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Bridey Heing

Sarah Perry on ‘Melmoth,’ Monsters, and Making Her Readers Feel Responsible for Mass Atrocity

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Bridey Heing | Longreads | October 2018 | 8 minutes (2,039 words)

 

Sarah Perry’s novels have been praised for their distinctive voice and haunting subjects. Her atmospheric 2014 debut After Me Comes the Flood revealed Perry to be a unique writer of disquieting tales laced through with an aura of mystery, a reputation solidified by the 2016 publication of The Essex Serpent, a work of historical fiction. But her latest book, Melmoth, feels like more than just a novel; it feels like a call to action. In Melmoth, the nature of complicity and the manifestation of guilt are a central focus, spinning Perry’s eerie storytelling into important lessons and questions for our modern world.

Helen Franklin has been living in Prague for years, in a kind of self-imposed exile from her native England. She carries a significant sense of guilt for an unspecified wrongdoing in her youth, for which she tries to atone by isolating herself and living austerely. But even in this self-created loneliness, Helen meets and makes friends with a couple named Karel and Thea. When Karel suddenly begins talking about a mysterious woman monster called Melmoth the Witness, Helen and Thea dismiss her as a myth. But when Karel disappears and Helen begins reading the testimonies left behind by those who had been made to walk the Earth with Melmoth, witnessing alongside her the atrocities carried out by mankind, Helen wonders if she could be Melmoth’s next victim. Read more…

An Immoderate Novel for an Immoderate Season: An Interview with Olivia Laing

The great North American total eclipse of 2017. John Finney / Getty

Bridey Heing | Longreads | September 2018 | 10 minutes (2,761 words)

 

As a non-fiction writer, Olivia Laing has made a name for herself by writing deeply empathic explorations of creativity and the human condition. Her 2011 debut, To The River, situates the River Ouse, in North Yorkshire, within history and culture, from its role in 13th century battles to the death of Virginia Woolf. Her follow-up, 2013’s The Trip to Echo Spring, focused on American writers and alcoholism. Her 2015 book, The Lonely City, interrogated loneliness as a state of being and as a catalyst for art. But with her fiction debut, Laing has pulled back from the closely researched subjects that have been her wheelhouse; instead, she broadly documents a seven-week span of time. And yet her  penchant for research still peaks through — the narrative is written from the perspective of a fictionalized Kathy Acker-esque avatar, whose books Laing kept piled around her for inspiration while she wrote.

Crudo opens with the resignation of Steve Bannon, which Kathy, a soon-to-be newlywed, follows on social media from a Tuscan resort. Her attention ricochets between the rapidly unfolding news cycle playing out online and her private world of friends, her upcoming wedding, and, eventually, adjusting to life with her new husband. As she writes and prepares for her first trip overseas without her husband, Kathy charts the frenetic energy of the summer of 2017, unsure of whether the end of the world is truly approaching.

That sense of confusion was what Laing sought to capture. She wrote the book in real-time, with carefully outlined rules that were designed to ensure she didn’t deviate from the emotional responses to a specific whirlwind moment. Kathy, who is based in part on Kathy Acker, is also based on Laing, who turned forty and got married within the time frame of the novel. Crudo was conceived of as a means of understanding the impossible speed at which the news seemed to move, while also preserving the feeling of instability and uncertainty she saw in herself and those around her. Read more…

What Ever Happened To the Truth?

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Bridey Heing | Longreads | July 2018 | 7 minutes (1,841)

It isn’t often that a book review makes headlines, but legendary New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani did just that in 2016. Published about six weeks before the presidential election — one day after the first debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, when it seemed Clinton’s win was inevitable — Kakutani’s review of Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 by Volker Ullrich went viral when it was perceived as an attack on then-candidate Trump. The review itself was dominated by bullet-points drawing out ways in which Adolf Hitler went from a “‘Munich rabble-rouser’ — regarded by many as a self-obsessed ‘clown’ with a strangely ‘scattershot, impulsive style’” to Fuhrer in a country regarded as one of the poles of civilization. Trump’s name was nowhere in the review, but publications jumped on the apparent comparison. “Trump-Hitler comparison seen in New York Times book review,” said CNN; “This New York Times ‘Hitler’ book review sure reads like a thinly veiled Trump comparison,” from the Washington Post; “A review of a new Hitler biography is not so subtly all about Trump,” according to Vox. Even later reviews of the book itself were shaded by Kakutani’s seeming comparison.

Almost two years later, a subtle comparison between Hitler and now-President Trump feels incredibly tame and undeserving of such heavy scrutiny. But at the time, such comparisons weren’t altogether common in the mainstream; Trump seemed destined to lose and fade into whatever post-campaign activity he chose to channel his not-insignificant celebrity towards. Instead, of course, he won, and comparisons like Kakutani’s became far more common as it became clear that the presidency would not temper his stated goals and ambitions.

The review would prove to be one of Kakutani’s last in her position as the New York Times Book Critic, a role in which she proved a formidable force within the literary world. It was announced in July, 2017 that she would be stepping down after three and a half decades. Famously distant from the public eye, Kakutani’s seemingly abrupt departure so soon after causing a media firestorm left many questioning her next moves. Now, one year later, we have an answer: The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump. Read more…