No Real Plot.

Proust, that Great Southern Writer.

This essay first appeared on Jennifer Puryear’s book blog, Bacon on the Bookshelf.


Warm Springs Valley, Bath County, Virginia

Last week, Nashville hosted Bonnaroo for book lovers (otherwise known as the Southern Festival of Books). The Southern Festival of Books isn’t only about Southern books. But this Nashville tradition reminds me how essential writers – and writing – are to the South’s self-image as a profoundly distinctive culture, not just another subregion on the map. Without Southern literature, we’d hold a very different view of ourselves as Southerners, and of “the South” itself, that “sphinx on the American land.”

I doubt I’m the only one who learned who I’m supposed to be by reading Faulkner, Welty, O’Connor, Williams, Twain, Harper Lee: learned the Southerner’s passions and loyalties, our resolute eccentricities, our taste for the off-kilter and the wryly gothic. Who better than Wolfe or Capote, Walker Percy or Willie Morris, to kindle then name the chronic restless homesickness that drives us away from the South, then back again? Who better than Alice Walker, Kate Chopin, or Zora Neale Hurston, who better than Robert Penn Warren or Roy Blount, Jr.  . . . .  But I’ll stop there; you have your own list.


            Eudora Welty

For every revered Southern writer, there’s a theory about what makes Southern writing – and Southerners – so distinctive. Eudora Welty thought it came from the cultural habit of tight, specific focus, on the land and the people close at hand: “The Southerner is a local person – to a degree unknown in other sections of the United States. The Southerner always thinks of himself as being from somewhere, as belonging to some spot of earth.” And Roy Blount agreed: “The North isn’t a place. It’s just a direction out of the South.”

Then there’s our collective past, what Willie Morris called the “burden of memory and [the] burden of history” we all carry “in our bones.” We’re the writers we are, O’Connor explained, because

we have had our Fall. We have gone into the modern world with an inburnt knowledge of human limitations and with a sense of mystery which could not have developed in our first state of innocence – as it has not sufficiently developed in the rest of our country.

 In Walker Percy’s blunter terms, Southerners write like we do because “we lost the War.”


         Flannery O’Connor

True; all true as ever. But sometimes I think these long-hallowed truths about classic Southern writing might actually ruin new Southern writing. The literature’s familiar emblems – the wayward heir, unbalanced cousin, poignant quirky child and beloved dog, the hard eating and hard drinking, the fierce race and class violence – don’t necessarily make a story profound. Or a good read, for that matter. Like Pat Conroy’s mother, I worry one day “Southern literature [will] be summed up in these words: On the night the hogs ate Willie, Mama died when she heard what Daddy did to Sister.”

And now that “the South” is having what, as shorthand, I’ll call our Garden and Gun moment, I wonder – echoing a wise Mississippi friend – if we’ll soon jump the shark, altogether.

If you’ve thought that too, here’s an idea.

This past summer, for the first time in years, img_3715I spent weeks at home in Warm Springs, Virginia, in the Alleghany Highlands west of the Shenandoah Valley. Warm Springs, the county seat of Bath County, has a courthouse, a library, a post office, an inn and restaurant, a handful of old houses, and a population of 123. It’s known for its medicinal mineral springs, where you can still take the waters in octagonal wooden pool houses first built in 1761. And it’s five miles from The Homestead, which celebrates its 250th birthday this year.

img_3965There’s nothing more Virginian than Warm Springs in July. The days are lush green and quiet, the nights full of stars and lightening bugs. We had five deep, shady porches, and a creek out back. But no cable, no internet, and feeble cell service. After a day or two pacing the lane to find Verizon bars – sweeping the phone like dowsing for water – I gave up and pretty much left it turned off. Friends and family came and went. We cooked, we swam, we tried skeet shooting and golf. We retraced old favorite paths through the countryside. We played Scrabble. We read.

As it happened, the book I’d brought with me was Lydia Davis’s 2002 translation of Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust, first published in 1913 (and financed by Proust himself after the Paris publishers rejected him), and the first of the seven volumes in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time).
I’ll confess, I’d tackled Proust before, only to be daunted by the ac9437ff-bf93-49b8-801c-bb783b6f9c53img100convoluted sentences, the gauzy psychological ramblings, the creakingly slow pace; the odd tension between the book’s modernist structure and the almost flowery language of the 1922 Moncrieff translation, the only standard English translation before now. It’s not easy even to define what the book is: Proust called it a novel but hedged, warning “the novel form is the form from which it departs least.”

Yet this time, in Virginia in July, Proust finally reached me. That’s partly because of Lydia Davis, a MacArthur genius grant winner for her own fiction and a Chevalier des Arts et Lettres for other translations. Critics have praised Davis for returning Proust to his own sensibility, to a kind of clean understatement, a smooth rhythmic plainness, that feels very fresh and modern. I agree. This Proust is beautiful, and delicious to read.

img_3871But even more, there in Warm Springs in July, I read Proust as a Virginian and a Southerner, read it at a moment when I was leading with that part of my head and my heart; when those paths were open and foremost. And what I discovered is that Swann’s Way – Proust’s slow meditation on the compelling this-ness of home, family, and desire – embodies what is best and most profound in classic Southern literature. Yes, Proust, that great Southern writer.

Swann’s Way tells two stories in three long chapters. In “Combray,” the (autobiographical) narrator recounts the peaceful routines he lived as a child at his grandfather’s Loire Valley country house, the rich and complex memories so famously triggered, years later, by a spoonful of madeleine crumbs soaked in tea – that “Proustian” moment we all recognize even without reading Proust. “Swann in Love” and “Place Names: The Name” describe the tumultuous love affair between the high-society Charles Swann and his inappropriate wife, the courtesan Odette, a woman of “amorous notoriety.” Threading throughout is the narrator’s own infatuation with Swann’s daughter, Gilberte.

Despite the novel’s reputation as a difficult modernist work, these stories are remarkably simple and ordinary, just humans being awkwardly human. The narrator’s beloved Combray is no romantic vision. Instead,

To live in, Combray was a little dreary, like its streets, whose houses, built of blackish stones of the countryside . . . capped with gables that cast shadows down before them, were so dark that once the daylight began to fade one had to draw back the curtains in the “formal rooms[.]”

The walled town, and the “two ways” to walk out in the countryside around it (Swann’s way – past his estate, off limits after his scandalous marriage – and a second walk along the river), seduce the young narrator not because they are guidebook-beautiful, but img_3951because he habitually experiences them on their most concrete, specific level: nasturtiums, periwinkle, pink hawthorns, lilacs (fresh and decayed); this wall, that lane, that gate back into town.

And Proust’s family, so deeply loved, are neither grand nor especially noble. His aunts, his mother and father, their cook Françoise – they all have everyday faults. They gossip; they judge (and yes, there’s startling anti-Semitism); they lose patience with children. They get miffed and hold long, heartbreaking grudges. One is a diva hypochondriac. Even the town’s bona fide aristocrat, the Duchesse de Guermantes, her family “Glorious since Charlemagne,” turns out to have “a red face” and “a little pimple at the edge of” her “prominent nose” when she finally makes an appearance.

The family are all anxious to proclaim and preserve their upper-bourgeois place in the world, a drive confounded by the disarming Swann. He’s a son of their own class, an expert but lazy art historian, who’s mysteriously joined the highest social circles in Paris, yet whose wife can’t be welcomed to the house in Combray. When Swann shows up for dinner, letting himself in like a cat through the garden gate, the family titter and fret: Will they try too hard to please him? Will they please him enough? Who are they themselves, if they can no longer place him with confidence? Swann brings the confusing modern world in with him to peaceful Combray, to the family’s beguiled consternation.

Proust writes them all as comic, yet dear. Flawed, yet loved. Linked to a place and a past, a family and a history, that can make the future hard to negotiate.


                 Marcel Proust, photographed by Roger Viollet

Very Proustian. And very Southern, that deep “belonging to some spot of earth.”


William Faulkner at UVA

Once I felt this resonance, there on the porch in Warm Springs, I wasn’t surprised to learn that Thomas Wolfe discovered Proust at Harvard in the early 1920s, and Faulkner so admired A la Recherche du Temps Perdu that he declared, “I wish I had written it myself.”

I know, academics link Proust and Faulkner mostly for how they both disrupt narrative time, shift points of view, and manipulate dreams and memory; all high-end modernist fireworks. Still, and modestly, I suggest that Swann’s Way embodies something more fundamentally Southern, just stripped (refreshingly) of the clichéd emblems of the American “South”: Proust’s loyal rootedness to a real, flawed place and to a real, flawed people – often justly reproached, but always loved.

The heart of the best Southern literature.

The Cool Girl’s Bag of Lures: Innocents and Others, by Dana Spiotta

It’s always a treat to join Jennifer Puryear’s online book salon. Here’s my essay on two works by Dana Spiotta, whom the New York Times praises as “creating a new kind of great American novel.” Read more from Jennifer at Bacon on the Bookshelf.


When I was in junior high, I had a girl-crush on a classmate named Ann. I was over-tall and scratchy, in my wire-framed glasses and Dorothy Hamill haircut. She was a tiny, cheerful China doll with long, swingy buttercream hair, moving with ease (it seemed) across every clique and category our small-town adolescence could invent.

And she had a most wonderful handbag. I don’t mean just the outside, though it was itself a marvel – flower-tooled leather, streaming red suede fringe. But even more fascinating was what she carried inside that bag. For unlike me, with rarely more than ChapStick and Bic pens in my pocket, Ann traveled always with a small bazaar of treasures: lip gloss and nail polish in shades like “Goa,” small snap purses of embroidered neon silk, loose Sweet Tart candy, colored pencils and scented notepaper, thin trays of blue and green eye shadow, hair bands and rhinestone barrettes, one glass poodle figurine. Multiple mood rings. And most exotic of all, a dog-eared pocket Astrology guide and planner for Geminis, 1976.

So many captivating oddities, floating free-form inside Ann’s bag. Engrossing and dazzling, a pure expression of her jubilant spirit and magpie eye, her essential coolness. What gawky girl in glasses could resist? I bought my own pocket Astrology guide and planner, 1976. The Virgo edition.

Ann’s bewitching bag came to mind as I read Dana Spiotta’s new novel, Innocents and Others. Ostensibly the story of three women whose lives are linked and marked – scarred, even – by filmmaking, Innocents and Others is also, and perhaps more deeply, the cool girl’s bag of exotic lures.


First, the plot. The characters Meadow and Carrie are both filmmakers and (conflicted) best friends for life, since being assigned seats together in 9th grade Film class at a private Santa Monica school for the arts. Meadow is wealthy, slim, and confident, “a sleek sex kitten” with an opulent collection of books and vinyl records bought by doting, successful parents. Carrie is a scholarship kid, the “chubby” only child of a divorced mother who ropes her into sharing fad diets of Tab and SlimFast, but otherwise leaves her alone to watch endless 1970s television. (Who knew The Love Boat and Donny and Marie would someday invade high-end literary fiction?).

Meadow and Carrie discover they both like filming things: Meadow with a Super 8 camera and black and white film, “which was rare,” and Carrie with a video camera she uses to tape her cat gazing out a window while she reads Sartre and Camus aloud, in French – which, it turns out, is hilarious to watch later. The two friends are inseparable through high school and through their young twenties, while Carrie attends NYU film school and Meadow makes experimental documentaries from an abandoned glove factory in upstate New York.

Both Meadow and Carrie become famous filmmakers, Carrie known for commercial comedies, starring women, about women’s lives (kind of a cross between Nancy Meyer and Tina Fey). Meadow makes searing, unflinching documentaries about, say, an alleged government spy accused of provoking the National Guard into firing on the student protestors at Kent State. About Argentinian strongmen in the Dirty War, who led death flights and mass kidnappings, but then reared the stolen babies lovingly as their own. About Meadow’s 17-year-old lover, who lets her interview him for 8 hours straight, near the end of which he confesses to a brutal crime.

Meadow’s most consequential film, however, is about the novel’s third main character, a lonely woman who cold-calls men in the Hollywood film business to seduce them into, well, conversation, just talking on the phone, about their work. Muse-like, this woman (Amy, a/k/a Nicole, a/k/a Jelly), lets the men believe she is young and beautiful, even though she is, as Spiotta draws her, “squishy, middle-aged,” “a jelly doughnut,” “a heavy, invisible, unremarkable creature.” With one man, disembodied talk leads to love, and Amy/Jelly must face her lies. Meadow, the documentarian, orchestrates then films a climax to Amy’s story, an act that transforms both women’s lives.

Innocents and Others creates and follows these women – as they circle the big questions of identity, ambition, creativity, competition, selfishness, loyalty, and the urge to self-mythologize – with prose that is generous and rich, dense, open-handedly sharing Spiotta’s vision of her imagined world. We know intimately how characters look, how their rooms look, their houses, their clothes, their gestures, their thoughts; what they see and think when they gaze at a loved one, at a river, at a train track, at the sky. There is nothing spare or withholding about it, nothing kept back, nothing coy. Like her filmmakers, Spiotta follows Thoreau’s injunction, the novel’s epigraph, to pursue “the discipline of looking at what is to be seen.”

And yet.

And yet, to me, Innocents and Others never gels into something greater than all this vivid, radiantly portrayed detail. In fact, much of the novel reads like a stack of voluminous, exquisitely tasteful, and very select, very erudite inventories. The prose blurs into long lists of significant (and/or exceptionally obscure) movies and filmmakers. Lists of mythic film projects that were lost or never got made. Lists of cameras and equipment. (As in: Éclair 16 mm camera, Nagra IV-STC, Magnasync Moviola upright editing console, Betacam video camera, a vintage wind-up Bell & Howell 16 mm Filmo camera, a pro Mini DV camera; the seminal Super 8). Lists even of Carrie’s low-culture artifacts – all the bad ‘70s TV shows she watches alone, all the bad packaged food she eats.

So many facts. So many cool details. How bewitching, that bag full of stuff.

As a reader, I found all this distracting and disappointing, but more, I was puzzled: why would this gifted, celebrated writer – this darling of the New York Times – resort to this kind of clunky fact-jamming?

So I read a second Dana Spiotta novel, Eat the Document, from 2006.


Shortlisted for the National Book Award, this book is about two lovers, both anti-Vietnam activists, who commit a violent crime in the name of political protest. The two must separate and go into hiding, where they spend the next twenty years living invented identities, reconsidering their youthful commitments, and wondering about each other’s fate. Like Innocents and Others, this earlier novel lets Spiotta raise questions about identity, self-creation, alienation, and the high cost of human intimacy.  (Plus, one Document character makes a cameo appearance in Innocents, as – naturally – an obscure filmmaking genius, a nice reward for the close reader.)

More to the point, like Innocents and Others, Eat the Document is packed full of luminously rendered bits and pieces from the material culture – here, not obscure films, but rare recordings of late-20th century music: first-pressing vinyl albums, and/or “[o]bscure European or Japanese reissues in 180-gram vinyl,” or any one of the “all-time great ‘lost’ albums” with “gatefold” inner sleeves and “a cryptic message carved in the run-out groove.” The prized, very rare “extended-box-set-bootleg” version of the Beach Boys’ Smile recording sessions, with ten, fifteen, twenty takes of a single song; demos and outtakes downloaded from underground pirate-fan websites.

And it’s not just music. One main character collects fragments of “broken things”:

a series of vintage plastic objects, not so much a plate or a radio but a piece of something, a curve, a handle, a corner. They were that old imitation ivory, . . . urea resins, or acrylic, or phenolic molding masses. Co- or homopolymers, . . . melamine, Bakelite, celluloid.

Why all the stuff in Spiotta world? The material bits and pieces are undoubtedly fun to describe in prose – the “resiny yellows . . . [and] blow-molded reds and greens, meant to evoke nothing in nature,” that “still emi[t] odd, vintage toxins” you can smell when you press them close. All that in-the-zone, prayer-like meditation on Beach Boys outtakes, re-played over and over.

So, yes, fun to write, but why else? Eat the Document lets one character share a clue:

Authenticity. We like the inside story, the secrets. We constantly feel the best, coolest stuff is being withheld from us. . . . There is always more stuff to be had.

So are we meant to read Spiotta as indicting late-20th century American materialist culture? Are we meant to mourn the existential loneliness of life on soulless suburban cul-de-sacs or in Bel Air mansions, with humans we can never understand or truly love, and nothing to do except listen, in headphones, to obscure music, or watch difficult experimental movies on bootleg websites?

Maybe. But I think another character in Eat the Document might cut closer to the truth. One of the novel’s 20-year fugitives, he sits in on a meeting where a younger man is enthusiastically praising a

neo-Luddite group, the Formatters, [who] are all about retro formatting, . . . like eight-millimeter, Super Eight or sixteen-millimeter film. Vinyl records, eight-track tapes, even laser discs. As long as it is obsolete, it’s included.

The fugitive considers, then remarks, “Sounds to me like they just value whatever is obscure and difficult to access. Obscuristas. Seems elitist.”

And in the end, I have to agree.

Where have all the grown-ups gone?

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I’ve noticed an odd thread in the popular culture. Increasingly, fictional children are depicted as uncannily adult — wise, empathetic, and self-reliant — while fictional adults are drawn as uncannily child-like — puttering, self-absorbed, and needing deep protection.

Here are two essays in which I’ve begun to sort this through: my piece in the Washington Post on Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, which you can read here, and this review of A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara (first published in Bacon on the Bookshelf).

* * * * * * * *

The Exceptionals.

Who doesn’t love book prizes?

They’re my September treat. Just in time for reading season – that stretch of gorgeous routine between Labor Day and Christmas – come the West’s most prestigious awards for serious fiction.

There’s the Nobel Prize for Literature, which has mostly gone to novelists. There’s England’s Man Booker Prize and the Costa Prize (formerly the Whitbread). We in the U.S. have the National Book Award and the Kirkus Prize. In France, it’s the Prix Goncourt. All chosen in the Fall by expert panels of professors, editors, booksellers, critics, and writers who, presumably, know a good book when they read one.

The top prizes wield formidable commercial clout, their economic influence so significant they’ve generated their own sub-genre of cultural criticism. (See, for example, The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value, by James English). As The Guardian newspaper puts it, “Win the Booker Prize, and you become a millionaire.” That’s pounds sterling, not even just dollars.

Reading the prize winners — plus the five or six novels shortlisted for each prize — gives you a ready-made, pedigreed night-stand stack of what’s officially the best of the best new fiction until late Spring, when the Pulitzers roll around.

And what about the novel named to more than one prestigious shortlist? What about the novel shortlisted for three of the four prizes for which it’s eligible?

We expect that novel to reflect the very very best writing. But shouldn’t it also offer the best, the most unflinching account of the human heart? The best, the most truthful insight into our human condition? About human life itself?

Isn’t that why adults read serious fiction in the first place?

So I had high hopes for A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara, the 720-page juggernaut shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the National Book Award, and the Kirkus Prize, which it won. (Among numerous lesser honors).


Yanagihara, an editor at T: The New York Times Style Magazine and before that, Condé Nast Traveler, introduces her story like this:

“When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they’re broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition.”

So far, so good. No one loves the classic multi-character, college-to-New-York, coming-of-age novel more than I do (see, my dog-eared copy of Mary McCarthy’s The Group, or The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides, or Paul Auster’s Moon Palace). That oozy border between the back end of childhood and the front end of adulthood – the heart’s long flirtation with self-determination, with what it means to grow up – well, what’s more human than that? Could there be a more apt and urgent subject for serious fiction? A Little Life promises more:

“Over the decades [the four men’s] relationships deepen and darken, . . . Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is [one of the four], . . . an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred . . . and haunted[.]”

Friendships enriching over time. Young men growing old in each other’s care. The years taking their toll. Surely, the prize-givers and critics were right to swoon?

But here’s the disappointing thing, yes, the great disappointment:  A Little Life isn’t much about life, about real human life, after all.

Some nerve, I know, to say so about this most-prized novel.

Let me explain. It’s true that Yanagihara writes beautifully, sumptuously. There’s not one flat scene, not one boring image, in all 720 pages. That’s a pleasure.

It’s also true there’s much, at a basic story level, that’s moving and powerful here. Jude, the group’s most-troubled friend, suffered terrible abuse as a child, and his injuries – both physical and emotional – grow more disabling as he ages. The three other men, along with a broader circle of devoted friends, all try their best, in their own ways, to love and support Jude as they grapple with the puzzle of their own sexual and racial identities, with the claims and challenges of their own passing lives. A nice, human plot.

But A Little Life can’t let its humans just be humans, and to me that’s where it fails. To inhabit this novel’s world – for the events of life to matter, in this novel’s world –they must be exceptional. Exceptionally exceptional.

Take the four men at the novel’s heart. When we first meet them – at dinner in a cheap Chinatown dive – three of the four are aspiring artists: one is an easel painter; one is an actor; and the third is an architect. We know they’re aspiring because Yanagihara tells us they eat the restaurant’s awful food only because they’re broke, and the actor and the painter are so chronically hungry they scarf up the architect’s leftovers (he’s not hungry because he lives with his parents). Soon after, the actor and the troubled Jude move to a “shithole” one-bedroom apartment (with a futon!) in Tribeca.  So, you know, they’re struggling.

True, they spend a few years wandering the New York art wilderness. The painter makes faux-surrealist sculptures from black hair he collects at barbershops. The actor waits tables at a restaurant so fancy that the staff debate cult-label Linne Calodo wines, and the manager okays waiters’ tattoos on a case-by-case basis. The architect works despairingly for two starchitects who won’t promote young talent, hogging all their visionary, international-exotic glory for themselves. And his parents expect him to talk when he comes downstairs for meals. Aargh.

It’s tough, for a minute. Then real life – Yanagihara’s version of it – kicks in. The painter goes back to painting. He scores his first solo show – oil portraits of the four friends – which sells out. There’s trouble: both the Museum of Modern Art and “an important British collector” want to buy the same painting. What’s a struggling artist to do?

The actor-waiter, in turn, lands one stage role, then a string of them. Then film roles. Then blockbuster film roles, then sensitive, important indie-film roles – The Iliad, The Odyssey, Alan Turing, Uncle Vanya. A kind of Atticus-Finch-Coming-Out movie. There are magazine covers, billboards, and acting awards. Strangers stare at him in public with “intens[e] and hushed” attention. Soon fancy restaurants don’t even mind that he comes in wearing jeans and no jacket. Middle-aged businessmen fawn over him like Taylor Swift tweeners: “I’m a big fan.”

The architect quits the starchitects and opens his own firm.  Sure, he starts small, designing pieds-à-terre for rich New Yorkers, but soon he wins a “significant” commission for a photography museum in Doha, and is runner-up to design a Los Angeles memorial for Japanese Americans interned during World War II. Offices in London and Hong Kong – residencies in Rome – follow as night the day.

Which brings us to Jude, the fourth friend and A Little Life’s main character, the most fabulously exceptional of all. Jude is stunningly smart. While earning an MIT master’s in “Pure Math,” he enters Harvard Law School (breaking the Math faculty’s heart; he’s that gifted). At Harvard, he so wows his celebrated, rock-star Contracts professor – when he and Jude debate law, “the class still[s] around them” – that the professor not only hires Jude as his research assistant, he also assigns Jude a room in the spacious Cambridge house he shares with his celebrated-biologist wife, when they’re not all together at the professor’s waterfront Cape Cod spread or his apartment on New York’s Upper West Side. The professor’s intellectual friends marvel at Jude’s genius: at one dinner party, he explains Fermat’s last theorem so powerfully, so movingly, that one guest (a federal appellate judge) thanks him for “the first truly revelatory conversation I’ve had [here . . . ] in probably the last decade or more[.]” It’s no wonder the professor ends up legally adopting Jude as his own son.

Jude does nothing ordinary. When interviewing for a judicial clerkship, the Judge asks Jude, of all things, to sing. Jude sings Mahler’s “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” a lied that’s “difficult to perform,” but which Jude nails so exceptionally the Judge exclaims, “[Y]ou have one of the most beautiful tenors I’ve heard in a long time. Are you sure you’re in the right field?”

Jude’s also a world-class cook, a baker so skilled, so ingenious, so generous, even in the “hot, greasy cube” kitchen he shares in the bad Tribeca apartment, he stays up nights baking herbed shortbread cookies, cornmeal ginger snaps, and delicate, otherworldly gougères – no store-bought cheese straws served in that “shithole,” despite the icky futon. To honor the biologist’s research breakthrough, Jude designs “amazing” cookies exactly the shapes and colors of the lab’s target microbes, “using different color frosting to draw their cytoplasm and plasma membranes and ribosomes and fashioning flagella from strands of licorice.” Invited for Thanksgiving, he bakes “boxes of cookies and pies and breads.”

Jude’s work life is similarly, fabulously, exceptional. From his prestigious clerkship, he’s hired by the U.S. Attorney in New York, where his boss can “recite entire Supreme Court decisions from memory,” and where his young, sterling-credentialed colleagues – all on law review at one of “five or six law schools,” one Fulbright Scholar, and one certified Brit barrister from the other Cambridge – don’t at first realize that Jude has the singular credential to prove he’s the very best of all: his being thanked in the professor’s forthcoming, groundbreaking (and sure to be moneymaking) book on the Constitution.

Soon, one of New York’s “most powerful and prestigious firms” begs Jude to join its litigation department, where he makes partner in four years and becomes, naturally, a beloved personal protégé of the department chair. Jude “awes” in the courtroom, he’s “terrifyingly talented.” He’s a warrior so “relentless, so dogged, so pointed” in cross-examination; so “brutal” and “cold,” so “icy and vicious,” that he wins victory after stunning victory.

Choking on super-excellence yet? Well, it’s not just Yanagihara’s principals who lead such starry lives. Everyone they know, everyone they mention or work with or date or even encounter, all have fabulous elite degrees and/or sumptuously interesting jobs. They’ve grabbed brass rings at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, MIT, the Rhode Island School of Design. They’re actors, painters, sculptors, prominent costume and set designers, writers, architects, book editors and magazine editors. They run upscale fashion labels. The one family-ish doctor is really an eminent orthopedic surgeon, with a heart-surgeon twin brother to make sure, I guess, that the family average stays above-average.

A Little Life’s friends wear custom-tailored suits (that others volunteer to buy for them). They dine at an “izakaya in west Chelsea.” They eat guava soufflé, persimmon cake, and za’atar-dusted cauliflower; they drink rosewater lemonade. Even their conversation is gilt-edged, elevated, as they argue in “zen koans,” their debates “Ionesconian,” their feuds “post-Modern.”

And once the token bad apartment disappears – swept away in the flood of money and elite success that this book is really about – everyone lives in astonishingly high-end real estate that falls into their hands by miracle, a kind of immaculate consumption. Parents produce a four-story Upper East Side town house and a Paris apartment “in the seventh” (translation: neighbors include the Eiffel Tower and the Musee d’Orsay). Trust-funded friends give free beds and art studios, food, alcohol, and recreational drugs. Grandparents bequeath entire Soho buildings to artist grandchildren, who in turn beg exceptionally worthy acquaintances (like Jude) to buy full-floor loft apartments at way-below-market prices, on a “leisurely ten-year” “interest-free rent-to-own plan.” Yanagihara’s exceptionals renovate New York apartments and Connecticut country houses – they build retreats in upstate New York – with prestige designers and luxury materials, all catalogued lovingly, minutely.

It goes on and on: A Little Life drops elite lifestyle references the way Sex and the City dropped Manolo Blahniks. Like the style and leisure writing in Condé Nast Traveler and the New York Times.

In fact, so grand, so relentless is Yanagihara’s exceptionalism that when A Little Life turns to its darker tale – the friends’ personal struggles, and Jude’s above all – those too must be larger than life. One character loses not just one young sibling, but three in turn, the last of whom dies a long, heartbreaking death of cerebral palsy. Another character loses his only child, at age four, to “an extremely rare neurodegenerative disease called Nishihara syndrome, one so rare that it wasn’t even included on batteries of genetic tests.” Another character destroys himself spectacularly on crystal meth. There’s not just a bad boyfriend, but a boyfriend so abusive, so cruel, that we all cheer when he dies a painful death of pancreatic cancer. Was I supposed to pity the poor architect, a young man so ashamed of his stable, boring family, of his hardworking, not-post-Modern, still-married parents, that he tells Black taxi drivers to drop him a block from his real address near Park Avenue, so they don’t know he’s that rich?

I won’t even tell you how the book ends, it’s so over-the-top, so operatic.

And while Jude’s own struggles, the book’s central sadness, are undeniably awful, tragic, and hard to stomach – the horrific child abuse, and the self-abuse it sparks when he’s grown – I came to resent Yanagihara for exploiting that story, in her gorgeous, voluptuous prose, as a plot device. I came to think Jude’s abject suffering – in fact, every character’s outsized suffering – was there to hide Yanagihara’s basic lack of interest in the substance, in the unglamorous grist, of adult human life.

For no one who matters in this book lives with commonplace, mundane failure or frustration: the job you lose, the manuscript you can’t get read, the client you can’t please, the painting no one buys, the neighborhood you can’t afford. Preoccupied partners; fractious teenagers; homework; report cards. Bills. Unrequited love. The traffic that steals your one free hour.

In A Little Life, folks who fail small, like this, are dismissed with almost a sneer. The not-cute-enough girl who flirts above her station? There’s a “stomach-twist of embarrassment” for her. The too-old actor-waiter who doesn’t know when to quit theatre? He’ll become “fat, or bald, or get bad plastic surgery that couldn’t disguise the fact that [he was] fat and bald.” How mundane. How unworthy. Reader, avert your eyes.

More to the point, no one who matters in this book manages the commonplace, routine heroism that sustains a long friendship without melodrama, without theatrics, without the special star-billing you get from loving someone exceptional, and exceptionally damaged. There’s very little everyday obligation to others, at least the kind of commitment that isn’t epic, “astonishing and profoundly moving.” Aging parents are conspicuously scarce, for example, as are healthy children – the kind who show up daily looking for attention, meals, permission slips, rides, and constant proof of their own paramount worth. Ordinary parents of non-tragic kids are drawn as restless, discontented, as slightly ridiculous for their unexceptional concerns – like a yard for their children to play in.  They’re drawn, fundamentally, as not fully adult:

“Having children has provided their adulthood with an instant and nonnegotiable sense of purpose and direction. . . . Children are a kind of cartography, and all one has to do is obey the map they present to you on the day they are born. . . . [But a]  . . . childless adult creates adulthood for himself[.]”

Which brings me back to the prestige literary prizes and their rapturous love for A Little Life. Top awards don’t just reward quality when they stumble across it out in the culture; they dictate culture, too. They try to teach us which stories should matter, and which lives we should prize.  This year, their collective swoon for Yanagihara’s exceptionalism, for her operatic elitism, makes me fear we’ve lost the knack of ordinary adulthood. And that leaves far too little life for me.



What is the Value of Motherhood?

Some thoughts for every parent facing the August back-to-school to-do list. Originally published in the Washington Post on July 10, 2015.


My young cousin just earned a Vanderbilt Masters degree in Accountancy and Valuation. He’s off to Wall Street to seek his fortune.

A Masters in Valuation. Revolutionary.

I’m deep in that season of the year when my time and attention (like any involved parent’s) are profoundly splintered and – face it – frittered away by the details of my children’s lives. With three young sons, the end of school was one long march of recitals (baked goods needed), class parties (more baked goods), teacher conferences, and convocations. Photo collage for the third-grade memory book. Cub Scout service project. All in under the wire.

Then, exam lock-down at home, where life is half Sound of Music, half Shawshank Redemption. And now, summer. I’ve filed the health forms and permission slips. I’ve sourced the shorts, sneakers, and required-reading books. Let’s state the obvious: school holidays are no holiday for parents.

Hold on. Did I really complain my time’s frittered away? As in squandered, misspent, dissipated, or (brace yourself) wasted?

It’s the central paradox of my life as a parent. I love the details of looking after my boys, the work of attending to every individual, granular job I can. I recognize it’s a privilege that I’m at home to do it myself, and I’m grateful for that every day. But at the same time, I’m horrified at the cumulative cost that detail work has imposed on my capacity to concentrate on – or to accomplish – much else. For years.

I’m not the only one. Writing in the New York Times, Judith Shulevin quotes sociologists who use the term “worry work” to describe the family role of managing “the nonroutine details of taking care of children – when they have to go to the doctor, when they need permission slips for school, paying attention at that level.” The parent who does most of that work is the “‘designated worrier,’ because you need large reserves of emotional energy to stay on top of it all.” Shulevin writes, “whether a [parent] loves or hates worry work, it can scatter her focus on what she does for pay and knock her partway or clean off a career path.”

It’s death by a thousand bake sales.

Shulevin’s focus is gender disparity in how couples tend to share “worry work,” how in some families those details get dropped mostly on mothers because they’re less likely (or less empowered) to scorn them. That’s a problem, of course. But her op-ed got me thinking about something else. How would all the “designated worriers” feel if managing those everyday details of family life were highly, even extravagantly, valued?

I don’t mean valued as in Mother’s Day carnations or weepy graduation tributes, (though I’d hate to do without those). Appreciation at that level, however welcome and well-meaning, is ceremonial and largely symbolic. It’s abstract and scrubbed of any careful attention to the job’s grainy particulars, or the costs they exact.

In fact, I’ll go farther and make this bold, if preliminary, claim. I think the popular culture currently values family detail work in negative territory. I mean it’s valued at less than zero, especially when done by educated, once-professional but now un- or under-employed mothers. Think I’m crazy? Name another work-identified group you’re allowed to call derisive names, in print, as a matter of course. Helicopter Moms? Snowplow Moms? Tiger Moms? Believe me, they’re not compliments. And just try googling “Whiny SAHMs.” Prepare for a hot blast of shaming contempt.

We can do better. We need a serious, structural rethinking of what work counts in our culture, what work is worthy, and what work deserves widespread respect.

We need a new Masters in Valuation.

We’re used to backing into value judgments about work from the starting point of money. Work that makes money has presumptive value, so long as it’s legal. We might add conditions, like it must not exploit people, animals, or the environment. We might prefer it be non-profit (like charity fundraising). But even so, we tend to start from the basic presumption that work, and time, count more when someone pays you for them.

Maybe we could shoehorn the detail parent’s work into this transactional model, but I doubt that’s the answer. For one thing, I suspect few families ever price the market value of the time and attention a designated worrier invests unless they’re hiring a nanny to take over the job altogether. Truth is, most families couldn’t afford their own Worrier, if it came to that.

For another thing, how many of us really want those transactional values stamped onto the deep structure of our marriages and families? There’s a spectrum here. The monetized Mommy Blog might earn our grudging respect (“Wish I’d thought of ad revenue from stroller product placement!”). Yet we’re scandalized by the claim, from anthropologist Wednesday Martin in her new book Primates of New York, that certain “rich, powerful” men in Manhattan award their stay-at-home spouses a year-end cash “wife bonus” tied to the women’s performance on traditional motherly tasks, like making sure their kids get into “good” schools and then excel there. Readers cringe: Wife Bonus? Ewww.

How then to value our gritty family work, if not with money?

David Brooks raised my hopes last April in “The Moral Bucket List,” a New York Times op-ed adapted from his new book, The Road to Character. Brooks confesses his project “to work harder to save [his] own soul” by swapping “resume virtues” – “the skills you bring to the marketplace” – for “eulogy virtues,” those that let you “look after other people” while “not thinking about [yourself] at all.”

Eulogy virtues reject the “culture of the Big Me” and resist the lure of “money, status, security.” Instead, Brooks urges, the better soul seeks a life “embedded in a web of unconditional loves.” You’ll stop asking what you want from life. You’ll ask, instead, “How can I match my intrinsic talent with one of the world’s deep needs?”

Sound familiar?

Has David Brooks – rock star pundit, celebrated author, and speaker-circuit luminary – just discovered . . . parenthood? Is this the revolution?

Well, yes and no. I’m glad he’s pushing the virtues of what he calls “the Small, Happy Life,” the life spent tending with great care to little jobs that benefit others. I’m glad he wants to “shift the conversation” and critique the “culture that focuses on external success.”

But it’s hardly a “eulogy” move – hardly a rejection of “the Big Me”– to hawk the modest, unself-centered virtues by selling a commercial book about them. Or by taking a victory lap around the highest-end, for-pay speaking gigs that New York, Washington, and the Aspen Institute can provide. Am I the only one wondering how he’ll find the time, between his TED talks and his TV appearances, to “listen well” and “look after others?”

Revolution? Not so much.

I’m back to square one. What’s a “designated worrier” really worth? How to claim meaningful value for our time and care – for our work – managing the gritty details of family life?

I have two ideas how to start, one big and one little.

First, the big: I propose we make Home Economics a serious, required high school course for both girls and boys. A graded course, teaching the skills and commitments essential to a functional adult life, inside a functional family. Taught by an esteemed academic teacher. With mandatory field work outside the classroom.

Want to signal that the culture should highly value the work of looking after others with care and commitment? Let Home Ec bump a teenager’s sixth AP course off his schedule, or claw back time from his travel sports team, or from his ACT-prep sessions.

Maybe if we stop teaching kids, institutionally, to value their own ambitious trajectory above all else, they’ll be more equipped when the time comes to honor the granular detail work of looking after others at home – whether they do it themselves, delegate it to a spouse, or outsource it to a paid employee. Home Ec for All, that’s a big idea. It’s a start.

Now, my little idea. Back at the end of school, while I was knee-deep in all those time-crushing details, something wonderful happened. A few days after I ran the Cub Scout service project – baking cookies for a local soup kitchen – I got a letter from the mother of one of my scouts. Handwritten on real stationery, in the real mail, with a stamp, she thanked me for making the project happen, for the planning and the buying, and the pre-mixing and the packaging and the crowd control on the Sunday afternoon when all those little boys jammed into my kitchen to bake. She didn’t shoot me an e-mail, or grab me in carline, or wave across the playground on teacher conference day. She didn’t text me “thx!!” She sat down, thought about all those small, gritty details, and thanked me with care and attention.

It made my day, for days.

So for the first assignment, towards our new Masters of Valuation, I propose we all follow that mother’s example. Sit down quietly, think hard about a job someone else has done to benefit you or someone you love. The smaller the job, the better. Take time to consider all the details that person managed in order to make the job happen. Weigh what you would have had to put aside to do the job yourself. And then write a letter, on paper, saying thank you. Yes, thank you: we needed that.


Laura Fitzgerald Cooper lives in Nashville with her husband and three sons. She was a professor of public constitutional law at Washington and Lee University before retiring to spend time with her boys. Follow her blog at No Real Plot.

Hearts and Flowers. But also.

Another Mother’s Day is behind us. Did you download your specialty mom-tribute playlist? There’s the “Top 10 Mother’s Day Country Songs” (Faith Hill, Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, Martina McBride), each one certified to make you cry. There’s Billboard’s “20 Songs for Mom” (The-Dream, Danzig, 2Pac, Pink Floyd). There’s “31 Most Adorable Songs About Moms” featuring Kanye West, whose “Hey Mama” includes this:

“Can’t you see you’re like a book of poetry? / Maya Angelou, Nicky Giovanni / Turn one page and there’s my mommy.”

Yes. Kanye says “Mommy.” Nice!

But my under-16 boys have not yet evolved to that happy stage where they’d look at me and think, like *NSYNC: “(God Must Have Spent) A Little More Time on You.” Not quite.

IMG_7016 2So I propose a Mothers’ playlist to capture the experiences of those, like me, who do not yet wholly inhabit the land of Hearts and Flowers.

It’s just a start. What should I add? Comment to nominate your favorites. And, as they say, rock on.

This is 15½.

When did he grow up enough to be such a good sport?IMG_6702

Here’s how I see him, when I’m not really thinking about it.Thanksgiving 028

Guess it’s time to revise my mind’s eye.

IMG_6510 2

Dream to Table.

Thanks again to Jennifer Puryear for including me in her tasty book club! Follow her at


Fantasy can be tricky.

It can make you stockpile empty photo albums, blank journals, and unfinished needlepoint kits. Your cobwebbed mountain bike? Your “Kitchen Gardens” Pinterest board?

Cosmetics that flaunt the “M”-word?

pp-magic-cream-large (1)

That’s fantasy at work.

But it can also work wonders. Take two cookbooks that have kept me busy all this grey, homebound winter: Heritage, by Sean Brock, and A Kitchen in France, by Mimi Thorisson. I confess, I bought them both out of sheer fantasy. Just look at these covers:

Screen Shot 2015-03-22 at 6.16.07 PM

They push every button, don’t they? Gorgeous woman, heirloom dogs, stately romantic kitchen. Check. Next, jewel-rich beans, scarred stone worktop, genius tattoo. Check. (And yes, every true Virginian secretly covets that cardinal tattoo. As if we were that hip.).

Inside both books, the fantasy goes deep. Sean Brock, the rock-star James Beard-winning chef of Husk restaurant fame, describes learning to love food as a boy on his grandparents’ farm in Wise County, Virginia, coal country deep in Appalachia. He writes, they “plowed the fields with Haflinger horses and grew plants that were indigenous to our culture.” Their house “was a beautifully mysterious playground, filled with bubbling vats of wine and fermented ears of corn. Every inch of [the] basement was covered with preserved food.” I can smell that sweet dark cellar from here. Mimi Thorisson, raised in Hong Kong and educated in Paris, left a career in television journalism to settle in Paris with her handsome Icelandic photographer/art director husband. Their family had grown to three young children (plus his two older children), a baby on the way, and five dogs when they decided to pull up stakes and move to a farmhouse in the Médoc, near Bordeaux. There, she writes the luscious food blog Manger, at

In A Kitchen in France, she admits that her “current country lifestyle – complete with a big rowdy family, lots of dogs, and a huge kitchen where I can make all my culinary fantasies come true – is something I always wanted.” Well, yes, I’ve joined that club.

But here’s the thing. Unlike Magic Face Cream (or the post-Christmas gym membership), good cookbooks sell a fantasy you can achieve just because you want to, on whatever day you choose. And these two cookbooks are terrific.

So, for a crowd coming to watch the Patriots play the Colts for the AFC championship? Here’s what looked good to me: Sean Brock’s slow roasted pork, tomato gravy, and creamed corn. For dessert, buttermilk pie with cornmeal crust.

Screen Shot 2015-03-22 at 6.18.55 PM (1)

I’m not saying it tasted like Husk, but the recipes all worked. By the end of the game, I had grown men eating pork with their fingers straight from the serving platter. Fantasy? Yes. Magic? No.

Then came February. Iced in for days with three fidgety sons: of course, I cooked like mad. And practiced my French. I made potato pie with Comté cheese, and I made pear flognarde.Screen Shot 2015-03-22 at 6.20.08 PM

I made slow-roasted lamb, and apple tart with Calvados and crème fraîche.

I made Garbure des Pyrénées:


Sure, Mimi Thorisson’s garbure recipe comes with the story of how she learned the soup from her friend, a charming Bordeaux antiques dealer. Very chic.

Screen Shot 2015-03-19 at 9.20.38 AMBut at heart, garbure is just beans cooked with cabbage and a ham hock, fragrant for hours on the back burner while you play Monopoly and Scrabble and hope school gets cancelled again the next morning. It’s soup to feed a house full of restless boys, and then send out to friends who didn’t have time to cook that icy day. It’s soup that can prompt your mac-n-cheese-atarian to flip through the cookbook, point to a photograph, and ask for this:

img053Pig in a blanket, you say? We call it Lyonniase Sausage Roll. And we’re eating it for supper.

Fantasy at its best.

It’s that time again.

This week, the bikini catalogs launched their annual mailbox assault. Time to revisit first principles:

Claire Danes gave birth one month before this photo was taken.


She’s stunning, of course. But for merely mortal mothers, this is not helpful. Instead, I draw inspiration from the great moms of literature. Like these:

Sal's Mom in Kitchen

Sal’s mother has a real J.Crew-meets-Etsy-Vintage vibe that works for most of us. Note the chic choppy bob and her sheer cheek color, from her afternoon out rescuing Sal from blueberry-drunk bears.

Olivia's Mom in Talbott's

Here, Olivia’s mother wears a day-to-evening sheath, which adds authority to her bedtime negotiations. By day, she’ll out-shine the other moms (“Is she working again?”) on her urban school run and, perhaps, be photographed for a street-style blog. She also knows how to get on with the business of wearing a bathing suit, even when she might rather not. Similar sunglasses by The Row available at Barneys New York and Net-A-Porter.

Olivia's Mom in tank

For dressing up, it’s hard to beat the mother of Iggy Peck, Architect. She’s like Edie Sedgwick married to a banker instead of mooning after Warhol. Love how the haircut complements her look of constant consternation. Now, that’s real mom style.

Iggy Peck's Mom in 60's print

She also wins the prize for fully committing to date night.

Iggy Peck's Mom in Evening

Finally, a word about accessories. One great statement piece can really make an outfit, define your personal style, and lift your spirits. None better than this knockout necklace on Ferdinand’s mom:

Ferdinand's Mom

Most covetable of all, that smile from knowing she’s “an understanding mother, even though she was a cow.” I vote we all aspire to that.

Ride ‘Em.

One snowy June evening, I took my two older sons to the rodeo in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

It was a Wednesday.  The Sunday before, we’d traveled from Nashville to a dude ranch two hours’ drive from Jackson Hole. Way out of town, way out of any town, on the muddiest, slickest unpaved road I’d ever driven, past sheer-drop canyons with no guardrails.

By rodeo Wednesday, I and my sons, then 6 and 8, had spent three sleeting days as near-novice riders on horses wrenched from winter grazing only the weekend before.  The other kids, all older than mine, had appraised us immediately (two unhappy, too-young children and one delusional mother), and then retreated to their iPods and Hunger Games.

Goosewing Ranch 2My boys unraveled into whining and bickering.  Our one triumph, those first days, was that my 6-year-old survived when his horse bolted from the plodding trail line, straight downhill into a very steep ravine, racing back to the barn. Smart horse.

By Wednesday afternoon, even I could see I’d over-fantasized the whole dude-ranch venture.  I loved horses, sure.  And I’d loved riding before my sons were born.  My vision had been pure:  the three of us would leave the toddler brother back home in Nashville with the horse-averse Dad, and canter free through western fields with the Tetons rising behind.  The three of us, learning cowboy songs around a campfire while our horses nuzzled us gently out of love and respect.  Turns out, my boys mostly grieved that the ranch swimming pool was closed for snow.  And the teenagers rarely shared the one board game.

So, the rodeo.  True, a salvage operation, but still. We fishtailed back into town for the evening show.

wheeldonNEWOne family’s run the Jackson Hole rodeo for more than a century.  It takes place in an outdoor ring that would fit inside any small county fair.  Two modest stands face off across a dirt arena.  A cinderblock snack bar hides under the bleachers.  Could it possibly be worth the four hours’  drive?

My sons slumped beside me. Another round of Cokes.

Into the ring charged a horse and rider racing furiously around a course of tall barrels. The horse floated off the ground, nearly horizontal, on the turns.  Another set of headlong barrel racers followed them, and then another.  More levitating horses.

BARREL_RACINGMy boys perked up.

The gates across the arena opened, and out rode a cowboy on a horse bucking so wildly the man’s head would surely rattle off his spine.  The man spiraled out of the saddle, high into the dusty air, and hit the ground hard.  Out came another bucking bronco, this one even wilder.  Another flying cowboy.

Jackson-Hole-Rodeo-Bronc-RideThen out of those gates came a gigantic angry bull, snorting and glaring.  You could see his ferocious eyes even from where we sat, clutching our Cokes and Hershey bars.  And on the bull’s back, again, was a man in a cowboy hat, hanging onto this unreasonable, terrifying creature while it kicked and spun and pawed a dusty path across the ring.  Off flew that cowboy too – in ran the incongruous rescue clowns – and then another cowboy and another crazed bull raged in, then another.  And another.

rank4My 6-year-old was standing on his seat now, his face shining, his eyes shooting sparks.  “Next up,” the announcer declared, “the moment you’ve all been waiting for.”  My son rose to his tiptoes.

The announcer paused, then roared, “Bareback riding!”

My son turned to me with great joy.  “Now they’re going to ride the bears?”

The fantasies I chase elude me, always.  But there I had my young son, whose imagination was so free, so unbound by habits of ordinary impossibility, so transported by the exotic wonders he’d just seen with his own eyes, he was perfectly prepared to believe the next marvel out of the gate across the ring would be a cowboy riding a grizzly.

What could I say?  “Maybe not this time.”  I handed him a Hershey square.  “But who knows for next year?”


Photo sources, from top: my own;; Longmont, CO; Arnica Spring,

Tile Baths, Radiant Heat.


On this good gray day, I’m rethinking the basics.

Photograph mine. U.S. Route 11, near Spottswood, Virginia.
January 21, 2015.
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