When I first meet my mother-in-law Nora, she is naked and skeletal, with a head-to-toe case of scabies. We don’t know yet about the scabies, but standing in the room at the nursing home, we can tell something’s wrong. Arline, my partner, hasn’t seen her mother in ten years.
An attendant brushes in past us. She had instructed us to wait in the entrance, but Arline’s friend Alma, sensing deception, led us down the front hallway and along a corridor until she found Nora’s room. The attendant waves us out; she will get Nora ready. The room holds a dresser with missing drawers and three single beds; they have dirty bedspreads and no sheets. A small print of a lily hangs near the ceiling on a wall as scarred as Nora’s legs.
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.
Isabel MeyersThe 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.
Isabel MeyersDavid 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.
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.
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.
The mind swings inward on itself in fear
Swayed towards nausea from each normal sign.
—derek walcott, “A Lesson for This Sunday”
On a lake, in the woods, in 1940, my grandparents built a cabin. One room, big stone fireplace, outdoor privy. They lived and worked outside New York City and spent summers in Maine, my grandmother often here alone with three young kids but no electricity, plumbing, or heat except the wood-burning fire. Surrounded by one hundred acres of no one. Up the road, there were neighbors: the Garnetts and the Hibberts—and the Savages, who lived up to their name, my grandmother used to tell me. They ate with their hands off the table’s pine boards. Mrs. Hibbert shielded her children from the Savage boys when they came around, sometimes en route to my grandparents’ place for supplies—whatever was lying around unprotected.