Parul Sehgal on the author’s new novel, The Mare, the search for real connections, and loneliness.
What is [death]? It’s a fact that human beings—no matter who they are, no matter how healthy or strong or beautiful they are—are going to age and become weak and ugly by a certain standard, and die. And I think that’s a terrifying idea for people to get their minds around. It’s a very strange thing the way we exist: that we appear in the world out of another person’s body in this discrete, small form, and that we have all of this life force pouring through us—as does everything alive, animals, insects—yet it must take this very specific form of a personality, a body that looks a certain way and that functions a certain way. Our eyes and our mouths and our noses are so particularly formed. Human beings look so different from each other, voices are so different, everything about us is so individual, and that’s so exciting and juicy and appealing, and we’re attached to these things and they’re so fascinating and beautiful—I don’t just mean model-beautiful, but all the individual forms that people can take.
And yet in another way, we’re going to fall apart, kind of dissolve back into this vast soup from whence we came, whatever that is. It’s almost like these beings pop out of this massive sludge and then they get sucked back into it, and that’s a really hard thing to comprehend.
I think people try to make the most of their time on earth and also to fix their time on earth. They try to fix external verities, things that are true for all time, ideas that are true for all time: Rome will last forever! America will last forever! Beauty, as defined by the fashion industry, is one of those things—this is beautiful. This will always be beautiful—and hold it in a way that has some sense of permanence about it, and absoluteness. And yet it’s not.
-Mary Gaitskill, in The Believer (2009).
Vol. 8, No. 3
Years ago I had a conversation with a friend comparing John Updike and Saul Bellow. At the time I liked Updike a little better, but she said something on Bellow’s side that nearly changed my mind on the spot. “Updike sees,” she said. “He sees the world and he knows what he is looking at. Bellow looks and he doesn’t always know. Bellow is stunned by the world.” By that she meant that Bellow’s vision is deeper.
I’m not sure that she was right (I’m not sure, for one thing, that Updike is always so knowing), but I’m still thinking about what she said. This blunt and exquisite little beauty, “Something To Remember Me By,” is a small example and counter-example of what she was talking about. The narrator is a worldly old man with a sophisticated eye and a wise-ass sense of humor describing an incident from his boyhood. But for all his wise-assedness, he remains amazed by the force and plenitude of physical life: pocket lint, soiled snowbanks, a tile wall with gaps “stuffed with dirt,” the “salt, acid, dark, sweet odors” of strange pussy. Then there’s social life: the order of family and religion, the chaos of morality, crime, goofiness, love, deception and holy books, some of which hide money, others of which cost 5 cents and come apart in your hands. As his scornful older brother says, this boy “doesn’t understand fuck-all,” and through this boy’s eyes, who would?
The story takes place in depression-era Chicago and it is told almost like a fairy tale: the boy, whose mother is slowly dying, goes on the “journey” of his day at school and work. At its very start he kisses his bed-ridden mother; though he lives in a city, he then encounters hunters, steps over the blood they’ve spilt and enters a park (or wood). Later he enters a strange home to deliver flowers; in the dining room he sees a young girl lying in a coffin. Her frowning mother gestures with her fists. He sees “baked ham with sliced bread” on the drainboard, a “jar of French’s mustard and wooden tongue depressors to spread it;” there’s a dead body, but it’s these daily things that make him say “I saw and I saw and I saw.” Under this mortal enchantment the boy then goes to see his uncle and instead meets another girl, also supine, but naked and very much alive. The boy forgets his mother and is falsely seduced. He is humbled, does service, is punished. There is mercy and knowledge.
Actually punishment comes last, but mercy and knowledge have more power—which would say that my friend was wrong, that Bellow does look and know. Except that the knowledge of the story, which comes from the world of objects and cheap books, plus people who make fun, speechify, cheat and punch hell out of the kid—this knowledge is peculiar; blunt, yet hard to read, right in your face, but off the color spectrum.
“That was when the measured, reassuring, sleep-inducing turntable of days became a whirlpool, a vortex darkening towards the bottom.”
“I myself know the power of nonpathos, in these low, devious days.”
The boy turned old man thinks both these thoughts close on each other; his knowing and his amazed unknowing come together and fall apart again.
Aaron Gilbreath | Longreads | April 2019 | 12 minutes (1,878 words)
The 11,000 people who attend the Association of Writers & Writing Programs’ annual Conference & Bookfair (AWP) come for professional advancement and to build community. They come to attend panels, to stay motivated after graduate school, to promote their magazines, book presses, and graduate programs and to choose magazines to write for, books to read, and graduate programs to attend. For many attendees, AWP is a chance to talk shop deep into the night. I came this year for many of these reasons, and also to improve my editing abilities.
Even though I work as an editor, I have a lot to learn, and the editors on the panel “Editor-Author Relationships: How Should They Be?” offered tons of practical wisdom. Jennifer Acker from The Common magazine moderated a group that included John Freeman of Grove/Atlantic, Freeman’s, and Granta, One Story editor Patrick Ryan, and Catapult managing editor Matthew Ortile. Freeman is a quote machine; his mind moved so quickly I could barely write down what he said. Read more…
Aaron Gilbreath| Longreads | December 2018 | 25 minutes (6,357 words)
When other writers and I get together, we sometimes mourn the state of music writing. Not its quality — the music section of any good indie bookstore offers proof of its vigor — but what seems like the reduced number of publications running longer music stories. Read more…
Rebecca McCarthy | Longreads | October 2018 | 13 minutes (3,497 words)
The Strand is the largest and most divisive of New York City’s independent bookstores. For its customers, it’s a literary landmark, a convenient public bathroom in Union Square, and one of the last places in Manhattan where tourists can see real New York Bohemia up close — like Colonial Williamsburg, but with poor people (booksellers) instead of settlers. For its employees, the store has more often been an object of resentment. Patti Smith worked there briefly in the early 1970s, but told New York magazine she quit because it “wasn’t very friendly.” Mary Gaitskill worked there for a year and a half and described it, in a thinly veiled story from Bad Behavior, as, “a filthy, broken-down store” staffed by “unhappy homosexuals.” In 2005, an anonymous employee ran a (pretty dumb) blog called “I Hate the Strand” and the reviews on the store’s Glassdoor page are still largely negative. “Employees who were so miserable they joked about torching the building,” wrote one former employee. “Honestly, shut up with the tote bags,” wrote another. (About twenty percent of the Strand’s revenue comes from merch. They sell a lot of tote bags.)
I worked at the Strand for a little over two years and honestly I liked it! I’d worked as a bartender previously, but by the time I was hired as a bookseller five of the seven bars at which I’d been employed had shuttered, either because of rising rents, the death of the owner, or, in one case, because too many of the regulars died or moved away. The Strand offered stability and a less traumatic day-to-day experience. I liked my co-workers, I attended fewer funerals, and I didn’t have to stay up until 4 a.m. every night when I had class in the morning; although because I was hired at $10 an hour, I still had to bartend on my days off to make ends meet. The store unionized in 1976 with the UAW, and it’s one of the only places in New York where bookselling — a notoriously ill-compensated industry; the drunken, wistful uncle of Publishing — can be a sustainable, long-term career for people who are not independently wealthy. The unionization has also given the store a measure of leftist cred that management has been quick to monetize: #Resistance merchandise lines the walls — ”Nevertheless She Persisted” tote bags, Ruth Bader Ginsburg magnets, and a t-shirt that reads “I Love Naps But I Stay Woke.” Read more…
We asked writers, editors, and booksellers to tell us about a few books they felt deserved more recognition last year. Here are their 10 suggestions.
Writer and critic, former Editorial Director of Book of the Month Club
There’s nothing I love more than an unreliable narrator, and the protagonist of Patty Yumi Cottrell’s debut novel is a doozy. Sorry to Disrupt the Peace is the story of Helen, a school teacher from New York City, who casts herself in the role of lead detective on a very tough and personal case — her adopted brother’s suicide. When Helen returns to her childhood home of Milwaukee to investigate, truths about Helen and her family are slowly revealed, and we begin to realize that Helen may be worthy of scrutiny herself. Sorry to Disrupt the Peace is both a clever and poignant exploration of the distance between how we imagine ourselves to be and who we truly are.
University Book Store—begun by students in 1900—is just up the road from University Village, and while they serve superficially different markets, it’s difficult not to see Amazon’s choice of location as yet another act of aggression toward indie bookstores, whose owners and employees are particularly suspicious of the company’s motives.
Speaking over her reading-stack-as-topography desk Cady outlined a history of other provocations by her city’s tech giant. Amazon staff have wielded clipboards in sign-up efforts directly outside of at least two of her store’s locations…
…Cady had already visited Amazon Books opening morning, as had some of her staff. They spoke about it with exaggerated grimaces, more dismissive than unnerved. “The selection is not bad,” Cady emphasized. Indeed, the store carries books by some prominent independent publishers—Coffee House Press, Europa Editions, Melville House—and the selection on their front fiction table would not have been out of place at many indie bookstores. The new Kenzaburo Oe was there, as was the new Mary Gaitskill, the new Joy Williams. It was not wildly adventurous but neither was it uninteresting.
-At The New Republic, Dustin Kurtz visits Amazon’s first physical store in Seattle’s University Village, and tries to puzzle together why they bothered, what their strategy is, and whether it’s worth the expensive real estate and $18-per-hour employee wages. He gives his visit a 2.5 rating.
Mary Gaitskill breaks down a moment in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.