The Bat Segundo Show: Stewart O’Nan II

Stewart O’Nan appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #454. He is most recently the author of The Odds. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #161. You can also read our lengthy conversation by email in 2011. This 2012 talk was recorded before a live audience at McNally Jackson. My gratitude to Michele Filgate, Langan Kingsley, Holly Watson, and, of course, Stewart O’Nan for their help in putting this event together.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Inexplicably hungering for Wendy’s hamburgers.

Author: Stewart O’Nan

Subjects Discussed: [forthcoming later this afternoon]


Correspondent: Niagara Falls. Here is a location that’s loaded with all sorts of associations. Joyce Carol Oates wrote a book there.

O’Nan: The Falls.

Correspondent: Yes, exactly.

O’Nan: Yes, I was introduced the other night as “the author of The Falls.”

Correspondent: (laughs)

O’Nan: And I was like, “Not that prolific.” Not nearly.

Correspondent: (laughs) Well, you are churning them out one a year.

O’Nan: Oh thank you. Churning them out. You said cranking before.

Correspondent: Crafting! Cranking, churning. All right. But they’re short! They’re short.

O’Nan: They’re tiny.

Correspondent: There’s craftsmanship in there. Don’t worry.

O’Nan: I understand.

Correspondent: But I’m wondering. You’re taking a location that’s loaded with all sorts of cultural baggage. There’s that Marilyn Monroe/Joseph Cotten film.

O’Nan: Gotta love it.

Correspondent: But I’m wondering. Here you are taking two characters and putting them in a touristy location. I’m wondering if you did that to work up against limitations and see what kind of behavior you could mine based off of that. I’m wondering why you chose this. What was the process of selecting the Ice Bridge or the details of the customs location? What went into nailing Niagara?

O’Nan: Well, it’s a ready made stage. Usually when I take on an area or a setting, it’s virgin territory in a way. Conneaut, Ohio. Kingsville in Songs for the Missing. No one’s ever written about that in any kind of novel. Western Pennsylvania. Butler, PA in 1974. So I always say I’ve written the best Butler, Pennsylvania novel ever written.

Correspondent: (laughs)

O’Nan: Or Avon, Connecticut. Usually these are overlooked places. Like New Britain, Connecticut, that Last Night at the Lobster takes place in. I write in that interzone, that nowhere America of strip malls. It has been kicked around forever. But in the new book, I thought, let’s focus solely on the characters and put them on a stage that everybody knows. So I don’t have to do that disorienting, here is the place that you don’t know and now I’m going to tell you about it. So I had a little less responsibility to the setting and I could spend a little bit more time on the characters.

Correspondent: I have to ask you about the odds as chapter headers for all of these. Some are, in fact, true. “Odds of a black number coming up in roulette: 1 in 2.06.” I Wikipediaed that. Some are unscientifically true. “Odds of a marriage proposal being accepted: 1 in 1.001.” So I’m wondering. How many odds did you collect? I mean, I’m wondering if you were sitting on a bunch of odds sets.

O’Nan: Yes. Yes.

Correspondent: You were?

O’Nan: Yes, I was. And I was trying to figure out: How do I weave these into the book and what effect are they going to have when I get them in there? And they seemed to me to work. When I thought of using them rather than chapter headings, in the way I did with, say, Emily or in Songs of the Missing, I saw them as how the chapter headings are in something like Blood Meridian or in, say, 19th century fiction work, which is “In this chapter I am eaten by sharks.” And before you even get into the chapter, you’re like, “Oh sharks! This could be cool!” So it kind of brings the reader and it gives them an expectation of what may happen in this chapter. Not necessarily has to happen. But it may happen. The odds of dying in a bus crash. Whoa! There might be a bus crash. I’ll stick around and find out.

Correspondent: It’s interesting. Because here you are in one sense messing with the reader for the first ten pages, repelling them, and then on this, you’re subverting their expectations. It’s actually, “Ooh! I want to continue to read this chapter.”

O’Nan: Well, you hope.

Correspondent: What of this bipolar approach to fiction writing?

O’Nan: Flannery O’Cononr. Flannery O’Connor said, “Distract them and hit them over the head.” Absolutely right. Absolutely right. Give them a reason to come into the place. A Prayer for the Dying. The opening sections are very — it’s a terrible thing to say, very beautifully written. I use the language. I make the beauty of the language a key thing to hang into. And so the reader gets rewarded somehow. And by the time they have to go through the book, they’re kind of stuck. They’re like, “Well, I don’t really want to hang around and watch this guy go crazy while I’m inside of his mind.” Well, it’s too late. So like Poe, say, in “The Black Cat.” Once you get them in the door, then after a certain point, they’re kind of yours. They have to follow along. Or you hope so. You always hope so.

Correspondent: I’m curious if the odds sets actually were methods for you to riff off of Art and Marion. If you were stuck at a certain place. Is this a point? I mean, you’re a former engineer. I presume that this was either heavily designed. Or were there false starts? And did the odds help you in anything?

O’Nan: No. There weren’t a whole lot of false starts. I knew the characters very well before I opened up. It’s also a small novel. It’s very much sort of a drawing room novel in a way. It’s the one weekend. You’ve got the unity of place. The unity of time. You’ve got a lot of pressure on them from the memories. This is their second honeymoon. They’re in Niagara Falls. And you have the time pressure of, well, at some point, they’re going to have to put their money down on the wheel. And they’re always kind of at odds with one another. They’re always picking at one another. So I had a lot to work with. The plates were already spinning when I started getting into it.

Correspondent: I wanted to also ask you. One interesting thing that you also do with Marion is body image. She doesn’t like Art to see her undress. And in one of the passages you’re going to read tonight, the only thing you mention is her stomach. We actually don’t really know what she looks like physically. So I’m wondering if this is a method for you to not reveal certain details to the reader or this reflects your relationship to the reader. Is this your way to protect your own characters? To not divulge all? Or is this your way to encourage judgment? Perception on the reader’s behalf?

O’Nan: This is more to encourage the reader to join in the process of creating the work. And I don’t say what the character looks like unless it’s really necessary to the arc of the story there. So what the characters look like is completely up to the reader there. And I leave judgment to the reader. I don’t try to steer the reader too much in terms of who’s good, who’s bad, who’s right, who’s wrong. And it’s always sort of that inkblot that shows how generous the reader can be or how, on the flip side, how stingy they can be. “I hate Marion. I hate her so much.” It’s like, “Easy there, lady. Easy there.”

Correspondent: Have you had this happen before?

O’Nan: Oh yeah.

Correspondent: Wow. Really?

O’Nan: In Wichita of all places.

Correspondent: Wichita!

O’Nan: “I didn’t like her.” Well, that’s good. That’s your prerogative. That’s fine. That’s you.

Correspondent: You know, one of the interesting things — I’ve read a number of reviews of this book. And they actually don’t mention, for example, Karen or these two characters who are having affairs with the couple. And I’m curious about this. Maybe this relates to this issue of giving the reader something. Maybe they don’t want to talk about this aspect of Art and Marion. What do you think of this?

O’Nan: Yeah. I think they want to key more on Art and Marion and just say, “Look, there are problems in the marriage.” And this is how they work them out over this weekend. Or don’t work them out.

Correspondent: Inevitably, because you do deal with Heart, I have to bring up celebrity gossip.

O’Nan: Heart.

Correspondent: So in late 2010, Nancy Wilson and Cameron Crowe initiated divorce proceedings. It was a great shocker to certain waves.

O’Nan: So sad. They had everything going for them, didn’t they? They did.

Correspondent: Yeah. I’m wondering if you including the Heart concert before or after you heard this news. Or if you possibly predicted this dissolution in anyway. I mean, what of this?

O’Nan: I don’t know.

Correspondent: Some sort of angle here.

O’Nan: No. I don’t know. It’s accidental subtext, I guess. I guess it happens from time to time.

Correspondent: Another silly question. Wendy is a character. And I have to ask you, and I know this is really pedantic, but I have noticed in all of your books — nearly all of your books — there’s a moment where someone eats Wendy’s. A Wendy’s hamburger.

O’Nan: Really?

Correspondent: But not, not in The Odds. The last time I saw this was Last Night at the Lobster. There was a Wendy’s moment. It was the Stewart O’Nan Wendy’s moment!

O’Nan: He doesn’t go to Wendy’s.

Correspondent: Oh, he doesn’t go to Wendy’s?

O’Nan: He decides not to go to Wendy’s.

Correspondent: But he does actually consider it!

O’Nan: This is a climax. This is a climax in an actual work of fiction. “Want to go to Wendy’s? Nah.”

Correspondent: Do you eat at Wendy’s quite a bit?

O’Nan: No. Maybe that’s it. Maybe I want to eat at Wendy’s more. I can see my biographer doing a lot on Wendy’s now. A map of all the Wendy’s around my house.

(Photo credit: Here)

A Conversation with Stewart O’Nan

[Stewart O’Nan has also appeared twice on The Bat Segundo Show: Show #161 (2007, 38 minutes) and Show #454 (2012: 57 minutes).]

Stewart O’Nan has been called “a national treasure” by Three Guys One Book. The Cleveland Plain-Dealer has compared him to Dickens. In The New York Times, Joanna Smith-Rakoff suggested that O’Nan was influenced by “the spectre of Henry James.”

O’Nan’s twelfth novel, Emily, Alone — a sequel to O’Nan”s 2002 novel, Wish You Were Here that doesn’t require that you read the first book — follows an 80-year-old woman as she carries on a quiet routine in her Pittsburgh home. Her husband is dead. Her children have grown up and moved away. Her once lively dog Rufus is, quite literally, on his last legs. Her friend Arlene could go any minute. Despite this mortality, the novel remains determined to capture Emily’s life through very careful sentences devoted to telling details. When Emily replaces a box of Kleenex, we get economical insight into how she spends her money (“She’d bought a three-pack last week, saving a dollar, as always, with a coupon.”). We learn of generational differences when Emily considers her daughter Margaret’s attitude (“Thank-you notes belonged to the same category of useless formalities her square parents followed blindly, like sitting down to meals at prescribed times or going to church on Sunday.”). When an older acquaintance dies, O’Nan foreshadows the insufficient shorthand Emily is likely to have directed towards her in a few years (“She always had a lot of energy”).

I had interviewed Stewart O’Nan before in 2007 for The Bat Segundo Show. And after reading Emily, Alone, I had hoped to set up a second interview. Unfortunately, O’Nan’s hectic schedule of teaching and long driving to author events made things a bit difficult. And when I received an unexpected jury duty summons in the mail, I prepared for the distinct possibility that a few weeks of my life would be sacrificed to the courtroom.

We started volleying by email. And the two of us learned that we both had quite a lot to say about American fiction. Our conversation touched upon the influence of Richard Yates, what a writer can learn from John Gardner, avoiding parody and creating dimensional characters, and how one can protest marketplace realities while appealing to the reader. My many thanks to Stewart for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer my somewhat verbose concatenations.

* * *

Reluctant Habits: Before we started this conversation, I remarked upon a jury duty summons that I had received (and should our conversation extend into a diversion from the courtroom, thank you very much in advance!). This led us both to remark upon the importance of civil duty in American life. But this got me thinking. Emily Maxwell is someone who maintains her dignity, a quality that might also be described as a civil duty. And your work offers an attention to the everyday that, when stacked against other fiction, might almost be said to originate from a similar impulse — namely, a civil duty to portray certain everyday Americans who don’t always get these narratives. To what extent do you feel that it’s your civil duty to portray families like the Maxwells? Does the duty ever burden you or threaten to take away from the curiosity or the fun? Additionally, why do you think civil duty has been given short shrift in recent American fiction? To what degree are you aware that you’re working a corner of the room that few other writers wish to peer into?

Stewart O’Nan: Emily does see herself as a part of larger social constructs–her marriage, her family (as a mother), her original family (as a daughter), her church, her neighborhood, the city of Pittsburgh, the town of Kersey, the old-guard Republican party–yet for all her sense of civic duty, she’s incredibly private and not always available, emotionally or otherwise. Plus so much of her world is gone and lives only in her memory. So she’s not as involved in that larger life as she sometimes wishes she were. Some days the only soul she speaks to is her dog, Rufus.

I think when I run into a character I find interesting, I feel a wild curiosity about him or her. How does this person feel, and how does he or she get through the days? What’s important to this person? Usually I write about people unlike myself, so there’s a constant process of discovery, of trying to get close enough and understand enough so I can provide the reader with a true sense of intimacy. And definitely, when I’m taking on someone in a realistic mode, I feel a responsibility to the character, in how I portray him or her. Not that I’ll soft-sell Emily’s faults (readers will want to shake her at times) or make things easy on her, even though I care for her deeply. The goal is to be honest and go deep, find the voice and style and structure to bring across her emotional life as powerfully as possible (not as loudly as possible, or as showily as possible, or as cleverly as possible), with the hope that readers will see their own lives and their own Emilys and add their memories and emotions to the book and end up being moved, not in a corny way, but really moved.

Impossible, I know, but that’s what interests me: How does it feel to be you? When I discover a character like Emily, or Manny in Last Night at the Lobster, or Patty in The Good Wife, after following them a while I realize that their stories are huge stories, their lives shared by millions of people yet rarely examined or taken seriously. So it’s an opportunity to take the reader a place they might never go otherwise and show them a whole world that’s been right in front of them the whole time, hidden in plain sight.

I’m aware that during the whole time I’ve been publishing, the main stage of American literary fiction has featured a kind of pyrotechnic fabulism. The Ice Storm is ’93, I think, The Virgin Suicides right around there, Infinite Jest is ’95, Lethem’s putting out his genre-bending stuff around then…and I dig all that stuff. I cut my teeth on Gaddis and Gardner and Gass and Barthelme and Barth and Coover and Hawkes too, and I admire the comic virtuosity of all these writers, first- and second-generation. The Speed Queen is obviously a whacky metafiction, and A Prayer for the Dying is a bit of a bravura performance in the manner of Charles Johnson, just as The Night Country owes much of its soul to Ray Bradbury and George A. Romero, so I haven’t entirely forsaken those roots, but even in those books I hope I’m using those dire means because they seemed to me the best solution — the unique solution, the ex-engineer would say — to the problem off getting my characters’ worlds across to the reader as powerfully as possible. Because in the end the writing isn’t what’s important — it’s just a medium. If the reader pays more attention to the writing than to what’s going on with the characters, the writing isn’t working.

RH: In your essay, “The Lost World of Richard Yates,” you observed that “the danger Yates courts is combining the conflicted character with the average or unexceptional person — with a talent I can only aspire to.” Yates, rather famously, was influenced by F. Scott Fitzgerald — which is quite interesting, seeing as how Fitzgerald often wrote about the rich and Yates gravitated toward the middle class. Following this natural path of inspiration, we see in your work that the danger you’re courting involves both the working class and the middle class. Last Night at the Lobster very clearly documents working class life. But I’m wondering to what degree the 2008 election — seen in Emily, Alone — served as an effort to chronicle a social sector that is rapidly eroding. In other words, as was suggested in the recent PEN America correspondence between David Gates and Jonathan Lethem, are you setting yourself up to be more of a historical novelist rather than a social novelist? What do you think accounts for the downmarket class drifting in this trajectory from Fitzgerald to Yates to you? How does this constant process of discovery pretty much demolish literary influence (whether Yates or pyrotechnic fabulism)?

O’Nan: Oh, definitely social fiction, utterly contemporary fiction, the skin of life as it’s lived now. Which is why the last seven books or so are set right here, right now, as opposed to the first five, which were all set in the historical past, in very different American eras and locales. How does life feel? What do we care about, what do we really fear? What do we really feel about the people closest to us, about ourselves? I still think fiction lets us go deeper into what life feels like than any other medium. Film is shallow, nonfiction is suspect (the more creative, the more suspect), memoir is unreliable and self-serving. The novel, by its very name, is utterly plastic, capable of taking any form, focusing on anything (an entire epoch or a guy riding an escalator after buying a pair of shoelaces — both accounts hilariously footnoted with unexpected yet absolutely true musings). Realism is a misnomer, since any art takes on, twists, or knowingly overthrows a convention to get the feel of life across to the reader/viewer/listener. Shields in Reality Hunger says he’s against the novel, then lists a whole raft of anti-novels that he claims are exceptions. But the anti-novel is still a novel. So it’s like saying, I don’t like vegetables, but I do like beets and carrots and squash and peas and kohlrabi and…While it’s true that viewers love reality TV, there’s a formulaic sameness to even the best reality shows that can’t approach the variety, depth, drama and comedy of scripted shows, the best of which — Deadwood, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Party Down — make reality TV look shallow and silly. Likewise, documentary film, feature journalism since the mid-’60s, and everyday newspaper writing since the ’80s, have taken on as many of fiction’s tools as they can to seduce a larger audience. What’s the basis of all mass communication? Tell a good story.

Fitzgerald and Yates had their specific social territory which they rarely strayed from, especially Yates, who, though he wrote from the ’40s till the ’90s, only once stepped away from his home base of the ’40s and ’50s in Disturbing the Peace. I haven’t claimed one territory, and wouldn’t want to. I’m no spokesperson or poster child. As a reader I have very catholic tastes (Stephen King and Virginia Woolf, Ray Bradbury and John Wideman). So it makes sense that as a writer I write very different books about very different things. It’s been that way from the start, and because I don’t have to fulfill any expectations, I’m free to write about the affluent, the middle class, the working class, the poor, children, teenagers, young adults, the middle-aged, the elderly, urban life, the suburbs, small towns, country, frontier, and in any manner I choose. I’m not locked into a bankable voice or style, so it doesn’t become self-parody or shtick, like James Taylor singing Christmas carols with the same intonation he’d sing Motown covers. If there’s a common thread, I’d say I tend to dip into very American subcultures and address very American questions or traits. In each book there are influences, most of them consciously chosen — say, James Salter in A World Away, the Cormac McCarthy of Blood Meridian and George A. Romero in A Prayer for the Dying, or Sherwood Anderson and Dickens in Last Night at the Lobster — never in imitation but using their schemes to support whatever I’m doing. Hoping it turns out to be interesting, well done and ultimately true. And if it doesn’t, well, hell, they’re not all going to be good. It’s not supposed to be easy. If you’re a writer, you keep trying. You don’t throw your hands up and say the novel is dead just because yours is.

RH: I bring up the idea of Emily, Alone being historical (both in terms of literary influence and charting a specific time), rather than “utterly contemporary” (as you suggest), because there’s a chapter late in the book (“The Lesser of Two Evils”) where we understand that, despite Emily being a “lifelong Republican,” her life choices involve that sense of duty we were discussing here at the outset. She asks the question, “Was it too much to ask for someone she could believe in?” Yet she leaves the gym with the I VOTE TODAY sticker on her lapel, feeling a sense of pride. Here is someone who feels compelled to be part of the community, but who also finds some solace in being solitary. My takeaway here is that Emily, who has bought a brand new car (and if she didn’t have the money, this deal may have been comparable to some dubious tranche loan) and who is also contending with the home in her neighborhood that’s about to be sold. You’re telling me, Stewart, that this materialist solace competing with the communal solace (whether it be Arlene, Rufus, or even the reluctant relatives who come visit) isn’t capturing a national mood (or a specific type of older person in 2008) to some degree? Doesn’t the process of keeping a novel alive — especially social fiction — involve rigorous interplay between well-defined characters and where they are likely to stand in their particular period? What makes the process of knowing people in 2011, in 2008, or the Civil War different on a novel-to-novel basis? Is this simply a matter of how much you’re willing to throw yourself into a time period or talk with people or think about these motivations?

O’Nan: When I say contemporary, I mean that I was writing the novel at the very same time as the events (and the world, the moment) it describes. So that, unlike when you’re writing a historical novel, the zeitgeist hasn’t been codified. You have the opportunity to feel it and get it across fresh through your character. Emily is so much of the past that she’s actually a little behind the times, and the book, at heart, is about the collision of her rich and busy memories with the empty and quiet present. I didn’t write her story to capture the national mood, but in her brushes with the world, some of it might bleed through. Her story is essentially personal and private, unlike, say, Patty’s or Manny’s or the Larsens, all of whom have to confront the current world in a very public way, often against their will. But in all of these cases, it’s a question of what, from the larger world, realistically and naturally, would impinge on their lives. It’s their motivations and their world that everything has to come out of, and that comes from staying close to them, knowing them intimately and trying to see the world–their private world and the larger world–through their eyes, not impressing my views onto them and the world. It’s their book, not mine.

And it also differs book to book in how important the time frame is to the storyline. Emily’s storyline is anchored in 2007-2008, but it could have happened in other years and felt relatively the same, whereas A World Away, set in 1943, is so tied to larger world events, and the characters so tied to the movements of the outside world that it naturally contains more of the zeitgeist, for lack of a better word.

It’s a tough question, especially for this particular novel, because while it’s trying to take on some very large areas — time, family, memory, life, death — it’s trying to do so quietly, almost sneakily.

RH: This discussion about fiction having resonant points with American life brings us to inevitable comparisons between Emily, Alone and its prequel, Wish You Were Here. The first book, which is quite sprawling, seems determined to capture almost every detail, from the book barn to the specific movies that the Maxwells watch to discussions of the board game Sorry. There’s also the subplot involving the missing person at the gas station, which threatens to take away from such character dilemmas as Margaret’s recovery from alcoholism, Kenneth hiding his vocational problems, and so forth. By contrast, in Emily, Alone, there’s something of a concession to narrative right from the get-go with that incident at the buffet. What ultimately accounts for Emily, Alone‘s leaner feel? Do you feel that there was any loss of control when you wrote Wish You Were Here? That the previous book involved creative propagation you had to go the distance with? Aside from keeping the focus on Emily, what steps did you take in curtailing the possibility of writing another 600 page novel? Were there certain advantages in thinking about the Maxwell family before that allowed you to rein things in? How does some of this account for the quieter and sneakier investigation into larger areas? (And while we’re on the subject, do you see the Maxwells as your answer to Rabbit Angstrom or Frank Bascombe?)

O’Nan; Wish purposely slows things down and doesn’t make the usual pregnant narrative promises to the reader we expect from fiction. I was trying on a new mode of storytelling, trusting John Gardner’s dictum that if a character is worthy of and capable of love, then the reader will follow him or her anywhere. I expected that 80% of the readers who opened the book would never finish it, and that was fine with me. That was the risk I was willing to take for the reward of getting deep into the characters and their worlds, thinking that the readers who did stick with it would mingle their own lives and memories with those of the Maxwells and come away with a richer, more intimate experience than from some plug-and-chug potboiler of a story line. Even the girl who goes missing line takes place off-stage and is really just K’s version of avoidance and escape (they all have some version of escape from what’s supposed to be family togetherness). The novel’s put together by poetic juxtaposition, by tone, by mood, and the fact that it’s so long (and was a hundred-plus pages longer in ms) just emphasizes that strategy. No nifty ironies, no self-conscious tricks, no mannered quirkiness to distract the reader. It lives or dies by the quality of its observations, by its truth (or lack thereof). As a friend of mine says, it’s an epic about nothing. My wife calls it the Big Boring Book. And that’s fine. Everyone doesn’t have to like every book. (And honestly, every book isn’t going to be good.) But the people who do get into the book really feel like they’re part of it. Some say it’s spooky — it’s as if I’ve been eavesdropping on their families, or reading their minds — so I feel like the method worked. Not for everyone, but for more than the 20% I’d hoped for.

And it’s a book that couldn’t have been written by anyone else, which makes me happy. I guess it was a bit of a protest. A quiet maybe even underground protest (since no one really cares), but a definite break from what I’d been doing previously, and what you’d call the norm. Ditching the whole here-we-are-now-entertain-us premise. A book wholly on the writer’s terms.

Emily, Alone is organized a little differently, around what puzzles or bothers or thrills her — the bumps in her otherwise quiet days — but also makes no promises to the reader plotwise, other than that she cares and worries about the people closest to her, and of course Rufus. And at their age, she has reason to worry.

In Wish, I was coming to know all the different Maxwells at that one moment, a turning point in their family life. Going into Emily, Alone, I knew Emily well, but I knew I wanted to get deeper and closer, really find out how she became the person she was in Wish and the person she is now, seven years later. What’s changed? What could possibly be new? A lot, it turned out, though I didn’t know exactly what when I sat down to write it.

The scope of Emily, Alone is narrower but deeper, necessarily, by my choice of point of view, and that’s what I was hoping for — a book even quieter and more intimate than Wish, a book comprised of flurries of busyness and then long stretches of stillness. Another book only I could write, and one some readers would see their lives in, and the lives of their sisters and aunts and mothers and grandmothers, I hope.

RH: So it seems to me that readers are very much an important factor when you’re writing a book. On the other hand, as Ron Charles recently suggested, your determination to chart the seemingly routine results in “the Kobayashi Maru scenario of book marketing.” Yet here’s the double-edged sword. If you’re hoping to write books where readers see their lives, or the lives of someone dear to them, then one might conclude that Emily, Alone isn’t wholly on the writer’s terms. Have you had to give more to the readers with the more recent books? If Emily, Alone is more of a Rorschach test for readers, then how do you find ways of protesting? If protesting is part of your voice, don’t you have to do that? Or are you happy with the present compromise?

O’Nan: The Rorschach blot is the protest, that’s the beauty of it. In Wish and Emily (and to a lesser extent in The Good Wife and Last Night at the Lobster), I’ve asked the reader to make the sacrifices, giving up any semblance of the usual set-up/build-up/payoff of conventional storytelling without substituting the overactive surface or off-beat/trendy characters of the contemporary literary scene. Instead of the industry standard extraordinary character in an ordinary situation or the ordinary character in an extraordinary situation, I’m going — like Yates — for that rare, dull bird, the ordinary character in an ordinary situation. As Gardner says, as readers we naturally hold any fiction up to life, testing it for truth, and since that rare, dull bird is most of us, I actually have a better chance of connecting deeply. In these books, if I’ve done them well enough, readers will also hold their lives up to the fiction, completing the exchange. Everyone has an Emily.

(Image: Sidney Davis)

Top Ten Books of 2008

As this grim year draws to a close, the time has come to celebrate the best in books while the publishing industry celebrates the apocalypse. To read my thoughts on this year’s essays, you can head on over to The Millions, where my entry in A Year in Reading has just been posted. I’ll also be popping up later at Ready Steady Book, The Chicago Sun-Times, and The Barnes & Noble Review for their respective celebrations.

What follows is an alphabetical list of the books that, in my view, mattered the most in 2008. You’ll note that Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 is not on this list. Why is that? Yes, I took the book with me during my Thanksgiving vacation. But I made a deliberate decision to not read it until next year. I assure you that this was not some fashionably contrarian decision. The 25 pages I’ve read have indeed been quite interesting, and I remain confident that the remaining 875 pages will prove to be more gripping than the world’s most dependable dentures. I’m certain I’ll become one of those wild-eyed acolytes naming my firstborn son “Roberto” in honor of the great dead author who may or may not have been a heroin junkie. But I’m very much of the belief that good reading involves looking between the cracks and not always reading the obvious titles. So I have decided to put off 2666 until next year, where I can read this important novel without getting lost in the hype, thereby recusing myself from any possible ethical qualms. Besides, the book needs no love from me. It continues to be heralded as the Second Coming. And I’m waiting for the FSG publicists to work their magic and have Bolaño return unexpectedly from the grave.

You will certainly not see the sleazy favoritism practiced by Sam Tanenhaus (I have tried to spread the love across multiple publishers), nor the gutless and tone-deaf choices on Jonathan Yardley’s list. The latter list surely presents a strong case for Yardley’s retirement. (In fact, you won’t find see any of their respective selections on my list.) But as a caveat, I must observe that I am friendly with a few writers on this list. This friendliness, however, has no bearing on my decision-making process. I am likewise friendly with a number of writers whose work I do not care for, but who I have always encouraged to write better. (And, no, I will not name those names. It’s hard enough to stay writing when the publishing industry remains locked in a crazed freefall.)

Selecting the best books of the year involves remembering the titles that have slipped from our memory. And I have tried to pick books that have done just that. The intriguing thoughts contained within Samantha Power’s fascinating biography, Chasing the Flame, for example, were occluded by the Hillary Clinton contretemps picked up on the gossip circuit, for which we have The Scotsman to blame. While Power’s book didn’t quite make the top ten cut, it is noted, along with a few other forgotten books, in the Honorable Mention section near the end. I must also point out that Andre Dubus III’s The Garden of Last Days, despite being around 550 pages, was one of those rare novels that I simply could not put down.

It occurs to me that this is a needlessly longass introduction for a top ten list. Well, no matter. I shall try to keep my thoughts on the ten titles confined to a paragraph each.

Nicholson Baker, Human Smoke: This was a much maligned book from a quirky talent who has had a long history of being misunderstood by the critics. Nicholson Baker never claimed to be a historian, but he did dig dutifully through newspapers, sufficiently demonstrating how some vital stories get lost in the jingoistic funhouse. Human Smoke dared to present an alternative series of events that, wherever one stands politically, made a very strong case that the events leading up to World War II (much less any history) need to be reconsidered through a different prism. Even if one disagrees with the premise that pacifism could have ended the war, there nevertheless remains a fascinating dilemma for the reader. Could it be that the established history we commonly accept isn’t nearly so comprehensive? What information are we throwing away? And what responsibility do we have in widening the floodgates decades down the line to account for our missteps in the present? (For more on this book, see the Human Smoke roundtable discussion that was conducted on these pages: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, and Part Five. See also Bat Segundo interview.)

Sarah Hall, Daughters of the North: Recently, Gavin Grant helpfully reminded me that, as good as Daughters of the North is, there were plentiful feminist titles from the 1970s that went much further in their political ambition and sausage-slicing ideology. But Daughters of the North (known as The Carhullan Army in the UK) not only represents a natural evolution for Hall’s great writing talent, but it’s one of the few dytstopic novels of 2008 that, like Atwood’s bleak ball-busting pair (Oryx & Crake; The Handmaid’s Tale), I don’t believe will end up as a time capsule. (For more about this book, see my essay on Sarah Hall’s books for the Barnes & Noble Review. See also Bat Segundo interview.)

David Heatley, My Brain is Hanging Upside Down: I have been asked to contribute my thoughts for the Barnes and Noble Review‘s forthcoming best of books list. Since I am a man of honor when it comes to my professional duties, I feel that the right thing to do is to remain silent and mysterious . But I will fill in this blank and update this post when the link goes up. Needless to say, the book in question does fall alphabetically between “Hall” and “Hunt.” And I’m pretty sure that you can figure it out. (UPDATE: The list is now up. And you can also listen to the Segundo interview here.)

Samantha Hunt, The Invention of Everything Else: Like the work of Scarlett Thomas and Richard Powers, Samantha Hunt’s second novel is unapologetically concerned with communicating a sense of informative wonder to the reader. The book concerns Nikola Tesla’s last days in 1943, and a young chambermaid’s to understand him while her father tries to build a time machine to contact his dead wife. This unusual story, which also features several enjoyable glimpses of excitable people indulging in questionable pursuits (including an astutely realized old-time radio show), asks us to consider how much faith we should place in the crackpots of our world. Are great minds any crazier than the rapacious money men who exploit them? Would our nation be thriving right now if we dared to listen to those who are regularly discounted? (See also Bat Segundo interview.)

Nam Le, The Boat: I’ve long been unnerved by the continued lionization of writers who desperately cling to their MFA toolboxes like organization men who fancy themselves longshoremen because they have seen the sea. These types often mistrust their innate voices and fear their idiosyncrasies, and we are all the lesser for it. But early in the year, this book arrived in my mailbox out of the blue. I knew very little about it, but I began reading and found myself captivated by a rare talent who thankfully can’t be pigeonholed. Nam Le writes in multiple tones and multiple locations. This astonishing debut short story collection features heartbreaking portraits of transition (“Halflead Bay”), some playful postmodernism (the opening story features a character named Nam Le), and what I interpreted (I seem to have been the only one) as a muted and juicy satire of the New York artistic life (“Meeting Elise”). (See also Bat Segundo interview.)

Sarah Manguso, The Two Kinds of Decay: The celebrated poet Sarah Manguso suffers from a rare neurological disease called CIDP. As we learn in this short but stirring memoir, the disease is so rare that many doctors don’t quite know how to treat it. Manguso tackles both the literal and metaphorical ramifications of her personal dilemma, employing both high and low language, describing how she moved in and out of hospitals, and how dealing with this disease directly affected Manguso’s life. She learns, and we learn, that living is a scenario in which we must pay attention, and that paying attention, often in ways we aren’t entirely aware of, sometimes has unexpectedly moving results for ourselves and the people around us. (See also Bat Segundo interview.)

Stewart O’Nan, Songs for the Missing: The story goes that, over the years, Stewart O’Nan has made continued stabs at finishing this book, with the results often spilling over into other titles (such as last year’s excellent Last Night at the Lobster). But now that he’s finally completed it, O’Nan has accomplished something rather amazing here. This novel is ostensibly a mystery, in which an eighteen-year-old girl disappears and efforts are made by the family and a small Ohio town to find her. While this would seem to be a fairly typical storyline, you wouldn’t know this upon reading it. This book is one of the most astute presentations of human behavior and its unintended consequences that I’ve read this year — very much influenced by Richard Yates’s realism and rivaling Lee Martin’s The Bright Forever for a novel of this type. And that’s not an easy thing to do. I’ve found myself passing along this title to a number of writers who simply must study the way in which O’Nan embeds quiet details within this novel, and now I feel ethically obliged to pass along this title to you. (See also the Bat Segundo interview with O’Nan for his last book, Last Night at the Lobster.)

Ed Park, Personal Days: Long-time readers of this site will know that Good Man Park and I have carried out a strange interplay in the blogosphere. But I truly didn’t expect the Other Ed (or am I the Other Ed?) to knock this one out of the park. This office novel atones for Joshua Ferris’s overrated novel, Then We Came to the End, by offering crazy literary experiments (such as one section composed of a relentless pages-long sentence “written” by a worker who lacks a period on his keyboard), and permitting Good Man Park to flex his giddiness in fictive form. My only quibble with this novel is that Park may be self-censoring himself a tad about the horrors of office life, but it’s a small point that will hopefully be rectified in future novels. (See also Bat Segundo interview.)

Ross Raisin, God’s Own Country: Raisin’s debut novel wasn’t nearly as well received on this side of the Atlantic as it should have been. But its sheer stylistic invention alone deserves high notice. Here is a writer who is not only willing to explore uncomfortable truths, but who has managed to use language in a way that permits us to empathize with a monster. The vernacular here doesn’t just form a parochial barrier. It may very well be one of the fundamental aspects that prevents us from helping the most troubled members of society. (See also Bat Segundo interview and my supplemental lexicon to many of the terms used in the novel.)

Leslie What, Crazy Love: This quirky short story collection has been almost completely overlooked by readers who look at the fantasy genre with the same frightened isolationism readily observed in George W. Bush’s move to a neighborhood terrified of non-Caucasian residents. That’s a great shame, because there are invaluable lessons here on how to take a wild idea and make it concise and enthralling. The collection contains unsettling allegories and gleefully imaginative premises. There isn’t a single story in here that doesn’t take some kind of narrative gamble. And while the dice-rolling doesn’t always pay off, it certainly remains hot in your hands. (See also my Washington Post roundup.)

Honorable Mention: Andre Dubus III’s The Garden of Last Days (Segundo), Elizabeth Crane’s You Must Be This Happy to Enter (Segundo), Jenny Davidson’s The Explosionist (Segundo) Jeffrey Ford’s The Shadow Year (Segundo), David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague (Segundo), Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World (B&N Review), Samantha Power’s Chasing the Flame, Mark Sarvas’s Harry, Revised (Segundo), Brian Francis Slattery’s Liberation (Segundo for Spaceman Blues), and Neal Stephenson’s Anathem (Segundo).