Reading Chris Ware’s Building Stories / I just met

Art, Books, Comics, Literature, Reviews, Writers

Continuing kinda sorta where we left off

Not sure of the name of this episode, but I’ll refer to it as I just met, a phrase that repeats twice in a huge headlinish font that seems to suggest, y’know, title:

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I just met uses a few pages to tell the story of a deteriorating relationship—what happens when two twenty-somethings turn into two mid-to-late-thirtysomethings?

The comic opens with an establishing shot of what I take to be the building in Building Stories; we also get a glimpse of what I assume will be another character, the beehive, and a few other details that surely will attach themselves to these panels in future readings. We also get the general bitter tone of the couple’s relationship:

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He was one of those dudes who was once in a band; she was one of those chicks who thought guys in bands were cool.

The romance of their initial hookup is summed up neatly in the pic below; knowing Ware’s spare, precise style, the trash on the floor seems to scream symbolic detail!

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The hurt and disappointment in I just met unfolds over just a few painful pages—painful mostly in their concrete reality.

We know who these people are, even if we’re lucky enough not to be them.

Just as in  Branford, the Best Bee in the World , which I read earlier (although, to be clear again, there are no reading directions or prescriptions for Building Stories), there’s a theme of eternal recurrence, of mistakes playing out again and again in a painful, recursive loop.

Just when Ware threatens to overstate the mundane repetitions his principals suffer, he pulls off a daring and effective move, transposing his characters into the psychic collective memory of a future that’s in many ways already familiar. The effect is simultaneously jarring and oddly reassuring—the promise that our capacity for human connection and deep empathy will never buckle under the threat of drastic technological change, but also suggesting that the cost of maintaining this emotional constant is deep, ugly pain.

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“The modern novel should be largely a work of reference” (Flann O’Brien)

Books, Literature, Writers

 

In reply to an inquiry, it was explained that a satisfactory novel should be a self-evident sham to which the reader could regulate at will the degree of his credulity. It was undemocratic to compel characters to be uniformly good or bad or poor or rich. Each should be allowed a private life, self-determination and a decent standard of living. This would make for self-respect, contentment and better service. It would be incorrect to say that it would lead to chaos. Characters should be interchangeable as between one book and another. The entire corpus of existing literature should be regarded as a limbo from which discerning authors could draw their characters as required, creating only when they failed to find a suitable existing puppet. The modern novel should be largely a work of reference. Most authors spend their time saying what has been said before – usually said much better. A wealth of references to existing works would acquaint the reader instantaneously with the nature of each character, would obviate tiresome explanations and would effectively preclude mountebanks, upstarts, thimble-riggers and persons of inferior education from an understanding of contemporary literature. Conclusion of explanation.

—From Flann O’Brien’s novel At Swim-Two-Birds (1939).

 

Pym (Book Acquired, 8.16.2012)

Art, Books, Literature, Writers

 

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I wanted to read Mat Johnson’s novel Pym when it came out last year, so I was pleased when Random House sent me a copy of the forthcoming trade paperback. Random House’s blurb:

Recently canned professor of American literature Chris Jaynes has just made a startling discovery: the manuscript of a crude slave narrative that confirms the reality of Edgar Allan Poe’s strange and only novel,The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Determined to seek out Tsalal, the remote island of pure and utter blackness that Poe describes, Jaynes convenes an all-black crew of six to follow Pym’s trail to the South Pole, armed with little but the firsthand account from which Poe derived his seafaring tale, a bag of bones, and a stash of Little Debbie snack cakes. Thus begins an epic journey by an unlikely band of adventurers under the permafrost of Antarctica, beneath the surface of American history, and behind one of literature’s great mysteries.

 

“What’s Outside the Window?” (Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives Revisited)

Art, Books, Literature, Reviews, Writers

Untitled (Desert Landscape) by Salvador Dali

Biblioklept has already published two reviews of Roberto Bolaño’s big novel The Savage Detectives.

In the first review, from 2008, I suggested that the book was technically impressive but ultimately “unmoving.” In the second review, from 2010, Dave Cianci argued that my first review “was unfair and premature.”

I tend to agree with Cianci’s criticism of my early review, although in my defense I struggled with a first reading of The Savage Detectives because I was ignorant of the history of Latin America, Central America, and Mexico, a history that provides much of the context for the Bolañoverse. I was like the auditor in The Savage Detectives who listened as Ulises Lima

reeled off a story that I had trouble following, a story of lost poets and lost magazines and works no one had ever heard of, in the middle of a landscape that might have been California or Arizona or some Mexican region bordering those states, a real or imaginary place, bleached by the sun and lost in the past, forgotten, or at least no longer of the slightest importance here . . .  A story from the edge of civilization . . .

The citation above more or less pins down some of the problems first time readers to Bolaño might have with The Savage Detectives. More so than the rest of his oeuvre, Detectives dwells on “lost poets and magazines and works no one had ever heard of.” These poets and writers are mixed in with famous poets (like Octavio Paz, who appears as a character in one segment), and parsing the various characters’ attitudes toward these writers can be a perplexing challenge, and at times a turn off.

And it’s not just the names of poets and writers that can addle a reader: Many of Bolaño’s narrators share an obsessive compulsion to name every avenue, street, or alley they walk on or past, details that become frankly boring over an extended period. It’s a novel of names and places: canonizing, map-making.

Why the map-making? Because this is a book about being lost. Its first section is titled “Mexicans Lost in Mexico.” Notice how many times the word “lost” crops up in the citation above. Indeed, The Savage Detectives is not only about what it means to be lost, but also about what it means to lose—one’s friends, one’s group, one’s country, one’s mind. It’s a book about exiles.

Maybe, dear reader, you’re looking for a bit of plot summary, a morsel at least—that is, maybe you haven’t read The Savage Detectives and you want to know if you should or shouldn’t. I suggest reading Cianci’s review in that case. In any case, I don’t suggest starting Bolaño with The Savage Detectives (although I’m sure plenty of folks might disagree with me here). A better starting place might be the short story collection Last Evenings on Earth. Or really just jump into the beast at the abyssal heart of the Bolañoverse, 2666.

I reread 2666 this summer and immediately knew I had to reread The Savage Detectives, knew I had to parse some of what I missed in my first “unfair and premature” reading. I ended up checking out Blackstone Audio’s recording of the book, featuring the voice talents of Eddie Lopez and Armando Duran.

The audio production is excellent: Lopez, surely a very young man, reads the narratives of Juan García Madero that bookend the central section, “The Savage Detectives,” which is read with a startling depth of range by Duran. Lopez’s García Madero comes across as the naïve pretender to cynicism, the would-be artist faking a life of romance. In Duran’s handling, the myriad characters in the middle of the novel come to life with humor and pathos. He animates the characters, showcasing the irony and pain and sadness and small moments of lunatic joy that erupt in the book. The Savage Detectives makes for a surprisingly excellent audiobook. (Quick note anticipating a query those familiar with the novel may have: The cryptic pictograms that show up late in the novel are included in the audiobook; they displayed on my iPod in tandem with their sections, and I imagine they would pop up on any player with a screen).

I enjoyed The Savage Detectives much, much more this second time. I still found parts of it boring (perhaps purposefully boring, but boring nonetheless), and the episodes I enjoyed most on the first reading (the duel, the cavern, the Liberian segment, the Israeli prison, the campers in Spain) were the ones I enjoyed the most on the second round. Better equipped for this reading, I appreciated the riches of Detectives, the way its fragments, intertextual, metatextual, reach out through the Bolañoverse to couple with other fragments, other texts.

My metaphors above are all wrong—the texts don’t reach or couple—the reader does this work, this reaching, this coupling, this detecting.

In my first reading, not up to playing detective, I surely blew through this passage near the end of the novel, a passage that ripples with strange significance for anyone puzzling over 2666:

And Cesárea said something about days to come, although the teacher imagined that if Cesárea had spent time on that senseless plan it was simply because she lived such a lonely life. But Cesárea spoke of times to come and the teacher, to change the subject, asked her what times she meant and when they would be. And Cesárea named a date, sometime around the year 2600. Two thousand six hundred and something. And then, when the teacher couldn’t help but laugh at such a random date, a smothered little laugh that could scarcely be heard, Cesárea laughed again, although this time the thunder of her laughter remained within the confines of her own room.

Here we have lost poet Cesárea Tinajero, object of the savage detectives’ quest, holed up in her room in Santa Teresa, the central setting for the murders of 2666, a map of a factory (a maquiladora, like the ones the murdered women work at in 2666?) pinned to her wall; here we have Cesárea Tinajero, who keeps “a switchblade with a horn handle and the word Caborca engraved on the blade” by her side, believing she is “under threat of death.” Cesárea Tinajero is prophet to the horrors at the core of 2666.

2666’s Benno von Archimboldi twins Cesárea Tinajero. Just as a quartet of savage detectives search for Tinajero, so to a quartet of literary critics seek out the lost Prussian writer. (Archimboldi even shows up a few times in The Savage Detectives, albeit under the pseudopseudonym “J.M.G. Arcimboldi,” identified as a “Frenchman,” the author of The Endless Rose, his second novel in 2666). Cesárea Tinajero is also repeated in 2666’s Florita Almada, a psychic medium who not only testifies to, but also tries to stop, the unrelenting violence in Santa Teresa.

I suppose I could keep teasing out these intertextual meetings. I could point out that Detectives character Joaquín Font winds up in an insane asylum babbling about fate (fate and insanity being two major themes of 2666). I could point out that Auxilio Lacouture, narrator of Bolaño’s novella Amulet, gets to tell her story in miniature in Detectives. I could point out that the central figures (“central” is not the right word of course) of Detectives, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima are everywhere in the Bolañoverse—even unnamed, it is clear that one of the duo fathers the bastard Lalo Cura, one of the good detectives of 2666. But what would be my point in elaborating detail after detail here? Or, and perhaps this is the real question I mean to ask here—is a full reading of The Savage Detectives ultimately dependent on intertextual relationships with other Bolaño books?

Maybe a better way to finish here is to hash out the last few pages of the novel, which find our narrator García Madero driving around Sonora with Lupe, on the run from the law (maybe). The last few entries of the book—in diary form—are simply a list of place names, obscure places in the Sonora desert the pair presumably drive to. García Madero takes up the mantle of exile and reads Cesárea Tinajero’s notebooks, which perhaps influence him—the last three entries of Detectives feature pictographic riddles that recall Tinajero’s visual poem “Sion.” Here is the final entry, which is also the final page of the book—

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I suppose there are plenty of answers to Bolaño’s final riddle. What’s outside the window? Abyssvoiduncertainty. Aporia. And also: Possiblityopennessfreedom. Certainty. And also: The perforated suggestions of a shape, lines to guide our scissors, form. And also: It’s to be taken literally, a literal dare to the reader to get up, to look out, to see. I could probably keep going.

If we know Bolaño’s detective games, we know that the mysteries are really labyrinths, mazes where we might get trapped and go insane. (The Savage Detectives is in large part a novel that outlines the risks—mental, physical, emotional—of literature). How do I read the gaps in the visual riddle? The gesture is visual ambiguity, paradox. The dashes open to void and close to make form; they define yet are indefinite; the window is there and is not there. So what we’re left with is a way of seeing, or at least an invitation to a way of seeing, which is to say a way of reading. So, if you like—and I like—what’s outside the window is the rest of the Bolañoverse—or at least an offer to play detective.

Vanishing Is the Last Art (Book Acquired, Some Time in the Past Two Weeks)

Books

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Josh Davis’s novel Vanishing Is the Last Art. Blurb:

Charlie Fell sells baseball cards with seemingly hallucinogenic properties out of his bedroom, takes road trips to places he loves (New York City) and loathes (Southern California), and trips over a series of romantic entanglements. When the young writer releases his first novel, his life begins to unravel as the fallout from his published inner-monologues drive him back inside his already frail mind

Josh Henkin Talks to Biblioklept About His New Novel, The World Without You

Books, Interviews, Literature, Writers

Joshua Henkin’s new novel, The World Without You, tells the story of the Frankels, a large Jewish American family who gather over the Fourth of July weekend to mourn the death of their son Leo, a journalist who was kidnapped and then murdered in Iraq. The World Without You is Henkin’s third novel after Matrimony and Swimming Across the Hudson. Henkin directs the MFA program in Fiction Writing at Brooklyn College. The World Without You is new in hardback from Pantheon. You can learn more about Henkin at his website. He was gracious enough to talk to me over a series of emails about writing, teaching, verb tense, sympathy, and his new novel.

Biblioklept: There’s a lot going on in The World Without You, but it seems to be essentially a novel about a family—what it means to be a family, what it means to be in a family, what it means to be in conflict with a family—where did the Frankels come from?

Josh Henkin: The most simple answer is, My imagination.  The Frankels aren’t based on anyone I know, and like all characters in fiction (at least the kind of fiction I write), they developed slowly over time; I discovered them in the writing process over the course of quite a number of years.  What I would say is that I think that in the same way that people speak of “rebound relationships,” I think of my novels as “rebound novels.”  Matrimony took place over twenty years and focuses on a small cast of characters, and I wanted to write something different this time.  So, whether consciously or not, I set out to write a book that was more compressed, on one hand (it takes place over 72 hours instead of over 20 years), and more spacious, on the other hand (there are many more characters, and we go into many points of view).  If you’re asking where the inspiration for the book came from, I’d say it came mostly from the following.  I had a first cousin who died of Hodgkin’s disease when he was in his late twenties. I was only a toddler at the time, but his death hung over my extended family for years. At a family reunion nearly thirty years later, my aunt, updating everyone on what was happening in her life, began by saying, “I have two sons….” Well, she’d once had two sons, but her older son had been dead for thirty years at that point. It was clear to everyone in that room that the pain was still raw for her and that it would continue to be raw for her for the rest of her life. By contrast, my cousin’s widow eventually remarried and had a family. This got me thinking how when someone loses a spouse, as awful as that is, the surviving spouse eventually moves on; but when a parent loses a child they almost never move on. That idea was the seed from which The World Without You grew. Although there are many tensions in the novel (between siblings, between couples, between parents and children), the original tension was between mother-in-law and daughter-in law, caused by the gulf between their two losses, by the different ways they grieve.

Biblioklept: You mention the compression of The World Without You, which here strikes me as form of realism. The book takes place over the July 4th holiday—why did you choose this setting? Was the Independence Day setting always part of your design?

JH: I knew I wanted a compressed period of time–mostly because Matrimony took place over twenty years and I think of books like relationships:  one book is a rebound from the previous one.  I also knew that I wanted the book to be told in many points of view; this, too, makes it different from Matrimony, which was told only in Julian and Mia’s points of view.  In terms of Independence Day, I think that was a little more unconscious, though probably intentional as well.  Part of the issue was a practical one:  how do you get a large, disperse family together in one place?  You need an occasion for the telling, and a holiday like July 4th provides one.  Though of course the real occasion for the telling is Leo’s memorial.  But I think even there Independence Day is relevant because although the book is obviously about the specific characters (I think all fiction worth its salt is always first and foremost about the particular, not the general), I do think this novel in its own indirect way is a novel about America more broadly, and certainly about a certain segment of America, of which I consider myself a part.  The Frankels are a political family, with strong opinions about Bush and about the Iraq War, but they’re also privileged.  They’ve really known no one who has fought in the war, have been insulated from it in their day-to-day lives–and then, with Leo’s death, it comes and touches them in the most horrific and personal way.  And I wondered what that’s like–to be mourning while the rest of the country is celebrating, to be commemorating the independence of a country that has sent its young men and women to war, a country that’s responsible for their son and brother’s death.

Biblioklept: You mention the Frankels’s privileged background. They are, for the most part, liberal, secular, refined. Leo dies in Iraq, but, significantly, he’s a journalist, not a soldier. Do you worry that not all readers will connect to these characters? How do you make your characters sympathetic—or does sympathy even matter in fiction?

JH: My feeling is that people are people, and they merit as little or as much sympathy as they merit whether they’re rich or poor, healthy or sick, beautiful or ugly.  There’s a strand of anti-elitism in American culture  (one can see it every day, tirelessly, in our politics), and one sees it, too, in certain attitudes toward literature–the idea being that only the humble, the uneducated are worthy of our fiction.  But I find the idea pretentious; it smacks of a kind of reverse snobbery.  And tell it, in any case, to Fitzgerald, or Cheever, or Yates.  One of the things good literature does is it humanizes people we might not otherwise be drawn to.  And (this is at least as important) it allows us to enjoy the company of people on the page whose company we might not enjoy off the page.  Which is another way of saying that sympathy doesn’t matter in fiction, at least not sympathy narrowly construed.  In fiction, as in life, some people are likable and some people aren’t likable, and the world would be boring if everyone were likable.  The fiction writer’s job is to make his characters complex, interesting, fully human, not (or at least not necessarily) likable.

Biblioklept: The World Without You is conveyed in the present tense. I’m curious what led you to compose in the present tense, or if you drafted parts of the novel in the past tense—what advantages can the present tense offer the writer and reader? What are its limitations?

JH: I think about tense a lot, probably because I teach fiction writing and, more specifically, because I direct Brooklyn College’s Fiction MFA program, and so I end up reading 500 application manuscripts a year, a good number of which are written in the present tense.  It’s said that present tense makes the story feel more immediate, yet year after year I notice among our graduate applications that the present-tense stories are usually the least immediate, most inert stories in the bunch.  Why is that?  I think it’s because some writers use present tense as a substitute for narrative, as a way of hiding that nothing is happening in their stories.  They think that if they write in present tense their stories will feel immediate.

I also think that present tense is deceptive because it’s easy in present tense to slip out of scene and into general/habitual time.  In the past tense, you would write “She went to the store on Tuesday” to suggest that the character is going to the store at a specific time.  If, on the other hand, you wanted to indicate repeated or habitual action, you would write, “She would go to the store on Tuesday.”  But in the present tense there generally isn’t such a distinction between the specific and the habitual.  “She goes to the store on Tuesday” can mean either that she’s going to the store right now on Tuesday or that she’s a habitual store-goer on Tuesdays.  I think what happens in present tense is that a lot of writers end up slipping into the habitual, and so what seems immediate is actually not at all immediate.

The other thing I’d say is that it’s very hard to write a present-tense novel that takes place over ten years because it’s likely to feel artificial for all that time to be in present tense.  Present tense works best, then, in novels and stories told in compressed time.

The World Without You simply came to me in present tense.  That was the tense that felt right for the book.  This may be true, in part, because I’d been influenced by Richard Ford’s Independence Day, another novel told over a single July 4th holiday that’s told in present tense.  But I think it’s more than that.  The World Without You takes place over 72 hours, so it’s ideally suited for present tense, and it’s also told in confined space; most of the book is situated in the Frankel family home and the streets that surround it in Lenox, Mass.  One thing I was trying to do was balance the sprawling quality of the book (there are many characters and lots of different points of view) with the more focused time and space that I just mentioned, and I think present tense allowed me to do that.  But all this is post-facto, a case of me looking back at what I did.  I proceeded intuitively, which is what I always do, and present tense simply felt right (it was the right sound, the right voice) for this book.

Biblioklept: You bring up your position as Brooklyn College’s MFA fiction program director—I’m curious if reading so many manuscripts affects your own writing.

JH: I love teaching, and that’s in large part because I get to teach some of the most talented young writers out there.  In the last few months alone, five of our recent MFA graduates have gotten book contracts.  There are writers who wouldn’t know how to teach; for them, writing is an intuitive process and they aren’t fully conscious of what they’re doing.  For me, it was the opposite.  I could read someone else’s short story and figure out what wasn’t working long before I could make things work in my own stories.  I needed to learn how to become a more intuitive writer, and critiquing other people’s stories helped me do that; it still helps me.  I’ve been at this process longer than my students have, but we’re all struggling with the same thing—how to write convincing stories; how to make our characters comes so deeply to life they feel as real as, even realer than, the actual people in our own lives; how to use language in a way that’s precise and beautiful and utterly true.  That never changes.  So in a way, even though I’m the instructor, we’re all students in the room.  Also, I’m a fairly social person, and writing is incredibly solitary, so teaching gives me the chance to be with other people and to talk about the work I love.

Biblioklept: Are there manuscripts that come in where you just kind of slap your forehead and go, “Not another story about ______ again!”

JH: Absolutely.  Many of my graduate students are in their mid-twenties, and so they write about the concerns of people in their mid-twenties.  How to find love in the big city, that kind of thing.  That’s okay.  If it’s done well, just about any subject matter can make for compelling fiction, and in any case, my students won’t be in their mid-twenties forever.  That’s one of the nice things about being a writer.  You mature; you get better over time.  Writing is different from figure skating.  It’s even different from playing the violin.  You can be in your late forties and still be a young writer.  At least that’s what I like to tell myself!

Often it’s less a similarity of subject matter that I see than a similarity of voice or sensibility.  For a time I saw a lot of Lorrie Moore imitators.  Then I saw a lot of George Saunders imitators.  If you’re going to imitate someone, those are two pretty good choices, though in a lot of ways Moore and Saunders are inimitable.  But that’s fine.  Imitation is part of the maturing process.  It’s how a writer achieves her own voice.

Biblioklept: Do you have any upcoming writing projects? What are you working on next?

JH: My most immediate project is a trip to Hawaii! Writing a novel takes a lot out of you. Right now, I’m trying to figure out what comes next. I promised myself I would go back to writing short stories. It’s weird, I’ve spent the last nearly twenty years writing novels, when in so many ways I think of myself as a short-story writer. It was certainly my first love, and because I teach MFA students, I spend a lot of time reading and thinking about short stories. So last fall, when I finished the final draft of The World Without You, I immediately sat down to write a short story, and what happened? The draft I wrote was 113 pages along! And then the second short story I wrote was over 200 pages long! I still think I’m capable of writing a regular old twenty-to-thirty-page short story, but we’ll have to see. In the meantime, I’m tossing around some ideas for a new novel, but it’s still in the very early, incubating stages, so I’m not saying anything more than that.

Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?

JH: Alas, I have not.  But I’m working on it.

The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson’s Novel About Identity and Storytelling in North Korea

Books, Literature, Reviews, Writers

Late in Adam Johnson’s novel The Orphan Master’s Son, the titular protagonist muses that, “In North Korea, you weren’t born, you were made.” The Orphan Master’s Son is a novel about what it means to claim agency—to literally make a self—in a totalitarian society that assigns an official narrative to each of its citizens. Our hero is Jun Do, a boy who takes on a martyr’s name like all North Korean orphans, even though he believes with absolute commitment in a narrative he’s created where he’s the son of the man who keeps him and the other orphan boys. His mother? Well, she’s a phantom in a photograph, a beautiful singer disappeared on a forgotten night.

In the orphanage, Jun Do decides which boys will eat and which ones will not, who will freeze and who will stay warm. He even chooses their names from the list of Revolutionary Martyrs. From the outset of his life, Jun Do must navigate a world where his own capacity for human feeling is always threatened, preëmpted, or outright destroyed by institutionalized suffering.

Reaching early adulthood, Jun Do joins the army where he’s trained in martial arts. He joins a tunnel unit, learning how to fight in total darkness. In the tunnels, Jun Do receives the first of many opportunities to defect (in this case to South Korea). Johnson explores the tension of such a choice again and again. In time, a special unit conscripts Jun Do to “pluck” (the official euphemism for kidnap) Japanese citizens from their own beaches and seafronts. As a reward for his skills, he’s allowed to learn English, and soon winds up as a radio spy on a North Korean fishing vessel (these are the best moments of the book). During this time, Jun Do eavesdrops on two American women who plan to row around the world, a plot point that resurfaces in the novel’s second-half. He also finds himself a decorated hero of North Korea—but almost as soon as he finds a would-be home and family in the fishing vessel and crew, he’s plucked away on a mission to Texas.

Okay: If the paragraph above seems all over the place, that’s because the first part of The Orphan Master’s Son, “The Biography of Jun Do,” is all over the place—in a good way. There’s a dazzling giddiness to the tale of Jun Do, and the swift turns of his identity read like a picaresque novel. I was repeatedly reminded of Candide or Invisible Man. It’s worth recalling Ralph Ellison’s description of Invisible Man : “it stands on its own if only as one of those pieces of writing which consists mainly of one damned thing after another sheerly happening.”

“The Biography of Jun Do” stands on its own as well, and for me it was the highlight of The Orphan Master’s Son, full of black humor, satirical venom, and genuine pathos. It also showcases some of the best prose in the novel. Let me share some, at length. Here’s the captain of the fishing boat (probably my favorite character in the novel). A bit of context: Pyongyang orders the fishing boat to obtain fresh shrimp, a mission that will take them illegally into Russian waters—an offense the captain has already been incarcerated for:

“The Russians gave me four years,” he said. “Four years on a fish-gutting ship, forever at sea, never once did we go to port. I got the Russians to let my crew go. They were young, village boys mostly. But next time? I doubt it.”

“We’ll just go out for shrimp,” the Pilot said, “and if we don’t get any, we don’t get any.”

The Captain didn’t say anything to that plan. “The trawlers were always coming,” he said. “They’d be out for weeks and then show up to transfer their catch to our prison ship. You never knew what it would be. You’d be down on the gutting floor, and you’d hear the engines of a trawler coming astern and then the hydraulic gates opening up and sometimes we’d even stand on our saw tables because down the chute, like a wave, would come thousands of fish—yellowtail, cod, snapper, even little sardines—and suddenly you were hip deep in them, and you’d fire up your pneumatic saws because nobody was getting out until you’d gutted your way out. Sometimes the fish were hoarfrosted from six weeks in a hold and sometimes they’d been caught that morning and still had the slime of life on them.

“Toward afternoon, they’d sluice the drains, and thousands of liters of guts would purge into the sea. We’d always go up top to watch that. Out of nowhere, clouds of seabirds would appear and then the topfish and sharks—believe me, a real frenzy. And then from below would rise the squid, huge ones from the Arctic, their albino color like milk in the water. When they got agitated, their flesh turned red and white, red and white, and when they struck, to stun their victims, they lanterned up, flashing bright as you could imagine. It was like watching underwater lightning to see them attack.

“One day, two trawlers decided to catch those squid. One set a drop net that hung deep in the water. The bottom of this net was tethered to the other trawler, which acted like a tug. The squid slowly surfaced, a hundred kilos some of them, and when they started to flash, the net was towed beneath them and buttoned up.

“We all watched from the deck. We cheered, if you can believe that. Then we went back to work as if hundreds of squid, electric with anger, weren’t about to come down that chute and swamp the lot of us. Send down a thousand sharks, please—they don’t have ten arms and black beaks. Sharks don’t get angry or have giant eyes or suckers with hooks on them. God, the sound of the squid tumbling down the chute, the jets of ink, their beaks against the stainless steel, the colors of them, flashing. There was this little guy on board, Vietnamese, I’ll never forget him. A nice guy for sure, kind of green, much like our young Second Mate, and I sort of took him under my wing. He was a kid, didn’t know anything about anything yet. And his wrists, if you’d seen them. They were no bigger than this.”

Jun Do heard the story as if it were being broadcast from some far-off, unknown place. Real stories like this, human ones, could get you sent to prison, and it didn’t matter what they were about. It didn’t matter if the story was about an old woman or a squid attack—if it diverted emotion from the Dear Leader, it was dangerous. Jun Do needed his typewriter, he needed to get this down, this was the whole reason he listened in the dark.

“What was his name?” he asked the Captain.

“The thing is,” the Captain said, “the Russians aren’t the ones who took her from me. All the Russians wanted was four years. After four years they let me go. But here, it never ends. Here, there is no limit to anything.”

“What’s that mean?” the Pilot asked.

“It means wheel her around,” the Captain told him. “We’re heading north again.”

The Pilot said, “You’re not going to do anything stupid, are you?”

“What I’m going to do is get us some shrimp.”

Jun Do asked him, “Were you shrimping when the Russians got you?”

But the Captain had closed his eyes. “Vu,” he said. “The boy’s name was Vu.”

I’ve quoted so much here—really more than belongs in a book review, I suppose—because I think that this little story perfectly condenses the novel’s best features. Our characters are forced into an impossible situation, one that can’t have a good end for them. We also get the sense of the deep personal loss—of disappeared persons—that haunts The Orphan Master’s Son. And: The power of story-telling, to move and motivate and thrill, but also to be yet another agent in the aforementioned disappearing.

The excerpt above is a really great stand-alone piece of writing, and I guess I feel the need to clarify that I think Johnson is a pretty good writer before I set about telling you why I didn’t like the second half of The Orphan Master’s Son.

I should probably clarify that I think many people will enjoy this novel and find it very moving and that the faults I found in its second half likely have more to do with my taste as a reader than they do Johnson’s skill as a writer, which skill,  again I’ve tried to demonstrate is accomplished. I like picaresque novels, fragmentary novels, novels that let the reader do the heavy-lifting, novels that leave open spaces and gaps. The first half of The Orphan Master’s Son is such a novel. The second half, “The Confessions of Commander Ga,” settles down into a plot- and motif-driven arc that too-often overstates its case. For me, a good riff of dark, sad, occasionally hilarious tales cohered too heavily in “Confessions” into a gelatinous mess of plot strands verging on soap opera. Johnson’s admirable ambition leads him to overload the novel with unmanageable plot turns and leitmotifs.

The biggest problem though is the overwhelming suspicion that Johnson is simply out of his element in trying to inhabit the North Korean imagination. Although he’s clearly done his research, North Korea is essentially closed to the rest of the world. And Johnson is a U.S. American. I mean, there’s this whole other impossible-to-digest ball of wax here that makes Johnson’s admirable intent to write a novel about “propaganda” just way too complicated to suss out in a review, and I’ll admit that I tend to read like a reviewer, and that these notions just bugged the hell out of me as the novel progressed.

Johnson’s novel repeatedly reminded me of David Mitchell’s excellent historical epic The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, a book that also obsesses over storytelling and identity in a closed nation. Mitchell’s novel provides the Western reader with a European surrogate in the titular de Zoet, an obvious device that nonetheless adds to the book a richness—and frankly an authenticity—that The Orphan Master’s Son lacks. Johnson’s title character (again, reader surrogate) is North Korean, and even though Johnson takes pains to show the internal machinations of his character’s changing personality, there’s a deeply U.S. American perspective that underwrites his psychology. We’re repeatedly told that in North Korea it’s the story that’s absolute, “But in America, people’s stories change all the time. In America, it is the man who matters.” By changing his story, Jun Do emotionally, spiritually, psychologically (choose your idiom) defects to The Land of Opportunity.

If I’ve withheld summarizing or even illustrating the plot of “The Confessions of Commander of Ga,” I’ve done so to avoid spoilers. Again, many people will dig this novel, and any explication would ruin its second half. Let’s just say there’s an actress. And a second life. And those rowers come up again. And a love story. And a branding iron. And the Americans. And The Dear Leader, of course. And Casablanca. And dogs. Etc.

The Orphan Master’s Son is very much a dystopian novel, and its second half often reads like the love story from 1984 (should I point out here how dreary I often found that plot form 1984? No? Fair enough). Toward the end of The Orphan Master’s Son, I began imagining how the novel might read as a work divorced from historical or political reality, as its own dystopian blend—what would The Orphan Master’s Son be stripped of all its North Korean baggage? (This is a ridiculous question, of course, but it is the question I asked myself). I think it would be a much better book, one that would allow Johnson more breathing room to play with the big issues that he’s ultimately addressing here—what it means to tell a story, what it means to create, what it means to love a person who can not just change, but also disappear. These are the issues that Johnson tackles with aplomb; what’s missing though, I think, is a genuine take on what it means to be a North Korean in search of identity.

“I Wouldn’t Recommend It” — J.G. Ballard on Writing Novels

Art, Books, Literature, Writers

Writing a novel is one of those modern rites of passage, I think, that lead us from an innocent world of contentment, drunkenness, and good humor, to a state of chronic edginess and the perpetual scanning of bank statements. By the eighteenth book, one has a sense of having bricked oneself into a niche, a roosting place for other people’s pigeons. I wouldn’t recommend it.

From J.G. Ballard”s Paris Review interview.

Finn Mac Cool Relates Those Musics He Has Found the Sweetest — A Passage from O’Brien’s Novel At-Swim-Two-Birds

Books, Literature, Writers

Extract, from my typescript descriptive of Finn Mac Cool and his people, being humorous or quasi-humorous incursion into ancient mythology: Of the musics you have ever got, asked Conan, which have you found the sweetest?

I will relate, said Finn. When the seven companies of my warriors are gathered together on the one plain and the truant clean-cold loud-voiced wind goes through them, too sweet to me is that. Echo-blow of a goblet-base against the tables of the palace, sweet to me is that. I like gull-cries and the twittering together of fine cranes. I like the surf-roar at Tralee, the songs of the three sons of Meadhra and the whistle of Mac Lughaidh. These also please me, man-shouts at a parting, cuckoo-call in May. I incline to like pig-grunting in Magh Eithne, the bellowing of the stag of Ceara, the whinging of fauns in Derrynish. The low warble of water-owls in Loch Barra also, sweeter than life that. I am fond of wing-beating in dark belfries, cow-cries in pregnancy, trout-spurt in a laketop. Also the whining of small otters in nettle-beds at evening, the croaking of small-jays behind a wall, these are heart-pleasing. I am friend to the pilibeen, the red-necked chough, the parsnip land-rail, the pilibeen mona, the bottle-tailed tit, the common marsh-coot, the speckle-toed guillemot, the pilibeen sleibhe, the Mohar gannet, the peregrine plough-gull, the long-eared bush-owl, the Wicklow small-fowl, the bevil-beaked chough, the hooded tit, the pilibeen uisce, the common Corby, the fish-tailed mud-piper, the cruiskeen lawn, the carrion sea-cock, the green-lidded parakeet, the brown bog-martin, the maritime wren, the dove-tailed wheatcrake, the beaded daw, the Galway hill-bantam and the pilibeen cathrach. A satisfying ululation is the contending of a river with the sea. Good to hear is the chirping of little red-breasted men in bare winter and distant hounds giving tongue in the secrecy of fog. The lamenting of a wounded otter in a black hole, sweeter than harpstrings that. There is no torture so narrow as to be bound and beset in a dark cavern without food or music, without the bestowing of gold on bards. To be chained by night in a dark pit without company of chessmen – evil destiny! Soothing to my ear is the shout of a hidden blackbird, the squeal of a troubled mare, the complaining of wild-hogs caught in snow.

Relate further for us, said Conan.

It is true that I will not, said Finn.

A lovely early passage from Flann O’Brien’s first novel At Swim-Two-Birds.

Novels Make Lousy Gifts (But We Should Give Them Anyway)

Books, Literature, Writers

Novels make lousy gifts.

Now, if you have even a passing acquaintance with this little blog, you know that I love novels, that Biblioklept primarily focuses on novels, and that I love books in general. I am not anti-novel or anti-giving-novels-as-gifts. Send me a novel as a gift. I will appreciate it (or trade it toward another book, which is kinda sorta a form of appreciation).

I went to my favorite bookstore today, in fact, to buy some books for Christmas presents. But I restrained myself from picking up novels as gifts.

If you love books like I do, I’m sure that some of your most favorite gifts ever have been novels. Some of my most favorite gifts have been novels. The remaindered copy of The Lord of the Rings (from the South Barwon Library that some friends of the family gave me on Dec. 5th, 1990 when we visited Melbourne (the one in Australia, not Florida)) is probably one of my all-time favorite gifts. I know the exact date because the nice lady who gave it to me wrote a kind note in book and included the date in her note.

I could never bear to get rid of an inscribed book given as a gift, but lots of people do get rid of inscribed books. This is a monstrous practice, one that attests to just how easily people will discard your oh-so-earnest gifts. If you spend a lot of time in used bookstores (I do) you will come across these sad markings. Because it’s close at hand, and I’m aware of its inscription, I’ll share the note that Jean wrote to Helen (no, of course I know neither of them) in my copy of Balthus’s memoir, Vanished Splendors:

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I am aware that the memoir of a pervy artist is not the same as a novel, and that, as my first illustrating example, I already seem to be losing my metaphorical balance, but again, it was close at hand, right near the Tolkien in fact (by the bye, Vanished Splendors is pure gold).

In any case, I think Balthus’s memoir “reads” like a novel, which is to say that it’s mostly big chunks of text that require time and energy to decipher, set against the backdrop of TV, internet, movies, etc. It has some pictures, but not many. There’s no gimmick to it. I’m guessing that Helen just wasn’t into Balthus, or, if she had a passing interest in his art, it didn’t translate into wanting to read his memoir. She certainly didn’t read any of it (yes, I have a special sense that tells me when a book has been read. This baby was a virgin). Every time I look over the book, I feel sorta bad for Jean, whose gift seems to have gone unappreciated (by Helen; not by me. I was happy to pick it up used).

To return to an earlier point: yes, some of our favorite gifts ever might be novels. However, most of the life-changing novels I received were rarely given as birthday or Christmas gifts. They weren’t gifts of obligation, if you’ll forgive the ugliness of that term. Most of the great novels that were given to me were handed along free of occasion, given because the giver thought (knew) I should read them.

At Christmas though, we feel obliged to give. Sometimes we get some great novels as gifts. More often though, it seems like that relative who knows you “like to read” gives you a novel by, I dunno, Clive Cussler or Tom Clancy. The worst though are those tiny little hardback books that are designed specifically to be gifts, little faux-tomes of faux-philosophy usually connected to golf or angels or some other bullshit (I was horrified last year when DFW’s “This Is Water” speech got this treatment). Anyway, if you like books, you probably just go trade in this bullshit toward the books you like.

But this post isn’t really about the problem of getting airport novels or gimmick books as gifts. This post is about those of us who insist on giving novels we love to people who we know don’t really love reading novels. Especially really big, somewhat (or very) experimental novels. Important novels. Those novels that we read and decide that everyone needs to read this to become a fully realized human being [gags on that phrase].

I think sometimes we give our friends and relatives novels as gifts because we love them so much and we also love the book so much that we are maybe gunning for an intellectual three-way. We want them to read the novel so that we can share in it together, discuss it, rant about it, argue about it (remember though: that’s what the internet is for).

What often happens though is that these gifted novels (forgive the ambiguous, awkward modifier) tend to lurk about the giftee’s abode, brickishly unread, like dour unwanted houseguests. They skulk at the margins of bookshelves or migrate to the bottom of “to read” stacks; a lucky one might find occasional fingering above a commode. They are ugly reminders to the giftee, signals of how he or she has failed to meet your expectations (your expectations re: 9 or 15 or 25 or 30 hours of her time). (Young people, by which I mean college students in the liberal arts, are the exception here; they probably aren’t going to read the novel, but they are absolutely fine with putting it out for show).

People like books with pictures though, generally.

Even though I think novels tend to make lousy gifts, we should give them to our friends and loved ones anyway, even on those days of obligated giving. We should still offer novels up like they were somehow a part of our own selves in the deluded hope that the giftee will read them and discuss them with us, and that the novel will become an internal, virtual, shared experience. We should give them knowing that it’s likely they’ll go unread, that they may even be a point of shame for the giftee (especially when we ask, “Have you started . . . ?”). We should give them aware that they might point toward our own selfish desires.

Even if a novel may be a gift that implies a certain level of intellectual work, it also implies a  sense of trust and respect toward the giftee, and in this sense, giving a loved novel is a clear way to show love.

Riffing on Michel Houellebecq’s Novel The Elementary Particles

Books, Literature, Writers

1. If I had anything resembling a decent thesis about Michel Houellebecq’s 1998 novel The Elementary Particles, I’d try to write a proper review; but I don’t have anything approaching a thesis about it, so I’ll just riff a bit.

2. Re: item 1: there are just too many “big ideas” to hash out without a second reading. The book tackles social and cultural evolution, taking a hard aim at what the boomers hath wrought: it attacks the concepts of the free market, free love, and even free will.

3. The themes of The Elementary Particles: sex and death.

4.  Les Particules élémentaires is the original French title. The book was sold with the title Atomised in its British publication. The Elementary Particles is the “American” title; it’s fine, I suppose, but Atomised strikes me as more fitting. Both titles allude to the book’s plot, which involves molecular biology as well as the “metaphysical mutations” that happen over human history. But the American title seems too positive—it connotes imagery of building blocks, of growth, of possibility. Atomised conjures disintegration, which is more in tune with the novel’s tone.

5. Frank Wynne translates.

6. Is it silly to say that I find the novel very French? I think this is a silly comment, one that says more about me than the book.

7. Still, I find the book very French.

8. The Elementary Particles isn’t a “novelly novel.” Don’t read this book if you are interested in plot arc, character development, or emotional uplift.  Catharsis? Validation of the existential human drama? Not gonna happen here.

9. This isn’t a book for everyone. This is probably not a book for most people, in fact.

10. I loved it though. It was funny and mean and shocking. Bristly, brisk, engaging. Most of all, I was fascinated by Houellebecq’s intelligence.

11. It is possible that many readers will be annoyed or aggravated at Houellebecq’s artless ventriloquizing of his characters, who often deliver long, occasionally polemical, speeches on any number of subjects, including the Huxleys (Aldous and his brother Julian), problems with the French education system, the merits and tragedies of anonymous sex, the emotional cost of a culture mediated by advertising and consumerist desire, the terrors of post-boomer moral fallout (ritualized slayings and the like) . . .

12. Things that The Elementary Particles reminds me of:

Louis-Ferdinand Céline

William Burroughs

Albert Camus

The Marquis de Sade

Aldous Huxley

J.G. Ballard

Neuromancer

Pornography

Wikipedia

Flat narrative voice-overs in films both foreign and domestic

Nietzsche

Peter Greenaway’s film A Zed and Two Noughts

The late twentieth century

13. What do the two half-brothers of The Elementary Particles crave? Motherly love.

14. Sensationalism that repels more than it titillates in The Elementary Particles: group sex, voyeurism, exhibitionism, ritualistic Satanic murder.

15. A weak shot at plot summary: Michel and Bruno are half-brothers. Their mother, a selfish hippie (there can be no other kind in Houellebecq’s world), abandons them to be raised by different family members. Bruno, more or less forgotten by his father, is brutalized in boarding school. Michel, raised by his paternal grandmother, becomes emotionally isolated and withdrawn. He grows up to become a brilliant molecular biologist whose work on DNA mapping leads to a new type of cow (later he does something that changes the course of humanity forever, but hey, no spoilers). Michel cannot make human connection and finds no interest in sex. Bruno, in contrast, spends his life in arrested development, lusting after young girls like a sex-crazed maniac (which he kinda sorta technically is, I suppose). Both men reconnect with each other, connect with meaningful women, and some other stuff happens too.

16. Look, the plot isn’t really that important in The Elementary Particles. It’s an idea novel. A novel of ideas. [Shudders].

17. A lot of people hated this book; that is, they hated the ideas in this book and the presentation of those ideas.

18. Here’s Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times:

The reader of the newly translated English version can only conclude that controversy — over the book’s right-wing politics and willfully pornographic passages — accounts for the novel’s high profile. As a piece of writing, ”The Elementary Particles” feels like a bad, self-conscious pastiche of Camus, Foucault and Bret Easton Ellis. And as a philosophical tract, it evinces a fiercely nihilistic, anti-humanistic vision built upon gross generalizations and ridiculously phony logic. It is a deeply repugnant read.

19. I generally disagree with Kakutani, who is often disingenuous or lazy as a critic. I think that she completely misreads the novel.

20. I find it reassuring that Houellebecq offends Kakutani.

21. Kakutani loved Gary Shteyngart’s awful dystopian sex and death and aging novel Super Sad True Love StoryI super hated it! While reading Houellebecq’s novel, I occasionally thought about Shteyngart’s book, which I think seems not just watery and weak next to The Elementary Particles, but cowardly.

22. Is The Elementary Particles sci-fi? Maybe. Sort of. Not really.

23. Is it dystopian? I think that it posits the globalized, post-boomer world as a dystopia, as a place obsessed with aging and image, as a world of enslaved people who falsely extol their own freedom. But it works its way toward a positive vision of life.

24. Is it utopian then? No, not really. I mean, this positive vision of life doesn’t include human beings.

25. The ending of the book is a philosophical dodge, the kind of misanthropy that too easily dismisses the entirety of history, philosophy, religion, and even basic biological impulses.

26. Maybe the ending is ironic. So much of the book is blackly bleakly ironic, that, hey, yeah, it’s possible the ending is ironic.

27. I’m not really sure, of course.

“Novels Are Fantasies of Powerlessness and Power” — Biblioklept Talks to Adam Novy About His Novel The Avian Gospels

Books, Interviews, Literature, Writers

Adam Novy’s debut novel The Avian Gospels is one of the best novels I’ve read this year, and one of the best contemporary novels I’ve read in ages. It’s a surreal dystopian magical romance set against the backdrop of political and cultural repression, violent rebellion, torture, family, and birds. Lots and lots of birds. (Read my review).

Adam was kind enough to talk to me about his work over a month-long series of email exchanges; the interview presented below reveals much of his generous, creative energy.

Adam currently teaches writing at Scripps College, Pasadena City College, Long Beach City College and Orange Coast College.

The Avian Gospels is available now from Hobart.

Check out Adam’s website. 


Biblioklept: I have a lot I want to ask you about what’s in your novel, but I have to start by asking about the physical book itself. The Avian Gospels is a lovely little two volume pocket-sized monograph—textured oxblood covers, gilded pages with line numbers, inset bookmarks. Visually, it recalls a Gideon bible, I guess, only not, I don’t know, chintzy. Where did the design idea come from?

Adam Novy: My editor at Hobart, Aaron Burch, had the idea of making the book look like a Bible. He’s an excellent designer and does a wonderful job with Hobart. Some boheemith press in New York City should really snap him up.

Biblioklept: How did the idea for The Avian Gospels come about? When did you start drafting the book? How long did it take to write?

AN: After 9/11, there was a moment where I felt like all Americans were on the same team. Now I wonder if we’ll ever feel that way again. Pardon me for living in the moment, but this country is just so completely fucked. This sensation of being American swiftly curdled into panic, but by then, the coordinates of my work had all been changed. I wanted to find a voice with room for both the historical and the intimate, which led me to a kind of first-person plural officialese. It ended up creating this echo-chamber effect where the personal and political identities of each character were different, and nobody could quite be who they were supposed to be, or wanted to be.

It took months of screwing around to figure this out, and most of it, of course, was accidental. The Lord of the Rings was on TV a lot at the time, and sometimes I thought I wanted to sound like Gandalf if Gandalf was full of shit and, like, a genocider who felt sorry for himself, but still was Gandalf, all mystical and officious, bossing everyone around. I understood the characters right away, except for Jane, who was always hard to deal with. She gets in arguments a lot and she’s usually right. I think I have hard time writing characters who are right. I myself am never right, so I had trouble relating to her. Of course, now she’s my second-favorite character in the book, after Mike.

I started the book in spring of 2002 and finished it in fall of 2005. In 2006, I found an agent and Hobart took the book in 2008. I went through five apartments, three different cities, three computers, one personal trainer and three therapists in that time. And nine adjunct faculty positions.

Biblioklept:  It’s interesting that you mention the LOTR movies as a kind of ambient influence, because they were pretty ubiquitous in the last decade—and there’s so much of the last decade’s zeitgeist in your book: torture, despotism, political and cultural repression, the plight of a refugee class, the idea of “green zones,” etc. You foreground these themes by crafting Gospels as a kind of dystopian novel with elements of magical realism, but it’s also very much a novel about family, and even a love story. (By sheer coincidence I watched the restored edit of Metropolis in the same time frame that I was reading Gospels, and saw so many echoes there). How conscious were you of genre conventions? I’m curious because your book sometimes blends genre tropes, sometimes blurs them, and sometimes straight-up explodes them . . .

AN: The book is quite deliberately a mash-up. I think it’s normal in conversation to try out different ways of seeing things—a fussy way of saying this might be “experiment with different hermeneutics.” For example, one might reference the NBA, The Wire, Shakespeare and Dazed and Confused in a discussion about Obama. I wanted the book to enact this kind of embeddedness, this flailing for a context that makes sense, and I wanted the narrator to sound as though its vernacular was ornate and obsolete, like it trafficked in a pleasure that justified itself as satisfaction while remaining an inadequate moral lens. That’s why I write violence like I do: I want it to be horrifying and beautiful. Unfortunately, violence is cool. I’m not immune—I always watch Kill Bill and Scarface when they’re on cable. It’s disturbing. Everyone knows that torture doesn’t work as an intelligence-gathering method, but our country did it anyway because it simply couldn’t stop. It was a kind of jacking off, the only kind that certain political parties seem to approve of.

Whenever we write about power, we should always defend the powerless, even if they’re just as bad as those in power. I think I saw that in Cioran, and did you know Cioran was a Nazi sympathizer? I just read that Gertrude Stein was, too. I don’t know what kind of paradigm can reckon with this world.

Biblioklept: I had no idea about Stein or Cioran’s Nazi sympathies, but I guess many artists and writers and intellectuals were attracted to the power of fascism, particularly in the modernists’ day (I suppose Ezra Pound and GB Shaw stand out as easy examples, and Heidegger was a member of the Nazi party). Although in our own age, I suppose we also see intellectuals and writers support terrible causes—I think of Christopher Hitchens’s aggressive support of the Iraq War and Bush administration’s policies, for, example.

I don’t want to drop spoilers, but your novel traces an arc that shows how those who are powerless might, given power, recapitulate the aggressive violence that they themselves were once subjected to. In turn, you also reveal how characters who seemed to occupy a clear power position (I’m thinking of Mike here, specifically) are perhaps doomed as well to a life without agency. I found my sympathies shift dramatically throughout the novel. How important are sympathetic characters?

AN: Every writer, including me, wants the reader to cathect to their book with their whole heart. I want my readers to utterly and helplessly engrossed. But sympathy is a means to an end and not the end itself. Technically speaking, it’s just not that hard to accomplish. It’s a skill, like dribbling in basketball is a skill, but it’s not the whole game.

In The Avian Gospels, the character named Mike Giggs is seen in only one scenario—exerting power in the manner of his father—for the first two hundred pages, so he comes off like a jerk until he encounters someone who actually loves him: Chico the band leader. Suddenly, Mike discovers a love of life, a sensitivity and a feeling of camaraderie for his fellows. Not only is he is capable of compassion, he is governed by it. This leaves him ruined in certain ways, but allows him to discover who he can be, and makes him (hopefully) sympathetic.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the book, the character named Zvominir, who was whimperingly sweet for longer than Mike was mean, is meaner than Mike. Novels are fantasies of powerlessness and power—among the zillion other things they are—and I feel like we should at least be conscious of what’s happening to our minds as we are reading. How we deal with power is a serious moral question; counting how many times that we go awwww is not. We have cats on the internet for that. Still, Chad Harbach was probably right when he said that the books that get the best reception are simply “affable.” In desperate times, a nation of New York critic types are turning to . . . Mitt Romney? Or like, Cheever without the psychosexual guilt?

I don’t mean to single out Chad Harbach, whose work I haven’t read, except for his piece on Grantland about the Brewers, which I liked. But what he said is accurate. These days, people seem to feel that art should be uplifting, like art owes it to them, in a customer-service type-way. Have you been to Kinko’s, or excuse me, FedEx Office, lately? It is not a happy place. Novels used to to give the reader the truth in ways no other social narratives would. I’m pretty sure I’m not just being sentimental. There used to be a social lie which said the world was making progress and ascending, but this reversed like fifteen years ago and now we all feel doomed. We need books to tell us how we got here, not to lie about how meaningful our journeys are or however we say it these days. Of course our lives are meaningful, but such a narrow focus on making folks feel better is superficial and disempowering. Our emptiness and dread are trying to tell us something.

Biblioklept: I think you point toward a distinction between art and entertainment here. We want entertainment to comfort us, to ease our worries. In contrast, art challenges us with what we don’t want to see, or can’t see, or can’t see that we can’t see. And yeah, there’s a kind of “literature of comfort” out there, books that simply reconfirm the tropes and tricks and forms of “literary fiction” — so that, even if the protagonists suffer, that suffering is is part and parcel of some greater telos — and not just in terms of the plot, but also in the structure of the novel itself. (Lee Siegel called this camp “Nice Writing” a decade ago, pointing to its “violent affability,” its “deadly sweetness”).

At the risk of asking one of those questions an interviewer is never supposed to ask (but, hey, I really want to know the answer and I think our readers would too), what books move you as a reader?

AN: I think I’m moved by pretty standard stuff. The Portrait of a LadyCharlotte’s WebTo My Twenties, by Kenneth Koch.  On Seeing the Elgin Marbles, by Keats. Places to Look For Your Mind, by Lorrie Moore. Testimony of Pilot and Return to Return by Barry Hannah. Antony and CleopatraStone Arabia, by Dana Spiotta, which is the best new book I’ve read in 2011. Chopin in Winter by Stuart Dybek. The last paragraph of CivilWarLand In Bad Decline. The scene in American Tabloid where Ward steals the pension fund books. The Widow Aphrodissia by Marguerite Yourcenar. There must be fifty different scenes in Buffy that make me cry, and five in Battlestar Galactica. Certain scenes in Lost. This is such a conventional list, I feel like I need to start a fight. FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS SUCKS AND YOU ARE ALL A BUNCH OF SAPS. I should also say I’m moved by spectacles of massive human folly. The image of Slim Pickens riding the bomb and waving his hat in Dr. Strangelove and the scene where Kramer and his intern throw the ball of oil out the window are somehow very moving to me.

Biblioklept: I’d love to hear your thoughts on the Occupy Wall Street movement—The Avian Gospels taps into and explores this idea of civil unrest, of disenfranchised voices, of a paramilitary state coping with a populist uprising. You’ve indicated that your novel is in some ways a response to 9/11, but it also seems predictive of the fallout we’re seeing a decade after the fact.

AN: A massive, indescribable injustice was inflicted on our world by the likes of Goldman Sachs and we seem to have no recourse. Law enforcement could not possibly care less, and seeing how they cleared Zucotti Park, they seem jealous of the impunity of Wall Street. In his review of Ron Suskind’s book, Ezra Klein suggests that Washington just did not have the will to pass a stimulus that was big enough. Slavoj Žižek is right when he says this moment is a challenge to our imagination. I think that what happened at Penn State may be a better lens for the recession than Occupy Wall Street. A massive patriarchal network mobilized their resources to preserve an ongoing atrocity. No one will admit that they were wrong, especially the figurehead, Joe Paterno. The community just does not seem to give a shit. They keep telling out-of-towners we don’t get it and rioted in self-pityI guess this is just how power acts.

Biblioklept: What’s next? What are you working on now?

AN: I’m writing a novel about the life and times of Medusa. It’s called The Gore and the Splatter.

Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?

AN: I think the only book I ever stole was an anthology of world literature, which had a really coherent definition of French symbolist poetry. I can’t find this book now, so someone probably stole it from me. Serves me right.