This month, The New Midwest is out from Ohio’s own indie press, Belt (as in Rust Belt). Author Mark Athitakis argues that in the last few decades our region has produced a fascinating new kind of literary fiction. The book moves from Gilead to Gone Girl, with plenty of other titles to add to your list. It also tackles big themes: race, religion, and how our view of the Midwest lags behind its changing reality.
Why a book on the new wave of Midwestern fiction?
It’s a handy reading list for people who haven’t heard of, say, Aleksandar Hemon or William H. Gass. I’m hoping it prompts a different conversation about the Midwest and fiction. People talk as if John Updike had never died—as if it’s still very home and hearth-y, all white people cheating on each other in the suburbs. But the region’s fiction has become more sophisticated and complicated than that. A lot of those clichés have been undone by contemporary writers.
One place you show this shift is in the immigrant novel. Its defining question has moved from How do I become American? to How do I become myself?
I first noticed this in Hemon’s work. He came from central Europe to Chicago. A generation or two ago he’d have found a way to assimilate. But what Hemon confronted now, and what the characters in his novels confront, is a city that’s more aggressive and isolating. There’s less support. That ladder to a middle class American existence has become a lot longer and harder to climb.
What about books by Buckeye authors?
There are tons of examples. More than any other place in the Midwest, Ohio represents that difficult confluence of North and South and Appalachia. You can see that in Donald Ray Pollock’s fiction, or in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, or in C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings. Something about the area produces some of the darkest fiction to come out of the Midwest.
Any neglected Cincinnati novels?
Hannah Green’s 1972 The Dead of the House. Green grew up in Glendale, but ultimately moved to New York. It’s a novel about growing up in between those two cultures and reckoning with your family’s history in both. It’s about childhood and has some romantic perspective on that—but it’s also a book called The Dead of the House.