The Big Story

Writing at the Nervous Breakdown, Matt Stewart would like to know why, in a nation that’s increasingly obese, we lack novels that are about being fat, or that feature fat characters:

Nimbly presenting the moral implications of obesity, while crafting sympathetic characters, is an undeniably tall order. But not even trying is worse; obesity is an issue too commonplace to ignore…. I have to think there’s an untapped market here, that the American public hungers for perceptive insights about struggling with obesity, the sort of poignant, deep-trawling meditation that only a novel can provide.

Stewart is already aware of A Confederacy of Dunces and Jennifer Weiner‘s novels, and the article’s commenters offer a few more suggestions, including Wally Lamb‘s She’s Come Undone. The book I immediately thought of was Rick Moody‘s sprawling 2005 novel, The Diviners, which stars Vanessa, an overweight film and TV producer whose very size is intended to make her a metaphor for America’s gluttony for attention and entertainment. Which is to say that Vanessa isn’t intended to be a realistic portrait of being fat, and Moody makes that clear early on: After leaving an Overeaters Anonymous meeting, Vanessa heads to Krispy Kreme, where “she is destined to have a doughnut that melts in her mouth, a doughnut that tastes like the happy ending of a romantic comedy as purveyed by a vertically integrated multi-national entertainment provider under German ownership.” So.

But if Moody isn’t crafting a realistic portrait of obesity, what of it? Novels “about” being fat might be lacking for the same reason we don’t have many novels “about” working out a lot. (Harry CrewsBody being an exception that proves the rule.) The body, in itself, isn’t especially fascinating fictional territory. But self-consciousness is, which makes me think that the book Stewart is hoping for might be Zoe Heller‘s 2009 novel, The Believers. It’s a book that’s admirable for a whole host of reasons, but in one of its characters, Karla, Heller does a brilliant job of evoking the shame and embarrassment many overweight people are taught they ought to feel. In one scene, a casual question from a coworker about her being on a diet sends Karla crying to the restroom, where an inevitable session of self-scrutiny follows. (“Her nose was swollen and glowing, a joke-store accessory. Her blouse had ridden up, revealing several intersecting lines of pink and white crenellation where her waistband cut into her belly.”) Were Kelly just the novel’s Representative Fat Person, she wouldn’t be an especially memorable character. But Karla’s size is a way for Heller to get into questions about anxiety and belonging, and if nothing else Heller is smart enough to know that making her into a hero doesn’t involve sending her to the gym.

Favorite Books of 2009

At some point today, barring technological and editorial hiccups, my end-of-the-year piece should appear on the website of Washington City Paper, including my top-ten list and a few brief thoughts on what e-books might mean for print books. I’ll likely be offline when the article goes live (following City Paper‘s coverage of the gun at the snowball fight should keep you busy in the meantime), but there’s no reason not to offer the list proper now. Update: Here’s the article. So:

1. Zoe Heller, The Believers
2. Ron Currie Jr., Everything Matters!
3. David Suisman, Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music
4. Peter Stephan Jungk, Crossing the Hudson
5. Pervical Everett, I Am Not Sidney Poitier
6. Carol Sklenicka, Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life
7. Richard Powers, Generosity: An Enhancement
8. Hans Fallada, Every Man Dies Alone
9. Yiyun Li, The Vagrants
10. Ward Just, Exiles in the Garden

All have their flaws (though The Believers has fewer than even most good books), and heaven knows this isn’t an exact science: There are a few books that could easily have made it on the list were I in a different mood while compiling it: Jayne Anne PhillipsLark & Termite, Robert Goolrick‘s A Reliable Wife, Wells Tower‘s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Paul Auster‘s Invisible, and the reissue of Don Carpenter‘s Hard Rain Falling. And as usual, I could offer a much longer list of disappointments and failures, topped off by Pete Dexter‘s Spooner, Victor LaValle‘s Big Machine, and Colum McCann‘s Let the Great World Spin. What I can’t do is pull out some kind of common theme about the year’s best books, as I have in the past. I’m content to admire the books I liked for what they are, and hope that 2010 has better ones.

With that, I’m pretty much wrapped up for 2009. I may step in here once or twice before the new year, but I’m more likely to be on Twitter to the extent I’ll spend much time online at all. In the meantime, here’s hoping you have safe travels and good company in the final days of this year. Talk to you soon.

What’s Best and What’s Sexist

A week or so back, Andrew Seal spent some time testing an argument by literary scholar Nina Baym that critics’ favorite works of American literature tends to adhere to a particular theme: Men struggling against a society whose rules and limits are defined by women. To celebrate such books, the argument goes, is to bolster a particular American myth. (At least, that’s how I understand the argument; I haven’t read the Baym essay that Seal discusses.) To investigate the matter, Seal picks a few consensus favorites from the past ten years—The Corrections, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Netherland, The Road—as well as Keith Gessen‘s All the Sad Young Literary Men, I suppose just for the sake of slapping it around a bit more.

The whole post is worth reading, and intuitively it feels correct. Lists of the best books of 2009 are starting to make the rounds, and it wouldn’t be too hard to see this theory at play in some of the year’s critical favorites: Colum McCann‘s Let the Great World Spin (man arrives from Ireland to make a better life for himself, only to be stuck in a house full of prostitutes); Richard PowersGenerosity: An Enhancement (a happy woman is strange, a problem that demands investigation and repair); Philip Roth‘s The Humbling (look out—lesbians!); and Paul Auster‘s Invisible (young man tries to make his way in the world, but seductresses get in the way). Seal’s post discusses only male authors, but acclaimed female writers can play into the same themes; central to Joyce Carol OatesLittle Bird of Heaven are two men whose lives are made worse for their relationship with an almost prototypical “loose woman.”

Seal’s post also raises the question of who’s got the problem here: The novelists for writing fiction that may simply be a realistic portrait (or critique of) gender roles in America, or critics for admiring them so long as they don’t test the status quo too much. There’s no way to answer that question with any real clarity; literary awards, positive reviews, and best-of lists are imperfect ways to quantify the degree of admiration critics feel for particular works. But is it arguable that Ron Rash‘s 2008 novel, Serena, didn’t win any major awards because its chief protagonist was (essentially) a hard-as-nails businesswoman, a counter to the notion that “there are very few women in American literature who have real power?” Is the reason Zoe Heller’s The Believers is absent from’s list of the best books of 2009 that it focuses on women, not men, who are going through this struggle?

Field Report: Zoe Heller

I’m not sure if Zoe Heller‘s The Believers is an American novel or not—I figured it fits well enough into this blog’s chosen niche to write about it, but frankly I set the bar for qualifying as “American” fairly low around here. Matters of citizenship and homelands have a way of complicating what “American writer” means, exactly, and it’s more trouble than it’s worth for me to set guidelines about who fits. (For the record, Heller is a British citizen who’s been living in America since 1994, and The Believers is set in New York. American enough for me.)

Heller, for her part, doesn’t seem especially interested in discussing what nation her books represent. Speaking last night at the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center as part of its Jewish Literary Festival, she laughed off a question about why critics overseas made a point of calling The Believers an American novel. “They mean it’s really, really good,” she said. Slightly more seriously, she guessed that the statement reflected “a strange ambiguousness about people who’ve gone away and never came back.”

Much of the conversation about the book focused on two of its characters: Audrey, the novel’s vicious matriarch, and her daughter Rosa, who grows increasingly involved in Orthodox Judaism. Heller is an atheist, but she went to pains to make sure that Rosa’s conversion didn’t come off as satirical. (Creating Rosa was “the biggest vault of the imagination I had to make.”) As for research, she said, “I spent a lot of time at the 92nd Street Y,” but she also said that some of her thinking about religion was influenced by the recent batch of books about atheism by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and others. It’s just that the books didn’t influence her in the way the authors intended. “I expected to be approving of these books,” she said. “But there was a kind of aggressiveness to their tone, and a readiness to criticize only the crudest fundamentalist beliefs…. That’s not very truthful or brave.”

As for Audrey, Heller has grown impatient with people who ask her how she could write a character so cruel. “It’s a relatively modern phenomenon, ” she said, “this demand for characters who inspire you.” If that’s what you’re looking for, “you’d knock out just about all of Philip Roth’s work and most of Shakespeare.”

Pitch-Shifting With Zoe Heller

Zoe Heller‘s latest novel, The Believers, is an impressive feat of tonal control as much as it’s one of plot and characterization. The book follows the lives of the Litvinoff family after its patriarch, Joel, suffers a stroke, throwing a spotlight on how the event challenges each member’s received wisdom about religion, politics, and the basic matters of getting through life. Heller’s strategy is as old as the Book of Job and new as The Corrections: Poke a few holes in that received wisdom and see what spills out. Audrey, Joel’s wife, is an insufferable know-it-all as the novel begins and grows into a downright intolerable harridan who takes joy in emotionally brutalizing whomever she comes into contact with; her daughter Karla increasingly flagellates herself over her weight and infertility; her other daughter, Rosa, undergoes a crisis of conscience thanks to her growing interest in Orthodox Judaism; and her adopted son, Lenny, remains an addict whose minor role in the novel reflects his minor role in life, batted around by others and only half-aware of what’s going on.

Heller’s message is clear, and her calibrations can be obvious; in a lesser writer’s hands, the book becomes a simple lecture on the perils of being hard-headed. One way she avoids that fate is by complicating her characters—Audrey is vicious, but she’s not always wrong, and a few of her targets deserve what they get. But another key to the novel’s success is Heller’s control of the pace of the story, the way that she can accelerate the narrative in it’s more frenzied moments and (the tougher trick) ease the reader into a lower gear when describing a moments of emotional peace. The latter scenes are nearly always the ones focused on Rosa, as she becomes drawn deeper into Judaism. Her faith is new to her, and when Heller studies her emotions the narrative isn’t spiked with the emotional chaos that rattles around in everybody else’s head. For instance:

Rosa looked around at the crowd of Orthodox Jews who were waiting with her for the bus. Almost all of the men were wearing dark suits and oversize black fedoras. The female portion of the group had a slightly looser but no less distinctive dress code that involved long skirts, wigs, and an aggressively frumpy layering of shirts and sweaters and cardigans. Rosa felt exposed and slightly flustered to be consorting in broad daylight with such ostentatiously Jewish Jews. She wondered anxiously if any of the pedestrians walking by on Fifth Avenue mistook her for one of this clan. She turned and considered her reflection in a shop window. The outfit she had cobbled together for this occasion was modest enough to daunt the most lascivious gaze. But, she could see now, she was in little danger of passing for an authentic Orthodox woman. She looked like nothing so much as a mad Victorian governess trying to hide a skin disease.

The paragraph ends with a joke, a slight dig on Rosa’s appearance, but it’s hardly a wound. She’s allowed to keep her dignity, and the words used to describe her emotions (“exposed,” “flustered”) are largely clinical. Compare that to how she describes Karla in a moment when she herself is feeling exposed and flustered:

In the restroom off the hospital lobby, she took a long punitive look at her reflection in the mirror. Her nose was swollen and glowing, a joke-store accessory. Her blouse had ridden up, revealing several intersecting lines of pink and white crenellation where her waistband cut into her belly. She let out a small groan of despair. She had cried—cried about being fat—in front of a stranger.

Heller doesn’t spend the novel mocking Karla—indeed, she’s one of its more respectable characters—but she makes clear that Karla’s self-loathing is deep. She describes it forcefully, setting Karla’s despair off between em-dashes and putting a magnifying glass on her flaws. Rosa’s emotions occur at a distance, something she acknowledges in the midst of her more prominent concerns about faith. Those distinctions will matter once the conflicts increase in the final chapters of the novel, and it also controls the reader to an extent: We’re invited to think about Rosa’s concerns but to feel everybody else’s.

Heller told the New York Times earlier this year that she labored over her treatment of Rosa:

For Ms. Heller, the most difficult part of the novel was depicting Rosa’s slow religious conversion, particularly since the character is so intellectually fastidious. As an atheist, she said, she bent over backward to avoid coming off as condescending or snooty, and her portrait of Orthodox believers is both sensitive and sympathetic. If anything, she said, “I erred on the side of giving them an easy ride.”

It’s true that Rosa’s character emerges as among the more heroic in the novel, but that’s not because of any deliberate sanctioning of Orthodox Judaism on Heller’s part. What Heller so deftly captures are the degrees to which each character succumbs to their feeling. When Rosa appears she’s at the kind of peace her mother and siblings could only pray for (if they were praying types), and Heller has smartly marshaled the words that show it. She doesn’t give Rosa an “easy ride”; her ride just goes down easier.