From altar boys to inmates, ranches to hotels, the characters in Don Waters’ new collection of short fiction struggle with faith and meaning as much as the landscape of the American Southwest. In this story, “Full of Days,” the protagonist’s antiabortion billboard and surrogate daughter force him to reexamine his controlling behavior and own deep loss, in a city known for sin. Our thanks to Waters and University of Nevada Press for letting us share this story with the Longreads community.
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“So Job died, being old and full of days.” —Book of Job 42:17
Marc Maldonado sensed the Kingdom of God within him on Sundays, driving sun-scorched trash-scattered freeways to his temple of worship, and he felt the emptiness of his own realm whenever he set the table for one, whenever he aligned his socks in the hollow dresser drawer. In this hot, high-voltage city, with its pulsing neon, with its armies of fingers slamming on video poker buttons, he felt the loving kindness, the light ache of breath in his nostrils, and he knew he was necessary.
On that day Marc drove the freeways, analyzing angles for the best possible exposure. The great desert opened to him as he cruised I-15 North-South, I-515 East-West, changing direction where the freeways intersected and formed a concrete cross. Read more…
Born in Zimbabwe on August 28, 1972, Paula Hawkins’ family moved to London when she was a teenager. Although writing fiction interested her in her younger years, her stories generally remained unfinished. After graduating from Keble College, Oxford, she took the practical route and entered the newsroom at The Times of London, where she became a well-respected financial journalist.
In her thirties, she wrote romantic comedy novels with titles like Confessions of a Reluctant Recessionista, All I Want for Christmas, One Minute to Midnight, and The Reunion under the pseudonym Amy Silver, but this never proved a perfect match for her talents. Increasingly tight on money and disenchanted with writing lighter fare, she sent a partial draft of a new novel to her agent. It was unlike anything she had ever published: dark, twisted, and page-turning. Her agent went gaga. The rest is literary history. The Girl on the Train has sold about twenty million copies worldwide since January 2015, according to her publisher, and last year’s film adaptation grossed $173 million. Into the Water (out from Riverhead on May 2, 2017), is already destined to be a bestseller and DreamWorks recently purchased the film rights.
Like The Girl on the Train, Into the Water also concerns memory, unreliable narrators, and an obsession with the dark and macabre, but the novel is more complex, with interweaving narratives, narrative perspective shifts, and a cast of characters so complicated it surely deserves a front-of-book family tree for clarity.
I recently spoke with Hawkins about faulty memory, her rise to fame, her desire to be more literary, and the way her novels reflect the contemporary political climate.
It’s been almost a century since a 23-year-old F. Scott Fitzgerald penned “The I.O.U.,” a short story that pokes fun at the publishing industry’s obsession with sensation over substance. But until now, you couldn’t read it; it was among Fitzgerald’s still-unpublished papers. Last week, the long-lost story appeared in The New Yorker, another chapter in what the magazine calls its “imperfect romance” with the author. In 1925, Fitzgerald was “was a little too famous to appear often in its upstart pages,” though they were able to snag two poems and three “humorous short stories” before he died in 1940. Read more…
Novelist Nell Zink, in n+1, takes readers on a rambling but sharp journey through writers and novels of the 20th century in the name of exploring realism, compassion, and justice in fiction. Midway through the piece she introduces writer Halldor Laxness; if Icelandic fiction is low on your to-be-read list, get ready to fall into a Google abyss thanks to Zink’s description.
Take Halldor Laxness’s stupendous magnum opus Independent People, surely a gem among novels. It will make you want to strangle your landlord and the Icelandic pony he rode in on, and that’s a fine thing; a shift of power to a larger class of people can transform society in positive ways. But it’s just a story. The 20th-century intellectual project mentioned above doesn’t happen to Laxness. He’s all about injustice. His is not an exhaustive analysis of life, just a political one, and it seems accurate mostly because (face it) you know nothing about Iceland in 1900. I mean, by age 15 you could dismiss Gone with the Wind as bullshit, but Independent People will remain plausible to you forever because it’s about farmers in Iceland, the fishing and banking nation that put “ice” in its name as a warning to would-be farmers. There’s not going to be a meta moment when Laxness asks why you bought a long novel about starving children just so you could watch them starve.
The cover was striking: it showed a syringe. On the back cover one character leaned over a table, snorting cocaine. The calls from radio stations began, the advertising spots, the letters, above all the letters. Girls telling me about their first acid trip. Gay guys who’d been thrown out of their houses. Girls in love with gay guys. Girls in love with my characters. Some I answered, others I didn’t. I didn’t know what to say to them. The reviews were what today we would call “mixed,” using the English word. My publisher’s head of PR would tell me that I ought to make thank you calls even to reviewers who had torn the novel apart, and I’d tell him to fuck off. People would ask me about my next novel. I didn’t know whether I wanted to be a writer. They’d say, “But you’re the spokeswoman of a generation,” and I’d want to cry. My mother drove me to some of the interviews. She was proud of me but didn’t comment on the contents of the book. I don’t know whether Bajar es lo peor is a good novel, but it is a sad novel: the boys shoot up with wine, have nightmares, prostitute themselves, talk to dead people, and love is no good for anything. There are no adults in the book.
The months of fame — there must have been six, maybe eight — were exhausting. I’d dress for television in a faux-leather miniskirt and an AC/DC T-shirt: I thought I looked like a rocker, daring, pretty. Seeing myself seated there in the talk show chair, I couldn’t help being horrified by my white, rather chubby legs and my obvious need for better makeup and hairstyling — not to mention my stammering in response to any question whatsoever. I was a terrible interviewee. With cultural journalists I was even worse. The humiliations piled up. They’d ask me about writers I had never heard of, and I’d pretend to know who they were talking about. My answers were muddled and left me looking like a fraud.
L. Ron Hubbard published over four million words of fiction in his lifetime, but his most famous story consists of just a few handwritten pages. Before their contents were leaked in the early ’70s, they could be viewed at the Advanced Organization Building of the Church of Scientology, a hulking blue edifice off Sunset Boulevard where visitors were handed a manila envelope to open in a private room. Most had paid thousands of dollars for the privilege, which made it by far the most lucrative story Hubbard, or perhaps anyone, ever wrote—a spectacular rate for a writer who spent much of his career earning a penny per word.
The story itself, which has become more familiar than Hubbard or any of his disciples ever intended, revolves around the figure of Xenu, the tyrannical dictator of the Galactic Confederation. Millions of years ago, Xenu, faced with an overpopulation crisis, threw hordes of his own people into volcanoes on the planet Earth—then known as Teegeeack—and blew them up with atomic bombs. Their spirits, called thetans, survive to the present day, clinging to unsuspecting humans, and they can only be removed through dianetic auditing, a form of talk therapy that clears the subject of its unwanted passengers.
One of the church members who read this account was screenwriter and director Paul Haggis, who was a devoted Scientologist for over three decades before resigning in an ugly public split. Haggis told Lawrence Wright, the author of the seminal New Yorker piece that became the exposé Going Clear, that after finishing the story, he got the wild idea that it was some sort of insanity test—if you believed it, you were kicked out. When he asked his supervisor for clarification, he was informed: “It is what it is.” Haggis read it again, but the same thought continued to resound in his brain: “This is madness.” Read more…
In Vulture, book critic Christian Lorentzen suggests we dispense with terms like “postmodern” and “postwar” when discussing novels, and instead analyze them relative to the presidential administrations under which they were released.
What will we mean when someday we refer to Obama Lit? I think we’ll be discussing novels about authenticity, or about “problems of authenticity.” What does that mean? After the Bush years, sheer knowingness and artifice that called attention to itself had come to seem flimsy foundations for the novel. Authenticity succeeded storytelling abundance as the prime value of fiction, which meant that artifice now required plausible deniability. The new problems for the novelist became, therefore, how to be authentic (or how to create an authentic character) and how to achieve “authenticity effects” (or how to make artifice seem as true or truer than the real).
That we’ve been passing through an era that especially prizes authenticity in fiction is no coincidence. These were years when America was governed by someone who’d written a genuine literary self-portrait, whose identity was inscribed with the traumas of the age of colonialism and its unraveling, whose political appeal hinged on an aura of authenticity and whose opponents attacked him by casting doubt on the authenticity of that identity. Now, as he leaves the scene, we’re troubled by questions of fakeness — a moment of fake news but also a time when the reassurances of big data have proved fallible, when a shared civic reality has cleaved definitively into a pair of mutually distorting digital bubbles, exposing a national identity crisis that America’s left and its writers (most of them creatures of the left) didn’t know, or want to know, was happening. Even the president-elect’s hair seems to be a fiction. No wonder some are pointing to science fiction as the best predictor of what’s to come.
Below is a guest post from Mumbai-based writer-filmmaker—and longtime #longreads contributor—Pravesh Bhardwaj (@AuteurPravesh).
I’ve been doing this for some time now — seeking out short stories from free online resources, and sharing them on Twitter (#fiction #longreads). It’s now a habit: Every night after dinner, before I start writing (screenplays), I look around for a story and read it.
Starting with Upmanyu Chatterji’s “Three Seven Seven and the Blue Gay Gene,” from Open magazine, and ending with Callan Wink’s “Off the Track” from Ecotone, I ended up reading and posting 292 stories in 2016. Here are ten of my favorites, in random order. Read more…
In The Red Car, Marcy Dermansky’s newly released third novel, 33-year-old Leah Kaplan is lured away from an ill-considered marriage and taken on a surprise hero’s journey.
With deadpan humor, in dreamlike, Murakami-inspired unvarnished prose, Dermansky tells the story of Leah’s adventures after a former boss dies and bequeaths to her the red sports car Leah never liked in the first place.
This curious inheritance, and her boss’s funeral, leads the Queens-dweller back to San Francisco, where she’d worked and lived just after college. There, Leah gets to back up in reverse to relive a bit of her youth, and to reconsider her life choices from a better informed perspective before moving forward into a more intentionally designed adulthood.
“Maybe coming of age is happening a bit later,” she said. “Maybe people find themselves a bit later. It’s funny because you’re not supposed to come of age in your 30s, but maybe people are allowed to keep reinventing themselves. Maybe it doesn’t stop.”
As a 51-year-old late bloomer I’m encouraged by that idea. And it supports a hunch of mine: that the older women are—the more entrenched patriarchy was when they were growing up—the longer they might need to be allowed to arrive at true self-actualization. Here is Dermansky’s excerpt. Read more…
This is the lesson: Great cities are like any other living things, being born and maturing and wearying and dying in their turn.
Duh, right? Everyone who’s visited a real city feels that, one way or another. All those rural people who hate cities are afraid of something legit; cities really are different. They make a weight on the world, a tear in the fabric of reality, like . . . like black holes, maybe. Yeah. (I go to museums sometimes. They’re cool inside, and Neil deGrasse Tyson is hot.) As more and more people come in and deposit their strangeness and leave and get replaced by others, the tear widens. Eventually it gets so deep that it forms a pocket, connected only by the thinnest thread of . . . something to . . . something. Whatever cities are made of.
But the separation starts a process, and in that pocket the many parts of the city begin to multiply and differentiate. Its sewers extend into places where there is no need for water. Its slums grow teeth; its art centers, claws. Ordinary things within it, traffic and construction and stuff like that, start to have a rhythm like a heartbeat, if you record their sounds and play them back fast. The city . . . quickens.