Category Archives: Big Loves

Big Loves: Zach Falcon on William Gaddis’s JR

FalconToday’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Zach Falcon. Falcon’s debut short story collection,  Cabin, Clearing, Forest, was recently published by University of Alaska Press. In sharp and lyrical writing, Falcon’s collection explores the interior lives and domestic relations of people shaped by Alaska, in all its isolation, beauty, and brutality. Here, Falcon shares his love of William Gaddis’s JR.

I am oppositional. Confronted with a task, I buck and tug like a willful puppy introduced to the leash. For instance, at the time of this writing, I have three pressing deadlines, and I just spent the last two days unnecessarily painting our bathroom. It’s a character flaw; I’m not proud of it. But it once led me to read JR by William Gaddis, for which I am grateful. It was during the fall exam period in my first year of law school, when I should have been reading anything but fiction.

After a full semester, attending every class and taking copious notes, I had no idea what I was doing or what the hell the law was even about. The worst of it was civil procedure, a subject which, near as I could figure, concerned postal regulations. On the off chance I was mistaken (I was), I elected to spend a leisurely afternoon in a bookstore searching out an easy-to-read study guide. Instead, I found myself in the fiction section. I noticed a paperback with an inch-and-a-half-thick spine. JR. I eased it off the shelf: 826 pages. The book was a very large bathroom to paint while deadlines loomed. “You should read that,” I told myself. “It won the National Book Award in 1976. You should finish that, and then study.”

Perhaps the sole benefit of an oppositional temperament is that you can make real headway on a project so long as you are ducking something more pressing. And a reader needs to make quick headway to enjoy JR. Much has been made of JR’s impenetrability (one reviewer dismissed it as “unreadable”), but it’s not actually difficult. It is written primarily in unattributed dialogue, without chapter breaks, and it takes about forty pages to find your feet. Before that, the reader may feel at sea. After, you can JRnovel (2)lock in and make sense of what the book is about, which is America. And Wall Street. And entropy. It is a bleak Long Island satire concerning business and education and culture and art. The title character is JR Vansant, an 11-year-old boy who hustles surplus plastic forks and penny stocks into an unhinged financial empire. It crystalizes the difference between the disingenuous and the naïve, and rages against the relentless debasement of the authentic. As compelling as its subjects are, however, the genius of JR does not lie in its content. That’s not why I love it, anyway.

I love JR because of what happened to me after those first forty pages. After I locked in. The book is a carnival of voices, dozens of voices, tumbling over each other, each with their own tics and patterns and echoes and repetitions. There is Miss Flesch: “PRwise it can’t hurt us educationwise.” And Mr. Whitbeck, “Yes well ahm, yes of course that does make things simpler.” JR: “Hey wait, I mean you’re not mad are you hey?” And the ranting Jack Gibbs: “God damn it listen!” The book is built of ellipses, interruptions, dissembling, babbling, hemming, and hawing. Here is the chaos of a crowd, including a school field trip, exiting a subway:

— Okay look what do you want for it, look I’ll . . .

— We can’t hey, we’re there . . .

— Boys and girls? Let’s wait till everyone gets out . . .

— Boy this train should have had a wreck hey look at all the lousy teachers on it . . .

— When we can’t even get room in the cafeteria for driver training because they took the Senior Citizens’ painting class out of the gym when they started the prenatal care program there what’s going to happen to the adult hobby show?

— For the kind of evaluative criterions you find in these kind of environmental settings . . .

— With the educational discount a lawnmower like that should be about forty-two dollars, so I said. . .

— When they tried to tell me I didn’t know enough math to teach it I showed them enough units for the certificates and you should have seen their faces . . .

— Like they do in Russia, so I said . . .

— Nine, eleven twelve are there? thirteen? You didn’t happen to count them Mister Bast?

The genius of Gaddis is that he absolutely trusts the reader to participate, to remember, to pay attention. His sentences resist passive consumption; they invite collaborative engagement. The voices become recognizable and familiar. They play in your head like old-time radio, immediate and three-dimensional. By the time one reaches the subway scene above, it is as clear as overhearing family in the kitchen. Unique among novels, JR leaves an exquisitely designed space for the reader to occupy—the text is incomplete until it’s read. As one character, a composer, explains: “I mean there are some things you can’t really write down especially simple things, they just have to be left for the performer and till the music is actually performed it doesn’t really exist at all.” Collaborating with JR, calling it into existence through thought, remains one of the most giddily thrilling reading experiences of my life.

I consumeCabin Clearing Forest Cover (1)d JR in a three-day fever, almost without stopping. When I did occasionally set the book aside, it was often to look up a word, usually a legal one. Several subplots concern the litigation that sprawls from JR’s schemes. Many of the voices belong to lawyers, arguing about trusts, corporate law, and yes, even the finer points of civil procedure. “There is no question of justice, or right and wrong,” I learned from Mr. Coen. “The law seeks order.” Which turned out to be a fine thing to know when I finally returned to my studies, oppositional fit extinguished, forever changed by Gaddis’s brilliant chaos.

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Big Loves: Laurie Foos on Steven Sherrill’s The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break

authorphoto2 (2)Today’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Laurie Foos. Foos has published five previous novels with Coffee House Press: Before Elvis There Was Nothing, Ex Utero, Portrait of the Walrus by a Young Artist, Twinship, and Bingo Under the Crucifix. In her newest novel, The Blue Girl, mothers in a small lakeside town bake their secrets into moon pies and feed them to a silent blue girl. At turns lyrical, absurd, and heartbreaking, her fabulist novel about this strange blue girl explores the strangeness in all of us. Here, Foos shares her love for Steven Sherrill.

It was the cover that got me: the image of a half-man, half-bull sitting on a milk crate wearing work boots and a white cook’s coat with a red neckerchief, a cigarette between the thick fingers of his right hand, black horned head leaning into his left hand. And then of course there was the title above the image: The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break.  I remember thinking, If ever there was a book up my alley, this is it.

Of course it’s a risky premise, and part of the joy of a novel like The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break is watching Steven Sherrill walk that high wire to see how well and how long he can stay up, which, thanks to the verbal calisthenics and often startling beauty of the language, he does for the entirety of the novel. We meet the Picador-Minotaur-320x478Minotaur five thousand years post-labyrinth, where he is known only as M.—a Kafkaesque nod if ever there was one—and lives in the deep South in a trailer park. He works as a line cook at a steakhouse, an obvious joke, perhaps, though a writer as smart as Sherrill knows  you have to go for the obvious scenario, the one anyone can think of before you can spin it on its head. Poor M., who says little in the novel save for “Unnhs” and “Mmms,” though the other characters in the steakhouse are always asking him to repeat himself—”What’s that, M? You say something?”—is trapped within the physicality of his bull’s head. With “the cavernous expanse of his throat and…thick bovine tongue, his words (coming) out tortured and mutilated, deep, almost whining,”  he wants only to say, “I am tired of these horns and all that they mean.”  Prone to accidents in the kitchen and in love with a waitress named Kelly, who suffers epileptic fits, M. manages one painfully hilarious articulation early in the novel when he reveals to his fellow employees at the steakhouse, “I am a tit man.”

And there are many hilarious moments, but as the novel progresses, we watch Sherrill delve into the humanity of M who is painfully aware of the “transitional skin” where his human self meets his bull self. Sherrill, also a poet, writes, “On the Minotaur’s back the transition is less decisive…Sometimes this place, this division, throbs, swells, deepens, becomes a chasm, within the Minotaur that he will never span, though he will spend eternity trying…to believe for an isolated moment that he is a singular and whole being.”

We move through the novel with M., who is also quite good with his human hands. He is able to fix most any machine and has a special affinity for cars.  As we come to know M. and his life in the trailer park in the South, where he is often besotted both by memories of his thousands of years in the labyrinth as well as a painful awareness of his own alienation, it becomes increasingly clear how well the premise of the novel is so much more than the punch line the title might suggest. After a brief encounter with Kelly, the waitress M. pines for, we get a glimpse into his isolation as Sherrill describes “the architecture of the Minotaur’s heart”: “… the blood it pumps—the blood it has pumped for five thousand years, the blood it will pump for the rest of his life—is nearly human blood. It carries with it…the terrible stuff of human existence: fear, wonder, hope, wickedness, love. But in the Minotaur’s world it is far easier to kill and devour seven virgins year after year…than (it is) to accept tenderness and return it.”

The-Blue-Girl-356x535Certainly part of Sherrill’s premise concerns his satirical depiction of the American South and the crappy restaurant job that M. is relegated to, though the novel evolves, as we least expect it, into a kind of love story punctuated as much by Sherrill’s flair for gritty realism as for the absurd. The Minotaur, out of the labyrinth and into a trailer park where he drives a beat-up Vega and smokes menthols, wants only what any of us wants: to figure out how to be human.

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Big Loves: Antonio Ruiz-Camacho on José Emilio Pacheco’s Battles in the Desert

ruizcamacho_colorToday’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Antonio Ruiz-Camacho. Ruiz-Camacho’s collection of short stories Barefoot Dogs was recently published by Scribner. The linked stories, using exuberant and imaginative language, explore the fallout of a patriarch’s abduction in Mexico City, illuminated through the exile and displacement of his family. Here, Ruiz-Camacho shares his love for José Emilio Pacheco.

“I remember. I don’t remember. What year was it?” The opening lines of José Emilio Pacheco’s Battles in the Desert might as well describe my own struggle trying to pin down the first time I read the book. It was in the early nineties, but the exact year escapes me. It must have been in college, shortly after I moved to Mexico City from Toluca, the small town in Central Mexico where I grew up, because reading the book felt like an introduction to the bigness of the city and the heartbreak of first loves and the ever-unfulfilled promises of a country long bound for greatness, perennially falling short. But it was not only that. Above all, Pacheco’s novella, which is revered and has been read and re-read on end by generations of young and old-and-young-again Mexicans, felt like an incursion into everything I admired and aspired to without even knowing it: prose as rhythm, the playful recreation of the past, storytelling as a way of occupying the world.

Reading whole books was not a widespread habit in my hometown–it wasn’t even something you were required to do in order to do well at school. Before my encounter with Pacheco and the big city, the only books I had read from cover to cover in my entire life were: Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, and La Noche de Tlatelolco, Elena Poniatowska’s account of the killing of students by military forces on October 2nd, 1968 in Mexico City. They had all fallen in my hands by accident rather than choice, and I had equally devoured them with fascination and a quiet sense of wonder about the possibilities of the written form to reproduce places never visited, eras long gone, and their unmatched ability to expose injustice in societies and countries ruled by brutes. But that was all. Not one of these books ever prompted me to read more, let alone to write. I was an oblivious boy living in the suburbs of the world who’d keep his burning desire to tell stories in the closet, as if a condition that would eventually, hopefully, go away.

Battles in the Desert affected me in a radically different way. For once, unlike the (three!) books I had read before, this one was short (it is in fact so succinct–a meager sixty-eight pages in the original Spanish version–that the English edition, published by New Directions, made enough room to also include five other pieces of short fiction written by Pacheco, which might mislead you to think that the book is a story collection). There is Battles_In_the_Desert_And_Other_Stories_something atomic, sweeping and awe-inspiring about the way short novels like Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Albert Camus’s The Stranger, Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, Pacheco’s Battles in the Desert, and, more recently, Alejandro Zambra’s Ways of Going Home, and Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Down the Rabbit Hole, manage to stunningly encapsulate and expand the larger world in just a few swift strokes.

Not only was it a matter of shortness but, more importantly, the element of breath, that made Pacheco’s book irremediable and overly affecting. Each one of the paragraphs in Battles in the Desert is a micro-story in and on itself, and this not only blew me away, it defined me.

Consider the very second paragraph of the book:

“It was the year of the polio: the schools were full of children with orthopedic devices; the year of the foot-and-mouth-disease: tens of thousands of sick cattle were being shot throughout the country; the year of the floods: downtown had once again become a lake, and the people rode in boats through the streets. They say that with the next storm, the sewage system will burst and inundate the capital. So what, my brother answered, we are living up to our ears in shit anyway under Miguel Alemán’s regime.”

Originally published in Mexico in 1981 and translated by Katherine Silver for the English edition, which was released six years later, Battles in the Desert is about a boy who falls in love with the mother of one of his friends from school; about a Mexican middle-class family’s financial woes in the middle of an era of economic prosperity known as the Mexican Miracle; about American companies taking over local industries in the incipient Third World; about kids playing Jews vs. Arabs in dusty school playgrounds at the dawn of the Cold War; about old-school politicos and their housewife-like mistresses and all the mischief and tragedy that may fit and explode in between; about growing up in the late forties in the peripheries of the Western hemisphere; about nostalgia for childhood and melancholy for a future of hope and well-being that never arrived, which is to say it is about a boy with wondering eyes coming acquainted with the ever-stretching world–a world that vanished, that was never there.

Consider the following excerpt from the very last paragraph in the book:

“How ancient! How remote! What an impossible story! But Mariana existed; Jim existed; everything I went over in my head existed even after such a long time of refusing to confront it…. They demolished the school; they demolished Mariana’s building; they demolished my house; they barefoot-dogs-9781476784960_hrdemolished the Roman Quarter. That city came to an end. That country was finished. There is no memory of the Mexico of those years. And nobody cares: who could feel nostalgic for that horror?”

The desire to explain ourselves through stories is as primitive as it is untamable. Battles in the Desert aroused me to dig into the confines of my inner, unexplored writerly self and….oh, please–just say it. I simply read the book and life was never the same again. I couldn’t stop thinking, feeling that I wanted to do that. I wanted to write like that. It took me two decades to realize it, and only now that I find myself writing over and over about the same city, the same country Pacheco so perfectly captured in order to rescue it from the demolition of memory, have I finally accepted that I am, too, writing about a place that no longer exists in order to recapture myself.


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Big Loves: Claire Fuller on Barbara Comyns’s Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead

Today’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Claire Fuller. Fuller’s first novel Our Endless Numbered Days will be released by Tin House books on March 17th. Fuller’s mysterious and captivating novel travels with Peggy Hillcoat who, at the age of eight, is taken from her home by her survivalist father to live in the forest. claire fuller Here, she shares her big love for Barbara Comyns.

I like to collect book titles* and Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead is one of my favorites. First published in 1954, this short book tells the story of the Willoweed family’s involvement in a series of macabre deaths in an English village in 1911. I was introduced to Barbara Comyns’s books by my husband who owns four of them. I loved their off-beat sangfroid writing style so much I sought out all of Comyns’s fiction, and her one memoir.

The first line of Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead—“The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows’—is an excellent foretaste of what is to come. Grandmother Willoweed has vowed not to walk off her own property (when she wants to go to a funeral she get around this by going in a boat); her hen-pecked son, Ebin, dreams only of escaping; a cat is squashed by a falling woman; the butcher slits his throat with his own knives; chickens and pigs drown. Most of the characters I love to hate, apart from the three Willoweed children – Emma, Hattie and Dennis.

Peculiar things happen on every page, but what makes me love it, is Barbara Comyns’s dead-pan way of writing about English eccentrics. Everything is written in beautifully clear prose as if each outrageous event is an everyday occurrence and when Comyns suspects her reader is becoming complacent, she will slip in a simple line or two at the end of a chapter to bring us up short:

“…Emma almost hated her father and was disgusted and terrified of her grandmother. The only person she had to love was Dennis – and the dim lovers of her imagination.
That evening the baker’s wife ran down the village street in a tattered pink nightgown. She screamed as she ran.”


Similar to We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson, or Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, but for adults, this book looks at life (and death) from a skewed angle. But it’s not all grimness and horror – characters are sometimes nice to each other. The scenes when Emma cares for her younger siblings, taking them to the river with picnics of ‘honey sandwiches with ants on them’ and ‘queer tea that always comes from a thermos,’ are very tender. And when Dennis can no longer look after the grass he plants in a little bowl and cuts with scissors, his sisters sit on his windowsill and cry together.

Writers are told to be careful with point of view; it shouldn’t jump too often from one character’s head to another, or the reader will be lost. But in Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead, Comyns breaks all the rules. It is written like a game of relay: When one character passes another in the street the narrative and the point of view is handed over; when a character thinks about someone else that person picks up the point of view baton. And it works. I am never lost.

I have re-read it several times and have found only two things to be wrong with it: it’s too short – it is over in a few hours. And I think you should assume that quite a few animals were hurt in the writing of it.

*Below are some of my other favorite book titles. What are yours?

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

We Were The Mulvaneys

Behind the Scenes at the Museum

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths

Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow

A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush

Love in the Time of Cholera


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Big Loves: Trudy Lewis on Allegra Goodman’s Intuition


Today’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Trudy Lewis. Lewis is the author of the story collection The Bones of Garbo (Ohio State University Press, 2003) and the novel Private Correspondences (Northwestern University Press, 1994). Her latest novel, The Empire Rolls, will be published by Moon City Press on November 1st, 2014.

When Virginia Woolf imagined the future of women’s fiction, she might have been conjuring up the work of Allegra Goodman. Woolf wanted to read about Chloe and Olivia, who were not sisters or sexual rivals, but who enjoyed working together in a lab. This is the subject of Goodman’s Intuition, published in 2006 but set in the 80s. Goodman’s plot concerns a Cambridge lab in the fictional Philpott Institute. The flashy oncologist Sandy Glass and the introverted researcher Marion Mendelssohn rule over the lab like father and mother. The postdocs, their intellectual offspring, compete for attention, funding, and approval.Empire%20Rolls%20Cover

The story moves into high gear when the lab’s favored son Cliff Bannaker produces astounding results with a new cancer drug. Sandy, seizing the opportunity to win his next NIH grant, wants to publicize the results immediately. Marion, more conservative, hesitates, but eventually allows her charismatic partner to assuage her doubts. Meanwhile, the lab’s neglected daughter, Robin Decker, intuits the flaws in Cliff’s research and is drawn, irresistibly, toward the dark side of dissenters, whistle-blowers, and malcontents.

Goodman excels at portraying the passion of scientific research, and Intuition can serve as an illuminating counterpart to Possession, A.S. Byatt’s great novel of literary apprenticeship, in which male and female scholars compete and collaborate to uncover clues about the romance between two enigmatic Victorian poets. Goodman too concocts a heady, sexually charged, multigenerational plot of ambition and discovery. For me, one of the greatest pleasures of the book is Goodman’s nuanced portrayal of the work romance between Marion and Sandy. Although the author reveals no hint of sexual transgression, the powerful generative energy of this work couple drives the story forward and, in its complexity, suggests a necessary relation between devotion and ambition, purity and self-promotion.

Here the consummated romance between Cliff and Robin, already faltering by the novel’s opening scene, provides an instructive counterpoint. Cliff, like Sandy, has arrived at his position through untested privilege while Robin, humbled by her origins and her years in the field, champions the virtues of hesitation and doubt, along with the overlooked scientific value of negative results. In one scene, Robin watches Cliff with envy and awe: “…Robin saw Cliff clearly through the red-tinted window. He was blood red, wine red, maraschino red, the red of cell media, the red of stained slides. He’d found his way into the inner chamber of discovery.”516WM6bFPoL

In a structural sense, this is a break-up novel, dividing the heterosexual couples to leave the two women facing one another at the story’s end. In 1980, 2006, or even 2014, we still haven’t realized the feminist utopia of Woolf’s imagination. But Goodman suggests, through her deft intuitive plotting, that Marion and Robin, like Chloe and Olivia, may one day reach some mutual understanding of their own.

Goodman also charts the evolution of her male characters, who are subtly transformed by their encounters with defeat and negativity. Sandy, glimpsing impermanence through the end of his partnership with Marion, can now sympathize with his patients’ mortality, while Cliff sees his public humiliation as the true beginning of his scientific career. In an era of factionalism and flash, Goodman practices the novelistic virtues of balance and perspective. Far from choosing winners and losers, she writes, “How strange the way success and failure contained each other. How close vindication and humiliation had proved.”

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Big Loves: Lee Klein on Thomas Mann


Today’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Lee Klein. Lee has two books out this year, The Shimmering Go-Between: A Novel (Atticus Books, 2014) and Thanks and Sorry and Good Luck: Rejections Letters from the Eyeshot Outbox (Barrelhouse Books, 2014).


Asked to contribute something about an under-read novel or writer I love, I thought about Ken Dahl’s Monsters, or Charles Wright’s The Messenger, or Steve Hely’s How I Became a Famous Novelist, or Torsten Krol’s The Dolphin People, or Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai, but when I sat down to write this I realized I preferred to write about how Thomas Mann loves to endanger his young male protagonists. Mann is among the better known dead white male German writers, of course. He has a reputation for novels stuffed with heady logorrhea, for a novella about an older man who dyes his hair and lusts after a young boy, for entries in a journal I’ve never read charting the consistency and quality of his bowel movements. New translations by John E. Woods have appeared that, compared to the apparently oft-archaic original translations, have been deemed masterpieces in terms of faithfully, smoothly, and accessibly conveying the geist of Mann’s German language masterpieces to readers of English. In the past three years, I’ve read three of these newly translated Mann novels: The Magic Mountain, Joseph and His Brothers, and Doctor Faustus. Next year, I’ll read Buddenbrooks, his first major novel, but for now, the approximate three-thousand pages of dense, insightful, descriptive, and often gently ironic prose in these three novels will suffice for a short post.

It’s not so much that Mann seems to get off on endangering his young male protagonists; more so, his writing takes off, unmistakably, when young Hans is lost in the snow while skiing in The Magic Mountain or when young Joseph is trapped in the bottom of a well in Joseph and His Brothers. For the entirety of Doctor Faustus but especially when young Adrian is trapped inside his obsession and ambition, just as the narrator declares that Germany—the land, its people, its culture, and its language—will forever be trapped inside the atrocities of the Second World War. But for Adrian, there’s beauty to it, expressed for example in descriptions relayed to the narrator about an experience in a diving bell. Adrian has only read about such submergence but pretends he’s lived it when he tells it. He describes the gorgeous monstrosities of the depths and then extrapolates to the infinite complexities of the cosmos. Quotations are called for but no sentence offers itself as an adequate representative of a sense while reading that Mann flicked a switch and his prose turned Technicolor. Out of context (in this case 284 pages into a 534-page novel with very small print, centimeter margins at most, and not much dialogue), a single sentence pulled from the four-page diving bell section excerpted for analysis won’t mean much. In general, as in so many classic foreign films, a certain amount of slogging is required to achieve sublimity. Lush descriptions of “ogres of the deep” with their phosphorescent snouts, emitting light as warning and lure, the luminosity and liquidy warmth of the prose Mann deploys for these pages, and the silent solitude of the experience in the diving bell corresponds to the reader’s immersion in the depths of a novel densely packed with squirming ideas and images, some monstrous, some not.

The same is true in the scenes of solitary endangerment in The Magic Mountain and Joseph and His Brothers. Both novels, weighing in at 706 and 1492 pages, respectively, have their share of slog. The first 330 pages of The Magic Mountain weren’t so magical for me, but now I most remember the chapter beginning on page 460 (“Snow”) in which Hans encounters a blizzard while skiing—a physical, literal dramatization of his confusion as a constant blizzard of intellectualizing storms around him thanks to the proto-fascist Naphta and the liberal humanist Settembrini.

Joseph and His Brothers may be my all-time favorite mega-novel. I can’t think of another indisputably major 20th century masterpiece so obscenely and yet understandably under-read. Published in German in five volumes between 1933 and 1943, it’s ambitious on every level, humanizing a few lines of Genesis, filling them out, describing the complexities of the lives of founding Jews long ago at a time when Mann’s countrymen were eradicating the most recent manifestation of the lineage. I can’t think of another novel that suggests such a monumental middle finger raised in the direction of an author’s homeland. But even if the historical, political, and cultural criticism failed to register with readers, as well as the audacity and heft of Mann’s aesthetic resistance, the story and its execution retain more than enough artistry and oomph to propel a reader through 1492 pages—a coincidentally significant number of pages since at its end many readers may feel, like Columbus, that they’ve discovered a new continent.

Early on in the mega-novel (essentially five novels published now in one “Everyman’s Library” hardcover, with bible-like rice-paper pages and one of those snazzy built-in cloth bookmarks) his brothers throw Joseph into a well. Again, what’s most remarkable about this section is how the prose takes off in a sprint of insightful, descriptive exposition. Maybe Mann realizes that when one’s main character is alone in the snow or in a hole there won’t be much dialogue or drama or conflict (other than between life and death) and so he must ramp the language all the way up. The same applies in Proust: stupefying scenes in salons involving Dreyfus Affair discussions give way to ecstatic moments when Marcel finds himself alone and the author pulls out the proverbial stops.

It’s possible that I’m associating and celebrating these solitary ecstatic moments because I’m so rarely alone these days, ecstatic or otherwise. At most on a run through the city in the morning before it wakes there’s some solitude. Or when writing in pre-dawn bursts. Or when reading while walking down empty streets during my commute. There’s therefore maybe something alluring about my memory of these scenes, the lure and the warning of the deep when experienced solo, without spouse, offspring, pets, family, friends, coworkers, acquaintances, neighbors, “followers,” “friends,” even one’s plants that require intermittent attention, the vital presences surrounding you synonymous with life. But these scenes wouldn’t jump off their pages if not for more populous ones that preceded and followed. As Mann teaches throughout Joseph and His Brothers, things are spherical, not oppositional. Solitude and society are one.

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Big Loves: Tyler McMahon Discusses Russell Banks

other_headshotToday’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Tyler McMahon. Tyler has published two novels—How The K99_coverMistakes Were Made (St. Martin’s, 2011) and Kilometer 99, which releases today, June 17, 2014. Tyler is the editor of Hawaii Pacific Review and teaches in the English Department at Hawaii Pacific University.

I saw Russell Banks speak at a theater in Boise, Idaho. It must have been 2004. I seem to remember him talking mostly of Hemingway; he showed a certain giddiness at the fact that Papa had shot himself not so many miles up the road from where we sat. “Hemingway Country,” he called it.

I’d always liked Banks’ work, and had read several of his earlier novels. I thought I had him pegged as an author who wrote about working-class New Englanders, often with father and brother issues, sometimes caught up in misadventures that drew them towards the Caribbean. Hemingway’s influence seemed about right.

But that impression was cracked open once he read a passage from his new novel, The Darling. The story was narrated by a female protagonist—a decidedly un-Hemingway approach. And while it took place in Africa, it was not the Africa of wealthy mountain climbers or half-drunk safaris.

Indeed, Hannah Musgrave is an American expat narrator unlike the midcentury tropes. A sixties radical and member of the Weather Underground, she’s wanted by the FBI and hiding out in New Bedford, making small explosives and forging documents for other fugitives. On the run, she winds up in Liberia, marries a bureaucrat, and witnesses the country’s descent into civil war.

As the trophy wife of a low-level government minister, Hannah becomes the opposite of the independent woman she’d always aspired to be: “I was a different woman. You probably think of me as strong and independent, and I believe that I am—now. I was strong and independent when I was young, too, back before I came to Africa. But in the years between? No. Emphatically no. I was different then.”

In the novel’s most superb turn of plot, Hannah’s three young sons become boy-soldiers aligned with Prince Johnson’s guerilla force. Renamed Fly, Demonology, and Worse-Than-Death, they commit grotesque acts of torture. Even this move is treated sympathetically. The leap from privileged youngsters to violent killers is bridged by Banks’ careful detailing of tribal values regarding family a512JMEG3WVLnd the sons’ reaction to their father’s murder. In this novel, it is violence that begets more violence, and at the end of the chain is a colonial political structure, brutally and stupidly imposed in the first place.

Though it’s set not so many years ago, The Darling is first and foremost an historical novel. It is a long and unflinching immersion in a dark and nearly ignored chapter of the twentieth century. In that sense, the book demonstrates the enduring need for fiction in our time.

Toward the end of the novel, Hannah says: “Mine was merely the story of an American darling, and had been from the beginning.” This may be the fundamental epiphany available to Americans abroad, fictional or not: that their stories are small and occur among bigger, more terrible sweeps of history. Through Hannah, Banks allows us to imagine an America to whom the rest of the world is equally darling.

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