Close Reading at a Distance: Téa Obreht’s Inland / Kasia Bartoszyńska, Jennifer J. Carroll, and Ruchama Johnston-Bloom

Original image can be found here.

Close Reading at a Distance: Téa Obreht’s Inland1

Kasia opens discussion about pages 1-16

Alright, my brain is a little fried from teaching, but I wanna get this out before I’ve forgotten it, so here are some thoughts on those first 16 pages, looking forward to hearing from the rest of you!

I was feeling kind of whatever about the first few pages, and then when the one-armed giant appeared on page 6, I was HOOKED. I stopped and went back, like, wait, did that just happen? Is he…? And I was so delighted when I realized what was going on. I don’t read much paranormal fiction but a well-written ghost plot absolutely thrills me. The idea of ghosts manifesting through hunger/desire is super cool. I like how it’s not THE story, just a kind of element of the story.

I was really surprised by just how much stuff got packed into these opening pages! Things really escalated fast.

Oh I’ve got a friend, oh we’re a gang now, oh snap we killed someone, oh now we’re wanted all over the country, well now they caught one of us, etc.

You could imagine that plot line being spun out over an entire novel, and it was startling, and fun, to get to gallop through it (har har) in 15 pages instead. It’s hard to imagine that pace being sustained across an entire novel — it’s more like we’re being brought up to speed, setting up a scene with necessary background info, etc. If that’s the case, it’ll be interesting to see what the relevant parts are, in terms of what we need to know about this character, or framing later events, etc.

Even though the plot felt very fast-paced, like we were quickly moving through a lot of action, there were some wonderfully vivid moments of description/detail. Like, when he’s climbing the ship at the end, I could practically hear the creaking and the waves, and picture the sky.

Writing this led me to go back and re-read the first page, and I realized that it’s in the present, and we learn a little more about the ‘you’ that the chapter ends with — I had forgotten all that by the time I got to the end! Glad to re-read it.

Very small thing, but I appreciated, on the second page, when Hadziosman Djuric became Hodgeman Drury — it was like, ooooh! That’s probably where so many of these bizarre old-timey wild west names come from! Ha!

Anyways, that’s all I got for now.

Jennifer replies

Holy goodness I love Tea Obreht’s bizarre and over-wrought mind. And I too would be dissatisfied with anything that didn’t include the lurking dead and Serbian banshees and time loops and consensual sexual congress with tigers and talking elephants who live in the sea.2 I also had to go back and read the part about his wrist being grabbed a second and third time to be like, “Oh my what, really? OH YES!”

I am concurrently reading A Brief History of Seven Killings3 and was caught by the parallels between the ways in which ghosts shift between silent, invisible lurking and pulling the living into their realm of influence in emotional and terrifying ways. “Living people wait and see, because they fool themselves that they have time. Dead people see and wait.”4

Kasia replies

Jen, I love the link to A Brief History of Seven Killings, which, I think, definitely does a similar thing with ghosts, and also with genre — both are a kind of haunted, multi vocal (I’m guessing Inland will be, still haven’t read past 16) play on genre fiction (western for Obreht, spy novel for James).

I’m a total sucker for works that use tropes from Westerns in other national contexts (have to plug one of my favorite graphic novels: The Undertaking of Lily Chen, by Danica Novgorodoff, which is also a kind of haunted western set in China).5 It’s super interesting to me how the American West serves as a set of ideas that can be transplanted into other contexts. And those ideas can be anything from vigilante justice vs law, discovery and settlement, or certain kinds of characters, like the lone cowboy or the tough and jaded prostitute, or purely aesthetic stuff like cowboy boots and spurs. And then in the last few years, there’s been this renaissance in westerns, and now there are all these American westerns that self-consciously interrogate the tropes of the old west, and think about, like, the moral ambivalence of vigilantism, or the effects on Native Americans, or Black cowboys, etc. So Americans are also thinking about this stuff and reworking these ideas.

I think Obreht is playing on all of that. She’s giving the West a “foreign” flavor by having this character from the Balkans, and, I’m guessing, putting a Balkan twist on the storytelling style. But in the process, she’s also illuminating how the West was actually this very cosmopolitan space, with people from various cultures coming together.

I also wonder if some of the quickness of these initial pages, moving through the outlaw plot line, is a nod to the fact that those stories are pretty cliche, and even interrogating them or retelling them has become cliche. But the speed also is almost downplaying it, and giving it a sense of normalcy, as an ambient part of that world, rather than a spectacular incident.

Ruchama replies

I think that Obreht came to the United States relatively young, but I’m always interested in how being bilingual/multilingual, writing in a language that isn’t your first language, etc., shapes someone’s writing. The cliché that you’re more aware of language as such, of idioms, etc., holds true, I think. I really like the idiom she has developed here. I think there is a fine line between using old-timey slang to make something seem ‘authentic’ and having it just sound ridiculous, and then using peculiar language to develop a strange and unique world… which is what she is doing.

I tend to have very little interest in anything supernatural, ghost stories, etc., but in this context, I am okay with the ghosts!

Jennifer replies

I can’t stop thinking about the phrase “hirsute Levantine.” Like. That’s possibly the most passively aggressively discriminatory way to describe someone.

Ruchama opens discussion about pages 17-80

I thought this section was really interesting in terms of positioning Nora as a woman/mother/wife, etc. She is smart and feisty, and her husband does seem well-intentioned, but she is still so at the mercy of his decisions. Having your husband tell you that you cannot publish a letter in the newspaper, and doing it anyway, contains so much about the times and the relationship and who she is. Really enjoying so far.

Kasia replies

Man, I am so impressed with the way Obreht plays with time. If the first section felt like it was moving at a brisk clip, this one was meandering, not slow exactly, but also not really progressing. I was slightly disoriented, at first, until I realized that she was also weaving back and forth between recent past, distant past, and present. It’s kind of incredible. And all the more so because it’s so self-consciously set in a historical past.

Another aspect of the way that she revivifies cliché storyline is by exploring other aspects of those tropes, Like, the whole story of the rich dude taking over and moving the county seat, controlling the newspapers, etc. — the story didn’t really dwell on that, instead, it focused on Nora’s frustration with her husband, and then her efforts to write the letter, and the various memories and thoughts that cropped up as she did — her thinking about how people write about the past was  a nice bit of meta-commentary for the book as a whole.

Not sure what to make of her daughter Evelyn. I mean, another ghost, but doesn’t seem entirely consistent with the other ghosts, no?

Jennifer replies

This was wild. Still there is so much happening even while there is so little happening. Nora trying to take care of everyone, and no one else being able to take care of themselves, and squirrelly wards insisting they see dead people, and a kid paranoid about monsters getting everyone riled up, and the closest thing to a peer showing no understanding of or sympathy for the grief she’s carried with her for years. Her whole existence feels profoundly thankless, and in the center of that thanklessness we see her trying to make meaning for herself.

That is why I thought the whole bit about the warring newspaper columns was so interesting. Nora is a person whose entire livelihood rests on a dude who seems nice enough at first glance but then stakes their entire survival on cockamamie ideas about educational reform, and then sheep. We can keep sheep right? And then, “Hey I know, let’s move to Arizona, some person I barely know insists it’s completely fucking verdant down there.” The precarity of it all just feels like it’s going to be too much all the time. But it’s so constant that it’s almost normalized.

Thus, fighting over the narrative of the place she lives with the other newspaper feels like a reckoning with that precarity. As though she’s not picking this fight because she loves where she lives, or because she actually feels like the county seat shouldn’t move. She’s picking the fight because the dominant narrative coming out in support of the move is disrupting the protective, psychological veneer that obscures her acute sense of precarity in the day to day, pulling it from the background into the foreground of her awareness in a way that I would imagine is deeply intimate and disturbing.

And all I really want to know, at the end, is…did they ever get that water?

Kasia replies

Jen, I really appreciated your description of this section, because it helped me make sense of what I was seeing in it too. With the water, especially, I was like, fuck! It was so easy to die in the old west! But you identified all the other things that were making this situation seem so precarious, where like, yeah, your kid talking about monsters really does take on a very different meaning in this context! I found myself wondering if it was her life that was especially tenuous, or if this is just what life was like there. I mean, note that she had those great memories of other women dealing with random intruders, which made it seem a little more ubiquitous, at least that aspect (and of course, those intruders are themselves people living on the brink of death).

Kasia opens discussion of pages 81-107

I’m forging ahead, because I don’t want to wait too long before reading the next parts.

Those first 5 pages were so awesome. I love what she’s doing with suspense and estrangement — when you’re semi-following a scene but don’t fully get what’s going on, or you get a description of something, but you don’t know what is being talked about. It’s so cool, and so well done.

The description of Burke is a perfect example: the “frightening wretchedness” of his face, his teeth, his stink. I flipped back to the first few pages of the book, which reminded me that Burke is also blind and has a bullet in his thigh. So I was envisioning this half dead, narsty, stinking dude. But we quickly shift to the theft of the nazar and the confrontation with Hadji Ali, so I kinda forgot about it until that incredible paragraph on pg. 85, when he first sees Burke. I reread it like four times trying to understand what it was. Such an awesome description!! (I love the word frowsy).

And then once you know that Burke’s a camel, it’s EVEN BETTER. Like, if you’ve ever interacted with camels — everything about these descriptions for the next few pages is so spot on.

I keep thinking about the parallels between 1800s America (I want to say “the West” but this isn’t actually the west!) and the Ottoman Empire. I feel like this section developed it a little more with the whole thing of George being Greek not Turkish, Jolly being a Syrian Turk but not really confident in his knowledge of Islam, etc. You see the cultural/religious/linguistic melting pot aspect of it, which is also laden with all kinds of violent tensions and conflicts — it’s a really interesting parallel to what was happening in the U.S.

Ruchama replies

I read a history-of-science-type book a while ago that argued that the spread of Islam could be explained by the fact that the Arabs rode camels, and developed better and better saddles around the time of the Muslim conquests.6 Now, I definitely tend to not like arguments that are overly deterministic (à la Jared Diamond)7 but, the book did make some persuasive points. Riding a camel meant you were way higher than someone on a horse in battle, and camels allow much more agility in terms of moving forces around (you’re not stuck on the [Roman] roads, as you would be if you needed to move stuff around via cart [turns out wheels aren’t all that great an invention…]) Anyway, this section made me think about this book, because on one level, camels in the West makes perfect sense. They are good in the desert, here is a desert, let’s bring some over!

Jennifer replies

I was thinking about the parallels between these two narratives, of Lurie and Nora, about how they sort of reverse-mirror each other in terms of our protagonists following charismatic men into the unknown North American continent, one being as good as abandoned, the other not able to get away, how they find some sort of home or family in the midst, are they going to cross paths at some point and OMG IS THE MONSTER LURKING AROUND NORA’S HOUSE ACTUALLY BURKE THE CAMEL!?

Kasia opens discussion about pages 111-143

I was a little confused about what was happening when Nora was in town. The problem with reading this book at a slower pace is that the plot is awfully complex, and the way it works as a mystery means there is so much information to track, and everything seems important and sinister. I fell asleep on the couch last night after reading this section and had some super creepy dreams, so there’s that.

I was really struck by that final thing, about how when the telegraph wires get cut, the telegraphs just go into the ether, gone forever. Maybe because the other day I was writing a long email and then my phone did something weird and the draft just disappeared, but it made me think about the ephemerality of these various means of communication, and telegraphs seemed more like digital media for a sec.

Jennifer replies

This section actually reminded me a lot of that novella Sofia Petrovna8 by Lydia Chukovskaya, which tells the story of a Soviet woman living the very embodiment of cognitive dissonance. Her son was arrested by the Soviet police on political charges, and she both believes her son is innocent and has been falsely arrested by government error and that the state is good and honest and will rectify it’s situation and the book ends with her literally losing her mind–as a result of the cognitive dissonance she’s been maintaining. Seems like there is some Olympic level cognitive dissonance happening with Nora too. Not that young boys can’t be young boys, but she seems the only person in her family who is not convinced that her husband, Emmett, is dead, and I really hesitate to suppose that her genuine faith in the goodness of the universe is what’s keeping her from fully confronting that possibility.

The whole next 30 pages (through pg. 170) is a visceral depiction of just how vicious this landscape is. And that is the landscape that Emmett, ostensibly, is out in. Dude. Any reasonable person would conclude that he’s been eaten by wolves or vultures for a while now.

Jennifer opens discussion about pages 144-170

Wow, so the tone took a real turn here, huh.

This whole section is steeped in death. Death by violence. Death by elements. Death by carrion bird. Death by wolves. It’s an extremely stark picture of the desert they are passing through and, to be frank, probably one of the most accurate we’ve seen in the book yet. I wondered, as I read this part, whether Tea Obreht knows about the Undocumented Migration Project,9 which charts a macabre level of detail about the deaths that people suffer crossing over from Mexico into the U.S. through the Sonoran Desert on foot.

In his book on the project, The Land of Open Graves,10 Jason De Leon spends a lot of time talking about death and the processes that shape what death looks like in Sonora. He even ran several on-site body farm experiments with slaughtered pigs to understand how long bodies are able to survive in the desert following their deaths. The bodies were completely disappeared (by carrion birds, by weather, by the desert) with no trace at all, in less than two days. De Leon returns to this fact again and again and again to emphasize that for every unidentified body of a migrant found and recovered by the Pima County Medical Examiners, there are surely dozens more that were completely consumed by the desert, leaving no trace. And Pima County finds a lot of bodies. So, the desert, by logical extension, must be truly crowded with the ghosts of the dead.

I thought of all this not only when reading through this section of the book and reading about the droughts and sun and temperatures and wildlife and all sorts of hazards they come across, but also as Lurie was taking in the landscape and pondering the crowds of ghosts that seemed to line every turn of the desert. The desert takes so many lives and leaves so many ghosts behind. It was true then. It remains true now.

One thing that is particularly insidious about death in these deserts today is that they are deliberately orchestrated by state policy. Customs and Border Patrol employs a strategy called Prevention Through Deterrence, in which they have deliberately complicated the task of crossing in safer, more patrolled, more populated, more maintained areas by building walls, stationing guards, so on and so on. But they leave the most treacherous areas to cross practically unguarded. Sometimes a simple barb wire fence. Sometimes no marker at all. That’s where people walk. That’s where people die. The tens of thousands of deaths that happen in that desert today are deliberately produced by U.S. policy designed to force migrants through the most deadly and treacherous parts of the Sonoran wilderness and then wash their hands of blame for those terrible fatalities by saying “well they shouldn’t have crossed illegally in the first place.”

What structural factors are causing all this death in Inland? White hubris? Colonial expansion? Manifest destiny? Desperation? The sheer fact that the desert is a lethal place–was then, is now, and has always been? What of the fact that we see so many white people die, but only one of the so-called “Turks” in the group leading the Camel Corps? There’s a lot to unpack here. And it feels so much like a reckoning. But of what? I mean, literally everything in the world of this book is a candidate for judgement.

Kasia replies

Wow, that was a fascinating Jen. I would have just thought that all the death is just the harsh environment, duh, but your framing about structural factors is really inviting me to reconsider. But also, it’s making me think about how this book invites us to make connections to present-day stuff in so many different ways.

Your question made me think about this line, on pg .159: “At least we know what we’re riding toward—we didn’t, back then.” Of course, it’s a tantalizing hint about the present moment of narration (what are they headed toward?) but also highlighted for me how much the harshness of the terrain is compounded by the unknowingness. What must that be like, to just wander through this landscape with no idea of where you are or what you’re headed towards? We’ve been going on walks in various nature preserves lately and sometimes I feel slightly anxious at this vertiginous feeling of not knowing exactly where I am and where I’m going. Granted, I’m accustomed to Google maps, etc., but still.

Anyways, that’s a rambling lead into a kind of half thought about how so many of these people are circulating in this space without really knowing where they’re going — what propels them forward? What structural factors put these people in these places and move them around?

I loved the point Jolly makes on pg168, when he talks about how the Turks built a bridge in his grandmother’s village and no one was impressed because it wasn’t for them. Side note but I wonder if Obreht is referencing Ivo Andrić, Nobel Prize-winning author from the Balkans — his most famous novel is Bridge on the Drina, about a bridge built by Turks that causes issues.11 Anyways, that Jolly connects this to the Mojaves being indifferent to both ships and camels, just so elegantly highlights how colonial arguments are always underpinned by this idea of an alleged benefit, like the occupying powers do native people a favor by introducing technology or buildings or whatever, and this just completely undermines it.

I also thought it was interesting that Lurie felt so moved to be described as a Turk. Jolly clearly seems more ambivalent, but Lurie is, I think, so starved for some sense of connection and identity that he is thrilled to be connected to someone.

Kasia replies again

Oh, also! That scene with the priest and the Native kids, ooof. The way she renders the horror of the atrocities committed against Indigenous people, linking it to that smell that became sickening to him — incredible.

It was so crazy to me that Shaw blames the girl for mentioning the horse. Again, I know that I’m reading this through a very presentist lens, but I totally thought of Sara Ahmed’s writing on the feminist killjoy12 — how it’s the feminist who talks about injustice who is framed as the problem, rather than the injustice being the problem. Shaw blames the girl for not keeping her mouth shut rather than blaming the men for being fucking evil, because once they’ve been identified, the confrontation becomes inevitable, and the default would have been to just let it go. And I flashed back to Lurie marveling that “the whole thing had turned companionable so easily” (pg. 162), and it’s an interesting reflection on what makes a situation tense or dangerous or not — which again links back to Jen’s question about structural factors. Who has power, what they see as a threat, etc.

Ruchama replies

Jen, I also found your discussion of this section really interesting. I am always fascinated by how wildernesses, deserts, etc., are constructed. We imagine them as untouched by people, but actually, of course, they are not. They are shaped by human activity and also just in how we conceptualize them. The very idea of nature, natural, is so loaded all the time. I’ve written a bit about the desert as a site of hierophany in various religious traditions, and I think there is this romantic notion of the desert as a place where ultimate truth can be revealed, but also a place of great danger. I think the way this book portrays the desert as anything but empty, as in fact, full of people from all over the place (all over the world really) is very engaging. And, of course, important in terms of dismantling the settler-colonial idea of the land being empty (American west, Palestine, etc.) I think Kasia’s connection to the Ottoman Empire in an earlier section, and how the Ottomans dealt with the ‘hinterland,’ is really interesting here.

Jennifer opens discussion of pages 173-221

One thing I’m noticing and enjoying is how the story of Nora and her condition keeps zooming out. The details of the sociological moment they live in–the racism, the colonialism, etc.–come more into view with that wider lens, but we also get an increasingly complex picture of the concerns that Nora faces. We see more and more abstractness to those concerns, more and more looming terrors that she can’t possibly hope to control. At the beginning of the book, her entire emotional burden consisted of tolerating her son’s “imagination” and dealing with broken canned goods at the hands of a ward that annoys her. Now, she’s dealing with the possibility of abandonment, violent conflict, the likely death of her husband, and her son’s affair that could destroy her family….hints of her affair that could destroy her family.

To be frank, the Nora we were introduced to back in the first few chapters seems almost two-dimensional compared to the person she’s represented to be now. Obviously, we’re going to get to know her better as the book covers more material, but the order in which different things are revealed about her feels incredibly structured and deliberate. Fractal almost.

Also, I just put together that all of Nora’s narrative has taken place in a single day, and that day’s not even over yet.

Ruchama replies

So, I did go ahead and read through the end a couple days ago… and it’s definitely haunting me.

To echo what Jen has said, I think in this section you get an even clearer sense of Nora.

The discussion of how Nora feels about Evelyn dying and then her relationship with her subsequent children really struck me. Probably because I have been thinking about motherhood a lot since becoming a mother… I can really relate to the fatalism of thinking, “Well, these other babies might die too, there is nothing I can do about it.” And using that as a coping mechanism. Like, you cannot be too attached or attentive or you’ll basically go insane, so fabricating some kind of distance between yourself and your offspring actually helps. Or fatalism in general–when I was living in Cairo, I would sometimes have to take really hair-raising taxi rides, and I would sometimes kind of just sigh and think to myself, well, if this is how I die, this is how I die, and there is nothing I can do about it. And that was calming in a way.

I found the end of this section really intense–Obreht in general is really good as creating suspense, as others have already said. Also, there is definitely some clever stuff going on about seeing and not seeing: Toby cannot see well (though also ‘sees’ the beast when others will not believe him), Josie saying she saw the beast by the barn being what tips Nora off to the fact that Josie was not sleeping in her own room, Nora finally ‘seeing’ the truth about Josie and Rob. And Nora also having a hard time seeing/knowing what has happened to Emmett.

I’ve been wondering if there is a connection between Burke and Buraq, the magic creature that transports Muhammad and other prophets in the Qur’an. Buraq is generally not imagined as a camel I think, but I wonder given the somewhat similar names. Buraq transports Muhammad from the temple mount (Jerusalem) to heaven, where he meets all these other prophets. I wonder if that is a useful point of comparison for the journey Burke and Lurie are on.

Kasia opens discussion of pages 222-335

I’m still mesmerized by the pacing of this book, and the contrast between these two sections is another great example. The Lurie section feels very rushed — “then there were those years with that woman I loved” — like we’re hustling to get to the end. Maybe I only feel that way because I know that you’re done already, Ruchama! But there wasn’t quite enough stuff in his various memories to make them feel satisfying. Maybe that’s because he’s actually dead, so the quality of his memories, or his sense of time, is different?

That’s appealing to me as a way to describe the difference, actually. Nora’s section feels so alive, both because it’s so vividly, luxuriously in the present (as Jen pointed out before, this is all like ONE day!), but also because of how her thoughts range across the past, sometimes confusingly so.

Minor note, but I was really noticing in this section how many words for landscape there were that I was unfamiliar with and yet found somehow very vivid and resonant. Bajada, scree — I don’t actually know what those things are but I *feel* like I do. Do other people have this too, or is this because I am inveterately lazy about fetching a dictionary and have long relied on context clues to figure out meanings?

I also really liked the descriptions of Nora’s feelings for Harlan. It was so compelling! Forbidden love, such a cliché, but still gets ya. Though by the end, I think, you see her tenderness for Emmett, too, especially as she feels betrayed by Harlan, which seems to vindicate her earlier jealousy, etc. I’m so closely knit to her perspective that I find it impossible to take a step back to judge her morally — maybe literature has conditioned me to be incapable of blaming people for their desires.

…but I don’t quite go so far with Evelyn’s death. This obviously feels almost too timely, the white woman being terrified of a person of color. Maybe because of the moment we’re reading it, but you can almost imagine Obreht saying in an interview that one of her projects with the book was to get inside that perspective and make you relate to it. And oddly, it doesn’t quite work for me — or maybe that’s the point; that it seems pathological. I could relate to her fear of the old woman, having been in situations, traveling alone, etc., where I felt acutely vulnerable, interacting with someone whose language I didn’t speak. But the fear of the rider, is different: it brings together the unease with the woman, and the general terror of the environment and isolation with another added thing, a racist ideology that gives a collective name to those fears and locates them in a specific group of people, and then gives those fears a life of their own with various stories, anecdotes, etc. That part, the book didn’t entirely flesh out for me. I want to say that you don’t actually feel that collective fear as strongly, because the book is otherwise so interested in multiculturalism and cross-cultural interaction, and those fears seem more grounded in a sense of the unknown?

Jennifer replies

I had a lot of the same reactions as you. I identified with Nora on a personal level more in this section than in any other. And the awkward hugeness of little things connected with that forbidden love especially. It was all I could do to not get up, cross my entire house to find a highlighter, and emblazon this passage from pg. 323 in neon:

“Of all the times she had been menaced by men, she had never felt so pointedly like one herself.”

I felt this so much. I noted that this turn in her orientation towards the conversation–as she had previously been accommodating to the point of potentially letting Josie die from neglect in the barn–reminded me of the same shift I’ve gone through in my life. It was entirely imperceptible, but my mind flashed immediately to specific instances of being genuinely bullied, abused, or, in Obreht’s fine turn of phrase, menaced by men who found me a good outlet for their rage. I recall, when younger, being moved to tears by this sort of treatment, not being able to speak back–not being able to do anything but hold my breath and roll along with things until it was all over. And then, at some point, I started talking back. My fear somehow, slowly but effectively, became overwhelmed by my indignation. What used to reduce me to tears now evokes from me a look that could strike someone dead if it landed wrong along with a profound refusal to let the insult go unnoticed and unnamed in the moment. It feels like Nora went through that transition in a single moment. And no coincidence that it occurred within moments of her realization that Emmett is dead and that she, a woman now completely alone, without aid, and in charge of, now, three irreparably injured and fully physically dependent wards, is–herself–all that she has left.

As for the camel and rider, I was so satisfied to see Burke re-emerge at the end of this story, but also so completely heartbroken to see the animal so wild and untamed. Lurie has spent feet upon feet of page space talking about the profound tolerance of this camel. That’s the word that comes up again and again and again. Tolerant. Patient. Obliging. How did that Burke turn into this one—one who seems scared and desperate and angry and shook. What happened between when we last heard from Lurie and now? What has Burke been through?

The ending that we’re fast approaching makes me feel incredibly sad. I’m starting to believe that Lurie has been dead the whole time as well. We haven’t been interacting with him as a living person. I think he’s been that “Lost Man” throughout the entire book, following Burke as he trudges, whispering loving things into the ears of a forsaken beast who can’t possibly hear him.

No wonder, again, that so much of this book is tied up in the pains of wanting. These are the portions of Lurie’s story, and of Nora’s story, that we are given in the most abject, emotional detail. If we are to take Lurie at his word, wanting is all that the dead actually do. So, in death, Lurie relives his life as a chaotic tumble defined by desire, punctuated only by the rare but explosive moments in which that desire is, for but a moment, met through fleeting but deep and intimate human contact.

Kasia opens discussion of page 335 through the end of the novel

I actually like the very straightforward way that the stories were brought together. And I found it somehow comforting that Burke and Lurie were going to be buried together. I was initially like, “Noooo!” when I realized Nora was going to kill Burke, but then I realized that it probably was for the best. He was old and sick and blind and apparently prone to attacking people. Though it would’ve been nice if he could have, like, taken out that cattle baron Crace somehow.

What do people make of that very final part, after Nora drinks the mystery water? What is she actually seeing?

I found myself wondering, towards the end, what Donovan’s want really was. Initially it had just seemed like a thirst but later it seemed like something else, no?

I really like how much this book told you about the characters’ various entanglements and feelings, but then didn’t make them mean anything, or resolve them at all. Maybe some people found that unsatisfying, but I loved it.

Ruchama replies

Kasia, I just read your thread for the penultimate section and it seems like you already knew Lurie was dead, but for some reason, I missed that, and I didn’t get that really until the end, when he is tied to the camel. And man, that image is amazing. A camel wandering around for years with a dead rider on its back. I’ve been thinking about the camel being called the beast, and then the discussion toward the beginning of the book about cloven hooves. Cloven always has a biblical ring to me, so I think there is this kind of biblical imagery almost, of a camel with a dead rider wandering the desert, looking for water. I also think the image works as a metaphor for the west not being really ’empty’ but haunted, full of all sorts of pasts, presents, peoples. It is almost overdetermined and ridiculous. I mean a strange beast with a dead rider?? But it is such a haunting image that it works. And then I felt really sad for Burke too. I mean carrying around this burden, the body of someone who loved and cared for you, and being afraid of all the other people you encounter. And being so far from your point of origin.

I totally agree that the pacing, etc., is really interesting throughout the book. I noticed in the acknowledgements, Obreht said something about short stories being her first love, and I think some sections really could stand alone. I was also connecting this to travelogues, the episodic nature of Lurie’s life, and obviously also thinking about it as a novel. I think there has been some work about how the (modern) novel develops in connection to trains and also that trains bring standardized time with them because they have to run on a timetable, and I’ve been connecting this in my mind with the conflict between Amargo and Ash River in part being about which town is going to get the railroad. So, something about the different time scales of the novel, years vs. one day, all the discussions of the telegraph and how now you (Nora) expect to have news of people much more often than before. Lurie discussing the changes he has seen while wandering with Burke. Time seems to expand and contract throughout the book, and maybe this connects to some kind of mythology of the west, how the west was won, modernity, etc.

Anyway, I think Nora is seeing the future when she drinks from the canteen. I guess the question is whether she is seeing what is actually going to happen, or simply what she wants to happen.

I finished a while ago and I have to say the image of Burke with a dead Lurie tied to him has really stuck with me.

Jennifer replies

When she drinks from the canteen, she sees everything that Lurie sees. All the past that’s been held in the water and all the future that lays before her. But it’s not the real future. It can’t be. We know Emmett is dead. He can’t be there in old age. We know Toby is irreparably blind. He can’t grow up to read books. Evelyn never had a chance to grow. She can’t become a passenger on a train, in the flesh. It reminds me of the end of the movie Parasite.13 It’s this fantastic, awesome, redemption of a future that’s never ever going to happen.

Ruchama replies

Maybe it is what could have/would have happened if things had happened differently, which may or may not be the same thing as what Nora wishes had happened?

I think reading this book in such fits and starts (and being not so good at focusing these days) means that I feel like I never got a full picture of Nora, she still seems somewhat elusive to me. There are moments, passages, where she comes into focus, but then other times where I still cannot quite get a handle on her. Maybe this is on purpose–mirroring her thirsty, feverish day, where it is hard for her to get a handle on things–or connected to women at the time struggling to be fully realized people, decipherable by others. I think it might also be connected to what you were writing about, Kasia, regarding her pathological fear of Native Americans. There are times when Nora is really unsavory, and that creates some distance between Nora and the reader, which I think is the intent. Basically, I think Nora is somewhat slippery, which I think is a testament to the structure of the novel.

Jennifer replies

Nora’s vision is the perfect way to end the book, for after all the searching and analysis we’ve done to uncover all of her feelings and motivations throughout the book, we see in these last lines the most intimate thing there is to know about her. We see the future she truly longs to have. With Emmett, not Harlan. With her boys healthy and well and free. With each of her offspring making the most of all that this forward “progress” she’s been toiling for has to offer. A future where all of this tragedy got them somewhere. A future in which all the hubris that brought them and everyone else to that place had some kind of meaning. It’s her want.

But in the end, the only justice she can count on is the justice that she forged with her own two hands by burying Lurie and Burke together. I suppose, in a way, that’s the moral of the whole book. The only justice you’re ever guaranteed is the justice that you, yourself, bring into the world by your own hand. It’s small and humble and bears no great legacy. But you made it. It’s yours.

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Dr. Katarzyna Bartoszyńska (@akasiaisakasia) is an Assistant Professor of English and Women’s and Gender Studies at Ithaca College. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Chicago, and her research focuses on the novel form and the ways it is theorized. She has published in Comparative Literature, Nineteenth-Century Contexts, New Hibernia Review, and Comparative Literature Studies. Her book, Estranging the Novel: Poland, Ireland, and Theories of World Literature is forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press next year.

Dr. Jennifer J. Carroll (@veruka2) holds a PhD in Anthropology and an MPH with emphasis in epidemiology from the University of Washington. She is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Elon University and an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Medicine at Brown University. Her broad research agenda spans  substance use, overdose, harm reduction, and drug policy. Her first book, Narkomania: Drugs, HIV, and Citizenship in Ukraine, was published by Cornell University Press in 2019.

Dr. Ruchama Johnston-Bloom (@ruchamajb) holds a PhD in Religious Studies from the University of Chicago. Her research focuses on Jewish entanglements with Orientalism, as well the mutual imbrication of Judaism and Islam. She is currently a grant program manager at the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe, where her work focuses on strengthening Jewish Studies throughout Europe.


  1. Although the three of us ended up being the primary correspondents in this email bookclub, we wish to acknowledge and thank the other members: Margaret Anderson, Erik Cameron, Ken Carter, Jane Davis, Melinda Jensen, Erin McMahan, Paul Morsbach, Antonio Perry, Gemma Petrie, John Saller, Ben Spicer, and Amber Wise.
  2. These are allusions to Obreht’s previous works: The Tiger’s Wife (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson,  2011), and “The Space Elephant” (Zoetrope: All Story, Fall 2010), respectively.
  3. Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings, (New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2014).
  4. Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings. (New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2014), 3.
  5. Danica Novgorodoff, The Undertaking of Lily Chen (New York, NY: First Second, 2014).
  6. Richard W. Bulliet, The Camel and the Wheel (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975).
  7. See for example, Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 1997).
  8. Lydia Chukovskaya, Sofia Petrovna, Translated by Aline Werth. (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1988).
  9. http://www.undocumentedmigrationproject.org
  10. Jason De Leon, The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2015).
  11. Ivo Andrić, Bridge on the Drina, Translated by Lovett F. Edwards. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1977).
  12. Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017).
  13. Parasite, Directed by Bong Joon-Ho (Seoul, South Korea: CJ Entertainment, 2019).