But then, other people’s relationships are always mysterious. A relationship is a closed world, and it’s impossible to see clearly into the interior from the outside. St. Bernard of Clairvaux: Only the singer hears it and the one to whom he sings. Only the external details are clearly visible: once there was a young and passionate poet who fell in love with a married man, and the affair inspired a magnificent work.
“By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept is a staggering accomplishment, an exquisite and often ecstatic rendition of a tumultuous affair: ‘Jupiter has been with Leda, I thought, and now nothing can avert the Trojan wars. All legend will be broken, but who will escape alive?’” — Emily St. John Mandel
Renata Adler’s SPEEDBOAT has been around since the late ‘70s, but when I read it this summer I had the sense of reading something completely new, that feeling of encountering something that had never been done before, or that had at least never been done nearly this well.
When my wife and I moved from New York City to Los Angeles last August, I felt a tremendous sense of relief. Not because I was happy to leave New York or entirely confident that we’d made the right decision, but because I was just so glad not to have to think about it anymore. I had spent the previous year locked in an ongoing internal debate about the merits and drawbacks of living in New York, trying to decide which of our problems would be solved by leaving and which ones would follow us around wherever we went. We constantly discussed moving, and when we saw friends we talked about it with them, too. In the end, we spent so much time thinking about leaving that it seemed like the only way to get on with our lives was to just do it. Which we did.
Too often I read reviews that are concerned with nothing but the book in question, and there’s a hermetically sealed quality to such reviews, a narrowness of scope. I’ve come to believe that good reviewing requires engaging with the world outside of the individual book. At the very least, the book should be placed in the context of other books, but ideally—and I recognize that this is an entirely subjective opinion—I prefer reviews that go beyond talking about literature, so that the book under review is considered in the context of the surrounding world.
The books I think of as being quiet, the ones I’ve been enjoying lately, have a distilled quality about them, an unshowy thoughtfulness and a sense of grace, of having been boiled down to the bare essentials.
But when I read her stories of drifting, of heartbreak and aftermath and travel and displacement, it seems to me that where is home? is the underlying question. For some of us, there’s no clear answer to that question. In our work, we can only continue to ask, and, in Rowe’s work, the asking is both graceful and profound.
Emily St. John Mandel, “The Asking is Both Graceful and Profound: On the Stories of Josephine Rowe”
It seems to me that few ideas are as freighted with ambivalence as the idea of home. I don’t mean ambivalence in the sense in which the word’s often misused, as a synonym for half-heartedness, but in the true sense of being pulled in two directions at once. Once you start looking for it in books, you see it everywhere. In Justin Torres’s We The Animals, home is violent and dangerous and a place to run away from, but home is also the protagonist’s brothers, from whom he’s inseparable. In Larry Watson’s Montana 1948, home is a place where it was possible for terrible things to happen and to be covered up; but when the protagonist’s wife suggests to the protagonist’s father, years later, that “[t]hat sure was the Wild West, wasn’t it?” the father flies into a rage and shouts at her not to blame Montana. Or the ache of immigration, documented in books like Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn: home is here and also there, I belong here and also I don’t, home is this country and also that one and I am always somewhere in between.