Novelist, illustrator, and freelance writer. Author of RIOTS I HAVE KNOWN (Simon & Schuster, 2019) and CONVERSATION SPARKS (Chronicle Books, 2015). Formerly digital and marketing at BOMB Magazine, The Penguin Press, and Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Members of the US Camel Corps in the southwestern desert, 1857. (MPI/Getty Images & Random House)
Ryan Chapman | Longreads | August 2019 | 15 minutes (4,042 words)
Téa Obreht’s debut The Tiger’s Wife casts quite the shadow. It was a National Book Awards Finalist, won the Orange Prize, and landed its 25-year-old author on the New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” list. We’d understand if Obreht let the acclaim go to her head. We’d even forgive a sophomore slump. Fortunately for us, her novel Inlandbears the same storytelling rigor and frictionless prose of its predecessor.
While Tiger’s Wife drew from Obreht’s childhood in the former Yugoslavia, Inland is set a world apart and a century earlier. Namely: the American West, spanning the second half of the 1800s. Parallel narratives follow Nora, a homesteader in the Arizona territories, and Lurie, an outlaw wanderer and conscripted “cameleer” in the U.S. Camel Corps. (An actual troop, and the novel’s genesis.)
As you’d expect, life is punishing and violence ever-present. The well at Nora’s farm has run dry, and her husband Emmett, the local newspaperman, has left to find water; her two grown sons soon follow. Nora is left to protect and watch over an invalid mother, her youngest son, and an annoying teen ward who conducts séances in town. Lurie also communes with the dead, absorbing the posthumous “want” of his partners-in-crime as he traverses the territories. An immigrant Muslim from the Ottoman Empire, Lurie is also a wanted man, pursued by a dogged marshal on a charge for manslaughter. For much of the book Lurie takes cover in the camel corps — led by a charming Turk named Hadji Ali — and bonds with his trusty camel Burke.
Lurie’s and Nora’s stories will intersect, a meeting which elevates Inland to something spectacular and timeless. It’s cliché to say a book has “reinvented” a genre. But Obreht’s achievement feels that way: like a full reset of the American Western. Its characters are those often ignored in cowboy tales, and the Camel Corps spotlights a little-known piece of history while exemplifying the Why not? spirit of possibility — possibly the oldest American tradition. I asked Obreht about her novel over caffeinated cocktails in Manhattan. Read more…
Edward Hopper, October on Cape Cod, 1946, oil on canvas. VCG Wilson / Corbis via Getty.
Ryan Chapman | Longreads | April 2019 | 8 minutes (2,082 words)
I recently bought a century-old Victorian house in the Hudson Valley after a decade in Brooklyn. There are mountain views and streets lined with mature trees; it’s about as bucolic as you’d imagine. I’m now adept at lowercase ‘fixer-upper projects’ like stripping 1970s wallpaper, staining a deck, and cursing the previous owners for installing 1970s wallpaper. The cursing feels productive, and the house, a marker of adulthood.
One unexpected development: movies and books about home invasion deliver a gut-punch like never before. I’m no longer the rent-stabilized New Yorker tittering at the onscreen rubes killed one by one in their cabin in the woods — now I’m the rube. Specifically the nerd rube: I die second to last.
This isn’t limited to horror films. Even watching art-house fare like Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, I cringed less at the grand guignol filicide than at the houseguests’ breaking of that gorgeous double-basin sink. (You animals!) This new sensitivity is reassuring. I worried about becoming complacent as I entered the propertied class, in addition to the usual worries of growing cynical with age. The sensitivity is a naked flank for art to locate and slowly pierce. In the case of two books published in the past year, the piercing came with a memorable twist of the knife. Read more…
Grove Park Inn, Asheville, North Carolina, 1930. (George Rinhart / Corbis via Getty Images)
Ryan Chapman | Longreads | January 2019 | 15 minutes (4,079 words)
There’s an old Calvin & Hobbes comic strip where Calvin says, “Remember when ‘access’ was a thing? Now it’s something you do. It got verbed… Verbing weirds language.” With Hark, Sam Lipsyte’s sixth book and first novel in nine years, he has once again weirded language into an inimitable comic brio, capturing the roiling mess of late-capitalist/early-apocalypse America, and making us laugh while he pulls it off.
Here’s Lipsyte on Dieter Delgado, a titan of industry with a deep misreading of Naomi Klein: “Dieter hails from the throw-it-all-at-the-wall school. One war, one earthquake, one tsunami, one pandemic, one dating app and, assuming you are well positioned, you can cover your losses and get mega-rich all over again, ad mega-infinitum. Deets read a book about this that inspired him to seek out more catastrophe. The next hemoclysm may make him the world’s first trillionaire.” Read more…
Ryan Chapman | Longreads | August 2018 | 12 minutes (3,139 words)
The end of the world in Ling Ma’s novel Severance comes not with a bang, nor with a whimper, but a stream of misinformation, social media hysteria, and plenty of willful denial. If this sounds familiar, it’s far from dreary. Ma injects comic levity into a world ravaged by “Shen Fever,” whose victims perform habitual tasks in a mute, somnambulant state until they waste away. Candace Chen, a New York-based, Chinese-American millennial, is immune to the disease, and joins a small group of survivors led by a former I.T. specialist.
Although this post-apocalyptic remnant waves a typical number of red flags — micro-authoritarianism, liberal use of euthanasia — Candace makes do as they scavenge for food and mercy kill the “fevered.” Ma depicts the end times with alternating chapters on Candace’s pre-apocalyptic life: dating in Brooklyn, navigating adulthood, and working at a book production company. She specializes in Bibles and takes occasional business trips to printing facilities in Shenzhen and Hong Kong.
Ma has fun with the end of the world: Severance reads like The Walking Dead infected with the anarchic spirit of Office Space. Candace’s coworkers sport designer flu masks, idly wonder about the colleague who didn’t return on Monday, and debate whether to take the spot bonus for staying on when everyone else has the good sense to get the hell out of NYC.
Candace doesn’t have good sense. She maintains her routines and eventually moves into her office. She updates a photo blog called NY Ghost with images of the empty city. And we learn Candace is guarding a secret which may imperil her chances with her newfound “friends.” Read more…
Ryan Chapman | Longreads | June 2018 | 16 minutes (4,419 words)
Several of the sentences in Chelsea Hodson’s debut Tonight I’m Someone Else radiate with the epigrammatic wisdom of Kelly Link or Maggie Nelson. There’s just something about her lines — “How lovely to be young enough not to know any better” or “I once loved so hard I almost lost everything, including his life, including my own” (both from “Simple Woman”) — that demands furious underlining and exclamation points in the margins.
These essays span the writer’s life in Tuscon, Los Angeles, and New York as she investigates what it means to have a body, to be an object, to run away, to look for answers in strangers, and to chase danger. As in, let’s tie a butcher knife to the ceiling fan and sit beneath it until someone gets hurt (“Near Miss”).
With praise from Miranda July and Amy Hempel, Tonight I’m Someone Else is a book that delights and disturbs and — in its deep dive into the performance of female identity — feels very now. Hodson is an essayist with one foot out the door, and she’s holding the keys to someone else’s car, asking if we want to drive into the ocean. Read more…