I read Makenna Goodman’s The Shame (Milkweed Editions, 2020) primarily as a book about motherhood, although I appreciated Alexander Chee’s interpretation of it as about art and anxiety in his Paris Review interview. I also read it as a book about capitalism: how to be an artist and a human being existing as much outside capitalism’s imperatives as possible (it’s not very possible). The book intertwines all these subjects, while also examining marriage, isolation, the internet, academia, and “living on the land.” I came across the novel through Rachel Zucker’s Commonplace podcast interview with her, an absolutely riveting conversation I want to listen to again now that I’ve read the book.
I love the novel’s structure (and, while I never plan to write a novel, if I were to, I would use this structure too): Alma, the first-person narrator, is driving toward an unnamed location, recollecting episodes from her life. The story gets told through these thoughts, occasionally bringing us back to the present moment in the car as she stops for gas or checks her phone.
She is running away from her family in Vermont, leaving her professor husband and two children. We don’t know why she’s leaving, but she feels gloriously free, so we know she has been unhappy. Gradually she fills in the picture: she’s a stay-at-home mother who does some freelance editing and is raising two children while running a small homestead with chickens, sheep, and a vegetable garden. She and her husband, Asa, want to live as independently as possible: grow their own food, live frugally, and raise their children close to nature. In her down time, she reads and paints. Her reading inspires her to start writing, and she feels a new excitement at the creative possibilities before her.
She has everything! Sort of. She’s proud of their house and land, proud of everything she knows about living a healthy and natural life, proud of the creative ways she and the kids spend time together and all the practical things she’s capable of, tapping the maple trees and caring for lambs. But she wants recognition for her knowledge and accomplishments and finds that it’s hard to get: early on is a description of a dinner party among academics and spouses celebrating Asa’s tenure where she feels seen and appreciated, until it goes badly — and hysterically — wrong. As she describes it to others, life on the homestead is exciting and fulfilling, but in reality it’s full of drudgery, boredom, and mud. She’s excited by her writing but lacks confidence and is afraid to take it and herself seriously.
In the midst of this, she discovers Celeste, a woman on the internet who truly does seem to have it all. She’s a potter from Brooklyn who puts her life online, with the perfect family, clothes, friends, meals, possessions, vacations, etc. etc. Alma becomes obsessed, partly with jealousy at Celeste’s perfect life and partly with the desire to discover the darkness that must exist in her life somewhere. Because doesn’t it exist for all of us?
Following Alma’s thoughts as she recalls all this is such a pleasure. She is funny — I laughed out loud many times — with an eye for the perfect detail to sum a person or a situation up. But it’s also painful. Alma is full of self-doubt, fear, and shame that is recognizable and heartbreaking. She knows — she knows! — that her obsession with Celeste and all her glittering possessions is unhealthy and violates her anti-capitalist principles, but she can’t help herself. She wants a better life, but she doesn’t know how to make it. She feels trapped.
I won’t discuss any more of the story or give away what happens on Alma’s journey, but I’ll say that this book asks good questions: how do we live ethically? Is it possible to make art without that art getting co-opted into selling products people don’t need? How can children be cared for in a way that’s equitable? What do you do when you have reached the place of stability you’ve been wanting all along and you find yourself unhappy? I don’t know what age Alma is, but this is a woman’s version of the stereotypical midlife crisis, a subject of a lot of jokes and rolled eyes, but a real and serious thing that’s at least as much about existential and political questions as it is about personal restlessness. How much happiness is a person entitled to? How do we make peace with the limits of one individual life when we see endless possibilities for other ways of living, particularly online?
The book opens with a two-page fable about being trapped (there are little stories/fables sprinkled throughout): you’re stuck on a tiny island surrounded by lava. You have enough to survive where you are, but you will be unhappy. The prospect of abundance and happiness lies at the edge of the lava, miles away. How do you get there? Would you try? The answer the book gives is funny and ridiculous. Getting to the land of perfect contentment is next to impossible. Confronting the truth of this absurd situation — life — is at the heart of provocative and brilliant novel.
Don’t Forget About
I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell (Knopf, 2017): This is so far the only Maggie O’Farrell book I’ve read, but only because my TBR list is so long. I absolutely loved it. It’s a series of essays about O’Farrell’s close calls with death: illnesses, accidents, encounters with potentially-dangerous strangers. Through these essays, we get a picture of her life, one that feels meaningful and rich. She writes straightforwardly, without a lot of philosophizing about life and death, but her stories provoke contemplation about mortality on their own. Her final chapter is especially powerful. I had no idea what the last piece was about going in, and that’s the best way to experience it. Be prepared to have some feelings.
Publishing This Week
New books I haven’t read yet that I’m adding to my TBR:
How to Order the Universe by María José Ferrada, translated by Elizabeth Bryer (Tin House): the story of 7-year-old M. who skips school to accompany her father, a traveling salesman. They travel through Chile as it is going through change.
No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood (Riverhead): a novel about the internet (from the author of the fabulous memoir Priestdaddy). A woman made famous by social media travels the world to meet her fans until “real life” intrudes when her mother summons her home.
In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova, translated by Sasha Dugdale (New Directions, 2021): a sort of novel, sort of nonfiction book about loss and memory. After the death of the narrator’s aunt, she sifts through the aunt’s apartment, telling stories about the objects in it.
An I-Novel by Minae Mizumura, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter (Columbia University Press, publishing on March 2nd): an advanced reader’s copy from the publisher. A semi-autobiographical work set on a single day in the 1980s. I loved Mizumura’s A True Novel so I’m looking forward to this.
Craft in the Real World by Matthew Salesses (Catapult, 2021): I like reading books about how to write, not because I want to be a writer, but because they are also books about how to read. This is a book about writing and the creative writing workshop that focuses on diversity in writers, audiences, and literary traditions.
Anodyne by Khadijah Queen (Tin House Books, 2020): I came across this book in Elisa Gabbert’s list of every book she read in 2020 with commentary (an utterly fabulous list Gabbert creates every year — fabulous because her taste in books is similar to mine and utterly impeccable, obviously). A poetry collection! I’m trying to read more poetry these days and so keep my eye out for interesting-sounding books.
Aftershocks by Nadia Owusu (Simon and Schuster, 2021): a memoir about family ruptures and secrets, Owusu’s nomadic and unsettled childhood, and her struggles with depression.
To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life by Hervé Guibert, translated by Linda Coverdale (Semiotext(e), 2020, originally published in 1990): I’m reading this in preparation for Kate Zambreno’s book about Hervé Guibert, which is coming out later this year. Zambreno’s book, To Write As If Already Dead, is a mix of fiction and nonfiction that’s inspired by? modeled on? a response to? an engagement with? Guibert and To the Friend. I can’t wait.
Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters (One World, 2021): My current audiobook. So far: very good. I’m about 1/3 of the way in.
A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by George Saunders (Random House, 2021): I’m reading this a chapter at a time, basically one chapter in between every other book I read.
The Cormac Report
This week we adopted a new puppy, our second dog. We want our older dog Finnegan (aka Finny, who is almost seven years old) to have a friend to play with. Also — this is a sad point and I feel bad thinking this way, but I do — I want a younger dog around so when Finny gets older and slower and sad things happen, we have another dog around to help Cormac deal with it. I don’t even know if that makes sense, but it’s been on my mind ever since we adopted Finny when Cormac was one.
Anyway, here’s our new puppy, a 9.5 month-old rescue mutt (Rottweiler, Doberman, Shepherd mix? No idea) named Éowyn, to be nicknamed Wynnie, perhaps. We’ll see.
And this was the scene at our house the night she arrived:
Have a great week everyone!