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Karen Joy Fowler and I have been together since 1990, when her agent sent me the manuscript of what was to become KJ’s first novel. That agent had discriminating taste and kept a small list. She also very quietly took the measure of the editors she met. I had known her for years and saw very little in the way of submissions. She placed her clients well and the marriages tended to last. So when the manuscript arrived, I was both curious and interested.
Nabokov is famously on record as saying “you will know great fiction when the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end as you read.” It’s been my good fortune to have that happen many times though not having it happen is more the norm. With Karen Fowler’s Sarah Canary, it happened immediately and continued to the last page. Her agent had taken my measure over the years and now she hit a home run. That novel—quirky, subversive, funny and, yes, sad, was a literary success. Of the many glowing reviews, the one I still treasure came in as a prepublication comment. I should preface this by saying that in my wayward youth, I had gone to graduate school, reading politics and philosophy and, as a teaching assistant, handling the introductory comparative politics course. I loved the teaching and hated the grad school but I soldiered on until the day came when I realized I would never fit into the white, male- dominated world of academia. And I also realized that poetry and fiction mattered more to me than statistical analyses and grantsmanship. The revelation—not quite as dramatic as Paul on the road to Damascus but still undeniable—was made real when I found myself immersed in the poetry, memoirs, and short fictions of W. S. Merwin. I did not personally know Merwin, but from his work I sensed KJ’s novel would strike a chord and I sent him a bound galley. The result was all an editor could hope for. This U.S. Poet Lauriat and winner of just about every major literary prize had this to say: “An enchanted and enchanting narrative . . . a work with the suggestive authority and the evanescent power of myth. Her storytelling gifts are exhilarating.”
KJ now has six novels to her credit, the most recent—We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves—a best seller on both sides of the Atlantic, earned her the PEN/Faulkner Award and made her a finalist for the Man Booker in the first year that prize was opened to Americans. Just this past week the Knopf publicist for Judy Blume’s new adult novel told us that as her tour began, all she wanted to talk about was WAACBO and she urged her audiences to read it. But then, from the beginning it was clear to me that KJ was a writer’s writer and her fans are legion—from Michael Chabon to Ann Packer, from Kaled Hosseini to Ursula Le Guin.
If you have yet to read KJ, a good place to begin would be Black Glass: fifteen gemlike tales that showcase the extraordinary talents of this prizewinning writer. I published it in 1998 and its reception far outpaced what publishers expect from short story collections. Nationally (and very favorably) reviewed, it went on become a Ballantine Reader’s Circle paperback, with Ballantine simultaneously promoting all of her backlist. But that was seventeen years ago. The stories have worn well, and Putnam believed, following on the success of WAACBO, there was a new audience, a new generation to reach out to with this collection. But publishing short stories is still hard, and publishing a collection that has already had one incarnation can be a publicist’s nightmare. I’m happy to report that KJ’s terrific publicist (Katie Grinch) came through. At the end of May, Esquire magazine presented its summer reading list and Black Glass was one of their ten fiction selections. Not bad for a republished story collection! And KJ is set to revisit the Diane Rehm show this summer. She is also still touring, largely now to college campuses—several having made WAACBO the freshman read for the incoming class.
In Black Glass, KJ lets her wit and vision roam freely, turning accepted norms inside out and fairy tales upside down—forcing us to reconsider our unquestioned verities and proving yet again that she is among our most subversive writers. By turns tender and funny, these stories are also dark and acerbic—the unexpected sting that jolts us out of our comfort zone. A master of the sly feint and cunning conceit, Fowler toys with figures from myth, history, and pop culture, upsetting all our expectations. So here is Carrie Nation loose again in the land, breaking up topless bars and radicalizing women as she preaches clean living to men more intent on babes and booze. And here is Mrs. Gulliver, her patience with her long-voyaging Lemuel worn thin: money is short and the kids can’t even remember what their dad looks like. And what of Tonto, the ever faithful companion, now turning forty without so much as a birthday phone call from that masked man? Playing with time, chance, and reality, Black Glass is, as Kirkus said, filled with “ferociously imaginative stories in an accomplished and risk-taking work from one of our most interesting writers.”
The New York Times Book Review: “There is much that is fantastical about Black Glass, but also much that is rooted in a solid emotional reality; in fine-edged and discerning prose, Fowler manages to re-create both life’s extraordinary and its ordinary magic.”
San Francisco Chronicle: “[An] astonishing voice . . . at once lyric and ironic, satiric and nostalgic. Fowler can tell tales that engage and enchant.”
The Washington Post: “’Black Glass,’ Fowler’s longest story, is one of those marvels that defeat criticism. It’s a piece of bravura virtuosity, which Fowler also manages to make extremely funny. You reread the story, intent on discovering how she did it, and end up losing yourself again to wonder and enjoyment.”
The Boston Globe: “Arresting . . . each piece puts us on notice in its own way that an intriguing intelligence is at work.”
So, is this multitalented woman a monster? Well, no. No, no, and no again. KJ emerged from the politics that was Berkley in the sixties and she never lost her commitment to fair play and justice. She is a warm and generous woman with a brilliant mind. If you want to know more about her, read her prefatory essay in this new edition of Black Glass. Oh, and one more thing: She wasn’t an English major and did an MA in southeast Asian history. Plus she does not have an MFA in writing. Thank heaven there are still writers who do not follow that cookie cutter path.
Read more about Black Glass here.
Today, June 10th 2015, would have been Saul Bellow’s 100th birthday. In celebration of his of his life, we reached out to Beena Kamlani, Bellow’s editor, to reflect on the writer’s life and influence.
Bellow @ 100: Some Reminiscences and Thoughts
To read Bellow is to be struck. As by a meteor, a thunderbolt, or something from some indefinable source. You are suddenly in possession of knowledge that comes from elsewhere—as if gifted. Stunned and blessed—how often does this happen to us in our lives? I speak from experience. I read him when I was eight. The book was Herzog. We preferred to read because TV in Bombay, India, was grainy and unpredictable. From the Hardy Boys to Enid Blyton, from Jane Austen to H. Rider Haggard—there was nothing that was considered unacceptable, and nothing that turned us off. But the world opened up for me when I came to Herzog. For it spoke about things no one had ever spoken about before. Its openness bowled me over.
I was eight. It was a hard book to read as a child. The intellectual discourses in the letters Moses Herzog wrote were confusing and frustrating, for one didn’t know any of the references. But its truth was unassailable. Perhaps a child can grasp such things more easily than an adult for here was Moses remembering his childhood, the youngest in a family of four children, an immigrant family struggling to make it in immigrant Chicago, describing the helplessness of a child who sat in full knowledge of the struggles and challenges that faced them. These challenges colored his experience of childhood. Persistent failure rubbed shoulders with success; dashed dreams and thwarted ambitions made near impossible lives already brought low by sickness, the deaths of close family members, and sheer survival. Simple existence had to be constantly redefined, rearticulated, reimagined.
In our family, too, there were deaths, divorces, and the effects of failure. Illness and sudden loss were common. Mourning bore witness but the questions multiplied. No one said a word in the mistaken belief that children ought to be protected from the truth. But there, in the kitchen of Moses Herzog’s home on Napoleon Street, in immigrant closeness and proximity, there are no secrets and the children come to know everything because it’s happening in front of them. It is the source of his intimate knowledge about a child’s world, filled with uncertainty, frustration, knowledge that is useless in the present but becomes part of our psychic calibration later, and the constant threat of abandonment. “We were like cave dwellers,” Moses says. We, too, become cave dwellers with him as we hear his pain about losing a beloved wife to a best friend, about the terrible longing for his daughter, and listen to him rage in loneliness against the world. There is the unforgettable scene in that kitchen when Father Herzog comes home robbed and beaten after a bootlegging expedition. “’Sarah!’ he said. ‘Children!’ He showed his cut face. He spread his arms so we could see his tatters, and the white of his body under them. Then he turned his pockets inside out—empty. As he did this, he began to cry, and the children standing about him all cried. It was more than I could bear that anyone should lay violent hands on him—a father, a sacred being, a king. Yes, he was a king to us. My heart was suffocated by this horror. I thought I would die of it. Whom did I ever love as I loved them?” Beckett, writing about Proust, said, “Yesterday is not a milestone that has been passed, but a daystone on the beaten track of the years, and irremediably part of us, within us, heavy and dangerous.” In Herzog, Bellow shows us how to record our pasts, how to transcribe them, how to live with them, even when they threaten to wreck us.
Bellow concerned himself with what affected people, in the way they lived their lives, and in the way they dealt with the struggles of the heart. He had a real feeling for it, which is why his work leaves such a mark. He taps corresponding notes in another’s life. He is able to articulate what we know but cannot decipher for ourselves. “Every writer’s assumption is that he is as other human beings are, and they are more or less as he is. There’s a principle of psychic unity. [Writing] was not meant to be an occult operation; it was not meant to be an esoteric secret.”
Memory becomes the key to unlocking those crossover truths from writer to reader. You not only become a cave dweller in that kitchen but you also recognize the truth of what’s happening when the older Moses takes you into the kitchen of his home where these struggles took place. You trust the sensibility and the mind of the older Moses, remembering, seeing his family again, and as a reader you find equivalent emotional hotspots in your own life, hotspots that take you right into the heart of Saul’s work.
In the world I grew up in, girls are handed knowledge in breadcrumbs. It is a privilege, a gift. Boys can expect it by the sackful, for it is necessary to live life, to bring forth families and to support them. What Bellow does is to hand us all this gift.
When I was working with him, every night, weary with the challenges and exhilarations of the work, we would wind down for the day and hand the manuscript to his wife, Janis, for safekeeping. He had gone, as usual, close to the fire, and it had taken a lot out of him. We worked on hard copy, and it was the only extant copy of the manuscript. The vault she placed it in was none other than the freezer, for this is the last place to be attacked by fire. That act of reverence and preservation was necessary—for the present, yes, but also for posterity. For those words, cooling in their frozen vault, would become jewels for readers in the future, illuminating and warming them as we ourselves had been.
Years later, I told him I’d read him when I was eight. “It was Herzog,” I said. He looked at me incredulously. “You don’t say!” he said. Then he put his fingers on the table where we were working and playfully drummed them against the wooden surface. “And here we are!” he said.
Browse through all of Bellow’s work here.