- Nothing to See Here—Kevin Wilson
- The Fortnight in September—R. C. Sherriff
- Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer—Arthur Lubow
- The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art—Sebastian Smee
- The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood—Sam Wasson
- Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art—Mary Gabriel
- How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy—
- Nothing to See Here—Kevin Wilson
- Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein—Gertrude Stein
- English Journey—J. B. Priestley
Do you remember the pandemic? I ask because I have to submit this column a couple of months before publication, and I am imagining that we will be through it and out the other side by the time you get to read it. Or maybe you’ll pick up this issue of The Believer in a couple of years, and you’ll be like, A pandemic? And you’ll have to put the magazine down and consult Wikipedia to remind yourself of what went on in 2020. I am joking, of course. Normally I wouldn’t say, “I am joking, of course,” but that feeble effort is the first joke I have made since March, and I have lost my moorings. You’ve probably lost yours too.
You might have hoped that this column could provide some respite from the troubles of the world, but our consumption of books has been profoundly affected by them. Some of us have found reading hard; some of us have read more, including War and Peace and Ulysses; some of us have avoided dystopic or otherwise miserable fiction while wolfing down endless Agatha Christie novels; some of us have started over seven thousand books, only to find that not a single one of them is speaking to us in ways we can hear. My best and easiest reading time was over the summer, when it looked like everything was returning to normal. Now winter is approaching, and in Britain, at least, the virus is back and looking more menacing than it did in the spring, and once again, I am trawling my shelves for le livre juste, without having a clue what that book should be about, what tone it should have, how many pages it should be, whether the words should rhyme, what language it should be in. Let’s avoid the present, now and for the foreseeable future, when talking about books or any other subject, and I will take you back to my sunny garden and the few weeks when literature made perfect sense.
Kevin Wilson’s Nothing to See Here is a novel about class and friendship, and it has a lot to say on both these subjects. Madison Roberts and Lillian Breaker meet at an exclusive prep school for girls. Madison is beautiful, and has money, and is now married to a senator; Lillian was a scholarship girl from a single-parent family but got chucked out for possession of cocaine. The cocaine actually belonged to Madison, but Madison’s father offered Lillian’s mother some money to induce her to persuade Lillian to take the rap. Now Lillian is working in a supermarket, living back at home, all promise and ambition long abandoned. The novel begins with Madison reaching out in a letter and inviting Lillian to visit her in her mansion.
There are other novels like this, and one might happily read them and get all empathetic about injustice and marvel at the tenacity of friendships and so on. But here’s the thing: Madison now has two stepchildren who catch fire, spontaneously, when they get stressed-out, and she wants Lillian to take care of them. And that’s what makes Nothing to See Here a work of genius: surprising, funny, sad, and completely original. This is the second book by Wilson I have read that contains these qualities. His first novel, The Family Fang, was just as fresh, just as lovable, although perhaps the clean lines of Nothing to See Here give it an edge. Either way, Wilson is a fantastic talent, and that talent, fellow pandemic-reading strugglers, is honed to provide books so smart and entertaining that you want some kind of government authority to make him write more, quickly, and tell other writers how it’s done. We need novels like this urgently.
The only other author I know of who manages to find room for spontaneous combustion is Dickens, in Bleak House, although Dickens was sufficiently chicken to inflict the calamity on a minor character. Bessie and Roland, Madison’s stepchildren, are necessarily at the center here, because they cause a lot of trouble to all concerned—they do no harm to themselves when they get worked up and incendiary, but they are a danger to curtains, and their carers, and so on. And if you’re reading this and wondering how Wilson gets away with it tonally, then imagine what, say, Anne Tyler would do with the material: she would get in close, and observe with sympathy and, when appropriate, humor, and you would believe immediately that this is just another condition we don’t know about, albeit one that speaks convenient volumes about the ways in which adults can damage their kids. I craved Nothing to See Here, and I had no idea of this craving before I began it.
I’m not sure whether R. C. Sherriff’s The Fortnight in September is a sale that’s harder to close with readers in the US, but I am going to try anyway, because it meant just as much to me, in completely different ways, as Kevin Wilson’s novel. I came across it in one of those “What to Read When the World Is So Fucking Awful” lists that our newspapers were full of a few months ago; most of the suggestions seemed both useless and actively cruel to me, but Kazuo Ishiguro recommended a mostly forgotten 1931 novel by a man better known as a screenwriter and the author of the play Journey’s End. (The play is familiar to every British male of a certain age who went to a single-sex school, which is just about all of us over the age of sixty, because it is about the First World War and there are no women in it.) Ishiguro called it “the most uplifting, life-affirming novel I can think of right now,” and I had bought it before I finished the rest of the paragraph.
The bad news first: the entire book is about the kind of British seaside holiday that might make more fortunate nationalities weep for us. Cheap foreign travel brought this kind of vacation to an end, but not before generation after generation had experienced endless rainy days in Bournemouth or Bexhill or, in this case, Bognor Regis, the shabby hotels and boardinghouses, the disastrous food, the quiet evenings spent doing crosswords or playing cribbage. We used to look forward to them too. The Fortnight in September documents every single moment of the Stevens family’s two weeks away, early Nicholson Baker–style—they don’t get off the train at Bognor Regis station until the twelfth chapter—and yet it somehow manages to be both enthralling and heartbreaking, without ever stretching the discipline or truth of the novel. There are five Stevenses—a mother, father, two grown-up kids, and a younger boy—and each of them is granted a moment of profundity, or drama, or self-recognition, and the inherently undramatic contexts for these moments make them all the more surprising and powerful. Sherriff is also quite brilliant on how annual holidays distort and accentuate the passing of time: “Today it had travelled gropingly,” Mr. Stevens reflects on the first evening, “like an engine in the fog, but now, with each passing hour of the holiday, it would gather speed, and the days would flash by like little wayside stations. In a fortnight he would be sitting in this room on the last evening, thinking how the first night of the holiday seemed like yesterday—full of regrets at wasted time.” As someone who has spent every one of the last eleven summers with the same families, and has gone from worrying about the children drowning to worrying about the children drowning while drunk, I found something especially meaningful in The Fortnight in September and its melancholy, angular intimations of mortality. These two novels are among my favorites ever, the books I will recommend to friends for as long as I have a memory, or friends. What a miracle that I should come across both in the bleakest of years.
Books about art, or at least about artists, seemed to hit a spot, too, and only partly because artists are mad and funny and live lives designed for the prurient enjoyment of those who come after them. It was news to me, for example (although probably not to you, dear sophisticated Believer reader), that according to Arthur Lubow’s long, exemplary, and authoritative biography, Diane Arbus maintained a sexual relationship with her brother throughout her life. It’s the little things like that which hook you in, but you stay hooked because of the description and dissection of Arbus’s art: I can honestly say that this is the first time I have properly understood how and why photography has the right to be considered a true expression of self in the way that writing and painting are. There is an extraordinary story here about the picture Woman on a Park Bench on a Sunny Day, a rather mournful portrait of a middle-aged woman wearing a sleeveless dress, her face etched with troubles but trying out a smile anyway. A friend of Arbus’s, on seeing the picture, reacted with shock for two reasons. The first was that he had seen the woman many times, and she had always seemed happy. Those who don’t like Arbus’s work would feel that the choice of print confirms the photographer’s dark worldview, that her thumb was always on the scales. But the second reason for the friend’s reaction was that he knew that the woman on the park bench had committed suicide not long after the shot was taken. Arbus took her own life, too, of course, so what did she see in the woman on the bench? The little boy in the photo The Child with a Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, NYC grew up to be someone who recognized himself in the picture only when he was older and wiser. Of the photo, he said, “She saw in me the frustration, the anger at my surroundings, the kid wanting to explode but can’t because he’s constrained by his background… She’s sad about me. ‘What’s going to happen to him?’ What I feel is that she likes me. She can’t take me under her wing but she can give me a whirl.” As Lubow says piercingly, “She was a dowsing rod for anguish.”
Sebastian Smee’s The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art is every bit as grounded in the real and the biographical as the Arbus book, even though it is, in essence, a work of art criticism, and works of art criticism can, at their worst, float away from what you can see and learn from pictures way off toward the clouds, and you find yourself thinking, Well, what if I don’t feel that? What if I’m not disoriented, or made uneasy by the shock of the new, or discomfited by the gaze of the sitter? But Sebastian Smee is way too good a writer to rest anything on the vague and the hopeful, and the four relationships in his book were all intimate, real, tumultuous, and deeply significant in the careers of the artists concerned.
Here’s how unfanciful, how substantial and demonstrative, these relationships are: A drunken hug between de Kooning and Pollock resulted in Pollock falling heavily, pulling his friend down on top of him. Pollock broke his ankle. After Pollock’s death, de Kooning took up with Ruth Kligman, Pollock’s lover and the sole survivor of the car crash that killed him. The portrait that Degas painted of Manet and his wife, currently in an obscure museum in an industrial city in Japan, is now incomplete—Manet cut part of it away, perhaps as a response to what he felt it revealed about his marriage. This book is biography as criticism, and it is, I think, spectacularly successful.
But that was then; this is now. As I write, London is heading back into partial lockdown. Starting tomorrow, we can no longer visit our friends in their homes, or meet them in restaurants or pubs. Winter is approaching, and the light and hope of the summer are disappearing. We must again retreat into our heads. This isn’t a test of the power of the written word, of novels and memoirs and poetry. The written word has seen off every challenge that the world has thrown at it since the invention of the printing press. But it is a test of our relationship with books, of how well we know what we want from them. Looking around, I see I have started Ben Folds’s autobiography; Elizabeth Jane Howard’s novel Getting It Right; Phyllis Rose’s Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages; Ann Wroe’s book about Pontius Pilate… Something will hit the spot, and if it doesn’t, I will keep looking. I have to.