Claire Messud is the author of six novels, including The Emperor’s Children, a New York Times bestseller that was shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize. Her sixth novel, The Woman Upstairs, was released by Knopf in April 2013 to much critical acclaim and a long listing for the Canadian Scotiabank Giller Prize. As December temperatures plummeted Melody Nixon caught up with Claire Messud over the phone about fiction, philosophy, and that comment about the “likeability” of literary characters.
The Deal with Discomfort: Claire Messud on “Likeability,” the Subjective Self, and Choosing an Artist’s Life
David Lehman, born and raised in New York City, is the author of the forthcoming poetry collection New and Selected Poems, published by Scribner. He is Series Editor of TheBest American Poetry anthology and co-founder of the KGB bar poetry reading series. His poems “Mother Died Today,” “Remember the Typewriter,” and “The Bronze Décor”appeared in Issue No. 05 of The Common.
David Lehman on Literary New York, the KGB Bar, and His New and Selected Poems
A year ago, a girl my age was raped in New Delhi. Several days later she died of her injuries in a hospital in Singapore. Her intestines were so badly mangled she would have required a transplant to live. If she had lived, she would never have eaten without the aid of a tube.
Southern writer can be a term of endearment or an epithet. The late Mississippi-born novelist and short-story writer, Barry Hannah, bristled at the label. “Professional Southerners sicken me,” he said. Yet to my ear, Hannah’s work sounds entirely Southern.
Being from Mississippi and sounding it (I’m sure), I can’t help but feel that idiom has more to do with the Southern-ness of literature than geography. So I found myself at a loss when I began reading David Middleton’s The Fiddler of Driskill Hill. The content of Middleton’s poems is undeniably Southern: Louisianan, precisely.
Our relationship with maps has changed drastically in the last ten years, from the pinpoint ease of Google Maps to global positioning systems rendering us a blinking blue beacon on a grid of streets. Rarely are we explorers in the completed cartography of our planet. Visual artist Martha Willette Lewis has given us new, unreal spaces to explore by combining diagrammatic drawings, biological systems, and topographical forms. These spaces manifest as works on paper that are often folded, crumpled, or bisected. Lewis takes visual cues from systems that are usually not in contact and, in doing so, creates a skewed sense of reality. Hers is a hybridized vision shared by artists and technological innovators. The paper and drawing are real, but the vision is of an impossible place.
It’s late afternoon on the beach in North Florida. It’s October, the end of a season, and the world is in motion. Monarchs cloud through the sunlight in orange swarms; blooms of jellyfish float along the shoreline; and schools of grouper leap in flustered succession, tails suspended above the ocean, bodies flapping. The air is just cold enough to make us duck our shoulders under water and lift our faces toward the sun, not shivering but not warm.
The moment I succumbed to life in the suburbs for the duration of our two-year stay, my husband’s employers offered us an apartment in the middle of Salvador. We promptly packed our twelve suitcases and moved to Barra, a neighborhood on the peninsula between the Bay of All Saints and the Atlantic Ocean. Again, the steep hills and winding sidewalks dotted by sprawling almond trees evoked in me an eerie familiarity. The main bedroom’s built-in wooden closet smelled musty, old-world, and opening its doors never failed to conjure up my grandmother.
Sometimes I have to leave the house, get out in the world and write among other people. Not that I want anything to do with any of them. I just want to set up among them, the better to hunker down. I’m looking to be anonymous. I’m looking for a place where I can concentrate on my characters while ignoring people. A place where the rest of humanity provides a soothing backdrop, a therapeutic white noise.
At the heart of Hari Kunzru’s fourth novel, Gods Without Men, is the disappearance of a child, Raj Matharu, four years old, the autistic son of wealthy New Yorkers Jaz, a Sikh, and his Jewish wife, Lisa. Raj was last seen in the shadow of the Pinnacles, “three columns of rock” in the Mojave desert in the American southwest.
If Gods Without Men is a whodunit, it is one in which the culprit may well be a place. The (fictional) Pinnacles have drawn three centuries of seekers—Spanish friars, believers in aliens, washed-up British rock stars, hippies—all of whom believe they offer a connection to some vast presence. Over the course of this complex novel, these disparate narratives cast light on the mystery of what happened to Raj, how, and why.