Lily Meyer is a writer, critic and translator from Washington, D.C. She’s a regular reviewer for NPR Books, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Atlantic, Electric Literature, Tin House, the New Yorker, and more.
Lily studied creative writing at Brown University and the University of East Anglia. She won the Sewanee Review’s First Annual Fiction Contest, judged by Danielle Evans, and is a two-time grant recipient from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities.
Jordan Peele’s second horror movie, Us,is full of rabbits. They twitch and hop through his underground world, their innocence a strange affront. Both Us and its predecessor, Get Out, are interested in innocence; Peele is expert at skewering the American habit, particularly present and noxious among liberal white Americans, of pretending to be blameless. The rabbits in Us serve as reminders of what true blamelessness looks like: animal, unknowing, and helpless, which is to say extremely vulnerable.
John Updike may have had a similar idea when he named his most famous protagonist Rabbit Angstrom. Rabbit — real name Harry — clings hard to the idea of innocence. Rabbit is an adult man, and not an especially kind or wise one, but in his head, he’s a high school basketball star, praised and beloved no matter how he behaves. Throughout his four-book life, Rabbit remains averse to adulthood. He wants to be a good boy.
Given his habit of sexualizing women, it’s easy to imagine Rabbit as an early reader of Playboy, that icon of male misbehavior. Where Peele’s rabbits signify goodness, the Playboy Bunny represents a certain kind of bad — though Hugh Hefner claimed not to think so. In a 1967 interview, he told Oriana Fallaci that “the rabbit, the bunny, in America has a sexual meaning, and I chose it because it’s a fresh animal, shy, vivacious, jumping — sexy… Consider the kind of girl that we made popular: the Playmate of the Month. She is never sophisticated, a girl you cannot really have. She is a young, healthy, simple girl.” Innocence was key to Playboy’s version of sexiness, and yet everyone knew — you only had to look at the centerfold — that innocence was feigned. Read more…
Catonsville, Maryland, is a quiet suburb of Baltimore, a leafy, American Dream-looking town where, in May 1968, a group of nine Catholic protestors led by pacifist priest Daniel Berrigan staged one of the most famous protests of the Vietnam War. As Berrigan describes it in America Is Hard to Find, a shaggy collection of letters and musings that functions roughly as his autobiography, “nine of us invaded the draft board at Catonsville, Maryland, extracted some 350 draft files and burned them in a parking lot nearby with homemade napalm.” Why? Because “it was better to burn papers than to burn children.”
The novelist Kathleen Alcott takes both the title and the spirit of her third book, America Was Hard to Find, from Berrigan. Alcott’s previous novels, The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets and Infinite Home, are both elegant, contemporary stories set in extremely contained worlds. America Was Hard to Find, in contrast, stretches its limbs across two decades and two continents, plus the moon. It’s more structured than its namesake, but remains digressive and expansive, following a left-wing radical named Fay Fern and her loved ones across time and space. This includes outer space; Alcott’s history deviates very slightly from ours, and in her world, the first man on the moon was not Neil Armstrong but the fictional Vincent Kahn, Fay’s onetime lover and the father of her only child.
Vincent and Fay work as foils, as do Fay and her son, Wright. Through their shifting and overlapping perspectives, Alcott offers her own anti-war observation of Cold War America. She takes the political questions Berrigan lays out in America Is Hard to Find — what are the ethical limits of protest? What are the ethical limits of technology? Will citizens burning papers prevent a government from burning children? — and enacts them in slow, stylish, keenly observed prose. Read more…
Nathan Englander has been writing fiction about Jews in America for nearly as long as I’ve been a Jew in America. I stole my mother’s copy of his debut collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, as a nine-year-old, and was both enthralled and baffled by his stories of Orthodox identity and longing.
Since then, Englander has written a play, another story collection, and three novels, the most recent of which, kaddish.com, opens with a secular Jew named Larry who refuses to say daily Kaddish for his dead father. Saying Kaddish is, according to Jewish law, the eldest son’s duty, but Larry can’t bring himself to return to the synagogue he has left behind. Instead, he finds a solution on the then-new Internet: he’ll pay a rabbinical student in Jerusalem to take on his filial duty. Years later, Larry returns to Orthodox Judaism, reinventing himself as a yeshiva teacher named Reb Shuli. He’s happily married, and comfortable in his reclaimed community. The sole stain on his Jewish life is his failure to say Kaddish for his father. His guilt swells into an obsession, and soon, he’s off to Israel to track down the proprietor of kaddish.com and get back the birthright he e-signed away.
Englander tells Shuli’s story in the language Shuli knows best: The Yiddish-inflected, Hebrew-sprinkled English of religious American Jews. He writes with humor, pathos, and irrepressible life. I thought often of Grace Paley as I read kaddish.com, and of the Coen brothers’ movie A Serious Man, which, as it turns out, Englander loves. We spoke on the phone about the Coen brothers, Philip Roth’s secular funeral, and other questions of Jewish-American identity. Like my nine-year-old self, I was enthralled. Read more…
Valeria Luiselli has a roving, curious, collaborative mind. In her debut novel, Faces in the Crowd, she merged her protagonist’s consciousness into that of the poet Gilberto Owen. In Story of My Teeth, she collaborated with workers at a Jumex juice factory to create a dizzying, hilarious adventure story. And in Lost Children Archive, her third and most ambitious novel, she invokes a chorus of books, images, recordings, and fragments to tell the story of a family traveling across the American Southwest as the country shatters around them.
The protagonist of Lost Children Archive is an audio journalist starting a sound documentary about the wave of undocumented children arriving in the U.S., fleeing violence in Mexico and the Northern Triangle, a crisis Luiselli last wrote about in her searing essay Tell Me How It Ends. Her husband is beginning a sound project, too: “an ‘inventory of echoes’…about the ghosts of Geronimo and the last Apaches.” They live in New York with their children, a five-year-old girl and ten-year-old boy, but to make his inventory of echoes, he wants to move permanently to the southwest. The two decide to drive across the country with their children, not making further plans until they arrive in Arizona.
Luiselli writes the road trip in a series of lyrical fragments, creating an archive of the family’s time in transit. She records the landscape, the adults’ fraying marriage, the children’s confusion, the mother’s growing desperation to help the child refugees crossing the border, and the ten-year-old’s determination to help his mother — even if that means running away. Woven through these fragments is another story: seven children on a train north, trying to survive a journey through the desert and into the unknown.
The resulting novel is layered and surprising, able to twist without warning. Luiselli’s archival impulses transform her work into a collage of voices and meanings. Lost Children Archive weaves from mother to son, fiction to meta-fiction, Manhattan apartment to Arizona desert, but it never loses sight of its purpose: to tell the story of a lost family, trying to find hope and certainty however they can. Read more…