Author Archives: Fiction Advocate

The Nyugat Generation

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Budapest

The 7 Greatest Hungarian Novelists of the 20th Century

I imagine that sometimes, in his restless wandering, the mercurial Spirit of literature lingers a little longer in certain places, gracing them with strange intensity that finds flesh in language. This otherworldly urgency can inspire a whole generation of writers. It is as if this task, at this moment, in this particular place, is too much for a single human being to shoulder.

I feel this way about the work of the so-called Nyugat generation of writers and poets that came of age around the turn of the 20th century in Budapest. They were named after the Nyugat (Hungarian for “west” or “Occident”), a progressive literary magazine established in 1908, which published new prose and poetry and provided soil for literary careers to sprout and mature. Most of these writers are still practically unknown outside of Hungary.

Hungarian, completely unrelated to the Indo-European languages of Europe, with its larger-than-life reputation of being impossible to conquer (I disagree), and with only about 13 million speakers around the world, certainly contributes to the isolation of the prose and poetry that came into the world in its skin. Reading John Lukacs’ Budapest 1900 (Grove Press, 1988), I was glad to see that many more authors and works have been translated into English in the last twenty-five years. Today’s English speaking reader no longer has an excuse for his ignorance of Zsigmond Moricz, Gyula Krúdy, Dezső Kosztolányi, Frigyes Karinthy, Antal Szerb, Milán Füst and Sándor Márai (among many others).

The work of these seven authors is well represented in English. The writers knew each other, and, to a certain extent, I read their work as if eavesdropping on a nocturnal conversation about life, love, death, dreams, and alter egos.

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On the Origin of Geoff

The Colour of Memory

FA review tag

In the course of his career, British author Geoff Dyer has written books on jazz, World War I memorial culture, photography, D.H. Lawrence (really a book on procrastination), travel, the Russian art film Stalker, and—most recently—life aboard the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier U.S.S. George H.W. Bush. And that’s just his nonfiction; Dyer is also the author of four novels and numerous essays and reviews.

But until now, his first two novels, The Colour of Memory and The Search, have never been published in the United States. Graywolf Press (publisher of Dyer’s National Book Critics Circle Award-winning collection of occasional writings, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition) has taken advantage of the increasing acclaim for Dyer’s work and released the two earliest Dyer novels to an American audience for the first time.

Dyer’s first novel, The Colour of Memory, follows the life of a young man and his friends (based on the author and his own friends) who live on the dole in the Brixton section of London in the 1980s. Very little happens, plot-wise, in the course of the book. (Dyer’s novels tend to be light on plot.) A few romantic relationships start and end. But mostly the characters hang out, talk about movies and art, drink, do odd jobs, and go to parties.

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Ultramarine

Excerpted from A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall by Will Chancellor. Copyright © 2014 by Will Chancellor.

A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall

Four days after his second surgery, in his undersize bed, Owen woke with resolve. He glanced to his clock, hoping for a single digit. A six, an eight, even 9:59 would do. One. The wrong single digit. But it explained the light. Thin winter blue through empty air, not even a dust mote dancing. Or possibly it was just because he needed his left eye to get the oblique angle. He slowly rotated his head, rolling into the thick of a radiating headache. He swallowed a painkiller and went outside for air.

All it took was a nudge of the aluminum frame to open the screen door, stained with salt-wind and hinge-sprung. The sharp dry squeak, a call to the gulls. An onshore breeze held the door closed after Owen passed through.

If he would be going anywhere, this sand would have to go with him.

Owen staggered down the cliff behind his house and over the shale, pooled by the low tide. He crabbed along the rocks until he found his familiar ledge. Leaving his sandals behind, he leapt to the wet sand.

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Remember Me

Abroad

FA review tag

Early in Katie Crouch’s ambitious and unnerving new novel, Abroad, her young Irish student narrator, Taz Deacon, takes us on a tour of an Etruscan archeological museum in Grifonia, Italy, where she encounters violent images of Iphigenia, stabbed as a sacrifice to Artemis. Taz wants to understand whythis happened and whythe disturbing images are so insistently reproduced and displayed. A smug and patronizing German dude in her tour group warns her: “You are too interested in this gory story…. It’s a sad, complicated story. Much too complicated for you.” You can’t handle the truth, girl, he sniffs. Abroad, like the myth of Iphigenia and the many familiar and unfamiliar stories it refracts, issimultaneously complicated and disarmingly simple. Like its setting, Grifonia, “there are layers here, thousands of years of life and death and secrets and untold history.” But don’t let Crouch or Taz or the German dude scare you. This is a can’t-look-away kind of book.

Many people will read Abroad because they remain interested in, and maybe even perversely turned on by, the sad and complicated story of Amanda Knox. Others will read Abroad because they have come to expect from Crouch’s earlier books that she will have trenchant, funny, useful answers to the question “What is it, really, that feeds a friendship between women?” Crouch herself has encouraged this kind of reading, notably in her February 2014 Salon article, “Amanda Knox, what really happened: Writing toward the actual story.” In Salon, Crouch says that, like Taz, she is most interested in the question of why: “Why was Meredith Kercher killed?” And Crouch describes Amanda Knox as “caught in a fiction other people want to read,” encouraging Knox to write her own story. Crouch says that she herself is “working on a novel loosely inspired by” Meredith Kercher and Amanda Knox. “Truly worthy fiction has empathy, even for the sinners,” she says.

Abroad is truly worthy fiction. It has empathy. It’s even inspired. It is not, however the “actual story” of Amanda Knox—at least not in the newspaper or tabloid sense, and it never pretends or wants to be. Crouch’s loyal readers will find serious attention paid to what this book calls “that empowerment thing. Staying in front of it,” even as the story acknowledges, achingly, that, “of course, you’re never in front of the heart”.
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The Circle Jerk

The Circle

I wish someone besides Dave Eggers had written The Circle, a book about an Internet company that takes over the world.

I wish Jonathan Franzen had given The Circle the convincing female characters that tend to feature in his work, instead of the flatness and predictability of protagonist Mae and her best friend Annie, an up-and-coming Circle luminatus who hires her best friend from college into an entry level “Customer Experience” job. Quick plot summary: without really much emotional turmoil, Mae succumbs to corporate logic that technology has all the answers and that privacy is unequivocally bad, and ultimately helps the Circle to worm its way into dominant control over human activity writ large. I wish DFW had provided his sharp, brutal insights into corporate stagnation and hollow, apostatic greed, coupled, perhaps, with Douglas Coupland’s humor and particular flair with Silicon Valley. More than anything, I wish Jesse Ball had leant his far, far subtler allegorical vision and tidy but tender character interactions, rather than Eggers’ brutish (if earnest) attempt to steer a conversation about the politics of technology.

I wish all these things because we really need a much more convincing, more clever version of The Circle to intervene in ethical discussions of what it means to be online, to build relationships with and to and through data and algorithms. The last week has seen a raging debate on social media, privacy, experiments and research. The recap: Facebook researchers designed a technological intervention into the news feed of 700,000 users, tweaking the feed for two weeks based on semantic analysis of emotions. Results of the study were written up in a top research journal, and have leant themselves to some fairly scary headlines about Facebook manipulating the emotions of users without their knowledge. The fallout has stretched across mainstream newsmedia and the techno-elite, provoking corporate apologies and much academic debate.

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Proust Zumba

The Albertine Workout

FA review tag

1. Anne Carson has written her new book, The Albertine Workout, in numbered sections with alphabetical subsections. This makes for

a) easy reading.

b) an easy review conceit.

2. The content of the book could be described as the terse fruits of Carson’s labor to catalog all discernable facts about Albertine Simonet, the most lasting and beguiling of the Narrator’s loves in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.

3. The tone of the book is dry. You can hear this dryness in Carson’s reading and in this sample section: “3. Albertine herself is present or mentioned on 807 pages of Proust’s novel.”

4. The Albertine Workout is the latest from the New Directions Poetry Pamphlet series but don’t fret, it’s about prose and written in prose. Carson is not known for writing fiction but I would have to say she advocates for it, having produced a “novel in verse” and now a study of THE novel.

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Limiters by Christopher Stoddard

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FA review tag

Now here is a story of how we cannot heal, of how hurt endures—how these staggering losses, hallmarks of desolations, cannot be purified, sanctified, or cast away. For this very reason, Christopher Stoddard’s second novel Limiters, published earlier this year by the newly established Itna Press, is a corrective to traditional narratives of suffering and debauchery, which all too often end in platitudes about redemption, personal triumph, and painfully gained yet worthwhile insights into the self. In Limiters, the scars last. For narrator Kyle Mason, the pain doesn’t cease but it does change shape and develop agency. By the time he’s a man it’s all he knows: pain is the home he never had.

Divided into two sections—“Family Rave,” which is set in 1998 when Kyle is 16 and wandering the industrial wastelands of New England, and “Death to Organize,” which is set in New York City in 2008—Limiters is a split novel: it tells the tale of a wayward, injured youth and follows up with the ramifications a decade later. The split is jarring; you turn the page and ten years have passed. The likable, troubled teen is now a wrecked, desperate adult. “I’m a serial killer who’s lost his edge,” Kyle says early in the second section, “a sociopath who’s turned his hatred inward and mutilates his own mind rather than other people’s faces or bodies.”

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Give Us Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled Ebooks

Lady Liberty

Life’s a bitch.

In the New York Times, Tony Horwitz spills the details of his ill-fated attempt to publish an original work of long-form journalism in digital format.

After receiving an advance and using all of it to cover his travel expenses, Horwitz learned that his publisher — a nimble young company with grand ambitions for digital publishing — was giving up and going  home. Horwitz was able to find a new publisher, Byliner. They specialize in publishing original ebooks, and (I can say this, right?) about a year ago, I very nearly took a full-time job with them. Although Byliner did almost nothing to promote Horwitz’s story after publishing it, it still managed to top the Kindle Singles bestseller list — with a meager 700 or 800 copies sold — at which point Byliner made the dubious decision to stop selling it on Amazon altogether.

Writers of the world, we feel your pain. Publishing online is rough, especially if you want to earn money while doing it. But we’ve done it. Here at Fiction Advocate, with a volunteer staff of three people, we have published original works of long-form journalism in digital format, and we have done it well. When we published “The Real Holden Caulfield” by Michael Moats, it was excerpted in The Awl, The Rumpus, and Berfois, and praised online by The New Yorker, Readers Digest, Andrew Sullivan, Three Quarks Daily, Bookslut, Bookforum, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and The Second Pass. Craziest of all, the ebook was profitable from day one, thanks to the fact that we don’t pay ourselves, so any income is pure profit. We’re still giving Michael Moats his royalties. It’s not enough to live on, but it’s money that he continues to earn fairly and reliably and transparently.

Don’t get suckered by flashy start-ups who think they’ve cracked the code of digital publishing.

Trust the little guys, like us, who do it for love.

We’re open for submissions of fiction, non-fiction, and criticism.

FICTIONADVOCATE at GMAIL dot COM

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