I conceived of the idea to read all of the Bellwether Prize winners because I loved Lisa Ko’s The Leavers so much. The PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction is a biennial award given since 2000 by PEN America and Barbara Kingsolver, who created and funds the prize, “to a U.S. citizen for a previously unpublished work of fiction that addresses issues of social justice.” (More information can be found here.) Earlier this year, I found secondhand or cheap new copies of two of the winners and tried another one from the library.
The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow (2010)
This review is ALL SPOILER because there isn’t really a way to discuss the book otherwise, so skip onwards if you think you might want to read this someday. Durrow was inspired by her own family history – she is biracial, her father a Black serviceman and her mother from Denmark – and by a newspaper story about a woman who jumped off the top of a multi-story building with her small children. Only one daughter survived the fall. Durrow was captivated by that girl’s story and wanted to imagine what her life would be like in the wake of tragedy.
In 1982, Rachel has come to live with her father’s mother in Portland, Oregon. She’s starting a new life there after a long time in the hospital. She survived her mother Nella’s leap from their Chicago apartment building because she landed on the top of the heap of three siblings. As her teen years unfold, she struggles to incorporate her European heritage with her African American identity and turns to promiscuity. Details of what happened that day in Chicago unfold gradually.
The secondary characters are more interesting than Rachel herself, even though she narrates, and I felt more sympathy for her when she was a child. I would have liked more of the mother’s journal entries, showing how her depression and alcoholism developed. The coincidence of the one eyewitness to the jump ending up in Portland was too much for me. Overall, this was fairly dismal and didn’t make enough of its compelling premise. It was an easy read, but had it been much longer than 260 pages I would likely have DNFed.
Mudbound by Hillary Jordan (2008)
1946: Two servicemen return from fighting in Europe, headed to the same Mississippi farm. Jamie McAllan was a fighter pilot and Ronsel Jackson was part of a tank division. Both are dependent on alcohol to help them cope with the memories of what they have seen and done. But Jamie can get away with drunk driving and carousing with local women, knowing that his big brother, Henry, will take him back in no matter what. Ronsel, though, has to keep his head down and be on his guard at every moment: war hero or not, no one in Mississippi is going to let a Black man walk in through the front door of a store or get a lift home in a white man’s truck. His sharecropping family’s position at the McAllan farm, Mudbound, is precarious, with the weather and the social hierarchy always working against them.
This story of love, betrayal, and the obsession with land is told through rotating first-person narration from six key players, three McAllans and three Jacksons. Each voice is distinct and perfectly captures the character’s personality and level of education. Jordan uses this kaleidoscope view to explore how fateful decisions bind the two families together. I particularly loved the two female voices: Laura, Henry’s wife; and Florence, Ronsel’s mother. Though they’re often stuck inside cooking and delivering babies, they still play their roles in the farm’s drama. The novel opens with a burial scene, but readers get faked out not once but twice about how the character died. I raced through the last three-quarters, and the final 50–100 pages are a real doozy. This feels like a modern classic of the segregated South and I’d recommend it for those looking for a follow-up to The Vanishing Half.
And a DNF:
Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron (2010)
I read 25 pages and didn’t feel drawn into the characters’ story. When the main characters are from a persecuted ethnic minority and one boy is a star runner, you sort of know where things are heading. (I’m also perhaps too familiar with Rwandan history from We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families by Philip Gourevitch.)
Remaining Bellwether Prize winners:
2019 Katherine Seligman, If You Knew [retitled At the Edge of the Haight – publication forthcoming in January 2021]
2014 Ron Childress, And West Is West
2012 Susan Nussbaum, Good Kings Bad Kings
2004 Marjorie Kowalski Cole, Correcting the Landscape
2002 Gayle Brandeis, The Book of Dead Birds
2000 Donna Gershten, Kissing the Virgin’s Mouth
Have you read one of these winners? Do any tempt you?
I was wary of Nathan Hill’s debut novel, The Nix, as I always am of big ol’ books. Six hundred and twenty pages of small print: was it going to be worth it? Luckily, the answer was a resounding yes. If you’ve loved The World According to Garp, City on Fire, The Goldfinch, and/or Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, you should pick this one up right away. From the first few pages onwards, I was impressed by Hill’s carefully honed sentences. He mixes up the paragraph arrangement in a particularly effective way, such that long thoughts are punctuated by a killer one-liner given a paragraph of its own. Here’s one: “How easily a simple façade can become your life, can become the truth of your life.”
In 2011 Samuel Anderson and his estranged mother, Faye, find themselves in strange situations. Samuel is an assistant English professor at a small suburban Chicago college. Once the Next Big Thing, feted by Granta for a brilliant short story, he has never delivered his contracted novel and spends more time in the World of Elfscape online game than he does engaging in real life. Now Laura Pottsdam, a student he caught plagiarizing a Hamlet essay, is on a mission to take Samuel down. Meanwhile Faye is awaiting trial for throwing rocks at Governor Packer, a conservative presidential hopeful from Wyoming. It’s been 23 years since Faye walked out on Samuel and his father, but her lawyer still hopes Samuel will be willing to write a character reference to be used in her defense, prompting their awkward reunion.
This is a rich, multi-layered story about family curses and failure, and how to make amends for a life full of mistakes. Along with 2011, the two main time periods are 1968, when Faye was a would-be radical caught up in student violence; and 1988, the summer before Faye left, when Samuel met twins Bishop and Bethany Fall, two friends who would still be having an impact on his life decades later even though they moved away after a few months. Although most of the action takes place in Iowa and Chicago, there’s also a brief interlude set in Norway when Faye tries to track down the ghosts of her father’s homeland. He’d told her stories of the nisse and the Nix, a house spirit and a water spirit in the form of a giant horse: both lead greedy children to their doom, a terrifying prospect for an anxious girl like Faye.
Political protest is a thread running all through the novel, though it never drowns out the centrality of the mother–son relationship: the 1968 Grant Park protest Faye attends in Chicago, the anti-Iraq War march Samuel and Bethany go on in 2004, the Occupy demonstrations taking place in 2011, and Faye’s odd transformation into the Packer Attacker. Hill makes cogent comments on contemporary America, where the “pastime is no longer baseball. Now it’s sanctimony.” Young people parcel emotions into easy categories for social media, which also markets ready-made heroes (pop singer Molly Miller) and villains (Faye).
Hill is a funny and inventive writer; a few of his more virtuosic moments include an argument with headings indicating its logical fallacies, a relationship presented as a Choose Your Own Adventure story, and a nearly-eleven-page sentence in which a character has a health crisis. These sections are almost too long – Come now, you’re just showing off, I thought. But changing up the structure like that does mean that the novel is never boring, and its reflections on self-knowledge and how we get lost, stuck in patterns of our own creating, made me think deeply. This is one debut that really does live up to the hype; look out for it, and for the upcoming television adaptation directed by J.J. Abrams and starring Meryl Streep.
First published in August 2016, The Nix was released in the UK in paperback on September 21st. My thanks to Picador for the free copy for review.
For several years in her mid-thirties, British author Olivia Laing lived in New York City. A relationship had recently fallen through and she was subletting an apartment from a friend. Whole days went by when she hardly left the flat, whiling away her time on social media and watching music videos on YouTube. Whenever she did go out, she felt cut off because of her accent and her unfamiliarity with American vernacular; she wished she could wear a Halloween mask all the time to achieve anonymity. How ironic, she thought, that in a city of millions she could be so utterly lonely.
Loneliness feels like such a shameful experience, so counter to the lives we are supposed to lead, that it becomes increasingly inadmissible, a taboo state whose confession seems destined to cause others to turn and flee. … [L]oneliness inhibits empathy because it induces in its wake a kind of self-protective amnesia, so that when a person is no longer lonely they struggle to remember what the condition is like.
Whereas alcoholic writers were the points of reference for her previous book, the superb The Trip to Echo Spring (2013), here outsider artists take center stage: Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, Henry Darger, and the many lost to AIDS in the 1980s to 1990s. It’s a testament to Laing’s skill at interweaving biography, art criticism and memoir when I say that I knew next to nothing about any of these artists to start with and have little fondness for modern art but still found her book completely absorbing.
Several of the artists shared underlying reasons for loneliness: an abusive childhood, mental illness and/or sexuality perceived as aberrant. Edward Hopper might seem the most ‘normal’ of the artists profiled, but even he was bullied when he shot up to 6 feet at age 12; his wife Jo, doing some amateur psychoanalyzing, named it the root of his notorious taciturnity. His Nighthawks, with its “noxious pallid green” shades, perfectly illustrates the inescapability of “urban alienation,” Laing writes: when she saw it in person at the Whitney, she realized the diner has no door. (It’s a shame the book couldn’t accommodate a centerfold of color plates, but each chapter opens with a black-and-white photograph of its main subject.)
Andy Warhol was born Andrej Warhola to Slovakian immigrants in Pittsburgh in 1928. He was often tongue-tied and anxious, and used fashion and technology as ways of displacing attention. In 1968 he was shot in the torso by Valerie Solanas, the paranoid, sometimes-homeless author of SCUM Manifesto, and ever after had to wear surgical corsets. For Warhol and Wojnarowicz, art and sex were possible routes out of loneliness. As homosexuals, though, they could be restricted to sordid cruising grounds such as cinemas and piers. Like Klaus Nomi, a gay German electro-pop singer whose music Laing listened to obsessively, Wojnarowicz died of AIDS. Nomi was one of the first celebrities to succumb, in 1983. The epidemic only increased the general stigma against gay people. Even Warhol, as a lifelong hypochondriac, was leery about contact with AIDS patients. Through protest marches and artworks, Wojnarowicz exposed the scale of the tragedy and the lack of government concern.
In some ways Henry Darger is the oddest of the outsiders Laing features. He is also the only one not based in New York: he worked as a Chicago hospital janitor for nearly six decades; it was only when he was moved into a nursing home and the landlord cleared out his room that an astonishing cache of art and writing was discovered. Darger’s oeuvre included a 15,000-page work of fiction set in “the Realms of the Unreal” and paintings that veer towards sadism and pedophilia. Laing spent a week reading his unpublished memoir. With his distinctive, not-quite-coherent style and his affection for the asylum where he lived as an orphaned child, he reminded me of Royal Robertson, the schizophrenic artist whose work inspired Sufjan Stevens’s The Age of Adz album, and the artist character in the movie Junebug (2005).
A few of the chapters are less focused because they split the time between several subjects. I also felt that a section on Josh Harris, Internet entrepreneur and early reality show streaming pioneer, pulled the spotlight away from outsider art. Although I can see, in theory, how his work is performance art reflecting on our lack of true connection in an age of social media and voyeurism, I still found this the least relevant part.
The book is best when Laing is able to pull all her threads together: her own seclusion – flitting between housing situations, finding dates through Craigslist and feeling trapped behind her laptop screen; her subjects’ troubled isolation; and the science behind loneliness. Like Korey Floyd does in The Loneliness Cure, Laing summarizes the physical symptoms and psychological effects associated with solitude. She dips into pediatrician D.W. Winnicott’s work on attachment and separation in children, and mentions Harry Harlow’s abhorrent rhesus monkey experiments in which babies were raised without physical contact.
The tone throughout is academic but not inaccessible. Ultimately I didn’t like this quite as much as The Trip to Echo Spring, but it’s still a remarkable piece of work, fusing social history, commentary on modern art, biographical observation and self-knowledge. The first chapter and the last five paragraphs, especially, are simply excellent. Your interest may wax and wane through the rest of the book, but I expect that, like me, you’ll willingly follow Laing as a tour guide into the peculiar, lonely crowdedness you find in a world city.
(See also Laing’s list of 10 Books about Loneliness, chosen for Publishers Weekly.)
With thanks to Canongate for sending a free copy.