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.

Matt Bell (The Bat Segundo Show #506)

Matt Bell is most recently the author of In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods.

Play

Author: Matt Bell

Subjects Discussed: Attempts to abridge a rather lengthy book title, House Party, Kate Bernheimer, finding the balance between open and closed stories, inclusive novelists vs. exclusive novelists, Raymond Friedman’s Critifiction, self-built and self-contained worlds, the constraints of pragmatics, how fabulism creates solutions to fiction problems, singing and karaoke, depictions of singing in fiction, James Joyce’s “The Dead,” the links between music and emotion, William Blake’s distinction between Fable and Vision in “A Vision of the Last Judgment,” Brian Evenson, how the fantastic can be the new religion, incorporating liminal space into fiction, Denis Johnson, Jesus’s Son, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, how a fiction moment can shift from gritty realism to the mythic, the futility of rigid fact-based interactions with the world, vicarious imagination and liminal space, removing logic and explanation to find clarity, James Joyce lookalikes attempting to set a world record, how hard specifics encourage the imagination, Santa Claus parades and Santa subway rides, finding moments in the real world that trigger the imagination, the importance of daily writing, hiking, when life happens in books, Norman Lock, the futility of finding biographical origin points in an author’s fiction, fingerling potatoes, Dick Laan, foundlings and nouns that rhyme with thing, not always knowing how fictitious bears work, individual sentences that contain mysteries, unintended allegory, George Romero’s zombie movies, how codas can re-open a novel, when characters serve as an instrument to push forward a story, when some elements of traditional fiction become necessary, mansplaining, the original massive version of In the House, finding the trajectory within a first novel, “I am a writer!” bloat destroyed in revision, holding only forty pages in your head at one time, dealing with an underpopulated world, “Control F Squid,” finding ways to control specific words, when notes become a constraint, the head as an ancient 40 MB hard drive, not being able to work on an entire novel all at once, Gary Lutz’s “The Sentence is a Lonely Place,” Christine Schutt’s “The Blood Jet,” projecting sentences before students, teaching, Lishean poetics vs. intuition, the advantages of working on fiction at the sentence level, why it’s vital to be blind during the act of creation, Robert Boswell’s notion of the half-known world, video games, Bioshock Infinite, video games as a way to steer young people into fiction through the labyrinth, Nethack, Choose Your Own Adventure, malleable narrative, Mike Meginnis’s Exits Are, Infocom text adventure games, Robert Coover’s views on hypertext, how fiction can combat the entitlement of today’s audiences, being trained to be on the side of the protagonist, galvanizing the reader to be emotionally engaged, ambiguity, the outdoors gap in contemporary fiction, Jack London, how much of 21st century life is defined by being indoors, the Laird Hunt/Roxane Gay interview from January, writing a book about Detroit, the problems with depicting the minutiae of everyday life, Girls, Nicholson Baker, the knowing the names of quotidian things moment in Underworld, hard edicts laid down as a young writer, the benefits of imitating prose in early days, and giving certain approaches up.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: When I finished this book, I was especially intrigued by how you kept the world of this book open enough for the reader to fill in the blanks, while the husband’s emotions are fairly open. But it’s also fairly closed in the way that he’s cut off from the world and the rest of society. He’s confined to this life that’s pretty much his wife, the fingerling, and the foundling. I’m actually going to reference a quote you Tumbled only ninety minutes ago.

Bell: (laughs)

Correspondent: Yeah. That’s how current we are here. Ironically, this will air many weeks later. But anyway…

Bell: Right, right, right.

Correspondent: So you had quoted Kate Bernheimer.

Bell: Yes, absolutely.

Correspondent: “From sentence to sentence, in fairy tales there is no reality that is subordinated to any other. Just as, outside the pages there is no reality.” So you know, I’m wondering. Do you feel that the best fairy tales or the best stories involve finding the right balance along the lines of this open and closed notion and all that? How did you arrive at the balance for this book?

Bell: Well, one of the ways I think about I guess is that there’s lots of kinds of writers. But there’s two kinds of writers for this model, right? There’s people who are includers and people who are excluders, right? As soon as you’re writing the Great American Novel, then you’re jamming everything from your decade into the book, right? I’m going to get it all in here. I’m going to capture the entire American experience. And that’s one way to make a book. To capture the world and put it into a book. I think the other is to try and like make a world and to push back. To write from the center out and define your boundaries. So that what you’re creating becomes the world of the book and it doesn’t have these outside things. And I think in the end there was a balance act to that in the book. As you know, there are these allusions to the outside world and where they’re from. And I wanted it to be there. I didn’t want this to be completely abstract or separate. But for the most part, the only things that can happen are things that are already in this world. Within the first thirty pages, the world is built fairly quickly. And then the only way they can solve their problems or to progress the story is using these elements. Using these things. And I found that really interesting. That’s one of the reasons, I think, for the long title. It’s like that setting is part of the book’s constraint in a certain way. And knowing that was really helpful.

Correspondent: Well, it offers a maximal precision with minimal revelation.

Bell: Right! That’s a really nice way to say it. Yeah, I really enjoy that kind of writing where the world of the book is self-built and self-contained. Which isn’t to say that I don’t like the other kind either. But I think that those modes are really different. And Bernheimer speaks to that for me. Raymond Federman talks about that in Critifiction. He talks about a similar thing. That the book is the world. I’m paraphrasing badly from a couple of years ago. But the book itself is a world really no matter what you’re writing about. If you’re writing in a very realist mode, that’s still the case. The language the book is, is all you have to work with. And the outside world doesn’t necessarily enter it in the same way.

Correspondent: But I’m wondering as a writer, do you feel what I felt as a reader? Because I kept saying, well, okay, there’s a lot of fishing and hunting going on. But how do they develop the skills to make things? Aside from, of course, the magic you have in the book. I’m thinking pragmatics. Even though I’m also involved with the imagination and I’m involved with the world that you’re creating, I’m thinking to myself, well, how did they get here? Why this particular location? How did the fingerling get into this? And we don’t actually have the answers to those questions. So I’m wondering how much they aggravate you as an author. Or do you know the answers to these questions and you just don’t want to impart certain things to the reader?

Bell: No. I mean, I think a lot of it works. It’s a fairy tale or mythic mode. So they can do it because they have to for the story. Which you can’t get away with in a different mode. There were some things that were funnier, that I was wrong about or I was too specific about them with early readers. The lake, of course, is salty. Which causes them a drinking water problem. And in the early versions of the book, they were always boiling water for drinking water. But when you boil salt water, you don’t end up with clean water. You end up with salt, right? (laughs) So when I was trying to explain the pragmatics, it was actually getting in the way a lot. Or it was causing problems. He’s a fisherman who becomes a trapper because that’s what’s necessary for his family. You know, that’s the next thing. And some of that works with the wife singing stuff into being. It’s like the next object that was necessary is this. And so here it is. Which in fairy tales would just happen in a sentence. It would just appear. And there’s sort of this device that does some of that. But I agree. Like he becomes a taxidermist at a point just because that’s what he needs to do. The wife is able to — she doesn’t study maze making before she sings the maze. He can get away with that, I hope in this mode. But in other kinds of books, that would….yeah, we’d have to watch the guy study it for years or something.

Correspondent: This leads me to ask to what degree fabulism served as a method for you to deal with the hurdles of “Oh, he can’t actually boil salt water. Let’s just go ahead and have her sing something into existence.” Did that come as a — I don’t want to say, crutch, but was that a method for you to maximize the world here? I mean, how did that happen?

Bell: I mean, I think it preexisted it. It ends up helping with some of that stuff. But that’s not the reasoning for it. The very first image I had for the book — the first thing I wrote — isn’t actually in the book. But it was this husband watching his wife singing and having this vision of all these shape-shifting she had within her that she could one day bring into the world, right? And being intoxicated and tranced by this. And that was why he had married her. He had seen this world she was singing into being. And of course, the book ended up going — it didn’t work exactly like that. But that singing was the foundational aspect of this world in a certain way. I don’t know. I never thought about this when I was writing it. But looking back, I think it’s interesting that I had to discover this whole world through his voice and his very limited egomaniacal point of view when she’s the creating aspect of the world in a weird way, right? The person I had to create it through is now the person who is like the creator of most of the world they spend their time in.

Correspondent: Are you a singer at all? I’m curious.

Bell: No! Terrible. Awful.

Correspondent: You don’t do karaoke or anything? (laughs)

Bell: You know, weirdly, we had a Soho Press karaoke thing.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Bell: No, I grew up a Midwest Catholic. I just mumbled through songs a lot. (laughs) Music, I love music. Music’s really a big part of my life. But, no, not a singer in any way. Thankfully yes. No samples for you today.

Correspondent: Why do you think music serves as the act of creation for the wife in this? To create rooms, to create objects, and all that. I’m wondering why you associate that with music. I mean, I know you’re big on sentences. And we’ll get into that in a little bit. And you’re big on language. It’s interesting that you have language tangoing with music here. And I’m wondering how that came into being or possibly why, at the risk of delving into ambiguity involving the text.

Bell: Sure. And the first answer always sounds so weak. Because partly I don’t know. It was right. It was what instinctually happened. You know, I think it’s interesting. Music has those deep links to emotion. I mean, it’s weird to describe someone’s singing a lot in a book. Especially because you never get to hear it. But there’s something very abstract about that. Because the husband talks and talks and talks. I mean, you can just imagine them together. He’d be that husband that never stops talking to the wife. Never stops speaking. Right? But then when she does open her mouth, she’s able to do this thing, you know? And in the early parts of the book, there’s only a few times where she has the upper hand in the conversation. And she’s often explaining to him the way the world could be. And he’s missing it totally, right? He’s missing this world he could have. And it’s something that she can give him by doing this. There’s so much where he comes to this place in this possessor way. He’s building the house. I’m going to get the food. I’m going to build the house. I’m going to do all these things. And she’s completely self-sufficient. Because she can do this in a way that he can’t. He can’t sing. He can’t do this. His mouth is always open. He’s always talking. He can do all these things by taking from the world, but she can make it herself. And those differences were important to me, the way that those things balanced or offset each other.

Correspondent: Is it difficult to describe the magic of singing in fiction? I mean, the first thing that comes to mind — largely because it’s Bloomsday* as we’re talking. Of course, the wonderful description of singing in “The Dead.”**

Bell: Right, right.

Correspondent: You absolutely feel the power of that. But in this, the singing brings things into creation. Is that easier for you to wrap your head around as a writer? How do you get into that? Being a creative person who describes the act of creation, it gets pretty difficult.

Bell: Absolutely.

Correspondent: How do you work around that?

Bell: I mean, I feel like there’s less actual description of it now than there was in early versions. I think I tried more directly to describe what those things were like or something. But that’s almost impossible, right? But I think that everybody’s probably hearing it differently as they’re reading. A little blinker, there’s a little more room for the reader to fill that in. I think at one point it was very specific. And it was in the way. And now there’s sort of, again, that fairy tale mode where you can just say she was singing and she was doing this and there’s an image that goes along with that and a song that goes along with that. Everybody’s a little different. And that’s totally fine. Because it doesn’t need to be — I don’t even known what the terms are. In the key of C or whatever it is. Who cares? Right? I think that’s just not important. The importance is more the outcome and the feeling of it. So sometimes by flattening that a little bit, I think you actually get more out of it.

Correspondent: I wanted to bring up William Blake and his “Vision of the Last Judgment.”

Bell: Okay! (laughs)

Correspondent: He was careful to distinguish between Fable and Vision. Fable, of course, being this cheap allegory that was an inferior kind of poetry. What he described as “formed by the daughters of memory.”

Bell: Nice! (laughs)

Correspondent: Now Vision, which is what he preferred, or Imagination — this represented what actually exists. There are portions of your novel, especially with the material involving the squid, which was reshaping into the husband’s body, that seems to have these two Blake distinctions in mind. The words “fable” and “vision,” however, never actually appear in the book. I looked for them. Because I got obsessed with this. But when you were writing this book, to what extent were you wrestling with distinctions along these lines? I’m curious. Were you writing in any kind of broader mythological distinction at all? I mean, I know you reference a number of fairy tales.

Bell: I mean myth was the term I thought of a lot when I think of it that way. But I’ve changed the way I think about it. I called my work “non-realist” for a long time. That was a term I felt comfortable with, when asked. And I sort of feel like I’m moving away from it a little bit — in part because of other people’s helpful thinking on the subject. Brian Evenson — his work is a big influence on mine, thankfully. I saw him give a talk a couple of years ago. And he was talking about growing up Mormon and growing up in a culture in which religion and day-to-day life aren’t separate. Like he literally grew up thinking that angels would come to earth and interact with people. And I grew up Catholic, but in a very literal sort of family. People interact with angels. And we talked about the burning bush — that’s not a myth. That’s not a symbol. That’s like a thing that happened in the past. And I’m not religious anymore. And I’ve moved away from that direction. But I think that writing something like this and letting these magical or fabulist elements ride alongside like something really grounded — it’s less non-realist and more like where I’m from. Like there’s a way into my backstory as much as the geography I’m from. So it’s weird. I feel like I want more and more for them to be able to co-exist. These people live in a world in which the fantastical is real. And so did I once.

Correspondent: So the fantastic is a kind of religiosity for you that has replaced your previous religiosity?

Bell: Yeah. A little bit. It’s another way to access those feelings or to get to some of those places. And it’s a way to write about where my imagination comes from. Some of these things are seeded in me and I have trouble getting to them sometimes in a more strictly realist story.

* — June 16, 2013, Bloomsday — the morning we recorded this conversation.

** — A sample from Joyce: “Her voice, strong and clear in tone, attacked with great spirit the runs which embellish the air and though she sang very rapidly she did not miss even the smallest of the grace notes. To follow the voice, without looking at the singer’s face, was to feel and share the excitement of swift and secure flight.”

(Loops for this program provided by Dj4Real, danke, SpadeOfficial, kristijann, and MaMaGBeats.)

The Bat Segundo Show #506: Matt Bell (Download MP3)

This text will be replaced