My Writers — Molly Young

molly young
(source)

Despite the fact that I myself chose to sling my words around in the echoing void of the web wide enough to engulf the whole world, it took me a remarkably long time to land on the revelation that I could find favorite writers there. I have long been a prodigious consumer of digital content, a famished gourmand of information with a bottomless belly. But I tended towards sites and broad topic areas, rarely distracted by bylines and even less likely to make a mental note of wordsmiths who left me feeling extra ticklish after perusing one of their pieces. That personal shortcoming eventually changed (clearly), and the first writer to chip away at my unexplainable resistance, to make me really notice her, was Molly Young.

I first came upon Young’s work when it appeared on the blog This Recording, which I will confess, I mostly perused because it shared downloadable MP3s in a questionable relationship with U.S. copyright law, plopped at the end of snappish articles on pop culture. The essays usually got no more than a glance from me, my interest poofing into nothingness as soon as the thesis revealed itself as flimsy or the self-satisfied snark became overwhelming. This meant I rarely made it past the first paragraph before I scrolled down to click and save on the songs I coveted. Young’s pieces had an entirely different effect. They were witty and insightful and crackled with curiosity. Even when an article was little more than a listing of observations, Young brought inescapable personality to the work. Reading her work was a delight.

And then, as if Young were a college buddy rather than a stranger whose writing I enjoyed, I lost track of her. A modern feature and essay writer is called upon to hustle wherever the winds of freelance are blowing, and Young seemingly landed in cultural corners I wasn’t watching.

Then, a couple years ago, I flipped open The New York Times Magazine one sunny Sunday morning and started reading a profile of Chantal Bacon, a pretty, airy peddler of lifestyle enhancement products wrapped in an especially spiritual brand of quasi-science. The opening line was flat-out perfect: “The amount of time I waste finding and consuming alternative-medicine supplements for ‘brain function’ has made me at least 10 percent dumber, and that paradox is not lost on me.” The article goes on to wryly assess the collection of totemic miracle cures for the malaise modern life that Bacon bundles together into a lucrative philosophy, filling the column inches with inventive descriptions that effectively conveyed the strange world of isolated privilege where Bacon resides and plies her profession. “I passed the most expensive-looking mailbox I’d ever seen, and more varieties of security fence than you could possibly imagine, and houses that looked like every decade’s concept of the future,” the article offers about Bacon’s posh neighborhood, leading me to immediately decide I’d never before encountered a better description of grotesque wealth leveraged into ostentatious living spaces begging to be noticed.

The writer of the article was, of course, Young. My appreciation for her roared back in a rush, and I took advantage of the generous listing of hyperlinkable articles on her website to discover what I’d been missing. I also started scouring the newspaper for more of her words, especially once it became clear to me that she regularly contributed to the Sunday book review section. If Young was the writer, I read the review, irrespective of my interest in the book under her scrutiny. Time and again, I marveled at her wizardry with opening lines, whether in assessing a novelty work about odd, obscure laws (“Why not treat yourself to a crime spree this summer? It’s an easy and affordable way to have fun without consequences, as long as you choose your violations carefully”) or a novel about a compulsive Frenchwoman (“To be a recovering addict is to admit that your highest purpose is to avoid your worst impulses.”) or, spurring my favorite of Young’s ledes, a book about hunting down a foolproof hangover cure (“A thought experiment: If hangovers didn’t exist, what percentage of your life would you spend drunk?”). I’ve read none of those books, but I adore reading the results of Young reading them.

Writing about books is clearly Young’s main racket now. She parlayed a book-centric newsletter she developed into a staff job with New York magazine. Her Read Like the Wind can be subscribed to via the New York website. Young’s brisk, bright observations on a book are usually anchored by a “Recommended If You Like” notation that is inspired in its bundling of disparate references into a definitive characterization of the work in question. Having read Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman is In Trouble, I can confirm that Young’s RIYL gumbo of “Sheila Levine is Dead and Living In New York, feeling slightly proud of yourself for finding Adam Driver hot, Paul Mazursky, trying to game your therapist” is spot on. The newsletter can also simply be accessed at the magazine’s website, like any other article, but I value having it urgently announce itself my inbox. I lost track of Young once before. I aim to not make that mistake again.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “My Writers” tag.

My Writers — Colson Whitehead

john henry

I can’t pinpoint the precise moment when I became completely enamored with Colson Whitehead’s writing, but I’m fairly certain it happened in New Orleans. I was there for a relief trip in 2006, less than one year after Hurricane Katrina devastated the region. For whatever reason, I decided Whitehead’s 2001 novel, John Henry Days, was the right book to bring along for those moments when I needed a diversion. There’s an element of satire to the novel, but it’s hardly light, frothy fare of the sort I probably could have used after a day of sorting through sun-baked wreckage. Like most of Whitehead’s work, it uses crafty invention and wry observation to scratch at larger, more daunting social ills, the sort that permanently infect the soul of the U.S. Although I couldn’t put my figure on the passage that prompted it, I hold a strong memory of sitting outside the camp where the volunteers stayed, getting in a few pages as a respite before dinner, and reading the same paragraph repeatedly, dumbstruck by the easy profundity of Whitehead’s writing.

I’ve skittered around Whitehead’s bibliography ever since, fascinated by his ability to take fanciful notions — a quasi-mystical approach to elevator inspections in The Intuitionist, make the Underground Railroad literal in the book of that title — and making them as grounded as tree roots. The boldest conceits of Whitehead’s fiction are a tool to get at deeper, tougher truths. It isn’t the analogous connections of science fiction so much as an act of shoving established reality just a little to the side of its well-worn groove, which serves to make the complications in the broad American story — particularly around race — all the starker and more unsettling. Whitehead’s narrative sleight of hand is a means to confront the reader with a suck punch forcefulness that a plain recitation of details is no longer likely to accomplish.

Despite my celebration of Whitehead’s adventuresome tweaks of the historic record and agreed-upon components of the shared culture, his language rarely indulges in the kind of flourishes that can make novels needlessly dense. There’s a crispness to his prose that recalls classic American novelists. The comparison I find myself making when reading one of Whitehead’s books is with Stephen King, whose association with genre storytelling obscures his mastery in narrative pacing and quick establishment of character. As it turns out, Whitehead identifies King as an influence, the creator that long ago stirred an aspiration to engage in the same profession. So invoking King is maybe not so bad.

I would also like to note that in The Intuitionist, his debut novel, Whitehead named a reporter character Ben Urich. I understand the in-joke signaling he was up to there, and I like that, too.

My Writers — Elif Batuman

the idiot

When considering which books to add to my household’s library, I am blessed with neither unlimited resources nor an abundance of time with which to read. There are already stacks upon stacks of bound wonders strewn about the domicile, waiting patiently for their turn in the rotation. No matter how many raves I may encounter about a particular new title, I can be exceedingly reluctant to engage in the commerce necessary make an acquisition. And thus The Idiot, the 2017 debut novel of Elif Batuman, long remained on the unofficial list of books to keep in mind along with all the other maybe-somedays.

Batuman and her book must have somehow elbowed their way to the forefront of the clamorous crowd in coveted pop culture artifacts in my brain, because when I came upon the New Yorker article she penned about the odd rent-a-family industry in Japan, I immediately recognized the byline. Upon publication, the article made the rounds on social media, devotees of exceptional longform magazine writing competing to see who could praise it most effusively. They were correct to do. It’s a marvelous piece of feature journalism, properly flabbergasted by the strangeness of the subject and yet deeply empathetic, striving successfully to understand the people operating within and around this subculture. A wry humor is present, but not pushed, and it is never deployed at the expense of anyone enduring emotional struggle.

Not long after reading the article, I plucked The Idiot off of the display table in a bookstore and read the first page, which uses the foreignness of email and foundational online technology to establish the story’s timeframe as the mid-nineteen-nineties, the lead character entering into college. Before the end of the first paragraph, the precise and perfect details employed by Batuman were present:

“You’ll be so fancy,” said my mother’s sister, who had married a computer scientist, “sending your e, mails.” She emphasized the “e” and paused before the “mail.”

By the end of the page, I knew I was buying the book, the deal clinched by the protagonist’s response to being handed an Ethernet cable for the first time: “What do we do with this, hang ourselves?” It was writing that I adored to such a degree that I felt a sense of loss for my delay in discovering it. So many wasted seconds when I could have reading these amazing words, assembled with offhand psychological astuteness and a pinpoint comic timing that is monumentally difficult to achieve in the novel form.

Greedily, I want all of Batuman’s words, every last one I can get. There’s a reasonable backlog for me to sort through, and hopefully many more to come in the long transit from the writer’s mind to the reader’s eyes. I missed out before. I won’t again.

My Writers — Rebecca Traister

mad

When the moment called for an evaluation comparing and contrasting the respective testimonies of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh before the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary, The New York Times couldn’t have tapped a better writer than Rebecca Traister. As various pundits were fumbling through their evaluations of the markedly different temperaments displayed by the two figures before the legislative branch, Traister was in the rare position of being able to accurately cite a well-worn adage as credential: She literally wrote the book on the subject.

Traister’s essay, published in the Sunday opinion section of the Times, provided valuable insight to the uninitiated, likely preserved in happy ignorance by their own safe privilege, as to why Ford might feel obligated to remain intensely measured and why the man who followed her to the witness table felt emboldened to rant furiously, spitting out insulting, dismissive responses to the elected officials designing to question his suitability to serve on the highest court in the land. Traister drew on research she’d already done for her book Good and Mad, which bears the subtitle The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. With power, clarity, and historical evidence, Traister illuminated the persistent societal clampdown on women expressing any emotion much more heated that demure acquiescence. The piece is infuriating and heartbreaking. To the degree that it puts a diagnosis to a backwards, gender-specific prohibition against personal expression, the essay is also hopeful and inspiring. If a disease is identified, it can be combatted.

The same day Traister’s article appeared in the Times, I bought her book. Writers need to be supported, especially those that are making arguments against the darkening power structure in this alarmingly regressive time. Good and Mad covers the same ground as the article that inspired my commerce, but with greater depth and more expansiveness. Although Traister is obviously energized in the claiming of her own anger in the wake of the disastrous administration haphazardly assembled by second-place finisher in the country’s most recent presidential election, she doesn’t resort to a purely polemical diatribe. Without giving an inch on her right to be honestly aggrieved, Traister offers a considered, meticulous accounting of the long history that’s brought women to this point, including the progress that has been made, the victories won and lost in the past, and, more importantly, acknowledgment of the yet tougher judgment rendered upon women of color who dare to show their justified rage. She owns her notches of privilege, too.

Especially in recent years, I’ve tried to look past my own blinkered existence to learn the discomfort and hardship of others, particularly those who carry with them some signifier — of skin color, of gender identity, of religious belief, of familial heritage — that makes them an automatic target in this place and time where instinctual uncertainty about difference is weaponized by a ruling class fearful of citizen unity. My education has been just successful enough that I wasn’t surprised by much in Traister’s writing, but I was still grateful for its thoroughness and vivid sense of purpose. I’m prepared to celebrate the fury.

My Writers — Jennifer Egan

goon squad

It’s no shock that first Jennifer Egan book I read was A Visit from the Goon Squad. Her previous three novels had their fans, of course, but Goon Squad was something of a sensation, a must-read even before it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Simultaneously deeply felt and rambunctiously deconstructionist in execution, the novel is impactful, less because of any elements of its plot (or overlapping plots, depending on how one looks at it) and more due to its vividness of emotion and wonderfully wooly ideas. I don’t remember about the chapter “Great Rock and Roll Pauses by Alison Blake,” but it certainly sticks with me that it’s rendered as a fully convincing PowerPoint presentation. And it’s engaging to a degree that far exceeds usual instances of such formatting tomfoolery. Other authors easily get bogged down in the gimmickry of the technique, but Egan makes it an avenue into keeping her fiction fiercely connected to the moment.

I started with Goon Squad, but the book that put me in awe of Egan’s talents was the next one she released: Manhattan Beach. The novel is structurally and creatively about as far from its award-winning predecessor as is reasonably possible from the same author. A story of family hardship and seedy crime around the years of World War II, the book is meticulously researched, its details interlaced with the pure fiction in a way that properly heightens the authenticity. Again, Egan artfully achieves a feat that is often clumsy in other hands. The researched material is ever-present, but not in a manner that signals a desperation to employ all the outside reading. Instead, it’s there in way that feel as true as the casualness with which the names of apps or websites or perpetrators of political dismay are invoked today. Egan understands how the components of society become part of the pattern on the fabric of life.

Much as I adore these novels, there may be nothing more valuable about Egan’s current contributions as a writer than her commitment to pursuing assignments away from the comfort of fiction. As the studious approach to Manhattan Beach suggests, she has a journalist’s empathy and instincts, recently demonstrated by a lengthy cover story on the opioid epidemic for The New York Times Magazine. Plenty of novelists give non-fiction writing a spin from time to time, but it’s often in the form of observational essays or personal reminiscence, keeping them in the safety of drawing on little more than their own notions. Egan went out and reported, having tough conversations with people in pain. Basically, Egan does what anyone with her talents should do: She finds the stories that need to be told and writes them.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “My Writers” tag.

My Writers — Brian K. Vaughan

y the last man

As I’ve recounted elsewhere, I spent an embarrassingly long time trying the kick the habit of comic book collecting I plunged into as a kid. There was always one more series to hang on for, some promise of new wrinkles to an ongoing saga that I found painfully irresistible. To a degree, I just wanted to keep collecting and sought out excuses to justify the continued endeavor. There were instances, though, when I was genuinely ensnared while happily trotting away to freedom. On one such occasion, I clearly keep buying comic books only because Brian K. Vaughan was writing some of them.

Vaughan had been a professional comic book writer for a few years when he teamed with artist Pia Guerra to launch a title under DC Comics’ Vertigo banner. Y the Last Man had an irresistible hook and a perfect first issue (although I started with sixth issue, lured in by the enticement of “NEW STORYLINE” emblazoned across the cover). It’s lead character, Yorrick Brown, was seemingly the only male left on the planet after a strange plague instantaneously killed all mammals with a Y chromosome. Across five dozen issues, Yorrick and his new compatriots navigated a strange, treacherous landscape, marked by new tribalism and thoroughly upended geopolitics.

Exploratory and inventive, the series was serial storytelling at its best, and only in part because Vaughan was tremendous at deploying issue-ending cliffhangers. He shrewdly exploited the benefits of working with characters over an extended period of time, leaning on familiarity to drive stories while also letting them shift and grow gradually. He made astute points about psychology and society through believable interactions of characters, always fully justified in the logic of the narrative. He scratched at truths without pontificating. I kept following Vaughan across publishers and titles: Ex Machina, Runaways, The Escapists, and the only Doctor Strange comic I’ve ever really, truly enjoyed.

These days, I don’t buy very many comics. There are a few series I pick up in their collected trade editions, and I will occasionally treat my pal who’s still admirably devoted like she’s running a borrowing library. For regular issue-by-issue reading, though, there’s only one title left: Saga, with writing by Vaughan and art by the amazing Fiona Staples. As was the case with Vaughan’s previous works, it’s endlessly imaginative, emotionally potent, and ruthless in its cliffhanger endings. Without question, it’s one of the best comic book series I’ve ever read.

As a kid, I followed the methodology of a lot of comic book fans and locked onto individual characters and teams, working myself into fits of quiet outrage any time their adventures weren’t up whatever arbitrary standards I set. Thankfully, I quickly learned the foolishness of that mindset. Picking favorite creators was a far more sensible — and consistently rewarding — strategy. Under the common interpretation of the phrase, denoting status as a hobbyist as much as a consumer, I guess it’s accurate to say I don’t read comic books any longer. But I damn well do read Brian K. Vaughan. And I don’t plan to stop any time soon.

My Writers — Gillian Flynn

gone

Appropriately, I think, Gillian Flynn locked me in for good when I started reading one of her books in a drug store. I was waiting on a prescription, and I wandered over the the dispiritingly sparse selection of paperbacks. A copy of Dark Places, Flynn’s second novel was there, so I picked it up and started reading. Quickly rapt, I felt a pang of regret when my name was read over the business’s loudspeaker, beckoning me to the back to retrieve my pharmaceuticals. That, my friends, is the sign of a good writer.

Dark Places wasn’t my first experience with Flynn. I’d read Gone Girl when it was the novel of the moment. Although I loved it, especially admiring her brilliantly deployed mid-novel twist, it somehow felt easy for me to preemptively disregard her other works of fiction. Maybe it was due to some of the more churlish critics, quick to dismiss Gone Girl as a fluke, even when delivering generally favorable assessments. It could have been attributable to my own biases, since I’d read plenty of Flynn’s words when she toiled for Entertainment Weekly, mostly as the second-string TV writer, and I didn’t recall thinking she delivered anything all that special. I should have known better. Television reviews and darkly comic crime novels are wildly different beasts. I believe I could write a pretty dang good essay on the bygone TV drama Life on Mars, but I more confident I don’t have a Gone Girl in me.

I’ve read all three of Flynn’s novels, and I’ve had the same experience with each. I appreciate the caustic comic elements and the ruthless plumbing of the darker corners of human nature. More uncommonly, there’s always a point, around midway through the book, when my need to barrel through to the end becomes almost compulsive. I’m not necessarily caught up in the mysteries she ticks through or hooked by Flynn’s chapter-ending cliffhangers (though she’s exceptionally good at those). Instead, I simply have an intellectual hunger to consume the totality of it in a way I’ve rarely experienced since high school, when I was inclined to decide that nourishing sleep on a school night was less important than finding out how The Dead Zone ends.

Within that swelling obsession lies my satisfaction in the drug store as ground zero for my zeal for Flynn’s writing. She provides a fiercely modern version of the dime store novels from decades ago, the pulpy adventures that were bourbon-laced cotton candy for the mind. There’s no slight there. Flynn exhibits the same ferocity, fearlessness, wit, and bracing economy of language that makes the acknowledged masters of the once-disreputable form considered some of the worthier residents in the pantheon of U.S. literature. Like the efforts of those predecessors, Flynn’s work lands with a sharp, satisfying smack.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “My Writers” tag.