perfectly contour to the groove of my back. This tree and I have written many books together, and while I have come up all with the ideas, it deserves a ton of credit too. There are some authors who can just poke into a coffee shop and get their work done, but I am not one of them. I’d focus on the chatter around me too much, unable to really sink into writing. During the winter months, I’m lucky that the spectacular Rose Main Reading Room in the library on 42nd Street with its beautiful fresco ceiling is in walking distance. You’ll be glared at if your phone rings, so there’s no danger of distracting chatter. But somehow I’m just not as inspired as when I am at my tree for eight months out of the year. I have a few stipulations to working outside. If it’s over 90 degrees I won’t do it (after nearly frying my laptop one summer and searing the hairs on my leg). The same goes for under 50 degrees, except for one relatively mild winter when I parked myself on a bench by the Great Lawn and wrote with gloves and an overcoat. I was developing a very dark book at the time that took place in the cold. I thought that the weather would help seep into the main character’s struggles. I finished that book, but I doubt I’ll write outside during sub-zero temperatures again. Right now, I’m at my tree and it’s chilly for a spring afternoon; but I’m bundled up in a sweater and toasty enough. The tree is located in a prime spot with a nearby bathroom off the Ramble and a hot dog cart selling overpriced water bottles. Behind me a well-worn path provides the white noise of runners and bikers sailing past. In front, stands a circle of trees that gives an effect of closing off the rest of Manhattan. I can see the elegant fifth avenue apartments winking between the trees’ arms, but the racket of the city is kept at bay. There are no sirens, no car alarms. Birds chirp, I’ve even seen a hawk perched behind a thicket of leaves, and I’m transported to a forest setting with animals other than the standard city pigeons and squirrels. Sometimes the enclave is populated with those having picnics, or reading a book, but it’s rarely overcrowded or loud. My tree has long and sturdy branches that offer an ideal mix of shade and sun. I usually get here by noon and have lunch, go over my outline for what I’m working on and the scenes I’ll tackle that day. Then from about 1 to 5pm, I write. I don’t have Internet, except on my cell for research and any emails that need to be answered. A successful day means getting at least five pages done. Often I write 10 when I’m really in the thick of a book. A few times I’ve even written 15. And while I’m prolific at the library too, I’ve never written 15 pages there. New York City can be a hard place to think. Beyond its own non-stop clamor, the limitless possibilities and various things to do can make it hard to focus. In the park, I rarely have that problem. As professions go, a novelist is a pretty solitary one. The majority of the day gets spent alone in my head, which is why I don’t often write from home. I’m an extroverted introvert, and while I need time in my head, I crave people as well. Central Park is perfect for this. I have a few haunts in the park when the grass by my tree starts to wilt around September, or when someone else decides to use its trunk as support. I’ll write on the benches by the Great Lawn like I did one winter. I’ll write in this fenced-in grassy spot by Belvedere Castle. I’ll go to Sheep’s Meadow, which also has a few trees with good back support or fencing that suffices. But none hold a candle to my tree. When I’m really into the throes of a project, I’ll leave my body. It’s hard to explain, but I’ve read other writers who’ve described a similar experience. I’ll enter my book, either as an observer if it’s written in third person, or a participant if it’s written in first person. Sometimes I’m gone for hours and when I’m zapped back, the sun has moved across the sky and there may even be a chill in the air, which I hadn’t noticed. No place but Central Park allows me to leave my body as easily. For hundreds of years, writers have advocated the appeal and necessity of nature. Sir Walter Scott gardened to distance his mind from debt. Henry David Thoreau moved to a cabin to separate himself from the world. George Bernard Shaw crafted Pygmalion and Saint Joan in a small but modern writer’s shed situated on a home-built turntable that rotated to catch the sun’s rays in winter and the shade in the summer. Virginia Woolf lived on an overgrown plot of land that was turned into garden rooms and an orchard, featuring it heavily in her work. Annie Dillard won the 1975 nonfiction Pulitzer Prize for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, raising questions about the horrors and beauties of nature while sitting on a sycamore log overlooking the creek. Even though New York seems more crowded than ever due to luxury skyscrapers shooting up one after the other, between 1821 and 1855, it nearly quadrupled in population. As the city began expanding further north up Manhattan, citizens began flocking to the few open spaces, mostly cemeteries, to get a break from the noise and pollution in search of fresh air. In 1857, the state appointed Central Park Commission held a landscape design contest. Frederick Law Olmstead and his partner won. His design included a mix of his social consciousness and his belief in egalitarian ideals. He argued that the common green space must always be equally available to all citizens and could never become privatized. The need for public parks was a necessity so people wouldn’t have to use cemeteries as an escape. I’m a born-and-bred New Yorker, and I can’t imagine what the city would be like without miles of a park as a refuge. While I’m walking in the streets or taking the subway, I’ve often thought of the Ezra Pound poem “In the Station of Metro” that states, “The apparition of these faces in the crowd; Petals on a wet black bough.” At the time, Ezra Pound was in a funk and saw everyone in the Metro station as ghosts sliding by, but then they managed to morph into petals. Instead of the faceless apparitions he usually noticed; the crowd became something beautiful. It’s easy to keep your head down, avoiding the traffic and crowded streets, but also missing the myriad sights the city has to offer. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
1. 2007 was the first year that Americans sent and received more text messages than phone calls, but you might not have guessed that from reading that year’s literary fiction, which included novel debuts from the likes of Junot Díaz, Joshua Ferris, and Dinaw Mengsetu, as well as new work from more established authors like Don DeLillo, Annie Dillard, Dave Eggers, and Philip Roth. Although some of these books were set in a modern era, the authors did not choose to show their characters texting or even engaging very much with cell phones. Given the slow pace of publishing, this is only logical: a novel published in 2007 was likely completed in 2005 or 2006, and even if the setting of the novel was up-to-the-minute contemporary, it likely did not include events past 2005. In the mid-aughts, texting and social media were on the rise, but they weren’t yet knit into daily life. Twitter, (which was originally conceived as a platform for group texts), did not appear until 2006; Facebook was still restricted to college dorm rooms; and the iPhone, with its now-iconic speech bubble texting application, had not yet been unleashed. Looking back at the books I read in those years, I don’t remember noticing the lack of cell phones or texting, probably because I wasn’t doing a lot of texting in my own life. I had a flip phone and the only text messages I received were from my service provider, reminding me to pay my bill. At some point, though, probably 2011 or 2012 (when The Millions last published a piece on this problem), I began to feel the absence of modern technology from contemporary fiction, and of text messaging in particular. By then, I had a smart phone and in an irony that all smartphone users have accepted—and in fact no longer perceive as ironic—I stopped receiving phone calls. Instead, I got texts, usually redundant bits of logistical information: I’m here! Running late! On my way home! See ya soon! I was a reluctant texter, uncertain of how to reply to banal messages that seemed written in response to an undercurrent of anxiety that I wasn’t actually feeling. But soon enough, I was thumbing out the same blips of communication and feeling nervous when I didn’t receive them in return. These mosquito-like messages, often bearing links to the Internet, quickly changed the texture of my days. But the fiction I was reading did not reflect this. The problem of representing text messages is related to the problem of representing the Internet in general, an overwhelming subject that can be portrayed as a social phenomenon, an addiction, a public square, a place of employment, a repository of secret lives, or a den of procrastination—to name just a few possibilities. Tony Tulathimutte’s Private Citizens, Emily Gould’s Friendship, and Dave Eggers’s The Circle, all do a good job of portraying characters who have moved portions of their lives online, often with a certain amount of regret. I’m sympathetic to that storyline, but I’m also curious about the more subtle ways that technology is reshaping us. What intrigues me most about text messages—as opposed to social media platforms in general—is that they are so immediately recognizable as a piece of a larger narrative. I think this is what makes text messages so irresistible; anything that seems to speak directly to the story of our lives is hard for us to ignore. (And if you doubt the irresistibility of text messaging, consider the fact that there are laws in many states, banning people from checking text messages while driving.) And yet, for all their dramatic potential, I haven’t come across many contemporary novels that have been able to communicate their unusual immediacy and power. I reached out to my Millions colleagues to see if they’d noticed a similar absence of technology in American fiction. Edan Lepucki shared her theory that a lot of contemporary fiction has been set in the 1990s because it’s a way for writers to avoid dealing with the potentially plot-killing presence of cell phones. But she has noticed that, recently, writers have started to reckon with modern technology. It’s something she has begun to incorporate more into her own fiction, including her most recent novel, Woman No. 17, which takes place in our iPhone era, and includes a number of text and Twitter exchanges. “I wanted to show all these different ways of communicating or not communicating.” Nick Moran cites 2010’s Skippy Dies as one of the first books he noticed in which text messaging was used well. “It was especially impressive because the subjects are teens, the most avid texters of all.” But that same year, he was disappointed that Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom did not include any texting, even when the narrative focused on younger, college-aged son. Anne Yoder wrote to me to recommend Barbara Browning’s I’m Trying To Reach You, “as a book that incorporated texting rather brilliantly,” as well as Tao Lin’s novels Shoplifting From American Apparel (2009), Richard Yates (2010), and Taipei (2013). Taipei was notable for being hated as much as it was loved for its accurate-to-the-point-of-boring portrayal of lives lived on computers and phones. Zadie Smith cut to the heart of the debate by comparing Lin’s Taipei to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle in her essay “Man Vs. Corpse”: Lin’s work can be confounding, but isn’t it a bit perverse to be angry at artists who deliver back to us the local details of our local reality? What’s intolerable in Taipei is not the sentences (which are rather fine), it’s the life Paul makes us live with him as we read. Both Lin and Knausgaard eschew the solutions of minimalism and abstraction in interesting ways, opting instead for full immersion. Come with me, they seem to say, come into this life. If you can’t beat us, join us, here, in the real. It might not be pretty—but this is life. I have to admit that reviews of Lin’s fiction have not stoked my curiosity, even as I am ostensibly seeking books that give an accurate portrayal of modern life. I dread the boredom that so many critics mention. (A strange dread, when you think of it, and probably one that novelists are right to evoke, in our age of entertainment.) I have, though, read the first two volumes of My Struggle, which at least had young children and a traumatic family death to temper the monotonous description of daily life—stakes, as the screenwriters like to say. I wonder if my conventional appetite for drama has something to do with novelists’ reluctance to incorporate texting and online life into narrative. (Another factor might be the age of novelists, which I’ll get to later on.) There’s something about the ease of communication and information-gathering in our era that feels less dramatic, even if it is potentially more so. One example of this occurs in the recent film Lion, which tells the story of a four-year-old Indian boy who is accidentally boards an out of service train that takes him to Calcutta. He wanders the city for weeks, unable to accurately communicate his address or identity. Eventually he is sent to an orphanage and adopted by an Australian couple. When the boy grows up, he finds his birth mother and his hometown, thanks to the extensive global mapping of Google Earth. But the part of the movie that depicts his incredible discovery is pretty boring, especially when compared with the first half of the movie, when he's lost in a huge city. Of course, the resolution of a plot is always less interesting than the ensuing complications, but it’s especially unsatisfying to watch someone solve a mystery by squinting at a computer screen as he opens new tabs on his web browser. In general, though, film and TV have done a better job of incorporating new technology into narrative. House of Cards, which premiered in the winter of 2013, used text messages to build suspense, especially in the first season, as the corrupt and ruthless Senator Francis Underwood used his texting app to manipulate underlings or to leak sensitive information to a young reporter. Tensions were built so effectively that you felt yourself sighing, with relief, when you watched a character delete a series of compromising messages. House of Cards came up several times when I interviewed writers about their use of text messages in fiction. Dan Chaon, whose recent novel, Ill Will, incorporates some incredibly chilling text exchanges, told me that he had looked to House of Cards when considering how to format his manuscript. His characters’ text messages appear in grey text boxes and are usually right- and left-aligned but sometimes are placed in the middle of the page, interrupting paragraphs. “I liked the way House of Cards played with it,” Chaon said, “with the text bubbles on screen, and the sound. I did a lot of experimenting with where to place the text boxes on the page. I found there was something very interesting about the way you could manipulate the field of the page, and play with how they appear for the reader.” Like Chaon, I also found myself drawn in by the formatting of the text messages in House of Cards. I like the way they are superimposed over the scene, like a kind of caption or title card. Something about the artifice of this presentation makes the storytelling more exciting to me, and is a welcome departure from the more realistic shot of a smart phone or computer screen. After House of Cards, I began to notice how other TV shows used this captioning strategy. Text messages are particularly effective in sitcoms dealing with the etiquette of modern dating and relationships: Master of None, Insecure, The Mindy Project, and Love. They seem to have solved certain narrative problems for screenwriters, who can now have a character type something they would like to say but can’t bring themselves to actually say—the never-sent text—or to provide logistical details that previously would have been revealed with title cards or awkward dialogue. It’s a new way to convey internal thought without breaking the fourth wall or relying on voiceover. 2. But what narrative problems can text messaging solve for novelists? This is a question I’ve been asking, as a writer as well as a reader. My first novel, obeying Lepucki’s Theorum, was set in 1996, in part because I wanted to depict certain aspects of '90s culture, but also because my characters were in high school, and I wasn’t confident that I could convey a modern young person’s social life, informed by social media and cell phones. However, the novel I’m working on now is set in our current era, and I’ve found myself incorporating texts into the storyline, even as I’m not exactly sure what purpose they serve. They aren’t an efficient way to advance plot, and although they can reveal character, I’m not sure if they are bringing anything to the table that dialogue and internal thought aren’t already providing with greater emotion. I can’t decide if text messages are more like dialogue, documents, internal thought, or if they are something else entirely. Also, how on earth should they be formatted? The Chicago Manual of Style says that text messages should be treated like a quotation: “A message is a message, whether it comes from a book, an interview, lipstick on a mirror, or your phone. Use quotation marks to quote.” This seems like a sensible approach, one I’ve encountered in many novels, but I have personally resisted it, because quotation marks suggest something has been said out loud, and the particular syntax of text messages are shaped by the fact that they aren’t spoken and would be written differently—or perhaps not at all—if they were. Jennifer Acker, a fiction editor at The Common, told me over email that she treats text messages like a kind of document: “To me, they are just briefer and more immediate versions of emails. I don’t think of them as dialogue, like a phone conversation. There is a particular style, and sets of abbreviations, and a curtness to them that is written, not spoken.” Margaux Weisman, an editor at Vintage/Anchor (and my former editor, at William Morrow), thinks text messages have the potential to be more powerful than dialogue. “A single obnoxious text could tell you so much about a character. They seem to me more potent because they are dropped and diffuse like bombs and the recipient can’t always respond the way they’d like.” Chaon told me that one reason he decided to use text bubbles in his novel was that he was trying to get at the experience of receiving a text, which to him is something different than rendered dialogue. I asked him if he saw text messages as a kind of document. “I see it as a homunculus. As a little genie that pops up, that’s not quite a document, because it feel like it’s a document in three dimensions, because it announces its presence and it requires immediate attention—for most people. I swear to god, I’ve seen people during a wedding, texting. So it’s more important than a ceremony, for example. It has an addictive quality for people.” As someone who stayed up for several nights in a row to finish Ill Will, I can attest to the addictiveness of his messages: they jump out on the page and force you to keep reading. They often bring bad news or reveal a worrisome absence. They’re not fun. Chaon is the first to admit that his use of text messaging is colored by a feeling of trepidation: “I’m the father of a 25- and 27-year-old and saw the texting phenomenon from the beginning and watched as it took over everyone’s life, in particular of that age and younger. I was resistant to taking it up myself, but I was also really aware of how it affected people’s daily lives. I wanted to get at that in a way that felt true to the effect of it and the sense of the way it plays such a large role in our vision and attention.” For younger writers, text messages are perhaps not so fraught. Lepucki told me she didn’t give a lot of thought to formatting when she was drafting. When typing texts, she used simple tags like, “he typed” or “I texted.” She found text messages to be useful in showing the growing emotional distance between two characters, with one character texting more frequently and the other character barely replying. For extended exchanges between characters, she formatted it more like a play or interview, with the character’s name, followed by their text. She assumed that her publisher’s production team would reformat everything but the only change they made was to use a sans serif font for texts, tweets, and emails. Ultimately, she preferred this low-key approach, because her characters are generally casual in their texting. “Text is fun in because it’s neither external nor internal. It’s a cool register for feelings.” Author Katherine Hill took a similar approach. Her first novel, The Violet Hour, did not include any texting, but she’s found herself at ease with it in her second novel, which takes place in our current era. She generally views texting as a kind of written dialogue, but doesn’t use quotation marks, because it isn’t spoken. Instead, she uses italics, with line breaks for extended exchanges and dialogue tags—i.e. “so-and-so texted”—as necessary. She said she has resisted formatting that mimics screen captures because she feels it draws too much attention to the texts. “For my character, texting is a somewhat seamless experience. I don’t think he makes a huge distinction between texting and speaking and I wanted the formatting to suggest that.” Like everyone I spoke to, Hill didn’t think there should be any hard and fast rules. In some situations, she thought more intrusive formatting was preferable: “I once had a student who wrote his entire short story in text. He formatted it aggressively (left and right aligned, in text boxes) but that was pleasurable to read because it was an entire story in messages.” 3. The idea of formatting entire stories via text is not new. Some readers may remember Japan’s “cell phone novel” craze, which began more than a decade ago and was especially popular with younger writers, who would compose entire novels within text messaging apps. It was a mode of self-publishing that quickly crossed over to mainstream publishing. By 2007, half of Japan’s bestsellers originated as cell phone novels. In 2008, The New Yorker described it as “the first literary genre to emerge from the cellular age,” citing ways that the limitations of text messages affect language, chapter lengths, and narrative structure. But the trend has not really taken off in the U.S., despite a brief flirtation with “Twitter novels.” There’s a significant difference between using text messages as a publishing platform and incorporating text messages into a traditional narrative format, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room to blend the two genres. I spoke to a writer, Mitchell Maddox, who is attempting this kind of innovation in his first novel. Maddox, who describes himself as “totally new to fiction writing,” is a former high school English teacher who is now working as a project manager for a mobile app developer. As an experiment, he decided to write a portion of his book in text message bubbles. Maddox didn’t grow up with texting, but found himself interested in the ways that text messages reveal aspects of personality that other forms of communication might not show as readily. At first he crafted his fictional messages as an exchange between two characters, but then decided it was more dramatic to make the exchange one-sided, so that the reader feels a kind of urgency, as if they are receiving the messages. “I actually don’t like to talk to people over text message,” Maddox told me, over the phone. “But it became a way of creating a voice. The text messages are a kind of monologue. That sounds kind of simplistic, but the format gives it a different energy, a different feeling. It’s a break from the rest of the narrative, which can be a bit heavy, rich in detail, very cerebral and is intended to sound intellectual and then the text messages are much more light, flippant—though they still drive the narrative. I think the energy is immediate and I hope that the reader is like, ‘Oh, these are just text messages.’” Maddox hopes to publish the book with a QR code that readers could type into to their phones, so that the text message portion of the book would arrive directly on their smartphones. An even more sophisticated version of this would be to scan a code that would provide readers with a new contact. To receive the text-message portion of the novel, readers would send an actual text to the contact. The fictional contact would then respond with a series of texts, so that the reader would feel as if they were receiving correspondence from an actual person. Five years ago, the idea of receiving a portion of a novel over text message probably would have struck me as gimmicky, but my relationship with my phone has changed, and now I do quite a bit of reading via my phone’s browser. I also send and receive a lot more text messages. I can see the appeal of switching to my phone for extended sections of texting, and how it might create an enhanced feeling of intimacy. (There’s a convenience factor, too, especially while commuting.) As with any piece of literature, whether or not it transcends gimmickry depends on the quality of the writing itself. 4. When writers incorporate new technology into their novels, they run the risk of dating themselves by writing about something that will soon become obsolete. This, I would argue, is a risk that applies to almost any subject (witness the irrelevance of some of the books published shortly after the election) but seems particularly anxiety-provoking when it comes to writing about technology. Almost every writer and editor I contacted asked me how long I thought text messages would even be relevant. Would they soon be relics, a particular communication that we used only for a brief period of time? What about Facebook? Twitter? All the myriad places we post online? Novelist Lara Vapynyar took on this question in a direct way in her most recent novel, Still Here, which follows a group of Russian expats living in New York City. Her characters are all strivers; naturally, one of them is working on an app. The novel opens with a painfully funny scene, in which her character tries to sell his app, Virtual Grave, a service that preserves a person’s online presence after death. (His idea is shot down by a wealthy investor friend, who tells him that Americans prefer not to think about death.) Virtual Grave struck me as perfectly ridiculous when I read Vapnyar’s novel this spring. But last month, I heard a radio story about a grieving son who invented an app to allow him to text and speak with his father by drawing on an archive of digitized recordings and texts. Vapnyar invented several fictional apps for Still Here, and told me that after the book’s publication, she was surprised to learn that similar apps were in development. Writing to me via email, Vapnyar said she simply tried to come up with ideas that showed how immersive online life has become: “I thought I’d push it a little, make them seem plausible and yet not quite real.” I appreciated the way Vapnyar’s novel pushed technology into an existential realm, because I thought it showed how technology might be changing the shape of our thoughts—our particular illusions, delusions, and the relationship that the living have with the dead. If you view social media primarily as a way of socializing, and see text messages functioning in basically the same way that dialogue functions in a social novel—something that reveals class, character, and status—then you probably think I’ve gone a little nuts with all this formatting analysis, and maybe with this essay in general. But if you experience text messages as something more destabilizing, then maybe you see what novelists have to wrestle with. It’s not just our social lives that are being shaped by the Internet, and it’s not just our politics: it’s our consciousness and our sense of time—the two things that the novel is pretty much in the business of excavating. Image Credit: Flickr/William Hook.
1. One day before I came to the residency in Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Gu Xiang, a young Chinese novelist, chatted with me in Shanghai: Last week I came across two young men in the countryside. They were both migrant workers in a local factory. Standing on a bridge, they talked about how to get some fish from the stream below. As a young writer craving new stories, I hid myself behind a bush and eavesdropped on their conversation. They came up with quite a few plans, but all were rejected because of the various inconveniences they may cause. For example, they couldn’t fish because they didn’t have a fishing rod. After about three hours of scheming and observing, one man said to the other, well, let’s forget about the whole plan and go home. We can find some eatery to have some fish if we want to. The other man replied, sure, but I don’t think I crave fish. So they headed home. And I ended up with no story. I told Gu what she just said could be developed into a typical Carverian story—a chronicle of blue-collar despair. However, my response was not a tribute to the great American short story writer but quite the opposite. A boring piece without a real narrative: this formed all my impressions of contemporary American short fiction. Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Richard Yates, and John Updike—the list can be prolonged endlessly—all read very similarly, if not the same, in Chinese translation, and even their different subject matter does not help. They seemed to speak in a unanimous voice about the similar, repetitive, and desperate contemporary American life. Not until I reread these works in English and carefully compared the original texts with Chinese translations did I realize that translation plays a pivotal role in influencing readers’ understanding of these works. It is both interesting and sad to see how the so-called “translation style” has compressed these very different writers into one boring contemporary American voice. The beauty of the language is always the first to go. Perhaps all of us have heard the saying “three moves equal one house fire.” Unfortunately, things can be even more dismal to those writers who build their style on symbols—a single move brings off a catastrophe. Take John Updike’s short story “Separating.” The story is about Richard, who struggles with how to break the news to his children of his separation from his wife. Updike employs at least two major natural images to lay clear Richard’s inner life—the wave and the mountain. Hearing his daughter’s harsh comment on the separation, Richard bursts into tears at the family party. Updike writes, Richard’s crying, like a wave that has created and crashed, had become tumultuous; but it was overtopped by another tumult, for John, who had been so reserved, now grew larger and larger at the table. Except for the challenge a translator has to meet such as some wordplay here (e.g. the alliteration of create and crash, and the stress on the word tumult), the image of the wave is even more tricky because it is linked somewhere later in the story: “They sat on the crest of the rise, shaking and warm from their tears but easier in their voices, and Richard tried to focus on the child’s sad year…” As we all know, crest in English does not only refer to the top of a wave but also the top line of a mountain or a hill. Therefore, the crest here connects with both the afore-mentioned image, “wave” and the later important image, “mountain,” which represents the psychological burden on Richard. When Richard’s wife tells him to deal with Dickie, their mature elder son, in person, Updike depicts Richard’s gloomy moment as “The mountain before him moved closer, moved within him; he was huge, momentous.” Then, after breaking the terrible news to Dickie, Updike says, “He felt immensely lighter, saying this. He had dumped the mountain on the boy.” Clearly, the two symbols here carry significant weight of the tension within the family throughout the story. But it is almost impossible for the Chinese translator to retain the double meaning of the word crest. Having tried his best, Yuan Honggen, the Chinese translator of Updike’s short fiction collection, writes, “They sat on the top of a hill, shaking from their tears while warm in heart…” The abstract connotation of crest becomes a concrete place mark where the party is held. Thus, the Chinese readers are no longer able to track the symbols that are embedded in the story. Of course we can argue whether Yuan’s choice is good enough in terms of rendering the symbolic structure of the short fiction. But one reason why a translator has to forsake some symbols is a simple wish not to let the translation read awkwardly to the target readers. Eudora Welty, the fabulous southern American writer famous for her skillful mastery of symbols, offers another example of how style is flattened in translation. As the translator of her short story “Livvie”, I am amazed by how many vivid symbols she implanted in her detailed depiction of Solomon’s house. The story has plenty of contrasts, old and young, life and death, etc. To attain the full effect of those contrasts, Welty brings out a particular pair of symbols, spring and winter. With that in mind, the readers will find that the details of Solomon’s house work very well on both realistic and symbolic levels. The core of the house, Solomon’s bed, oozes winter: the iron bed, the snow-white curtains, and the thick quilt Solomon clutches though it’s the first day of spring. Nevertheless, the outside of the house seems already bathed in the light of spring. There are “fern baskets hanging overhead from the ceiling” and “dishpans of zinnia seedlings” in the corridor. But one specific detail that puts me under tremendous pressure is “one easy chair with high springs.” I feel certain that Welty manipulates the double meaning of spring on purpose, but in Chinese translation, in order not to let the text sound jarring, I have to translate the phrase into “one easy chair with thick cushions.” From time to time, I feel that we translators are knocking out the rungs of an exquisite ladder the author fabricates in order to help his/her readers claw through multiple levels of the story; after the ladder falls apart, the readers can only rest on the surface of the fiction. One of the major reasons I found contemporary American short fiction boring in the past is that all that is left after the “move” of the story to Chinese is an undramatic plot. The use of symbolism aside, even the very distinct American writers’ prose style can hardly be differentiated in Chinese translation. The day was fair. Brilliant. All that June the weather had mocked the Maples’ internal misery with solid sunlight—golden shafts and cascades of green in which their conversations had wormed unseeing, their sad murmuring selves the only stain in Nature. (John Updike, “Separating”) …He (Francis Weed) had traveled faster than the newspaper or the rain, and the weather in New York was sunny and mild. It was a day in late September, as fragrant and shapely as an apple. Trace listened to the story, but how could he get excited? Francis had no powers that would let him re-create a brush with death—particularly in the atmosphere of a commuting train. Journeying through a sunny countryside where already, in the slum gardens, there were signs of harvest. (John Cheever, “The Country Husband”) These two passages read quite different in English, but one may find the Chinese translations of the two texts pretty similar. The weather was fair and sunny. Throughout June the sunny weather seemed to pit against the Maples’ internal misery. Their conversations had inched along as worms did in golden shafts and layers of green, unbeknownst to others. The shadows of their sad murmuring forms the only stain in Nature. (Yuan Honggen’s translation) The Speed of his travel exceeds that of the newspaper or the rain. The weather in New York was fair, sunny, and mild. This is the weather in late September, fragrant and fair like an apple. Trace listened to him, but how could he get excited? Francis had no capacity to recreate the atmosphere of how he fled from death—particularly on a commuting train. The train pulled along through a sunny countryside, and the poor family had already shown the signs of harvest. (Shi Xianrong’s translation) Judging from the language, those two translations are rendered in fine standard Chinese that forms the so-called “translation style.” “Translation style” is beautiful in its own way, but, as I see it, it is also a process whereby handicrafts production is replaced by machine manufacturing. In the two cited translations, a progressive shade of meaning in Updike’s word choice of fair and brilliant is lost in Chinese, which makes it little different from Cheever’s more concrete choice of sunny and mild. To make things worse, Chinese translators are in a habit of using four-character/syllable idioms as a proof of their high command of their mother tongue. Therefore, the meters of those lines are similar, which leads to a similar rhythm. The day was fair. Brilliant. 天气不错，阳光明媚。 tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh, tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh the weather in New York was sunny and mild. 纽约的天气很好，风和日丽。 XXX-tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh, tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh A default use of the four-character/syllable idioms does not only apply to the description of nature (the setting of a story so to speak), but in fact everything. For example, a line in the opening paragraphs of Eudora Welty’s “Death of a Traveling Salesman” sounds like this: …He had had a very high fever, and dreams, and had become weakened and pale, enough to tell the difference in the mirror, and he could not think clearly… ……病中他高烧不退，幻影重重，体力衰弱，面色苍白，一照镜子就知道自己的变化，而且他脑子也混沌不清…… (Wu Xinyun’s translation) ...XXX-tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh, tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh, tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh, tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh, XXXXXXXXXXXX, XXXXXX-tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh… In the Chinese rendition of A Curtain of Green and Other Stories, a certain basic rhythm develops like a steady drumbeat in the background, which I doubt Welty would like. Besides, due to the linguistic difference between Chinese and English, the counterparts for certain English verbs do not exist in Chinese. The verb worm, if the translator purports to keep to the precision, can only be translated as something similar to “moves like worms,” and the additional simile in translation makes it read closer to the simile Cheever puts in his original text, “fragrant and fair like an apple.” The same is true of the adjectives that end with “-ing” (e.g. exhausting). Chances are that such adjectives as “exhausting” very often cannot secure their alternatives and have to be translated as “makes someone exhausted,” which does not only give the author a wordy style, but also equates the phrase “makes someone exhausted” with “exhausting.” Disaster strikes the passive voice. In “The Country Husband,” Cheever elaborates on a vibrant scene of a female prisoner, who is now the main character Francis’s maid, during WWII. The prisoner arrived sitting on a three-legged stool in a farm cart. She stood by the cart while the Mayor read the accusation and the sentence. Her head was bent and her face was set in that empty half smile behind which the whipped soul was suspended. Here, the passive voice inherent in Line 3 can only be rendered an active voice in Chinese, otherwise it will sound verbose even to the most patient reader. But Cheever utilizes the passive voice intentionally to contrast with the prisoner’s later spontaneous actions: “she undid her hair and let it fall across her back” and “the prisoner pushed her (a woman) aside and undressed herself.” The following three sentences are what I plan to have the undergraduates ruminate in my creative writing class, but sadly these are also the examples of certain nuances of prose style that are not working in Chinese. (1). No tear was shed by her. (2). She shed no tears. (3). All came to the funeral but no tear was shed. The first sentence can only be translated identical to the second sentence in Chinese, and the third sentence has to become “All came to the funeral but no one shed tears.” The cited excerpt of Cheever’s story also contains another example of how certain nuances of syntaxes make no sense in Chinese. (1). The prisoner arrived sitting on a three-legged stool in a farm cart. (2). Perching on a three-legged stool in a farm cart, the prisoner arrived. (3). Here was the prisoner, sitting on a three-legged stool in a farm cart. (4). The prisoner came all the way here on a three-legged stool in a farm cart. Sadly, these four sentences can only be rendered as “the prisoner came, sitting on a three-legged stool in a farm cart.” Very often, the difference in the source text, as striking as that between “Her bedroom light burned” and “Her bedroom light was on,” has to be erased. The difference of word choice does not go alone; it takes the mood with it. Good writing relies on good description, which turns readers into sensory participants in the story. Ironically, if the key adjectives or verbs are unable to find their equivalents in the target language, the whole vivid description is hollowed out. …He (Francis) took her free hand, letting his fingers in between hers, climbed at her side the two concrete steps, and went up a narrow walk through a front garden where dahlias, marigolds, and roses—things that had withstood the light frosts—still bloomed, and made a bittersweet smell in the night air. (John Cheever, “The Country Husband”) The adjective bittersweet here is of crucial importance because it does not only give a visceral sense of how those flowers smell, but also foreshadows the bitter aftertaste of Francis’s ephemeral romance. Unfortunately, the translator is not able to locate a word that can convey the two shades of meaning, and he chooses the adjective “扑鼻” which means “tangy.” The Chinese readers are therefore disconnected with the concrete fragrance of the flowers, the names of which, by the way, are purely exotic and do not ring a bell in the Chinese context. Furthermore, “扑鼻” is a cliché word in Chinese, a word that carries hardly any valence—a typical consequence of relying on “translation style.” 2. The same is true the other way around—the translation from Chinese to English. Yu Hua, one of my favorite Chinese writers, loses his signature writing style in English and becomes someone like a distant relative of himself. Yu Hua’s early short story collection came out in a new English translation with a subtitle that did not exist in its original Chinese version: Stories of Hidden China. As Drew Calvert put it in his book review published in the Boston Review, “(The subtitle) may seem like a marketing ploy to give the book an exotic appeal. It may also seem redundant: isn’t it standard for writers of fiction to explore life’s obscure realms?” This “exotic appeal,” according to Calvert, shapes the mentality of English readers, for whom “the default response has been to view it through the lens of modern politics.” Yu Hua, a highly stylistic and apolitical writer in Chinese, is transformed to a less artistic but highly political writer to accommodate an English-speaking audience. In China, Yu Hua is known as an avant-garde writer who emerged in the 1980s. His avant-garde elements of style include his clear and concise language that fits into what the French critic Roland Barthes called “writing degree zero,” suggesting a break-up of Bourgeois writing. Yu boldly confronts violence in his work, interweaving it with minimalist prose. In contrast, though the violence is retained within the totality of the plot in the English translation, Yu’s signature language is rectified and polished by the translator, thus losing his avant-garde style. Yu’s narrative in Chinese is often compared to Albert Camus’s The Stranger. Like Camus, Yu employs a lot of independent clauses. But in the English translation, perhaps in order not to let the readers feel the language is too fragmented or even broken, these independent clauses are connected by conjunctions to form complex sentences. Consider the opening paragraph of “No Name of My Own” as an example. In Allan H. Barr’s translation this paragraph is rendered as follows: One day, as I crossed the bridge with my carrying-pole on my shoulder, I heard someone say that Pug-nose Xu Asan had died, so I laid down my baskets and took the towel that I wore around my neck and rubbed the sweat off my face while I listened to them talk about how it had happened… But if translated literally from Chinese to English, this paragraph should read like this: One day, I crossed the bridge with the carrying-pole on my shoulder. I heard them say Upturned-nose Xu Asan had died. I put down the carrying-pole, took the towel hanging on my neck, rubbed the sweat off my nose. I listened to them talk about how Upturned-nose Xu Asan had died… It seems the two translations bear no major difference, but it needs to be pointed out that Yu refuses to use such linking words as as and while. The narrator of this story is an old man with an intellectual disability—his limited command of the language only allows him to make simple sentences. Yu also dislikes the conjunction word but. Barr adds but whenever he finds the logic unclear, whereas, in the original Chinese text, but is nowhere to be found. Take another two sentences in “No Name of My Own” for example, “their goggling eyes blinked shut, but their mouths opened even wider;” “the kid was crying louder than anyone, but he asked me as he wept, ‘Hey, am I your daddy?’” But in these two cases implies the narrator has the capacity to understand a contrasting relation between two facts, whereas in reality the narrator should not demonstrate such a high level of nuance. Further, by adding but, the perspective in viewing Yu’s fictional world may go through a certain degree of distortion from Chinese to English. The second example is set in a funeral scene. The kid seems to behave properly according to traditional Chinese rituals (i.e. to cry very loud for his late grandpa), yet he does not really feel grief, given the proof of his derision of the narrator on the way to the crematorium. By getting rid of but, Yu entitles the narrator to offer his observation of the society without providing any specific understanding or interpretation. The removal of nearly all conjunctions in Yu’s original text does not only do justice to the narrator’s mental disability, but also, like the aesthetic effect Camus has achieved in The Stranger, maps out a genuine and objective panorama of the absurdity of the society; the mode of writing is intended to be, as Roland Barthes put it, “a transparent form of speech.” On a similar note, the repetitions in Yu’s stories are either trimmed down or refined in the English translation, thus failing to carry the weight of the embedded emotions of the original text. In “No Name of My Own,” the narrator meditates on death: “I know I’m an idiot. I know I’m getting old and will die soon.” But in the Chinese version, this line goes: “I know I am a fool. I know I, the fool as I am, am getting old. I know, the fool as I am, will die soon.” The word fool keeps bothering the narrator and thus causes the repetition. However, in the English translation, in order not to let the prose sound jarring, Barr deprives both the narrator and readers of the right to be bothered. In certain cases, the refinement of the original prose violates the authorial intention to keep away from bourgeois writing and intellectual writing. The title story, “Boy in the Twilight” tells of a series of brutal punishments a boy is given by a vendor after the boy steals an apple from the vendor’s stall. Yu’s violent world in Barr’s translation is rendered like this: Sun Fu swung his arm and struck the boy, knocking the apple out of his hand and connecting so firmly with the boy’s chin that he collapsed on the ground. He shielded his head with his hands, all the time chewing vigorously. Sun Fu, incensed, seized the boy by the collar and hauled him to his feet. Here we need to pay special attention to two specific details. One is that such verbs in English translation as swing, knock, and connect are written originally as the same word in Chinese, da, which means “hit.” Yu ventures to challenge the lavish profusion in Chinese literary language before his time by using raw and simple word choice and sentences. That is, he does not only use his storylines to connect with regular people in China, but also lets the characters speak their minds using their own language. Thus, the violent world reads very authentically and vividly in the Chinese context. It is understandable that Barr’s variation of word choice is in a translator’s concern to connect with target readers. As James Wood comments in his review of War and Peace in a new English translation, “Flaubert, the agonist of style, swatted repetitions like insects, and today’s copy editor, no less than Tolstoy’s early translators, is post-Flaubertian in this way.” Yet we cannot deny the fact that Yu in English is forced to be more Flaubertian, closer to Bourgeois writing so to speak, something Yu has explicitly avoided throughout his writing career. The other detail that is worth mentioning is the last line in the paragraph above: “Sun Fu, incensed, seized the boy by the collar and hauled him to his feet.” In the original text, there is no such interpretation as incensed, but it should be: “On hearing the chewing sound, Sun Fu seized the boy by the collar and hauled him to his feet.” There are perhaps two reasons why Barr has made the modification: first, Barr, like today’s copy editors, cannot endure the repetitions; second, after cutting the repetition, he has to add the interpretation to smooth over the logic. But in doing so, Barr has also changed the original logic of this line in a very subtle way. Yu purports to emphasize that Sun’s brutal violence is all triggered by trivial matters such as an apple, the chewing sound, etc. The chewing sound in the Chinese context may also remind the readers of Japan’s infamous “Piano Murder” in 1974 (a man killed a female neighbor and her two young daughters because he could not tolerate their piano practice). Yu has no intention to remark that Sun is incensed. The trifles of daily life add up little by little to an eventual unbearable burden to Sun, and Sun is always on the lookout for a justified excuse to let out a flood of his repressed emotion—a mixture of boredom, grief, despair, grievance, anger, and perhaps something more. By trimming down the repetitions and appending “smart” interpretations, Barr has narrowed down the original, much broader scope of these stories. Yu also rejects the use of conventional metaphors in his works. But in Barr’s polished English version, certain images are given so much focus that they turn into metaphors in a perhaps inadvertent way. The opening paragraph of “Boy in the Twilight” is beautifully rewritten by Barr in English: “When a car drove by, it shrouded him in the dust stirred by its passage, plunging him into darkness, and it was a moment before he and his fruit re-emerged, as though unveiled by a new dawn.” In Chinese, however, this line is written by Yu in a very neat, curt fashion: “A car drove by. Dust stirred up covered him like the coming darkness. In a little while, he and his fruit re-emerged like the dawn.” This example alone may not become a serious problem affecting interpretation. Yet Barr’s elaboration on such natural imagery is evident throughout the text. One page later, Barr’s translation reads, “It was afternoon now. Dust flew as the boy fled along the highway.” A literal translation from Chinese would be: “It was already afternoon. The boy was running on the dusty road.” Neither dust nor highway are highlighted, as neither darkness nor dawn are highlighted in the first place. By imposing a new intellectual writing style on Yu and providing the misleading subtitle, Barr encourages the English readers to imbue these stories with political connotations: darkness may refer to the Cultural Revolution whereas dawn indicates the Reform and Opening period, and dust could represent the pain one experienced during the transitional period. However, in Yu’s original text, it is clear that he defies such interpretation. A final flashback in the story explains where Sun’s cruelty originates—the loss of his son, followed by his being abandoned by his wife. Yu’s stories deal with very personal relations and have no bearings with politics. Also, all of those images—darkness, dawn, dust, and highway—are never mentioned in the later part of the story, which means they should not be over-interpreted. Indeed, Barr’s translation is beautiful, but perhaps it is too beautiful to lend fidelity to Yu Hua, a writer who has no interest in receiving praise about the beauty of his writing. 3. Since there are certain linguistic and cultural gaps that translators may not be able to negotiate, what should we do? I cannot speak for all the translators, but I set some expectations for myself. First of all, get rid of the canard that all works should be rendered in a fine standard language, that is, rule out the “translation style.” As a translator, I am often caught in the fear that if I do justice to a strange prose style without refining it, the readers may think it is I, rather than the original author, who has a mediocre command of the language. But translators need to take such risks; otherwise we can see from the various examples mentioned above how different fiction writers are given one serene, unanimous voice. Second, try every means to retain the style of the author. Last semester, I was in Professor Aron Aji’s translation workshop at the University of Iowa. Whenever a certain word choice or a sentence structure read awkwardly in translation, Professor Aji would confirm with the translator first: “Does the word/line read awkwardly in the original language? In what ways?” The author’s style, like museum artifacts, are the treasures we must restore and feature in the translation. Third, give as much thought to the sound and sight of the prose as a poet does to his verses. Almost all the greatest writers care about the music of their prose. This is also something I learned from Professor Aji. Under his guidance, I am translating Zhu Yue’s short fiction collection from Chinese to English. I was surprised to hear one rule of his the first time: “if this is one sentence in Chinese, no matter how long it is, we need to make it one sentence in English.” I never asked him why, but I knew this has to do with the rhythm of the original text; until one day I happened to reread “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” by Flannery O’Connor, I came to understand more reasons behind this rule. All the sentences in Madame Bovary could be examined with wonder, but there is one in particular that always stops me in admiration. Flaubert has just shown us Emma at the piano with Charles watching her. He says, “She struck the notes with aplomb and ran from top to bottom of the keyboard without a break. Thus shaken up, the old instrument, whose strings buzzed, could be heard at the other end of the village when the window was open, and often the bailiff’s clerk, passing along the highroad, bareheaded and in list slippers, stopped to listen, his sheet of paper in his hand.” The more you look at a sentence like that, the more you can learn from it. At one end of it, we are with Emma and this very solid instrument “whose strings buzzed,” and at the other end of it we are across the village with this very concrete clerk in his list slippers… What I have learned from Flaubert’s second sentence in the quote is that if the translator breaks down the long line into several short sentences, which many translators do when confronted with a dilemma to decrease the difficulty of translation, readers may never get an opportunity to know how much a great writer like Flaubert can accomplish in a single sentence by constructing a bridge of various vivid details to connect the two sides of his fictional village. Translators are hunters who are always on the lookout for equivalents in the target language, equivalents of words, syntaxes, and rhythms, etc. Perhaps one thing we need to keep in mind in this fun but demanding game is that we also need to work hard to become the equivalent of the great author of the original text. Image Credit: Flickr/Gary Denham.
“What do you like to read?” It’s a perfectly reasonable question, but it always makes me flinch. I am a reader -- that is my identity before anything else, including writer, partner, or mother -- but I have no idea how to answer that question. First of all, just right off the bat, the question assumes that I am a coherent person from moment to moment with a consistent and legible taste in literature. That I chase after books which satisfy some sort of personal criteria for literary bliss, and as I read, I measure the pages in front of me against this ruler. Fair enough. One of my friends looks for books about messy, tangled family dynamics that end with all the loose strands woven in: The Nix by Nathan Hill. Another only reads books with a strong sense of place: The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley or The Shipping News by Annie Proulx. A third prefers introspective or philosophical novels with a spiritual dimension: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. They wield these criteria like extensions of their names: “I am the one who reads [fill in the blank].” But I have no -- and I mean no -- such criteria. I’ll read anything. But a very specific anything. I’ve never in my life read randomly. I’ve never -- not once -- walked into a bookstore and come out with a book I hadn’t heard of before. Usually I am in the midst of a reading project. Some of these are self-determined, like when I mined a vein about evolution and the link between animal behavior and ecosystem in The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner and The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen. And some choose me, such as when Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet demanded that I read the novels of Christa Wolf. Sometimes I read to draw closer to a person—and sometimes that even works. My grandmother recently began reading again after emerging from a years-long depression, so I’ve been reading and sending to her a steady stream of David Balducci thrillers and novels about the Greatest Generation like John Crowley’s Four Freedoms. Part of the problem is in the word “like,” that little heart we tap ten thousand times a day. I like lots of things, so many things, but I am not guided by what I like. I regularly read books that I know I’ll dislike, not to hate-read, but because I’m just plain curious -- because there is something in there I need that is not pleasure. After reading Claire Dederer’s memoir, Love and Trouble, and feeling disappointed by its surprisingly timid take on the dissatisfactions of middle-aged marriage, I picked up Sarah Dunn’s The Arrangement, a novel about the rueful complications that ensue when a couple decides to open their marriage for six months. My suspicion that any chance of the characters developing true dimensionality would be sacrificed in the quest for a punchline was amply confirmed. The book read like a novel-length screenplay treatment with nary a moral qualm and, strangely, no sex. But that was entirely beside the point for my reading project. Female desire is having a literary moment -- have you noticed? -- and I wanted to know the content of that conversation. Now I know. You can see how exceedingly rule-bound my reading is. And yet I still haven’t described it to you, haven’t even come close to a polite, conversational answer to the question, “What do you like to read?” It is a deeply uncomfortable subject for me. We’ve come now to the real risk at the heart of any honest answer to this question, the social stakes of it all. I sound like an incorrigible snob: I can see right through all the books that most people like; I am better than they are; I am guided not by pleasure pleasure but by some higher impulse. That’s not it, though. Perhaps there is a distinction to be made between readers and Readers. Between people who read books, just as easy as that, and people who use books to build their entire selves. The distinction here has nothing to do with the number of books read per month, hierarchies of taste, or education. Those who are simply readers are people who are made happy by books, people who like to talk about what they’ve read, people for whom joining a book group makes sense, because it is straightforward for them to translate the solitary act of reading into a social connection. Readers with a capital R, on the other hand, read from a sense of absence, of pursuit, of perturbation. Reading is too deeply personal to discuss with others, in part because it is the personal: reading as interiority. I read to listen to myself think. When a book is open in front of me, I am anonymous to the author, oblivious to my own face, and completely self-conscious: criticism as life. As Pierre Bayard theorizes in How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (a book whose mordant wisdom is not captured by that inapt title), reading must always entail loss. Bayard is about as far away from Roland Barthes's plaisir du texte as a Frenchman can get. For him, we are forever searching for a book that can never precisely match our own “inner book,” what he calls a “phantasmagorical object that every reader live to pursue, of which the best books he encounters in his life will be but imperfect fragments, compelling him to continue reading.” And, for some of us, to begin writing. Yet even those best books, the ones that interlock with our own need for them, are always receding from us, never again coinciding with the text we first read, disintegrating in memory. A constituent part of reading -- for the Reader, at least -- is this “anguish of madness.” I am reminded of Audrey Niffenegger’s The Night Bookmobile, and the character Alexandra’s harrowing quest to inhabit the chamber containing every single book she’s ever read. Those of us who read to voice our own interior monologues are doomed -- yet also privileged. Ours is an urgent project that will take a lifetime to complete, and our material will never be exhausted. I’ve recently come up with a standard answer to the question, “What do you like to read?” and I experimented with it at a book club I visited when they read my book and at a dinner party with new friends. "I like novels with unreliable narrators," I said. "Like me." Both times I got puzzled looks and head tilts. Failed experiment. But you know what I mean, don’t you? You know what it feels like to be both disordered by and constructed of books, right? If the answer is yes, nod your head from behind your book. What do I like to read? Anything, but not everything. What do I like to read? Books that I like to analyze. What do I like to read? I’ll know it when I see it. Or, better, I’ll become the person who wants to read that book when I see it. Image: Wikimedia Commons