Occupy! Scenes from Occupied America, the latest book from the editors of the Brooklyn-based literary journal n+1, would seem to have arrived just in time. As I write, much of what Occupy Wall Street meant in 2011 looks as though it will be a memory in 2012. Major occupations throughout the country, including the flagship encampment at Zuccotti Park, have been dismantled. Others that remain, like the one in Washington, D.C., face the growing threat of eviction and the deteriorating weather of a North American winter in full effect. Mainstream media coverage, ambivalent even during the movementâs high watermark, has turned definitively to a more reassuring, if less comprehensible, strain of political theater in the Republican presidential primary. Whether or not this decline in profile and enthusiasm is permanent, the evident phase-change merits a look back at the movementâs first chapter.
The writings assembled in Occupy!âfrom the journalâs editors, as well as other writers and thinkers sympathetic to OWSâchronicle the movementâs first month and a half, from the settlement by protesters in a small park in New York Cityâs Financial District, to eventual expansions in Oakland, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Boston. The book consists of first-person anecdotes about life and activity within the occupations, as well as essays on various theoretical and practical aspects of the movement as it grew. Many of these pieces originally appeared in the Occupy! Gazette, a special newspaper printed by n+1, and on the journalâs blog where content about OWS is regularly posted. Also reprinted are speeches made at encampments in New York by Judith Butler, Angela Davis, and Slavoj Žižek. The bookâs account ends two weeks before the Zuccotti eviction and the subsequent Day of Action on November 17 that found some 30,000 marchers in the streets. The preface acknowledges that these events took place as the book was going to print, and its posture is one of defiance: “You can pull up the flowers but you canât stop the spring…The movement and this book are not over.” It sets the tone for much of what is to come, namely articulate endorsement of its subject. For all the collectionâs problems, mistaking its audience isnât one of them.
That Occupy! rests on that endorsement is a different matter. Since its formation in 2003, n+1 has steadily grown its reputation for culturally charged nonfiction and criticism among a readership largely of young intellectuals. The journal specializes in personal commentary on a range of fashionable left-leaning political and aesthetic issues, often postured against consensus. When the occupation became a groundswell, its writers were among the first sympathizers. But whatâs been selected here rarely earns the distinction of a published volume. Occupy Wall Street, when all is said and done, may end up as one of the most documented events in history because so many of its steps were self-documented (websites, photos, videos, whole infrastructures of communication and dissemination all supplying their own digital footprint), leaving much of the first-person content of Occupy! feeling redundant. Amusing though it can sometimes be, the recurring “Scenes from an Occupation” series from several contributors at Zuccotti is overly casual and lean on substance. One such exchange between author Sarah Resnik and filmmaker Astra Taylor entitled “Rumors” dwells on problems of information and misinformation among occupiers, as well as the incidents of sexual assault in the park. Seemingly aiming for the immediacy of emails and Tweets culled together from the moment, they squander the material for a well-structured and potentially interesting essay about the divergence between vision and reality, with respect to safety and (in this case, gender) politics at Zuccotti, the evidence of which otherwise begins to collect in the margins as Occupy! winds down.
By and large the collection is concerned with these occupations as living spaceâhow they function as social and political units, and how the occupiersâ efforts to create a sort of utopia (the word is as appropriate as it is conspicuously absent from the book) are fulfilled and frustrated. As the latter of that binary becomes more dominant in the depiction (the problems with vagrancy, the intractability of the general assemblyâs “total democracy,” the infamous drumming circles, and the overall incompleteness of the occupiersâ vision), the writers of Occupy! only ever seem to double down on their support: “Itâs problematic, to a certain extent, but the fact is itâs vital that the park continue to be occupied, and the other fact is itâs hard to get much done when youâre living there,” writes n+1 co-founder Keith Gessen. “They actually think that coming to a faraway city and living in a concrete park could lead to political change. And they might be right!” Later on he takes an occupier named Ray into his house when the weather goes badâgenerous to be sure, and later when he reads Rayâs blog entries about his recent homelessness, the piece takes an affecting turn. In the general haste to anoint the protest, Occupy! seldom touches the melancholic reality of the movement so deftly as here.
Nikil Savalâs account of Occupy Philadelphia ends on the verge of a similar turn, finding him worried about a recent decision that might alienate the city in the interest of symbolic defiance: “Perhaps there will be general assemblies in the future that are less about how to live, more about what to do. The decision may have woken everyone up from the self-love that had come to afflict our bitter celebration; after all, the point was never just to hold a park.” Savalâs implied disappointment stops short of exactly the sort of critique that is totally missing from Occupy! While the collectionâs portrait of the movement as an experiment in community-building is welcome, the absence of any significant opposition to even one of the movementâs various strategies is concerning. Instead, the question of OWSâs political efficacy is for the most part put on hold in favor of, for instance, Rebecca Solnitâs theoretical condemnation of violence as a protest tacticâas though any sane person could think violence was a feasible tactic against the government that introduced the Predator drone. Her invocation of the Zapatistas as a conceivable exception only resonates with the kind of historical that hampers the bookâs essay content from time to time. Kung Liâs piece on Occupy Atlanta toes a similar line, drawing a direct parallel between the occupation and the historic activities of the civil rights movement. To what extent can these comparisons be taken seriously? How great is the Occupationâs historical burden; how many causes must it undertake? This is the critique such comparisons open to the movement, but itâs never addressed. The cautious hopefulness of their endorsement and the historical entitlement that entails is assumed enough.
Mark Greifâs “Occupy the Boardroom” encapsulates all of the bookâs worst tendencies. Its tedium and insipid tone are only surpassed by the insignificance of the anecdote it relatesâabout failing to distribute some protester-authored letters to Wall Street bankers. The Occupy the Boardroom project was an online letter-writing campaign with those who objected to big banksâ legacy of predatory lending writing letters to the executives of those same banks. Greif describes his involvement in the projectâs physical efforts to deliver those letters to bank headquarters, predictably foiled by police and security. At one point, distressed that custodians have come to dispose some letters that had been thrown as paper airplanes by protesters, Greif vocally objects, “Hey, these are letters from individual American citizens, and youâre treating them like trash.” Whether Greifâs own piece fails to connect with the perceived nobility of his gesture, or it simply dawns on the reasonable reader that this gesture and others like it are vastly sillier than they are noble or even productive, the schadenfreude is almost too difficult to resist. Greif even seems to have misplaced the strategyâs efficacy as disruption: “What goes unsaid, too, is that not reading a personal letter written directly to you is a trespass that leaves us uneasy, an offense against everyone, as uncomfortable as tearing up paper money. It suggests fear, or contempt.” Or disinterest. The imagined aspect of psychological warfare might loom less large to those of us with not quite so romantic a view of posted mail. Tearing up paper money, thoughânow thereâs an idea.
If thereâs a corrective to such a piece of writing in Occupy! it would have to be Sunaura Taylorâs “Scenes from Occupied Oakland.” Taylor, sister to filmmaker Astra, brings the most comprehensive account of the intellectualâs encounter with an occupation, volunteering all of her enthusiasms, her disappointments, her fears, and her revelations about the experience as they come upon her. Whether or not itâs the fact that sheâs the only contributor thatâs reported actually sleeping at an encampment, or that her confinement to a wheelchair gives her a perspective on the occupation that wouldnât first occur to many (that of accessibility), Taylorâs prose is clear and appropriately dramatic, her narrative is more journalistic than others, and her conclusions are sensibleâneither shrill nor clouded unduly by ideology: “I am ashamed that I was so naïve about the cops in Oakland, but even more than this I am furious. I am furious that the police are allowed to brutalize people without being held accountable for their actions.”
For many, it was a similar realization that found sympathy with the protesters of Occupy Wall Street. And it was finally the seeming gluttony for punishment, for inertia, that for many turned the movement sour. Through Taylorâs eyes we see that the latter might have been the truest answer to the former. But nothing else in Occupy! connects the two with any fluency. Eschewing a comprehensive or critical outlook of the topic at hand, the collection satisfies its organizationâs need to have made a statement on the matter, even if that statement is mostly mild, flirting occasionally as it does with the insufferable. Timely though it seems, Occupy! as a published document is premature, where much commentary is made, but little is actually said.
Occupied! Scenes from Occupied America was released on December 17 by Verso. To purchase it, click here.
Reconciling Memory: Peter Stammâs The Sweet Indifference of the World
Stamm accomplishes something remarkable by giving the reader a story thatâs simultaneously disorienting and comforting.
Early in Peter Stammâs The Sweet Indifference of the World we learn that its narrator, Christoph, is a writer, and you may wonder if the novel is going to unfold as so much autofiction does today. That is, as a story about a novelistâperhaps Swiss, perhaps middle-aged like Stammâwrestling with their personal history or fame or the ordinary events of their life. Itâs a practice thatâs increasingly familiar, which, of course, isnât to deny its ability to produce some outstanding work. But Stamm isnât predictable, and he isnât ordinary, and over the course of this especially slim novel, he accomplishes something remarkable by giving the reader a story thatâs simultaneously disorienting and comforting.
The novel tells the story of two couples: Christoph and Magdalena, and Chris and Lena. Both men are writers, and both women are actresses. According to Christoph, and as recounted to Lena, the couplesâ lives are the sameâsomehow folded in and upon one another in the narrative of the bookâbut separated across 20 years. Stammâs language is spare and thin, avoiding unnecessarily heavy prose in a way that makes Christophâs story all the more urgent. Stamm dispenses with quotation marks, paragraphs, and ordinary indicators of internal and external dialogues. And it all works perfectly.
A fourth of the way through Sweet Indifference, Christoph tells Lena, âI canât tell you the end of the story…the only stories that have endings are the ones in books. But I can tell you what happened next.â This warning, like almost any page of the novel, could be picked up and read entirely on its own. Stamm has constructed a narrative less about what did or didnât happen but, perhaps, what could have. Does the novel give any certainty by the end that Christoph and Magdalena were once Chris and Lena? By the time Sweet Indifference reaches its end, it isnât that the answer is irrelevant, but that the question was far more interesting.
In the novelâs disoriented narrative, in which each character layers upon another like a palimpsest, Christoph is the one reliable thread able to pull the reader through the maze. His certainty and conviction toward Lena helps to keep us anchored. But Christophâs brief encounter with his own doppelganger momentarily suspends this security and leaves both the narrator and reader disconcerted. When Chris questions Christophâs claim that he did (and eventually Chris will) publish a book, the former takes solace from the fact that he can find no record of it online. He rejects that this other man is his definite future.
Another detail that Christoph gives in order to try to strengthen his case also turns out to be false. When he later recounts this event to Lena, Christoph announces, âThis is the most painful part of the story…He was right. I must have seen the scene somewhere and made a memory of it, incorporated it into my life.â In this moment, Stamm leaves it to his readers to settle the meaningfulness of the contradictions on their own.
Midway through the book, an old man abruptly walks into a cafĂ© and mutters, âItâs too late…it will always be too late.â Has the cycle begun to fold back upon itself a second time? We canât be certain. At the outset, Sweet Indifference can be puzzling and slippery, but along the way the same distinctive style that distorts begins to coalesce into something more enlightening. Instead of dissonance, Stamm manages to produce an unusual harmony. It often comes across as a meditation structured around one manâs effort to understand, mold, restructure, and interpret himself through memoriesâboth false and real. Or as if Christophâor whoever might stand in for himâis talking with himself to find some meaning from what did or didnât happen 20 years ago. More than any ordinary novel, Sweet Indifference is a process.
At one point in Sweet Indifference, Christoph tells Lena, â[T]hatâs what I always liked about books. The fact that you canât change them. You donât even have to read them. Itâs enough to own them, and pick them up, and know that they will always remain the way they are.â If Stamm is speaking to some distressing urge to reconcile oneâs life with a wishful memory of it, then perhaps all it takes is some perspective. This is a book that invites many questions: Are Christoph and Magdalena actually some version of Chris and Lena? Why does the novel end exactly where it began? Or does it? Is Christoph hurt or alleviated at the end of his journey with Lena? And as to whether there are definite answers to any of these questions, Stamm invites us to stumble upon them for ourselves, perhaps at some later stage in life when, revisiting the book, it will all make a different kind of sense.
The Sweet Indifference of the World is available on January 21 from Other Press.
John Saylesâs Yellow Earth Is a Masterfully Fair Hearing on Human Nature
What animates Saylesâs fiction is curiosity about different kinds of people and their experiences.
In the middle of John Saylesâs Lone Star, which tells the intricate, intergenerational story of a Texas border town, comes a moment, no longer than 30 seconds, where two Army officersâone a black woman, the other a white manâtalk furtively in the background of a bar scene. The camera nestles into their booth as they speak in hushed tones, and suddenly a new dimension to their relationship, which appears decorous and professional, is revealed. Theyâre soon interrupted by the town sheriff, and with only a few lines exchanged, we learn everything we need to know about these lovers on the sly.
Sayles, a screenwriter, director, editor, and novelist, excels at seeing each of his characters as the protagonist of their own story. And his rare ability to inhabit the intersecting perspectives, motivations, and desires of a diverse dramatis personae is in full evidence in his new novel, Yellow Earth. The novel takes place near the beginning of the Obama administration, on North Dakotaâs Three Nations Native American reservation and in the fictional neighboring town of Yellow Earth. Both the town and the reservation are situated atop the Bakken formation, where hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has been underway since the early 2000s.
As the story begins, a representative from a Texas oil company goes door to door convincing residents to sign leases on their property so that drilling can commence. The chairman of the tribal council, Harleigh Killdeer, is all for it, dismissing the objections of a few outspoken dissenters in his community and promising âsovereignty by the barrel.â The ensuing oil boom brings with it a population surge in Yellow Earth as workers flood the town, accompanied by an increase in violent crime, drug trafficking, and prostitution.
Recalling Upton Sinclairâs Oil! in its canny political observations and vivid descriptions of drilling and extraction techniques, Yellow Earth is about the economic stratification, moral corruption, and opportunistic exploitation fomented by capitalism. Over the course of 400 pages, a landscape is transformed by greed and avarice in the populist guise of free-market speculation and community enrichment. The gulf between the optimism of Killdeerâs public relations blitz and the situation on the ground is pronounced in the poor conditions the oil workers live in, vividly sordid strip-club scenes, and recurring images of environmental waste.
While most of Saylesâs characters are morally compromised, rather than purely good or evil, heâs guilty here of crafting a cartoon villain: Brent Skiles, a steroidal, Ayn Rand-quoting drug runner who cons Killdeer into forming a company to serve as a front for his trafficking operation. And for his part, Killdeer ends up looking like a fool, almost to the point of incredibility. More compelling are less prominent characters, such as the animal behaviorist with a grant to study prairie dogs who falls in love with Yellow Earthâs sheriff, or the radical Teresa Crowâs Ghost, who dogs Killdeer with reminders of their peopleâs history of being exploited and pushed around by the government. No character is minor in Saylesâs world.
Another of Saylesâs strengths is his affinity for depicting different regions of the United States, from Louisiana swampland to urban New Jersey to an Alaskan fishing community. In particular, he has a knack for describing physical landscapes and capturing dialects. In some of his earlier fiction, the latter is a bit too pronounced, rarely a line of dialogue going by without a phonetic spelling or an apostrophe at the end of a word. But Sayles is a bit more restrained here, using sentence structure and idiomatic phrasing, sometimes omitting words or even resorting to clichĂ©s, to capture local patois across typically talky scenes. He employs close third-person, present-tense narration to facilitate the frequent switches in point of view; each chapter is anchored to one characterâs experience, and the narrative voice is inflected by that characterâs way of speaking and thinking. When taken together, the sequence of chapters creates not a sense of omniscience, but of kaleidoscopic subjectivity.
Without falling prey to false âboth sidesâ equivocation, Sayles masterfully balances and gives fair hearings to competing agendas and doesnât shy away from the ugly side of human nature; by the same token, he doesnât give in to cynicism or despair. What animates his fiction is curiosity about different kinds of people and their experiences, and an imagination expansive enough to portray their inner lives. He doesnât fetishize diversity, but his stories are naturally diverse as a result of his engaged interest in the world around him. Now entering the fifth decade of his career, Sayles remains a standard-bearer for the American novel.
John Saylesâs Yellow Earth is available on January 28 from Haymarket Books.
In Find Me, the Sequel to Call Me by Your Name, the Echoes of Love Are Resounding
AndrĂ© Acimanâs novel is a series of ghost stories interrupted by fleeting flashes of light.
The Ancient Greek verb opsizo, as the reader is told in Find Me, AndrĂ© Acimanâs sequel to his 2007 novel Call Me By Your Name, is a way to name the act of arriving too late to the feast, âor to feast today with the weight of all the wasted yesteryears.â Call Me By Your Name tells the story of a brief yet fervent summer romance between two young men, Elio and Oliver, at Elioâs familyâs Italian villa. Samuel, Elioâs father, now divorced in Find Me many years after the events of the earlier novel and traveling by train from Florence to Rome to read from his most recent book at a university, explains the meaning of opsizo to Miranda, a young and beautiful American woman he meets on the train. An intense mutual sexual attraction quickly develops between them, and what follows is an improbable yet captivatingly believable romance between the older man and much younger woman. Perhaps Samuel has in fact arrived at the feast just in time, laden with empty years but not yet bereft of the possibility of real, lasting love.
The echoes of a conversation between Samuel and Elio in Call Me By Your Name, when the father advised the son about how to value even the loss of love as evidence of a life fully lived, are immediately apparent in Samuelâs approach to his unexpected courtship with Miranda in Find Me. âWe only want those we canât have,â he says to her, referring to his habit of revisiting a particular location in Rome that always reminds him of another lost love that he doesnât share with the reader. âItâs those we lost or who never knew we existed who leave their mark. The others barely echo.â And Find Me is essentially a novel of echoes. Each of its disparate sections, narrated first by Samuel, then by Elio, and then by Oliver before Elio eventually gets the final word, interrogate the ways in which the pastâwhether in the form of lived experiences or in imagined detoursâis where we are our truest, most yearning selves. The echoes are sometimes more beautiful than the sounds that they reflect.
The danger, of course, lies in the possibility of succumbing to opsizo, failing to capitalize on possibilities existing in the present. Just before kissing Samuel for the first time, Miranda accuses him of not being a present-tense kind of person. âThis, for instance, is the present tense,â she says before her tongue first grazes his lips, and the section of Find Me that comprises Samuel and Mirandaâs first day together takes up more than a third of the novel, an intensely present-tense sequence that challenges us to value a narrative almost entirely devoid of conflict, built instead on gentle surprise and the visceral pleasure of witnessing the origins of an unlikely love affair between two complex and very forthcoming characters.
And Find Meâs subsequent section, told from Elioâs point of view, cleverly reverses the age dynamic between narrator and object of affection as Elio, a decade after Oliver, unexpectedly falls in love with a much older manâa man his fatherâs age, in fact. âIâd lost my soul for so long and was now finding Iâd owned it all along but didnât know where to look for it or how to find it without him,â Elio tells us, a sensation also described by Samuel when he says to Miranda that everything in his life before âwas all leading up to you.â
Oliver, too, in the decades since his affair with Elio, has abandoned a significant part of himself to the past, specifically to events that took place at a certain Italian villa. Now a relatively happily married professor with two grown sons, he still entertains possibilities for a more uncontainable desire, in the form of flirtations with colleagues and yoga classmates, even as he believes that his chance for true happiness was lost when he turned his back on Elio all those years ago. When a guest at a party heâs throwing in his Manhattan apartment plays a piano piece that Elio once played for him, Oliver realizes that âsome arcane and beguiling wording was being spoken about what my life had been, and might still be, or might never be, and that the choice rested on the keyboard itself, and I hadnât been told.â
In her 1997 collection of essays, The End of the Novel of Love, memorist and critic Vivian Gornick argues that somewhere in the middle of the 20th century, as a result of a cultural turning away from the traditional social order with regards to gender, the subject of romantic loveâonce a wellspring for narrativeâhad lost its potential for depth and complexity, its reliable knack for drama. She writes that the âidea of love as a means of illuminationâin literature as in lifeânow comes as something of an anticlimax.â But in Find Me, the anticlimax is the point. Aciman dispenses with the notion of love as fuel for narrative and instead uses its power of transfiguration as the measure by which to evaluate a life.
For all its straightforward narration, Find Me has layers of complexity that come through as echoes between its sections, dialogue repeated in slightly different cadences by characters as they circle around issues of time and fate, life and death. The novelâs beating heart is the fact of mortality and the tragedy of aging, which is staged in stark relief by the age discrepancy between the members of the novelâs first two romantic pairings. This theme is made literal by Samuelâs death after he has a child and lives several happy years with Miranda, and the threads of fate and chance woven throughout Find Meâthe title itself a call to actionâall amount to the fear of dying before we ever truly get to live. âI think all lives are condemned to remain unfinished,â Elioâs older lover says to him, perhaps already recognizing how their affair will end. âThis is the deplorable truth we all live with. We reach the end and are by no means done with life, not by a long stretch! There are projects we barely started, matters so unresolved and left hanging everywhere. Living means dying with regrets stuck in your craw.â
Later, Oliver recalls a moment on the street when he met the gaze of someone from his department at the university who should have recognized him but who failed to acknowledge him at all. And he explains that he believed for a moment that he had diedââthat this was what death was like: you see people but they donât see you, and worse yet, youâre trapped being who you were in the moment you died âŠ and you never changed into the person you could have been and knew you really were, and you never redressed the one mistake that threw your life off course.â Find Me is a series of ghost stories interrupted by fleeting flashes of light, just like the lives of the characters described in its pages who find and lose and find again their great loves. But itâs the possibility of light that we all live for, as these characters remind us. The chance for someone to dim everything that has come before into shadow.
And, sometimes, a second chance.
AndrĂ© Acimanâs Find Me is available on October 29 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
The Very Queer In the Dream House Explodes Expectations of Memoir
The book is Carmen Machadoâs deeply intelligent and fiercely innovative account of her experience of domestic abuse.
Queerness has always called attention to itself, and so must the art that explores its increasingly expansive borderlands. Queer forms break apart recognizable structures and expose them as incommensurate for the expression of an experience that by definition exists in opposition to the status quo. Queer narratives, too, inevitably call for new structural packaging, and autobiographical accounts of queer experiences have begun to formally reflect the often Gordian nature of the lives they represent on the pageâlives irrevocably knotted by politics and power structures designed to resist their very existence.
âThe memoir is, at its core, an act of resurrection,â writes Carmen Maria Machado in the opening pages of In the Dream House, a deeply intelligent and fiercely innovative account of her experience of domestic abuse. Machadoâs richly layered narrative takes the form of a personal story embedded within an extensive cultural history. â[Memoirists] manipulate time; resuscitate the dead,â she writes. âThey put themselves, and others, into necessary context.â The necessary context in this case is that of queer stories in a historical dialogue that has too often excluded them or written them out, and Machado explores the ways in which internalizing and then rejecting the dominant narrative has prevented queer people from understanding that our differencesâwhich weâve by turns reluctantly and defiantly come to celebrateâdo not preclude ugliness. She explains that âqueer does not equal good or pure or right. It is simply a state of beingâone subject to politics, its own social forces, to larger narratives, to moral complexities of every kind.â
Machado takes a hard look at her former self in her memoir, a self painstakingly excavated through calcified layers of doubt, confusion, and shame. Most of In the Dream House is written in the second person as an address to this unearthed self, a younger version of the author who suffered at the hands of a female lover in a relationship that forms the narrative backbone of a more general exploration of the historical representation of queer domestic abuse. The âIâ speaker is the author now, happily married to another woman and living at a safe distance geographically and otherwise from the âyou,â the lost and naĂŻve girl who suffered through so much without understanding why. âI thought you died,â Machado says to the âyouâ who otherwise occupies these pages, âbut writing this, Iâm not sure you did.â
In the Dream House is structured as a series of brief sections titled after various tropes expressing particular elements of her time in what she coins as the âDream House,â a rental in Indiana where her girlfriend lived during most of the duration of their relationship, and which Machado frequently visited from where she was attending graduate school in Iowa. The relationship is narrated from its origins as a chance meeting in a diner in Iowa (âDream House as Inciting Incidentâ) to a request for a drive to the airport to pick up the other womanâs then-girlfriend (âStranger Comes to Townâ) to a fateful, breathless first hookup (âLesbian Cult Classicâ) and a first confession of love (âRomance Novelâ). The relationship trajectory briefly arrives at an experiment in polyamory (âStar-Crossed Loversâ) before dissolving into a monogamous relationship (âEntomologyâ) fraught with jealousy (âAppetiteâ) and gaslighting (âLost in Translationâ), and finally to an atmosphere heavy with frequent verbal and emotional abuse with the constant threat of physical violence.
Machadoâs story is punctuated by harrowing moments of conflict that feel, because of their specificity, almost uncannily familiar. We come to inhabit her mind so wholly that the claustrophobia of her relationship with this other woman is made present first in the mind and then in the body like some foreign infiltrator, a cancer spreading quietly beneath the skin. The bookâs hybrid nature is essential to its project, a marriage of form and content that elevates its subject by allowing it to accrue meaning in unconventional, surprising ways. Had Machado presented her subject in a traditional form, it would have gone against its own premise, and interspersed between the chronological narrative of increasingly severe instances of domestic abuse are brief forays into cultural criticism and queer history that further contextualize the ways in which we can be conditioned to accept abuse as normal, or as something we deserve, as Machado works through how the dominant culture views abuse narratives.
She interrogates films like Alain Guiraudieâs Stranger by the Lake, a quietly seething portrayal of a man sexually drawn to a murderer at the cruising grounds they both frequent, and George Cukorâs Gaslight, the suspenseful story of a woman made to believe sheâs insane so that her husband can dispatch her to an asylum, as a way of showcasing elements of her own experience reflected back to her by popular culture, illuminating exactly how sheâs been manipulated and controlled. Machado also includes an extensive retelling of an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which Captain Jean-Luc Picard is captured by the Cardassians and tortured into claiming that he sees five lights strung up above him where heâs being held, when in fact there are only four. He suffers and suffers but still maintains that he sees four lights instead of five, even as his resolve gradually weakens. Later, after being rescued, he retrospectively acknowledges that he was about to finally submit. âI would have told him anything,â he explains. âAnything at all. But more than that, I believed I could see five lights.â
One of Machadoâs central preoccupations is with the erasure of queer stories from conversations surrounding domestic abuse. âI have spent years struggling to find examples of my own experience in historyâs queer women,â she writes. âDid any of them gingerly touch their bruises and know that explaining would be too complicated? Did any of them wonder if what had happened to them had any name at all?â Sheâs meticulous about research and context, as in a section (âDream House as Ambiguityâ) in which she explores historical accounts of court cases that ruled on instances of domestic abuse between women, ultimately arriving at the conclusion that the only stories that persevere over time are the ones with overly salacious details about overly extreme acts of violence. In an extended and devastating section called âDream House as Choose Your Own Adventure,â she guides us through a series of otherwise banal decisions that resulted in her abuseâresponding defensively to accusations of moving too much in her sleep, for example, or deciding whether or not to wash her girlfriendâs dirty dishes after being commanded to do soâand thus thrusts us squarely into the world she finally, by the end of the book, has escaped. A world of unpredictable cruelty, a world where she was always afraid of what the consequences of seemingly banal actions might be.
The verifiability of womenâs stories of abuse becomes central to In the Dream Houseâs final pages. Machado bitterly conveys the frustration of being the victim of wounds invisible to the naked eye, no bruise or scar available as evidence to make plain what sheâs suffered, in language reminiscent of the testimonies of the women of the #MeToo movement whose stories are all that they have to show for what theyâve endured. âI think a lot about what evidence, had it been measured or recorded or kept, would help my case,â she writes as she attempts to affix an ending to her story, some kind of stopping point. âThat thereâs a real ending to anything is, Iâm pretty sure, the lie of all autobiographical writing. You have to choose to stop somewhere. You have to let the reader go.â
Machado imagines trying out different endings to her memoir, and she describes the effort to do so in the language of a craft essay, thinking about a potential readerâs experience of her story and debating whether to end on some kind of ânarratively satisfying confrontation,â perhaps leaning in to a more conventional structure than the one she has otherwise chosen. But she instead leaves us in a place of ambiguity much like the experience of queerness itself, an identity category which has always struggled to be defined in terms of its own choosing. Itâs an uncomfortable and indeed unsatisfying place to end a story about abuse, as the abuser is only exposed as such through the telling of a story that could easily dissolve with the slightest suspicion of exaggeration. But a necessary condition of Machadoâs project is to spark dissatisfaction on the part of readers looking for any kind of definitive resolution.
âYou have no reason to believe me,â she tells the reader. But she isnât begging us to accept the truth of her account. Sheâs daring us to doubt it. âIf a tree falls in the woods and pins a wood thrush to the earth, and she shrieks and shrieks but no one hears her, did she make a sound?â Machado writes. âDid she suffer? Whoâs to say?â And the question reverberates through In the Dream House, louder and louder, building up to a scream.
Carmen Machadoâs In the Dream House is available on November 5 from Graywolf Press.
With The Institute, Stephen King Channels Political Outrage into Familiar Horror
Itâs in the moral murk of a politically loaded situation that King finds the richest seam of his story.
For years after the publication of The Shining, fans wondered what happened to Danny Torrance, the boy with the psychic powers at the center of the 1977 novel. While promoting Full Dark, No Stars in 2010, Stephen King acknowledged in an interview that he liked the idea of a world where Danny and Charlene âCharlieâ McGee, the pyrokinetic main character of 1980’s Firestarter, could get married. According to the author, âthey would have totally wonderful children.â Though Doctor Sleep would later conclude Dannyâs story, and close down the possibility of that particular union forever, Kingâs latest novel suggests that the idea continues to flower in his imagination.
The Institute is chock-full of âwonderfulâ children or, at least, some very ordinary children with extraordinary powers. At its center is the Institute, a facility in the woods of Main that houses kids whoâve been abducted because of their telekinetic and telepathic abilities. There, the children are tested and tortured in order to enhance their wild talents. And into this hellish dominion enters Luke Ellis, a boy with middling telekinetic reach but dizzying intellect.
Meanwhile, ex-cop Tim Jamieson settles into his new home in the South Carolina town of DuPray, a place as Kingsian to its core as the man himself. Good-natured and kind, unflinchingly but undemonstratively moral, and with a newfound willingness to follow his hunches, Jamieson is the sort of hero that King has been writing about since 1979âs The Dead Zone. Our introduction to DuPray and Jamieson, who takes a job as a ânight knockerâ for the local sheriff, is warm and meandering, but its brevity is a tell: that King wonât be writing in his more sweeping epic style. The baroque backstories and irrelevant divergences that mark the highsâor lows, depending on your perspectiveâof Kingâs fiction are here offered in miniature. Itâs a hurried sketch rather than a meticulous painting of a small community.
For better and worse, after this brief introduction, the novel jumps the 1,000 miles north to the Institute, remaining there for the better part of 300 pages, abandoning Jamieson and DuPray for so long that readers may forget that they ever existed. When Jamieson suddenly reappears, the jarring effect is both a testament to the absorbing power of Lukeâs narrative and a sign of how weakly King has woven together the two strands of The Institute.
Though the âspecialâ child is a well that King has drawn from many a time, the novel has a political edge that rescues the trope from the shadow of redundancy. The Institute is about separating children from their parents and putting them in cages, all in the name of national security and the better good. Even though King has stated that he wasnât inspired by ICE and the migrant crisis, itâs almost impossible to separate the fiction from the headlines. And itâs in the moral murk of this situation that he finds the richest seam of his story. The Institute, you see, has a practical purpose. And while that purpose is best left for readers to discover for themselves, it will spoil nothing to say that the novel offers a philosophical quandary: How many children are you willing to destroy to save the world?
Such a question allows King to move away from the Manichaean notion of good and evil that limits much horror fiction. The Instituteâs staff ranges from jobbing professionals to zealots for the cause. Sprinkled in are a few obligatory sadists, but these are the least interesting of the childrenâs tormentors. Queen above all is Mrs. Sigsby, who combines the primness of Dolores Umbridge with Nurse Ratchedâs terrifying psychopathy. Sheâs the villainous heart of the novel, yet her cruelty is neither unthinking nor indulgent. Sheâs merely the result of an unblinking ideology that allows her to see children as resources rather than human beings.
King has always been particularly good at etching the bureaucratic villain. His writing is sophisticated enough to acknowledge that few humans pursue evil for its own sake. Mrs. Sigsby is the very opposite of an agent of chaos. But her pursuit of order involves a complacent evil thatâs more terrifying because of its authenticity. Like everyone else, she has a boss, and quotas to meet, and little time to consider the moral implications of her actions. And her eventual undoing ranks among the more satisfying of Kingâs resolutions because Mrs. Sigsby represents the walls of bureaucratic unkindness that plague 21st-century life.
The children are charming, of course. No one writes kids for adults as well as King. The Institute has been marketed as It for the new generation. This seems mostly to be a publishing gambit to grasp the coattails of Andy Muschiettiâs successful two-part adaptation of It. But thereâs some truth in the comparisonânamely, in the realistic camaraderie fostered between the kids, who face and overcome the apathetic cruelty that adults represent.
All of which makes it a shame that the book is so rote, as it sees King continuing to dip his toes in the same murky, shallow waters of crime fiction where much of his work has been stuck for the last decade. The author remains in the top tier of storytellers. Much has been made of this, often in reductive tonesâas if storytelling isnât what weâre all here for. Such benign dismissal neglects his deceptively simple style, the crafted tone of voice that seamlessly marries the everyman and the extraordinary. It overlooks the heart and heat that radiates off the page of a King novel, and in The institute his skills actually come to the fore more than usual because the story itself is fairly insubstantial.
The ideas are there: the juxtaposition of a human America against a corporate one, the meeting of physical and psychogeographic landscapes, that even in a multifaceted situation thereâs a clear definable line of goodness. But King has wielded them more elaborately and successfully elsewhere. In The Institute, he offers them as the axes of a yarn thatâs wholly relevant, and which nods toward the underlying complexity of any project based on serving âthe greatest good,â but which, even at close to 600 pages, feels too fleeting to offer answers.
Stephen Kingâs The Institute is now available from Scribner in the U.S. and Hodder in the U.K.
With Year of the Monkey, Patti Smith Spins Dreams Into Topsy-Turvy Words
Itâs a moving, witty, at times almost trance-like work traversing age, aging, sickness and death, as well as joy, gratitude and wonder.
Patti Smithâs Year of the Monkey is a Book of Dreams, or, more accurately, a Book of Dreaming. Itâs not, or not merely, a systematic transcription of the artistâs nocturnal journeys, but rather a book wherein the processes or mechanisms of dreaming determine the course and pulse of the narrative. Thereâs a canon, or at least a corpus, of this type of work, including preeminently the works of Franz Kafka, along with such unique creations as proto-surrealist Gerard de Nervalâs Aurelia, surrealist texts in general, and, to a more curious degree, Alice In Wonderland. Explicitly referencing pretty much all the above works or writers, along with many others (Smith has never been hero-shy), the book combines Carrollian topsy-turvy with the kind of hard-edged mystic surrealism that Smith is so famous for.
Smith is the ideal avatar for this kind of narrative because her style is so motile. She can go in any direction at any time. From her earliest days as poet-singer onward, sheâs woven and fused multiple imageries, a lyrical bric-a-brac able to span centuries, from Joan of Arc to Arthur Rimbaud (one of her earliest heroes) to Jimi Hendrix. Allen Ginsberg once likened reading to time travel, to a reader linking up with a writer from another century and being essentially transported to that time in a very palpable way. Smith is such a time traveler. She seems to live in myriad epochs simultaneously, a spiritual ubiquity directly reflected, in Year of the Monkey, through her surroundings: âIt is all about my desk with a cabinet portrait of the young Baudelaire and a photo-booth shot of a young Jane Bowles and an ivory Christ without arms and a small framed print of Alice conversing with the Dodo.â
The book chronicles a year of the poetâs movements across America and more far-flung placesâbesides being a time-traveler, Smith is a true planetary adventurer, a sought-after figure âslowly wading through a long chain of requestsââas she navigates the mysteries of mortality, both her own and that of others. The dreamlike nature of the journey is signified early. Smith checks in to the Dream Motel, where immediately personification commences. In dreams or Wonderland, anything can take the form and function of anything else:
â–Thank you, Dream Motel, I said, half to the air, half to the [motel] sign.
–Itâs the Dream Inn! the sign exclaimed.
–Oh yeah, sorry, I said, somewhat taken aback. Even so, I didnât dream a thing.
–Oh really? Nothing!
The motel sign remains a constant voice, a kind of Cheshire Virgil nagging Smith through layers of dream. Indeed, throughout Year of the Monkey, she speaks playfully Alice-like to many inanimate objects, be it the motel sign or her puke-spattered boots: ââŠI was pulling my strings off my Stratocaster when some guy with a greasy ponytail leaned over and puked on my boots. The last gasp of 2015, a spray of vomit ushering in the New YearâŠI knelt down and cleaned up my boots. Happy New Year, I told them.â
Another strange, steady occurrence throughout the book is what Smith calls the âcandy-wrapper phenomenonâ: âThe beach was littered with candy wrappersâŠhundreds of them, maybe thousands, scattering the beach like feathers after a molt [âŠ] When I reentered my room, I could see that I was still sleeping, so I waited, with the window open, till I awoke.â These candy wrappers and their continual eerie reappearance evoke that odd totemic potency that mundane objects acquire in dreams. This potency is also reflected in the Polaroids that Smith includes as âamuletsâ or âtalismans,â hard evidence of soft dreams, somewhat the way AndrĂ© Breton, the surrealist movementâs staunchest statesman, incorporated on-the-spot off-kilter photographs into his seminal dream work, Nadja.
To dream or not to dream, that seems to be the question. âThe fringe of dream, an evolving fringe at that! Maybe more of a visitation, a prescience of things to come.â For as much as it is a book of dreams, Year of the Monkey is also a Book of the Dead and Dying. Throughout, Smith worries over the health and death of two of her closest friends, and so sometimes seems not only to be conjuring dream logic, but charting her own post-death navigation plan as well: â[I wondered] whether my assessment of the usage of the word candy wrapper was correct. I wondered if the mundanity of my train of thought was hindering my progress [âŠ] Cycles of death and resurrection, but not always in the way we imagine. For instance, we might all resurrect looking way different, wearing outfits weâd never be caught dead in.â
The book builds in visions and end-visions just as the election of Donald Trump looms. The Year of the Monkey gives way to the Year of the Rooster: âIt was the 28th of January. The cock of the new year had arrived, a hideous thing with puffed chest and feathers the color of the sun. Too late too late too late, he crowed,â a kind of malignant overturning of the preceding wonderland, as well as a frightening carrion call. The prose becomes increasingly visionary, even biblical, with Smithâs incantatory prowess, her charging-horse delivery, at its most propulsive and insistent, advancing through repetition, invoking through breathless passages of prophecy too lengthy to quote and too powerful to take out of context, terrible visions of shunned migrancy and regenerative imagination.
Year of the Monkey is a kind of Patti in the Valley of the Shadow of Death or Patti in the Sadlands. This isnât to say the book is regretful or self-pitying. Far from it. Rather, itâs a moving, witty, at times almost trance-like work traversing age, aging, sickness, and death, as well as joy, gratitude, and wonder. No longer the kid of her National Book Award-winning Just Kids, Smith (now 70) may be older, wiser and frailer, but sheâs no less curious and curiouser.
Patti Smithâs Year of the Monkey is available on September 24 from Knopf.
Anatomy of an American Family and National Memory: Nell Zinkâs Doxology
One of Zinkâs missions is to navigate how the absence of one life continues to play on those left alive.
The past few weeks on his podcast WTF, actor and comedian Marc Maron has been delivering his usual pre-interview monologue, bringing listeners up to date on his life, his challenges with staying clean and sober, and, most recently, the suicide of David Berman, the singer-songwriter best known for his work with the Silver Jews. Maron composes his memory of a âhangoutâ session with Berman in Nashville, recalling how âhe just told me the story, the whole David Berman story.â One facet of Nell Zinkâs fifth novel, Doxology, is the death of a fictional indie musician, Joe Harris, whose absence is forever present within the bookâs pages, tinging them with the same kind of grief present in Maronâs voice. But while Maron explores loss in the immediate aftermath of a death, recalling the âlightâ a figure like Berman gave off, Zink traces the effects of loss over the course of decades. Throughout, one of her missions is to navigate how the absence of one life continues to play on those left alive.
Decisions amass, one upon another in Doxology, a wide-spreading mural portraying the lives of an American familyâPam and Daniel and their daughter, Floraâfrom the late â80s to the modern day. Zink alternates her narrative between her protagonists quickly and often. Instead of dedicating whole chapters to, say, Pamâs perspective, multiple voices will share the page at once. Zinkâs use of the third-person enables her to dance from character to character, one paragraph after the other. At one moment, weâre at a New York farmerâs market with Daniel, and in the next, we will be at an Ian MacKaye show with Flora. Zink never sticks with one character for longer than a page at a time, building a pace which isnât unlike that of her characters, so quick-witted and always in motion, questioning their lives and relationships but united as a family, manifested through their shared space on the page.
Pam, Daniel, and Joe, all young and working crummy jobs at the start of the book, are united by their obsession with punk rock. Reminiscent of Jennifer Eganâs A Visit from the Goon Squad, Zinkâs language has a melodic quality, her long, crisp sentences enhanced by precise punctuation and smart alliteration. Every character is fast-talking and ceaselessly witty; they appear to be performing like the musicians they desire to become, their use of language a kind of instrument. And like a good lyricist, Zink doesnât waste a line of dialogue on anything uninteresting or even mildly benign. Everything feels just a little bit sped up, like an Aaron Sorkin production, but thereâs also whimsy and joy in Zinkâs prose, which brings passion to subjects as dry as soil aptitudes and door-to-door political canvassing.
Friends and bandmates, Pam, Daniel, and Joe are lovable and flawed, essential and aimless. Joe has âa case of high-functioning Williams syndrome,â and he ropes the gang together with unbending affability and an endearing trust in the world that helps to balance Pam and Danielâs more cautious approach to record executives and groupies. Pam is the âretro hippie earth motherâ who ran away from her parents in D.C. to Manhattan with 70 dollars âsheâd earned by selling her fatherâs audio receiver and VCR to a pawn shop,â and Daniel is âan eighties hipsterâ who âlived in a state of persistent ecstasy.â Their stories build, mingle, and mesh as they attempt to start their own punk band, eventually leading to Daniel and Pamâs marriage, Floraâs birth, and Joeâs serendipitous slippage into indie stardom.
Doxology, though, isnât a solely about music, as Zink is also concerned with shared national traumas and the idea of re-experiencing the past 30 years of American politics. She shows why sheâs one of Americaâs great contemporary novelists through her sharp shift of focus, capturing a multitude of landscapes from the wide vistas of American music and politics, to the finer details of sustainable farming, computer programming, and D.C. parks. The wealth of knowledge that Zink brings to her novel is generous, guiding us through moments in Americaâs recent pastâthe millennium shift, the dot-com bubble, 9/11, the housing crashâwith a firm sense of authority. She throws all sorts of complications at her characters, tracing how they react, adapt, continue to live, and move on like so many of us had to.
After the Twin Towers collapse, the story shifts to Floraâs coming of age. Sheâs sent to live with her grandparents in D.C. as the toxic dust settles, and as her life with them is close to utopic, Pam and Daniel canât rationalize moving her back to New York, where everything smells like asbestos. So they place her in a D.C. private school, where her intelligence is incubated by teachers who see her potential. Throughout, Zinkâs descriptions of place are simultaneously cynical, comical, and beautiful. Thereâs a sense that weâre caught in the most vivid of dreams, an impression thatâs hardly diminished as Zink juggles between Floraâs life in D.C. and Pam and Danielâs in New York. Itâs here where Flora becomes interested in saving the planet, studying green sustainability, ultimately leading her to understand that those in power are really the ones who can enact change. As she blossoms into a little genius, she becomes entangled in the Green Party, hoping this will lead her to something bigger.
Though Pam and Daniel still appear in the novelâs second half, theyâre cast as secondary characters, and their roundness noticeably dulled down. Their conflicts no longer drive the novel forward, as itâs Flora whoâs given the wheel. Thus, she must be nothing short of exceptional in order to hold our attention, often unbelievably so: a deeply liberal intellectual with some life-altering conservative choices, an atheist who sits in cathedrals to obtain deeper wisdom under the watchful eye of a god she doesnât believe in, a passionate socialist canvasing for Jill Stein with parents who stumble into being millionaires. She often seems philosophically inconsistent as Zink tries to make her incessantly admirable. Every time Flora seems to have reached an existential breaking point, Zink pulls her out of the trench without seeing the trauma through to its natural end. Zink undoubtably wants Flora to be âindestructible,â a word which âseemed to Flora like a pretty basic thing to be. Useful, possibly, but minimal. She wanted more than that.â Bullets bounce off Flora like Superman, and itâs often hard to empathize with a character whose path appears determined for success regardless of how many mistakes she makes on the way.
Still, Zinkâs writing remains enthralling in spite of not seeing all of her conflicts fully through to their ends. Like Flora, Zink understands the cynicism of our world but still she shows us moments of humor, humanity, how we can continue to shape our lives despite a world out of our own control. As the novel slowly looms towards modern day, its finality recalls how we got here and a need to brace ourselves for whatâs going to come next. If weâve learned anything from recent history, there will probably be a few unexpected twists coming our way. In the end, this anxiety is personified by Flora, the novelâs greatest gift and biggest challenge.
Nell Zinkâs Doxology is now available from Ecco.
Debating at the End of History: Ben Lernerâs The Topeka School
The novel succeeds, in part, by rejecting uncomplicated constructions of blame or causality.
Ben Lernerâs The Topeka School is the best novel of the Donald Trump era thus farâin no small part because it isnât much interested in Trump. Rather, it investigates the weird and twisty relationships between Trumpâs political context and the state of American language. The work of exposure and explanationâwhat Trump has done, how one might explain him as a political phenomenon, whose fault this all isâhas been done, and is still being done. Lerner is after something else: in his own words, a âgenealogyâ of language and its malformations. He circles certain ideas and conceptsâhistory, trauma, the fragmentation of identityâlike a bird around a favorite lake. Itâs argument by gesture. Look at these things. Donât they go together, somehow?
The Topeka School bears a familial resemblance to Lernerâs first two novels, Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04. An accomplished poet who published three critically successful collections before moving to prose, Lerner has always been a superb stylist. Atocha Station, published in 2011, is filled with sentences that manage to be at once conversational and virtuosic. And some lines in The Topeka School are as fine as any heâs written: âAn intense but contentless optimism about the future was the only protection against the recent past, in which all the regimes of value had collapsed, irradiated or gassed.â
Other Lerner mainstays include the fragmentation of identity, time, and space. In Atocha Station, this interest manifests in protagonist Adam Gordonâwho reappears in The Topeka School and stands in complete relation to Lerner himselfâand his tendency to view himself in the third person and project many possible Adams in many possible futures. In 10:04, published in 2014, Lernerâs narrator eats a baby octopus and experiences a decentering that resembles the cephalopodâs distal nervous system. The Topeka School continues this project of redefining identity as a collection of many versions of oneself scattered throughout time.
Whatâs changed is Lernerâs scope. Atocha Station is cramped in the best possible sense. Caught in Adamâs head, the reader feels both claustrophobic and adrift in the same way that Adam feels claustrophobic and adrift in Madrid and the Spanish language. But The Topeka School jumps between characters, whose voices and thoughts often bleed together. Eight of the novelâs 15 sections concern Adam and his parents, Jonathan and Jane (both psychologists, like Lernerâs own parents), in 1990s Topeka. Between these longer sections are short chapters about Adamâs schoolmate, Darren Eberhard, whose story helps the novel cohere.
Adam is a nationally ranked debater, and the novel spends a great deal of time talking about the ways debate has stretched language in pursuit of maximum competitive advantage. Extemporaneous debate, Adam explains, was designed to encourage well-read and creative debaters who could âspeak confidently on a range of topics.â But speaking âconfidentlyâ is possible without being either well-read or creative, and so debate preparation became less about the absorption of politics and history and more about projecting the appearance of absorption. The most common tactic is to speak at a blistering pace, to mention so many points and cite so many sources that oneâs opponent cannot respond to them all. This shock-and-awe strategy is called the âspread,â a key to The Topeka School.
The spread leaves the debateâs audience in an unpleasant position. âItâs not that the audience really learns anything about these people or events,â Adam explains, âitâs about how naturally these foreign signifiers roll off the teenagerâs tongue.â Debate, in other words, is deeply ironic. For the audience, a debaterâs grotesque speed and incomprehensible allusions imply something hidden: agile thinking and erudition. But the debaters know that thereâs nothing hidden, that their speech reveals and signifies nothing. Itâs a cruel joke that the audience isnât privy toâa little like serving pretentious wine dilletantes two-dollar bottles disguised as expensive vintages and making them give tasting notes.
Aside from the spread, Lerner includes other examples of harangued and hollowed-out language: psychoanalytic jargon, homophobic slurs, radio-commercial babble. Nearly every main character suffers language failure. When Adamâs mother recovers repressed memories of her fatherâs abuse, she finds her speech âbreaking down, fragmenting under the emotional pressure.â This jumble, she thinks, resembles the poetry Adam admiresâor, significantly, âwhat Palin or Trump sound like, delivering nonsense as if it made sense.â This is a sobering observation: The line is thin between art and blather, between language stretched into poetic ambiguity and language stretched into meaninglessness.
The Topeka School lashes together these blown-out languages and a national failure to listen and speak in good faith. âEven before the twenty-four-hour news cycle,â Lerner writes, âtwitter storms, algorithmic trading, spreadsheets, the DDoS attack, Americans were getting âspreadâ in their daily lives.â As goes debate, so goes America. This relationship is what the novel calls âa fearful symmetry between the ideological compartmentalization of high school debate and what passed for the national political discourse.â
The center of this âfearful symmetryâ is the titular Topeka School, a way of thinking and a rhetorical mode that masquerades as populist, extemporaneous, and values-driven but which is actually elitist, highly orchestrated, and beholden only to power and capital. The Topeka Schoolâs spiritual headmaster is Brian Evanson, Adamâs bespoke debate coach, who, as a master of plausible deniability and âchoreographed spontaneity,â is the archetype of the new conservative. In the future, Lernerâs novel foretells, Evanson will become âa key architect of the most right-wing governorship Kansas has ever known, overseeing radical cuts to social services and education, ending all funding for the arts, privatizing Medicaid, implementing one of the most disastrous tax cuts in Americaâs history, an important model for the Trump administration.â Itâs a resume that looks very much like former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobachâs. Adam, on the other hand, is metafictionally destined to âattempt this genealogy of [Evansonâs] speech, its theaters and extremes.â
Lerner also puts in Evansonâs mouth the âend of historyâ thesis made notorious by Francis Fukuyama, which claims that, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the great drama of civilization has concluded; the combination of democracy and free-market capitalism has won. (The irony is that the free market might very well end history, but in an ecological, not a political, sense.) The Topeka School has very little patience for this facile narrative, its notion of history as something overcome, improved upon, and left behind.
Not only has history failed to end, it has proven reluctant to move in straight lines toward progress, toward anything. In Lernerâs terms, history is âobstinate.â One of the novelâs consistent allusions is to Hermann Hesseâs short story âA Man by the Name of Ziegler,â which traces Zieglerâs traumatic realization that history is not, in fact, moving slowly, but stubbornly toward a better future. This is true for both global and personal history. Itâs impossible to escape the past, which haunts and lingers in the traumasâphysical, emotional, and linguisticâscattered throughout the novel. These traumas blend into one another; watching one of Adamâs debate opponents attempt the spread in a logorrheic mania, Jane notices how physically unpleasant, how literally painful, the spread is: âThe breathing, the gasping for airâIâd heard hyperventilating patients make similar sounds…While the young man seemed to have a sort of swagger, my primary experience was of a body in duress.â
Another character in duress is Adamâs schoolmate, Darren Eberhard. Despite becoming, by novelâs end, an archetype of reactionary white masculinity, a gun-toting picketer with the Westboro Baptist Church, he remains a complex and often sympathetic character: isolated, earnest, disabled, and especially sensitive to language (the slurs others call him rattle around his chapters like echoes). In one sense, heâs a case study in radicalization, how a white man comes around to affirm and reiterate the speech of Fred Phelps or Donald Trump. But what saves Darren from stereotype and the novel from simplicity is that Lerner is more interested in the circumstances of his development than in either absolving or condemning him. The Topeka School doesnât set out to âhumanizeâ Darren, though it does. Rather, the novel is about a school of thought, a way of growing up. Darren, like Adam, graduates from that school, which produces Westboro picketers, far-right politicos, and famous novelists alike.
The Topeka School succeeds, in part, by rejecting uncomplicated constructions of blame or causality. But preferring complication means that it must gather together loads of material, and showing how well most of that material fits together is a long, slow job. Simply put, thereâs a lot going on. Lerner runs the danger of parody, of self-incrimination; it would be easy for the novel to stop exploring hollow language and information overload, and instead begin exemplifying it. The Topeka School, in other words, risks spreading its reader. But reading it doesnât feel like reading Gravityâs Rainbow or another maximalist novel actually designed to spread the reader. And thereâs an appropriate ambiguity about a novelâwhich is, after all, a pile of languageâthat wonders about the ongoing ability of language to do good work.
There are times when The Topeka School, at least for a moment, suggests that an exhausted language might herald something better. Jane considers this possibility during talk therapy with her friend, Sima: âThis language has reached its limit, and a new one will be built, Sima and I will build it.â Of course, this is exactly the sort of progressive thinking that Hesseâs Ziegler story deflates. And the novel seems to side with Ziegler: Jane and Sima never build that new language. They donât even remain friends. Likewise, overwhelmed in a Hypermart, Adam sees brands and their interchangeable products as âan abstract stuff out of which theyâd have to make new languages.â Unlike Janeâs utopian vision of a collaborative language, Adamâs version is more sinister, a cardboard language structured by mass consumption. Even Adamâs syntax lends a sense of coercion or obligation: âtheyâd have to make new languages.â
The Topeka Schoolâs very end suggests that a future lies not in the wholesale construction of new languages, but instead in smaller moments of speech. Adam, singing at an ICE protest with his wife and daughters, reflects: âIt embarrassed me, it always had, but I forced myself to participate, to be part of a tiny public speaking, a public learning slowly how to speak again, in the middle of the spread.â Thereâs room to hope that this isnât, in fact, the end of history, and that things spread out might be called back in again. Maybe the most remarkable thing about The Topeka School is the way it models this possibility by gathering together the apparently distant and unrelatedâpsychotherapy, high school debate, Kansan politics, concussions, the drama of a marriageâinto a story that feels sincere and generous.
Ben Lernerâs The Topeka School is available on October 1 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Interview: J. Hoberman Talks Make My Day, Reagan, and â80s Movie Culture
Hoberman discusses how the art of filmmaking, and the business of moviegoing, influenced, mirrored, and altered Reaganâs presidency.
The poster boy of American conservatism, the bar to which all Republicans would unashamedly evaluate future candidates, and yet now seemingly lower on a weekly basis, Ronald Reagan was an ideal movie star with an idealized view of the past. His perfect America would be equivalent to the opening shots of red roses, green lawns, and white picket fences that kick off Blue Velvet, while Americaâs reality would be what transpires once Bobby Vintonâs song concludes and the swarming ants are revealed beneath the surface.
A time of Hollywood blockbusters and silver screen patriots, macho men and teens headed back to the future, the 1980s, while not considered a golden movie age, saw a symbiotic relationship between American film and the nationâs chosen leader. How else to account for Reagan proposing his âStar Warsâ strategic defense initiative in March of 1983, a mere two months before the release of the yearâs top grossing film, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi?
With his methodically researched new book, Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan, former Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman takes a sociological approach to discovering how the art of filmmaking, and the business of moviegoing, influenced, mirrored, and altered the goings-on of our 40th presidentâs administration. And on the occasion of the bookâs release and accompanying Film at Lincoln Center series, which samples feature films from the â80s, I spoke with Hoberman about the first Reagan screen performance he ever saw, being a working film critic during the âAge of Reagan,â and the unexpected rise of real estate mogul and Celebrity Apprentice host Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States.
One of your most revered books is Vulgar Modernism, a collection of reviews and essays written during the â80s without the benefit, or trappings, of historical hindsight. Now 30-some-odd years later, youâve taken a step back to take a look at the bigger picture of the decade. What was that experience like?
I should say that this book was the culmination of two earlier books, The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties and An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War. Make My Day is the end of a trilogy. When I began writing the trilogy, I didnât realize how central Reagan would be to it, but by the time I started Make My Day, he had become, in effect, the protagonist of the entire trilogy. Make My Day was different from the other two books. Itâs not just that I lived through this period, but that I was then a working critic. How was I going to deal with that? In the earlier books, I went out of my way to quote critics and others who wrote about movies because I was very interested in how these films were initially received. In the case of Make My Day, however, it seemed absurd to quote other critics when I was there myself. It took me a while to come to that conclusion because my impulse wasnât to put myself in the book and yet I realized that I would ultimately have to.
I found that my opinion of the various movies discussed hadnât changed all that much. My opinion of Reagan was modified somewhat, in that I saw him as a more complicated figure than I did during the 1980s, but I also believe my response to him in the â80s was true to the moment. Thatâs why I included a number of longer pieces in the book, while also annotating them, so that one could see that I wasnât just reusing the material without thinking about it.
You note that each volume can be read in chronological order, the order in which they were published, or as standalone installments. I took it up after finishing your and Jonathan Rosenbaumâs Midnight Movies, and it felt like I was emerging from the pre-â80s underground to a Reaganized American society that had become depressingly anything but countercultural. What was it like being on the underground and Hollywood beat as a critic throughout those years?
I didnât really start reviewing the blockbuster films until around 1984. I was the Village Voiceâs second-string critic when Andrew Sarris, the first-string critic, fell ill, and I took his spot for a while. As a result, I was reviewing movies that I might otherwise not have. To make things interesting for myself, I began reviewing these movies from a political and ideological perspective. Even when Andy came back, that stayed with me. So, for example, there were a lot of action films during that period that Andy was very glad not to review, like Top Gun, but I did those while also reviewing foreign films, avant-garde films, documentaries, and so on. I always said that I could never be a first-string critic for a newspaper. I would have lost my mind having a steady diet of big Hollywood movies! I would have had to mix things up.
While midnight movies arenât the primary focus of Make My Day, the underground did find a way into your reviews of â80s blockbusters. I recall a review in the Voice titled âWhite Boys: Lucas, Spielberg, and the Temple of Dumbâ in which you tear down the nostalgic Indiana Jones prequel while praising Jack Smithâs nostalgic Normal Love. Was it maddening for you to review the latest Spielberg while underground artists concurrently made the same points to much smaller audiences?
That was really something that came from the heart. I was outraged by Temple of Doom, by its attitude, and I was really sick of these guys, Spielberg and Lucas. I wanted to bring out that there were other forms of filmmaking and other ways of dealing with this material. I was making a point, yes, but it was something that was fueled by emotion rather than reason.
Were there any Spielberg films, or Spielberg-adjacent films like Gremlins or Poltergeist, that you found less than risible throughout the Reagan years?
There were some that I preferred. I liked Gremlins quite a bit, and I enjoyed Back to the Future, which is Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. At the time, I didnât much care for Poltergeist, but when I looked at it again for the book, I thought it was interesting in terms of its pathology. I should also say that I liked Jaws and E.T., to a degree, although it was no Blade Runner.
Though primarily concerned with Reganâs political reign, you also dig deep into his filmography, noting how his sole villainous role, in The Killers, has always prompted a vocal reaction from every audience youâve watched it with. Why do you think that is?
Well, Iâm not sure thatâs still true. A friend recently saw The Killers at Film Forum and told me he was sort of shocked that people didnât respond to the scene where Reagan slaps Angie Dickinson. The first time I saw The Killers, which was, I think, in June of 1969, I didnât expect to see Reagan in it. I donât think I had seen him in a movie before. I was well aware of who he was, of course, and I hated him because I had been at Berkeley the previous summer, when students were public enemy number one and there were disturbances every nightâthe whole thing was extremely compelling for me as a 19-year-old. The point I wanted to make was that my whole view of Reagan was predicated on The Killers. To me, he seemed to be playing himself. I had a very naĂŻve response. I couldnât understand why he would do the role. I mean, what crazy hubris prompted him to show what he dreamed of becoming on screen? I recognize my response as primitive, but it also demonstrates the power of movie images. I didnât see him as acting, even though he clearly is. I saw it as him projecting his evil, bastardly essence.
Speaking of essence, itâs odd re-watching Donald Trumpâs numerous cameos in American film and television. Unlike Reaganâs silver-screen presence, Trump literally always played himself: an obscenely rich braggadocio. Whereas Reaganâs âlovableâ persona no doubt helped his later career in politics, Trumpâs media appearances helped to fortify his reputation as an arrogant huckster.
This is the point I tried to make at the end of the book. I was surely thinking about Trump a lot while writing the book, but he only became president when I was close to finishing it. Trump may have a star on Hollywood Boulevard, but it doesnât come as a result of the movies. Heâs a celebrity and a celebrity is someone whoâs able to project a cartoon version of themselves, or a larger-than-life version of themselves, into the media world: TV, the tabloid press, and so on. Trump is being true to this persona. I didnât really see Trumpâs presidency coming. For me, he was a New York City character, a local celebrity who was regularly exposed in the Village Voiceâs narrative of New York City corruption. I had no sense of how he existed to the rest of America, in Celebrity Apprentice. Clearly thatâs what put him over, or at least helped to put him over. That and his appearances on Fox News as a kind of pundit and even his involvement with professional wrestling.
As you mention in your book, the uncomfortably awkward 1979 CBS Ted Kennedy sit-down interview with Roger Mudd ultimately derailed Kennedyâs attempt at a presidential run. Itâs hard to imagine, given the feckless attempts by our current political leaders to appear like an everyman, that current presidential candidatesâ chances could be derailed by the televised struggle to answer a basic question. If anything, we might view the guffaw as endearing and humanizing. Trump says dumb stuff on a daily basis, and we all just accept it. Have we become desensitized to politicians being put on the spot and not being able to come up with succinct answers?
I think itâs different for different candidates. Being the younger brother of J.F.K., who was the first real political star, created a lot of expectations. People credit Kennedyâs success in the 1960 election with his appearance in the first debate, for looking so much better than Nixon. That may be simplistic, but itâs not simplistic for people to think that TV had something to do with Kennedy becoming president. I think this is a case of âlive by the sword, die by the sword,â that his brother just stumbled so badly in that interview, in what was essentially his television debut. He did go on all the way to the 1980 Democratic National Convention, but the myth of the Kennedy charm and invincibility was destroyed by that interview.
Looking at subsequent presidents, Reagan certainly had an elastic sense of reality. But in his distortions and lies and misstatements, he was by and large upbeat and, when he wasnât, he was at least coherent. Trump lies so continuously that you feel that that must be part of his appeal for his base, that heâs just going to make this stuff up. They think itâs funny or entertaining or maybe that it represents a âgreater degree of authenticity.â
There had been a very interesting point made by Theodor W. Adorno about Hitlerâs appeal. Iâm not saying that Trump is Hitler, but heâs a demagogue and Hitler was too. Adorno, who lived through Hitlerâs lies, made the point that intellectuals and serious people didnât get Hitlerâs appeal. Before he came to power, he just seemed like a clown. There was something ridiculous about Hitlerâs assertions and his tantrums. What they didnât realize was thatâs precisely what his fans liked about him. I think thatâs also the case with Trump and his supporters.
If Nashville, as you point out in the book, foresaw the real-life presidential assassination attempts that were soon to come, could you see the same cinematic influences happening today? Are there films today that you think are foreshadowing things that could come into fruition within our own political future?
Nashville was a movie made at a time when movies were much more central to American culture than they are now. It was made by a filmmaker, Robert Altman, who was directly addressing, as an artist, what was going on. I bracketed Nashville with Jaws because in some respects, Jaws is a similar movie, although Iâm not sure if Spielberg was consciously making an allegory. Some things in the film are political, for example the behavior of the Mayor of Amity, but beyond that the movie itself was utterly central to American culture. There was nothing more important during the summer of 1975 than Jaws. Thereâs no movie that has that kind of centrality anymore, nor do movies as a whole.
A number of television shows seemed to be predicting Hillary Clinton before the 2016 election. There were shows like Madam Secretary and Veep and Homeland, strong, female, political heroes, or, in the case of Veep, comic. But what were they compared to Celebrity Apprentice? Those aforementioned shows were very feeble in terms of reaching an audience and I think it was more a projection of the people who made it. When I look at movies now, and I have to say that I donât see as many movies as I used to, I see some that seem to manifest things that are in the air. Jordan Peeleâs Get Out would be the best example of this. That movie was made and conceived while Obama was president, but it certainly projected the post-Trump mood. Quentin Tarantinoâs Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is interesting because, on the one hand, itâs a movie about 1969, and yet itâs also a movie about 2019. It canât help but manifest some of our current fantasies and tensions. But even if it had a bigger audience than Nashville, people just arenât taking it the same way.
And Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood presents a cinematic take that has a romanticized, almost fetishistic view of a 1969 that never truly existed, at least not the way Tarantino wishes it did…
Well, thatâs certainly one way to look at it. I would put it somewhat differently, but we can let people discover for themselves if they havenât seen it!
The book also talks a great deal about the revisionism and idealization of specific time periods that were said to represent wholesome Americana. The â50s is a big one, but as you point out, the moviesâ view of the â50s were drastically different from the one the world actually experienced. I remember growing up in the â90s convinced Happy Days was a TV show not just about the â50s, but from the â50s itself.
That makes perfect sense, and I think other people share that same experience. The genius of that show is that it portrayed the â50s âas it should have been.â Jean Baudrillard has a memorable description of walking in to see Peter Bogdanovichâs 1971 black-and-white film The Last Picture Show and, for a moment, thinking it was actually a movie from the period it depicted: the early â50s. It was a hyper-real version of it. Thatâs what Happy Days was. I think Reaganâs genius was to be able to do that on a larger scale, to conjure up an idealized â60s almost out of whole cloth, vague memories, old television, and old movies in his own conviction, even if that was ultimately a fantasy. It was an idealization of the period.
On the occasion of your bookâs release, youâve programmed a selection of double features for an upcoming series at Film at Lincoln Center. Outside of a closeness in release dates, like The Last Temptation of Christ and They Live, what went into the pairing up of certain titles?
I appreciate that question. I really love the concept of double bills. Whenever itâs possible, I like to teach using double bills, because then the movies can talk to each otherâand I donât have to talk as much. Ideally the movies should comment on each other. The reason for including The Last Temptation of Christ was a bit tricky. I thought that the response that it got certainly looked forward to the culture wars of the â90s. There was such hostility directed toward that movie and, by extension, the movie industry as a whole. As Trump would say, it was as âan enemy of the people.â And to me, They Live seems to be the bluntest, most direct critique of Reaganism ever delivered, and it was delivered at the very, very end of his presidency. In a sense, it was already over, as the film came out just before the 1988 presidential election. I see both They Live and The Last Temptation as political movies, one overtly political and one that was taken in a political manner.
Interview: Paul Tremblay on Growing Things and the Hope of Horror Fiction
Tremblay discusses how horror can be a progressive, hopeful way to understand the world.
Paul Tremblay laughs a lot. Our conversation, about demonically infested children and the end of the world, is interspersed with a low chuckle that suggests he loves doing what he does. And what he does is scare people. Tremblay is at the forefront of a supposed renaissance of horror fiction, and with good reason, as his books cut to the bone.
Tremblay burst onto the horror scene in 2015 with A Head Full of Ghosts, a deconstruction and excoriation of the exorcism subgenre. The most frightening book this critic has ever read, it won the Bram Stoker Award and, perhaps more crucially, Stephen Kingâs nod of approval. Disappearance at Devilâs Rock and The Cabin at the End of the World cemented his reputation as horrorâs cruellest craftsman. In these tales, bad things happen to good families. Worlds collapse, lives shatter, and the ambiguity of existence is shown through a glass darkly.
Tremblayâs latest collection, Growing Things and Other Stories, continues his disquieting project. Twisted teachers give lessons in inhumanity, Polaroids reveal dark histories, and some very sinister dogwalkers commit metafictional trespass. The collection, now out from William Morrow, suggests a merciless worldview. Yet as we talk, Tremblay chuckles, pets his dog, and talks about how horror can be a progressive, hopeful way to understand the world.
Do you have a favorite story in Growing Things?
âItâs Against the Law to Feed the Ducksâ is the earliest story in the collection and the first one where I thought, âI can do this.â That was the first time I made uncertainty essential to the story, central to the theme and the âwhy.â Though it could be hard for a reader to point at any one thing and say, âThatâs why itâs a horror story,â I do feel itâs one of the more horrific things Iâve ever written. âNineteen Snapshots of Dennisportâ was also a lot of fun to write. I basically retook my own childhood vacation at a place in Cape Cod that we rented once. It was a chance to turn nostalgia on its ear and make it dangerous. I do think nostalgia can be a threat in the way it blurs over the messy parts of your history.
Thatâs interesting, because your fiction seems obsessed with memory.
I think much of horror is about memory. Memories are so malleable, yet we rely almost entirely on them to define what we think of as our self. Especially childhood memories. So many of them are usurped by retellingsâwhether your own or your friendsâ or familyâsâeach gives you different versions of things that are the core of who you are. If you canât trust your memories, then how can you trust identity? As a horror writer, that just feels like infinitely fertile ground. When you wake up in the middle of the night, you confront the question of who you are, and who is the person youâre sharing your bed and your life with. These thoughts freak me out, but I find them fascinating. I boil down horror stories as âa reveal of a dark truth.â In a lot of my stories the reveal is that identity isnât ironclad and memories arenât safe.
The media is another thing that emerges as both the format and focus of much of your writing. Is that an intentional theme?
Well, itâs a reflection of the time weâre living in. Itâs pretty clear that social media hasnât only changed society, itâs also changed us as individuals. Itâs scary stuff and weâd be fools not to use it in stories. And I donât just mean to have it there as background noise. If youâre going to use the media it has to be crucial to the story. Some older writers in the horror community would say that you shouldnât mention this stuffâthat itâs not timeless and will date your writing. That seems wholly ridiculous to me, because whereâs the cut-off for timelessness? If you make the media central to your stories then people will still be able to read those stories in future decades because youâre essentially world-building.
The contingent realities of memory and media come together in the concept of âfake news.â Do you think horror, or your own work, is well-equipped to address that?
Well, the information age was greeted with a lot of optimism, but my books approach it with disappointment. Iâve met people all around the world through the power of social media. But Iâve also seen the pervasiveness and insidiousness of disinformation, Itâs affected family members and relationships. It influences nations and political systems. It blows my mind.
Each of my novels address this is some way. In A Head Full of Ghosts, I use reality TV and the blogger to further enhance the ambiguity. Typically, books approach ambiguity by withholding information. I thought the cooler idea was to give a storm of information. You canât know whatâs real because thereâs too much data to consider. I think that reflects the world we live in.
In Disappearance at Devilâs Rock, I took a stereotypical missing-teenager case. People think that itâs easy to locate someone because of all the information we have, hence the claim that âthe cellphone killed the horror story.â I purposely wanted to write that story with these kids having snapchat and Facebook but show how that stuff makes it harder to get to the truth.
The Cabin at the End of the World is definitely riffing on those anxieties. I try not to be too didactic, but I absolutely wanted Cabin to be an allegory for our political times.
Why are you so drawn to ambiguity?
I think it reflects one of the horrors of our existence: that reality is more ambiguous than we allow. A smaller reason is that I resist committing to the supernatural in the novel. Iâm an agnostic atheist, so if I encountered something in my everyday life, I think Iâd have a hard time realizing that it was supernatural. It would be so liminal that how would we know? Iâve found it easier to go full supernatural in my short fiction. Soon Iâll need to come down on one side or the other, because people will get tired of me doing the ambiguity thing every time.
So, what would it take to convince you that your house was haunted?
In your head you imagine it wouldnât take much. But in reality, we have 30-year mortgages. Iâd probably think I had to gut it out, even with a ghost standing in the living room.
Iâm not naĂŻve enough to ask you to clarify any of your ambiguous endings. But I am interested in whether you know the truth in those novels.
For each book itâs slightly different. I started A Head Full of Ghosts intending to write a secular exorcism novel. But then I decided to split the evidence 50/50. To be honest, I havenât really got a clear idea of whether Marjorie is possessed or mentally ill. Thatâs been a fun novel to discuss with fans because they have interpretations that I never considered. Devilâs Rock has a less ambiguous ending. I feel like itâs fairly clear what those last few pages say. And with Cabin I can honestly say that I havenât spent a single second thinking about what happens after the last line of that book. That story is all about the choice that Andrew and Eric make, and by the end they have made it. At that point, it doesnât matter if the world is ending or not.
Speaking to you now, and following you on social media, you seem a very positive guy. Yet your fiction is unremittingly bleak…
…yet every now and again you throw the reader an escape from the horror, or at least the potential for escape. Iâm thinking in particular of your story âA Haunted House Is a Wheel Upon Which Some Are Broken,â where you use the choose-your-own-adventure format to lead the protagonist and reader through a history of trauma. It ends with a way out, which I didnât expect. Would you say you are an optimist?
I donât know really. With that story I wanted to give the character a way out. Because I think most people, or many people, do survive their personal traumas, their personal ghosts. When Cabin came out, I mentioned in interviews this thing that I called âthe hope of horror.â It may sound pretentious but the reason Iâm drawn to horror is the same reason Iâm drawn to punk. Itâs the idea that terrible truth is revealed, and we may not survive it, but thereâs value in the shared recognition that something is wrong. So even though the novels and stories are bleak, I find some hope in the fact that we realise something is wrong, even if we canât fix it. Thatâs the fist-pump moment If anything ties together the things that I like reading and watching, itâs the chance to look at how other people get through this thing weâre all doing…this life.
Speaking of which, youâre a parent, yet your stories do the worst things to children.
Thatâs my parental anxiety on show. My first child was born in 2000, and when I was getting serious about writing in the first half of that decade, a friend pointed out to me that I wrote about parents and children all the time. I hadnât realized, but from there it became purposeful. With Devilâs Rock, I realized I was treading in the same family dynamic as Head Full of Ghosts. Then I wrote Cabin about another young family, and even though theyâre individual books, I think theyâre a nice thematic trilogy. Each book features a different kind of family in crisis.
You recently tweeted about doing research into some grim childhood illnesses. Dare I ask what that was for?
Yeah, thatâs for my next novel. It will be my take on the zombie, but itâs about infected people rather than the undead. Itâs set during the first four-to-six hours of an outbreak in Boston.
Is there a title?
The working title is Survivor Song. Itâs due with my publishers at the end of the summer.
Thatâs quite the scoop. Aside from the new book, you also have the adaptation of A Head Full of Ghosts in the works. How involved are you in that process?
[laughs] Aaah, not at all. Itâs understandable really. They optioned the book in 2015 before it was even published. At that point, I was rebooting my career, as my earlier crime novels hadnât sold much. There was no reason for them to consider my feelings. Itâs the rare writer who gets invited into in the filmmaking process. In TV they may consult you more, but even then Iâm not sure how much of a say you have. I donât have any say in A Head Full of Ghosts, but they have a director, Osgood Perkins, and a script that we like. Itâs all getting a lot closer to being a real thing, with a very solid shot at starting production later this year.
Perkinsâs The Blackcoatâs Daughter and I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House use ambiguity to great effect. Are you happy with him helming the film?
Definitely. Heâs the perfect director for this material. Iâm really looking forward to seeing what they do. Itâll be tough to squeeze that book into a 90-minute movie.
As it would with any of your writing. Many of the stories in Growing Things experiment with form and structure. Do you feel the need to escape traditional narration?
House of Leaves is one of my favourite novels. Iâd love to one day write an experimental novel on that scale. But if youâre going to experiment with structure, then it must serve the story, and thatâs easier in short fiction, which seems to beg for experimentation. No, I donât feel the need to escape. Sometimes itâs just me trying to play with all the toys.
Youâre at the center of a new school of young horror writers, people like Laird Barron, Alma Katsu, John Langan, Sarah Langan. Do you think the genre is enjoying a resurgence?
People talk about a new golden age of horror. Thatâs a little self-serving because I expect every horror writer throughout the ages has looked around and thought, âHey, what weâre doing is great.â But I think itâs also undeniable that the current breadth of horror hasnât been seen before, both in terms of gender and diversity as well as style. We arenât all the way there yet, but itâs exciting and promising. Iâm happy to be playing a little part in it.
Finally, whatâs your favorite scary book, and your favourite scary movie?
With books itâs a tie. Mark Danielewskiâs House of Leaves and Shirley Jacksonâs We Have Always Lived in the Castle. There are so many more calling out in neglect, but letâs stick with those two. With movies itâs either John Carpenterâs The Thing or Steven Spielbergâs Jaws. Iâve probably seen Jaws close to 50 times and I still canât watch the part where Quint is bitten in half. The first time I saw that it broke my brain and Iâm too afraid to watch it again in case it takes me back in time. I had at least eight years of shark nightmares. The Thing asks: âDo you even know who you are?â It takes us back to that question about memory and identity and that idea of the dark reveal. Itâs the heart of horror.
Paul Tremblayâs Growing Pains and Other Stories is now available in the U.S. from William Morrow and in the U.K. from Titan Books.