Leaflet #8

Another issue of the newsletter . . .


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:Please come help launch Caleb Crain's new novel Overthrow at a bookstore event in Brooklyn, Manhattan, San Francisco, or Los Angeles Brooklyn: Books Are Magic, 225, Smith St. Tuesday, August 27, 7:30pm. Caleb Crain reads from Overthrow with help from Christine Smallwood, Jana Prikryl, Daniel Smith, and Leon Neyfakh Manhattan: The Strand, 828 Broadway. Thursday, September 5, 7:30pm. Caleb Crain talks about Overthrow in conversation with Kate Bolick. Manhattan: McNally Jackson South St. Seaport, 4 Fulton St. (new location!). Sunday, September 8, 4pm. Caleb Crain and Astra Taylor discuss his novel Overthrow and her book Democracy May Not Exist but We'll Miss It When It's Gone San Francisco: Book Passage, 1 Ferry bldg. Wednesday, September 18, 6pm. Caleb Crain discusses Overthrow in conversation with Anna Wiener Los Angeles: Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd. Saturday, September 21, 4pm. Caleb Crain talks about Overthrow in conversation with Elaine Blair

“Overthrow,” as thing & as tour

I just got sent a copy of Overthrow as a finished book.

Overthrow by Caleb Crain

Plus, here’s the schedule for bookstore events in August and September. Please come, if you’re in Brooklyn, Manhattan, San Francisco, or Los Angeles! And please consider supporting these bookstores by buying your copy from one of them. Thanks!

Reading with n+1 at the Ace Hotel

I’ll be reading from my new science fiction story at the Ace Hotel on January 24th at 7pm. Also reading will be other contributors to the winter 2017 issue of n+1, including Dayna Tortorici, Nikil Saval, A. S. Hamrah, Sam Frank, Naomi Fry, Joshua Cohen, and Thomas Bolt. The Ace Hotel is at 20 West 29th St., NYC. Subscribers to n+1 get in free (hint, hint), and tickets for others cost $10. RSVP on on Facebook to reserve a place.

Kashua, Mbue, and Platzová

On 18 September 2016, I moderated a panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival called “Occupy and Resist,” which featured the writers Magdaléna Platzová, Sayed Kashua, and Imbolo Mbue. Here’s the introduction I gave:

I’d like to try to have a conversation this afternoon about the place of politics in literature, given that all three panelists have written about the changes that political realities and politial ideals make to people’s lives. But before we start that conversation, I feel as though I should state, for the record, that the three books are very different, and as a way of introducing the panelists, I’d like to say a little about how they’re different.

Sayed Kashua is an Arab writer who now lives and teaches in Champaign, Illinois, but grew up in Tira, a small Arab city in central Israel. He’s the author of two novels, a memoir, and a hit television series. His hilarious, brutal, and urgent new book, Native, a collection of columns that he wrote for the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz, describes his move into, and then out of, an upscale Jewish neighborhood in west Jerusalem. Describing the early days of his move, Kashua jokes about how unnerving he finds the high water pressure, and how unsettling it is that municipal functionaries visit regularly to deliver mail and take away garbage, along streets ornamented with such luxuries as traffic signs and sidewalks—the implication being that these amenities were lacking in the Arab neighborhoods where he had previously lived. His humor, in other words, has a political edge. At times the edge grows so sharp that he drops humor and writes with plain pathos—as, for example, when he relays the accounts his children give him of being hurt by the casual cruelty of classmates giving voice to anti-Arab bias. Now and then Kashua does mention political events and controversies in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, but for the most part, the politics in Native is the politics of everyday life. A friend of his, quoted in a 2015 New Yorker profile of Kashua, called it “the kind of politics that arises from the dirty dishes in the sink.”

Though Kashua and his family are Arab, he wrote the first-person essays in Native in Hebrew, the language in which he was educated from high school on. I’m putting myself in a bit of peril by mentioning this, because in one essay he makes fun of people who incessantly ask him, “Why do you write in Hebrew?” But since American readers will be reading his book in an English translation, which, though very elegant, obscures this provenance, I think it’s worth bringing up. There’s a politics of translation, too, after all. When Kashua’s daughter declines to play in a recital scheduled to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day, for example, she explains to her music teacher that her family refers to the anniversary as Nakba, a commemoration of the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes.

Imbolo Mbue is a native of Limbe, a seaside city in the West African nation of Cameroon, and has lived in New York City for more than ten years. The young couple who are the heroes of her rich, vivid debut novel, Behold the Dreamers, share her geographic origin and are trying to make the same migration. The recent immigrant Jende Jonga lands a job as chauffeur for a wealthy executive at Lehman Brothers. Jende’s wife, Neni, joins him in the city, along with their son, and goes to school with the hope of becoming a pharmacist. Jende’s working papers are only temporary, however, and his residency in America uncertain. As Jende drives his employer’s family around, he becomes an intimate witness of their lives and, thanks to his cheerful manner, to some extent a confidant—an entanglement that becomes more complex after Neni goes to work briefly for the family, too, as a maid and babysitter. If one axis of the novel runs between Cameroon and New York, another runs between the Lehman executive’s home on the Upper East Side and Jende and Neni’s home in Harlem—between a wealthy white American world of status, convenience, secrets, anxiety, and loneliness, and a more communal and informal world of struggling, exiled Africans, where meals may require hours of preparation and may be eaten happily on the floor. This isn’t a conventional American immigrant’s novel, however; the axes cross in unexpected ways, and the story becomes quite dark, before the end.

Jende and Neni also live in a world in translation, speaking a mix of English, French, Cameroonian Pidgin English, and native African languages. Jende worries that his immigration lawyer might be mbutuku and refers to his native country Cameroon as pays. At the novel’s start, Neni is flummoxed when her precalculus instructor says he has a boyfriend, but by novel’s end, she and her husband have become so fluent in American culture that they’re able to poke fun at the typical Cameroonian’s taste in U.S. consumer goods.

Magdaléna Platzová‘s meditative and resonant novel The Attempt has two storylines. In the present, a student of history named Jan is seeking for the truth about his ancestry, which may or may not have to do with the novel’s second storyline, which takes place in the past—in the early twentieth century, to be exact—and concerns two anarchists, at one time lovers and later friends, one of whom, Andrei, spent 14 years in prison for attempting to assassinate an industrialist who violently suppressed a strike. Neither the present-day story nor the historical one is told in sequence, and much of the novel’s art consists in the way Platzová interweaves the two. But though the major axis in Platzová’s book is chronological, geography matters to her as well. Jan, like Platzová herself, is Czech; the would-be assassin whose story fasciantes him was Russian; and the industrialist and his heirs, whom Jan interviews, are American. It’s in America that the novel takes place—a country where Platzová herself, the author of six books, has both studied and taught, though today she lives in Lyon, France.

The Attempt has been deftly translated from the Czech by my friend Alex Zucker, who’s probably in the audience, but it feels to me as though within the novel the crucial translation to be made isn’t between Czech and English but between the past and the present. Those are the two worlds that can’t quite make sense of each other—the industrialist’s heirs keeping faith too rigidly with the past, the anarchists losing faith in the utopian future. A secondary axis, perhaps, is the one between fact and fiction, since Platzová’s fictional anarchists are modeled on the real-life lovers Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman, who left behind many letters and memoirs, and her industrialist on Henry Clay Frick, who left behind a famous museum.