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.
Our latest Longreads Exclusive is “Rainy Season,” a short story from Beasts & Children, Amy Parker’s acclaimed debut collection. The book’s interlinked stories unwind the lives of three families, casting a cool eye on the wreckage of childhood and the nuances of family history.
“Rainy Season” is nightmarish but entrancing—two young American sisters living in Thailand sneak out of their diplomatic compound and into the Chiang Mai night with a trio of Korean businessmen who have mistaken them for prostitutes. Parker’s sentences are lyrical and brutal, her gaze both kaleidoscopic and piercingly straightforward.
Sara Majka | Longreads | October 2015 | 23 minutes (5,561 words)
Our latest Longreads Exclusive is a previously unpublished short story by Sara Majka, as chosen by Longreads contributing editor A. N. Devers, who writes:
“This short story, about a woman who decides to travel to from city to city, working and eating in soup kitchens, is the previously unpublished title story from a collection I have been wishing and longing for for almost a decade. I first met Sara Majka in a fiction workshop at the Bennington Writing Seminars, where we both were enrolled as students. At the time, I was a new assistant editor at A Public Space and I brought Majka’s work to the attention of editor Brigid Hughes. If I recall correctly, her story was the only story I brought from my workshop directly to the magazine for consideration. It was a quiet and considered story with a singular voice. I was struck by how certain and precise the language was—how unusual and full of unspoken yearnings. She was able to convey so much disorientation, doubt, and pain through small observations and deceptively simple memories. Majka’s characters read as if they are feeling their way through a room with their eyes closed even though the lights are on—the reality of what is in front of them is difficult for them to process, the choices they are faced with confusing—despite their sincere attempts to find their way.
The story I showed Hughes ultimately did not end up in the magazine, (I later found it a home at Pen America), but she was more than intrigued, and later published another story and began a working relationship with Majka that led to the forthcoming publication of Cities I’ve Never Lived In, as a part of A Public Space Books, their imprint with Graywolf Press. These stories are a marvel and will break your heart. Majka’s debut is breath-stopping.”
After so many years, are you still sure about your decision to remain in the shadows?
“Remain in the shadows” is not an expression I like. It savors of plots, assassins. Let’s say that, fifteen years ago, I chose to publish books without having to feel obliged to make a career of being a writer. So far, I haven’t been sorry about it. I write and I publish only when the text seems of some value to me and to my publishers. Then the book makes its way, and I go on to occupy myself with something else. That’s it, and I don’t see why I should change my behavior.
How do you feel about the questions that are raised about your identity—are you amused, irritated, or something else?
They are legitimate, but reductive. For those who love reading, the author is purely a name. We know nothing about Shakespeare. We continue to love the Homeric poems even though we know nothing about Homer. And Flaubert, Tolstoy, and Joyce matter only if a talented person changes them into the subject of an opera, a biography, a brilliant essay, a film, a musical. Otherwise they are names, that is to say labels. Why would anyone be interested in my little personal story if we can do without Homer’s or Shakespeare’s? Someone who truly loves literature is like a person of faith. The believer knows very well that there is nothing at all at the bureau of vital statistics about the Jesus that truly counts for him.
The Harper’sdigital archive is a small and unsung national treasure, at least as far as I’m concerned; I’ve spent countless hours sifting through old issues, scanning for early work from familiar names and tracking down forgotten gems from authors whose bylines have largely faded. One such writer is Margot Hentoff, whose short story “Where Do the Detectives Eat?” (paywalled PDF, February, 1968) caught me completely off-guard when I downloaded it on a whim. The writing is strikingly contemporary: its cynical humor, thematic threads, and first-person, present-tense prose style all feel fresh.
“Where Do the Detectives Eat?” is deceptive in its brevity; in only three pages, it contains sharp observations about the pains and rejections of motherhood, the disappointments of friendship and marriage, and aging’s small shocks. (“This morning, Sally, my friend of longest standing, called to tell me she had taken a lover. Twenty years old, she said… But I can see Sally at twenty, and tonight I am appalled that we age in our own skins.”)
The story opens with a gesture toward Hollywood glamour and romance, then swiftly delivers a jab to the chest:
A long time ago, when I was very young, Elizabeth Taylor and I got married – each for the first time and in the same summer. We traveled in Europe that July; she with Nicky Hilton, I with my then husband, both of us visiting essentially the same places, she usually leaving an area some days before I arrived. I knew where she was because the European press kept following her, and I read the stories with an interest born of identification. What the papers didn’t tell me was how she felt about being married, so I never knew what Elizabeth Taylor did; but all that summer, I cried and cried and cried.
I wept in Paris cafés, in English bookshops, and in Swiss trains going over the mountaintops. But most of all, I wept on my twentieth birthday in a room in the Golf Hotel in St. Jean-de-Luz. I sat, that day, at a window overlooking the Bay of Biscay and beyond that, the Pyrenees. The sky was blue, the trees green. There were flowering bushes in the gardens, and striped tents on the beach below. The more I looked, the lovelier it became, and the lovelier it was, the more I cried, knowing that not only was all Europe my jail, but that New York, where we lived, was not going to be any better because I was married now, and I was twenty years old, and everything had passed me by.
Yoko Tawada’s English-language publisher, New Directions, describes her slender book The Bridegroom Was a Dog in simple and straightforward terms: “A bizarre tale of passion and romance between a schoolteacher and a dog.” There is, of course, complexity to this tight and colorful novella (written in 1993, and translated from Japanese in 1998), in which the life of Mitsuko, an eccentric teacher, begins to take on the qualities of a fable when a strange, doglike man arrives in her home and engulfs her life. Dark humor dovetails with stark and erotic prose as the story careens through surreal twists and turns. The story is narrated with the breathless quality and wide-eyed spirit of a child telling a fairytale for the first time, with visceral, lively details spilling across the page:
One August day soon after school had let out for the summer, a man of twenty-seven or -eight came calling at the Kitamura School with an old-fashioned leather suitcase but not a trace of sweat on him despite the hot sun beating down from above, and although he didn’t look like a friend of Mitsuko’s, with his closely cropped hair, immaculate white shirt, neatly creased trousers and polished leather shoes, he seemed to know all about her house, for he walked straight into the garden through the gap in the fence, and when he saw Mitsuko repairing her mountain bike, half-naked, her hair disheveled, he went right up to her and said:
“I’m here to stay.”
Mitsuko’s eyes widened and rolled upward, her mouth dropped open and she forgot to close it, and since she couldn’t think of what to say, she kept touching her throat with her fingertips, while the man silently put his suitcase down on the veranda, took off his wristwatch, and gave it two or three hard shakes as though to get the water out of it.
“Did you get my telegram?” he asked with a knowing laugh.
As a regular book browser, or shelf stalker, and former employee of Community Bookstore in Brooklyn, I’ve recently watched several customers come in asking for recommendations of what to read next after finishing Italian novelist Elena Ferrante’s four-volume saga, The Neapolitan Quartet — a masterwork concerning issues of class, status, and the remarkable complexity of female friendship, set on the fringe of an economically depressed Naples. I also had been wondering what I myself would find to read and recommend to friends to quench the Ferrante Fever. As if the book gods heard my call, I nearly simultaneously received a long letter and gift from an old friend in the mail the other day. I’d recommended she read Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. In return she sent along a beautiful recommendation of deceased Hungarian novelist, Magda Szabó’s The Door, a novel that also explores the complex and unsettling nature of friendship between two women who couldn’t be more different:
She was nowhere to be seen, either in the apartment when I awoke, or in the street when I set off for the hospital; but there was evidence of her handiwork in the section of pavement outside the front door swept clean of snow. Obviously, I told myself in the car, she was making her rounds at the other houses. I wasn’t distressed, or heartbroken. I felt that only good news awaited me at the hospital, as indeed it did. I was out until lunchtime. Arriving home, rather hungry, I was sure she’d be sitting there in the apartment, awaiting my return. I was wrong. I was faced with the disconcerting experience of walking into my own home, bearing news of life and death, and no-one to share it with. Our Neanderthal ancestor learned to weep the first time he stood in triumph over the bison he had dragged in and found no-one to tell of his adventures, or show his spoils to, or even his wounds. The apartment stood empty. I went into one room after another, looking for her, even calling out her name. I didn’t want to believe that, on this of all days, when she didn’t even know if my patient was alive or dead, she could be somewhere else. The snow had stopped falling. There could be nothing in the street requiring her attention. And yet she was nowhere to be found.