To live in the capital of the Canadian province of Alberta is to live in the shadow of West Edmonton Mall—sometimes literally. Until 2004 the biggest mall in the world, WEM is still a top-10 heavyweight, and its 5.3 million square feet contains not just 800 stores but also an indoor waterpark, amusement park (complete with rollercoasters), hotel, ice rink, mini-golf course, underwater caverns, and full-size replica of Christopher Columbus’s Santa Maria, all of which combines to draw more than 30 million visitors per year. A lot has changed in Edmonton since it first opened in the 1980s, but WEM, which The New York Times once called a “behemoth on the prairie,” remains the defining symbol of the city. Love it or hate it, all Edmontonians must reckon with The Mall.
Writers are no exception. Over the decades WEM has served as unlikely muse for poets, children’s authors, essayists, international comic-book conglomerates, and the occasional stunt journalist who tries to see how long they can stay inside without leaving. Even visiting Nobel Laureates are inexorably drawn to it, knowing that the mall needs to be seen to be believed.
Sing, O muse, of Apollo Originals, and OPA! of Greece.
Sing of the Mindbender and sad flamingoes and that fire-breathing dragon that used to sit at the entrance to the movie theatre.
Sing of Two Guys With Pipes and Chan International Model & Talent.
1. Alpha Flight #26, 27, 28; #67–70 (Marvel)
Once named the most frequently destroyed Canadian city in Marvel Comics history, Edmonton has never taken it on the chin harder than whenever Canadian supergroup Alpha Flight drops by the local super-mall. The first time was in 1985, during Alberta native John Byrne’s run as writer-artist, when the team took on its rivals Omega Flight in the world’s largest parking lot (not to brag). But that was nothing compared to their return visit a few years later, when writer James D. Hudnall had the villainous Dream Queen set up shop in the city and then brainwash Edmontonians into brutally murdering one another. Alpha Flight arrives on the scene, only to be tricked themselves into crashing their jet directly into WEM’s World Waterpark, giving new meaning to the term “wave pool.”
2. Eric Wilson, Code Red at the Supermall (HarperCollins) In this 1988 entry from a beloved series of ultra-Canadian middle-grade mystery novels, a series of bombs are left anonymously all around the mall. Enter: Tom and Liz Austen, a pair of teenage sibling detectives who are determined, along with their actual-detective father, to get to the bottom of things. The ensuing caper includes a ton of local color, including a map of the entire mall for easy reference, and features surprisingly progressive lessons about multiculturalism, consent, and the dangers of dating ice-skaters named Chad.
3.Archie Giant Series Magazine #620 (Archie)
When noted millionaire Hiram Lodge decides he wants to renovate the local mall, there’s only one place to send Betty and Veronica on a fact-finding mission. But what begins as a dream for Veronica (“It’s Xanadu, Camelot, and Rodeo Drive all rolled into one!” she says at one point) quickly turns into a case of mistaken identity, as some would-be jewel thieves chase the pair through West Edmonton Mall’s amusement park and eventually down a waterslide. This three-part bit of corporate synergy from 1991 was encouraged by another of Edmonton’s odd distinctions: for a long time more Archie comics were sold here, per capita, than anywhere else in the world.
4. Anne Swannell, Mall (Rowan) In 1993, Canadian poet Anne Swannell turned her eye to WEM for this book-length poetry cycle about our civic monument to late capitalism. Swannell, who lived in Edmonton briefly in the 1960s, takes in the highlights and spends much of her time alternately marvelling at and pitying her surreal surroundings: “It seems to her some days / the place is definitely sliding downhill.” Today, Mall has added value as a snapshot of WEM as it stood several renovations ago, with careful descriptions of decorations and food-court shops long since dismantled. Ultimately, however, even the building itself rejects any whiff of artistry on the premises. Here’s what happens when the poet character drops a coin into a fortune-telling machine:
“Get a Real Job!”
she tells her
and clicks off.
5. José Saramago, The Cave (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) This 2002 novel from the late Portuguese Nobel Laureate would seem to be an ocean away from the frozen Canadian prairie. But in an interview with Le Devoir, Saramago specifically cited West Edmonton Mall—whose artificial beaches he saw in person when he came to town to receive an honorary degree from the University of Alberta—as an inspiration for the gargantuan shopping complex known simply as “The Center.” In the book, which takes place in a nameless city, Saramago presents his Center as a capitalist juggernaut with a mysterious secret cave underneath it, which nicely dovetails with longstanding urban legends about the subterranean nuclear reactor that supposedly powers WEM.
6. Vivek Shraya (editor), The Magnificent Malls of Edmonton (Self-Published) West Edmonton Mall might get the lion’s share of the attention, but there’s obviously more than one mall in this city of nearly a million people. And they all get their due in this gorgeously produced limited-edition anthology edited by author and musician Vivek Shraya. Still, WEM is the undisputed champ, and accordingly gets the most attention, from memories of first dates gone wrong to little kids who grew up in the Maritimes but dreamt about this magical place on the other side of the country. The smartest, most powerful piece of mall lore yet committed to paper—and, alas, the hardest one to find.
7. Dina Del Bucchia, “Don’t Tell Me What To Do” (Arsenal Pulp Press) When you get right down to it, West Edmonton Mall is more than just a place to buy socks and watch a sea-lion routine while eating a cinnamon bun as big as a manhole cover. It’s also a place of pilgrimage. Like the protagonist in the title story of Dina Del Bucchia’s 2017 collection, I first encountered WEM as a kid who came specifically there on vacation, when my brother and I tried to see how long we could go without breathing outside air (three days, easy). But for Alex, a spontaneous return trip is in order, complete with a suitcase stuffed full of coins, after her relationship with an older man in British Columbia goes south. Del Bucchia’s story is about what happens when your expectations don’t meet reality, and how no mall can solve your problems for you. Not even one as gloriously weird as this one.
The 2017 National Book Critics Circle Award winners were announced tonight in New York City. Along with the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, John Leonard Prize, and Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, which were announced in January, the winners in Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, Criticism, Autobiography, and Biography
This year’s recipients of the National Book Critics Circle Awards are:
After considering 108 titles, the Man Booker International Prize announced their 13-title longlist. The prize, which awards translated works of literature, considers both novels and short story collections translated into English and published in the UK.
Here the 2018 longlist (with bonus links where available):
Beauty spins and the mind moves. To catch beauty would be to understand how that impertinent stability in vertigo is possible. But no, delight need not reach so far. To be running breathlessly, but not yet arrived, is itself delightful, a suspended moment of living hope.
—Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet
I discovered boys at the height of my reading years. I was 12, in Copenhagen, and I read on the train to school, walking home from the station, on family holidays driving across Europe, at night in bed while my parents entertained guests around the dinner table on the other side of my bedroom wall.
We had left Turkey for my father’s work when I was in third grade. My parents worried that our language would deteriorate during our time abroad and strictly required that my brother and I read in Turkish. I did not care what language I read in, as long as the story was exciting. I read my parents’ childhood copies of Jules Verne; I read the books our grandparents sent us about children resolving blood feuds in Aegean villages; I read all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books that my American best friend, Theresa, gave me; I went through entire bookshelves at the school library on Egyptians, Vikings, paranormal activity, and exploration. I even read a book I had accidentally checked out about Mikhail Gorbachev and have had a strange friendship with the word glasnost ever since, as if it belonged to that golden Danish autumn when I first encountered it.
That year I won the school library contest having identified the most fictional characters and lines from books. It was Robert Louis Stevenson who established my victory against Theresa in the last round: “Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest/yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum.” (Theresa had won the bookmark contest some months earlier with her drawing of a man immersed in his book, sitting on top of Salvador Dali’s melting clock. The caption said: Read the Time Away.)
Even though my eyes and imagination were content to embark on whatever book came my way, I also read repetitively, going back to my friends Anne from Green Gables, Jo from Little Women, Lucy from Narnia, a villager girl Halime, and one German Gundula with a fiery temper. I followed them again and again into their worlds of boyishness and adventure, at a time when grandparents, uncles, and aunts were telling me that I was already a “young lady.”
When I walked our dog, Dost, in the forest, I cast myself in the role of my heroines, pretending that I lived another, carefree and adventurous life, far from the Copenhagen suburbs. Sometimes I thought of myself as an explorer walking for hours in the forest, familiar with every tree, bird, and flower, my schoolbag transformed to a satchel of tools and maps, my loyal dog following at my heel. (In truth, I was afraid to let Dost off the leash, because he would dart off immediately and I would have to search for him for hours.)
Even though I insisted that I was still a child, I secretly knew I was no longer so innocent. I made an effort to look disheveled, hid any evidence of breasts with oversized t-shirts, and tried my best to ignore my interest in boys beyond games of rounders and tag. That was the year I fell in love with David—a blond, freckled Italian who wore white polo shirts and was the star football player of our class. What I mean by falling in love is that I slowed my step when I saw David in my peripheral vision, memorized the names of Danish and Italian football players, and even allowed myself, several times, to write out his full name in my notebook, before hurriedly erasing it. Beyond this, I did not really interact with him, except for one memorable walk from the train station to school when I asked if he would be watching the Juventus game that evening. I thought, then, that I saw a glimmer of recognition in his eyes.
I had encountered David’s types in books, too. His free-spirited boyishness was not too different from Gilbert Blythe’s in Anne of Green Gables. His delicate, handsome features were just like Laurie’s in Little Women. He had dimples and talent for sport like the eldest brother Peter in The Chronicles of Narnia.
But I was not in love with David’s fictional counterparts. Instead, in my fifth, sixth, 1oth readings of these books, I would jump ahead to the scenes with Anne’s bashful adoptive uncle Matthew; the sloppy and clumsy Professor Bhaer; the soft-pawed lion Aslan.
I thought that all girls who read Narnia were in love with Aslan, until a friend recently burst out laughing at what she thought was a strange confession. “You were in love with the lion?” she said. “Sure, we all loved him, but like…a teddy bear, someone you’d like to hug.”
Of course, I was not really in love with the furry creature, nor with the farmer Matthew who was my grandfather’s age. It was what they represented—kindness, unconditional love, nobility—that made them superior to the handsome boys still battling with their temper and pride. Beneath their bodily disguises, my heroes embodied the perfect person whom I had never seen but felt certain was there, just out of sight. And even though I liked to attribute noble traits to David that were not visible to the eye—imagining, for example, when I saw him walking with his little sister that he would fight a battle for—I was old enough to know that the real world and its inhabitants would always be a bit disappointing compared to those of books.
During my younger years of reading, I believed like most children that the worlds of stories really existed. They were there—somewhere—even if I did not always see them, just like my grandparents’ yellow house which I only saw in the summers, but which continued to stand quietly behind the mulberry tree even when we were back in the city.
I particularly loved the worlds within worlds of The Secret Garden, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, or Enid Blyton’s adventure series, when I would first enter the lethargic lives of the characters (which were exciting to me nonetheless in their English quaintness) before embarking on an adventure. After spending several lazy afternoons in old relatives’ houses, the characters and I would all step into the magic kingdoms. I was proud to think that I had come the longest way of all, traversing not just one, but two worlds to enter the garden hidden behind a wall of ivy, jump aboard the Dawn Treader inside the painting, or discover the secret passage that led to the mines.
When I became aware that these places did not exist, I was neither disappointed nor disillusioned. I simply shifted my admiration from the characters and their hidden kingdoms to the very essence of their existence—to the minds that imagined them.
Anyone who knows me has heard that I am in love with Orhan Pamuk. I’ve allowed this one infatuation to become a joke—as ridiculous as falling in love with a lion—so that I may preserve my other authors in their sacred light. Even though I have never met him, I’ve written letters to Pamuk (which I’ve never sent) as well as stories where I go on walks with him around Istanbul.
On these walks I call him Orhan Abi, Brother Orhan, as I would a Turkish elder. Of course, there is preemptive protection in this familial address, turning my admiration to sibling love, so that we are on more equal footing and I expect nothing in return for my affection. On some walks, Orhan Abi is engaged in the conversation, on others he is lost in thought and restless to go back to his desk.
Though I certainly dramatize my love for this man (whose Istanbul has so infiltrated my imagination that I find it impossible to write about the city without his shadow), I’m always surprised when friends bring me news of the real Orhan Pamuk. “Did you hear who he’s dating now?” “The Nobel Prize brought out the arrogance in him!” I hear in their voices a determination to cure me of my obsession before I have my heart broken, because, they are telling me, Orhan Pamuk won’t make a worthy boyfriend.
My Orhan Pamuk is a man of my own making, fashioned from novels, imagining the type of person who would write them. While his tangible double gives lectures, has love affairs, signs books, and goes to airports, Orhan Abi is immersed in a Russian novel. He watches the Bosphorus from his desk and hopes in agony for a glimpse of a beautiful woman walking past his window each evening.
It is neither the lion with a furry mane, nor the sullen, spectacled man that I fell in love with. I am enchanted by words in the literal sense—I enter into chant, not by the tangible objects that words point to, but by the rhythms and harmonies arising from their spell. Perhaps I did not learn my lesson when I realized that books were the constructions of authors, because authors for me are just as much a construct of my imagination.
But if the worlds of books are separate from our own, it should also be said that they intersect with ours in mysterious ways. For me, the joy of reading is partly for the thrill of becoming aware of these collisions of worlds even if I don’t always know how to interpret them.
3. There is no clearer parallel to the sights of literature emerging in life than falling in love. Then, too, every street sign, shop front, and overheard conversation becomes part of a conspiracy. And just like love, which tunes the senses to invisible harmonies (otherwise called coincidence), literature reveals patterns that connect us to multiple worlds.
“What is the significance of these similarities, overlaps, and coincidences?” W.G. Sebald asks in his essay on Robert Walser, tracing the real and fictional paths they have both walked at different times. “Are they rebuses of memory, delusions of the self and of the senses, or rather the schemes and symptoms of an order underlying the chaos of human relationships, and applying equally to the living and the dead, which lies beyond our comprehension?” I can think of no truer way to express affection for a writer who has shaped our world than by simply listing the trivial encounters of our fates.
“I have slowly learned to grasp how everything is connected across space and time,” Sebald continues. “Walser’s long walks with my own travels, dates of birth with dates of death, happiness with misfortune […] On all these paths Walser has been my constant companion. I only need to look up for a moment in my daily work to see him standing somewhere a little apart, the unmistakable figure of the solitary walker just pausing to take in the surroundings.”
But I wonder if Sebald would have noticed Walser’s footsteps if he had really set off on a walk with him. Do our crossings with these companions not depend on their invisibility? Do the signs of a beloved not surround us only in his absence?
“The other whom I love and who fascinates me is atopos,” says Roland Barthes in A Lover’s Discourse. “I cannot classify the other, for the other is precisely, Unique, the singular Image which has miraculously come to correspond to the specialty of my desire. The other is the figure of my truth, and cannot be imprisoned in any stereotype.”
I wonder if admiration does not build itself in the unique space of imagination, unencumbered by reality. I wonder this because I once had the misfortune of going on a real walk with one of my imagined writers.
I thought of this man as my writer, undiscovered by anyone else despite his fame. It does not matter who he is. There are many stories about him, just as there are about Orhan Pamuk that have nothing to do with my walking companion Orhan Abi.
During our walk, around a small town in Mexico, the writer observed many details that were invisible to me—the strange animals carved on a church door, the gaudy, imitation relics of saints inside the church that reminded him of his native parish, the lines of myth and history connecting the Virgin of Guadalupe, St. Brigid, and Diana of Ephesus.
Afterwards, we sat on the terrace of a monastery with our backs to the fading fresco of Dominican monks holding a map of the monastery (like a book within a book). In front of us, a vertiginous valley was reddening in the afternoon light.
I asked the writer what aspect of the monastery and landscape he found inspiring. He shrugged and said that all that surrounded us was built in vain, in the name of a god that didn’t exist.
(“Quite frequently,” Barthes writes, “it is by language that the other is altered; the other speaks a different word, and I hear rumbling menacingly a whole other world, which is the world of the other.”)
After I returned from Mexico, I sent the writer an essay I’d written about our walk. I also sent him a present to thank him. He did not respond. The same friends who told me to get over Orhan Pamuk also told me that I could not expect such a famous author to write back. Some friends said I should be grateful that he came on the walk in the first place; others said he sounded awful.
In reality, the writer was not to blame for my disappointment. He was not the person whom I’d known years prior to our meeting and I wonder if he could have acted in any way that resembled the writer of my own making. My heartbreak is akin to encountering a lion in a zoo, and waiting for him to walk up to me and offer the kind of guidance I’d expect from Aslan.
A few months later, I ran into the writer on the street during a visit to New York— another thread of chance without visible meaning. He was disheveled, out of breath, walking his dog. He did not mention the essay or my present. We chatted for a while about Mexico. “Well then,” the writer said after a few minutes, “you take care.”
“I suddenly see the other,” Barthes says, “abiding by, respecting, yielding to worldly rites […] For the bad Image is not a wicked image; it is a paltry image: it shows me the other caught up in the platitude of the social world—common place.”
But I don’t quite believe that my imaginary companions and their tangible counterparts are entirely separate. I’m sure that the sullen Orhan Pamuk whom I’ve never met is acquainted with my dreamy friend watching the street from his window, and that the dismissive writer is not entirely numb to the seductions of landscape. After all, both pairs of men take equal claim for the words committed to paper. Part of my heartbreak, then, was trying too hard to see the familiar person residing in the writer, of probing him for a glimpse of the poetic and mysterious.
When I encounter beauty, I have an urge to possess it, to take it apart and discover something within. In my naïve effort to see the writer’s imagination, I am reminded of coming upon a bird’s nest, no bigger than my palm, one afternoon when I was walking Dost in the forest. Dost spotted it first, prodding his nose inside a mound of leaves to drag out a concentrated mass. I could not immediately make out what it was, and even felt frightened by the intricate chaos. But once my sight adjusted to its shape, I was so amazed by the beauty and compactness of its architecture that I took a stick and poked at it, hoping to find something hidden inside that would explain its lovely, cupped sight. I poked deeper with my stick until the nest came apart in twigs, feathers, and mud, leaving me utterly disappointed.
Beauty avoids our grasp because it’s made of the same, ephemeral texture as imagination. It suggests that it is holding something we cannot see, like the evocative sight of a nest or seashell, like light faintly emanating from a lion’s skin. Like love, beauty tempts our imagination to walk down its path with the promise of revealing its golden forest, but turn after turn it spares us the sight, so splendid it would blind us if ever we were to see it.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for February.
Looking for additional book recommendations? One of the benefits of subscribing to The Millions is access to our exclusive monthly newsletter in which our venerable staffers let you know what they’re reading right now. Learn more here.
This month, the top half of our list is the same as it was last month. In fact, most of the list is the same as it was last month. What is it about February? Three years ago, we had the same thing happen, and I wound up calculating Shaquille O’Neal’s height in stacked books. It was as if I had been possessed by Harper’s “Findings” section.
But one person’s boredom is really another person’s consistency, and there is comfort in steadiness. On our list this month, the top half remains unchanged, but slight jostling occurred in the bottom. Two books graduated to our Hall of Fame: Victor LaValle’sThe Changeling and Laurent Binet’sThe Seventh Function of Language.
Emil Ferris’sMy Favorite Thing is Monsters fills one of the open spaces this month. Ferris’s fictional graphic diary had previously debuted on our December 2017 list, but dropped out last month, and is back again today. At that pace, look for it to reach our Hall of Fame around Thanksgiving. In her Year in Reading entry two months ago, Emily St. John Mandel said Ferris’s book “pierced [her] haze of unhappiness” and imparted “the sense of having encountered something truly extraordinary.” She raved, “Sometimes you read a book and you think, Oh. This is what a book can be.”
The other opening on this month’s list was claimed by Chloe Benjamin’sThe Immortalists. In our Great 2018 Book Preview, Janet Potter previewed Benjamin’s second novel by saying it sounded so good that she’d have to “break [her] no-novels-about-New-Yorkers rule for this one.”
Michael Nye is not certain whether he considers his debut, All the Castles Burned, a sports novel. “My first response is no, this is not a sports novel,” he said. “But I think that’s just me not wanting to have my novel pigeonholed.” Owen Webb, a scholarship student at a prestigious private high school in Ohio and the novel’s protagonist, is a prodigious point guard. The friendship he builds with Carson, an older student, grows while they shoot hoops during a shared free period. Basketball is at the heart of All the Castles Burned. When thinking about sports novels he really appreciated, like Fat City by Leonard Gardner, The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, or The Hopeful by Tracy O’Neill, he hit on one of the things that makes his book work so well. “These sports novels, and other really terrific ones, aren’t about winning a game…Sports are just a way of getting into those themes that drive our characters to making critical choices in their lives with irreversible consequences. Does it really matter if a character hits a game-winning shot? On the surface, of course not. Beneath the surface? Maybe it does.” It’s only a game until it isn’t.
The Millions: One of the things that I was most impressed by was the way the basketball games were written. How did you approach those scenes? Were there any books or pieces of writing you were looking toward as guides for how to write about the game?
Michael Nye: One of the things that has always struck me about sportswriting is how rarely it makes game action vivid. For beat writers, they have to churn out the facts of the game—who scored what at what point in the game and so forth—and rarely get to describe the action in a vivid way. I wanted to avoid moments that a reader might typically see in any kind of sports story, whether it’s in a book or in a movie. No miraculous shots, no wild scrambles of pure luck, no buzzer beaters. So I picked moments that Owen would experience and view in his unique way: Carson shooting a free throw, his on-the-ball defense at the end of the game, and all the small gestures that can lead to a fistfight. Each gave me the chance to do something a little different; respectively, the careful examination and memory of his friend and the mechanics of shooting; the tension and action of one moment; and the slow build up of game play leading to a drama much bigger than just a basketball game. Because I haven’t seen this described in other novels, I felt free to write them however I wanted to without the restraints of influence.
TM: I’m glad that you mentioned the immediate tension and the slow build up in the games because that was one of the most interesting things about the games and the novel as a whole. There’s a sense reading it that that a few characters—Carson, Owen, Owen’s father—could blow up at any minute. All sorts of small moments in the novel feel like they could directly or indirectly result in something explosive and tragic. What was the process of winding it so tightly like?
MN: The first drafts of this novel were a bit of a free-for-all. My driving thought was to finish the book, to get to the end, hurry the story along, and I didn’t think much about how to make the story tense and compelling. In later drafts, I thought of Owen being squeezed, the sense of pressure building around him.
What really helped to give the book tension was thinking about how to use first person. One of my writer-friends, Rachel Swearingen, pointed this out: Owen has survived these events and is in the here and now telling the story. The reader doesn’t know what the present day Owen is like, where he’s speaking from, how he turned out, only that he is alive and telling the story. Owen looks back on his life and sees certain events differently, perhaps, than he did in the moment. We all do that, right? We very clearly remember yesterday; we are hazy about five weeks ago, five months ago, five years ago. Neuroscience research indicates that we change and shape our memories all the time to better fit who we are right now. The more we access a memory, the more unreliable it becomes. So, every time Owen slows down, ponders, focuses on his story, the reader is reminded of the survivor, the teller of the tale. Rachel urged me to remind the reader—sometimes, not too much—of Owen’s role as narrator, and I think that really helped to construct tension and intrigue into his story.
TM: How many drafts of the book did you go through? And how much did Owen’s reflective narration change over that time?
MN: On my laptop, I have eight drafts. But I’m not sure how significantly different each draft is from the other. When I’m revising, a “new” draft might be a complete rewrite or it might be changing the word “the” and everything else in between. In the end, I would guess closer to six drafts, but I’m honestly not sure.
What changed? The book has two timelines, the first in 1994 to 1995 and the second in 2008. In early drafts of the novel, the book was split evenly between those periods. I was trying to write something sort of Nabokovian, and it only took a few months [to learn] that I don’t write anything like Nabokov and don’t much want to. It was the completely wrong influence for my writing and, more specifically, this book. As I thought about what this book was really exploring, about male friendship and class, I focused on Owen’s formative teenage years, and saved the present for a much shorter period of time. Shifting in both time and character (from a Nabokov antihero to, say, a Richard Russo storyteller) reshaped Owen, both who tells the story and the events he chose to share.
TM: I was really interested in how you dealt with class throughout the book. Owen is a scholarship student at an expensive private school and Carson is from a very rich family, and there are things about his politics sprinkled throughout the book. I was wondering how you were thinking about class in a political context as you were working on this book.
MN: There have always been class divisions, in 1994 and of course today, anytime in civilization, really. I wanted this sense of class to be particularly to Cincinnati, to the Midwest, to the era. By attending a private school, Owen becomes aware of what he doesn’t have, which is often how we think about wealth: what is denied or unattainable rather than valuing what we already possess and cherish. So much is in the details, the things that Owen is learning to become aware of, and how easily, as Carson shows, that leads to entitlement.
TM: Can you elaborate on how you approached the particularities of the place and era?
MN: I graduated both high school and college in the 1990s, so all pop culture elements like movies, books, TV shows, world events, the O.J. Simpson trial, and so forth, are fairly ingrained in my memory. There are enough details in the novel to get the facts right, but I’m reluctant to rely to heavy on culture references to make characters vivid or to move a plot along. In some ways, I want to deemphasize this by having the characters aware of, but dismissive, of events such as the Russian invasions of Chechnya or the Republican takeover of the U.S. Congress in 1994.
In fact, thinking about it now, the lack of cell phones really helps to force action into a story. Owen can’t find out about Carson with a Google search. Caitlin can’t post selfies. Google didn’t exist. Teenagers are always going to find ways to be bored or kill time, but something as simple as “I need to use a phone” helped add tension to the novel by forcing Owen to go home, leave messages, wait for phone calls. I want this world to be recognizable as another era, but I didn’t want to be steeped in nostalgia that it would feel kitschy or forced.
TM: Was that something you found difficult to avoid, having been the same age around the same time?
MN: I have no idea how effectively I truly balanced the nostalgia in this book. You know how you often only see a story or novel clearly once you’ve been removed from it for a time? Organizing my home office, I recently came across my story collection, and started flipping through it, and mostly thinking “ugh.”
I really didn’t find the nostalgia hard to avoid. While I had a perfectly fine childhood, I’m suspicious of nostalgia in narrative art. It always rings false to me. I often think I’m not remembering my past correctly: I tend to sugarcoat things, so as a fiction writer, I distrust my own memories and avoided using my specifics in the novel. Which is a good thing: I know then I’m writing Owen’s story rather than some bastardized version of my own life.
I didn’t heavily research this era. I didn’t want to be tied down to the facts when writing fiction. I double-checked that the references to music, film, and television shows were correct along Owen’s timeline, but in doing so, I was operating as a fact checker rather than looking for influence for the story. I don’t particularly enjoy doing research. And, really, the past never seems that long ago to me. When thinking about being a teenager in the 1990s, I never think “that was so long ago!” until I glance at the calendar. That’s the thing about the past and memory: when called up, it’s so visceral and sharp that it seems recent, urgent, right there in the room with me. Owen feels the same way; the Owen at the end of the novel doesn’t so much look back on his past as he relives it and carries it around with him all the time.
TM: I think my favorite piece of 1990s culture in the book were the scenes of Owen watching basketball
MN: BOOMSHAKALAKA! The 1990s is when I fell in love with basketball and the NBA (and, clearly, NBA Jam) so writing about that era was fun. I’m not sure TV ever got better than when you had a big dumb box with buttons on it, the cable literally attached to the back of your TV, that you had to thwack to change stations.
TM: Who were your go-to NBA Jam pair?
MN: For a long time, my go-to with NBA Jam was the Hornets: Larry Johnson and Kendall Gill. But! In NBA JAM: Tournament Edition, I’m pretty much unstoppable with the Warriors. Tim Hardaway and Chris Webber. Having a combo of one player for threes [and] steals and the other for rebounds [and] blocks is key. I’m a pretty big fan of 16 bit arcades/bars where I can go nuts on that game for a solid two hours.
TM: You’re a big Celtics fan, so here’s the most important question: are the Boston Celtics going to make the NBA finals this year or what?
MN: Well, why not? I’ll be a complete and total homer right now and insist they are making the Finals because Cleveland is a dumpster fire and I have no faith that We The North are anything but a regular-season team. Banner #18, baby!
When the first recipe appears on page 24 of The Cooking Gene, it arrives as a kind of unmerited gift, a gratuitous offering to us, the community of readers. It’s a simple recipe for “Kitchen Pepper,” but it is as if Michael W. Twitty is giving away something into which an entire history has been condensed. It immediately follows the question, “How exactly did I get here?” and so does not arrive simply as a try-this-at-home kind of recipe, but as an invitation. Twitty is inviting us not so much to theorize about cultural foodways and to sample the flavors of ancient cultures, as to do. This simple recipe for Kitchen Pepper comes with an implicit interrogative force: are you just going to sit there, an armchair culinary historian, or are you going to cook—and not just for yourself but for your neighbors? And while you do, ask yourself too: how exactly did you get here?
To publish a recipe can be—especially in the world of rock-star chefs, cooking-themed reality television, and the general atmosphere of cooking as a variety of warfare—an act of self-conscious display of culinary erudition or imagination. It can have the effect of dangling before the reader the lure of the possibility of participating, however briefly, in the ex nihilo genius of a famous chef who somehow thought of putting ingredients together in a way designed to wow and astonish our dinner guests.
There is another way in which a recipe can be written, however, and more importantly, received. It can be written as an invitation into a reality that you did not recognize was possible before, an invitation into a kind of fellowship or communion. A recipe can be the transmission of a tradition, and to cook from such a recipe is not to “try this at home” but to enact a performance of that tradition, and thereby to participate in it in a mysterious and unrepeatable way. This is the way that recipes operate in Michael Twitty’s The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South.
This is partly because The Cooking Gene is not a cookbook. It contains recipes, but those recipes come freighted with the weight of American and Twitty’s own personal histories. They arrive in the context of a sprawling account of inveterate American racism, history, and the quasi-sacramental nature of food. The Cooking Gene is far more than a cookbook. It is a personal memoir, travel narrative, socio-culinary history, diatribe against the food industry, occasional gastronomic rhapsody, and quest narrative. Its moods are as varied as the fragments that compose it: it is by fairly swift turns witty and somber, indulgent and biting, ponderous and winsome.
The Cooking Gene moves from historical excursus to culinary memoir to travelogue in often breathtakingly sharp turns. It is constantly looping back on itself, and sometimes leaving discussions feeling stranded in the way an oxbow lake is left isolated by the changing course of the River. These fragments are made of the same stuff as the river, but do not flow with it.
This can be perplexing for the reader, but is in a way entirely consistent with the logic of the book, which is that the quest for personal identity is almost never straightforward but is instead sinuous, and results in bits of personal history that are at a slight distance from but never superfluous to the main thread of the story, if such a main thread can be found. It is illustrative of the cost of such a search, that finding oneself in the stories of one’s ancestors is never cut-and-dried or without anecdotal cul-de-sacs that can stand alone but have become unmoored and adrift from the general flux of personal history, whatever that turns out to be. It is also, in Twitty’s case, intentional:
My aim has been to give a sense of the bric-a-brac mosaic that is the average African-American’s experience when he or she attempts to look back to recapture our cultural and culinary identities obscured by the consequences of racial chattel slavery. If it were possible to give a linear, orderly, soup to nuts version of my story of any of my family’s without resorting to genre gymnastics, I would have considered it. Instead, I am pleased with the journey as it has revealed itself to me.
“The journey as it has revealed itself” to Twitty amounts to a sort of record of discovery, not unlike the formation of potlikker. It is not the stuff that sinks to the bottom that is important, but the gloss on the surface, the greasy, flavorful sheen that “winks back at you.” The Cooking Gene is the sum of the surprising accretions of ancient history that rise to the top that reveal who its author is. In this book, Twitty seeks his own reflection in potlikker—from the time it was mixed with cornbread to make his first solid food to when it was smeared on the bodies of enslaved men and women on the auction block to make them appear “shiny, a little fat, and machine lubricated.”
But what makes The Cooking Gene more than simply a personal memoir is its attempt to reconstruct this personal and cultural history through food. The book is a literary extension of Twitty’s work as a chef and historical interpreter of antebellum culinary habits among enslaved peoples, developed initially through Twitty and his then-partner’s “Southern Discomfort Tour.” Twitty’s goal on the tour from 2011 onwards was to “travel the South looking for sites of cultural and culinary memory while researching the food culture of the region as it stood in the early twenty-first century.” Along the way, Twitty cooked the way enslaved people cooked, and in using their ingredients, their methods, and their tools, found more than just historical curiosities: “I lost arm hair and eyebrows, a little blood here and there; I was scalded and branded, burned and seared. These are the marks of my tribe”
One might expect such a tour to have left Twitty jaded and cynical. But for Twitty: the result of the “Discomfort” experience is a hopeful, capacious vision of Southernness and its promise for the American future:
I dare to believe that all Southerners are a family. We are not merely Native, European, and African. We are Middle Eastern and South Asian and East Asian and Latin American, now. We are a dysfunctional family, but we are a family. We are unwitting inheritors of a story with many sins that bears the fruit of the possibility of ten times the redemption. One way is through reconnection with the culinary culture of the enslaved, our common ancestors, and restoring their names on the roots of the Southern tree and the table those roots support.
White families in America often have the privilege of a recorded history. Their deeds are frequently a matter of public memory. Domestic mythology may often trace a white family’s history back to a romanticized utopia, a green and pleasant land from which one’s forbears valiantly “chose” to sail to the New World. Or they may hang up family crests which may or may not be authentic—they help to shape a sort of familial sense of self, of belonging to a particular tribe with a particular past, however factitious or fabulous. In any case, white families may often be able to trace their lineage back several hundred years with impunity, without ever noticing what a privilege such a record can be.
But in such cases what counts as material evidence in a family history (or mythology) does not include a bill of sale for a human person.
Twitty uncovers one such document late in The Cooking Gene, related to his ancestor Harry Townsend. It is a salutary lesson about what “white privilege” really means: it means, in part, not having to reconstruct your family’s history from receipts. It is different for the descendants of enslaved peoples:
We know so much, but know so little, and the fine details keep shifting, but unlike any other American ethnic group those details are always hotly debated. We are not allowed the peace of mind of our own self-rumination. Every aspect of our history becomes a contested article on social media, a gospel truth to be disproved by experts at conferences, and a groupthink to be contained. Our cultural myths we design ourselves around are not sacred like other people’s myths; our anchors are constantly being pulled up to make white people feel as it they’re in control, and because of this we have struggled to come up with a cohesive and empowering narrative of our own.
At the heart of The Cooking Gene is the reality that a material record is not available to the descendants of enslaved Africans who were brought here against their will for 250 years. The lives of the enslaved were often anonymous, their deaths not recorded by name, their bodies not marked with hand-carved headstones. Their history is often inscrutable and at best conjectural. Slavery is, in part, the condition of being deprived of a genealogy, a “heritage denied.”
Michael Twitty’s family history is vivid and detailed, but his recorded history only goes back so far. In The Cooking Gene, he sets out to reconstruct—by his own family’s oral history, by documentary research, and by DNA testing—his own genetic composition, to find some semblance of a story of himself that crosses the vast ocean of oblivion separating America from Africa, that traverses the boundary that divides before and after slavery.
The Cooking Gene is itself a kind of literary descendant of Alex Haley’s Roots—which was not just a literary but a pan-cultural event when the television adaptation aired when Twitty was a small child in 1976. Roots inspired a generation of African-Americans to “connect to a place and a people,” and to ask “Who would we become once we confronted the Africa we longed for?” The series inspired African-Americans to identify their own “furthest back person,” their “Kunta Kinte.” In many ways The Cooking Gene is about the liberative power of being able to give your own past a name.
As a stylist, Twitty has a distinct fondness for the inventory. Whole paragraphs sometimes consist of little more than lists of names—of things, people, places. Chapter Twelve, “Chesapeake Gold,” is a paradigmatic example. When Twitty cites Letitia Burwell, Frederick Douglass, Frederick Law Olmsted, and George Bagby in this chapter, he often gives us their lists of foods. He recites activities on tobacco plantations with a certain relish in the poetry of the sound of it all, and a wonder at the often forgotten diversity of African American foodways. These lists are evidence for Twitty of a world that “seemed to burst at the seams with a diverse variety of crops.”
The book begins with an account of building a fire for a presentation on a plantation in a way that gives the flavor of Twitty’s style:
The hardwoods are like friends, and each one has a different conversation with your food—the smell-the burn, the colas, the heat, the smoke—the hot intensity of white oak; the savor of hickory; the mellowness or pecan, the red oak, ash, apple, and maples. Sometimes you have to split the big logs up so that you can stack them like a chimney. When that happens, the day begins with the brooding energy of iron and all of its accompanying West African spirits—Ogun, Ta Yao, Ndomayiri.
A youthful fascination with words nourished by the civil rights movement and the 1976 national bicentennial, Sesame Street and Yan Can Cook, inspired Twitty with a curiosity about his own origins, which he would later find the words for:
Familiensinn: German, the feeling and sense of family connection. I longed for it. I cultivated it despite the pain it has often caused me—family is not easy to seek or create. Toska: Russian. According to Nabokov’s translation of the Afro-Russian writer Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, it is “a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause…a longing with nothing to long for.” Fernweh. Back to German, “a longing and homesickness for a place you have never been.”
One possible response to this is simply to be overwhelmed and maybe a little glazed over by the seemingly endless array of foods that flourished at the hands of enslaved people. And this is, it seems, precisely the point of Twitty’s fondness for the list: when recorded by Frederick Douglass, the repertory of the dishes served at the Big House in Maryland is an instance of reportage from personal experience; so too is Olmsted’s recollection, but from a seat at the table and not as a servant. Both accounts are suffused with wonder—at the sheer variety of meats, fruits, vegetables, and grains that constituted a single meal in the antebellum South. But only one side—the enslaved people who prepared these meals—could have known the ingenuity and the back-breaking labor that went into the preparation of such feasts, and the cultivation of each ingredient. Every crowder pea and sweet potato is a kind of living memento of the suffering and creativity that brought it to table, every rasher of bacon and hot-buttered roll an unspoken secret of the toil and torture endured by the people who raised, slaughtered, and dressed hogs; planted, cultivated, and picked wheat or corn; and transformed, by some mystical alchemy only they knew, the raw products of the Tidewater farm into the quasi-sacramental matter of the feast.
Except the feast was for other people. In Douglass’s words, all the richness of the plantation table “conspir[ed] to swell the tide of high life, where pride and indolence lounged in magnificence and satiety.” The effect of the inventory, in Twitty’s hands, is to disorient the reader, to disturb and overturn the received perception about enslaved life. The latter was far from monocultural; it was often unimaginably diverse agriculturally as well as culturally; its foodways proved incredibly inventive and subtle, adapting itself to new circumstances and supply. The list as a form is, for Twitty, a kind of act of restoration: it restores to memory the names of things and people we should never have forgotten. These lists are Twitty’s litany of saints, gifts of the good earth, and it is as important that we remember the names of forgotten foods as the names of those who grew and prepared them, who bequeathed Southern foodways to future generations. They serve to destabilize preconceptions of African American foodways, to show that they—and therefore the world and its history—are far more complex, varied, sophisticated, and original than the hitherto dominant narratives of history might imply. They are also signposts of order, in marked contrast to the sometimes confusing and often obscure genealogy of Twitty’s family, which it is his task in The Cooking Gene to uncover and retrace.
But there are darker inventories too, which are not so much reminders of the immeasurable bounty of the earth but of the equally immeasurable, instrumentalizing savagery of human beings. In Chapter 18, “The King’s Cuisine,” Twitty tries to reconstruct, from fragmentary evidence provided by agricultural census and slave schedules, the life of his maternal great-great-great-grandfather, Harry Townsend. He lists five such lists from farms and plantations from Alabama and South Carolina where he has identified his own ancestors. Their names and relations appear only as the result of painstaking research. Otherwise, they are included in a roll-call of the anonymous, indistinguishable from mules, oxen, or bales of cotton.
“This,” Twitty writes, “is what America looked like for over four million people in the decade before the Civil War. They were numbers, human machines with a measurable output. They almost completely disappeared into history after building this country and creating their own unique American civilization.”
The Cooking Gene is perhaps the most significant contribution to the growing field of “foodways” literature. But it stands at least one remove from the farm-to-table, artisanal, small-batch, craft-style frenzies of recent years. His work involves “a return to the sources,” as it were, of Southern—and therefore African—cooking, but in a way that is both more personal and culturally load-bearing. More is at stake for Twitty than simply a resistance to corporate, mass-produced food: “It is not enough,” he writes, “to know the past of the people you interpret. You must know your own past.”
The Cooking Gene is Twitty’s attempt to uncover not just lost methods and recipes, but a self occluded and dismembered by both a relentless schedule and the weight of a uniquely American kind of oblivion of its own past: “crumbling kitchens, rotting auction blocks, graveyards iced in asphalt. With each deterioration, I was becoming someone fading from who I was and where I came from, just in time for the world to catch amnesia with me.”
The recovery mode of contemporary artisanal chic has something in common with Twitty’s project, in terms of a shared awareness of the social, political, and racial implications of the way we eat. Yet the “contemporary reclamation of barbecue, offal, hoecakes, wild foods, black-eyed pea cakes, and other plebian fare by white chefs with the capital to promote and polarize these foods is one of the cornerstone issues of culinary justice.”
But Twitty wants to go further still: the way we eat (and the way our ancestors before us fed themselves and others) makes us who we are. So all our eating—whether we recognize it or not—is the work of anamnesis: “My entire cooking life has been about memory. It’s my most indispensable ingredient, so wherever I find it, I hoard it. I tell stories about people using food, I swap memories with people and create out of that conversation mnemonic feasts with this fallible, subjective mental evidence.” So the goal is not recovery simpliciter, but something stronger: “In memory there is resurrection, and thus the end goal of my cooking is just that—resurrection.”
Human fellowship is still possible, though, in the unlikeliest of places, and it is the common vocabulary of food, the shared stock of folk culinary knowledge, that provides the occasion for mutual recognition. In one episode, Twitty recalls cooking for a group of Confederate reenactors (“never really easy for a black guy”). In this instance, it is Twitty’s persimmon beer that starts as a conversation topic but becomes an almost magical object, with the sacral power to effect a sort of qualified understanding between apparent enemies:
Trading facts and figures and avoiding all other subjects, I had never felt so close to a group of white Southern men with guns who outnumbered me in my entire life. As I traveled more, I noticed kinship with strangers based on knowledge of the old plants. Sour faces turned to smiles at the mere mention of a pawpaw or discussion of techniques for breaking black walnuts and the like. I felt as if I was among a family of people keeping a flame alive—a university of volumes written in the understory and canopy and marsh and streamside that could not be relinquished, but desired, and for our survival’s sake, to be savored. I took a picture with those reenactors that day, for in a small way, we made peace.
The final section of the book has Twitty dreaming about a return to the source of both food and being, to Africa, but is also a kind of hymn to cooperative memory: the work of restoration as a common human task.
The payoff, for Twitty, is the discovery that “the world is a marketplace full of tasty things,” that “there are many good things to eat, but the rest of the world marketplace doesn’t know it yet.” At the core of The Cooking Gene is a profoundly religious vision, a wonder at the beauty of this world of gifts, a kind of relentless hopefulness in the possibilities of human communion, and the fervent desire to give names back to those we have scratched out, to revivify the unforgotten.
A few years ago, Michael David Lukas wrote about what he calls the “polyphonic novel” for this site. His new novel is a jewel of the form, weaving voices of modern Cairo with those from the city’s millennium-plus history, and describing events leading to the discovery of the famed Genizah trove in the Ben Ezra Synagogue. Lukas is interested in the sites of Jewish history in Muslim-majority contexts–his first novel, The Oracle of Stamboul, was a magical realist work about a Jewish girl during the waning days of the Ottoman empire. The Last Watchman of Old Cairo juxtaposes the peregrinations of Joseph–a young American graduate student with Egyptian Muslim and Jewish roots–with the life of a distant forbear and those of the so-called “Sisters of Sinai,” who played a critical role in the development of scriptural history. In addition to his novel-writing, Lukas works at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at UC Berkeley (where I also used to work, although we didn’t overlap–we met on a losing team at a book trivia fundraiser thing, and now meet up every so often to discuss books and babies). At Berkeley, he runs an online exchange between students in the U.S. and the Middle East. I spoke with him about how this novel, like that work, looks for the sites of coexistence in a long shared past.
The Millions (TM): Tell me about the Genizah and the source material for the book.
Michael David Lukas (MDL): So, I’ll start with the first seed, which was that I studied abroad in Cairo during my junior year of college. It was a weird period in my life, and in the world, and it was my first time living in the Arab World. I was feeling somewhat alienated from my Jewishness. It was during the Second Intifada–I was hyper aware of, and also very conscious of, and also sort of defensive about, and alienated from my Jewishness all at the same time. I was really enjoying the city but having a hard time figuring out how I fit into it. And in the midst of this, I came upon the synagogue at the heart of the city. Seeing that, and realizing that there was thousand-year-old history of Jews in Cairo, I had a sense not only of the possibilities of coexistence, but also of how I fit into the place.
And then later on, I learned that this synagogue is the site of all these amazing stories and of the famed Genizah in its attic. Jews would hold onto any piece of paper that had the word “God” written on it; there was a prohibition against throwing away those pieces of paper. So for hundreds and hundreds of years, they kept these pieces of paper up in the attic because it was dry. They didn’t mold, and in the 19th century they were discovered by Solomon Schechter and the British twins, Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson.
That’s the first seed, and it was dormant for a long time. Then many years later I had an experience where I sat next to this woman on a plane and we ended up talking for basically the whole flight across the country, and she told me that her family had been the watchmen of a synagogue in Kolkata. She was Bengali Muslim. That sparked this memory of that other synagogue in Cairo and the Jewish-Muslim coexistence, and it all kind of came together.
TM: What sort of sources did you use to familiarize yourself with the twins, and with their part of the story?
MDL: They were so interesting. They were very Victorian, bible-hunter-type folks, but also very quirky. Luckily there are a few books written about them. One in particular called The Sisters of Sinai was useful. They actually wrote a couple of books about their experiences as well, so I knew their voices, and I knew how I wanted to position them in the narrative–kind of this driving force behind the discovery that didn’t really get recognized as a driving force at the time.
One thing that was difficult about it was that as much as they were proto-feminists, and really remarkable for what they were able to accomplish at a time that was quite misogynist and when women weren’t able to go to Cambridge, they were also, as one would imagine, pretty imperialistic. So I didn’t want to lionize them even though they are in one sense heroes of the story. Since it was such a close point of view, it was hard to figure out ways to show their colonialist mentality, without reifying it, or supporting it. I ended up having them be proven wrong in a number of ways about their assumptions about Egyptians, or about the way things work in Egypt, when these assumptions were undercut by events.
TM: Your last novel also had a Jewish protagonist in a Muslim-majority context,.
MDL: My brother-in-law was like, “You gotta stop writing these Jewish novels, no one cares.”
TM: Your novel-in-progress is also a Jewish novel, right?
MDL: My current novel is different because it’s set in the future. You don’t necessarily realize that it’s a Jewish protagonist, although it’s a rewriting of the Book of Esther. It’s more like The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe is a Christian novel. I think to a Jewish reader it feels very Jewish, but I think to other readers it might not.
TM: It’s an Abrahamic novel.
MDL: Exactly, Abrahamic. That was really the whole point. That’s the idea behind the original title, which was the 43rd Name of God. The idea being, there are lots of names for God, to encapsulate one entity or one way of being.
TM: I love how The Last Watchman highlights the fact that Jewish history–and Arab history, and Muslim history–is so rich and complex as a result of the interplay of cultural and religious traditions. When you talk to Jewish people and tell them you’re writing about Jews in a Muslim-majority context, what kind of responses do you get?
MDL: I think about it this way: Jews have been in the United States for 350 years. Jews were in Cairo for a thousand. Within that kind of time span, you have ups and downs, obviously. But that long history of Jews in the Arab world has been erased in a lot of ways, for political means, or political purposes, by all parties.
I’m very careful to paint neither too rosy a picture, nor too much of a picture of conflict. I chose the time period of the novel specifically to be able to paint a picture that was complex. The two books that I can think of about Cairene or Egyptian Jews are Lucette Lagnado, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, and André Aciman’sOut of Egypt. Those are both personal memoirs about the expulsion of the 1950s, when Gamal Abdel Nasser expelled foreigners from Egypt and put Jews in that category. Some Jews were foreigners, from Italy, France, or what have you, but there were other Jews who were from Cairo, whose families had lived there for a thousand years.
In terms of the response I get, generally people are pretty interested. There’s a kind of wide appetite for this sort of thing, if only because it stakes a Jewish claim in this place. Then there are a lot of Jews who are very focused on the late twentieth-century conflict, and that history. So they aren’t really trying to hear the previous history, which doesn’t fit into the narratives of “it was really bad and then Israel came along and they were saved,” which sort of reverses the chain of events as they actually happened.
Generally, people are pretty happy to read about Jewish lives. The book is so much about this interplay between Muslim and Jewish identity, I’ll be curious to how people react to that.
TM: What is the Cairene Jewish community like today?
MDL: There aren’t that many Jews who still live in Cairo. When I was there in the year 2000, I went to Rosh Hashanah services and the synagogue was completely full, but it was mostly staffers from the American and Israeli embassies, and oil company employees. There were a few Cairene Jews who were there, and I based some characters in the book on them, like sort of seeing them from a distance.
But apparently there’s been a real resurgence in interest in Jewish history in Egypt. There was a little mini-series on TV and there have been a few people who have rediscovered their Jewish roots, including one famous actor who came out as Jewish, with a Jewish mother. There were a couple of famous Jewish actors during the golden age of Egyptian cinema, one of whom converted to Islam in order to advance her career. Which sounds crazy, but it happened in Hollywood all the time.
Jews were a part of the cultural fabric. You can see these little traces of that history if you know what to look for, but you really have to know what to look for.
TM: You were an undergraduate when you were in Cairo the first time. Did you go back and do more research for this book?
MDL: Well I set it in the year 2000, which is when I was still there, which is sort of a cop-out. I went back a couple times subsequently, just to get a sense of the place and the feeling of being there. Being in Cairo is such a visceral experience, the sweaty taxi seat sticking to your back–that’s basically what I went back for, to reacquaint myself with what it’s like to be in the city.
TM: Why do you say cop-out?
MDL: I wanted the book to take place before the Arab Spring, because that’s the city I’m familiar with. When the Arab Spring was happening, I was two or three years into writing the book, and every person I would talk to about the book would say something like “Oh, that’s so relevant. You’re going to work in some Arab Spring angle.” And I really didn’t want to do that. In part because it was happening as we were talking, and in part because I knew I wouldn’t do it justice.
TM: Well it seems that few people who tried to sound authoritative about it at the time did it justice.
MDL: Yes, looking now–where the security apparatus is deeply paranoid, even more so than it was, even more authoritarian and regressive than it was.
TM: I think the angle of your story is so specific, and it’s looking at a kind of interaction and historical mosaic that is not usually emphasized in discussions about the so-called “Middle East” in the United States. But you’re still an American writing about Egypt in a weird American moment. Did you feel anxious about how to fairly depict Egyptians?
MDL: I definitely thought about it a lot. The answer that I came to is that it’s sort of a story that would be difficult to be told by anybody, because there are so many different perspectives and identities at play. That was sort of the point, was to create a mosaic of different perspectives. There’s the Presbyterian Scottish twin. There’s the half-Muslim, half-Jewish graduate student. There’s the Muslim teenager in the 11th century. In writing a polyphonic novel, you force yourself into writing perspectives that aren’t your own.
TM: And your graduate student protagonist is also a gay man.
MDL: That was something I definitely thought about. As with all of these characters, his identity was fully formed when I met him, so it’s really not an issue of deciding, is he going to be gay or not? It was about deciding how to represent that and deal with who he was, protagonist-wise.
TM: When you say, when you met him, he just shows up in your brain?
MDL: Yeah. Joseph just kind of showed up as who he was. The thing that was hardest was not trying to write a half-Muslim, half-Jewish character, or a gay character, although I thought a lot about those things and talked to a lot of friends as I was doing it. The thing that was most difficult is that he’s the character who felt closest to me, closer than any person I’ve ever written, and I really identified with him. I got, I think, overly identified with him, and was trying to write him as me, as a sort of version of myself. At a certain point I realized I needed to take a step back from him. He was his own person, a fictional person and I needed to write him as who he was–someone who had a lot of the same experiences as me, but also separate.
TM: I’m laughing because that’s exactly the way you could talk about having a child. You just meet them and that’s just what they’re like–you can’t change anything fundamental about them so much as steer, or course-correct. You forget and try to make them you (a better you, obviously), but they’re not you.
MDL: It’s exactly like that. It’s like trying to be the best parent that you can be to that particular child, and wondering who they are, rather than trying to impose who you are on them. While also recognizing that they’re a piece of you.
I do think having a child made me better understand my own writing in general. I think for Joseph I didn’t fully get him until I was able to see him as a child, from his parents’ perspective, and to see the brat that he was, in a way. Seeing that I was like, oh, now I get it. Because it’s a novel about his relationship to his parents in a lot of ways. I was missing that huge piece and didn’t know I was missing it.
Despite never writing about it directly, explicitly—the way he wrote about cruise ships or Roger Federer or the eating of lobsters—David Foster Wallace had a keen and lifelong interest in the brain. There was an obvious personal reason for this: on most of the days of his life, he consumed brain-altering chemicals as a way to stave off suicidal depression. His first published short story is essentially an extended musing on the connections between chemicals, the brain, and subjective wellbeing. These interests continue to animate his early works; both The Broom of the System (1987) and Girl with Curious Hair (1989) are peppered with offhand but learned references to neuroanatomy. Paul D. MacLean’s once-popular triune brain theory appears in Infinite Jest, and there are also quieter references to Gilbert Ryle and Julian Jaynes—two other well-known theorists of the relations between neurology and the mind. As Wallace scholar Stephen J. Burn has put it, analyzing The Pale King (2011), Wallace nurtured a “career-long fascination with consciousness.”
His 2004 short-story collection Oblivion has always been a somewhat confusing book: dense, obtuse, cold, fragmented, a little cruel. However, while penning a PhD thesis on the intersections between neuroscience, theories of consciousness, and modern Anglo-American literature—a Wallacian labyrinth of thought if ever there was one—I think I have come to understand Oblivion for what it really is: A work of horror fiction, whose unique brand of horror is rooted in Wallace’s reading about the brain.
In the eight years between Infinite Jest and Oblivion, Wallace’s reading in neuroscience and consciousness studies intensified. His essay “Consider the Lobster,” published almost in tandem with Oblivion, displays a sophistication of engagement with neuroscience that outstrips any of his previous work, referencing nociceptors and prostaglandins and endorphins and enkephalins. The more precise direction of Wallace’s reading is indicated by two books found in his personal library (preserved today at the Harry Ransom Centre at UT in Austin): the Danish popular science writer Tor Nørretranders’s The User Illusion, and Timothy D. Wilson’s Strangers to Ourselves. Wallace read both of these works of popular consciousness studies closely, and what he took from them is revealed by his annotations. In Nørretranders’s The User Illusion, Wallace has heavily underlined a section where Nørretranders writes “Consciousness is a fraud.” On another page Nørretranders has written “Most of what we experience, we can never tell each other about—we can share the experience that through language we are unable to share most of what we experience.” In his copy, Wallace has underlined this paragraph, and written, at the top of the page, “Loneliness—Can’t Talk About It.” In Wilson’s Strangers to Ourselves, alongside Wilson’s remark that “Freud’s vision of the unconscious was far too limited,” Wallace’s scribbled note reads “omniscient not on conscious thought but on unconscious drives” [sic]. Most of what we think of as self-directed behavior, explains Wilson, may well be actually “non-conscious intention.”
These quotes give you a sense of these two books, both of which build on what Alan Richardson calls “one of the great lessons of the cognitive revolution”: “just how much of mental life remains closed to introspection.” As a brief summation, the unified thesis of Nørretranders’s and Wilson’s works looks something like this: We are not really in control. Not only are we not in control, but we are not even aware of the things of which we are not in control. Our ability to judge anything with any accuracy is a lie, as is our ability to perceive these lies as lies. Consciousness masquerades as awareness and agency, but the sense of self it conjures is an illusion. We are stranded in the great opaque secret of our biology, and what we call subjectivity is a powerless epiphenomenon, sort of like a helpless rider on the back of a galloping horse—the view is great, but pulling on the reins does nothing.
If this description of reality feels familiar to you, it’s because such a neuroscientifically inspired pessimism is a quiet but powerful strain of modern thinking. It lurks in the shadows of the breezy materialism professed by science popularizers such as Richard Dawkins and Neil deGrasse Tyson—who tend to shroud the meaninglessness behind a smokescreen of excitable awe. Raymond Tallis calls the worldview conjured by works such as Nørretranders’s and Wilson’s “biologic pessimism.” In its broad strokes, the shadow of biologic pessimism is what dismayed a young William James. Today, it informs the work of the philosopher John Gray, and has found its most popular advocate in the character of Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle, in HBO’s True Detective. When Cohle explains to Woody Harrelson’s character that he thinks “human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution,” and that “we are things that labor under the illusion of having a self,” what sounds like poseurish gloom actually an entirely rational, reasonable interpretation of the modern scientific paradigm. As Wallace himself put it elsewhere, in his not-so-compact history of infinity, what science tells us is that “our love for our children is evolutionarily preprogrammed” and “our thoughts and feelings are really just chemical transfers in 2.8 pounds of electrified pâté.”
The character of Rust Cohle in True Detective links nearly back to Wallace’s Oblivion by virtue of the fact that the character of Rust Cohle was based to an almost plagiaristic degree on the nonfictional musings of another American fiction author: Thomas Ligotti. Ligotti, probably the finest living American horror writer, has built a whole fictional style upon the same pessimistic interpretation of the brain sciences that Wallace himself appears to have arrived at independently. And though Wallace, unlike Ligotti, is not known first and foremost as a horror author he was in fact a lifelong fan of the genre. His teaching syllabi included Stephen King, he adored the work of Thomas Harris (particularly Red Dragon), and he praised Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian as “probably the most horrifying book of this century.” Wallace was also a “fanatical” David Lynch fan, and wrote a long piece praising his work for being “not about monsters…but about hauntings, about evil as environment, possibility, force.” For Lynch, Wallace wrote, “Darkness is in everything, all the time—not ‘lurking below’ or ‘lying in wait’ or ‘hovering on the horizon’: evil is here, right now.”
As it turns out, Wallace’s assessment of the special atmosphere of Lynch’s horror (published in 1996) functions as an uncannily accurate description of his own Oblivion (published in 2004). Oblivion was a strange collection that quietly baffled many readers, both when it was first published and to this day. But when you understand that the whole collection is about the horror of consciousness, what first appears as a fragmented piece of work achieves cohesion. With Oblivion, these two deep-set interests—the brain, and dispiriting interpretations of its nature and relationship to our subjective lives; and horror—collide.
“Mr. Squishy,” Oblivion’s opening piece, is infused with an air of subjectivity as helpless, capricious, and buffeted by winds of influence over which it has no control. The pitiable protagonist, Terry Schmidt, is tortured by his lust for a co-worker, and is driven to masturbation “without feeling as if he could help himself.” In his imaginings he cuts a pathetic figure, and he is troubled by “his apparent inability to enforce his preferences even in fantasy.” The state of affairs, we learn, “made Schmidt wonder if he even had what convention called a Free Will, deep down.” (Readers may know of Benjamin Libet’s famous experiments, often taken as strong neuroscientific evidence of the non-existence of free will.) Schmidt has “had several years of psychotherapy,” but remains helpless. So total is his isolation of self, that Schmidt is on the verge of “making a dark difference with a hypo and eight cc’s of castor bean distillate”—that is, committing mass murder via mass-poisoned commercial confectionary.
In “The Soul Is Not a Smithy,” a ranging recollection of a day in the childhood of an unnamed adult narrator, filters through the claustrophobia of an anxious mind a pitch of ascending dread and doom, the presence of violent insanity, and a lethal culmination. Evoking directly Wallace’s neuroscientific reading, the narrator muses that “that the most vivid and enduring occurrences in our lives are often those that occur at the periphery of our awareness.” The big cruel joke of “The Soul Is Not a Smithy” is that the narrator’s consciousness is so capricious and fickle that it has missed absorbing “the most dramatic and exciting event I would ever be involved in in my life.” The entire story is the narrator’s attempt to learn about an event that he rather ludicrously has no real first hand knowledge of because of his inadequate brain.
The flash fictional “Incarnations of Burned Children” seems to darkly riff upon this chronic mind-scatteredness which blights so many of Oblivion’s cast, by having the awful events of the story render the father’s “mind empty of everything but purpose”—a state the narrators of the rest of the collection could never hope to achieve. Only under such awful extreme duress, it suggests, might consciousness reach something like an unfiltered, directional tone. “Another Pioneer” has at its heart the horror of (brain-based) self-consciousness: Within the nested story, doom for the jungle village follows the moment when the child messiah’s “cognitive powers [bent] back in on themselves and transformed him from messianic to monstrous,” powers “whose lethal involution resonates with malignant self-consciousness”—a self-consciousness that was a constant theme of Wallace’s work, and which the story declares can be found “in everything from Genesis 3:7 to the self-devouring Kirttimukha of the Skanda Purana to the Medousa’s reflective demise to Gödelian metalogic.”
This crushing weight of self-consciousness is at the heart of Oblivion’s most famous story, “Good Old Neon,” which n+1 called the collection’s “one indisputable masterpiece.” The pseudo-narrator of “Good Old Neon,” Neal, has spent his life tortured by “the fraudulence paradox”: “the more time and effort you put into trying to appear impressive or attractive to other people, the less impressive or attractive you felt inside—you were a fraud.” The pressure eventually becomes so great that Neal kills himself. The crucial point is that all of Neal’s extensive and extensively described suffering can be located in the makeup and character of the human brain, not society or culture. By the end of the story the strong impression is that Neal’s condition is but a particularly acute version of a basic human predicament. As he puts it, it’s “not as if this is an incredibly rare or obscure type of personality.” In the modern neuroscientific paradigm, Neal’s suspicion that “in reality I actually seemed to have no true inner self” is absolutely correct. There is really nothing outlandish about Neal’s fears; within Oblivion’s neuropessimism, they are simple truisms. We do experience time poorly; language is in many ways a weak tool. The same goes for his fear that he is “unable to love:” from a hard Darwinian viewpoint, we are all unable to love, really—or more accurately, what we think we are doing when we love is actually not loving at all as we understand that word. Neal recognizes this himself: “we are all basically just instruments or expressions of our evolutionary drives, which are themselves the expressions of forces that are infinitely larger and more important than we are.”
In the title story, “Oblivion,” the protagonist and his wife are so incapable of accurately telling perception from reality that one or both of them can’t tell when they are awake and when they are asleep. The narrator’s “seven months of severe sleep disturbance” have made for a “neural protest” of symptoms that underpin the story’s oppressive, nervous atmosphere. This atmosphere achieves full bloom in Oblivion’s closing novella, “The Suffering Channel,” which features the story’s eponymous production company and their “registered motto” “CONSCIOUSNESS IS NATURE’S NIGHTMARE.” (A quotation from the famous pessimist philosopher Emil Cioran, who wrote books with such cheery titles as The Trouble with Being Born.) “The Suffering Channel” features various lonely people failing to connect via their “tiny keyholes” of self. The story’s focus on defecating is really an extended metaphor for the interior, the private–that which is common to all, but which is very rarely (to contaminate the metaphor) pushed through the keyhole. Our inability or social aversion to share with one another the deepest workings of our large intestines mirrors our inability to share the deepest workings of our minds. What we have is scatological representation of what philosophers call the Hard Problem. All of the characters of “The Suffering Channel” labor under “the conflict between the subjective centrality of our own lives versus our awareness of its objective insignificance”—in and of itself the overarching tragedy of the whole of Oblivion.
2. Ultimately, just as Wallace wrote that David Lynch’s movies were about “not about monsters…but about hauntings, about evil as environment, possibility, force;” that for Lynch “Darkness is in everything, all the time—not ‘lurking below’ or ‘lying in wait’ or ‘hovering on the horizon’: evil is here, right now”–Oblivion is a collection about horror as the basic state of existence. The darkness and dread and horror of Oblivion is not in monsters or evil people; it is in the environment, in all of us, in our neurology and fraught consciousness and ill-evolved minds. Ligotti has written that all real horror writing, from Ann Radcliffe through to H.P. Lovecraft, is motivated by the specter of “the universe itself as centerless and our species as only a smudge of organic materials at the mercy of forces that know us not.” By these standards, Wallace, driven by his voluminous reading in the brain sciences, joins the club. In my thesis—academia being a world where the coining of neologisms is a mark of one’s stunningly original thinking—I refer to this style of existential horror, rooted in an interpretation of modern neuroscience, as neurohorror.
If there is a chink of philosophical sunlight, it is that Wallace may not have totally believed in the worldview of biologic pessimism. Oblivion and Wallace’s final, tortuously produced, unfinished novel The Pale King were heavily intertwined. Wallace used the same notebooks for each, and funneled sections of one into the other as he went. Many critics think that the unrelenting misery of Oblivion was supposed to find its relief and counterpoint in its novelistic partner. As Wallace’s biographer D.T. Max puts it, “while Oblivion was descriptive, The Pale King was supposed to be prescriptive. It had to convince the reader that there was a way out of the bind. It had to have a commitment to a solution that Oblivion lacked.” The neurohorror of Oblivion may have represented a flexing of Wallace’s pessimist muscles, in advance of an attempt to overpower them. As Wallace himself said in an interview, “any possible human redemption requires us first to face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.”
I mentioned that the biologic pessimism that caught Wallace’s attention mirrored that which preoccupied William James a century prior. Wallace’s potential solution or counterargument also mirrored James’s. Indeed, in the very same books that inspired Wallace’s neuropessimism, we find him searching for a more sanguine and more Jamesian reading. On page 129 of Nørretranders, Wallace underlined “You can direct your attention where you like.” On 133, he has underlined “the headiness of attaining high, clear awareness,” and under a section explaining the cortex he wrote “change in attention cause activity change in cortex” (sic). The brain might be the problem, but it appears that within these books Wallace was searching for a way for the brain to also become part of the solution. Underneath a quoted passage from William James, he wrote “Able to Choose Focus of Attention.” This would become the backbone to the hard-won optimism of “This is Water.”As David H. Evans has written, James put “activity rather than passivity at the core of our relation to the world” by affirming the subjective power of “the possibility of choice”–choice in terms of, to quote “This is Water,” “some control over how and what you think” over “what you pay attention to…how you construct meaning from experience.” This basic stance can also be observed in other thought systems Wallace was drawn to during his life, notably Buddhism.
The most pessimistic reading of all, though, must draw attention to the biographical elephant in the room: Wallace’s suicide. In the end, it was his brain—suffering with terrible withdrawal after years of being awash in the chemical mix of Nardil—that killed him. He couldn’t think his way out, couldn’t “construct meaning from experience” in a way that made something other than suicide the best option. It’s possible to see this as a cruel and tragic vindication of the neuro-determinism which colors Oblivion. He completed Oblivion, but wasn’t able to finish its optimistic companion The Pale King, despite years of trying—there is a sort of horrible literary mirror of Wallace’s own inner life there. Unlike in fiction—where, despite it all, at the end of HBO’s True Detective, Rust Cohle is able to remark hopefully that “the light’s winning”—we don’t choose our endings. Wallace dug deeply and unflinchingly into the real challenges of modern existence; he made us “face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.” It remains with the rest of us to figure out how to live with it.