4 min read

Breathlessness in Fiction

Breathlessness in Fiction

Dear Friends,

I’ve been out of commission for much of 2021 organizing an auction for diversity and inclusion at the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC), a cause that is close to my heart. If you’ve followed my public writing for any amount of time, I’ve been seeking greater inclusion in the literary world for nearly two decades and I’m a little burnt out. However, I’m grateful to those who bid, donated, or supported in other ways.

I’ve been in awe of many books published this year. I can’t remember a year in which I was so excited for releases, and satisfied by them. I truly believe we’re living in a Golden Age of book publishing and I wish there were enough readers to meet the gorgeous work that’s been birthed. I was unable to squeeze in time to review most of these but my recommendations for the best books I’ve read in 2021 so far:

Hanif Abdurraqib, A Little Devil in America

Anuk Arudpragasam, A Passage North

Rachel Kushner, The Hard Crowd

Brenda Peynado, The Rock Eaters

Larissa Pham, Pop Song

Rodrigo Marquez, A Farewell to Gabo and Mercedes

Brandon Taylor, Filthy Animals

Nawaaz Ahmed, Radiant Fugitives

Carolina De Robertis, The President and the Frog

Hermione Hoby, Virtue

Kaitlyn Greenidge, Libertie

Tiphanie Yanique’s Monster in the Middle

Joy Williams, Harrow

Joshua Mohr, Model Citizen

This year, I finished writing and revising a novel, Blue Fire. When I write books, I’m often motivated by a desire to do something radical with form and story. I’d always hoped to write a family saga and a book that examines Silicon Valley — my home for nearly four decades —closely, truthfully. Blue Fire is that novel. It’s my fifth novel and my seventh book (I feel somehow this is a bit shocking). I read a sex scene from it at Make Out Room as part of Red Light Lit’s reading series, which was wild. I’ve been going there since college and never believed I, a shy and intense and sensitive person who is not a natural performer, but rather an observer, would ever read racier material than I’ve ever read out loud, onstage there, sharing a stage with a musician, Future Twin, whose songs I loved.

In the last few months, I also finished writing a surrealist short story collection How We Know Our Time Travelers. I started a new novel and I’m trying to get a contract to write a game about spies.

This year, one of my stories, Mother, My Monster, was published in Twenty Twenty: A Stories on Stage Sacramento Anthology edited by Dorothy Rice. I am deeply attached to this story, which I wrote during the pandemic at the height of my fear, prior to getting hospitalized in what has to be one of the worst periods of my life. There are two incidents in my life so far that rival it. I didn’t submit this horror story anywhere, except the anthology when invited, and I’m delighted it found a home without my intervention and with good people.

I wrote How We Know Our Time Travelers without quotation marks to set off the dialogue. I've been thinking about what that means artistically. It feels, above all, more truthful to my experience of the world, where dialogue is on par with trees, houses, people’s appearance. All of it a swarm that we then need to parse out and make into language for other people and ourselves. When you don’t use quotation marks, and you use complex sentences, a certain breathlessness is achieved that I find beautiful. I noticed this headlong energy in A Passage North, though the sentence constructions there are highly suspenseful, and I’m still trying to take those apart, like a mechanic of sentences, to figure out how he did it.

There’s a similar breathlessness or sense in which everything is radically equal — the dialogue, the characters, the history— in Mauritian author Carl de Souza’s novella Kaya Days. It is the story of a Hindu girl who searches for her brother over the course of a single day. Its translator, Jeffrey Zuckerman, calls it a “dreamscape,” and I think that’s partly based on the lack of dialogue tags, the way sound blends with image.

Here’s the opening:

“Santee always liked the bloody, ruddy reds. So Ram would pick the blacks, saying the dark offset the nickel-plated kogs even more. She and Ram would count them off as they parked, decked out by the families in garlands and balloons for a wedding, or as they started and stopped in campaign parades, flags tied to the rear dafs. Santee was pouting; she wouldn’t be debating with Ram today, they wouldn’t be sparring with words that Ma didn’t understand, with their own terms for blinkers and hubcaps.”

Each sentence is aural, rhythmic full of assonance and consonance. There is a rhyme: “bloody, ruddy.” And these adjectives have a fullness and punch that repeats throughout the text in nouns like “kogs,” “dafs”, “hubcaps.” We learn of a slight conflict between Santee and her brother. Ram picks a color because she likes a different one. They spar, and yet Santee loves that element of their relationship. They speak their own language. There is, even in these four sentences, the feel of an island in the Indian Ocean: the redness, the garlands, the balloons.

I’ll be talking to Carl de Souza on October 9, 2021 at 11 am PT at Litquake. The event is cosponsored by The Center for the Art of Translation. Please join us (it may be recorded, but it’s great, if also humbling, to have an audience).


In case you missed my most recent review, here’s what I wrote about Jai Chakrabarti’s debut novelin The Washington Post:

Review of A Play for the End of the World

I began editing the California Book Club newsletter last month, and I hope you’ll join. The book club gathers on the third Thursday of the month at 5 pm. Host John Freeman is in conversation with the author of the book selected by the Selection Committee that month and a special guest enters the conversation, too. Last month, Rebecca Solnit and John Freeman were joined by performance artist and comedian Kristina Wong. It was a remarkable conversation.

Until we meet in words again,