Real Life

Vendela Vida‘s second novel, The Lovers, is coming out in the UK (it was published here in the United States last year), prompting a lengthy profile of her in the Guardian. Much of the piece focuses on the work she does with her husband, Dave Eggers, at the Believer, 826 Valencia, and cowriting the screenplay for the 2009 film Away We Go. But the piece squeezes in some discussion of her novels, which the reporter oddly describes as “works of realism.”

I haven’t read Vida’s debut novel, And Now You Can Go, but I’m an admirer of her two follow-ups, The Lovers and Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, both of which display a spiky, spare prose style that highlights the inner turmoil of their female protagonists instead of cloaking it. What they aren’t are works of realism. In both books (and the debut, I gather), the leads make snap decisions to disappear for a while in a new, unfamiliar locale—Lapland in Northern Lights, Turkey in The Lovers—and Vida dwells little on the sightseeing aspects of those places. For her, the exotic settings are ways to erase familiar comforting routines, forcing emotions up to the surface—nobody’s doing a whole lot in these novels, exactly, but they’re expending a great deal of energy.

Vida discusses her internship at the Paris Review, where she began thinking about how she’d approach her fiction: “I’d borrow a back issue every night, read it on the bus home, and pick up another the next morning. I didn’t have any friends in New York; I sat inside and read my Paris Reviews. I was particularly interested in female writers, because I was trying to figure out how to be one.” That in turn influenced the heroine of Northern Lights—though Vida’s statement could apply to the heroine of The Lovers too:

“I wanted to make her real,” Vida says. “At the time, I was tired of reading novels by women in which the men could act as badly as they wanted, while the female characters had to please and enchant. I wanted to try something different. A lot of the responses I got were negative: ‘unlikable’ was the word I heard over and over, which drove me crazy—why do you have to like a character? But it was a conscious thing: I set out to make sure she wasn’t trying to flirt with the reader.”

(A little more on Vida and her style from last year.)

Links: Kiddin’ on the Keys

Jason Hartley reviews page 86 of Jennifer Egan‘s A Visit From the Goon Squad: “Later, Stephanie and Bennie have gin and tonics, while watching fireflies and listening to a pianist playing ‘harmless melodies on a shining upright.’ … I find the word harmless a strange choice; is it a value judgment? Should a pianist play harmful melodies while people have cocktails? Is there even such a thing as a harmful melody?” I’m probably wrong, but I think that in the context of the critical theory Hartley helped invent, Hartley is being Overt; more on this Sunday.

Paul Auster‘s City of Glass is 25.

David Means on how even short-story collections that aren’t linked are still…linked: “As a reader, you’re moved from one completely individual unit to the next, and you know that they’re not linked and that they can stand on their own, but you still have a kind of sense, in the end, that you’ve been through an experience that comes from the complete entity.”

A lengthy profile of The Taqwacores author Michael Muhammad Knight in the Abu Dhabi National.

Adam Langer recalls the deep imprint Beverly Cleary‘s books had on him.

Barbara Kingsolver: “My inspiration comes from living in the world and seeing things that aggravate me to the back of my teeth or sing for joy.”

Some pushback on the Gary Shteyngart hype (note the comments as well).

Chicago crime novelist Marcus Sakey on the anxiety-inducing but curiously predicable process of writing a novel.

The Wall Street Journal talks with Rick Moody about Kurt Vonnegut‘s reputation, music, New York, and the “old-fashioned, big long story.”

Vendela Vida on the Believer, which she edits: “I think a lot of the people who like The Believer are people who will always be devoutly attached to the physical object of the magazine.”

I’m still conducting email Q&As with literary websites for the National Book Critics Circle blog: Interviews with Three Percent and Open Letters Monthly are now up. More coming; if you have suggestions for sites to cover, please let me know. (Simple criteria: I’m looking for online publications that are committed in some way to regularly reviewing and covering books, and use multiple contributors to do so.)

Eight From Four Hundred

I’m an admirer of Vendela Vida‘s last two novels, 2007’s Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name and her new The Lovers, for the same reasons—she writes concretely about the urge to escape, an emotion that often gets described with weak rhetorical handwaving, and she writes beautifully simple sentences. In an interview with the Rumpus, she talks about how she arrived at her spare style, which in part was a product of her first attempt at a novel, written without a support system. “I spent years writing this 400-page book and didn’t show anybody it in the process,” she says. “In the end, I was only interested in about eight pages of it, which I salvaged.”

More on how and why she pares down her prose:

I overwrite at first. Whenever I start a book, I think, This is going to be my long book, and by the time I take out all the extra words, I think, Well, the next one is definitely going to be my big book. But I think I’m finally at peace with the fact that I like writing shorter novels. Those are the kind of novels that I love reading….

I definitely sculpt all the extra words out of a sentence. I think every sentence I write starts with about 4 or 5 more words than end up in it.

I had a professor in college who used to talk about how you should keep a jar on your desk and put a quarter in it for every word you took out of your prose. I always think about that when I’m writing, how the words are actually worth something; it’s worth something to throw the extraneous words away.

The trouble with writers like Vida is that quoting them out of context feels pointless—a paragraph from The Lovers will inevitably seem unimpressive here. With books like hers, simplicity builds on simplicity. So when a sentence like, “She waited but no one came” arrives late in the book, it’s flat in itself but devastating in the wake of what’s come before.

The Unadulterated Soul of Dave Eggers

Writing in the Awl, Maria Bustillos describes how she did a bit of googling and discovered that the most hated contemporary American author, by a wide margin, is Dave Eggers. It might be more accurate to say, though, that Eggers is the contemporary American author who is most likely to attract the kind of Internet commenters who like to talk about things and people they hate. And all that really means is that Eggers is the biggest public figure in American letters. Public figures are the ones who get the anger. Of course Marisha Pessl only has one person actively hating her on the Internet—what’s the point in voicing your dislike for somebody whose name few would recognize?

Bustillos draws some interesting connections between Eggers and the artist Wyndham Lewis, and she lists a few reasons why you ought to like the guy. But there are two things she doesn’t do. For one, she doesn’t address what people are actually writing when they say they hate Eggers—which, on a quick scan, is mainly airy fulminating against the perceived hype that surrounds him and little commentary on the actual work he does. Some of it’s just petty jealousy: “I hate Dave Eggers because he’s like me, and he dared to become successful by being me,” as one blogger put it. At least Dennis Cooper Math T was mad at his actual writing [Update: Thanks to the reader who chimed in to explain that the comment on Eggers below comes not from Cooper but from a guest post from one of his blog’s regular commenters]:

I hate Dave Eggers. His style is totally unreadable to me. Every single sentence is annoying. I’ve disliked almost everything I’ve ever read in McSweeney’s, especially that JT LeRoy one in the Best-of anthology. I don’t like the fonts in which Eggers’ writing is printed. Also, William Vollmann’s Rising Up and Rising Down, which McSweeney’s published, is SO incredibly boring.

Which starts getting at the second thing Bustillos doesn’t discuss in her essay: Eggers’ fiction. Her arguments for why you should praise Eggers have to do with his nonprofit work, his role as publisher of The Believer, and his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Nothing in the article and little in its 72 comments amounts to a defense of his fiction, which I gave up on after 2002’s You Shall Know Our Velocity and a couple of short stories. Eggers has sparked my class resentment in the past, so I may fall into the same camp of haters Bustillos describes. But is there any defense for the showy, trying-too-hard first sentence of Velocity?

Everything within takes place after Jack died and before my mom and I drowned in a burning ferry in the cool tannin-tinted Guaviare River in east-central Colombia, with forty-two locals we hadn’t yet met.*

Flipping through the book again, it seems stuffed with generalization and overstatement, Eggers straining to build up a head of steam by applying Writing-with-a-capital-w over simple things like a glass of water:

In a small city full of banks we stopped for something to drink. Nattily dressed men at cafe tables nodded to us and we walked into a dark cool restaurant and at the takeout counter we bought oranges and sodas. The sunlight over the clerk’s shoulder was white and planed, and when he poured us glasses of water it was clearer than any water I’d ever seen. It was the unadulterated soul of the world.

But Bustillos wouldn’t have a blog post to write about if Eggers persisted as a fiction writer, because whatever the jealous haters on the Internet are jealous about, it’s not Velocity or How We Are Hungry or his novelization of Where the Wild Things Are; his esteem as an author is now almost wholly connected to his charitable efforts, his nonfiction efforts, and his screenplay work.** A lengthy piece on Eggers in this weekend’s Guardian focuses almost exclusively on Zeitoun his nonfiction book on a survivor of Hurricane Katrina, and his quotes seem to suggest that, as a writer, he’s come to prefer working as a journalist:

“It is showing, not telling,” he says. “I just went back to all the things I learned in journalism school. There have been so many polemics about the war on terror, but [individual] stories illustrate these things much better. I’m interested in the human impact of the giant foot of misplaced government. After all, we encounter it every day. Every day.”

If Eggers has figured out where his talents and passions truly reside, and if they don’t involve writing novels, there’s nothing to hate about that.

* I’ve never edited fiction, but my inner Gordon Lish figures this sentence would be vastly improved if rewritten as, “Everything here takes place before my mom and I drowned in a burning ferry.” Or just cut the sentence, because expressing an awareness of your own death at the very start of the story is pretentious, confusing, or both, and best as I recall mom, death, and the trip to Colombia have no bearing on the novel’s story.

** I’m a fan of last year’s Away We Go, though at the risk of seeming willfully contrarian I’m giving most of the credit to the screenplay’s co-author—Eggers’ wife, Vendela Vida—because the movie seems designed to amplify the best qualities of her fiction: a laconic style, a sense of wanderlust, and a concern with what happens when difficult emotions don’t get expressed. Her Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name was one of my favorite novels of 2007, and her forthcoming The Lovers is one of my favorites of the new year.

Roundup: Gin a Body Meet a Body…

Last week the Contra Costa Times (the paper of record for East Bay, California, suburbia) hosted a roundtable of authors, including Sue Miller, Vendela Vida, Beth Lisick, and Andre Aciman. Nice panel, but I confess that I winced when I read that the moderator, Lynn Carey, asked them, “Which literary character would you like to date?” Then I cringed when I learned that Carey’s choice is John Galt. So I’d love to know what tone of voice Miller used to respond by saying that she doesn’t like dating, but it seems like she was game to bat away the “doyen of domesticity” tag: ” “I don’t complain, as my grandmother used to say when she finished complaining.”

Richard Ford has had enough of this place: He’s taking a job teaching creative writing at Ireland’s Trinity College.

Connor Simons
, an eighth grader living in Clark County, Washington, decided to protest the state standardized test by pulling out a copy of The Catcher in the Rye at his desk while the test was being administered. Simons’ review: “I’ve heard it’s supposed to be the great American novel, but it seems overhyped, to me.”

Cluckin’ A

I haven’t paid close attention to the Tournament of Books, an annual March Madness-esque competition for the best novel of previous year, as judged by a batch of litbloggers and other smart folks. It’s a little insider-baseball, and I haven’t read many of the choices; also, there ‘s a rooster involved, but I’m not sure quite what for. But the latest matchup was between Vendela Vida‘s Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name (a novel I very much loved) and Denis Johnson‘s Tree of Smoke (a novel I very much didn’t), I at least felt like I had a dog in the hunt. Mark Sarvas, after gassing a bit about his disappointment that The Savage Detectives didn’t make the cut, eventually takes Johnson’s side, a little unenthusiastically and a lot unconvincingly. (“Clean, clear, and unfussy” prose, my ass.) His complaints about Vida are well taken–occasionally the scenes feel too carefully blocked, and the dialogue is often bloodless. But the whole point was to evoke the feeling of life being stiffened, chilled, iced over–the neat trick of Northern Lights was that it honestly and humanely addressed a lot of emotional turmoil while still preserving that just-so feel; the tension of the prose echoed the tension of the plot.

NBCC Winners

For what I imagine was the first time in history, the announcement of finalists in the National Book Critics Circle annual awards was about as sophisticated as the Golden Globe Awards. The finalists are listed below. (The NBCC’s blog, Critical Mass, liveblogged the whole thing.) Following that list is the ballot I submitted; not much overlap. (I considered The Rest Is Noise to be a nonfiction book, more a critical history than a book of criticism, and I thought of Brother, I’m Dying more as a reported personal history than an autobiography, but making tough calls like those is what the NBCC is for, I suppose.)

Joshua Clark, Heart Like Water: Surviving Katrina and Life in Its Disaster Zone, Free Press
Edwidge Danticat, Brother, I’m Dying, Knopf
Joyce Carol Oates, The Journals of Joyce Carol Oates, 1973–1982, Ecco
Sara Paretsky, Writing in an Age of Silence, Verso
Anna Politkovskaya: Russian Diary: A Journalist’s Final Account of Life, Corruption and Death in Putin’s Russia, Random House

Philip Gura, American Transcendentalism, Farrar, Straus
Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America 1815-1848, Oxford University Press
Harriet Washington, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, Doubleday
Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA, Doubleday
Alan Weisman, The World Without Us, Thomas Dunne BKs/St. Martin’s

Vikram Chandra, Sacred Games, HarperCollins
Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao, Riverhead
Hisham Matar, In The Country of Men. Dial Press
Joyce Carol Oates, The Gravediggers Daughter. HarperCollins
Marianne Wiggins, The Shadow Catcher, S. & S.

Tim Jeal, Stanley: The Impossible Life Of Africa’s Greatest Explorer, Yale University Press
Hermione Lee, Edith Wharton, Knopf
Arnold Rampersad, Ralph Ellison. Knopf
John Richardson, The Life Of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932, Knopf
Claire Tomalin, Thomas Hardy, Penguin Press

Mary Jo Bang, Elegy, Graywolf
Matthea Harvey, Modern Life, Graywolf
Michael O’Brien, Sleeping and Waking, Flood
Tom Pickard, The Ballad of Jamie Allan, Flood
Tadeusz Rozewicz, New Poems, Archipelago

Acocella, Joan. Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints, Pantheon
Alvarez, Julia. Once Upon a Quniceanera, Viking
Faludi, Susan. The Terror Dream, Metropolitan/Holt
Ratliff, Ben. Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, Farrar, Straus
Ross, Alex. The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, Farrar, Straus

Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing

Sam Anderson — winner

Brooke Allen
Ron Charles
Walter Kirn
Adam Kirsch

Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award
Emilie Buchwald, writier, editor, and publisher of Milkweed Editions in Minneapolis

My ballot: 

1. Shalom Auslander, “Foreskin’s Lament” (Riverhead)
2. Stacey Grenrock Woods, “I, California” (Scribner)
3. Robert Stone, “Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties” (Ecco)
1. David Michaelis, “Schulz and Peanuts” (HarperCollins)
2. Dennis McDougal, “Five Easy Decades: How Jack Nicholson Became the Biggest Movie Star in Modern Times” (Wiley)


1. Ha Jin, “A Free Life” (Pantheon)
2. Daniel Alarcon, “Lost City Radio” (HarperCollins)
3. Vendela Vida, “Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name” (Ecco)
4. Junot Diaz, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” (Riverhead)
5. Andre Aciman, “Call Me by Your Name” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
1. Edwidge Danticat, “Brother, I’m Dying” (Knopf)
2. Alex Ross, “The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
3. Ann Hagedorn, “Savage Peace: Hope and Fear in America, 1919” (Simon & Schuster)
4. Paula Kamen, “Finding Iris Chang: Friendship, Ambition, and the Loss of an Extraordinary Mind” (Da Capo)
5. Peter Schmidt, “Color and Money: How Rich White Kids Are Winning the War Over College Affirmative Action” (Palgrave Macmillan)