7 Books That Prove Small Talk is a Big Deal
Yes, you can write an interesting book about the weather, your diet, or how you slept
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Here on the East Coast, we’ve had a very long winter that suddenly turned into summer and then went back to winter, summer, and then into allergy season. And through it all, we’ve been talking about it nonstop. Some would say this fixation on discussing the weather is deadly boring. Conventional wisdom would say that, for instance, and so would Oscar Wilde: “Pray don’t talk to me about the weather, Mr. Worthing,” he has Gwendolen say in The Importance of Being Earnest. “Whenever people talk to me about the weather, I always feel quite certain that they mean something else. And that makes me quite nervous.” But other authors think weather is a surprisingly rich topic: “When all is said and done,” Alice Hoffman wrote, “the weather and love are the two elements about which one can never be sure.” Is discussing the weather boring? Or is it actually the most interesting thing you can talk about?
Way back before she hosted Serial, radio producer Sarah Koening had her mother give This American Life her seven rules for the seven things you are not supposed to talk about because nobody cares. These were diet, health, dreams, route talk (i.e. your driving or subway choices), money, your period, and how you slept. Inspired by those rules and that episode (which permanently haunts me), we decided to put together our own list of seven small talk topics—some of Koenig’s, and a few of our own—that make for stories we really care about.
Blankets by Craig Thompson
Talking about the weather is downright compulsive. In his book Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve, Ben Blatt analyzed the data on 20th century classics and bestsellers and found that a lot of authors not only write about the weather, but use it as their first sentence. Twenty-six percent of John Steinbeck’s novels open with weathery things, 21% of Willa Cather’s, and 14% of Edith Wharton’s books do too. (And then there’s Danielle Steel, who takes the cake at 46%.)
Weather colors this entire graphic novel — literally. Growing up in Wisconsin in a devoutly Christian household, Craig is coming to terms with change: change in his relationship with his brother, Phil, with his relationship to his Christian faith and his parents, and his relationship with Rainia, another outcast he meets at a Baptist summer camp. All of these relationships are haunted by abuse that traumatized Craig as a child. All of the artwork is done in a subdued, bleak and beautiful white and blue, mirroring the wintry ice and snow that blankets (excuse the pun) the landscape.
Bad Dreams and Other Stories by Tessa Hadley
Okay, so Creative Writing 101 rule #1 condemns the use of the “it was all a dream” trope, but dreams find plenty of other ways to make it into fiction. From Charles Dickens to Gabriel García Márquez, dreams still possess a lot of narrative power.
In the title story to the collection, a nine-year-old bookworm has a bad dream about a book she loves. The book, she finds in the dream, suddenly has an extra bundle of pages at the end, an unfamiliar epilogue. The boundaries between her own agency as a dreamer and the creative impulse of a writer are rigid: “It didn’t occur to her then that she was the author of her own dreams and must have invented this epilogue herself. It seemed so completely a found thing, alien and unanticipated, coming from outside herself, against her will.” She decides not to tell her mother about it, because she fears the immortality of words said out loud. She decides to distract herself from the nightmare with a prank that her mother witnesses and believes to be an extension of her husband’s spite. But she decides to tell no one, either. The silences start to away at each other, and have devastating consequences. The collection of nine stories is filled with the strange, confessional ways mortality creeps into our brainspace, and how we deal with each other when we can’t seem to speak those thoughts out loud.
Tropic of Orange by Karen Tei Yamashita
Give us a quest narrative, and we’ll show you how much time we spend talking about how to get from point A to point B. And if you live in an urban area with a public transit system that’s been declared An Official State of Emergency, I dare you not to talk about your miraculous arrival to work a mere ten minutes too late.
In Tropic of Orange by Karen Tei Yamashita, a giant mutant orange is stretching out the border between Mexico and the United States. Disasters and sensations abound: including the man who carries the orange across his back and over the border, a wrestling match between “SuperNAFTA” and “El Gran Mojado” and a symphony conducted from an overpass on the freeway. Told from seven points of view across seven days, Yamashita originally wrote the book in the spreadsheet program Lotus, while she was working a temp job. It’s early-ish internet and commentary on 1990s multiculturalism in the cradle of LA, a city constantly being destroyed in re-imagined apocalypse films. Because doesn’t every commute, no matter where you are and where you’re going, feel a little like a mini-apocalypse?
Sleep Donation by Karen Russell
Karen Russell can make the most mundane struggles sparkle and snap into vivid dramas. In her novella Sleep Donation, America is facing a deadly insomnia epidemic. The Slumber Corps, the benevolent capitalist enterprise with donation centers all over the country, is encouraging people to donate their sleep to the sleepless. Trish Edgewater’s sister Dori was one of the first victims of the epidemic, and she has dedicated her life to the cause, now serving as a recruiter for the Corps. She convinces a family to donate their infant, named Baby A, to the cause, as a universal sleep donor with dreams so pure that the Corps’ dependency bleeds into exploitation. Meanwhile, an unidentifiable Donor Y’s nightmares are poisoning the whole supply, leading some to choose death by insomnia over the unknown horrors on the other side of falling asleep.
The Young Bride by Alessandro Baricco
I am not here to defend dinner party conversations about why so-and-so doesn’t eat meat or when your BFF stopped eating gluten or who is eating bugs for fun. As a former vegan/vegetarian, I believe diet is one of the biggest conversation killers. Let’s skip the talk about the newest dairy-free milk trend (we get it, you love oat milk), and move on to the weirder diets that live in fiction. And before you ask — we didn’t go with The Santa Clarita Diet because it would have been too easy.
There’s no way to write a synopsis of The Young Bride that does justice to what it feels like to read it. The book is a fairy tale with all the dark, smudge-y parts of life rubbed in. A young woman is promised to the son of a noble family, somewhere in Europe in the early 1900s. She’s never met him, and when she arrives at the estate, she is introduced to the insular family shrouded in traditions made to keep death away. The family never sleeps in order to make days fold into each other, and in a way, stop the passage of time. Desire, pleasure, and passion are big juicy characters, almost independent of the members of the family. The young bride experiences pleasure, desire, and fantasy, not through longing for the unknown lover boy, but through his very physical and sensual mother. I’ve chosen this one for diet because one of the main activities for the day is a four-hour breakfast, one that keeps the family feasting at the table until lunch, in another attempt to defy mortal endings. In other words, if you want to slow down time, all you have to do is eat breakfast all day long. I am choosing to ignore that fact that my affinity for all-day breakfast menus might map onto my fear of mortality.
Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
We are in a moment ripe with witty, bone-dry intellectual women protagonists, wandering and wading in the best messes of their own creation. (Add Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney and The Idiot by Elif Batuman to your starter-pack if you haven’t already.) This is a very good thing. And Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk is a celebration of the wandering, wary relationship between a mother and daughter. The first thing to break in Hot Milk is Sofia’s laptop when it falls on the floor and cracks on the first page of the novel. She cannot help but see correlations everywhere: “My laptop has all my life in it and knows more about me than anyone else. So what I am saying is that if it is broken, so am I.” Sofia, the Anthropology Ph.D. dropout, is in a small Spanish town with her mother because her mother cannot walk (most of the time). Her mother’s legs are her Sofia’s legs; her mother’s pain, Sofia’s own pain. Her mother’s care has become Sofia’s full-time job, and the two have invested most of what they have to come to this small Spanish town for a cure.
Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins
In her New York Times review of Mothers by Jacqueline Rose, Parul Sehgal declared that the girls are gone from fiction but the mothers are flooding in, with “radiantly specific dispatches from almost every corner of motherhood.” While stories about motherhood and babies should not be conflated, it is often assumed that stories about other people’s babies are told by mothers of said babies. Gold Fame Citrus illustrates how to tell stories about other people’s babies. The damning draw of California — gold, fame, citrus — has dried up in the not-so-far-off future landscape of Amargosa Dune Sea, a dust bowl that’s eating away the West Coast. While others are being evacuated to havens on the East Coast, former-model/propaganda tool for the failed water infrastructure system, Luz Dunn and her boyfriend/former-soldier Ray decide to stay, shacking up in some starlet’s abandoned mansion, where Ray builds a half-pipe and Luz wraps herself up in Hermes. LA is now a refuge for the reckless and wrecked. One night at a party, Luz and Ray see a neglected infant, all of two years old in a saggy diaper at the periphery of a band of teenagers, and decide to take the baby named Ig. In short order they realize their rations aren’t enough, and set out on an adventure to find a more hospitable place to raise the baby. What’s so frightening about the landscape Watkins brings to life is how close it is to the one creeping up just over our shoulder right now.