Q: I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.

A: For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?”

 

(Claire Messud gave Publishers Weekly the answer it deserved last week. She’s on the show tomorrow. Tune in to see what answers she gives Terry!)

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2013 saw readers flock to big, 400-plus-page novels like no other year in recent memory. Books that spanned decades and continents, and featured casts of dozens, came into vogue in the middle of — and perhaps as an antidote to — our fast-paced, Twitter-stream world, where great pieces of long-form writing vanish from the computer screen almost as fast as banal Facebook updates from high-school friends. But it hasn’t just been a year of literary volume and breadth — it’s also been a year of novels filled with big ideas, rendered with great panache by some of our finest writers, resulting in a handful of new modern classics that made 2013 a damn fine year to be a lover of fiction.

Flavorwire’s 15 Favorite Novels of 2013

It’s the strangest thing about being human: to know so much, to communicate so much, and yet always to fall so drastically short of clarity, to be, in the end, so isolate and inadequate. Even when people try to say things, they say them poorly, or obliquely, or they outright lie, sometimes because they’re lying to you, but as often because they’re lying to themselves.
—  The Woman Upstairs - Claire Messud

“For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections?” Claire Messud bristles at the notion that characters should be likable. 

For more of this morning’s roundup, click here.

Proof that women are the ones writing the next Great American Novel.

A roundup of excellent female authors recommended by excellent female authors—featuring TC contributor Claire Messud!

For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in ‘The Corrections’? Any of the characters in ‘Infinite Jest’? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?’
—  novelist Claire Messud, when asked by Publisher’s Weekly if she would want to be friends with the “unbearably grim” main character of her new book.
When you’re a girl, you never let on that you are proud, or that you know you’re better at history, or biology, of French, than the girl who sits beside you and is eighteen months older. Instead you gush about how good she is at putting on nail polish or at talking to boys, and how you roll your eyes at the vaunted difficulty of the history/biology/French test and say, “Oh my God, it’s going to be such a disaster! I’m so scared!” and you put yourself down whenever you can so that people won’t feel threatened by you, so they’ll like you, because you wouldn’t want them to know that in your heart, you are proud, and maybe even haughty, and are riven by thoughts the revelation of which you would show everyone how deeply Not Nice you are. You learn a whole other polite way of speaking to people who mustn’t see you clearly, and you know-you get told by others-that they think you’re really sweet, and you feel a thrill of triumph: “Yes, I’m good at history/biology/French, and I’m good at this too!.” It doesn’t ever occur to you, as you fashion your mask so carefully, that it will grow into your skin and graft yourself, come to see irremovable.
—  The Woman Upstairs-Claire Messud (p.19)

Claire Messud: “Only in the years following my French Catholic grandmother’s death was it revealed to me that there is no such thing as “magical realism.” There are, instead, culturally specific experiences of the real which, when rendered in fiction, produce different results.”

//

Matt Bell: “I think you might even argue that a fiction that doesn’t make any place for magic isn’t particularly realist, at least in a country in which people regularly report conversations with angels, have after-death experiences, and claim to be guided by voices they hear during prayer or meditation.”

I’m a good girl. I’m a nice girl. I’m a straight-A, strait-laced, good daughter, good career girl, and I never stole anybody’s boyfriend and I never ran out on a girlfriend, and I put up with my parents’ shit and brother’s shit and I’m not a girl anyhow, I’m over forty fucking years old, and I’m good at my job and I’m great with kids and I held my mother’s hand when she died,after four years of holding her hand while she was dying, and I speak to my father ever day on the telephone — every day, mind you, and what kind of weather do you have on your side of the river, because here it’s pretty gray and a big muggy too? It was supposed to say “Great Artist” on my tombstone, but if I died right now it would say “Such a good teacher/daughter/friend” instead; and what I really want to shout, and want in big letters on that grave, too, is FUCK YOU ALL.
—  Claire Messud, The Woman Upstairs
Nobody would know me from my own description of myself; which is why, when called upon (rarely, I grant) to provide an account, I tailor it, I adapt, I try to provide an outline that can, in some way, correlate to the outline that people understand me to have — that, I suppose, I actually have, at this point. But who I am in my head, very few people really get to see that. Almost none. It’s the most precious gift I can give, to bring her out of hiding. Maybe I’ve learned it’s a mistake to reveal her at all.
—  Claire Messud, The Woman Upstairs
Recommended Reading 2013

My annual list of books I’ve read (or reread) and loved this year, roughly in the order in which I read them. Maybe you’ll find some holiday gifts on this list.

  1. "Bluets" by Maggie Nelson 

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  2. "How Should a Person Be?" by Shelia Heti
  3. "Magnificence" by Lydia Millet
  4. "Florida" by Christine Schutt 
  5. "Tenth of December" by George Saunders
  6. "The House of Mirth" by Edith Wharton (reread)
  7. Speedboat” by Renata Adler 

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  8. "The Love of a Good Woman" by Alice Munro (reread)

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  9. "The Woman Upstairs" by Claire Messud
  10. "Life After Life" by Kate Atkinson
  11. "A Map of Tulsa" by Benjamin Lytal

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  12. "Prosperous Friends" by Christine Schutt
  13. "Red Doc" by Anne Carson
  14. "The Flamethrowers" by Rachel Kushner

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  15. "& Sons" by David Gilbert
  16. "Americanah" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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  17. "The Beggar Maid" by Alice Munro (reread)
  18. "Submergence" by J.M. Ledgard
  19. "Pulphead" by John Jeremiah Sullivan (reread)
  20. "Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief" by Lawrence Wright
  21. "Hangsaman" by Shirley Jackson
  22. "Cotton Tenants" by James Agee 

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  23. "The Shelter Cycle" by Peter Rock
  24. "Beautiful Ruins" by Jess Walter
  25. "My Education" by Susan Choi
  26. "Mary Coin" by Marisa Silver
  27. "Open Secrets" by Alice Munro (reread)
  28. "Snow Hunters" by Paul Yoon

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  29. "Lamb" by Bonnie Nadzam
  30. "I Want to Show You More" by Jamie Quatro 

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  31. "A Guide to Being Born" by Ramona Ausubel

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  32. "The Love Song of Jonny Valentine" by Teddy Wayne
  33. "Burning Down the House" by Charles Baxter (reread)
  34. "Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose" by Flannery O’Connor (reread)
  35. "Girlchild" by Tupelo Hassman
  36. "The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P." by Adelle Waldman 

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  37. "The Isle of Youth" by Laura van den Berg

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  38. "Pacific" by Tom Drury
  39. "Dept. of Speculation" by Jenny Offill (coming in January from Knopf—so good you should pre-order it)

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  40. "The Unknowns" by Gabriel Roth
  41. "Visitation Street" by Ivy Pochoda
  42. "Southern Cross the Dog" by Bill Cheng
  43. "Subtle Bodies" by Norman Rush
  44. "The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer" by Siddhartha Mukherjee (a fascinating page-turner)

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  45. "The Interestings" by Meg Wolitzer
  46. "Assorted Fire Events" by David Means
  47. "Wise Men" by Stuart Nadler
  48. "An Unquiet Mind" by Kay Redfield Jamison
  49. "Homo Zapiens" by Victor Pelevin
  50. "How Fiction Works" by James Wood
  51. "Cartwheel" by Jennifer duBois

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  52. "Quartet" by Jean Rhys
  53. "The Virgins" by Pamela Erens
  54. "A Marker to Measure Drift" by Alexander Maksik
  55. "My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead,"  edited by Jeffrey Eugenides (reread—this is one of my favorite anthologies)
  56. "Every Love Story is a Ghost Story" by D.T. Max (terrifically inspiring to read about Wallace’s self-conscious development as a writer)
  57. "The Dead Fish Museum" by Charles D’Ambrosio (reread)

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  58. "The O. Henry Prize Stories 2013"
  59. "Giovanni’s Room" by James Baldwin (reread)
  60. "My Struggle" Book 1, by Karl Ove Knausgaard (translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett) 

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  61. "The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt
  62. "A Day, A Night, Another Day, Summer" by Christine Schutt
  63. "Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death" by Katy Butler
  64. "Fear of Flying" by Erica Jong (I had no idea this book was so funny) 

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  65. "The Long Good-bye" by Raymond Chandler
  66. "Washington Square" by Henry James (I love James)

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  67. "Duplex" by Kathryn Davis
  68. "Bleak House" by Charles Dickens
  69. "My Struggle" Book 2 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

On deck:

"Vampires in the Lemon Grove" by Karen Russell

"Cowboys and East Indians" by Nina McConigly 

"The People in the Trees" by Hanya Yanagihara

"A Constellation of Vital Phenomena" by Anthony Marra

"A Questionable Shape" by Bennett Sims

"Save Yourself" by Kelly Braffet

"Taipei" by Tao Lin

"False Starts" by Janet Malcolm

"Bobcat" by Rebecca Lee

"A Prayer Journal" by Flannery O’Connor

"The Peripatetic Coffin" by Ethan Rutherford

"The Green Shore" by Natalie Bakopoulos

"Tampa" by Alissa Nutting

"Redeployment" by Phil Klay (forthcoming from The Penguin Press in 2014)

"The Unamericans" by Molly Antopol (forthcoming from W.W. Norton in 2014) 

"Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?”

Claire Messud, in answer to the following question-ish statement from an interview at Publisher’s Weekly: ”I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.”

 

Watch on penamerican.tumblr.com

Herta Müller and Claire Messud in Conversation

May 4, 2012 | 92nd Street Y Unterberg Poetry Center | New York City

In her first New York appearance in over a decade, after a reading from her forthcoming novel The Hunger AngelHerta Müller is interviewed by another literary titan, Claire Messud. This event took place as part of the 2012 PEN World Voices Festival.

 

 PHOTO GALLERY | View the photo gallery on Flickr 
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