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Book Notes for The Surrender

This is for that cross-section of my audience that is equally into hip hop and gender theory. I wrote a contribution to Largehearted Boy’s Book Notes series for my recent book The Surrender.

Basically this is music that has inspired me as a writer, and as a person who has broken down boundaries in my life. The list is here.

We’re About to See if this Knausgaard Thing Has a Ceiling

Norway's Morten Gamst Pedersen (left) and Tarik Elyounoussi challenge England's Steven Gerrard for the ball

Home and Away: Writing the Beautiful Game, the football correspondence of Karl Ove Knausgaard and Fredrik Ekelund.

I kid you not. Coming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in January 2017.

Science, Religion, and Don DeLillo’s Zero K (Some Thoughts)

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I feel like a lot of (although, to be sure, not all) critics writing about DeLillo’s latest novel, Zero K, are getting distracted by a lot of window-dressing and kind of missing the point of what this book wants to be about. Case in point: Nathaniel Rich in the New York Review of Books, who after a lot of throat-clearing about the amount of plot in DeLillo’s various phases as a novelist, vague statements about what is inherently DeLillo-ian about DeLillo novels, and general synopsis of this particular book, manages to get around to a fairly interesting insight:

The Convergence, a work of performance art, reconstitutes religious faith for a coldly technological age. What, after all, is the difference between death and indefinite cryogenic suspension? The Convergence’s acolytes are trying, in Saul Bellow’s phrase, to make “sober decent terms” with oblivion. They are relying on ancient coping strategies. The gleaming pods are their sacraments. The long hushed hallways, airlock doors, and scant roomscapes form the architecture of their cathedral.

I think this is more or less where any discussion of this book should start. After all, this is a novel that is about a man who can’t stand the idea that his wife is going to die. First he freezes that wife, and then he freezes himself, both as some kind of balm to the depression and unfathomable questions that the death of a beloved spouse brings.

And this is more or less the question behind Zero K: previously we had world-encompassing religions that would offer answers for questions of this magnitude. Nowadays, a lot of us don’t really believe in those answers any longer, but what we do have is science, which if it doesn’t exactly offer answers does at least offer a discourse that can help us to avoid the questions in the first place. Afraid your beloved partner will die? You can just freeze that person. Afraid you might die of cancer? Maybe science will cure it. Worried our lifestyle will destroy the environment? Maybe we can terraform the Earth. Etc, etc.

I think much of the point of Zero K is that science has taken over a lot of the ground that religion once occupied in these term of questions like death, anxiety, the ultimate fate of humanity, depression, the unfairness of life, etc, etc. But science never meant to cover this territory; it has set out to solve very different sorts of problems, so the answers it gives to formerly religious matters have been patchy and incoherent at best. The Convergence (the place where they freeze the dying people in Zero K) would seem to be some kind of version of science trying to pose itself as religion: an organization decidedly dominated by scientific discourse and scientific solutions, but drenched in all of the mystique and accoutrements of religion. And maybe this is what science will become with time: quasi-religion.

These are the interesting questions to ask about Zero K, not questions about what phase of DeLillo’s career the book belongs to or if DeLillo has moved back toward White Noise–like plotting, or whatever “the point of maximum complexity” has to do with DeLillo’s artistic project.

Zero K makes a fairly interesting implicit argument that the discourses brought on by the age of science have left us without any real way to think sensibly about death and assorted large questions. So maybe science will begin to move toward discourses that allow for this (you already see the beginnings of that in things like the way that Roger Penrose has tried to locate consciousness in quantum uncertainty). But then again, the best “answer” science has given us so far for death (at least in DeLillo’s telling) is extraordinarily creepy and probably not of much practical use. So does this tell us that science just isn’t going to work as a quasi-religious substitute?

Another question this book brings up: is death necessary? Our understanding of biology, evolution, and history, not to mention the wisdom literary of humanity as a whole and the general organization of society—to name a few—would all say “yes.” But perhaps there is an entirely different idea of humanity out there where we could exist without death.

Critiques of this book might consider if DeLillo has given science a fair airing—after all, cryogenic freezing sounds like something out of a 1950s sci-fi flick, not exactly the stuff of the new millennium. We might also wonder if DeLillo is right that religion has been so roundly usurped (after all, lots of the world still believes in various religions, and some religions like Buddhism have shown themselves to be quite adaptable to the modern era). And is DeLillo correct that the globalized media edifice has brought on an era of mass uncertainty and anxiety that has left us all hungry for some kind of a doctrine to ease the existential questions underlying every moment of our lives?

And perhaps one more question that comes with this novel: is religion necessary? We seem to be entering the first era of widespread areligious civilized society, and it’s far from clear which trends in the modernized world are consequent of what, and which are not.

With Friends Like These


Another delightful passage from Kafka: The Years of Insight by Reiner Stach (tr. Shelley Frisch). Kafka had some relations with this strange individual and even attempted to start a magazine with him (fortunately for Kafka, it never got even close to coming together).


Episodes in the Early Days of Bookselling

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It’s nice to be reminded of a time when people found the vulgarity of the market authentically shocking

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Found in Kafka: The Years of Insight by Reiner Stach. Vulgar as he was, Georg Meyer, it seems, was an excellent salesperson. He came close to making Kafka a successful writer in terms of sales and fame. Close.

The Overview Effect


Interesting article on the little-discussed effect that seeing the Earth from space seem to have on the human psyche, called “the overview effect”:

“No amount of prior study or training can fully prepare anybody for the awe and wonder this inspires,” wrote space shuttle astronaut Kathryn D. Sullivan. It’s “one of the deepest, most emotional experiences I have ever had,” said NASA astronaut Gene Cernan. “You realize that on that small spot, that little blue and white thing, is everything that means anything to you,” said Apollo 9 astronaut Russell Schweickart. “All of history and music and poetry and art and death and birth and love, tears, joy, games, all of it on that little spot out there.”

In 1987, this phenomenon was given a name: the Overview Effect. Here’s how it’s defined by the Overview Institute:

[The Overview Effect] refers to the experience of seeing firsthand the reality of the Earth in space, which is immediately understood to be a tiny, fragile ball of life, hanging in the void, shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere. From space, the astronauts tell us, national boundaries vanish, the conflicts that divide us become less important and the need to create a planetary society with the united will to protect this “pale blue dot” becomes both obvious and imperative.

As space exploration and direct experience with outer space becomes a more and more common thing in the coming decades, I anticipate these experiences of awe and their effects on our humanity to become more and more of a thing in art.

In Madness, Rack, and Honey, poet and essayist Mary Ruefle discusses this, or something similar to this, and its possible effects on art and poetry, in the essay “Poetry and the Moon,” one of the most beautiful essays in one of the most beautiful essay collections I have ever read. Perhaps this is a preview of where we will go, collectively (see it here on Google Book):

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Translated Fiction Outselling Non-Translated Fiction?


By one measure, yes:

The Man Booker International Prize has commissioned Nielsen Book to conduct an unprecedented research project into the translated fiction market. Nielsen Book examined and coded the data on physical book sales between 2001 and April 2016. The findings show that the proportion of translated fiction published remains extremely low at 1.5% overall and 3.5% of literary fiction. However, in terms of sales, fiction punches well above its weight with translated fiction providing 5% of total fiction sales in 2015 and translated literary fiction making up 7% of literary fiction sales in 2015. On average, translated fiction books sell better than books originally written in English, particularly in literary fiction.

The translated fiction market is rising, against a stagnating general fiction market. In 2001 51.6 million physical fiction books were sold, falling to 49.7 million in 2015. However translated fiction rose from 1.3 million copies sold a year to 2.5 million. In the literary fiction market, the rise was from 1 million copies to 1.5 million.

Of course, translated literary fiction still makes up a minuscule fraction of the literary fiction market, but increasing your units sold by 50% in 14 years isn’t terrible performance, particularly when your competition is in decline.

I think this is a pretty clear confirmation of the inroads that translation fiction advocates are making into the corporate media—that’s where you need to get your message out if you want to sell in large numbers. It probably also reflects the resurgent independent bookstore scene and a general resurgence in alternative culture, enabled in part by Internet technologies.

I’d be interested to see what the comparable stats are for the American market. My guess is that the U.K. fares far better, since it is a part of Europe and so close to so many nations that speak other languages (in addition to the much greater anti-intellectualism in the U.S.).

The article also lists the top ten best-selling translations of 2015. Fascinatingly, while Elena Ferrante has 3 of the top ten, Karl Ove Knausgaard has none. Not quite sure what that’s all about, but it is eye-catching.

To the Stars


Over at Enclave, I have a little post about how I see the amazingly exciting things happening in space exploration right now impacting art and literature in the decades to come.

This is a theme that I’ve been exploring more and more in my writing lately, and one that will be prominent in my next book, which is being written at the moment. I do think that the discoveries being made about the cosmos and our own tiny part of it are one of the major stories of human civilization right now, and this is something writers and artists should take note of. And if you look at the broader currents of postwar literature in the 20th century, I think you can see that many of the major authors have already been taking this subject up.

That’s all I have to say about that at the moment. There will be more down the line to be sure, but for now I just wanted to put that out there.

22 Classic and Contemporary Female Latin American Authors to Read


Owing to the male-centric nature of most lists of Latin American writers, I thought I’d make one of just women. All of the authors here either have books available in English or soon-to-be available. Enjoy!

ps. I understand this list doesn’t include authors from a lot of Latin American countries. It’s challenging! Not that many are translated, and some of the ones that are aren’t authors I would necessarily recommend. If you think there’s someone I should look into, please let us all know in the comments.

Gabriela Mistral [1889]

Chilean poet widely known for being the first female Latin American to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature (1945).

Dulce María Loynaz [1902]

Major Cuban lyric poet who was largely forgotten after the rise of Castro. Rediscovered with the awarding of the Cervantes Prize in 1992. Archipelago will soon release a selected, Absolute Solitude.

Silvina Ocampo [1903]

Argentine poet, short story writer, and novelist, known for being a part of Borges’s inner circle. NYRB Classics released a sizable volume of her stories, Thus Were Their Faces, and a volume of her poetry, Silvina Ocampo. There is much left to translate.

Clarice Lispector [1920]

Central figure of Brazilian literature in the 20th century, and an author who has finally emerged as a major writer in English translation. Many find Hour of the Star her best.

Rosario Castellanos [1925]

Major Mexican poet and novelist of the 20th century. The Book of Lamentations is considered a central work.

Hilda Hilst [1930]

Major Brazilian novelist known for her fragmentary books dealing with insanity and the surreal. Start with Letters from a Seducer.

Elena Poniatowska [1932]

Major Mexican author in multiple genres spanning novels, journalism, and creative nonfiction. I like Massacre in Mexico, among others.

Alejandra Pizarnik [1936]

Quite possibly Argentina’s greatest poet. An intimate of Silvina Ocampo, as well as a friend of Cortázar and Octavio Paz in Paris. Several volumes of her poetry have been recently released, with The Stone of Madness the largest.

Luisa Valenzuela [1938]

Major Argentine novelist and short story writer of the “post-Boom” generation. Dark, often transgressive and fragmentary fictions, particularly in response to the dictatorship of 1976-82. I liked He Who Searches.

Gioconda Belli [1948]

Major Nicaraguan poet and novelist, highly active in the Sandinista struggle against the Somoza dictatorship. Her novel The Inhabited Woman is considered a groundbreaking work for the gender issues it raises.

Daisy Zamora [1950]

Major Nicaraguan poet. Riverbed of Memory was published in English translation in 1992.

Giannina Braschi [1953]

Puerto Rican author widely credited as authoring the first Spanglish novel, Yo-Yo Boing!, in 1998. Her United States of Banana is a look at the United States post-9/11.

Carmen Boullosa [1954]

Major postwar Mexican author with over 40 books in various genres. A handful of novels have been translated, as well as Narco History: How Mexico and the United States Jointly Created the Mexican Drug War, co-authored with her Pulitzer Prize-winning husband Mike Wallace.

Cristina Rivera Garza [1964]

Prolific Mexican writer in multiple genres whose strange, hyrbid texts create a sense of their own reality. The only author to ever win the Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Prize twice. No One Will See Me Cry was published in 2003.

Lina Meruane [1970]

Established Chilean novelist with a dozen works in various genres, just beginning to emerge in English translation. Seeing Red is the first and has garnered strong praise.

Adriana Lisboa [1970]

Mid-career Brazilian novelist whose Symphony in White received the 2003 Jose Saramago Prize.

Guadalupe Nettel [1973]

Established Mexican novelist, short story writer, and essayist. The Body Where I was Born was the first novel of hers to be translated.

Angélica Freitas [1973]

Major Brazilian poet whose Rilke Shake was published last year, marking her first collection translated into English.

Mariana Enriquez [1973]

Emerging Argentine writer whole collection of gothic short stories, The Things We Lost in the Fire, was acquired by Portobello Books last year.

Pola Oloixarac [1977]

Emerging Argentine novelist whose Las teorías salvajes is currently being translated into English.

Samanta Schweblin [1978]

Contemporary Argentine author attracting a lot of attention for her first two works, Párajos in la boca and Distancía de rescate. Some stories are translated but no full book is yet available, although that situation will soon change.

Valeria Luiselli [1983]

Emerging Mexican novelist with two novels and a volume of essays, all available in English translation. Start with Faces in the Crowd.


‏@StephenHenighan: I’d add Teresa de la Parra (Venezuela), just for *Ifigenia*. And Cristina Peri Rossi (Uruguay) & Liliana Heker (Argentina).

Jeremy Davies: Josefina Vicens! A thousand times Josefina Vicens.

Will Vanderhyden: I’d offer two personal favorites whose books are not yet available in English, but it’s only a matter of time: Mónica Ríos and Fernanda García Lao.
Also: Carolina Sanín.
Also: Claudia Salazar Jiménez.
Diamela Eltit is also excellent and has several books available in English translation.

Chris Clarke: One more that I’ve always had a soft spot for: Maria Luisa Bombal, from Chile. A few translated back in the 80s or so.

Emi Del Marx: I would like to add three major poets. From New Spain: Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651-1695). From Uruguay: Juana de Ibarbourou (1892-1979). And from Mexico: Coral Bracho (1951).

@bythefirelight: I think Elena Garro. The story La culpa es de los tlaxcaltecas is a classic

Edmundo Paz Soldán: Emma Reyes

Excerpt from The Surrender


I wanted to post one last excerpt from The Surrender, since the official release is coming up on Thursday at the 2016 AWP Conference.

If you’re at AWP, you can find it at the Anomalous Press booth. Someone there will be happy to sell it to you.

Thereafter, order it from Small Press Distribution.

The excerpt below is from the third of the book’s three essays. If you’d like to read an excerpt from the first essay, go here. And, of course, the entirety of the second essay (which is how this whole thing began) is at The White Review.

In 2012 utterance became possible, and the next year was to unknot its form.

My hands removed a bottle from a cluttered bathroom drawer. It had been forgotten there for years, but now I had reclaimed it. On a fall evening I took it in hand and applied its contents to my toenails. I cannot say this was an act of my will. What I know of that moment is that my body produced this bottle, the process commenced upon my bared feet, an object carried my body forward. My role, if it can be called a role, was to cease blocking its desire. I relinquished my will and refused to contemplate the consequences. The miniature brush dripped with paint, and soon my toenails were held by clotted pearl coats. I could not help but smile at my poor work. Soon my fingernails too had their own clumsy strokes. I knew that in just hours I would be among friends, and there was no question of exiting the house with my nails in this state. It was simply not a prospect that could be entertained, under any circumstances imaginable. I removed the polish and left the house, and for the entire night I envied the paint my nails lacked. Past midnight I arrived back at home, and instead of falling asleep I began to repaint my nails. Prior to this day I had never in all my life aspired to polished nails. In all my time of wishing to be like a woman I had never imagined this prospect, and now I found it impossible that I should not paint them.

The next morning this polish was still on my fingers when I walked down the street to purchase coffee beans. I did not want this polish on my fingers. I did not want it there at all. With every step I trembled in dread that someone should see this, and I felt my hands swollen up to draw the gaze of all humanity. My spurious fingers pushed open the café door. I was in a minor panic. At any moment anyone in this small room might realize what I had done. Soon I would have to pay, and it was only with my hands that I could produce my card and pass it beyond the counter. My hands were transformed into emblems of humiliation.

I retained the polish throughout the whole of Sunday, and I likewise had it on me when I arrived at my office the following morning. For several hours I had the pleasure of staring down at the pearl

varnish as I typed. There was a new manner of femininity about me and I cherished it. By day’s end I was affirmed in the belief that I had accomplished a lofty goal, a matter of some stress undoubtedly, but now I had lived two entire days with these beautiful pearl nails. My satisfaction was so all-encompassing that on the following afternoon I acquired a bottle of blue paint, which I applied to myself that evening.

Never before had I seen a part of my body like these blue nails. They looked as though they were made of plastic, as though they were candy. I could smell their faint chemical aroma. I liked to feel their cool, slick surface upon my lips. It was difficult to believe they were of me. I gazed into my mirror reflection, and I knew right then that these blue-tinted tips did not belong at all. They were the only errors upon uniformly masculine flesh. Everything in my reflection pointed in one direction, and these tips pointed in the opposite. This incongruity made me freakish.

The next morning was my day off, and I shopped with my blue nails at the grocery. When I approached the counter where I would pay for my items, the cashier wasted no time in noticing my nails. She expressed admiration for the color I had chosen. That compliment, the first I had ever received from an unknown person, undid me because it made unambiguously clear that my nails were perceived. I was outside the boundaries of my home, and people in the world knew there was something afoot. People everywhere were seeing them. This had occurred for well over three days. These perceptions could only have been giving rise to thoughts inside of skulls. It was by no means clear what these thoughts were, what inferences they produced, what people then chose to believe about me. It was undeniable that these blue fingertips uttered things I would not say, things that I did not yet wish to believe and might well never wish to.

That evening I lay reading, and I fell asleep for perhaps half an hour. When I awoke my ankles and shins were inflamed. It was not so unlike the sensation of stretching one’s calves to the breaking point, except it was a deeper, encompassing pain of two hands twisting. I perceived it lengthening toward my stomach, and I could also feel it in my chest. My very heart beat with a syncopated cadence because my courage had smacked upon its limits. I knew precisely how this anxiety would be cured. I removed the paint and my body was freed from its strife. There could be no question that

this backward swerve was contrary to all I esteemed and expected in myself. It was false. It made me false and drove me toward an incorrect state of being. But not with all my might could I have forestalled this failure. I could only admit that my body was unable to sustain the truth I wished to force upon it. But this truth would not be so easily forsaken. No sooner had I removed the paint from my body than the bottle began again to exert its desire upon me. It exerted a most powerful force. Merely a glance at the blue polish from across the room fixed my gaze, and I would find myself picking this bottle up and twisting off its cap, only to thrust it back down in fear of what had almost transpired. I felt entirely that I wanted to give way to it, but always in the last moment I did not know how it could be done.

That following morning it was four days since I had first appeared with my tinted nails. As I prepared for the office, the bottle and its contents scarcely left my mind. It could not be done but I must do it. But I could not do it. I must. I stared and agitated, and in the end it was not done. I agitated for three more days before I again managed to give way to that bottle of blue polish. Three days of turmoil until I at last confronted the question. Why deny your self what your body clearly wants? Why should this need go unfulfilled? I did not know what the consequences of this submission would be, I did not at all feel capable of admitting what I knew to be my truth. It might again crush me. But that force exerted by the bottle of blue nail polish was itself a truth. And too, the satisfaction I felt when I looked down upon my smooth, blue fingertips. I could not tell myself why these truths were mine, these truths that were not a priori truths, and nor were susceptible to empirical justification. They were truths that rested wholly on feelings that I knew could only be given way to. This was a crucial thing. If I did not give way to them they would never leave. Never. In all of 30 years they had never left my side. They had only proliferated, and they were among the most durable facts about myself imaginable. They had been with me longer than almost any other component of what I took to be my identity, and they were purely undeniable. I had often been instructed that undeniable desires are not approved foundations for truths. They are whimsies, weaknesses that prey upon the hysterics. The true man learns to subjugate them. I had judged such teachings to be false, repressive doctrines, and I had demonstrated to myself that an unflagging desire is not whimsy, surrendering to it is not weakness. I knew this. I had warred against myself in order to believe this. I was convinced that this was absolutely true, and so I did not know why I could not stop acting as though my convictions were absurd, as though I were wearing absurdity upon my fingers. The conventions that had been beaten into me were powerful. These conventions had forced me to take my own body and with great effort and perseverance fit it squarely into its place in the world. It had taken me years to do as these conventions required, and now I was in the process of taking it all back, of making my body absurd. I was not at all prepared to withstand this displacement.

In that season I felt my inner self a young woman who fights for the self-possession to cast off falsehoods.

During those fall months there were a few calm moments when I felt powerful in the knowledge that my acts were a defiance, and this misbegotten courage helped me to exist despite my irrepressible sense of absurdity. It was of some good, but I did not want to exist as a defiance. I did not paint my nails out of a desire to defy convention, and I had no interest in impressing others with my transgression. To the contrary, I did it for the most natural reason I could imagine, to submit to truths that I knew should not be denied.

As I cast about for my balance, I would at times be thrown small lifelines. I believe that my discomfort was quite plain for those who would see it, and I do not hesitate to profess that what compliments I received were offered from a sense of complicity. It is clear enough to me that people everywhere feel at odds with what they are forced to reveal to the world. Perhaps those who offered me these few words will never know the essential role they played in allowing me to believe I was not, in fact, absurd. That, simply, I had a right to exist.

What most instilled in me the capacity to seize this truth was a thing I read by a musician I had listened to since college. This man, whom I had always imagined to be an epitome of success and desirability, and whom I had never imagined could feel unable to walk into any room to which he felt entitled, had been made to feel an outcast in his very home. In his own luxurious apartment tower, to which he had won admittance by his unquestionable hard work and brilliance, this man had felt an intruder. He could do nothing to change this. He understood that no action he might ever commit would prevent such a situation arising again. He was helpless. He wrote with a mature outrage about realizing the fact of his helplessness, and he wanted others to know what it was to feel this peculiar species of exposure. When I read his words I understood that I was a coward. It had always been my option to hide my difference, and for many years I had chosen deception over truth. There were people in this world who could not hide. In fact, nothing they ever did would let them. There was simply no possible way for these people to experience the option granted to me by birth. This bitter fact was a truth they could only confront for themselves. I was not like these people. It was my choice to hide, and I did. I had purposely educated myself in the methods of this deception. I had done my very best to forget that there was ever a truth I fought to hide from the world.

The discomfort I found so intolerable that I would rather hide myself away than live in truth was a thing that many people simply had to accept.

But now I had reached a juncture where I had the possibility of ceasing to hide. By some turn of events it was now my choice to pursue truth. In merely contemplating whether I might pursue truth over falseness I was experiencing a great privilege that I had not even recognized as such. I had no right to such a privilege. I had no right even to my cowardice. I must force myself to pursue truth. I must cease deceiving the world as to what I was. I would experience life on those terms, no matter what they might bring. This meant eradicating what prevented me from revealing myself to the world. It meant admitting this intolerable discomfort. It meant being willing to experience forms of emotion that I had purposely avoided with all my might. These false and petty limits I would surpass, in order to see what my true limits were and to know why they existed.


The Surrender is Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning his lifelong desire to be a woman.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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