This has always been one of the cardinal problems of biography: to what extent can or should one tell the truth—and what, indeed, is the truth about any of us? The second question is the more difficult one to answer. “The world will never know my life,” said Carlyle (and the words stand on the first page of his Life by his closest friend, Froude) “‘even if it should write and read a hundred biographies of me. The main facts of it are known, and are likely to be known, to myself alone, of all created men.” Not only are there facts that we do not tell, but some that we ourselves do not know; at best, some small facet of the truth occasionally catches the light, and it is that which the biographer must try to seize. “For there is,” as Virginia Woolf remarked, “a virtue in truth; it has an almost mystic power. Like radium, it seems to give off forever and ever grains of energy, atoms of light.”
Which is, in some sense, ridiculous. No one expects a medical student to perform surgery correctly on his first try. And no corporate lawyer would be allowed to negotiate a merger without experience and years of law school behind her. Lawyers and doctors learn by doing. Writers feel we should already know. Proust never got an MFA. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein at twenty. Helen Oyeyemi wrote her first novel while she was still at Cambridge. And it’s not as if we’re the only people telling ourselves this. As the writer Tim Parks once put it in an essay for the New York Review of Books, “No one is treated with more patronizing condescension than the unpublished author or, in general, the would-be artist. At best he is commiserated. At worst mocked. He has presumed to rise above others and failed.”
No one knows why we walk. Out of some 250 species of primates, we are the only ones that have elected to get up and move around exclusively on two legs. Some authorities think bipedalism is at least as important a defining characteristic of what it is to be human as our high-functioning brain.
Many theories have been proposed as to why our distant ancestors dropped out of trees and adopted an upright posture—to free their hands to carry babies and other objects; to gain a better line of sight across open ground; to be better able to throw projectiles—but the one certainty is that walking on two legs came at a price. Moving about in the open made our ancient forebears exceedingly vulnerable, for they were not formidable creatures, to say the least. The young and gracile protohuman famously known as Lucy, who lived in what is now Ethiopia some 3.2 million years ago and is often used as a model for early bipedalism, was only about three and a half feet tall and weighed just 60 pounds—hardly the sort of presence to intimidate a lion or cheetah.
We are nearing the end of 2019, the Year of the Pig, and the global pork market is facing disaster. African swine fever, a viral disease with a 100 percent fatality rate among pigs, in the past year has spread to more than 25 countries in Europe, Africa, and Asia. ASF hasn’t reached the United States, but if it does, estimates put the damage at more than $4 billion. China, by far the largest pig-producing country in the world, is estimated to have lost roughly half of its swine population to the outbreak. There’s talk of China domestically raising pigs the size of polar bears to combat the domestic decline; North Korea has officially reported only one instance of ASF, but unofficial internal reports suggest an apocalyptic collapse in stock. Meanwhile, the McRib is back.
On the night of 14 June 1904, New York’s Chinatown was plunged into a deep gloom. For the past 20 years, it had thrived off the city’s seemingly insatiable appetite for chop suey. Every night, restaurants along Moot and Pell were thronged with sophisticates clamouring for a taste of ‘authentic’ Chinese cooking. But suddenly, all that seemed at risk. A few days earlier, a chef named Lem Sen had arrived from San Francisco. Chop suey, he claimed, was ‘no more Chinese than pork and beans’. In fact, he had invented it a decade before, while working at a ‘Bohemian’ restaurant in San Francisco. His recipe had been ‘stolen’ by an American diner, who had since grown rich off the profits. Now Lem wanted compensation. Through his lawyer, he demanded that restaurants stop making chop suey – or pay him for the privilege of using his recipe.
Happily, Lem soon dropped his suit. Even he must have known it was absurd. But the myth of the dish’s ‘American’ origins persisted. Over the next few decades, newspapers regularly claimed it as Uncle Sam’s own and mocked those who were ‘gulled’ into believing that it was really Chinese. Even today, the expression ‘as American as chop suey’ can still be heard.
Early in Oksana, Behave!, Maria Kuznetsova’s smart and insightful debut novel, Oksana’s grandmother, Baba, explains to her how life works: “You are born, you have some laughs and a rendezvous or two, and then you fall into the void. Just try to enjoy the ride, darling.” Baba is wise, and while she is describing her outlook on life, Kuznetsova is also, in this moment, outlining the trajectory and style of her book. Told in discrete moments, Oksana, Behave! moves differently from many other novels.
Most traditional novels rely on cause and effect for forward momentum, with unanswered questions often pulling the reader forward through the book. Chapters come to a close, but lingering questions or events often urge the reader to continue on. In novels comprised of stories, though—like Oksana, Behave!—each chapter can stand alone. So, how does the writer convince the reader to keep on reading? How does time work in these novels, both as a narrative device and in the reader’s experience? Both Oksana, Behave! and Olive, Again, the newest novel-in-stories by Elizabeth Strout, are wonderful examples of how such novels marry their content and form.
Deborah Levy, one of the most intellectually exciting writers in Britain today, has produced in this perplexing work a caustically funny exploration of history, perception, the nature of political tyranny and how lovers can simultaneously charm and erase each other.
Elliptical, elusive and endlessly stimulating, Deborah Levy’s new novel, her third to be nominated for the Booker Prize, packs an astonishing amount into 200 pages. “The Man Who Saw Everything” is a brilliantly constructed jigsaw puzzle of meaning that will leave readers wondering how much they can ever truly know.
The latest writer to take up Frankenstein’s scalpel is British novelist Jeanette Winterson. Her “Frankissstein,” longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, is a brainy, batty story — an unholy amalgamation of scholarship and comedy. She manages to pay homage to Shelley’s insight and passion while demonstrating her own extraordinary creativity.
But what also becomes crystal clear is that the restaurant is a key piece in the mise-en-scène of another equally subtle and unforgiving game: spycraft.
"Restaurants and cafés are in many ways the lifeblood of espionage," is how Amaryllis Fox puts it. Fox was a real spy. Her memoir, Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA, released this month, recounts her adventures as a clandestine CIA operative from 2003 to 2010 deployed to 16 countries to infiltrate terror networks in the post-9/11 world. "Restaurants offer the opportunity to meet the people we most seek — those with access to a government or terror group that might be able to help us predict or prevent the next attack. Sometimes those meetings are accidental. Mostly, they are planned to look accidental."
Near the end of Adrienne Brodeur’s exquisite and harrowing memoir, she makes this powerful statement: “Malabar was the only mother I had, but she was not the mother I wanted to be.” “Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover, and Me” tells the story of the author’s long, complicated and ultimately successful struggle to extract herself from her charismatic mother — a textbook narcissist for whom “love was conditional” — to become a different kind of partner, person and parent. The book is so gorgeously written and deeply insightful, and with a line of narrative tension that never slacks, from the first page to the last, that it’s one you’ll likely read in a single, delicious sitting.
Even if I still had the clothes I wore,
those first twelve years, even if I had
the clothes I’d take off before my mother