This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.
“Who is the titular fool of Elif Batuman’s 2017 novel The Idiot?” asks Rumaan Alam in his review of Batuman’s most recent novel, Either/Or, in our July 21 issue. The essay in part weighs the foolishness of Batuman’s characters, but also Batuman, the reader, and Alam himself. How much can or should a reader or writer identify with the people on the page?
In addition to the four articles Alam has written for The New York Review—he has previously considered Lorrie Moore, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Jean Stafford—he has published three novels, peopled with characters who struggle to understand themselves and friends, lovers, and strangers across class and racial divides.
I recently e-mailed with Alam to ask about identification and disidentification in literature, and we ended up discussing what defines a novel, preferring the first person, and bathtub reading.
Daniel Drake: I remember reading The Lord of the Flies in eighth grade and realizing just how dense a novel could be, how much it could do in addition to telling a story. When did you start to take novels seriously as objects of study—or as something that you could write? Were there any particular books that revealed to you the possibilities or the aesthetics of the form?
Rumaan Alam: I think for me, personally, a more important discovery was that the novel can be a device of pure pleasure, and this is something I learned quite early—in the third grade, at least as I remember it. Two books I have long thought of as pivotal in my development as a reader are Judy Blume’s Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself and Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy. I so clearly remember finishing Blume’s book while in the bathtub (at eight I read constantly, in the backseats of cars, at the dinner table, in the bath) and turning back to the first page and starting it again. This is different from what you describe; maybe some children read with the seriousness of a scholar, but I did not. I read to be lifted out of my own life, which I thought boring. I have the deepest respect for those who write for children, which seems like a magic trick to me—can you imagine a more finicky or illogical audience? People who write for young readers can make addicts of them, as Blume and Fitzhugh did for me (and, of course, scores of other kids).
I imagine that early experience of pleasure has something to do with my own desire to write novels. At any rate, it’s something I did from about age eight on: rip-offs of Blume and Fitzhugh, then Joan Aiken and, later, Agatha Christie. But I understand your feeling that a novel can do more than tell a story, that it can be an object of study, and this is something I discover anew almost once a month. I have less fallow time at forty-four than I did at eight, but I still encounter books that take me aback as William Golding’s work did for you once upon a time. Not long ago I read Helen Garner for the first time (The Children’s Bach, a perfect novel) and was so stunned that I wanted to run around the block; how strange, how wonderful, that a book can still make me feel that way.
Did your approach to reading change after you finished writing your first novel? As a critic and as a reader, do you think you started to notice different things, or pay more attention to, say, the tone (or the structure, or the syntax, or what have you) of a book once you knew more intimately how it’s generated?
This presupposes that I know how a novel is written, which, alas, I do not. The question makes me wonder if what I consider the natural evolution of my taste has something to do with a change in my attention, informed by working as a novelist, informed by working as a critic, informed by being a parent, or by just plain getting older. Do I care more about story than brute feeling, am I more interested in the lives of women than the lives of men, do I prefer humor to poetic reverie, and is this a function of my work or my age—each seems impossible to answer.
In the reviews you’ve written for us, you tend to favor the first person. We learn, for example, that you don’t like cats, or that you went to Oberlin, or that Viet Thanh Nguyen was right to assume Apocalypse Now shaped your (and many Americans’) understanding of history. There is something humble about the “I” in criticism and its insistence on the reviewer’s necessarily limited perspective. Is this a mode you work in consciously?
Well now I worry that I’m an egomaniac, asserting an “I” where it doesn’t belong. But as a reviewer I do have only my own taste and experience and reading to draw upon, and why not be honest about that? I cannot issue decrees, only proffer opinion, and maybe it’s useful to remind readers that I’m just one guy, one who went to Oberlin, one who learned about history from Francis Ford Coppola, one who does not like cats (I’m allergic, but also I distrust them).
In your review of Either/Or, you note that “The novel form is so elastic that its defining feature may be an author’s assertion that the text is one.” This is an appealing definition, but would you add any caveats to it, especially given some of the limitations you identified in the bloggy, plotless “I” as a novelistic mode?
I’m pretty satisfied with this definition. How else to account for the fact that “novel” can refer to Middlemarch and Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation? The novels I love most—Cather’s The Professor’s House, Modiano’s Little Jewel, Mann’s Buddenbrooks, Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, Brookner’s Look at Me, Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled—have little in common beyond the fact that they’re novels.
Is there a book, past or present, that you wish you could have written about?
The temptation is to cite more of my favorite books here—Rush’s Mating, Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus, Erdrich’s The Plague of Doves, DeLillo’s Great Jones Street, I could go on and on. Honestly, though, maybe it’s a mercy not to have to think on the page, in (relative) public, about a book that you love. That love can remain private, heated, strange, personal, as perhaps it ought to.