I’ve been reading books and making piles of books to write about for several months now, so that the pile of books I read and meant to write about three months ago is slowly being eclipsed by the pile of books I read and meant to write about two months ago, which is disappearing under the pile of books I read and meant to write about last month, also half of them are overdue at the library, all of which is causing me undue stress, so why don’t I tell you about the book I read yesterday instead.
I mean, I didn’t start it yesterday, but I didn’t do anything else yesterday either so that I could finish it, with that glorious terrible feeling of being completely unable to put down a book that you never ever ever want to end and now I HAVE finished it and it is OVER and I don’t know what ELSE I am going to READ that is this GOOD (I started Elena Ferrante today like seventeen hundred years after everyone else in the universe told me to read Elena Ferrante and idk, I like it fine, but do people not know that other books by women about being friends with women exist? I guess not. People should read more, especially book critics, here’s looking at YOU James “’amiably peopled bildungsroman’ my ass” Woods). (Like seriously James Woods do you even read your WIFE? You SHOULD.)
I got Mira Jacob’s debut novel out of the library after I read her facemelting essay for Buzzfeed on racism and publishing; in her own words from that piece, A Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing is about “what happens to a family when one of its members starts to disappear right in front of them. It’s about how crazy we get trying to save each other, how love can both fuck you up and save the day at the exact same time.” But I would argue that Mira Jacob is, here, being tremendously modest; this book is about that, yes, but it is also about love and loss and family and grief and when your mom is a stubborn motherfucker and your dad is just as stubborn, and when you are trying to be an artist and so scared of your own self you keep fucking it up, about trying to make your family happy and your friends happy and everyone who loves you happy all at once and how that can fuck you up too. It’s about all your well-meaning relatives at every goddamn family event screaming WHEN YOU GONNA GET MARRIED KIDDO like your ovaries will wither on the spot and fall out of your body in front of them if you are not sufficiently interrogated on your degree of acquiescence to heteropatriarchal norms. It’s about never getting over losing someone you love. It’s about coming to terms with living on colonized land. It’s about being a human figuring out how to be a human, something resembling a grownup maybe even, which is a little more relatable at this point in my life than I would honestly like it to be but we work with what we’ve got. I cannot believe this book is a debut novel—Jacob says in the acknowledgments that it took her ten years, and I believe it, this book is so rich and so well thought-out and tackles so many complex and interwoven threads with grace and delicacy and somehow anchors this whole vast and gorgeous web effortlessly around the story of its more-or-less main character, a youngish photographer trying to build a career as an artist in 1990s Seattle (I KNOW, BE STILL MY HEART).
“In the publishing world, they don’t say, ‘We just don’t want your story.’ They say, ‘We’re not sure you’re relatable’ and ‘You don’t want to exclude anyone with your work,’” Jacob writes, about the reception her book sometimes received and the reception work by writers of color receives in general, and I can tell you for a fact that I heard this a thousand goddamn times out of the mouths of very well-intentioned people who would rather drink Miller High-Life in front of Lorin Stein than be called racist, like super-nice people you would be happy to have lunch with and if you work in publishing or are a writer probably already have had lunch with at some point. Possibly you are these people. The point is they are not monsters. That’s not usually how it works. I mean I’ve heard some of the dudes at New Yorker parties are a little sketch but in general, you know, everyone’s nice.
But let’s take a Great American Novel like, I don’t know, Freedom, which is in my wildly unhumble opinion a distinctly less funny Madame Bovary cover album: what, for real, is “relatable” about Freedom? Like, which part? Seriously, tell me? Because I can’t actually figure it out. I don’t mean to keep harping on JFranz! I’m not even mad at him anymore! But if we are interested solely in “relating” to our literatures, what sounds more relatable to you, a bunch of really stifled and unpleasant middle-class white people (if I remember correctly literally the only character of color in Freedom is a super-hot boss-banging Slutty “Exotic” South Asian Secretary who is conveniently DECAPITATED IN A CAR ACCIDENT so that the Noble Bird-Watcher can return to his Shrewish and Unintelligent Wife) or a big extended messy family where everybody loves each other and no one really knows how to express it and lots of people are mad about shit they won’t talk about and one of these people, the protagonist, is trying to build a life for herself AND reconcile herself to her family’s complicated history AND deal with a bunch of grief AND not bury her dreams in her dead-end job that is slowly overtaking her life? Yeah, I know which book I’d rather read, too. I could write another ten thousand words on subtle racisms in publishing but I swear to god I do that, like, every week, so just how about MORE BOOKS LIKE THIS, OKAY. MORE OF THEM. I LOVED THIS BOOK. I WANTED IT TO NEVER EVER EVER END. I WANT MORE BOOKS WITH STORIES LIKE THIS. MORE BIG EPIC AMBITIOUS BOOKS BY WOMEN AND WOMEN OF COLOR. I. WANT. THAT. I. BUY. A. FUCKTON. OF. BOOKS. And I also make a lot of other people buy books that I love, either by force of personality or just sheer force, so. I am going to go buy THIS book, which I got out of the library, because it is so GOOD I want it in my HOUSE.
I’m not unhinged, cross my heart, or even drunk, the Internet has just really been irritating me lately. Other stuff I read that I will try to write about: May-Lan Tan’s Things to Make and Break (SO CREEPY, SO GOOD), Geoff Ryman’s Was (see, I do too read books by men (sometimes)), Liz Hand’s Wylding Hall, which is, duh, gorgeous, Meagan Brothers’ Weird Girl and What’s His Name. I am really excited about Sunil Yapa’s Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, out next year, which is about the WTO protests!!!! Someone finally wrote a novel about the WTO protests!!!!! I can’t wait!!!! I read A Little Life and I have a LOT of Thoughts about it and Tragic Queer Narratives and writing about trauma and other stuff but also I am supposed to be writing another book by myself. So many things to do. Anyway it’s fall, dear ones, I hope you are doing fall things and wearing your best fall clothes, and digging out your finest vampire lipsticks, and making pies and picking apples and lying in fields on the last warm days looking up at the clouds and napping. Me too.