What about ideas that are so accepted and internalized that we’re not even in a position to question their fallibility? These are ideas so ingrained in the collective consciousness that it seems foolhardy to even wonder if they’re potentially untrue. Sometimes these seem like questions only a child would ask, since children aren’t paralyzed by the pressures of consensus and common sense. It’s a dissonance that creates the most unavoidable of intellectual paradoxes: When you ask smart people if they believe there are major ideas currently accepted by the culture at large that will eventually be proven false, they will say, “Well, of course. There must be. That phenomenon has been experienced by every generation who’s ever lived, since the dawn of human history.” Yet offer those same people a laundry list of contemporary ideas that might fit that description, and they’ll be tempted to reject them all.
It is impossible to examine questions we refuse to ask. These are the big potatoes.
To be fair, I’ve had other ill-fated affairs with dead authors: those years of pining for the attentions of Truman Capote (you can see the complications there); the make-out sessions with W. Somerset Maugham (although his worlds always proved a tad too humid for me); the obsession with Edith Wharton (my first and only time playing for the other team). But the affair with Scott Fitzgerald was the gravest affair yet, the most exquisitely anguished—and the most embarrassing.
This is how it went down.
There is perfect symmetry to the way Stephen King aligns the opening of “End of Watch,” the smashing finale of his “Mr. Mercedes” trilogy, with that of its first installment. Mr. King isn’t flashy about it. Maybe he just can’t help writing like a stone-cold pro. The first book, “Mr. Mercedes,” began in 2009 with a rabid killer stealing the car of the title and plowing into a line of helpless people attending a job fair. The third book also starts on that day, but navigates its suspenseful way toward the present to a terrifyingly resonant end.
As in the best ensemble novels, much of the pleasure of Modern Lovers comes from observing its affecting, palpable characters interact. Straub has so intricately and cleverly connected them that when she moves one, the whole chessboard reconfigures.
Fifty years ago, in 1966, Chairman Mao declared the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, setting into motion China’s Dark Ages. Mao shut down the nation’s schools and called for the youth to purge the country of bourgeois values and “counter-revolutionary” behaviour. In the months that followed, the repressive political climate quashed freedom of thought, turned family members and friends against each other, and created a legacy of fear that still endures. The Communist Party’s continued authority in China means that the recent anniversary, on May 16, was marked by country-wide silence.
This makes Madeleine Thien’s new novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, all the more significant. Realist and yet deliberately poetic, it addresses the events of the past half-century head-on. Set across three generations, Thien’s characters suffer the shame, fear, and humiliation of Maoist propaganda, with much of that suffering borne out of “struggle sessions”—public spectacles in which citizens are forced to denounce themselves and each other in the name of Communism.
Four years later, as I planned my return to Japan, I knew I had to travel beyond the populated heart of the country if I wanted to really replicate the world I had seen in those prints, going farther afield than Hiroshige himself.
And so I chose the Kumano Kodo, a series of trails through deep forest and small towns on the Kii Peninsula several hours south of Osaka. It’s a religious pilgrimage that I came across in my obsessive reading. Pilgrims go to visit the numerous shrines along the way, worshiping the mountains themselves. They’ve done so since the sixth century. It’s said one can achieve spiritual powers by enduring the route’s physical challenge.
And it’s the proud home of the Hangzhou Cuisine Museum. What I knew when I went: there were 13,000 square feet filled with dioramas of historic Hangzhou food scenes and plastic replicas of classic Hangzhou dishes. What I didn’t know: Why?