Category Archives: Andrew Sean Greer

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Virginia Quarterly Review looks back on its early history with Wallace Stegner, including some manuscript scans.

Speaking of: Stegner’s daughter-in-law, novelist Lynn Stegner, is working on an anthology about what it means to grow up in the West with another writer, Russell Rowland. You say you haven’t read anything by Rowland? Don’t be so sure.

Peter Osnos visits a Beijing bookstore and looks approvingly on the many Western books available to him. “The neuralgic issue of censorship is confined to a substantial but specific range of books both in Chinese and from abroad,” Osnos writes. He and Ha Jin need to have a chat.

Mark Twain‘s hometown of Hannibal, Missouri, has announced that 2010 will be the “Year of Twain,” marking the centennial of his death and 175th birthday. A dedicated Web site will cover all the exciting events happening next year; for now, you’ll have to settle for the Oak Ridge Boys, who hit town August 22.

Litchfield, New Hampshire, is still squabbling over how to put what stories on its reading lists after parents pitched a fit over the likes of David Sedaris and Laura Lippman appearing in the curriculum. “The stories are not appropriate ‘for developing minds that are very impressionable,’” a parent tells the Nashua Telegraph. One can only imagine the impression that high-school students get from watching their parents wring their hands in public.

Elsewhere in New Hampshire, parents are concerned about John Irving‘s A Prayer for Owen Meany. So, maybe just be careful about bringing books into New Hampshire for a while.

“I see from this paper’s letters section that various well-meaning but clueless liberals are upset by my recent assertion that Ernest Hemingway was on the wrong side in the Spanish Civil War.”

Somebody posing as Jay Murray Siskind, a professor in Don DeLillo‘s White Noise, wrote an essay about David Foster Wallace for the journal Modernism/Modernity. The joke was so funny that pretty much nobody got it for five years.

Wired‘s interactive map to Thomas Pynchon‘s Los Angeles has gone global.

And Andrew Sean Greer figures you can stop asking him about The Curious Case of Benjamin Button any time now.

Favorite Books of 2008 (With Some Additional Thoughts on Ha Jin’s A Free Life)

Lately I’ve been thinking that Ha Jin‘s A Free Life, my favorite novel of last year, was published a year too early. In 2007, a novel about one immigrant family’s steady, penny-pinching march toward middle-class American attainment struck a lot of critics as tedious. Walter Kirn‘s evisceration of the book in the New York Times Book Review was typical of the complaints: “Jin’s simple sentences, familiar sentiments, and uneventful three- to five-page chapters that typically end with such pulse-suppressing non-cliffhangers as ‘the day before the Wangs returned, the Wus moved out of the bungalow and set up their residence at 568 March Drive,’ appear to derive from a highly refined aesthetic of anti-excitability.” Today, with the markets in the tank, homes devalued, and unemployment on the rise, I suspect that the exploits depicted in A Free Life would now be seen as at least slightly more dramatic and in step with the present times.

Perhaps the novel’s fate would also have improved had it been published at the same time as Jin’s The Writer as Migrant, a new collection of essays about the writer’s identity—its analysis of the lives and works of Joseph Conrad, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, V.S. Naipaul, and others might have challenged critics not to dismiss Jin’s novel as simplistic and naive. Though Jin doesn’t explicitly discuss A Free Life in the book, The Writer as Migrant makes clear that writing the novel represented some serious decisions about his status: “A writer’s first responsibility is to write well…. On several occasions, I said that I would stop writing about contemporary China. People often asked me, ‘Why burn your bridges?’ or ‘Why mess with success?’ I would reply, ‘My heart is no longer there.’ In retrospect, I can see that my decision to leave contemporary China in my writing is a way to negate the role of the spokesmanship I used to envision for myself. I must learn to stand alone, as a writer.”

I bring all this up in a year-in-review post because A Free Life stuck with me through 2008—I spent some time blogging about it, thinking about why I liked it, and figuring out what it meant for me in terms of what I look for in fiction. I believe that A Free Life does what good contemporary fiction ought to do, at least by my reckoning: bring the news that the news doesn’t bring, and essentialize the feelings of displacement and confusion that come along with living in the early part of the 21st century. If that seems like a reductionist way of looking at fiction, all I can say is that the novels I was most drawn to this year strongly spoke to a concern that, right now, the center isn’t holding. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may have brought little physical harm to anybody living safely in the United States, but, on the evidence, it’s fucked with our heads something fierce. There’s no better exemplar of that than August Brill, the sleepless hero of Paul Auster‘s Man in the Dark, who can’t resist working through a fantasy where “America is fighting America.” Auster’s approach to the novel’s structure—narratives nested within narratives, worries within worries—is both a fitting story for 2008 and an enduring achievement within Auster’s own body of work, which has been erratic in recent years.

I didn’t go hunting for allegories of war, or even of emotional displacement, in 2008. I took in plenty of satire, historical fiction, and portraits of contemporary domestic life. Still, standard-issue realism doesn’t seem to matter as much to me in this moment, even if there was plenty of fiction in that vein that I admired, among them Ethan Canin‘s America America, Jhumpa Lahiri‘s Unaccustomed Earth, Matt Bondurant‘s The Wettest County in the World, Daniel Wroblewski‘s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, Francine Prose‘s Goldengrove, and Joseph O’Neill‘s Netherland. As much as I respected Netherland‘s formal achievements of style and characterization—you don’t realize how hard it is to find a novel that addresses immigrants with respect and dignity until such a book shows up—it still mainly strikes me as a beautifully formed love letter to New York City that’s boxed in by its own formality. (This is, I know, a much shallower analysis than the book deserves; Zadie Smith‘s recent essay in the New York Review of Books does a nice job of articulating some of what I felt reading Netherland.) The only novel on my list that approaches old-fashioned realism is Lush Life, an impressive portrait of the shifting demographics of a single city neighborhood, dressed up in the clothing of a police procedural. Netherland has much to say about what 9/11 did to the middle-upper class in New York, unquestionably. But Lush Life has room for everybody.

As for the the rest of this list, I should say: I missed tons. Forget Roberto Bolaño‘s 2666; I didn’t have a chance to get to (just to pick a few obvious examples) Toni Morrison‘s A Mercy, Aleksandar Hemon‘s The Lazarus Project, Ron Rash‘s Serena, and Louise Erdrich‘s A Plague of Doves. I would’ve happily traded the week I spent with Joyce Carol Oates‘ overcooked JonBenet Ramsey-esque tale, My Sister, My Love, to get to a couple of those (though I thought that Oates’ collection Wild Nights! was a wholly successful attempt at inhabiting the personas of four American writers). So whether or not it reflects the limits of what I could get to, my list gravitates toward books that exemplify the kind of mindfuck the present times create: In Rivka Galchen‘s and Nathaniel Rich‘s novels, it’s a worry about who’s real and trustworthy, and who isn’t; in Paul Beatty‘s and Andrew Sean Greer‘s novels it’s the interior dialogue about racial identity that’s been a tentpole in American fiction for decades if not centuries; in Rudolph Wurlitzer‘s novel it’s the rootlessness that comes with others applying your identity upon you; in Jack Pendarvis‘ satire it’s the creeping sense that old-fashioned American pride does nothing but make you a punch line. And in Tim Lane‘s EC Comics-inspired, almost willfully cliched graphic stories, it’s an argument that the essential American state of being is noirish—black-hearted, ground-down, covetous, just about ready to crater emotionally and financially.

Lane encourages just this sort of interpretation of the American Dream his afterword to the book:

The America I portray in these stories, especially through the drawings, is a surrealistically exaggerated one—sometimes comical, other times nightmarish. Comics are especially conducive to communicating the American Mythological Drama because there’s something fundamentally comic book-like in all things American—by that, I mean exaggerated, idealistic, huge and somewhat disproportionate; beautiful but not necessarily believable, stylized, idealized. Dysfunctional to the point of functional. Surrealistic. Photogenic. Enigmatic. Dreamy.

I imagine, reading this, that Lane and Auster would get along like a house on fire; Jin, if nothing else, would appreciate Lane’s chosen mission. Figuring out how many of these books will endure is a pointless speculative game. All I’m looking for is the news that the news doesn’t bring, and if somebody wants to know what fictions best captured the emotional pitch of living in 2008, here’s what I’d hand over first:

Paul Auster, Man in the Dark (Henry Holt)
Nathaniel Rich, The Mayor’s Tongue (Riverhead)
Paul Beatty, Slumberland (Bloomsbury)
Rivka Galchen, Atmospheric Disturbances (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Richard Price, Lush Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Tim Lane, Abandoned Cars (Fantagraphics)
Andrew Sean Greer, The Story of a Marriage (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Joyce Carol Oates, Wild Nights! (Ecco)
Jack Pendarvis, Awesome (Macadam/Cage)
Rudolph Wurlitzer, The Drop Edge of Yonder (Two Dollar Radio)

A Picture Is Worth 1,000 (Foreign) Words

The third issue of Slice Magazine, a literary journal edited by New York book editors Maria Gagliano and Celia Johnson, has the theme of “In Translation.” The mag’s interpretation is a pretty loose one (“our lives are constantly in translation,” says the editors’ note), which leads to the occasional awkward question. (To Kathryn Harrison: “How would you, as a writer of both fiction and nonfiction, describe the process of [or state of being in] translation?”). And despite including a few brief interviews with translators (including Natasha Wimmer, who’s worked on Roberto Bolano‘s books), none of the fiction in the issue is translated from another language.

Still, there’s lots to like, and in the heart of the issue is an interview with Andrew Sean Greer that addresses the matter of translation head-on. (The online version is only an excerpt of the interview in the print issue.) He discusses providing a visual aid for translators of his latest book, The Story of a Marriage (reviewed):

I actually write a note to translators, when (and if) they contact me. I tell them to feel absolutely free to go with their own sense of voice and poetry and not go for a literal translation. It is more important to me that the tone and spirit of the book translate than the actual words. That’s a harder job for them, actually. I send them photographs and things so they get the sense of the book as I wrote it. [I] have a number of photographs of Playland by the Sea in San Francisco, which is in the book, but also one particular photograph of a woman with an umbrella sitting by a roaring ocean. That one is not literally in the book, but is in tune with the tone of it. Tells them what I was seeing, as a writer.

More Previews

The Millions has a nice round-up of some of the most-anticipated books of 2008. (Anticipated by whom? Poster C. Max McGee, pretty much, though many of the books qualify as obvious consensus picks.) Among the ones on the list that caught my interest are Adam Langer‘s Ellington Boulevard (Langer’s Crossing California, along with Ward Just‘s An Unfinished Season, was one of my favorite Chicago-set novels of recent years); Samantha Hunt‘s The Invention of Everything Else (currently on my to-be-read pile for an upcoming review); and Andrew Sean Greer‘s The Story of a Marriage (I’m a sucker for San Francisco novels).