George Saunders’ first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, reads like confetti, like fireworks, like a snowstorm. This novel, like an image made of pixels, is a collage of intricate individual parts that, taken together, create the dazzling swirl and pulse of tenuous coherence.
Allow me to literalize: it is a story told in snatches by dozens of different narrators, most of whom are dead and dwelling in the “bardo” (a Buddhist term for the transitional state between life and death) of a crypt in Georgetown. As in Dante’s Divine Comedy, the novel’s clearest intertext, souls are punished according to their sins—one sexually frustrated man sports a massively engorged member because he was never able to consummate his marriage. Death, heaven, and intermediate states have long been a fascination for Saunders, explored in stories like “Escape From Spiderhead,” “Sea Oak,” and “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline.” In Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders looses his ghosts on the graveyard to shuffle through their danse macabre. Continue reading
Sunshine State by Sarah Gerard: “Sarah Gerard follows her breakout novel, Binary Star, with the dynamic essay collection Sunshine State, which explores Florida as a microcosm of the most pressing economic and environmental perils haunting our society.”
Void Star by Zachary Mason: “Not far in the future the seas have risen and the central latitudes are emptying, but it’s still a good time to be rich in San Francisco, where weapons drones patrol the skies to keep out the multitudinous poor.”
Devil on the Cross by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: “An impassioned cry for a Kenya free of dictatorship and for African writers to work in their own local dialects, Devil on the Cross has had a profound influence on Africa and on post-colonial African literature.”
Also this month: We’ll interview Melissa Febos and Dodai Stewart, and review new books by George Saunders and Durga Chew-Bose.
In a recent interview, George Saunders said, “Writing is about charm, about finding and accessing and honing one’s particular charms.” For me, humor has overwhelming, alluring charm. Anyone who can make me laugh instantly takes on a special, shimmering gold aura. As one student once wrote in my teacher evaluation, “I learned a lot, but she laughs a lot.”
Alas, usually I’m the audience, laughing at the joker, because the only person in the world who thinks I’m funny is my husband. (Though everyone thinks he’s funny). It’s a sad thing, since my work-in-progress novel is supposed to be a romantic comedy.
Before there were smartphones and iPads, we used to read cereal boxes while we were eating — and we loved it.
This, I assume, is the driving principle behind a bunch of new paper products at your local Chipotle, which will feature short pieces by authors including Michael Lewis, Toni Morrison and George Saunders. The idea is the spawn of Jonathan Safran Foer who “was sitting at a Chipotle one day, when he realized that he had nothing to do while noshing on his burrito. He had neglected to bring a book or magazine, and he didn’t yet own a smartphone. ‘I really just wanted to die with frustration.'”
Out of this horrible experience was born the idea for something interesting on the cups. And rather than proposing that the next edition of McSweeney’s be published as a sleeve of paper cups, Safran Foer emailed Steve Ells, Chipotle’s CEO. Read the full history here.
I wish I could say something smart-alecky about this like it’s a dumb idea, but it’s actually a really cool idea. And this is not the first cool, quick art that Chipotle has been party to.
Go stuff your face and stuff your brain at the same time.
– Michael Moats
Chad Harbach, the editor and introducer of MFA vs NYC, calls his book a “jointly written novel” whose “composite heroine is the fiction writer circa 2014.” What better way to empathize with the composite heroine of this jointly written novel than to read her adventures in the year in which she lives and breathes and, hopefully, still writes? So the first thing I felt upon cracking MFA vs NYC in Istanbul, 5,628 miles away from Iowa and 5,014 from NYC, circa 2014, was a sense of freshness and immediacy. I associate those feelings with social media rather than books, and TV shows like Girls rather than essay collections on creative writing. This sense of newness was surprising, given that Harbach’s essay, which gives the book its title and kickstarts its central discussion, was published in 2010.
Although some of its material is a few years old, this is no book for old men. Nor is it written by them, but for one notable exception. The pieces in the book are concerned with a fresh question that most young-to-middle-aged English-speaking writers of our era are presumably asking themselves a lot: How should a fiction-writing person be in the world of American fiction, which seems profoundly divided between a university-based creating writing workshops culture, and a New York-based publishing and freelancing-until-the-moment-of-success-arrives culture?
And now it’s a book. Chad Harbach’s essay from n+1 about “the two cultures of American fiction”—the MFA mill and the NYC establishment—has grown into a collection of 19 essays, including pieces by George Saunders, Emily Gould, and Elif Batuman, all of them addressing the question of how, exactly, a person becomes a writer in this day and age.
One lesson of MFA vs NYC is that writers are almost always broke. Luckily for broke writers, 9 of the book’s essays are currently available online. So if you don’t want to buy MFA vs NYC—perhaps because you’re writing a novel about Moldavian zookeepers—here is half of it for free.
“MFA vs NYC” by Chad Harbach
“A Mini-Manifesto” by George Saunders
“The Fictional Future” by David Foster Wallace
“How To Be Popular” by Melissa Flashman
“People Wear Khakis” by Lorin Stein with Astri von Arbin Ahlander
“Money (2006)” by Keith Gessen
“The Invisible Vocation” by Elif Batuman
“Dirty Little Secret” by Fredric Jameson
“Reality Publishing” by Darryl Lorenzo Wellington
And some extra tidbits.
A few of these pieces were edited—shortened and/or given a different title–for the book. We’re using the titles from the book itself.
Three more essays have been published online. Thanks to Michael Bourne at The Millions for pointing them out.
“The Pyramid Scheme” by Eric Bennett
“Into the Woods” by Emily Gould
“Seduce the Whole World” by Carla Blumenkranz
– Brian Hurley