Pluralism

I'm reading Buddenbrooks. It’s a very dry kind of funny, and it occurred to me the other day that maybe even the title is funny. It's a little odd in English, anyway (maybe it isn't in German?), to refer to a family's last name in the plural without a definite article. The family name is Buddenbrook, no s, so in English, the usual title would be "The Buddenbrooks." Mere "Buddenbrooks" has a little spin on it. There's a little diss of generalization, as if Mann were saying, "Enclosed please find some Buddenbrooks," or "Buddenbrooks: A Representative Sample." Or, with a shake of the head, "Buddenbrooks, man."  

Peter, trying to get into Huckleberry Finn, a couple of months ago: "There's kind of a lot of Tom Sawyer fan service."

About six months ago, I started bringing a camera along when I took Toby for his morning walk. My original idea was to take a picture every day of the little vista that Toby and I see when we first reach the Nether Mead, which on some mornings is so beautiful that runners stop to snap it with their phones. We pause there so I can take off his leash. The series was going to be deliberately a little boring but it would be a way of photographing time, I told myself. Unfortunately I am too much of a jackdaw and on the very first day, even one photo of the vista seemed boring, and instead I have ended up taking pictures of whatever seems noticeably pretty or noticeably ugly, which I know is rank middlebrow pictorialism—too much studium and not enough punctum—so you don't have to @ me, photography critics. Mostly I have only photographed natural things: mushrooms, flowers, clouds, parts of trees. For a few days in late summer I was earnest enough to post photos of leaf blight, which did not win many likes on Insta. (But did you see the leaf blight, person who scrolled by without stopping? Did you really see it?) I like the way the photos register the gradual shift of the seasons when I flick through them, which can be done on my blog Steamboats Are Ruining Everything or, in a selection and in a square format, on Instagram. So you see I am photographing “time,” after all. The record isn't rigorously a daily one, because once a week, on Saturday, Peter takes over the morning walk while I go to the green market, plus I've been out of town a few times, and some days I just don't manage to take any photos worth sharing. On good days, though, I take more than one photo, so I have coverage, as the cinematographers say. There's at least one photo for every day, if not of every day. Maybe what interests me most about the undertaking is that almost every morning I go into the park fairly certain that probably nothing of interest will come up, because after all I walk pretty much the same route every day, and it’s only a day later than yesterday, so what new thing could there be. Yet almost every morning, there is something. (On one banner day: Slug copulation! They coil around each other, upside down, and then translucent sex organs come out of the sides of their heads, which in turn coil around each other. Very much NSFW, if you’re a slug.) But not always. Which makes it like writing: consistent self-discouragement vs. unreliable pleasant surprise. Bonus: A couple of times, Prospect Park's Instagram account reprinted one of my photos, making me famous, so there's that. 

I didn't mean to be the sort of author who would start a newsletter and then drop it as soon as his book was published. But publishing a book is a little . . . disconcerting? (I’m doing better now. I joined a Cross Fit “box.”) The book news since (oh gosh) September 4, if you haven't already followed it on my blog, includes a couple more nice reviews. Nicholas Dames, for Public Books: “It’s a novel that keeps faith in even the unlikeliest candidates for where redemption might next come.” Tim Pfaff, for the Bay Area Reporter: “Crain is a true craftsman, but the writing mostly doesn't care what you think of it and shows off shamelessly.” And I sat for a few more interviews, including with Shaan Sachdev, for Bookforum; with Emily Homonoff, for Reading with Robin; and, on video, with Kevin Moore, for Cuny TV's Twilight Talks.

Mere news

I’m afraid this issue of my newsletter will contain only news, rather boringly about me. This is what comes of having a book published.

There’s still time to come to one of my bookstore events! Tomorrow (Thursday) night, Kate Bolick is interviewing me at the Strand, 828 Broadway (at 12th St.), New York. The admission ticket is your purchase from the Strand of either Overthrow or a $15 gift card that can go toward any book they sell. (For example, you could use your gift card to buy a copy of March Sisters, a new collection of essays on Little Women, including one by Kate!) So really the event is free, sort of? I’ll be bringing my blue, green, and black-and-white stamps, which together create the heraldic emblem of the fictional Working Group for the Refinement of the Perception of Feelings, visible here.

Hope to see you there! Or at one of these:

  • Sunday, September 8, 4pm: McNally-Jackson, South Street Seaport, 4 Fulton Street (a new location for the store!), Manhattan.
    In conversation with Astra Taylor, author of Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone, about her book and mine.

  • Wednesday, September 18, 6pm: Book Passage, 1 Ferry Building, San Francisco.
    In conversation with Anna Wiener, author of the forthcoming Uncanny Valley.

  • Saturday, September 21, 4pm: Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Boulevard, West Hollywood, California.
    In conversation with Elaine Blair, essayist for the New York Review of Books.

Overthrow has received some lovely reviews. Julian Lucas, for the New York Times Book Review: “A 19th-century social novel for the 21st-century surveillance state.” Anthony Domestico, for the Boston Globe: “Legitimately great psychological fiction.” Jane Hu, for Bookforum: “It is, at heart, a novel that repeatedly asks: What makes a good reader?” Garth Greenwell, in The New Yorker: “Like seeing a world made hyper-real, crisper and more intense, as through some phenomenological Instagram filter.” Mark Athitakis, in the Washington Post: “Overthrow accomplishes its mission.” Annalisa Quinn, in NPR: “A carefully unsentimental book.” I know that it’s rare these days for a novel to get so many well-written, insightful reviews, and I’m deeply grateful.

I’ve been interviewed about the novel by Gil Roth for the Virtual Memories Show podcast, by Christopher Bollen for Interview magazine, by James McDonald Feder for Kirkus, by myself for Powell’s bookstore, and by Amy Guth of Chicago’s WGN Radio. I also did an Instagram “residency” for the Chicago Review of Books, where I showed off my mood board, my messy manuscript, and my Luddite writing tools.

In other news, I wrote a review-essay about labor unions for the August 26th issue of the New Yorker. It focused on Steven Greenhouse’s Beaten Down, Worked Up and Emily Guendelsberger’s On the Clock, as well as two older books, Jake Rosenfeld’s What Unions No Longer Do and Nelson Licthtenstein’s State of the Union. (I posted a note about these and other sources on my blog.) The article seems to have put me in the good graces of the Party:

Sorry this newsletter is so one-note! I hope to go back to reading books and having thoughts soon. In the meantime, please come to a bookstore and buy a copy of Overthrow! And if you happen to like it, please tell a friend. Word of mouth is the way books like mine find readers.

Hot and cold

“All do not all things well,” sang Thomas Campion, and one thing that I don’t do well is the last few weeks before publication. My husband and I were trading anecdotes a few nights ago of how, in the month or so before my first novel was published, six years ago, I was a little sputtering butter warmer of rage and self-regard. I don’t want anyone to look at me! Why aren’t more people looking at me? was then the refrain of my days.

Frank Norris once said that he didn’t like to write but did like having written. It’s the sort of thing people like to hear from a writer, because it suggests that the writer is aware that there is something antisocial about the retreat from the world that is inextricable from writing, and that he is happy to reunite with the world at the end. It suggests, in other words, that the writer likes you.

What a lie. A writer is someone who likes other people much less than he likes to be able to say whatever he wants, in as rococo a way as he wants, at whatever length he wants, making jokes that only he may think are funny. For five years, while writing a novel, I have a life I never thought I’d be lucky enough to live: I sit alone for hours at a time, imagining people and a world, and growing fonder of them than of what is called the real world. And then, just when I think, Wow, I’ve finished a novel, what a good boy am I, I am told: You’re fired, sucker. Worse luck, my new job is salesman. Are my social media accounts tonally appropriate? What kind of pencil do I use? Are any of my characters based on people I knew in real life?

Overthrow is that cursed thing, a second novel. By “second novel,” I mean the book where one reaches—perhaps beyond one’s grasp. Herman Melville’s “second novel” was his third one, Mardi. (His actual second novel, Omoo, was just a sequel—more of the same of what was in his debut novel, Typee.) In Mardi, Melville attempted a novel that was also philosophy—allegorical, essayistic, stuffed full with oakum he had unpicked from his reading. It didn’t go over well. No, Herman, we liked it when you did boy’s-own adventure with ambiguous sexual frisson and anthropological tourism. Not watered-down Gulliver’s Travels but even more pedantic. For his next two books Melville went back to writing boy’s-own adventure with ambiguous sexual frisson and anthropological tourism, though he now appropriated the cultures of England and the American navy instead of those of islands in the South Pacific. In time the thwacked ambition of his “second novel” resurfaced, however. Moby-Dick is Mardi redux—a novel that is, once again, also a work of philosophy. But also with ambiguous sexual frisson and anthropological tourism, now of the culture of whaling. Melville couldn’t have written Moby-Dick if he hadn’t first written his failure Mardi. The challenge thus is not to mind failing. The proper stance to the reception of one’s work isn’t stovetop sputter but what I think of in my internal mental shortand as cool 1970s artist, wearing sunglasses and bellbottoms to her vernissage, cadging cigarettes from her friends in the back of the gallery, downing the yellowy white wine, not giving a shit because what’s important is to keep making the art, you know? Which of course is as much a lie as Frank Norris’s.

Quotes: “Les seuls vrais paradis, said Proust, sont les paradis qu’on a perdus: and conversely, the only genuine Infernos, perhaps, are those which are yet to come.” —Jocelyn Brooke, The Military Orchid

“A delightful feeling of rage seethed and bubbled over me as I read the letter. I was trembling a little and my palms felt sticky. Righteous indignation must be the cheapest emotion in the world.” —Denton Welch, Maiden Voyage

“If England is my parent and San Francisco is my lover, then New York is my own dear old whore, all flash and vitality and history.” —Thom Gunn, “My Life up to Now”

“The whole secret of a living style and the difference between it and a dead style, lies in not having too much style—being, in fact, a little careless, or rather seeming to be, here and there.” —Thomas Hardy, 1875 notebook, qtd. in Early Life

News: There’s an excerpt from Overthrow, the novel whose impending publication is causing me so much agita, in the August issue of Harper’s. In late June (gosh it’s been a while since I sent out a newsletter), the New Yorker website published my review of James Polchin’s Indecent Advances, a history of murders of gays in the 20th century and the so-called gay panic defense.

Below, in Technicolor, is the info on my bookstore events. Please don your bellbottoms and lengthen your sideburns and feather your hair and come:

Be not too bold

In his forthcoming memoir And How Are You, Dr. Sacks? (August, FSG), Lawrence Weschler quotes a psychoanalyst who remembers an occasion when his friend Oliver Sacks just went for it:

One day, I hesitate to mention this, but, ah well, he drank some blood. He kept staring at it and then, “Oh, the hell with it,” he exclaimed, and drank it down, chasing it with milk. There was something about his need to cross taboos.

Also bold: the US intelligence services, in their wiretapping. In his memoir Adults in the Room (2017), the sometime Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis writes of telling the American economist Jeffrey Sachs, over the phone, that he thought Greece was going to default on its next payment to the International Monetary Fund. Half an hour later, Sachs called back:

“You will not believe this, Yanis,” he said. “Five minutes after we hung up, I received a call from the [US] National Security Council. They asked me if I thought you meant what you’d said!”

No less bold: Russia, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and China, in sustaining their economies. In the year 2009, in response to the international financial crisis, the governments that provided the most vigorous stimuluses to their domestic economies, measured as a percentage of GDP, were Russia (4.1%), South Korea (3.9%), Saudi Arabia (3.3%), and China (3.1%), Adam Tooze reports in Crashed (2018). If you thought that it was the Western democracies who were foremost in saving their people from the consequences of financiers’ recklessness, you would be wrong.

News: I wrote a review of Lucy Ives’s novel Loudermilk, a satire of the Iowa writing program, for the New York Times Book Review (“Ives’s novel is full of signs that she doesn’t think much of traditional literary shibboleths like three-dimensionality of character”) and a review of Ted Chiang’s Exhalation, a new collection of sci-fi stories (“the symmetry of the story is so perfect, its structure so artful, and its spirit so enlightened that there’s something a little porcelain and eighteenth-century about it”) for the New York Review of Books.

Recommendations: Alex Abramovich on the history of organized crime in Russia (“The vor’s code was strict: in the Gulag, thieves maimed themselves to avoid work; outside the Gulag, a vor was expected to get by on stealing and gambling alone”). Giles Harvey on Olivier Assayas’s filmed satire of the French publishing world, Non-Fiction (“Léonard is left repeating truisms about the autonomy of fiction, which, though they are sound as far as they go, come off as self-serving”). Christian Lorentzen on the fading out of secrecy from novels: “Writers become the opposite of the spy: They must always be just what they appear to be, because their job has ceased to be distinguished from self-promotion.” Stephen Rodrick on the epidemic of suicide among middle-aged men: “ ‘No one up here wants to hear that you’re depressed and need help,’ Emily told me. ‘And no one wants to even talk about getting guns out of the hands of sad people.’ ” David Leavitt on writing and reading novels set in Lisbon: “I spent my days walking, and looking at old newspapers in the city’s hemeroteca, or newspaper library, and at old shipping records in the archives of the marina.” Melissa Anderson on the new Elton John biopic: “Rocketman exhibits about as much homo carnal abandon as Pete and Chasten Buttigieg at a Panera during a campaign stop.” Elaine Blair on the feminist writings of Andrea Dworkin: “ ‘Andrea you are so prescient,’ someone has written in the margin of my public library copy of Woman Hating.” Scott Sherman on the journalist Seymour Hersh’s autobiography: “One of [Hersh’s] editors at the Times told me incredulously sixteen years ago that ‘he would call people and he’d say, “I’m Seymour Hersh, I’m doing a story on this…If he doesn’t call me, I will get his ass.” They’d call back.’ ” Andrew Martin on the new Sally Rooney novel: “There’s an extremely generationally accurate scene in which the central couple listen to Vampire Weekend while drinking gin and arguing, in 2012, about the Reagan administration.”


My second novel, Overthrow, will be published by Viking in August. It has recently been spotted in Instagramshelfies.” Order your copy now!

Feet in venom

“We are like trapped flies with our feet not in honey but in venom.” —Eudora Welty, “Must the Novelist Crusade?”

Why are you so married to realism? my husband asked. Not my real husband, but the one I have in fiction.

Is there a word for the pale nimbus around the shadow of one’s head in the dew on the grass in the morning? Not an aureole so much as an argentiole.

Over an alcoholic lunch, one of the heroines of Isabel Bolton’s novel Do I Wake or Sleep (1947) wonders whether she likes what novel-reading has done to her perception:

From this experience she’d emerged with all manner of extensions, reinforcements, renewals of her entire nervous system—indeed she might say that she’d been endowed with a perfectly new apparatus for apprehending the vibrations of other people’s souls. She was saying all this most awkwardly, she knew, but she often wondered if we sufficiently realized the effect that Proust had had upon our awareness of one another, for whether we liked it or not, we were forced to take about with us wherever we went this extraordinary apparatus, recording accurately a thousand little matters of which we had not formerly been aware, and whether she was glad or sorry to be in possession of so delicate and precise an instrument, she had never been able to determine.

News: I wrote a review of Hugh Ryan’s When Brooklyn Was Queer for the New York Times Book Review.

Recommendations: Christine Smallwood on Laura Dern (“She loves how, when Lynch comes up to her after a take and inhales in a certain way, she knows exactly what to try next”). Damon Krukowski’s podcast Ways of Hearing, which is now also a book. N+1’s Intellectual Situation on podcasts (“They create more culture by attending to culture, but without ever lapsing into criticism”). Anne Diebel on kidnapping as a business (“a corpse is not worth much, except in the Iliad”). Thomas Meaney on George Packer’s Richard Holbrooke bio (“Packer alternates between Fremdscham for Holbrooke’s lower gambits—such as offering at least one Wall Street banker ennoblement at the Council on Foreign Relations in return for business—and awe at the man’s sheer capacity to climb”). Andrew Kay’s good-bye to academia (“Hey, I’m not just some schmuck. I did a Ph.D. in English.” / “That might actually make you a schmuck”). Jacob Silverman’s good-bye to criticism (“Freelance journalism, as a career, is mostly an anachronism”).


Overthrow is coming from Viking in August 2019.

Loading more posts…