Metcalf is the former literary editor of Harper’s and an essayist with bylines in that magazine as well in the Baffler and other publications. But he spent “the better part of a decade” working on a novel called Against the Country.
“For reasons obscure to me, Ben is driven and inspired to write in a way that’s never been attempted, or imagined, before,” says Will Murphy, an executive editor at Random House who worked on the book. “Against the Country restores my faith in the power of literature.”
The story is, in one respect, a classic bildungsroman: an account of boyhood in rural Goochland County, Va., which is marked by agrarian hardships and racial tension. But it’s also, to quote PW’s starred review, “largely plotless,” featuring digressions and asides, such as a chapter entitled “I Feared the Corn,” and an appendix on dogs.
If there is a theme in Against the Country, it’s language. Metcalf, who spent part of his childhood in rural Virginia, says, “The narrator of my novel is obsessed with, and clearly torn between, the old masters of the language and those who might be broadly construed as the modernists. He looks to them for salvation even as he realizes that language, American or otherwise, cannot save but only doom him.”
Metcalf’s fascination with language was stoked by his working with writers such as Alice Munro and John Updike during his Harper’s tenure. “As far as jobs go, that was a great one to have,” he says. “I got to work with people who understood Harper’s as an American literacy project”—sometimes “on matters as small as the placement of a comma.”
This close attention to language also helps to explain Against the Country’s lengthy gestation period. “All writers are hindered by doubts, I suppose, and by time constraints,” Metcalf says. “But, for the most part, only my perfectionism ever really slowed me down there, and I was happy to submit to it.”