June 10, 2016 | by Miranda Popkey
How Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai cultivates ambition in its readers.
In the late nineties, Helen DeWitt, a then-unpublished writer with a Ph.D. in classics from Oxford, got an offer on her first novel, The Seventh Samurai. It had been seventeen months since her agent had indicated she would be able to get an advance based on the first six chapters of the manuscript—which, in the absence of a contract, DeWitt had diligently been attempting to finish. After she received the offer, she wrote to her agent; she felt she was likely to commit suicide if she had to continue working with her. Looking over her editor's comments, she scarcely felt more hopeful. When a contract arrived, she decided not to sign it.
Some time later, a friend showed the manuscript to Jonathan Burnham, then at Talk Miramax Books; he immediately offered her $70,000. At the Frankfurt Book Fair, the novel caused what can fairly be called a sensation; but the enthusiasm of foreign houses did not make English-language publication any easier. DeWitt spent months battling her copy editor, who had ignored DeWitt’s edits and imposed hundreds of standardizing changes of her own. It was, DeWitt told the Observer in 2011, as if they were trying to “kill the mind that wrote the book.”
In 2000, DeWitt’s novel was released as The Last Samurai. (DeWitt was forced to change the title, only to see its Google results buried, three years later, beneath the Tom Cruise movie of the same name). In The New Yorker, A. S. Byatt hailed it as “a triumph—a genuinely new story, a genuinely new form.” Read More »
March 19, 2015 | by Miranda Popkey
From “Martin Wade Leaves a Party” through “Sekopololo,” pp. 29–55
This is the second entry in our Mating Book Club. Read along.
“My God, that’s awful!” This was, by her own account, Elsa Rush’s reaction to one of the most memorable—and one of my favorite—lines in her husband’s novel: “I had been working my tits down to nubs.”
Some context: Our unnamed narrator is trying to ferret out what her current paramour, a British spy she calls Z., knows about the elusive Nelson Denoon, an iconoclastic figure in the anthropological world. Denoon, who has been hovering on the novel’s margins since its very first pages, will soon become—and I trust this is no spoiler—her lover; but, for the moment, he is merely “the pinnacle of whatever vineyard I was laboring in as a groundling,” the object of her “ressentiment.” “I was thirty-two,” our narrator explains, “and a woman and no doctorate yet, no thesis even, and closing in on my thesis deadline. I had been working my tits down to nubs in the study of man, with the result that my goals were receding farther the faster I ran.” Read More »
February 2, 2014 | by Miranda Popkey
Two Sundays ago, I watched the AFC Conference game with some friends. Picture a Venn Diagram; label one circle “Fans of the New England Patriots” and the other “People Who Have Studied Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” The person who exists at the intersection of those two circles was sitting on a couch across from me, anxiously eating chips and guacamole. As the Patriots slipped further and further behind the Broncos, talk turned to Arthurian legend, and to knightliness at large.
Peyton Manning, our group quickly agreed, was the Lancelot of quarterbacks. Like Lancelot, he’s unquestionably the most talented of his cadre—a fact confirmed when he was, to no one’s surprise, named this year’s league MVP. He’s also, like Lancelot, doltish and unbeautiful: in T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, Lancelot is, to quote King Arthur, “the ugliest man I have ever seen”; Peyton can’t claim that honor, but he does have a grotesquely large forehead, scarred by the Riddell helmet he is forced to squeeze over it. And both Lancelot and Peyton are doomed to be surpassed by a dim younger relative—in the former’s case, it’s the unbearably pure Galahad, Lancelot’s son, the only knight allowed to glimpse the Holy Grail; in Peyton’s case, it’s his younger brother, Eli, whose childishly transparent expressions of disappointment have been turned into exemplars of gif art, and who already has two Super Bowl rings to Peyton’s one. Which made Tom Brady his Tristan: not quite as skilled, but achingly handsome.
Metaphors aside, there is a sort of gallantry we expect from our athletes. NFL players do not, of course, swear their troth to a code of chivalry; nevertheless there are rules, largely unspoken, to which professional athletes are expected to adhere. Off the field, if not on, while speaking to the press, if not while concussing one another, we want our athletes, like our knights, “to refrain from the wanton giving of offense”; “to eschew unfairness, meanness, and deceit”; and “to live by honor and for glory.” Read More »
March 15, 2012 | by Miranda Popkey
“It is possible,” George Oppen wrote, in early 1962, “to find a metaphor for anything, an analogue: but the image is encountered, not found; it is an account of the poet's perception, the act of perception; it is a test of sincerity, a test of conviction, the rare poetic quality of truthfulness.” “Boy’s Room,” which is about just such a perceptual encounter, and truthful almost to a fault, appears in Oppen’s 1965 collection, This in Which, his second after a silence of more than twenty-five years. Between Discrete Series (1934) and The Materials (1962), Oppen raised a daughter; he worked as a carpenter; he joined, then became disillusioned with, the Communist party; he lived in Mexico; he fought in World War II (not necessarily in that order). What he did not do, for the most part, is write. When he returned to poetry in 1958 it was with a vigor that “Boy’s Room” amply demonstrates. The collection that followed, Of Being Numerous (1968), would win him the Pulitzer Prize. He died in 1984, and though the details of his personal life are salacious enough—an affluent childhood, his mother's suicide; a car accident in which his passenger was killed, a first date that led to his future wife’s expulsion from college (they stayed out all night and she missed her curfew)—he is largely forgotten. It’s a real pity. “No ideas but in things” is a line from a William Carlos Williams poem, but Oppen’s work fits the bill as well as Williams’s does.
I can remember the first time I read “Boy’s Room” because of the physical sensation that accompanied it: I felt like I was falling. The drop occurs in the gulf between the first and second stanza: “A friend saw the rooms / of Keats and Shelley / At the lake, and saw ‘they were just / Boy’s rooms’ and was moved // By that.” I, too, was moved by that.
Of course, the friend is right in a purely literal sense: Keats died at twenty-five, Shelley at twenty-nine. Confronted with their actual rooms, there's a sense of surprise and sympathetic feeling: these towering figures of romantic poetry were not only real people, they were youngsters who had not quite outgrown their adolescence. But from the discrete thing—the rooms of Keats and Shelley—comes the broader idea: “indeed a poet’s room / Is a boy’s room.” Such a sheepish admission for the poet to make, to indict himself. Read More »
October 25, 2011 | by Miranda Popkey
The writer Anne Enright, a native of Ireland, is perhaps best known for her 2007 Booker Prize winning novel The Gathering, a darkly beautiful novel about a family gathering in the wake of a suicide. In The Forgotten Waltz, her fifth novel and her first since winning the Booker, she takes up a seemingly more mundane plot: that of adulterous love. Gina, married to Conor, narrates her affair with Séan—himself married and father to a troubled daughter, Evie—which comes to a head as Ireland’s economy collapses.
It’s an affair whose outcome is known from almost the very first pages, and Enright is not interested in judging Gina or Séan—Gina believes, ultimately, that there is nothing to forgive and, if Enright does not agree with her outright, she makes Gina a sympathetic enough character that it is possible for the reader to do so. The considerable narrative pleasures of this novel lie in Enright’s luminous language, as she sketches Gina’s attempts to figure out what happened and how and why. The author, who has a quick wit and a hearty laugh, as well as a refreshingly no-nonsense attitude, spoke to me recently from the West Coast, where she was on book tour. Read More »
July 8, 2011 | by Miranda Popkey
In her new book, Wanderlust, Eaves—a journalist and author who has worked for Forbes and previously published Bare: The Naked Truth About Stripping, about her time as an exotic dancer—does all of these things. Instead of making choices that follow neatly, one from the next—the job that brings you to a city where you meet the person you marry—the Eaves of Wanderlust makes decisions that consciously, thrillingly refuse to build on one another.
She travels to Cairo as a twenty-year-old college student. At twenty-three, she hikes the notoriously difficult Kokoda trail in Papua New Guinea. Fleeing the rekindling of her relationship with her ex-fiancé, Stu, she joins a husband and wife sailing from Whangarei to Tonga and nearly dies when their vessel is caught in a vicious storm on the open ocean. In person, Eaves may be slender and fair-haired, but she carries herself with a graceful, noticeable composure that makes it easy to imagine her haggling, at dusk, with a Jeep driver in Pakistan, trying to get him to lower the price of a ride she and her boyfriend desperately need. She maintains eye contact. She exudes competence.
And Wanderlust, though on the surface concerned with Eaves’s love of travel—a celebration of years spent indulging that love, moving from one town, one country to the next with little notice, living abroad for months and years at a time, cut off, in the days before e-mail, from family and friends—is also about the process by which she became the adult she is now. She doesn’t have regrets, though she would tell her twenty-year-old self to “spend more time trying to figure out what you want to do on your own. It’s easy to fall back on what somebody else wants to do.”