The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

How Repulsive

February 10, 2016 | by

On the merits of disturbing literature.

Frederic Leighton, Study at a Reading Desk‎, 1877.

In a letter to a reader who was disturbed by his novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “If [Malte] contains bitter reproaches, these are absolutely not directed against life. On the contrary, they are evidences that, for lack of strength, through distraction and inherited errors we lose completely the countless earthly riches that were intended for us.”

Faced with a reader like Rilke’s, it can be hard for a writer to defend the need for “bitter reproaches”—to uphold the disturbing above the merely distasteful. After all, some “disturbing” books do nothing more than shock. Charlotte Roche’s Wetlands, for instance, is a litany of gross and obscene bodily functions that never adds up to more than grossness and obscenity. But good books disturb for good reasons. To disturb is, among other things, to guard against complacency: to make the reader face the underbelly of dark thoughts and actions, see how circumstances can make even good people go astray if they are not vigilant in honoring the best in themselves and in the outside world. Disturbing passages, when skillful, make a vital inquiry into the subtle causes and effects of human behavior. Read More »

What Kind of Name Is That?

February 8, 2016 | by

How to name your fictional characters.

Characters in need of names.

To me the most embarrassing part of writing fiction, aside from telling people about it, is naming your characters. Of course, even “real” names are made up, but in life our names are things we can alter only with a great deal of paperwork; in fiction, writers can line up names and identities as they please, dropping or trading them on a whim. Contriving a name for a contrived person seems terribly precious to me, akin to naming a doll. You want your characters to have names that aren’t too convenient but still memorable and meaningful, which isn’t easy. I spent about a year with a manuscript populated by memorable characters like [[ROOMMATE]] and ???????’s dad, swapping dozens of potential monikers in pursuit of the perfectly natural, unforced, graceful name. After rupturing a few blood vessels that way, I tried to figure out what other writers were doing.

The question of what names mean, what they’re for, has been around in the West since at least 500 B.C., when the Pythagoreans developed a few rules of onomancy to divine human traits from things like the number of vowels in one’s name. (Even numbers signaled an imperfection in the left side of the body.) One of the earliest discussions about naming comes from Plato’s dialogue “Cratylus,” in which Socrates oversees a debate about whether a name is “an instrument of teaching and distinguishing natures” or whether it’s just a matter of “convention and agreement.” More recently, psychoanalysts like Wilhelm Stekel and Carl Jung posited that the “compulsion of the name” not only reflects but determines one’s future: that we’re all engaged, from birth, in a nominative determinism. (Anyone quick to dismiss this as Freudian bunk should look at the abundance of Shaquilles now entering professional sports.) Read More »

Ernie and Me

February 2, 2016 | by

Falling in—and falling out—with Hemingway.

Ernest Hemingway in uniform as an American Red Cross volunteer, 1918. Portrait by Ermeni Studios, Milan, Italy. Photo: Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

As a young man of a certain kind, I read a lot of Hemingway growing up. My sixteen-year-old self, full of angst and emo aches, found a kindred spirit in Jake Barnes, even if Jake’s brooding was much deeper, darker, and more significant than my own. The northern Michigan of the Nick Adams stories bore a passing resemblance to the Tahoe Basin, where I grew up, and my earliest attempts at creative work were pale imitations of “The End of Something” and “The Three-Day Blow.” The Old Man and the Sea bored me to video games the first time I tried it, but that didn’t stop me from extolling Santiago’s badassness at the dinner table.

This was pre-9/11 America, in a suburban, white-collar community far removed from battle or turmoil. My parents were both children of World War II veterans, and both had protested the Vietnam War; as a result, my brother and I had been raised with a healthy respect for the military, mixed with a healthy skepticism toward the application of military force. While my Hemingway obsession did confuse my mom a bit, she later told me she figured at least it wasn’t drugs, or French philosophy. Read More »

Staff Picks: Bears, Bellies, Blackmail

January 29, 2016 | by

Mickalene Thomas, Lovely Six Foota, 2007, color photograph.

Mickalene Thomas, Lovely Six Foota, 2007, color photograph.

The first entry in New York Review Books’s new comics series is Mark Beyer’s Agony, a graphic novel about two regular working people just trying to get by and the ceaseless horrors visited on them. Amy and Jordan endure acid baths, bear and monster attacks, unemployment, boring friends, prison beatings, armed robbery, an apartment flooded with blood, and deaths in the family, among other cataclysms; they bear it all with the same gaunt, anxious expressions, and usually they speak only in affectless expository sentences. E.g.: “I’ve been swallowed by the same fish that ate Amy’s head, and my legs have been bitten off. I’ve got to get out of here!” As Colson Whitehead writes in the introduction, how hard you laugh at all this depends on “how you feel about relinquishing the logic of realism in favor of the logic of undying despair.” I couldn’t get enough of their misery: I finished it in one sitting and flipped back to the beginning. —Dan Piepenbring

My traveling companion these days has been the late poet Frank Lima and his newly collected Incidents of Travel in Poetry. The book, beautifully culled by editors Garrett Caples and Julien Poirier, comprises the breadth of Lima’s work, from his early poems written as a heroin-addicted New York School outsider to his later surrealistic ones informed by freewriting. Many are autobiographical, making this one of the heavier, more affecting collections I’ve read in a while. His poems are laced with incest and smack and guns: he writes of his stay on Hart’s Island, where he tries to get clean, and of his mother who, “when I awoke … was a warm mist hovering, suspended over me, / naked, / … sweeping my body away / into the cumulus clouds / of black pubic hair.” Lima’s verse is uninhibited and unafraid; he writes with pungent frankness. My favorite lines, though, are the playful, tender ones. From “morning sara”: “I am hungry and go thru your underwear / give me some hot soup or / I’ll suck on the curtains!”; from “Mi Tierra”: “When I touch you / I see Utah / your flat white sandy belly / the powdered dust devils in your navel / the white nipples of the Rocky Mountains.” —Caitlin Youngquist
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Speaking Unprofessionally

January 4, 2016 | by

Attention, procrastinators! This is your last chance to get a free copy of our new anthology of emerging writers, The Unprofessionals. Want to learn more? See below for a talk with our editor, Lorin Stein, and contributors Emma Cline, Kristin Dombek, Cathy Park Hong, Ben Nugent, and Jana Prikryl. Thanks to BookCourt for letting us tape their conversation.

Click to enlarge Read More »

After My Struggle: An Interview with Karl Ove Knausgaard

December 15, 2015 | by

From the paperback edition of My Struggle, Book 2.

Readers in the U.S. await the fifth volume of My Struggle—but in Norway, Karl Ove Knausgaard has moved on. With the money from Struggle’s sales, he’s established his own publishing house, devoted to promoting new talent and translating books by writers like Ben Marcus and Donald Antrim into Norwegian. Since his announcement, in 2011, that he would stop writing, he’s gone to publish four books of essays, and this fall he launched a new series: his “four seasons” quartet, On Autumn, On Winter, On Spring, and (as you might have guessed) On Summer. Presented as a “lexicon for an unborn child” and dedicated to the youngest of his four children, the quartet comprises several hundred short texts about objects (boots, chewing gum, plastic bags) and concepts (love, sex, war).

I recently caught up with Knausgaard in Oslo, where we discussed his new books and how he’s moving past the success of My Struggle. 

You’ve described your new series as “personal encyclopedia of our close surroundings.”

It started as a completely private project. When we were expecting our daughter, I wanted to write something for her, a diary or letter, for her to read when she was older—about how things looked like around our home before she was born, what her family was like, our thoughts and habits. Around the same time I got an assignment from an American magazine to write a short text for each issue for a year. I ended up writing about ten things that made life worth living and ten things that made me want to shoot myself. The editor quit and the project was canceled before I turned it in, but in that brief form I’d found something that appealed to me. So I continued writing, about a new subject every day, and at some point the two projects merged. Read More »