TALENT IS A PRECARIOUS THING. It’s even more precarious when paired with youth, and then widely-broadcast; few are the writers who establish long, stable careers and remain — for any amount of time — deservedly in the center of an intellectual culture. Though we can think immediately of the people whose first novels were wake up calls to the human psyche: Philip Roth, Donna Tartt, E.L. Doctorow, Margaret Atwood, Haruki Murakami, Toni Morrison — and who went on to become living literary giants — the fact is that the large majority of writers struggle to publish even one widely-praised book.
And yet — youth always sells — and so various magazines and institutions can often be found celebrating, with gusto, a new group of literary youngsters. Under-40 Writers are tapped for inclusion in prestigious cliques — there is the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35,” the New York Public Library’s “Young Lions Award,” The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” list, and even Narrative Magazine’s well-publicized “30 Below” category. The result? As they age, these writers’ successes — and failures — are played out on the biggest available stages; much bigger, or at least louder, now than they were in the days of Roth and Morrison.
Witness the career of Alix Ohlin: a debut novel, The Missing Person,lauded by seemingly everyone. Then, inclusion in The New Yorker’slist. Then, in 2012, a second novel, savaged by William Giraldi in The New York Times in a brutal review that used the adjectives, “cliché-strangled,” “appalling,” “leaden,” and “insufferable.” Not surprisingly, Giraldi’s assessment spread through Twitter feeds and Facebook status updates like a digital brush fire. So, this is what young, talented writers are dealing with today: on top of the normal anxieties of writing (“I dreamed my mother was telling me I should submit more to The New Yorker”), they must negotiate a public evernow that’s alwayson — and hungry to judge and buy (the twin preoccupations of the Internet).
For Rivka Galchen, a young Canadian–American novelist, this harrowing drama may be played out at any minute. Her inventive first novel, Atmospheric Disturbances, was published in 2008, translated into over 20 languages, and awarded the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. Its premise was risk itself: it featured a character with her father’s name, Tzvi Gal-Chen, who believes his wife has been replaced by a clone. The New York Times approved, comparing Galchen to Jonathan Lethem, Franz Kafka, Primo Levi, Thomas Pynchon, and Jorge Luis Borges.
For this reason, Galchen’s collection of stories, American Innovations, would seem to be doomed. It’s a hopeless enterprise — to enter a room while others proclaim your greatness. Galchen is now attempting to perform the literary equivalent of Evel Knievel hurtling over 13 double-decker buses in Wembley Stadium: the leap to repeat critical success is a daunting, and seemingly unlikely, endeavor. And if she fails, people will watch it live, and share it with their friends.
The marvel here is that she succeeds as often as she does — with a text that is full of innovation, grace, cold-minded intensity, and humor. The collection is a strong one, with its roots in a handful of literary antecedents — writers with whom Galchen wishes to have a conversation. Billed as “updates” or “riffs” on canonical works by Borges, Thurber, and Gogol, Galchen’s stories nonetheless have their own lives, rooted primarily in 20th and 21st century North America. These are pieces about brainy, careful characters; characters who are — by and large — struggling with the anxieties of this particular moment in time.
“Gross income for the daughter in 2007 was $18,150,” begins the collection’s third story, “Sticker Shock” (which appeared in The New Yorker in 2012as“Appreciation”). “Gross income for the mother in 2007 was $68,742. Gross income for the daughter in 2008 was $23,450; in 2009, it was $232,476; in 2010, $140,702; and in 2011, $37,853.” This story works, in part because of its clinical beginning; when it opens out into lyrical softness in a few pages, you feel relief. And the basic human dilemma the story seeks to portray — the inability of a mother and a daughter to get along — is sharpened by its linguistic ingenuity. “Sticker Shock” also contains the best three-page paragraph I’ve read this side of David Foster Wallace, which, in turn, contains the best summation of the absurdity of consumer culture since YDAU, The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment:
But, as the mother explained to her daughter, the Jenny Consultant said that, while it was true that Jenny Craig did sell the armband on-site at the Centre, and that the consultant and the program did both believe that the armband could be a positive friend in any weight loss or weight maintenance regimen, still, the armband was not a Jenny Craig armband per se, and the Jenny Craig Centre did not represent the armband, or the armband makers, nor did the armband or its makers represent the Jenny Craig Centre, and the Jenny Craig Centre did not even formally endorse the armband’s makers, or vice versa — there was no real relation — and so the mother needed to address her inquiries or complaints not to the Jenny Craig Centre but to the armband company directly.
Comparisons to George Saunders’s In Persuasion Nation are inevitable.
Which is to say, this is a story collection that’s as much about language as anything else, about the many ways in which a story can be told. Its best moments are either surprising and beautiful (“The tea tasted like damp cotton.”), or funny (“Who was talking about not liking you? You’re just in pain.” “Maybe I’m not in pain.” “I’d put my money on pain. It’s the Kantian sublime, what you’re experiencing.”). But what I thought of most, reading these stories, wasn’t Kant’s formulation of awe (“The starry heavens above me, and the moral law within me”), but rather Longinus — who wrote that a literary work can be sublime if, in its transgressions, it is “bold, lawless, and original.”
Some stories are stronger than others. Particularly good is “Wild Berry Blue,” which is narrated in the first-person by a precocious young girl, who falls briefly, and incandescently, in love with a one-toothed, recovering heroin addict at a McDonalds in Oklahoma. She is in the restaurant with her father, the town’s psychiatrist. Galchen portrays the father with tenderness and affection: “This is a story about my love for Roy, though first I have to say a few words about my dad, who was there with me at the McDonalds every Saturday, letting his little girl, I was maybe nine, swig extra half-and-halfs, stack the shells into messy towers.” It’s a passage that conjures a specific material object — the fragile, corrugated creamers that are, for many 30- and-40-year old Americans, the equivalent of Proust’s madeleine. Though sentimentalism often feels like the great flaw of American popular culture — and this is one of the few stories that does in fact stray into a sentimentalist mood — Ms. Galchen handles the premise with enough grittiness to make it work.
Both “Real Estate,” and the title story, however, fall flat. “Real Estate” is too slight to amount to much, and “American Innovations” never overcomes the oddness of its central conceit (a woman grows a “dorsal breast”) — whether or not it is in conversation with Gogol’s “The Nose.” Yet it is a testament to Galchen’s skill as a writer that when she goes astray she doesn’t stray far. The collection’s essential life remains intact. When a character says, in “Real Estate,” that another character is, “carrying Being and Time, which didn’t immediately make me dislike him, maybe because I liked his hair and maybe because he carried it like it was a car repair manual,” you’re reminded of the author’s wit and intellect. What kind of car would you use Heidegger to fix? If only I was a certain kind of comedian — then this space would have a certain kind of joke in it.
“Once an Empire,” originally published in Harper’s in 2010, is the plainest story in the collection. It is also mysterious and affecting. Its premise is the stuff of magical realism: a woman returns from dinner to find all of her possessions leaving her apartment — via a darkened window and the fire escape. They are not being stolen, necessarily. They are just leaving of their own accord. The protagonist, dazed and lost, has a series of decentered conversations about this circumstance. “But when love is real, there’s no such thing as Time. I wasn’t the criminal, was I? I wasn’t Wanted. Mistakes could be made, though. Misidentifications.” It’s tempting to see this as Galchen arguing on her own behalf, in the writing world — where she must relinquish all of her possessions, for better or worse.
An archival obsessive could spend hours thinking about the ways Galchen chose to edit some of the stories — particularly “The Late Novels of Gene Hackman”— even after they appeared in magazines. “Gene Hackman,” has some quizzical alterations — for example, Galchen switches the “name” of the protagonist from “J” to “B.” She also adds a single-sentence, stand-alone paragraph to its start: “The outcome could have been known from the beginning.”
This sentiment is actually quite poignant when read in the context of the book’s appearance in our contemporary North American agora— our literary gathering place. I often think of the writers of the past, who didn’t live in the age of Pinterest or online, affinity-driven message boards, or even (surely impossible!) Goodreads. Take Melville (“Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I shall die in the gutter”) or Emily Dickinson, or Kafka as examples. They were not ordained as anything but failures — as outcasts, as men and women who fell outside the boundaries of the societies in which they lived. In some ways, this fueled their greatest work. Being embraced is a particular kind of danger for an artist. American Innovations isn’t perfect, but it is a resounding success, and signals Rivka Galchen’s intention to occupy significant space, to endure.