“Part of the story is to see that as misanthropic and pessimistic as Tess is, what she truly wants to do is to serve, to give everything away, to flow like water downhill. I could pick apart much of it in terms of contradiction.”
Due to the pandemic, McNally Jackson arranged a virtual launch for To Remain Nameless. In conversation with Wayne Koestenbaum, whose new book of essays, Figure It Out, was released on Soft Skull May 4.
Jane Breakell chose TO REMAIN NAMELESS as her pick for May 2020:
It’s the language of crisis, tuned to the story it tells: After years of wandering the world and considering it home, after dedicating her life to a field centered on helping humans for humans’ sake while witnessing the world grow ever more violent, Tess in the maternity ward suspects that humans are the problem. “We should all drop dead,” she thinks, rubbing her pregnant friend’s back. “It would be the best thing that could happen.”
Here I am writing from Los Huingos Lodge, on the outskirts of Tarapoto, in northeastern Peru, the part of Peru where the Andes overlap with the Amazon. I can hear the tumble of the Shilcayo rapids at the edge of the grounds, and I’m presently being devoured by morning mosquitos.
I wrote the first sketches that would find their way into this book over ten years ago while housesitting for a Mexican painter on the coast of Oaxaca. Fresh in my mind were the years I spent in the Balkans as an itinerant journalist and aid worker. Also more recent seasons in Damascus, Beirut, and Istanbul.
I experienced the aftermath of the Bosnian war, and worked through the refugee crisis of 1999. I was holed up in Serbia, among people in whose name much killing had been done, when the US invaded Iraq. That war was at its height when I first sat down in Mexico to write.
Tess keeps vigil at the bedside of her friend Laura through a long night of labor as Laura’s first child arrives. The two have known each other for what seems like forever. Their humanitarian aid work has taken them from the Balkans, to Egypt, to Istanbul amid the ongoing refugee crisis—an era that includes the US’s war in Iraq, the Arab Spring, and many forms of global consequence and aftermath. Brad Fox’s first novel is a luminous inquiry into the incarnations and limits of hope. This writer helps us endure our questions about what forms care may take, what we may offer to anyone, near and far.
PRAISE FOR TO REMAIN NAMELESS:
Brad Fox’s virtuoso novelistic voice, alternately terse and florid, in the mode of José Saramago, Roberto Bolaño, or Alberto Moravia, is sonorous, lapidary, and melancholy—a seamless dreamy fabulist omniscience, bearing world-weary witness to perilous events, both inner and outer. Fox gives the impression of having lived underground or in other centuries and of only now emerging from his hiding place to narrate these limpid yet dense fantasias. A phenomenally gifted novelist and a probing intellectual, he transforms critical thinking into dramatic scenario. “Thought” isn’t appended to the story, but emerges in the complicated telling of the tale. In a bravura feat of formal construction, To Remain Nameless flashes between a birth scene and international adventures: from the cramped, germinating vantage of a hospital room, the novelist unfurls a teeming network of international exaltations and disappointments. The room compresses; the world expands. Djuna Barnes and Virginia Woolf pioneered this trick of simultaneous engorgement and diminution, of funhouse-mirror space-time reversal; and now Brad Fox, wonder-worker, takes up the dizzying mantle. WAYNE KOESTENBAUM
Daring, vivid and utterly original, Brad Fox’s debut is a tour de force. CLAIRE MESSUD
To Remain Nameless is a gorgeous meditation on a shifting self in a shifting world, a querying-onward in which there’s both melancholy and delight. SHELLEY JACKSON
“First, Swallow the World: Muslim Dreams of Completion — the Maqamat, Ibn Arabi, and Faris al-Shidyaq”
My first peer-reviewed paper. On trickster tales, dream interpretation, Sufi visions, and mad satire. It’s out via World Art:
To read symbols within their varied contexts, a dream interpreter needed not only to master the traditions, but to interact with all manner of ideas and people and undergo varied experiences. And the interpreter could not be prudish or squeamish. The dream manuals, like dreams themselves, were riddled with illicit sex and violence. No lesser dream interpreter than the prophet Muhammad listened to the erotic dreams of his community, even addressing the meaning of particular nocturnal emissions. Only after one has become intimate with the switchbacks of fate, the vast multiplicity of life with its subtle intimations, exaltations, and trifling idiocies, was one suited to decode the symbols and stories carried back from the land of sleep.
Now on this first morning where the city is dusted with snow, I opened my newsletter file and found something I wrote in the heat of the summer and for some reason never sent out. So in view of the cold months to come, and happy to remember the romantic scene at the end, I’m sending it now:
JULY, THE RIVER
It’s like I’ve completely forgotten how to write. I spent all last winter reading a hundred books for my oral exams. I read Plato and Pessoa and Natalie Legere and Ismail Hakki Bursevi and eventually I sat in a little room with my three professors and tried to make sense of it all. And then I edited a book for months on end. A seemingly endless process. All the minute decisions one can make about an article or a comma or the transliteration of an Arabic word or maybe just change everything.
Then I sat in the basement of the Bronx Zoo going through heaps of documents and photos and illustrations related to the bathysphere dives. And then the heatwave came. It was so hot we could hardly move. The air was still. The silver waterproofing on the roof of the building next door wavered in the heat. The tar on the road was soft and sticky and even the river was hot.
A week ago I worked as a kayaker on a long distance swim around Manhattan. I accompanied Alessandra Cima, a Brazilian woman living in Singapore, who had already crossed the English Channel and the Bosphorus. I biked through Harlem at 5am to arrive at Ward’s Island, jumped in a kayak and paddled over to a place called Mill Rock, near where the East River and the Harlem connect. Hell’s Gate, near where a bunch of researchers looked for sunken treasure in the 1920s. Finding nothing.