Robin Black’s Parable of the Old and the Young

LIFE DRAWING
by Robin Black
Random House, 256 pages

It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
— Wilfred Owen, “Strange Meeting”

James Joyce’s remarkable coolness towards the First World War while writing Ulysses has been observed by many, and that century-old dilemma of how to depict quotidian complexities in a time of international turmoil is something of a wry undercurrent in Robin Black’s sharply observed novel, Life Drawing. Between Black’s novel and Clare Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, characters named Nora are swiftly becoming the literary answer to NORAD, revealing cold domestic wars nearly as underestimated in their body count as some matter in the Balkans that will be surely resolved by Christmas. More on Nora in a bit.

The book’s 47-year-old protagonist, Augusta, is known as “Gus” by her husband Owen — a teacher and writer whose birthday is strongly insinuated as Bloomsday — and “Augie” by everyone else. That nickname disconnect should tell you everything about this quietly fraught marriage. Augie neither bellows nor marches, at least not at the beginning, but she does spoon out parts of her life in small details. We learn she is an artist of some kind, yet she is diffident about the projects she has painted. Augie is Jewish, but this revelation arrives almost as a perfunctory confessional aside, some hint at the iceberg hidden beneath the water. This approach not only keeps us curious, but tells us that Augie is hiding something: not dirty laundry, but an inner turmoil erected upon decisions over matters it may be too late to clear up.

Augie and Owen have fled the Philadelphia art scene for a new life and bucolic rejuvenation at a farmhouse built in 1918: in part to escape the hurtful residue of an affair Augie had and halted. This deceit is the first of many stings and untruths to come. When Augie finds a stack of newspapers used a century before to insulate the walls, the brutal reports and dead ancestors spilling from these yellowed column-inches serve as rocky and uncertain inspiration (“Why? I didn’t know why. I’d stopped thinking sensibly — which is not how projects usually begin for me.”). For Augie, making art becomes a strange, seemingly liberating narcotic, a curious, ego-flexing gauze to throw over the more important gaze you need to direct at the world. (We learn later, when an unexpected muse arrives, that Owen’s writing is driven by the same impulse. Scrupulous character strokes like this allow us to understand that, even though these two are wrong for each other, they are nevertheless bound by the same beguiling temperament. Late in the book, a gripping and circumlocutory chat in a car offers the best case against trying to work out a marital catastrophe without a couples therapist that I am likely to read in a novel this year.) Black introduces a new neighbor named Alison, who has temporarily rented an adjacent house after retreating from an abusive husband. “I am big on fresh starts,” says Alison not long after meeting Augie, “Second chances. Third, if necessary.” It’s clear from this intensity that Alison needs any soul to help her get back on her feet, yet Augie cannot detect this. They form an ephemeral bond over trips to the farmer’s market and regular visits.

There are big reasons why Augie is friendless and exiled in the country. She’s still emailing with Laine, the daughter of the man she had an affair with, offering her pointers on how to be a painter and she hasn’t told her husband about this. Alison has her own art, and, while it is more macroscopic in nature, it’s driven by a vivid fluidity that Augie can’t find with the dead soldiers she’s resurrecting by paint. And then there’s Nora, Alison’s daughter, who becomes smitten with Owen and who understandably takes up more of Alison’s time. Augie turns jealous and judgmental, and this is where matters turn nasty:

Yes, she was self-absorbed, but now that she had relaxed, it seemed less as through that were the result of ego and instead entirely appropriate for a young woman excited about her life and also excited to have met someone to idolize. She was a bit short on boundaries, but to be otherwise at twenty-two might have been off-putting in its own way.

We begin to see that, while Augie distinguishes characteristics between the old and the young, she can’t discern the same clawing and childish qualities inside herself. Moreover, Augie cannot understand that the young generation now lives in an environment in which every private action becomes public (and, strangely enough, the willful exposure of private confidences is quite similar to what ultimately befalls Nora in Messud’s The Woman Upstairs). Black’s careful juxtapositions not only reveal Augie’s desperate longing for a motherhood she never decided upon, but show how her desperate drift to art is part of the same reason she cannot see the frailty and beauty of people.

The book continues the fearless interior probing into a middle-aged woman’s life that we saw last year with Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs. Both Life Drawing and The Woman Upstairs feature protagonists who disguise their fury at making terrible life choices with furious painting. Yet both arrive at their jolting revelations from altogether different trajectories. It remains anyone’s guess whether Black, like Messud, will suffer the indignity of having to defend the “unlikable character” rap. But Black’s work is just as important.

Black garnered justifiable acclaim for her excellent short story collection, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This. (If you have 53 minutes, I interviewed her in 2010. There is also a wonderful interview by Anna Clark at The American Prospect that considers the politics of complicated heroines.) What made Black’s stories sing was her willingness to depict the inner lives of older women, who are often overlooked in fiction, without resorting to explicit metaphors. In Life Drawing, she builds off this promise beautifully, creating the kind of harrowing fiction that causes any reader — man or woman, older or younger, artist or non-artist — to take a hard, necessary, and emotional look in the mirror.

The Best Books of 2013

It is quite possible that I sacrificed some of my best reading hours in 2013 wading through anything written by or having to do with James Joyce: all part of my slow yet methodical efforts to advance behind #77 in the Modern Library Reading Challenge.* I’ve been working on Joyce since November 20, 2012. It’s a healthy relationship. He cooks dinner. I wash the dishes. On pleasant days, we go for long walks together. Sometimes, we even cuddle. Reading Finnegans Wake at a near glacial pace has forced me to revisit Dubliners, Portrait, and Ulysses, which has summoned Richard Ellmann, Gordon Bowker, and Homer from the stacks and Frank Delaney through the earbuds. I have looked up endless esoteric references. I have met with Joyce acolytes in secret dens. I have spent many late nights contemplating everything from Vico’s New Science to back issues of Tit-Bits published around 1904. All this will be written about in depth — hopefully sometime in 2014, when I reach the mighty “A way a lone a last a loved a long the” wending its cyclical posterior back to “riverrun.”

Despite all this, I did manage to read 125 books in 2013. The fifteen titles below all popped out like scandalous performers exploding from a giant birthday cake. I also started Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, a wise and breathtaking autobiographical novel that chronicles the pains and pleasures of existence. I didn’t include My Struggle on my list because, as marvelous as it is, I really need to see how it ends. (There are six volumes in total. Only the first two have been translated into English, with the third due in May.) But I am fairly certain that Knausgaard will make the cut in the future, once the extraordinarily capable Don Bartlett concludes his fine translation work on this quite important contribution to literature.

Here are my fifteen favorite books from 2013, in alphabetical order. I was able to interview many of these writers for The Bat Segundo Show and Follow Your Ears and have provided links to the shows.

mattbellMatt Bell, In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods: It remains my belief that bears are among the most underrated animals in fiction. Not enough novelists use them. When bears do show up in narratives, they are often found in trite poems written by addled hipsters who are more concerned with courting shallow attention than writing real literature. Bell’s debut novel not only contains a bear. It includes a whole universe of squids and “fingerlings” that could be fabulist creations or could originate from intricate grief. It uses minimalist designators (“the husband,” “the wife,” “the fingerling,” a fixed location seemingly in the middle of nowhere) to grow a maximalist universe, with endless rooms in the titular house propagating in direct proportion with complicated feelings. Language itself obscures and deepens seemingly simplistic sentiments. (It wasn’t a surprise to see the unadventurous reactionaries at the New York Times Book Review willfully misunderstand that last flourish, not kenning how Bell’s repetition and emphasis on physicality could be part of the puzzle.) After one too many wretched novels written by loathsome subjects of vapid Thought Catalog essays, it turned out that Bell’s book was the surreal corrective we needed all along. (Bat Segundo interview, 62 minutes)

Eleanor CattonEleanor Catton, The Luminaries: What if you designed a 900 page novel around the dichotomy paradox, where each section was half the length of the previous section? What if you also attempted to work in the golden ratio? And just for the hell of it, what if you decided to set the action in 1865 and 1866, aligning the temperament of twelve characters to astrology? But let’s not stop there. What if you also injected this novel with slyly accurate historical detail and a shifting relationship between what is articulated to the reader and what is not? You’d have Eleanor Catton’s extraordinary second novel, which has been wrongfully trivialized in America as a mere Dickens pastiche. I’m sure that if you’re a joyless illiterate dope like Janet Maslin, this probably is a “critic’s nightmare.” But here’s the truth: I have not read a contemporary novel that has so adroitly manipulated massive strands of storytelling with an ambitious thematic structure since David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. There is much in this great book to chew on: what we know about people through facts and gossip, how wealth becomes fluid through avarice and want. Even the way in which narrative information is conveyed and reader assumptions is skillfully challenged, forming almost an alternative astrology beneath the apparent astrological structure. Catton is a novelist of the first rank. She absolutely deserved the Booker for this. And I urge all interested parties to read this massive novel when they have the chance. (Bat Segundo interview, 71 minutes)

duplexcoverKathryn Davis, Duplex: I must confess that I have a slight prejudice against novels that go out of their way to destroy the underlying structure every other chapter. Yet it is to Davis’s tremendous credit that I was not only won over by her remarkably inventive and deeply emotional novel, but that I found myself urging strangers in bookstores to buy it. This novel, with its robots, dogs, sorcerers, outlandish suburbs, tsunamis, and rabbits, is almost impossible to describe. But it offers its own unusual argument for the promising anarchism of life. When we stick to our conclusive guns, what do we give up in knowing people? Are there indeed duplexes we will discover when we’re not looking? I found myself greatly enjoying the fluidity of Davis’s universe, in part because of the novel’s descriptive precision (“The Woodard Estate used to be a brilliant jewel on the brow of the third of the three little green hills you come to upon leaving the schoolyard, after passing the water tower and crossing the old railroad bridge.”). You may very well enjoy meticulous geography as you experience it, but Davis’s provocative question involves knowing how to survive when it disappears tomorrow. (Bat Segundo interview, 62 minutes)

elliottholtElliott Holt, You Are One of Them: It’s fascinating to me that two coruscating works of art in 2013 — Elliott Holt’s debut novel and the wonderful television series, The Americans — have involved revisiting the end of the Cold War. There’s a part of me that would like to think that the artists in question were preparing themselves for Edward Snowden’s extremely disturbing revelations about our surveillance state. But exploring defection, in both cases, reveals that pivotal tie between loyalty and memory. You Are One of Them starts with the most seemingly innocuous of premises: idealistic letters sent by two schoolgirls to Premier Andropov beseeching peace. One of the sisters gets an answer and a Samantha Smith-style invitation to visit the Soviet Union. Fame follows. So does death. Or does it? Years later, Sarah Zuckerman (the other schoolgirl) takes a trip to Russia. And her journey, intermingled with such exacting details expat nightclubs in Moscow, the Russian advertising world, and American cleanliness, is a painful unveiling of how to contend with the lies and deceits of other people as an adult while holding onto your dignity. (Bat Segundo interview, 65 minutes)

kieselaymonKiese Laymon, Long Division: While other writers squandered the sad scraps of their waning talent with inane books about zombies and poker, beckoning empty nostalgic calories to fulfill a book contract, Kiese Laymon — much like James McBride and Mitchell S. Jackson — had the vivacity and the stones to explore the uncomfortable truths about what it means to live in America, specifically Mississippi, through genre’s empowering possibilities. Long Division is a bold time-traveling saga unafraid to take risks, recalling the biting ire of a young Percival Everett. It includes daring comparisons between slavery and the Holocaust. It’s one of the few novels I read this year exploring how a community survives on throwaway book culture (“the Bible was better than those other spinach-colored Classic books that spent most of their time flossing with long sentences about pastures and fake sunsets and white dudes named Spence”), even as it stares down the influence of viral videos, teenage sex, and celebrity. In offering two versions of a 14-year-old boy named City Coldson, one in 1985 and one in 2013, Laymon confronts how black identity remains rooted in fragmentation, what he has identified in a separate essay as “the worst of white folks.” Long Division‘s original corporate publisher was too afraid to put out this book. Fortunately, the good folks at Agate Publishing allowed Kiese to be Kiese. Let us hope that more important voices like Laymons’s are allowed to storm the gates in 2014. (Bat Segundo interview, 54 minutes)

mailerJ. Michael Lennon, Norman Mailer: A Double Life: It’s easy to dog on Norman Mailer. He stabbed his second wife Adele and didn’t suffer any consequences. He helped to get Jack Henry Abbott released from prison, only to see Abbott stab a waiter to death as he was loose on the streets. He stood against women’s liberation. There is an undeniably savage quality to Mailer as a writer and Mailer as a man. Indeed, I penned a vituperative obituary not long after Mailer kicked the bucket. (I had not read The Armies of the Night, arguably a Mailer masterpiece, at the time.) Lennon’s biography does a remarkable job at getting 21st century readers to understand that there was more to Mailer than his sins would lead us to believe. Lennon doesn’t flinch from many of Mailer’s indiscretions, nor is he diffident in pointing out just how crazy some of his arguments were. This biography makes such a persuasive case for Mailer that it actually compelled me to read all of Mind of an Outlaw (a big, carefully edited essay collection released by Random House this year), as well as other Mailer books. It turns out that Mailer’s spirit is strangely inspiring amid the turmoil of today. And one comes away from this book wondering whether any talent close to Mailer could flourish in today’s atmosphere of instant digital gratification. Perhaps within Mailer’s double life are some kernels of tomorrow’s possibilities. (Bat Segundo interview, 63 minutes)

messudClaire Messud, The Woman Upstairs: “How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.” So begins The Woman Upstairs. Nora Eldridge, the self-proclaimed “good girl” who narrates Messud’s latest novel, has the kind of anger that seethes just underneath the surface of American life, but that is rarely voiced in fiction and in public debate: in part because Nora is a woman and in part because she thinks and feels in ways we’re not expected to express anymore. Of course, none of these prohibitions stops Nora. As Nora tells us more about her life, we begin to wonder just how responsible she is for the place she’s in. Does cruelty from others beget more cruelty? Or are we all the victims of, quite literally, naked opportunism? Many literary tastemakers leaned toward Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, which was a laudable portrait of 1970s radicalism. But, for me, Messud’s was the more slyly political and visceral novel. In an age where people are more determined to hide how they really feel, what’s more subversive than telling someone what’s really on your mind? (Bat Segundo interview, 51 minutes)

alissanuttingAlissa Nutting, Tampa: So Nutting’s controversial novel about a Florida middle-school teacher named Celeste Price who seduces and sexually abuses her students makes you uncomfortable? Cry me a fucking river. Life is uncomfortable. Like all great art, Tampa enters into dangerous territory. But it is brave, vivacious, and it has the courage to pursue its subject with a sense of humor. The people who have condemned this book have done so without actually engaging with the text. Earlier this year, at the Strand Bookstore, I observed an obnoxious and humorless freelance book critic, someone who has been published in several outlets, speak very loudly about how she couldn’t be bothered to make it past Page 50 because she was so offended by the book. She derided Tampa in the strongest possible terms, even though she had never finished it. I also got into an online argument with some illiterate nitwit who writes for Book Riot because she too had condemned the book as “unbelievable” even though she couldn’t cite a specific example when I challenged her. If you feel the need to condemn a book and you can cannot be bothered to read it or cite it, then you don’t have the right to venture an opinion. You are lazy, ignorant, and uninformed. No better than some Tea Party type holding the government hostage. More importantly, you’re missing out on one of the best books of 2013. (Bat Segundo interview, 75 minutes)

bleedingedgeThomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge: Several reviewers were needlessly hostile to Pynchon’s latest volume, blaming the famous recluse for not delivering another Gravity’s Rainbow. But Bleeding Edge is not only a very funny book stacked to the nines with references (meticulously documented by the good folks at Pynchon Wiki). It’s a loving and sometimes irreverent portrait of the end of the 20th century and perhaps the end of America’s soul, reading at times like a call and response to William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition with its many simulacra, its worlds within worlds, and its fraud investigator Maxine Tarnow, much like Cayce Pollard, trying to make sense of some digital plot tied in with organized crime as the very real factor of family comes increasingly closer into the picture.

roxanaorbinsonRoxana Robinson, Sparta: It’s absolutely criminal that Roxana Robinson’s carefully observed study of an Iraq War veteran returning home hasn’t received wider recognition. Perhaps some readers were too busy wasting their time blasting Jonathan Franzen over his latest grumbling or writing another installment in the meaningless snark vs. smarm war. Whatever the reason, it’s a poor excuse to ignore this honed, gut-wrenching novel revealing just what happens when you cannot return to the life you gave up, along with the psychological costs of being left for dead even after you escape a mortal fate on the battlefield. Like Messud, Robinson probes with wisdom and sensitivity into every anger-inducing quality of her protagonist, Conrad Farrell, who cannot even be solaced by his classics education. As we come to realize that not even a stable family is panacea for PTSD or returning home without a clearly defined role, we begin to understand how callous this nation has been to the men we asked to do the dirty work. And if the “hard, burnished carapace” of spent men hollowed out Sparta, what is it doing to our nation today? This is a vital and needlessly ignored work of fiction. (Bat Segundo interview, 55 minutes)

nucleartestEric Schlosser, Command and Control: Thirty-three years ago, the United States came very close to a nuclear holocaust in Damascus, Arkansas. In a Titan II silo, an overworked airman dropped a socket wrench, which pierced the skin on the missile’s fuel tank, causing poisonous oxidizer to permeate through the air. The W-53 nuclear warhead mounted at the top of the missile came very close to exploding. This is all documented in Command and Control, which also covers our reckless history of avoiding safety and taking shortcuts to maintain missiles. It’s a sobering and necessary reminder on how unsafe we have been in the past and how reckless we may be operating today, as other nations develop the same nuclear capabilities (and concomitant measures) that we once had. (Bat Segundo interview, 56 minutes)

sloukacloseMark Slouka, Brewster: I’m going to confess that when I first read Mark Slouka’s novel, I was a little suspicious of its narrative swagger. Here was a book told from the story of a teenager named Jon Mosher who seemed to talk just a little too tough. But as I read on, I realized that this was the point. If you’re not part of the panorama that other people insist is the one to watch, then aren’t you going to speak a little louder? Brewster describes life in the more blue-collar area of upstate New York, portraying teenagers who didn’t have the bread to attend Woodstock and who need friendship to make it past the hidden brutality of daily life. Slouka is smart enough to reveal Brewster as a town where nearly everyone comes from somewhere else. Jon Mosher, the book’s narrator, portrays Ray Cappicciano is a sleek bad boy who can skim his finger across any metal surface. But as the reader gets to know Ray Cap, we come to understand how not being known reveals hidden torrents of other people’s cruelty. (Bat Segundo interview, 61 minutes)

dukeellingtonTerry Teachout, Duke: Teachout’s biography of Duke Ellington is arguably his smoothest and best-researched book. Longlisted for the National Book Awards, Duke demonstrates, like the best of arts-related biographies, that it is as much about chronicling the culture that allowed Ellington to flourish as it is about revealing the niceties of this titanic jazz figure. Thanks to Teachout, I spent large chunks of a weekend listening to all sorts of music, tracing, for example, Bubber Miley’s solo on “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” to Jimi Hendrix’s wah-wah work on “All Along the Watchtower” after Teachout found a fascinating connection. I was happy to fall down this YouTube rabbit hole and follow the eventful ups and downs of a man who could be found dazzling audiences at the Newport Jazz Festival one minute and appearing with Herman’s Hermits on The Ed Sullivan Show the next. (Bat Segundo interview, 50 minutes)

rosaparksJeanne Theoharis, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks: Released at the beginning of the year, Theoharis’s meticulously researched volume of the woman who refused to give up her seat reveals a far more sophisticated and politically active figure than the one in the history books. This is a much needed replacement for such cheap hagiographies as David Brinkley’s Rosa Parks: A Life that reveals everything that happened after the famous day in Montgomery. It exposes the sexism of Black Power, shows how numerous statesmen attempted to co-opt Parks to gain extra footing during their careers, and illustrates the costs and personal hardships of being a revolutionary. (Follow Your Ears #5, “Rosa Parks: Not Just a Meek Seamstress” radio segment at 47:16)

jesmynward3Jesmyn Ward, Men We Reaped: Jesmyn Ward remains one of our most vital chroniclers of American life. This searing yet understated memoir examines why racism continues to flourish and why so many young black men continue to die. It looks into how five needless deaths, including West’s own brother, affected and informed her own life. It’s a deeply affecting book which points out how the deck is stacked against you if you’re a young African-American living in Mississippi. But it also reveals how stories allow us to live and understand and possibly break out of some of these vicious cycles. Maybe if we focus our attention into how other people live, we may just come up with a new way of storytelling that allows us to lob some stones at the incompetent political forces that would prefer to shut down our government than address our deepest needs and our greatest ills. (Bat Segundo interview, 42 minutes)

* I also started another reading project, The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge. I am presently reading Ian Hacking’s The Taming of Chance and will be writing about the volumes before this in the next few weeks.

Boris Kachka: The Inspector Clouseau of Cultural Journalism

“He said that, as a literary biographer, he’d been asked to talk about Peter’s literary interests, which of course was absurd in a mere seven minutes: Peter deserved a literary biography of his own, and maybe he would write it — anyone with stories to tell should see him afterwards, in strictest confidence, of course. This got a surprisingly warm laugh, though Rob was unsure, after what Jennifer had said, whether he was sending himself up as a teller of other people’s secrets.” — Alan Hollinghurst, The Stranger’s Child

In more than a decade at New York Magazine, Boris Kachka has displayed a limitless knack for bumbling inquiry, suggesting an easily played and incurious rube who hopes and believes with every desperate palpitation of his hypoplastic heart that constant proximity to disinterested players will reveal some grand Talmudic truth.

Kachka is a “reporter” who has seen faux import in an osteoporosic Sally Field climbing fourteen flights of stairs in a midtown hotel. Mere months before Romina Puga, Kachka bombarded Jesse Eisenberg with vapid invasive questions, attempting to read sage significance in Eisenberg’s monosyllabic discomfort and leading one to wonder if Kachka had written his superficial queries on his palm in some headlong campaign to read the future. In April, Kachka visited Claire Messud and James Wood and, unable to spark it up with these two charming and gracious minds, littered his simpering copy with eight desperate New Journalism “[BARK!]”s (one sans brackets) and dwelt more on Wood’s mien than his thoughts.

At New York, Kachka established himself as a diseased mongrel who could barely push his debilitated legs off the porch to work his beat. He has littered his work with portentous phrases like “anomie of Lipsyte’s generation” and “Park Slope’s popular freelance perch,” and it all smacks of a desperate burnout raiding the low-hanging lexical fruit that hadn’t already been plucked for some “Talk of the Town” piece at a more august publication.

Kachka’s new book, Hothouse, comes out on Tuesday and purports to chronicle Farrar, Straus & Giroux with all the lapel-grabbing furor of Jacob Riis investigating the New York slums. Despite “more than 200 interviews,” the result is a dry, listless, tendentious, sexist, blinkered, and preposterous book which regurgitates insignificant facts, latches onto third-hand rumors, and fails to comprehend the way the publishing industry really works.

Yet Kachka’s insufficient history has inexplicably captured the imagination of a few gullible and unquestioning boosters, including Heller McAlpin at the Los Angeles Times and Carolyn Kellogg at Bullseye. Perhaps Hothouse has received a fair pass because journalistic standards have collapsed well beneath the lowest notches on the limbo bar. Or maybe these literary cheerleaders cannot comprehend that hearsay, which is impermissible testimony in a courtroom, is not acceptable in any work purporting to reveal the trajectory of an uniquely influential business.

Much like Leonard Zelig or, perhaps more accurately, Being There‘s Chauncey Gardner, Kachka has been allowed to commit solecisms for years, yet there’s an inexplicable hubris attached to his bungling, the telltale traits of a more famous Peter Sellers character. Kachka’s approach to the truth involves relying on inference without respect for person or underlying fact. Helene Atwan, now the Director of Beacon Press, leads Kachka to believe that FSG intended to change Peter Høeg’s last name to “Hawk” for the release of Smilla’s Sense of Snow, and Kachka laps this confabulation up so that he can grill Roger Straus III on this incredulous matter. Kachka specializes in the bold uncorroborated inference, writing like a man who isn’t getting any action at home: “By the early 1960s, [Roger Straus] was probably sleeping with three of his female operators.” Probably? The scuzziest TMZ reporters are more committed to accuracy. (There are, of course, no endnotes upholding this claim.)

If Kachka feels as if his subjects aren’t giving him the answers or the access that he believes he is entitled to by rightful decree of the tottering authority in his feeble delusional mind, or the quotes don’t match the story he believes he already knows, then he will burn them with his cheap prossy pen. Here, for example, is Kachka’s first description of Jonathan Galassi in Hothouse:

Galassi, on the other hand, is a patrician only by training, a bon vivant only by necessity, but a nerd through and through. He invited his fourth-grade teacher to his ninth birthday party. He seems to have learned the bold body language of an alpha male, but never quite vanquished his low, slightly nasal voice or downcast expression.

Instead of being curious about Galassi’s intriguing background, Kachka sees Galassi as a cartoon to be mocked. Kachka cannot be arsed to get his source to trust him. He is clearly not Richard Ben Cramer talking baseball with George W. Bush to get a stubborn man to open up. And stacked next to fellow New York journalist Robert Kolker (author of the recently released and well-received Lost Girls), he’s a total embarrassment, especially when he pursues an Oliver Stone-like trail suggesting that Straus had a secret telephone line and was working for the CIA. Had Kachka more time to push his plodding connections, he most certainly would have spotted Straus on the grassy knoll.

Like the despicable gossip peddler Paul Bryant in Alan Hollinghurst’s excellent novel, The Stranger’s Child, Kachka seeks any vaguely salacious angle to throw into his preordained template, whereby FSG is a “sexual sewer,” male employees fuck anything that moves, and Mad Men parallels snap into place like a smooth sudoku puzzle. In Hothouse, Kachka claims that, because someone may have seen long black strands of hair in a borrowed apartment, Susan Sontag and Straus were having an affair. He then spends the majority of his book calling David Rieff “an illegitimate son” to shove this unsubstantiated carnal connection down the reader’s throat. When Kachka finds former FSG assistant Leslie Sharpe, who tells him, “Everybody was fucking everybody in that office,” the reader feels the extremely unsettling aura of Kachka’s cock hardening at the news. But of course, Kachka has nothing reliable in his notes on the many affairs he claims went down. Any man close to the age of forty who wags his dry tongue for scuttlebutt scraps is a pathetic figure indeed.

Hothouse evinces how little Kachka understands wealth by pointing to “starter dachas,” opens chapters with journalism cliches (“If Jonathan Galassi didn’t exist, FSG would have to invent him”), and squeezes out strained efforts at Tom Wolfe-style savaging against agent Andrew Wylie:

It doesn’t help that his face tapers from a broad bald pate to an unshaped brow, icy eyes, and a chiseled, lupine chin, or that his laugh sounds like that of the world’s most cultured hyena.

Can a face taper? Is Wylie a hyena, a wolf, or a jackal? Given all the mixed metaphors, I don’t think Kachka even knows.

Kachka lacks one of the competent reporter’s primary skills: pretend to like a source you loathe (or, more ideal, find something to like about someone you despise). He’s long past the point where any true observer can feel sorry for him, although the pity blurbs accompanying his cotillion ball reveal a few noteworthy mensches who should be commended for their kindness. Still, Kachka is not significant enough to be put out of his misery with a pink slip and a peremptory blast in the human resources office. He trudges on, a bearded penguin known to harass people with multiple phone calls at 6 AM (including yours truly many years ago on a matter pertaining to Zadie Smith) and getting people so thoroughly wrong that one wonders if he has even read Philip Roth’s American Pastoral.*

Roth, like John McPhee and Edmund Wilson, was wooed by FSG without an agent. An assiduous journalist would look into whether or not Roger Straus, a notorious cheapskate (a man who operated FSG from a ramshackle Union Square West headquarters for years and a man who did not contribute a sou to Susan Sontag’s breast cancer fund), actively pursued writers who did not have representatives to protect their interests. (Kachka points out that Straus sought to discredit agents wherever he could, but he isn’t robust enough to construct a timeline or a concrete set of governing principles.) Given the sour grapes that developed between Straus and Wylie in the 1980s, to say nothing of the resentment expressed by writers for being underpaid, it is palpably obvious to look into the very business philosophy that permitted a publisher, often sustained by family wealth when times were lean, to subsist as long as it did. It would also seem natural to focus on how New Directions, who worked in the same building as FSG for many years, operated as FSG’s competitor, snapping up the poetry of Thomas Merton and John Berryman before FSG editor Robert Giroux.

Hothouse reveals that Straus was a poor businessman (“No FSG catalog would be complete without its impending announcement,” mocked one wag about the publisher’s long delayed titles), even as it promulgates the false myth that this apparent patriarch had “just enough of a personal financial cushion to keep from falling over the brink.” Nearly 250 pages later, Kachka writes, “The fact is that 1988-vintage FSG could have eaten 1982 FSG for lunch. In the old days, the cash simply hadn’t been there. Roger’s cheapness may have been inborn, but it was refined by forty years of hard, break-even experience.” Or maybe it wasn’t. Kachka is such an otiose journalist that he doesn’t follow the money, except through mere conjecture. He claims that Wilson, Sontag, Carlos Fuentes, Tom Wolfe, and Joseph Brodsky “received financial support far beyond standard contracts,” but provides neither source nor sums for this claim. Why did Straus really sell his townhouse? Is it not possible that Straus sold FSG to billionaire Georg von Holtzbrinck in 1994 because his coffers were light? Kachka lacks the diligence to pursue these questions, in large part because it contradicts his cheap thesis that FSG is the Greatest Publisher of All Time. On the other hand, Kachka is to be commended for inadvertently reminding us that Melville House’s Dennis Loy Johnson, arguably the most hypocritical man working in publishing today, is desperately trying to be a Roger Straus for the 21st century and will surely fail if he continues along the same trajectory.

Kachka does account for Straus’s tendency to skim his titles, but is too much of a milquetoast to probe: “The most common theory, especially among those who saw him lug manuscripts up to Purchase for the weekend, is that he didn’t so much read books as ‘read in’ them, as he sometimes put it — enough to get a nose for them, like fine wines.”

Hothouse is plagued by other contradictory assertions which quickly out Kachka as a squirmy journalist who cannot be trusted. He claims FSG as an innovative publisher, but confesses that Robert Giroux was not an especially edgy editor:

But though he was still approaching the peak of his professional power, he was no longer, if he ever really had been, at the vanguard of taste. By the sixties, even the Beats — most of them too extreme for Giroux — were old hat.

In other words, FSG was hoary from the get go. And it took careful line editors like Lorin Stein, progressive-minded editors like Sean McDonald, and gutsy publicists like Jeff Seroy to turn it into the publisher it is today. But all that happened under a German congolomerate’s watch, not Straus’s.

But what ultimately makes Kachka such an unpardonable scumbag is the way in which he wallows in the very sexism he tries so hard to expose. Aside from perpetuating a fantasy that publishing was a “gentleman’s profession” with “Roger and his publicity girls,” Kachka undermines Margaret Farrar (along with her barely mentioned husband), claiming that the woman who created most of the rules governing crossword puzzle design merely “enriched one publishing house.” (Later, Margaret is dismissed as “the crossword-puzzle creator and sometime editor.”) He introduces FSG supplies manager Rose Wachtel as “a prematurely elderly-looking woman.”

Peggy Miller, Roger Straus’s secretary of several decades, tells Kachka that she refuses to answer questions about whether or not she was romantically involved with her employer. But that doesn’t stop Kachka from deracinating her dignity by suggesting that she’s “a living homage to Straus” and claiming that she and Straus were a “couple,” with rampant fucking during their annual trips to the Frankfurt Book Fair. (Compare this with Ian Parker’s 2002 description of Miller as “a tall, chic, ironic woman.” In fact, save yourself the $28 on Kachka’s junk and just subscribe to The New Yorker to access Parker’s piece.)

The most prominent example of Kachka’s sexism is his deplorable depiction of Jean Stafford, a distinguished (if troubled) FSG writer. Kachka pits her husband Robert Lowell’s accomplishments over hers and has no sympathy for her nervous breakdown even as he points out that Lowell and Gertrude Buckman “spent unsavory amounts of time together headed for an affair.” Kachka’s vulgar and misogynist suggestion is that Jean Stafford should have suffered in silence. But he doesn’t stop there. Boris Kachka, a man who will never be a poet or a novelist or a journalist of any renown, actually has the temerity to write that “Giroux patiently endured broken deadlines,” as if Stafford’s great difficulty with a mentally unstable and philandering husband was some commonplace household task. It was likely that the pressure to produce in these conditions led Stafford to bolt to Random House, but the doltish Kachka actually writes this sentence: “It’s difficult to tell exactly what drove Jean Stafford away.” One can easily hear Peter Sellers speaking this line in a French accent.

Does Kachka stop embarrassing himself? Not at all. In 1963, A.J. Lebiling, Stafford’s third husband and the man who she experienced the most happiness with, died at the early age of 59. This premature death crushed Stafford and made it difficult for her to write fiction. But don’t tell that to the clueless and insensitive Kachka, who neglects to mention any of this when writing about FSG’s 1967 author compilation:

Giroux used it as a chance to prod another of his flailing depressives, Jean Stafford, to finish her autobiographical novel “A Parliament of Women,” only to receive the reply: “There is no book and I don’t know if there ever will be.” There never was.

A flailing depressive? Is that all she was? Never mind that Stafford would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for her Collected Stories — an FSG book. Kachka does not mention this Pulitzer at all. Nor does this sexist pig point out that Stafford was good friends with Roger’s wife, Dorothea Straus. How many author-publisher relationships did Dorothea salvage? We may never know, because it doesn’t fit into Kachka’s “gentleman’s profession” template.

But Hothouse‘s greatest folie de grandeur is the notion that FSG willfully positioned itself as the most distinguished American publisher under Straus’s watch. Many of the Nobel winners that FSG published in the pre-Galassi days emerged by accident. Indeed, the publisher then and now has stayed alive publishing blockbuster authors like Scott Turow, Thomas Friedman, and Tom Wolfe. But the big tell that Kachka is writing for a lonely audience of one is when he shakily assesses FSG’s stature based on its spine:

The Farrar, Straus logo is so engrained in the consciousness of savvy readers that seeing it on sixty-year-old Noonday compilations provokes cognitive dissonance. To say that FSC simply appropriated the logo is not enough.

Who are these savvy readers? Can they be found in Washington next to the savvy insiders? FSG survived not through loyal readers adhering to the brand, but because it gobbled up profitable publishers. But Kachka is so blind to his invented mythology that he calls Walker Percy “a true Giroux-Robbins team effort,” even though his best-known book, The Moviegoer, was published at Knopf, where editor Henry Robbins merely “had some input into Stanley Kauffmann’s heavy editing of the manuscript.” (Robbins was to flee FSG only a few years later under extremely difficult conditions. Kachka is not especially interested in investigating the high turnover among top editors, but he cannot resist inserting any moment where Straus barks, “You’ll be back,” to an FSG employee fleeing to stabler pastures.)

Perhaps Kachka’s inherent squareness and his lack of adventure, seen with his hilarious suggestion that pot passed around a publishing party was dangerous or his equally pathetic fear of legitimate 1960s actvism (“acts of protest bordering on personal threats”), is to blame for this turgid book. The title is surely no accident, given how large chunks of this book are as dull and as boring as the smooth jazz Bruce Hornsby album of the same name. If Kachka is foolish enough to continue with his floundering career as a book writer, it is almost certain that, like Hornsby, he will celebrate every 4th of July just a little tamer than most of the rest of us do.

* — During the last BookExpo America, I attended a party in which a marvelous woman I hadn’t seen in a while kissed me. Kachka stood next to her and looked at me: his small mouth agog, a pathetic paralysis infesting his slapdash bearing, a hilariously pointless anger in his insignificant eyes. He didn’t even have the balls to introduce himself or call me an asshole to my face. Some years before this, Kachka proved incapable of recognizing a clear case of performance art by telephone voicemail. He really seems to believe that it’s still the 1990s. He’s clearly not going to blossom on the clock. But I’ll be the first to buy him a drink if he does.

8/7/13 UPDATE: On Wednesday morning, prompted by a Twitter discussion of Boris Kachka’s book involving Alexander Nazaryan and Kera Bolonik, Boris Kachka told me to “go fuck yourself,” as seen in the screenshot below.

boriskscreenshot

Kachka’s tweet was quickly deleted. I responded to Kachka with this reasonable reply:

borisktweet1

Kachka replied:

borisktweet2

So Boris Kachka, unable to refute any of this essay’s charges, prefers to take the low road — a fitting path, given how his book is so obsessed with the vulgar.

Claire Messud II (The Bat Segundo Show #504)

Claire Messud is most recently the author of The Woman Upstairs. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #86.

Play

Author: Claire Messud

Subjects Discussed: How living in a surveillance state will affect contemporary fiction, the disappearing interior life, Sabbath’s Theater, proper norms and sentences that are alive, transgressions in fiction, girls who get up early to put on makeup, This American Life‘s climate change program, climatologists vs. novelists, the downside of promoting individual agency, why social novels are associated with “big books” and how “small books” can be just as big, James Joyce, reading Finnegans Wake, Ulysses references in The Woman Upstairs, A Doll’s House, how literary and ontological snippets float within your head throughout your life, Nora’s evolution, having to contend with the narrative in your head, people who are against universal health care, when interior selves set themselves up for disappointment, the fury guiding the first chapter, cultural osmosis, the glibness of assigning invisibility to a class of people, “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” (Dr. Hook version and Marianne Faithfull version) Shel Silverstein’s songwriting career, not looking for original points or antecedents with family and culture, the “being wrong” speech in American Pastoral, Teju Cole’s Open City, always being a hero in your own story, peregrinations of memory, Chekhov’s “The Black Monk,” why investigation into the mind inevitably leads to the corporeal, interpretive liberation, being profoundly disembodied, Nora and foreign voices, multiculturalism and inverted xenophobia, Pierre Nora’s interpretation of the Pieds-Noirs, living a life somewhere between desperation and wanting to count, fakery and personas, giving other people what they want, how the semi-autistic genius myth has become defined by gender roles, Temple Grandin, the Google People in San Francisco, the Publishers Weekly controversy, Enlightened, Roxana Robinson’s Sparta, the unlikable character debate, why America is presently frightened by unlikable characters in art, why likability is uninteresting, +1 culture, how authors are held hostage by Goodreads reviews, the limitations of literature as escapism, how social media is regulated in the Wood-Messud household, and attempts to find a verb which adequately appreciates a difficult work of art.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I don’t want to get into the ending of The Woman Upstairs, but it would appear that recent events — certain reports by Glenn Greenwald — would have the rare notion of reinforcing your ending in terms of what privacy means. And I wanted to start off this conversation because I have to address it in some way. Now that we are aware that we are living in a surveillance state, do you think this is going to do anything for contemporary fiction? Is America going to produce its share of Kunderas and Dostoevskys? I was wondering if you had any thoughts on this.

Messud: That’s an interesting question and I don’t necessarily have an answer. But one of the things that I was thinking about when writing this book — well, I was setting out to write somebody’s interior life. And the interior life is fast disappearing. The interior life was always invisible. But now, in the highly mediated world that we live in, nothing exists unless it is manifest. My daughter photographs her breakfast and puts it on Instagram. And by the same token, maybe there’s something satisfying. I mean, where’s the line between our own willful destruction of privacy and the intrusion of government agencies or whatever into our privacy? They meet somewhere in the middle, right?

Correspondent: You’ve just given me a very terrible idea. That PRISM exists to reproduce the interior monologue. That there will be some new version of Ulysses that is generated entirely by NSA wiretapping. I mean, it could happen! It seems crazy.

Messud: One of the things I’ve been thinking too — you know, we were talking earlier about the somewhat parlous state of literary life. I think it is both a great thing and a terrible thing, but literature may just become samizdat. It may become the underground form of communication. That one’s beneath the other forms of mediated communication.

Correspondent: Aha! So in other words, by going ahead and focusing on the interior through ornate, detailed, subtle sentences that convey several meanings, we are in some way revolting against this.

Messud: Yes. I believe it.

Correspondent: Okay. Well, you know, with that in mind, I’m going to have to bring up your epigraph. “Fuck the laudable ideologies,” from Sabbath’s Theater. I do know that in your husband’s book, How Fiction Works, he singles out this sentence as “utterly alive, alive by virtue of the way it scandalizes proper norms.” So this leads me to ask. How much did you hope to scandalize proper norms with the writing of this book? I mean, what transgressions do you think are left in our oversharing age? How do novelists answer to this?

Messud: You know, it’s interesting. I think I did see in my mind Nora and the story she has to tell as transgressive. In part because she is not lovely, glamorous, fascinating. A model in New York City. She’s a schoolteacher. Part of her transgression is the fact that she’s leading a completely ordinary life in which officially nobody has any interest whatsoever. And I do think in this increasingly mediated culture where we all want to be represented, she is somebody who is completely unrepresented. So it felt like a transgression to give her a voice.

Correspondent: So today’s fiction transgressions are giving voice to those types of characters who normally don’t get on the page? I don’t know. Do you think literature is now that limited? That we can’t have anything other than a certain kind of perspective? Where is this coming from?

Messud: No, no. There’s room for everybody.

Correspondent: Absolutely.

Messud: But I wouldn’t set any limits on what can be said. But one thing that felt liberating to me was to be writing her interior life, which she was accused of being dislikable, to which you want to say, “No, no. If you met her, she would be totally charming.” Because that’s who she is on the surface. He or she is showing you what nobody gets to see. And because I have some feeling — apprehension; some of it personal, but also observed — that that is to a greater extent the lot of women than it is the lot of men. Which is not to say it isn’t in part the lot of men. But we’re all expected to put on a game face. So I felt in writing somebody where the point was precisely to express and articulate unseemly and unacceptable emotions and reactions, that felt like a great liberation. And my hope would be that for people reading it, who might have shared even one of her thoughts at some point along the way, that it would be a liberation for them too. To say, “You know, actually, nobody ever talks about it. But this is life too.”

Correspondent: Yeah. Well, I mean I want to get into the unlikable situation later. And I will do so through not just having you reiterate your points. But I want to talk about the proper norms thing and why you think perhaps people are reacting hostilely to Nora in this. Because as you say, any solipsist you meet in life is, of course, yes, going to have this wonderful epidermal layer. That once you peer and get to talking with them a little more, oh dear. There’s actually a lot of fury. There’s something else going on. And we’re living in a society now where you’re supposed to tough it up, bucko. So as a result, it would seem to me that writing about these perspectives would be increasingly necessary. Why do you think there’s this reluctance to explore the interior of something that is seemingly roseate?

Messud: Well, I think there are lots of answers to that. One is that we live now — she says it. We do live in a time that is particularly preoccupied with the surface. And the surface is what counts. I went to boarding school. I went back — this was already some years ago — to my old high school. And one of the very lovely teachers who was a dorm mother said to me, “Did you know that all the girls get up at six in the morning to blow dry their hair and put on makeup?” Which in the early 1980s, you wouldn’t have been caught dead doing. And her point was they have an hour less sleep than the boys do. Because the boys don’t have to blow dry their hair. I guess in the ’70s maybe the boys blow dried their hair too. Anyway, you realize that how you present yourself to the world counts significantly more than at one time it did. That’s a subset or a function of this mediated world. If everything’s going to be represented, then you don’t want to be represented with dirty hair on your dressing gown. Now I’m forgetting the rest of the question. But that was only part of what I was going to answer. But I can’t remember.

Correspondent: Oh, no, no, no. Free form is great on this program. I guess I was trying to tie this all into proper norms and the fact that, well, we all live lives in which we’re putting on masks. And there’s this reluctance to really penetrate further and actually wrestle with this problem. I mean, it’s not just with characters. I heard this This American Life program recently where they were talking about how people who talk about climate change are now incapable of actually being honest about it. Climatologists cannot actually mention climate change until after they have delivered two hours of lectures and a Powerpoint presentation. And this is increasingly getting in the way of having an honest look at what our world is.

Messud: Why can’t they? Why? What’s the obstacle?

Correspondent: They fear their jobs. They are afraid of losing their income. They may piss off people who may actually take away their income.

Messud: Right.

Correspondent: Obviously being a novelist is not quite on that level. Although in the likable/unlikable debate, there is nevertheless that particular reluctance. Don’t rock the boat. Maybe you can tell me what you think about this. Because I grew up and you grew up in an age where we could actually talk about things like adults and disagree and get into really shocking topics. And we wouldn’t be mortal enemies. It wouldn’t involve, “Well, how dare you say that. You’re not going to get work.” Or something like that. And now it seems like it’s moving more towards that. So it’s a reluctance to address issues in combination possibly with some aspects of the 2008 crash. What are your thoughts on this? And how do we bring this back to fiction? And that’s a very elaborate longueur! (laughs)

Messud: Well, I think — certainly there’s the sound byte problem. Jokingly, you said earlier that maybe writing complex-compound sentences that have multiple possible interpretations is an act of rebellion. Increasingly, it is. Because along with the interior life, certain modes of reflection are, if not disappearing, certainly not to the fore. So I think that’s a problem. If you want to say something complicated, but only half of it is going to be shrunk down to some supposed essence, it could easily be a misapprehension of what you were trying to say. So I think that makes people leery of saying unseemly things. But I also think — and it’s linked, it’s another conversation but it is linked — we are a nation always championing the individual, but now has put human agency, individual agency, to the fore to a ludicrous point where, if you get cancer, that would be your fault. You made bad choices. If you have negative thoughts, that can make you ill. Right? In which context everybody wants to become their mask. Everybody wants to be the cheerful, bright, upbeat, healthy, fun-loving self. That’s who you want to be. You don’t want to be the depressive, negative, whiny, anxious naysayer. Nobody wants to be the person who just says, “Climate change has reached a point where we are doomed.” Nobody wants to be that person.

Correspondent: Yes. Well, actually, I’m going to tie this in directly to your book. Because Nora does in fact say something along those lines. [searching through notes] I had a quote here. It appears to have disappeared. I’m going to have to use my damn memory.

Messud: (laughs) The incredible disappearing quote!

Correspondent: I actually had it all here. It somehow disappeared. Well, the quote is — at one point, she’s talking about Sirena and about what her allure is in terms of how the art world is drawn to her. And she basically says that Sirena is, in fact, living a persona. Or something to that effect. And it’s a shame I somehow didn’t actually type up my quote. I meant to type it up. I meant to include it. But anyway, I think this draws on the predicament. Clearly, if we are going to explore the interior, we’re going to have to explore the persona. Do you think that fiction that does this is the way to address this problem we’re talking about? That we can only look at the self as reflective of a larger ill of society through the interior, through how other people are looked at, through a persona. Issues like that. Does that make sense?

Messud: I feel as though — that’s a really complicated question!

Correspondent: It is.

Messud: And I’m not sure I can properly address it. But obviously different types of fiction address these things in different ways. I do think — and this will seem perhaps a tangent — but I think…you know, somebody asked me, “The Emperor’s Children was a big book. Is this a small book?” And I said, “Absolutely not for me.” I can’t say what it is for other people. But absolutely not for me. I do actually feel that the only way to address the biggest issues is through the smallest mouse hole, if you will. That that is the way forward. But on the other hand, it’s true that big social novels in which characters may appear largely in their personas rather than unmasked, if you will, are able to articulate a different part of the dynamic and a different relationship that then extends that to the larger systems of society and government, if you will. And I would maintain that you could follow Nora through to a commentary about broader American society, if you so chose.

Correspondent: The novel is open enough for you to find another road to somewhere else. This is where the reader comes in.

Messud: That would be my hope. Certainly I liked that you used the word “open.” Because my hope with this book is that, in a funny way, it’s more open than almost anything I’ve written before. That that was part of the enterprise: it was to write something that each person would have their own reaction to rather than there being a template of how the novel should be read.

Correspondent: Sure. I had a very geeky question for you concerning James Joyce. There’s an obvious Ulysses connection with Nora, the name of the character. But I wanted to get into a number of Ulysses connections I found in the book. Because I am presently attempting to read Finnegans Wake and I will make it to the end.

Messud: Oh my goodness. I’m impressed.

Correspondent: It’s not easy. And that has actually necessitated going back to Ulysses as well. So I’m in a James Joyce fugue state probably for the next year or two. Anyway. Sirena, of course, referencing the Sirens. There is one “Yes Yes Yes” moment…

Messud: Yes.

Correspondent: …which mimics Molly Bloom. There’s one point where Nora says that she’s “oblivious like a lotus eater.” Which is interesting. Because “The Lotus Eaters” is the first chapter in Ulysses where we suddenly start to understand, “Oh, well! It goes back to Homer.” And then with Wonderland, Sirena’s project, it’s almost kind of a response to James Joyce’s famous remark where he said you could construct all of Dublin from the brickstones that are laid down in Ulysses. And it is interesting that Sirena’s project is very much a schematic recreation. And she has also done, oddly enough, an installation of Elsinore. Which also takes us backs to Ulysses. Because that’s Hamlet and all that. And the subject of art and photos reminded me very much of “Scylla and Charybdis” and Stephen Dedalus’s speech on Hamlet. I have to ask. It’s clear to me that Ulysses was your muse in some sense. And I was wondering if you could talk about this for these references and more.

Messud: Well, I thought…you’ve done a better reading. Some were conscious and some not! I mean, certainly the photography: well, that was not on purpose. Some of them were definitely not on purpose. Others were more deliberate. This is the sort of shaming admission though. As I say, some of those are very deliberate. But the other reference that people have said. Nora. Ibsen. A Doll’s House. And the terrible truth is was when I first sent the manuscript to my editor, she said, “You refer here to Nora’s ‘doll-housed labor.’ That seems a little heavy-handed.” And that was the first moment where I thought, “Oh God, it’s true!” I had forgotten that Ibsen’s Nora was Nora. I had read the play more than once. I had seen the play maybe twelve years ago on stage. I did not reread Ulysses in the planning of this book. My father always would say, “Civilization is what’s left when you’ve forgotten everything.”

Correspondent: (laughs)

Messud: So we can say it’s a relief to know that even in my midlife Alzheimer’s state, I have still some collective memory of what I read in my youth.

Correspondent: Yeah. But I think also with Ulysses, it’s a book that’s very difficult to shake. Because you’re doing a lot of heavy lifting with all of Joyce, pretty much from Ulysses onward and Portrait to some degree. So it seems to me that in exploring Nora’s past and in flashing back, you were going to perhaps certain literary highlights, which may have included Ulysses, which may have been A Doll’s House. Numerous other references as well. This leads me to wonder how your own reading serves as, I suppose, beacon points in trying to really pinpoint who Nora is. Which we haven’t really talked about! (laughs)

Messud: Well, you know, I think there’s no question. There are little snippets that you have in your head as you go through life. Literary snippets. I mean, there are other snippets. But the number of times in my life — this sounds crazy, but the number of times in my life I have had occasion just sitting there to say, “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each; I do not think they will sing to me.” You know? Which also — it’s not quoted in the book, but in some way it’s in the book. There’s your mermaid. And there she is.

(Loops for this program provided by JorgeDanielRamirez, MaMaGBeats, and KristiJann.)

The Bat Segundo Show #504: Claire Messud (Download MP3)

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