Category Archives: Rivka Galchen

Some Programming Notes

I have a review of George Pelecanos‘ new novel, What It Was, at Washington City Paper. I had the rare luxury of an extended word count, so I tried to riff a little about how the new book (much like his last novel, The Cut) cultivates a more optimistic tone than his earlier crime novels. Snippet:

He hasn’t written a book fully set in the ‘70s since his 1997 breakthrough, King Suckerman, and since his 2005 novel, Drama City, he’s been committed to writing about the District as it’s lived in now—the past, when it appears, takes the form of cinematic flashback revealing some old mistake that requires correction. But read The Cut and What It Was alongside each other and it’s clear they actually both go the same way, despite the four-decade distance between their settings. The two novels represent Pelecanos in an increasingly optimistic mode about the District; he’s still fully aware of the city’s flaws, but he’s more interested in sorting out what kind of maturity (and manliness) is necessary to overcome it.

I have a shorter review of Stewart O’Nan’s new novel, The Odds, at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. It’s not as ambitious as his previous novel, last year’s Emily, Alone, but it’s a fine, slim tale about salvaging a marriage. In an interview with the New Yorker‘s Book Bench blog, O’Nan explained that (spoiler alert) he cut the story short, I think to its benefit: “I was going to follow them home and show how the money doesn’t solve their problems, only prolongs things, the weekend ultimately becoming a painful memory, but then I thought, why not let them have this moment?”

If you’re in New York this weekend, tomorrow night I’ll be participating on a panel at the Center for Fiction about criticism, joined by a group of very smart people. There’ll be two moderators, National Book Critics Circle president Eric Banks and Bookforum editor Michael Miller, and two copanelists whose work I’ve enjoyed, novelist Rivka Galchen and essayist Elif Batuman.

A reminder: Next week I’ll be blogging about Henry Adams‘ 1880 novel Democracy with Jennifer Howard, who’ll be weighing in on her blog. It’ll be fun; hope you can join us.

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)

Links: Man Oh Man

Rivka Galchen, author of an excellent debut novel, Atmospheric Disturbances, and nominee for Canada’s Governor General’s award for fiction (she was born in Toronto and lives in New York), registers a complaint about America’s literary patriarchy: “[I]n Canada, more than half of the prominent Canadian writers are women, whereas in the U.S. it’s just boys, boys, boys—and not even manly boys. I mean, we have a lot of great writers down here but I’m sort of ashamed about that.”

E.L. Doctorow recalls his “assault on the boundaries between fact and fiction.”

Joyce Carol Oates reports back from Las Vegas’ Liberace Museum.

Crazy Talk

The latest edition of the online literary journal Triple Canopy has an interesting piece by Rivka Galchen, whose debut novel, Atmospheric Disturbances, is next on the reading pile. (The New York Observer ran a nice profile of Galchen last month.) In “Case Notes of a Medical Student, East Harlem Psychiatric ER, Winter 2002″ she describes interviews with a number of troubled patients. For instance:

HM, 25-year-old male, brought in after his mother called his day-treatment program because he was “scaring her.” H/o schizophrenia. Extremely calm and polite during interview. Initially denies hearing voices, denies any symptoms. Says he
was brought in because he has been drinking wine. He is drinking wine because it is the blood of Christ and the more he drinks the more he will be like Christ. The cops are like the Romans who crucified Jesus. God is his father. When he was twenty, God gave him wings. He’s angry with his father for bringing him into the world and just leaving him there. His mother believes in a white Christ, the wrong Christ. His program director, present for the interview, reveals that HM has a history of arrests for aggravated assault. “They’re trying to clip my wings,” HM says. “I have no choice.”