Steve Almond fans have waited long and hard for his debut novel and crustaceous hell does it deliver. All the Secrets of the World is a masterful, nervy, complex and confrontational work that flays the white beasts of power, excoriates the American dream, and serves up a ferocious indictment of the Fourth Estate, all while encased inside a brilliant Gobstopper of a book that changes flavor, shape and hue the longer it sits on the tongue, staining us with its unflinching, irresistible honesty.
Teenage drama? Police Procedural? Social Satire? Desert cult odyssey? Assume you are reading one kind of story and witness the ass in you and me. Almond’s constant subversion of expectation not only rejects categorization but it also keeps readers turning pages. Even my husband, who’s practically allergic to novels, found himself rapt all night, duly wrong about the soporific effects of fiction. Almond injects his bitter truth serum into storytelling so propulsive, characters so alive, and language so dynamic that it’s impossible to put this sucker down. No wonder it is Zando’s first ever title: the secret of this book lies in the breadth of its reach.
For a novel as riddled with twists, his thesis is clear. Like Chekhov’s gun, Almond plants it early, in this case in the opening sentence: “By the time she was thirteen years old, Lorena Saenz had learned how to make herself invisible.”
What unfolds is a novel that explores the mechanics of visibility through the disparate lives of two adolescent girls, whose decisions made in their brief time together wreak irrevocable and tragic consequences. It is a story about who gets seen and who gets to hold the spotlight, what gets illuminated, and what remains hidden. That is, it’s a novel about hegemony and the undocumented, race and class, the determinant rules of attention; it is also a novel about scorpions and stars, Reaganism, the criminalization of our criminal justice system, the dehumanizing effects of tabloid journalism, a novel about the preyed upon and the predatory, the jaws of entrapment, the fraught tugs of desire, the cloak of Jesus; a novel about so many things in a lesser writer it might all be too much, but in Almond’s hand, these elements weave together with an effortless, electrifying grace.
The year is 1981. Ronald Reagan has just become president. We are in Sacramento, California, where middle schoolers Lorena Saenz and Jenny Stallworth have been thrust together by their science teacher, aptly named Miss Catalis, for a collaborative project. Catalis is the first one to notice Lorena’s aptitude: “It was an unnerving sensation: becoming visible.”
A few pages later our ace pupil invokes the word “bias,” thanks to her science teacher. “The enemy of truth isn’t falsehood. It’s bias,” says Lorena.
As the novel morphs with startling elasticity, Almond adheres to his argument: bias (see also: racism and bigotry) is a dictate of visibility. What he’s talking about is narrative: how stories get told, and how bad stories become cemented in our consciousness. Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country (Red Hen Press, 2018) is Almond’s searing account of the Trump election, which holds the press accountable for propagating a damning mythology. How Almond had the wherewithal and clarity to write this essential text in the throes of national trauma eludes me, but it’s a book that should be on every reading list, read by every student of history, of journalism, of humanity.
Lorena arrives at the realization: “Those in power bent logic and circumstance to serve their beliefs.”
This axiom plays out as a father goes missing. A brother stands accused. The First Lady launches her battle cry, the press provides a megaphone, and the Feds follow suit. To discuss further plot details would be to deprive the reader of the delight of discovery.
By exposing abuses of power inherent in narrative, All the Secrets of the World demonstrates how “the American story has arrived at this point.” How a dangerous, flattening shorthand “can ease a person into abstraction.” And “key phrases – gang-related, drug-fueled…became a kind of code.” How the ego catapults news to immutable legend. “The monster had been apprehended…. That was the story. And it needed to stay the story.” How deeply rooted this pattern is that even the Bible “read more like grotesque fairy tales crafted to mete out moral instruction.” Remarkably, for all his outrage, Almond has not wholly succumbed to despair. His protest is palpable. In Bad Stories, he writes, “the only bulwark against self-inflicted tyranny is the telling of the story.”
And so, with an integrity that forms the backbone of the Almond oeuvre, he turns to fiction. In his indispensable craft booklet This Won’t Take But A Minute, Honey, a self-published labor of love, cult favorite, and further proof of his refusal to become a cog in the industry machine, he puts forth: “What You Should be Writing About? Anything you can’t get rid of by other means.”
The novel feels like an outgrowth of his own advice, a synthesis of longstanding passion and activism. Almond, who spent years on the Mexican border as a journalist in El Paso, and later in Miami, and who teaches nonfiction to the esteemed Nieman journalism fellows at Harvard, has no shortage of skin in the game. When he calls the press “vultures with notebooks and cameras” he comes by it honestly. He’s been one of them.
Of his newspaper days, Almond has said, “My editors wanted indictments. That’s what made readers pick up the paper. But pursuing subjects in this way made me feel predatory…. The accounts in newspapers, valuable as they could be, rarely touched the truth of what it means to be a human.”
Perhaps it is the persistent, aching desire to tap what is human – a lifelong devotion to “the moments of internal tumult” detailed in his 2019 memoir/crit-lit hybrid, William Stoner and the Battle for the Interior Life (Ig Publishing) – that’s informed Almond’s omniscience. We have a narrator who holds up the mirror. And who enters the interior lives of characters. There are a lot of characters, few of them cis white men. Almond is acutely aware of what it means to write outside of his experience. There is nothing cavalier about his craft choice. To the contrary, by doing so, it’s as if he implicates himself, consciously confronting his own central question: who gets seen? By Whom? In what light? Maybe there’s no escaping it. Certainly, no outcome is pure. And yet it is his careful attention and ability to illuminate his extensive cast of characters, their secrets and truths, that lends them their profound humanity.
If it’s a risk, it pays off. Almond has never played it safe. His book Against Football (Melville House, 2014) calls out “the bloated media cult” of sports primetime and fandom – of which he’d long been a member – for fostering brutality and toxic masculinity.
Which is to say, we are all susceptible. The darkness inside of us all: that’s the stink of being human. We are fallible; we must do better. Lorena muses, “Was it possible two things could be true at once?”
All the Secrets of the World
By Steve Almond
Published May 03, 2022
Sara Lippmann is the author of the novel Lech (Tortoise Books) and the story collections Doll Palace (re-released by 7.13 Books) and Jerks (Mason Jar Press.) Her fiction has been honored by the New York Foundation for the Arts, and her essays have appeared in The Millions, The Washington Post, Catapult, The Lit Hub and elsewhere. With Seth Rogoff, she is co-editing the anthology Smashing the Tablets: Radical Retellings of the Hebrew Bible for SUNY Press. She teaches with the Writing Co-Lab and lives with her family in Brooklyn. For more: https://www.saralippmann.com/