Category: Granta

Interview: Gary Shteyngart & Emily Greenhouse

Gary Shteyngart in conversation with Emily Greenhouse for Granta
Gary

Gary Shteyngart’s 2010 interview with Emily Greenhouse, appearing in the online edition of Granta 97: Best of Young American Novelists 2. 

Gary Shteyngart was selected as one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists in 2007. His new novel, Super Sad True Love Story, is published in the UK by Granta books on 16 September. Emily Greenhouse caught up with Gary to ask about the email epistolary, how he’d do in a literary Celebrity Death Match, and the ‘äppärät’ – his dystopian rendering of a smartphone on anabolic steroids.

EG: How did featuring on the Best of Young American Novelists list in 2007 affect your career?

GS: It made life nicer. A gentleman with a photocamera took a picture of me for some site on the intertube.

Your latest novel, Super Sad True Love Story, is written in diary entries, ‘long form standard English texts’ and Global Teen text conversations. Is this a cynical comment on the shortened attention span of our generation, or is ‘email epistolary’ the genuine future of the novel?

OMFG, totes! I’ve been losing the power of good riting over the years. I’m dictating this to an intern. I hope she gets it write.

In the prologue to Absurdistan, you write, ‘I’m a deeply secular Jew who finds no comfort in either nationalism or religion.’ You’ve made clear your discomfort with Soviet nationalism, yet I felt a deep appreciation for America throughout Super Sad. Your love for New York, especially, shines through. Has a bit of Emma Lazarus’ American Dream seeped in?

America’s in deep shit. That makes me love it more and fear for its future. But overall nationalism is a terrible thing. Unless you’re Canadian. Then it makes perfect sense.

Any thoughts on London?

I can’t even afford to have thoughts on London, much less live or visit there.

Towards the tail end of Super Sad, Lenny remembers reading the ‘New York Times (the real Times, not theLifestyle Times) … in the subway, folding it awkwardly while leaning against the door, caught up in the words, worried about crashing to the floor or tripping over some lightly clad beauty (there was always at least one), but even more afraid to lose the thread of the article in front of me, my spine banging against the train door, the clatter and drone of the massive machine around me, and me, with my words, brilliantly alone.’ Is it still possible, in this just pre-äppärät age, to be truly, brilliantly alone?

(…)

I Used to Go for Long Walks in the Evenings

Stephen Sexton writes for Granta

Stephen Sexton’s poem in Granta 135: New Irish Writing

My celebrity accumulated like a kidney stone:
children, pets, even some corvids recognised me
so it was time for my appointment at the wax museum.
I was to be measured and charted with lasers and calipers,
from the depth of my philtrum to the balls of my feet.
Finally, the fellow admired The ears like little queries,
he said, What do you think about that!
Just then the Director of the museum, a man
with no more scruples than a cat o’ nine tails has pulses,
entered to inspect his investment.
Very expensive, he grumbled, footfall, overheads,
gallons of Japanese beeswax, apiarists’ strike in Osaka
and I passed the time naming the counties of Ireland.

When it was December, I came in to view
my likeness the night before its exhibition.
There was a little party. Because I loved myself
I had plenty of wine and made my acquaintance.
Every detail was present: itchy Velcro hooks of stubble,
pink threads of blood vessels in the sclera.
I had the sensation of looking in a mirror about a year ago.
After an hour or so I pretended to quarrel with myself
and the long and short of it is that the model went over
and broke off at the waist. It was accidental.
The Director exploded like a good break in a great game of pool.
I’d be arrested, prosecuted, fined, executed unless
we came to some sort of arrangement. I had no choice.
It hasn’t been easy learning to stand perfectly still
but from 10 until 6 each day, I do in the East Wing.
The days are long but the evenings are mine.
This is why my eyes are so glassy, this is why my legs are so sore.

Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead

Olga Tokarczuk in Granta magazine
snow

An excerpt of Olga Tokarczuk’s 2009 novel Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead, transated from the Polish, has been published in Granta magazine:

I am already at an age and additionally in a state where I must always wash my feet thoroughly before bed, in the event of an ambulance having to take me away in the Night.

Had I examined the Ephemerides that evening to see what was happening in the heavens, I wouldn’t have gone to bed at all. Meanwhile I fell very fast asleep; I helped myself with an infusion of hops, on top of which I took two valerian pills. So when in the middle of the Night I was woken by hammering on the door – violent, immoderate and by that token boding ill – I couldn’t come to. I sprang up and stood by the bed, unsteadily, because my sleepy, shaky body couldn’t make the leap from the innocence of sleep into wakefulness. I felt weak and began to reel, as if I were on the point of losing consciousness. Unfortunately it happens to me lately, and is to do with my Ailments. I had to sit down and repeat to myself several times: I am at home, it is Night, someone’s banging on the door, and only then did I manage to get a grip on my nerves. As I searched for my slippers in the dark, I could hear that whoever had been banging was now walking around the house, muttering to himself. Downstairs, in the cubbyhole for the electrical meters, I’ve got the disabling gas Dizzy gave me because of the poachers, and that was what I was now thinking about. I managed in the darkness to seek out the familiar cold aerosol shape, and thus armed, I switched on the outside light, then looked at the porch through a small side window. There was a crunch of snow, and into my field of vision came the neighbour, whom I call Maladroit. He was pulling around him the tails of the old sheepskin coat I sometimes saw him wearing as he worked by the house. From under the coat his legs protruded in striped pyjamas and heavy hiking boots.

‘Open up,’ he said.

With undisguised astonishment he cast an eye at my linen suit (I sleep in something Mr & Mrs Professor wanted to throw away last summer, which reminds me of a fashion from long ago and the days of my youth – thus I combine the Practical and the Sentimental), and without a by-your-leave he came inside.

‘Please get dressed. Big Foot is dead.’

For a while I was struck dumb with shock; without a word I pulled on my tall snow boots and threw on the first fleece to hand off the nearest hanger. Outside, in the stream of light falling from the porch lamp, the snow was changing into a slow, sleepy shower. Maladroit stood beside me in silence, tall, thin and bony like a figure sketched in a few pencil strokes. Every time he moved snow fell from him like icing sugar from angel wings.

‘What do you mean, dead?’ I finally asked, my throat constricted, as I opened the door, but Maladroit didn’t answer.

He generally doesn’t say much. He must have Mercury in a silent sign, I reckon it’s in Capricorn or on the cusp, in square or maybe in opposition to Saturn. It could also be Mercury in retrograde – that produces reserve.

We left the house and were instantly engulfed by the familiar cold, wet air which reminds us every winter that the world was not created for Man, and for at least half a year it shows us how very hostile it is to us. The frost brutally assailed our cheeks, and white clouds of steam came streaming from our mouths. The porch light went out automatically and we walked across the crunching snow in total darkness, except for Maladroit’s headlamp, which pierced the pitch dark in one shifting spot, just ahead, as I toddled along in the Murk behind him.

‘Haven’t you got a torch?’ he asked.

Of course I had one, but I wouldn’t be able to find it until morning, by the light of day. It’s always true of torches that you can only see them in the daytime

(…)

Is Travel Writing Dead?

Robert MacFarlane writing for Granta magazine
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Robert Macfarlane looks back to four great works of travel literature published in 1977, for Granta:

Exactly forty years ago, modern travel writing had its annus mirabilis. Patrick Leigh Fermor published A Time of Gifts, the opening book of his now-classic trilogy about walking from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople; Bruce Chatwin published his first and best book, In Patagonia; and John McPhee published Coming into the Country, his landmark exploration of Alaska and its communities. Another exceptional book, very different to the other three, not least in that it was by a woman, also appeared in 1977 – but for the moment I will leave it unnamed.

It is no accident that the late 1970s should have seen such a surge of travel-writing excellence. These books all arrived towards the end of a decade in which international air travel had become widely affordable, and in which globalisation had begun to standardise even far-flung places. Such developments posed serious challenges for travel writing in what might be called its late-imperial mode, whereby the discovery of terra incognita was the default aim, and the heroic male adventurer the default protagonist. How was the ‘other’ to be encountered when the world was homogenising so rapidly? How was valour to be performed upon such a crowded stage? Susan Sontag diagnosed the problem as terminal in 1984, declaring travel writing to have become a ‘literature of disappointment’, unable – like the empires that had chiefly whelped it – to come to terms with its dwindling demesne and diminished responsibilities. Sontag was wrong, though. The crisis of territory didn’t hobble travel writing – it revolutionised it. The best writers rose to the challenge by seeking not originality of destination, but originality of form.

Certainly, Chatwin, McPhee and Leigh Fermor could hardly have been more contrasting as stylists. This is Leigh Fermor describing a sunset:

The flatness of the Alföld leaves a stage for cloud-events at sunset that are dangerous to describe: levitated armies in deadlock and riderless squadrons descending in slow motion to smouldering and sulphurous lagoons where barbicans gradually collapse and fleets of burning triremes turn dark before sinking.

This is Bruce Chatwin describing a sunset:

In a brick-red sunset I came to the cottage of a German. He lived with a scrawny Indian boy.

And this is John McPhee describing a sunset:

The air was cool now, nearing fifty . . . We sat around the campfire for at least another hour. We talked of rain and kestrels, oil and antlers, the height and the headwaters of the river. In the night the air and the river balanced out, and both were forty-six at seven in the morning.

Fermor’s sunset is epic, reflexive, an event of style, a sentence which burns itself magnificently down in honour of the day’s own inferno. He knows the risks he is taking with his tone (the cloud-events are ‘dangerous to describe’) but writes with the confidence of a hyperbolist good enough to earn his excess: meteorology-as-battle, the gradual combustions, the Germanic delay of that last vital verb until, at last, it is reached and the whole scene subsides to its close.

Chatwin’s sunset is sparse, incidental – atmospheric in a literal sense. It is a caption, really, written by a man who had worked as caption writer and cataloguist at Sotheby’s. Chatwin’s prose has often been celebrated for its clarity, and he achieved this clarity by subtraction, where Leigh Fermor achieved his moods by multiplication. ‘It’s very good,’ Leigh Fermor told Chatwin’s wife Elizabeth, of In Patagonia, ‘but he ought to let himself rip.’ ‘It’s very good,’ Chatwin told Elizabeth of A Time of Gifts, ‘but it’s too baroque and overflowing; he should tone it down.’

Then there is McPhee’s sunset – in which the sun doesn’t feature at all, eclipsed from the scene as it is by facts. McPhee’s prose here concerns balance, and is balanced: note how carefully those three pairs of nouns match each other (singular noun, plural noun; rain, oil, height; kestrels, antlers, headwaters), preparing for the equalised temperature relationship of air and river at exactly ‘seven in the morning’. McPhee – a New Yorker staff writer for more than half a century – is a man committed to accuracy and to metrics. Coming into the Country, like his other books, carries an astonishing density of detail: his non-fiction, as David Remnick has observed, emulates the ‘freedom’ of fiction but not its ‘licence’.

All three of these books hot-wired the neo-Victorian travelogue. In Patagonia was puckish, unreliable, dazzlingly experimental in its mosaic form, and a sly burlesque of the colonial quest-narrative: Chatwin sets off in search of a piece of brontosaurus skin, and ends up finding sloth turds on a cave floor at the end of the world. A Time of Gifts was by turns a baroque adventure in historiography, an interrogation of the nature of memory, and a heartbreaking tour through the since-shattered world of 1930s Mitteleuropa. Coming into the Country was an intricately patterned enquiry into America’s relationship with the idea of wilderness, braced by an awesome integrity of observation.

(…)

Why We’re Post-Fact

Peter Pomerantsev
Pomerantsev

As we digest the news from last week, Peter Pomeranstev analyses the post-truth society we find ourselves in ‘the very point of Trump is to validate the pleasure of spouting shit, the joy of pure emotion, often anger, without any sense.’ The full article can be read on the Granta website: 

As his army blatantly annexed Crimea, Vladimir Putin went on TV and, with a smirk, told the world there were no Russian soldiers in Ukraine. He wasn’t lying so much as saying the truth doesn’t matter. And when Donald Trump makes up facts on a whim, claims that he saw thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheering the Twin Towers coming down, or that the Mexican government purposefully sends ‘bad’ immigrants to the US, when fact-checking agencies rate 78% of his statements untrue but he still becomes a US Presidential candidate – then it appears that facts no longer matter much in the land of the free. When the Brexit campaign announces ‘Let’s give our NHS the £350 million the EU takes every week’ and, on winning the referendum, the claim is shrugged off as a ‘mistake’ by one Brexit leader while another explains it as ‘an aspiration’, then it’s clear we are living in a ‘post-fact’ or ‘post-truth’ world. Not merely a world where politicians and media lie – they have always lied – but one where they don’t care whether they tell the truth or not.

How did we get here? Is it due to technology? Economic globalisation? The culmination of the history of philosophy? There is some sort of teenage joy in throwing off the weight of facts – those heavy symbols of education and authority, reminders of our place and limitations – but why is this rebellion happening right now?

Many blame technology. Instead of ushering a new era of truth-telling, the information age allows lies to spread in what techies call ‘digital wildfires’. By the time a fact-checker has caught a lie, thousands more have been created, and the sheer volume of ‘disinformation cascades’ make unreality unstoppable. All that matters is that the lie is clickable, and what determines that is how it feeds into people’s existing prejudices. Algorithms developed by companies such as Google and Facebook are based around your previous searches and clicks, so with every search and every click you find your own biases confirmed. Social media, now the primary news source for most Americans, leads us into echo chambers of similar-minded people, feeding us only the things that make us feel better, whether they are true or not.

Technology might have more subtle influences on our relationship with the truth, too. The new media, with its myriad screens and streams, makes reality so fragmented it becomes ungraspable, pushing us towards, or allowing us to flee, into virtual realities and fantasies. Fragmentation, combined with the disorientations of globalization, leaves people yearning for a more secure past, breeding nostalgia. ‘The twenty-first century is not characterized by the search for new-ness’ wrote the late Russian-American philologist Svetlana Boym, ‘but by the proliferation of nostalgias . . . nostalgic nationalists and nostalgic cosmopolitans, nostalgic environmentalists and nostalgic metrophiliacs (city lovers) exchange pixel fire in the blogosphere’. Thus Putin’s internet-troll armies sell dreams of a restored Russian Empire and Soviet Union; Trump tweets to ‘Make America Great Again’; Brexiteers yearn for a lost England on Facebook; while ISIS’s viral snuff movies glorify a mythic Caliphate. ‘Restorative nostalgia’, argued Boym, strives to rebuild the lost homeland with ‘paranoiac determination’, thinks of itself as ‘truth and tradition’, obsesses over grand symbols and ‘relinquish[es] critical thinking for emotional bonding . . . In extreme cases it can create a phantom homeland, for the sake of which one is ready to die or kill. Unreflective nostalgia can breed monsters’.

(…)

 

Our Last Guest

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan
The-Honeymoon-Suite-Rowan

‘If someone had told me we’d be stuck in our honeymoon hotel for all eternity, I might not have gotten hitched.’ Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s story on an eternity à deux, extracted from the Granta website:

It’s our anniversary tomorrow, I say.

Ollie shrugs, looking out the window to the beach where the guests gobble the dinner buffet and little children prance their mad dances on the sand.

Ollie and I have lived in the honeymoon suite of the Carmel Beach Resort for five years. We’ve waited out five rainy seasons that pummeled the hotel so hard our window quivered. We’ve watched the drizzle send the guests skittering to their rooms to fuck and ogle cable TV. We’ve seen more sun-washed days than either of us care to remember. A stay of our duration should cost £665,000, but we’re dead, so it’s complimentary.

I admit – there’s not much to celebrate. Five years of Ollie sitting on the window seat pulling on that same cigarette. The maids don’t understand why they can’t get the smell out of the room.

For the moment, the honeymoon suite is empty – apart from the standard jumble of rose petals, a bottle of champagne lounging in ice, and chocolate hearts wrapped in foil. The champagne is the cheap stuff but the chocolate is decent.

Ollie adjusts his hideous swimming trunks, and the nylon hula dancers wiggle. I wonder which of my exes are married by now. I’ve had a string of boyfriends and girlfriends who I used to count like rosary beads, because if I got to the point where I couldn’t remember everyone I’d fucked, I’d be a different sort of woman. Ollie came along when I was tired of tallying. He gave good head and better presents. But if someone had told me we’d be stuck in our honeymoon hotel for all eternity, I might not have gotten hitched.

(…)

Things That Didn’t Happen

Sarah Moss for Granta
tidalzone

‘Things That Didn’t Happen’ is a short story extracted from Sarah Moss’ new book, The Tidal Zone, published by Granta and available to read on their magazine website:

Once upon a time, a woman and her husband lay together, and the man’s seed navigated the hollows and chambers of his wife’s body until it came home. Cells began to divide and re-form, as they do, and something new was made. As the weeks went by and the woman began to feel odd and sick, the new thing took shape: a comma, a tadpole, eventually the bud of a brain and a spinal column. Suddenly, in the shallow darkness of a summer night, a heart completed itself and began its iambic beat. The heart beat while the new thing grew a head and arms and legs, while it began to flutter and then to turn in the seas of the woman’s womb. For a long time the creature floated free, tumbling and kicking, learning to listen to the rumble of voices, to dance to music coming from the bright world beyond. When the woman swam, letting the water carry her swelling body, the growing being drifted and spun within her. When she walked the small thing was lulled by the percussion of her footsteps and the constant thrum of her heartbeat against its own, the engine of the ship bearing it on. But as winter passed and the sun strengthened on the ground where the woman walked, as the snowdrops and then the daffodils pushed through the earth and began to open apple-white and yolk-yellow, the creature found itself cramped. The walls of the womb seemed to close on its arms and legs, to wrap even its ribs and behind, and soon the being was pushed down, its head held in the woman’s bones and its hands and feet gathered in. The woman no longer swam. She walked less than she had, and she and the little stranger began to be sore and cross. At last, one bright April morning when white clouds drifted high in a blue sky and leaf-buds beaded the tired grey trees, it was time for the woman and the new thing to part, a painful work that took many hours, into the cold night and through the next morning, which the woman and her husband did not see because they were in a room with no windows, awaiting the child’s birth. The heart had been working for months now and it kept going, sometimes fast and sometimes slow, but always beating the same rhythm. Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting. When the child was born there came the ordinary miracle of breathing, that terrible moment when we are cast off from our mother and from her oxygenated blood, when we have never taken a breath and may not know how to do so, the caesura in the delivery room. She breathed. The music of heart and lungs began, and continued, and no-one listened any more.

[…]

Drone

An extract from Hari Kunzru's new novel in the new Granta
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Granta‘s new issue is on India, and includes an extract from Hari Kunzru’s forthcoming novel, in which he imagines a Indian future where inequality is taken to an all-too-imaginable extreme:

1

It is, of course, the tallest tower. In the slums below, people orient themselves by it as they carve their way through the warren of chawls. Rich men have been building tall on this hill for centuries, but no one will ever reach as high again. The owner of this hundred-storey pinnacle has bought the air rights around its peak, for sums so vast that the men who own the adjacent fifty- and sixty-storey erections feel quite sanguine about the cap he has placed upon their desires.

For now. Perhaps ever is too strong a word.

This is the house of the Seth, who has learned, in his century and a half of life, to appreciate the beauty of layering. A man of taste knows that when you change, you should always leave a trace. The common people have short memories. One needs to remind them, to keep things before their eyes.

Eighty years ago, when he built his house, the Seth loved Italy. He loved, in particular, the rolling hills and cypress trees of Tuscany as they appeared in the background of portraits of aristocratic Renaissance warlords. He owned pictures like this and saw no reason he shouldn’t go further. He had no interest in physically occupying any part of Tuscany, or indeed anywhere else in blighted Europe. It was the fantastical chivalric Tuscany of the portraits he desired. Urbino, as he called his house, was to be both a landscape and a castle within that landscape, a crag with a view of a palace and a palace with a view of a crag. A waterfall would tumble down its sides. And so it rose, the work of one of the great perspectival architects of the era, four impossibly elongated Palladian facades, which, from the point of view of the neighbours (and the shack-dwellers far below), broke into passages of Italian landscape, incorporating flocks of birds and a cataract that gushed white water. In certain weather conditions, a line of robed angels modelled on the Seth’s third wife could be seen ascending a set of spiralling golden stairs.

The apsara house, the slum boys called it. The sexy-sexy house.

Later, the political climate changed. Italy was not the sign of a true patriot, a real Indian. Unlike a lesser man, who would simply have pulled the thing down and built again, the Seth melted Urbino, like an ice sculpture left out in the sun, impressing the new order onto the upper floors. On top of the old palace, now angel-less and renamed Adityavarnam, is a Sun Temple built of red sandstone, in the shape of a chariot with a high-pointed shikhara and massive carved wheels. A saffron flag flutters at its peak. Below it, on the middle floors, are the quarters of the earthly members of the Seth’s household. The lower storeys, a maze of slimy rock and rotting Italianate columns, contain garages for his vehicles and giant kitchens for festival days, on which it is the Seth’s custom to feed the poor.

(…)

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