Stuff I’ve Been Reading: Spring 2023
- The Critic’s Daughter—Priscilla Gilman
- Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma—Claire Dederer
- Busy Being Free: A Lifelong Romantic Is Seduced by Solitude—Emma Forrest
- Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow—Gabrielle Zevin
- Lucy by the Sea—Elizabeth Strout
- Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, the Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm—Dan Charnas
- An Autobiography: And Other Writings—Anthony Trollope
- The Philosophy of Modern Song—Bob Dylan
- The Rabbit Hutch—Tess Gunty
- National Treasures: Saving the Nation’s Art in World War II—Caroline Shenton
Is a man ever going to write a good book again? Or rather: Is a man ever going to write a book that I actually want to read? Or are we finished as a gender? We had our time: Dickens, Kurt Vonnegut, Zane Grey, a bunch of others whose names I cannot remember… Oh, I’m just sucking up to you. I’m guessing that you’re either a woman, or a man who is fed up with men, and I can’t blame you. We’ve had a bad twenty-first century. And in any case, I have read a very good book by a man recently, but I’ve left him out because I couldn’t have started this column the way I did if I’d included him. The Believer is now a quarterly, so I can be, have to be, selective in the books I choose to write about here; I can, if I want, turn myself into any kind of reader I want to be. Next issue, this column might be full of novels written by people who have donated a kidney, and, once again, I will appear both superior and empathetic.
But it is true that I am more drawn to books by women at the stage of life I’m currently traveling through with alarming speed, before arriving somewhere I probably won’t want to be. Why is that? It’s not like these books have anything else in common: there’s a brilliant work of criticism, beautiful memoirs that do not resemble each other in tone or in subject matter, and two novels that could not be more unalike if they had come to us from Mars and Venus. (Younger readers: this is a reference to a popular book from the late twentieth century that floated the idea that men and women come from different planets. The science has moved us all on, as it so often does.) If I were to fall into Mars/Venus flytraps, however, I would say that the sensibility I need at the moment—from books, from life—is less likely to be found in books by men. I must apologize to the men who write perceptively, and with kindness and pity, about the overlooked corners of our emotional lives. I just haven’t come across you recently. The book by a man I read and liked was a nonfiction book about Big Stuff.
There is divorce at the heart of both Priscilla Gilman’s The Critic’s Daughter and Emma Forrest’s Busy Being Free—Gilman’s parents, in the first, and Forrest’s own, in the second. And both men involved had some kind of public life. Gilman’s father was an influential drama critic; Forrest’s husband was the Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn. Both books are resonant and very particular, and they are both about love and its wrenching aftermath.
Gilman’s book reminded me of how critics formed me. Now, I don’t give much of a shit about many of them—who needs them when we have Rotten Tomatoes?—but when I was a teenager, I needed to be led by people I trusted toward things I would grow to love. I am almost sure I was the only person in my English suburban hometown who owned a hardback collection of Pauline Kael’s reviews, and certainly the only teenager. I bought it from the remainder shelves of a Barnes & Noble on Fifth Avenue in New York City—and I read it, too, more than once. (The Critic’s Daughter, however, reminds me that Kael wasn’t always to be trusted. Gilman points out that she hated West Side Story, which is a little bit like—no, exactly like—hating life.) One of the reasons I loved Gilman’s book is that through her father she makes a case for criticism as a worthwhile practice. If you’ve been on the receiving end of a kicking, as everyone in the arts has if they live long enough professionally, it’s easy to forget that critics love the arts as much as their practitioners do. And it’s easy to forget, too, that the best criticism can be as illuminating as any other form of writing. “That is what the highest criticism really is, the record of one’s own soul,” Oscar Wilde said, words that Gilman uses as an epigraph. My columns for The Believer might not be examples of “the highest criticism”—we rarely get above bungalow level here. But my soul has been bared for anyone to see, these last twenty years.
Richard Gilman was, among other things, the drama critic for The Nation, and after her parents’ divorce, Priscilla was frequently by his side for first nights: hers was a childhood full of books, sports, musicals, authors, plays—a glorious upbringing, in many ways, were it not for her father crumbling after his divorce from her mother, a heavyweight literary agent. Priscilla discovered more about the marriage than was healthy for her—her father’s affairs, his unsavory sexual predilections, his vulnerability, the dismally shaky foundations of the relationship. Her mother told her much of this, and her father confirmed some of it in his memoir, Faith, Sex, Mystery, published when Priscilla was in her teens. The book was panned by Francine Prose, praised by Mary Gordon, and if you need a cautionary tale about raising children when part of your life is available for public inspection, this is it. The Critic’s Daughter is a book about a lot of things, but one of them is this: that a fierce and powerful voice, a voice that some people were afraid to hear, can disguise an awful lot of trouble and pain. The critic’s daughter—the writer, as opposed to the book—has the tenderness, the acuity, and the facility to explore her father and her relationship to him in ways that cannot help but resonate. Maybe this is because all of us are the children of critics, in one way or another.
Emma Forrest’s Busy Being Free is an extraordinarily frank account of her emotional and sexual life over the last few years, the Trump/COVID years, which in Forrest’s case coincided with divorce and migration. Forrest has already written one beautiful, intense memoir, Your Voice in My Head, about another doomed relationship with a movie star, and Forrest’s battle with mental illness; this book, like that one, is funny, compelling, and the product of a singular, valuable mind. Forrest’s angular approach to her own material, as both a writer and a human, results in constant surprise: her response to Trump, for example, is a vow never to let anyone or anything penetrate her for the duration of the presidency. “I didn’t just give up sex—I gave up tampons and switched to period pants that are not only exterior but also disgusting—
a Sheela-na-gig-level horror show.”
Reading Busy Being Free isn’t like reading at all, in the sense that you will never look at how many pages you have left, or wonder whether this was the page you got stuck on last night before sleep. It’s more like drinking, or watching TV (no higher praise, in this books column). The confessions are sad, funny, brave, and horrifying: the divorce and period of celibacy that came afterward—and Harvey Weinstein—prompt a reevaluation of some of the sexual experiences she endured very early in her career. Every man should read Busy Being Free, I think, especially if said man is interested in any woman from a different generation. He may well end up self-Bobbitting, if he has half a brain or a quarter of a soul.
This brings us very neatly—another way of saying, Aren’t I clever?—to Claire Dederer’s Monsters, subtitled A Fan’s Dilemma. You know exactly why those four words have been put together in that way, and the moment you see them, you think, Thank god! Someone is going to tell me what to do with Woody Allen and Roman Polanski. Who doesn’t want to read this book? And, very quickly, you learn you are in safe hands. “I found I couldn’t solve the problem of Roman Polanski by thinking,” Dederer says in her introduction. And then, “The poet William Empson said life involves maintaining oneself between contradictions that can’t be solved by analysis. I found myself in the midst of one of those contradictions.” In other words, there is no answer. Of course there is no answer. How could there be? I want to quote from just about every page of Monsters. First, because the idea that there is no answer is in itself both stimulating and liberating: it is not, after all, one’s own stupidity (or masculinity, or questionable taste/moral judgment) that is preventing you from getting anywhere, despite your fears. And second, because this book is so damned smart: about films, books, art, and then, unexpectedly, about life.
There are all kinds of monsters in Monsters. The obvious suspects, yes, but also people you wouldn’t necessarily have thought of: Joni Mitchell, who gave up a child for adoption; Doris Lessing, who left two children behind in South Africa to give herself a shot at international renown in London. Dederer is not saying these people are guilty of truly monstrous behavior—Polanski raped a child, after all, and how many artsy men have left children scattered all over the globe? But a woman’s need to put her art before her children can result in the kind of judgment reserved only for the most repugnant of men. Sometimes the art ends up beating out the monstrosity. What young bohemian woman hasn’t, at one point, owned an image of Virginia Woolf, the anti-Semite and awful snob? Meanwhile Nabokov, the author of the most famous novel about a pedophile, is rescued here by a rather brilliant examination of the author’s intentions, a critical approach that’s in danger of going the same way as structuralism. There is a lot more to be said about Monsters than I can manage here, but I hope you take over, in your book groups, and with your friends; I can’t think of a single person who wouldn’t benefit from reading it. And, of course, it had to be written by a woman. You won’t catch me writing about Polanski’s greatness, or the hidden sympathy of Lolita. I have better things to do with my time than live in a bomb shelter.
I read Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow on a personal recommendation, and it was the kind of recommendation that one simply can’t ignore: firm, impassioned, delivered with some knowledge of the recommendee’s tastes. I have aired my views on this before, but you know the worst kind of monster? The person who says, “I think you’d love it,” within seconds of meeting you. Claire Dederer should write a whole book about those bastards. Ignorant recommendation is a much worse crime than abandoning your children. You can’t look out a window without seeing a kid, whereas books you love are hard to find. Anyway, I wasn’t surprised to discover that I loved Gabrielle Zevin’s novel from the beginning.
The world of TATAT, as I suspect its fans will end up calling it, is the world of gaming. But to say it is a book about gaming is like saying that… you know what’s coming next. I’m trying to stop myself, because it’s a sentence I probably read once a month in a piece of arts journalism somewhere. OK: instead of referring to Moby-Dick and whales, I will try something different. To say it’s a book about gaming is like saying that Seinfeld is a show about nothing, or that War and Peace is a book about war and peace… Oh, shit. It works, the Moby-Dick thing. Let’s leave it alone for a while. What TATAT is really about is collaborative work and love, which is perhaps my favorite literary subgenre. It’s very small, the subgenre, and I have only two other examples: Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Elizabeth McCracken’s Niagara Falls All Over Again, two of my most cherished novels. TATAT belongs in that select group.
It’s essentially a love triangle: there are two evidently brilliant games developers, Sam and Sadie, who have known each other since childhood, and a producer, Marx, who loves them both, although only one of them in the romantic sense. One reason novels about collaborative work are so winning is that they always involve success at some point in the journey; otherwise, nobody would bother writing about the collaboration. Most novels, it’s fair to say, are not about success—not success that comes from the hearts and brains of likable protagonists, anyway. Sam, Sadie, and Marx achieve a great deal of success, and one of Zevin’s triumphs is that she makes that success feel real, earned, and even, to a non-gamer, comprehensible: her love and understanding of the medium shine bright on every page. And toward the end, when life and success have done what they tend to do—namely, leave everyone in pieces—there is a long, beautiful chapter in which a game is populated by our heroes and their narratives, a breathtakingly chancy piece of writing that pays off in spades.
I hope you are not sick of me writing about Elizabeth Strout and her superlative novels. The trouble is, she keeps writing them, and I’m always going to read them, so here we are again. Lucy by the Sea is another Lucy Barton book; it’s set during the pandemic, with Lucy and William, of Oh William! fame, moving out of New York City and up to Maine. Strout brings back the dread of those early weeks with more effectiveness than I was prepared for, and as a result the novel is more piercing than its predecessors, and they were sharp enough. If you haven’t read any of them by now, then I’m wasting my time telling you about them.
As I write, Uruguay is playing South Korea in the World Cup on my TV in the other room. I’m not watching. It’s more important to convince you to read great books by wonderful women writers. But if the referee can’t see that Cavani was brought down inside the area just now, he needs his fucking eyes tested.