Category Archives: Daniel Alarcón

Is/Is Not 9/11

Last week the website Creative Writing Now invited me to answer a few questions about books and book reviewing. The first question was about my take on the past decade in American fiction—a subject way too broad for me to address without appearing presumptuous and/or arrogant, but it was a chance for me to bring up something I’ve been thinking about for a while:

Though there are a fairly small number of novels that address 9/11 head-on, there seem to be plenty of novels that’ve sublimated the past eight years or so of military adventures into other settings, imagining oppressed states (as in Daniel Alarcon’s Lost City Radio) or recalling repressive regimes (as in Nathan Englander’s The Ministry of Special Cases and Yiyun Li‘s The Vagrants). It may be meaningful that in the past few years there have been two prominent big books of literary fiction about the Vietnam War, Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke and Karl MarlantesMatterhorn. Weren’t we supposed to be past these books? Aren’t literary readers supposed to be more interested in The Way We Live Now? It’s almost as if we’re clinging hard to old war stories in spite of their irrelevance to our current state of affairs, as if the Vietnam era is now “the good old days.”

It’d require a lot more research, but there seems to be a category of novel that couldn’t exist after 9/11, is informed by 9/11, but isn’t explicitly about 9/11—where the concerns about war and repression and individual security are very much there but thrust into some other, non-9/11 setting. Colum McCann‘s Let the Great World Spin might qualify; so might Jonathan Franzen‘s Freedom, though post-9/11 anxieties are very much present in that novel even if it doesn’t dwell on the event itself. When I interviewed Kristiaan Versluys last year about his study of 9/11 novels, Out of the Blue, he mentioned a few more candidates, and suggested that we’re probably due for more novels that address that event only abstractedly:

I made the decision early on to deal only with novels in which 9/11 is not just a background event, but in which it plays an essential role in the plot development. Apart from the two novels you mention [Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Ken KalfusA Disorder Peculiar to the Country], there are more novels of merit in which 9/11 is part of the background: Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children and Jay McInerney’s The Good Life, to mention only a few. I deal with two such novels (Anita Shreve’s A Wedding in December and Ian McEwan’s Saturday) in the epilogue to indicate that, as time goes by and the first shock wears off, 9/11 is bound to become “spectralized.” Its presence will become less and less visible, but for that reason all the more haunting. The direct treatment of the events on September 11 is bound to be replaced in the collective imagination by the indirect treatment.

I don’t think American literature would be diminished if it failed to produce a quintessential 9/11 novel that was very much about 9/11. (Maybe Keith Gessen is right and we’ve still got a long wait.) But its relative absence is still curious and, in its own way, revealing—after all, it says something that fiction writers are more comfortable addressing 9/11 by, as Versluys put it, spectralizing it, making it a ghost. Maybe that’s more an intention than a side effect.

Links: Welcome! You’ve Got Weltschmerz!

Jonathan Franzen: “And AOL’s little box—the welcome screen, they call it, I guess—is so infuriating in its dopiness: ‘Surprising Leader In The Masters! Find Out Who!’ ‘Ten Things To Think About When Choosing A Hotel!’ ‘What Smart Travelers Know About X!’ It’s all in compact form, and it kind of tells me everything I need to know about the larger stupidity. It helps keep me in touch.”

Related: Lionel Shriver takes the Franzen hype as an opportunity to voice her righteous anger at the way her book covers favor girly imagery that’s out of touch with the book itself.

And related again: A few months back Shriver complained that Bret Easton Ellis‘ publisher spent too much money promoting his last novel. Ellis doesn’t disagree: “Lionel Shriver is correct in that regard. You can paint that black or find it interesting. The book business has become a bit of a dinosaur. But what is it transitioning into?

On what science fiction writers can learn from the recent spate of literary novels with science-fiction themes: “Reading through a stack of these recent literary books, you’re left with the feeling that…two themes — technological dislocation and imperial collapse — are resonating in the consciousness of the book-reading classes, and any author who manages to exploit these themes in an evocative way will make it big.”

How To Kill a Mockingbird inspired legal writer Dahlia Lithwick.

George Hitchcock, who published Raymond Carver‘s poetry in the literary journal kayak, died August 27.

The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings by James Baldwin is a bit scattershot, as the title suggests, but it has its share of provocative lines and it’s very much worth reading; the Library of America blog rounds up some of the coverage of the book.

Scott Timberg points to a couple of fine profiles he’s written on Daniel Alarcon and Yiyun Li.

Incoming college students rarely bother to read the book they’ve been assigned to read prior to their arrival on campus.

In fact, it seems like they’ll throw more energy into satirical news stories with headlines like, “Overzealous First-Year Reads Most of Summer Reading Assignment.”

“Why are you leaving?”

I’m not sure how I failed to hear about The Secret Miracle: The Novelist’s Handbook, a collection of author interviews edited by Daniel Alarcon—the book tour didn’t stray far from Alarcon’s home base in Oakland, for one thing. But if nothing else the book has a stellar lineup of interviewees: Haruki Murakami, Paul Auster, Michael Chabon, Edwidge Danticat, Jennifer Egan, and more. Last month McSweeney’s ran a few brief excerpts from the book, and I particularly liked Egan’s comments on the distractions of the internet:

A writer friend of mine, Lisa Fugard, once told me that she had a sign next to the door of her office that said, “Why are you leaving?” Many times she found herself walking through that door with no idea of why. Then she made herself sit down again and continue working. I try to have a mental sign that asks why I’m leaving when I find myself suddenly typing something into Google for no particular reason, as if I had nothing else to do.

Alarcon talks a little more about the book in an interview with Reuters, which also includes news that he’s finishing a second novel—a departure from his previous one, 2007′s excellent Lost City Radio: “My second book of stories in a sense had to do with politics in Latin America, but I found politics is a bit of a depressing thing to write about,” he says. “I am sort of obsessed by politics … although I am not sure how much it benefits my life so I am writing a different kind of book.”

Links: From a Flask With Unknown Contents

Whiting Award winner Adam Johnson says the aspiring writers in his classes these days are being a little too cute with the subtleties. “‘What happened? What was it about?’ he asks his students. ‘I didn’t want to hit you over the head with it,’ they reply. ‘Hit me over the head with what?’”

Lizzie Skurnick on a star-studded event honoring Judy Blume: “Her controversy wasn’t based on her attention to the illicit. It was based on her attention to the ordinary.”

Tom Perrotta figures people don’t cheat on their spouses nearly as much as novelists suggest they do.

A comprehensive collection of Ernest Hemingway‘s letters is nearing completion.

Cormac McCarthy has signed a few copies of The Road, and no, you can’t have them.

The Idaho Review, which has published a host of major authors from the West, celebrates its tenth anniversary with a 296-page issue. (via New West)

William Faulkner‘s old residence in New Orleans is holding up well, post-Katrina.

Shanthi Sekaran: “When an Indian American writer portrays India, a reader will already have seen five other portrayals in other books and inject what they’ve seen before…. That leads readers to overlook other aspects of an immigrant experience.”

The owners of Chicago bookstore Women and Children First aren’t buying the statement that there are as many as 30 feminist bookstores in the country.

Daniel Alarcon on Americans’ disinterest in reading works in translation: “There’s a certain curiosity about the world that’s not matched by a willingness to do the work…. So what happens is that writers of foreign extraction end up writing about the world for Americans.” (via Bookslut)

A great wide-ranging interview in the Morning News with Tobias Wolff about writing programs, the state of short fiction, the novel he’s working on, the Richard Price novel he’s reading, and more.

Dear Stanford Daily: Here’s the thing. If an anonymous student tells you that Wolff regularly takes swigs “from a flask with unknown contents” in class, it’s pretty much imperative upon you to ring him up for a comment. Then he could tell you whether what’s in the flask is innocuous or not, avoiding any need for golly-who-knows-what-he’s-drinking weasel-wording. Regardless, you’re bound to get a story out of it, and telling stories is something he’s pretty good at. Give it a try.

Let’s Make a Canon

At the Reading Experience, Dan Green is hoping to launch a regular feature dedicated to critical appreciations of American fiction since 1980. This excites me for all the obvious reasons—it could supplant the generally fine but intermittent “In Retrospect” series dedicated to older works, and might even prompt me to start doing more long-form criticism, now that newspaper reviewing doesn’t offer much in the way of that. (When I started doing it a few years back, the standard word count was still around 1,200 words; these days it’s closer to 400.)

I think you and I can both agree on the usual suspects that such a new canon might include—Green’s first choice, Russell BanksAffliction, being one of them. (Wouldn’t Continental Drift be better, though? Anyway.) The list of ten books below is a hasty attempt to propose a few ideas that go beyond the typical choices. In general, they’re all books of relatively recent vintage that I admire but haven’t seen much sustained critical thought about; I’ve clanged a bell for most of them before, here or elsewhere, and I’d be excited to see a smart, precocious critic tackle any one of them.

Laird Hunt, Indiana, Indiana
Daniel Alarcon, Lost City Radio
Nathaniel Rich, The Mayor’s Tongue
Ward Just, Echo House
Sue Miller, The World Below
Adam Langer, Crossing California
JT Leroy, Sarah
Ben Fountain, Brief Encounters With Che Guevara
Carter Scholz, Radiance
Ken Kalfus, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country

Not a very diverse list at first glance, I confess. But as I mentioned, it goes without saying that, say, Marilynne Robinson and Edward P. Jones would be on any longlist. Who else?

The Great Dubya-Era Novel

In hunting for a novel that best exemplified life during the Bush years, Newsweek‘s Jennie Yabroff makes a not-bad choice with Jonathan Franzen‘s The Corrections; though the Franzen vs. Oprah = Obama vs. Bush argument is a bit of a stretch, the book is indeed a “warm social novel on an epic scale.” But I’m not wholly buying the assertion that, “Eventually someone will write a post-9/11 novel that successfully incorporates the attacks with the anxieties that were already simmering in our collective psyche in the summer of 2001.” I figured that’s what Ken KalfusA Disorder Peculiar to the Country accomplished, and he made it funny to boot.

Besides, I’m not convinced that the great post-9/11 novel needs to confront the matter head-on. A few other suggestions I would’ve tossed out, had I been in the story meeting:

Daniel Alarcon, Lost City Radio—As an allegory for the disconnect Americans felt from their government, Alarcon’s South American tragic fable captured the current mood of fear and anxiety.

Ward Just, Forgetfulness—An intimate profile of how terrorism hits close to home, and the frustrations in policing it.

Philip Roth, Exit Ghost—On top of precisely describing the feeling of profound disappointment in the wake of the ’04 election, it also neatly evoked the feeling of wanting to get the hell out of Dodge for a while.

Susan Choi, A Person of Interest—Without addressing post-9/11 terrorism directly, Choi’s dense novel gets at the identity crises that stem from terrorist provocations.

Paul Auster, Man in the Darkfor reasons already discussed

Others? I didn’t go hunting for post-9/11 novels, and I’m sure I missed plenty.

The Secret History

Gawker’s science-fiction blog, io9, has a chart-based study of sci-fi trends in mainstream literary novels. Charlie Jane Anders proposes three types of novels—”alternate history,” “time warp,” and “post-apocalyptic”—which means The Road, The Time-Traveler’s Wife, The Plot Against America, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and more are all fair game for discussion. I don’t think that the resulting chart really argues for a one-to-one relationship between current events and related fiction, but it’s an interesting idea to put out there. It’s certainly true that we got a lot of novels about broken-down Latin American countries in 2007 (Lost City Radio, A Far Country, and The Ministry of Special Cases, to name three), and those books certainly felt like responses to the United States’ political predicaments; add a category for “dystopia” and you may have something here. Anyway, Anders writes:

And then was a boom in post-apocalyptic fiction in more recent years, with three huge classics of the genre hitting in 2006. In particular, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road has become the poster-child for the literary-authors-going-speculative trend. These books coincided with the Indian Ocean Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, and a worsening Iraq conflict. But there’s been a lull in the post-apocalyptic genre since then as well.

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.)

Autobiography
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

Nonfiction
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

Fiction
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.

Biography
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

Poetry
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

Criticism
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

Finalists:
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: 

AUTOBIOGRAPHY
1. Shalom Auslander, “Foreskin’s Lament” (Riverhead)
2. Stacey Grenrock Woods, “I, California” (Scribner)
3. Robert Stone, “Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties” (Ecco)
BIOGRAPHY
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)

FICTION

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)
NONFICTION
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)

New in VQR

The Virginia Quarterly Review has posted the table of contents for its Winter 2008 issue, some of which is available online. Among the freebies: Reviews of Don WatersDesert Gothic and Manuel Muñoz‘s The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue, and a complete story, Drew Johnson‘s “The Last Dead.” Not online is a piece by Daniel Alarcón, whose Lost City Radio was one of my favorite novels of 2007. [Bookslut]