Selections from my Writer’s Notebook, 2010-2012 (50,000 Words of Interview Excerpts, Links, Quotations, Mini-Essays, and Thoughts about the Craft and Art of Making Literature)
“Beneath the fire ant mound is a world. It’s a world, but it’s not a story. To make the fire ant mound a story, one must poke it with a stick. The story involves the ants repairing their world. You can poke it twice, I suppose, if you want a subplot.” – George Singleton, in Failbetter
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live. The princess is caged in the consulate. The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea. The naked woman on the ledge outside the window on the sixteenth floor is a victim of accidie, or the naked woman is an exhibitionist, and it would be ‘interesting’ to know which. We tell ourselves that it makes some difference whether the naked woman is about to commit a mortal sin or is about to register a political protest or is about to be, the Aristophanic view, snatched back to the human condition by the fireman in priest’s clothing just visible in the window behind her, the one smiling at the telephoto lens. We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phatasmagoria which is our actual experience.” – Joan Didion, “The White Album”
The Old School
An unimaginable thing suddenly possible:
He could see the whole world from the height of space orbit. The newly made islands off Dubai and Abu Dhabi, archipelagoes in the shapes of palm trees or the seven continents. All of Paris at once, every arrondissement. The five boroughs of Brooklyn, Bronx, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island. The darkness of North Korea at night against the spider webs of cobalt that lighted the rest of Asia. In daylight he could zoom to helicopter height and see the prison camps where three generations there lived and died.
Some magic of silicon and rocketry and a worldwide network of optical fibers of silica glass had made it possible for voice or fingers to command images and they would instantly appear: Stonehenge, Machu Picchu, the Great Wall of China. Aurora Borealis, the Nebula Crab, the moons of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn . . .
All the mysteries of time and space, and yet he aimed his cameras again and again at a patch of ground near the airport in West Palm Beach, Florida, not far from the dog track where he’d sometimes made a few extra dollars by slipping numbers to the drunken bettors who always tipped when they won. That was the kind of thing that would have got him kicked out of school, but the school was gone now. The evidence from the sky was conclusive. Most of the buildings were now a squares of dirt, and the old football field was a big square of dirt, and they’d knocked down the paper trees and the Banyan trees and the starfruit trees and the giant Australian pines that so grandly lined the entrance that greeted his mother’s school bus every morning.
All the important things were gone, and though he’d hated it while he was in it, now he searched for traces of it all the time in the pixelated grass and dirt.
Jhumpa Lahiri, on her literary apprenticeship
“My father, who, at eighty, still works forty hours a week at the University of Rhode Island, has always sought security and stability in his job. His salary was never huge, but he supported a family that wanted for nothing. As a child, I did not know the exact meaning of “tenure,” but when my father obtained it I sensed what it meant to him. I set out to do as he had done, and to pursue a career that would provide me with a similar stability and security. But at the last minute I stepped away, because I wanted to be a writer instead. Stepping away was what was essential, and what was also fraught. Even after I received the Pulitzer Prize, my father reminded me that writing stories was not something to count on, and that I must always be prepared to earn my living in some other way. I listen to him, and at the same time I have learned not to listen, to wander to the edge of the precipice and to leap. And so, though a writer’s job is to look and listen, in order to become a writer I had to be deaf and blind.” (more here)
Here are a hundred or so excerpts from interviews with writers, but if you scroll down a quarter of the page or so, you’ll also get to see Letters from Disappointed Friends, Easter Eggs, B-Sides and Rarities, Vexing Problems, Deb Olin Unferth, Lady MacBeth, Big G, A Seminar in Sentence Making (Nabokov Edition), a Letter to a Husband’s Mistress, the Brooklyn Subway Map, Several Thieves, A Lot of Opening Sentences, a Picture of Jesus, Angels, and Fishermen at the Last Supper, A Stolen Spreadsheet Concerning John Irving’s Lurid Preoccupations, A Conversation with Lawrence Weschler, A Psychological Realist Story-Generating Machine, Miroslav Penkov, Bolivian Marching Powder, A Diagram of an Air-Conditioning Compressor, Hawaii, Paths to Freedom, Rulers, Outdated Words Such as Cuckold and Widow and Retard, Such Literary Forebears of V.C. Andrews as the Book of Genesis, Naming Conventions, a Gun and a Gramophone and a Bawling Baby c/o Louise Erdrich, Bonnie Jo Campbell and the Strategy of Negation, Peter Taylor on His Teachers, John Berger on What Reconciles Him to His Own Death (involved intermingled lovers’ bones, promise), Vonnegut Regret, the Dark Undoing of a Mary Oliver Poem, Matt Bell’s Catalog of Structures, Kasischke’s Rondeau, Five Hazards of the Book Review Biz, a lot more stuff but not the Pear of Anguish, and Chekhov’s best story in its entirety, which ends in part in the point of view of a Shark (!)
“First, it’s hard for me to say that I ‘expect’ a reader to do anything. (Although the book does posit an imaginary reader, a construction which seems to issue from my neuroses.) But I believe there are a number of things a reader might do with entries such as those: she might be compelled to project a narrative from the fragment; she might be compelled to gather these fragments so to project an intellectual persona for their author; or she might be compelled to mine these fragments for clues, for something like the shadows of a narrative that isn’t explicitly presented by the book, a narrative whose protagonist is named Evan Lavender-Smith. Or she might perform some combination of these three operations. Or she might slam the book closed. In any case, part of my intention in constructing a book out of a seemingly haphazard collection of notes was that these notes, by virtue of their accumulation and juxtaposition and patternation, would end up working overtime (not unlike what we might expect of the bits and pieces of a conceptual art). The tenor of that extra work would, ideally, be unnameable, too complex to pin down; just as the tenor of great allegorical writing constantly eludes the grasp of full understanding and interpretation.” – Evan Lavender-Smith, in The Faster Times
“What interests me most about poetry is the elegant envelope of form and the kind of density and compression that a poem demands. Because of those demands, I think I get to work more with silences than if I were writing prose. The silences are as big a part in my poems as what is being said. I believe my poems do a lot of work with what is implicit, rather than what is explicit. I just finished writing a work of creative nonfiction, Beyond Katrina, and I noticed that even in prose I have a strong tendency to circle back; repetition is a thing that I make use of constantly. It seems to me to be more natural in poetry and yet it also appears in my other writing.” – Natasha Trethewey, in Waccamaw
“No. I feel that my models came to me pretty early on, and it was who you mentioned—the early 20th century urban writers, like Richard Wright and Hubert Selby and Lenny Bruce—the language of Lenny Bruce. I like that rhythm, that high-speed, free-floating synaptic, anything comes out of your mouth, the acculturation, free-firing cultural riffs. Since then I sort of made my own way and made my own voice. I’ve read books that I admire, but nothing that made me, that taught me how to write.” – Richard Price, in Washington City Paper
“At eighteen I began reading biographies of writers: where had they gone to school? Were they married, childless, published before age thirty? Were they mad, alcoholic, suicidal, dead at forty? I was not so unhappy growing up that I did not fear the loneliness that seemed to come with being a writer; many of my favorite writers had dispiriting lives, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to suffer if that is what it took, but I did want to write. Suffering comes in many different styles, of course; mine involved years of writing and rewriting paragraphs—typing, deleting, typing again and again before giving in to a watery glue of dialogue. (Writing dialogue most often makes me cringe. Recently, I discovered that verisimilitude or interest can be had in columns of dialogue if every other line is crossed out.) To be embarrassed by a story of one’s own making that dissolves after the first wrought gesture is one way of suffering.” – Christine Schutt, in Prime Number.
“. . . good stories do not come straight from real experience but evolve from contemplating an essence of it . . .” – V.S. Pritchett, on Chekhov
”All my books are made up of other books. They’re all deeply structured on other fiction, because I was a student in fiction and I didn’t have much actual living to draw on. I suspect a lot of other people’s novels are like that, too, though they might be slower to talk about it.” – Zadie Smith
“The ugly fact is books are made out of books. The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.” – Cormac McCarthy
“Motherfuckers will read a book that is 1/3 elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they think we’re taking over.” – Junot Diaz
“A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.” – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
“Well, there was a time when I thought Richard Russo and John Irving (and Dickens) were gods — that long, overstuffed narrative exposition was entirely where it was at. I tried to write like those guys throughout my undergraduate and M.A. years. But then I graduated and discovered Blake Butler’s story in Ninth Letter, “The Gown from Mother’s Stomach,” went to his blog, discovered online writing, small presses, venues for innovative writing, writers like Millet and Bernheimer, discovered an entire world of publishing that didn’t give a hoot about the mainstream. I discovered a love of reading short, concise forms — flash fiction and prose poems. I hacked my previous writing to bits, culled the tightest, stand-alone sections, hacked away at them some more, and then suddenly I was publishing. These discoveries led to my breakthrough, surely.” – Molly Gaudry, in Hobart
“Yes, the Pee On Water title has been troubling from before Adam Robinson. At my thesis defense, all three of my advisors advised me strongly against it. For a while, it seemed like people younger than 30 liked it, and people older than 30 did not. For a few weeks I tried to find a title to replace it, but I had been calling the bookPee On Water in my head from the time I first wrote that story, so it was a strong instinct to override.” – Rachel B. Glaser, in Rumble Magazine
Joshuah Bearman: The thing that people don’t realize is they’re just not in control of their own story.
The Rumpus: Not at all?
Bearman: In life? No. Never. That’s the thing, fundamentally the thing. You exist in the minds of other people.
“Even when I was in college, that’s always what my professors would say: ‘your voice is so detached.’ What does that mean? I don’t know! I don’t think you really get to choose the way your voice is on a page. A lot of these stories are extremely internal and that just felt natural to me. What’s supposed to happen in a short story? Is a comet supposed to hit? No! For me, the short stories I really love — not the only stories I love, but the stories I love best — are really, really quiet. They’re about someone just thinking and trying to figure something out. Like Margaret Atwood’s story, ‘Death by Landscape’ — she’s just thinking about her friend going missing at summer camp fifty years ago, but it’s really just an old woman sitting in her apartment. Perfect. I don’t need explosions.” – Emma Straub, in Full-Stop
“Somehow the same concerns keep coming up. Most of the characters seem to be confused, unsure of how it is they are supposed to live. This reminds me of the wonderful epigraph to Grace Paley’s Collected Stories, which itself is one of my favorite pieces of writing. Ms. Paley relays a story about her friend and colleague in the ‘writing and mother trade.’ She asks Grace a few days before she dies, ‘The real question is, how are we to live our lives?’ The narrators and characters always seem to be entirely baffled by their circumstances. They find themselves put upon and disconnected. They usually cannot account for what has happened to them, let alone how to address the problem(s). Another concern is language and how inadequate it can be. I never consciously set out to write about these issues, but these issues keep coming up.” – Robert Lopez, in Bookslut
“A novel determines its own size and shape and I’ve never tried to stretch an idea beyond the frame and structure it seemed to require. (Underworld wanted to be big and I didn’t attempt to stand in the way.) The theme that seems to have evolved in my work during the past decade concerns time—time and loss. This was not a plan; the novels have simply tended to edge in that direction. Some years ago I had the briefest of exchanges with a professor of philosophy. I raised the subject of time. He said simply, “Time is too difficult.” Yes, time is a mystery and perhaps best examined (or experienced by my characters) in a concise and somewhat enigmatic manner. Next book may be a monster. (Or just a collection of short stories.)” – Don DeLillo at PEN
“In order to be as free as I possibly can, in my own imagination, I can’t take positions that are closed. Everything I’ve ever done, in the writing world, has been to expand articulation, rather than to close it, to open doors, sometimes, not even closing the book — leaving the endings open for reinterpretation, revisitation, a little ambiguity. I detest and loathe [those categories]. I think it’s off-putting to some readers, who may feel that I’m involved in writing some kind of feminist tract. I don’t subscribe to patriarchy, and I don’t think it should be substituted with matriarchy. I think it’s a question of equitable access, and opening doors to all sorts of things.” – Toni Morrison, in Salon
“I grew up as a New Critic at Kenyon College. It was an historical response, you know, to a real lack of precision in critical thought. It was valuable in drawing attention to the text-in its presumption that the text itself could teach you everything you needed to know about it. I think what you describe as lethargy has more to do with the fact that with the Cold War the entire country, including a large part of the intellectual community, turned right. Domestically, the Cold War at its worst was a kind of civil religion with distinctly Puritan cruelties. People were cowed. It’s true that a generation rose up against the ideology in the 1960s, but by the seventies they were pretty well mopped up. The ranks of the public critics began to thin-the generations behind Edmund Wilson, Irving Howe and Alfred Kazin disappeared into the academy. Fled, one might say. There seemed to be a depoliticization of cultural life, generally. It was clear the USSR was a terrible mistake. But the correlate to that was … that anyone in America who wrote a political novel was writing a foolishly adversarial novel. It was possible according to Cold War orthodoxy to appreciate political novelists like Kundera from Czechoslovakia, or Coetzee or Gordimer from South Africa, but the American political novel was an egregious aesthetic error. A novel about an heroic CIA operative could be a good story… but a novel about a conscientious objector was a political tract.” – E.L. Doctorow, in Weber Journal
“I don’t know. There are points in there—I mention the U.S. Census. I think what they are talking about is, I had—this is a real county. I just gave it a different name. Well, in fact, in addition to my intention of doing the research, I was going down to Lynchburg (VA) to visit a friend of mine and use his county as a setting for the novel. I was going to call whatever his county is Lynchburg County or something. But I never got around to visiting him. So I had to create my own place. In doing that I was sort of freed [up], because had I used his county I would have had to know every single thing there is to know about that place in case someone came along and said, “Well, you got this fact wrong.” But if I created my own Manchester County I can say the U.S. Census in 1840 said this many people, and this many people. I can say these three people in the 20th century wrote these history books about this county. And they said this, that and the other. It’s all out of my imagination. I was freed because of that.” – Edward P. Jones, in Identity Theory
“You can’t be afraid of what people will say about your work, otherwise you’re going to have a very loud invisible audience in the room while you’re writing. And just like when you’re in the sack, you don’t want an audience. At least I don’t think you do. I don’t, in any case.” - Christine Sneed, in The Nervous Breakdown
“I don’t know if there are ghosts. I’ve had experiences, but that doesn’t prove they exist. I lived in an apartment in New York where there was a ghost, and I used that for the last scene in the book where Jane feels a presence in her apartment. But I didn’t make it clear if that came from outside her or inside her. I do think that people have those experiences, but what it is, I’m not sure. I also believe in more subtle experiences where people have the chance to communicate with dead people in all kinds of ways. It’s happened to me and to many people. There’s not as much as a barrier as we think between the living and the dead. Whether it manifests as a ghost, or a strong sense of that person’s spirit, even in your own mind, it’s a very powerful experience. I chose a ghost for the story because it’s the most extreme form of that experience.” – Alice Elliott Dark, in Beatrice
”When one is trying to do something beyond his known powers it is useless to seek the approval of friends… The very way he wishes you luck, when you broach your chimerical ideas, is enough to dishearten you. He believes in you only in so far as he knows you, the possibility that you are greater than you seem is disturbing, for friendship is based on mutuality. It is almost a law that when a man embarks on a great adventure he must cut all ties.” —Henry Miller
“I think if you’re really good at something you should keep doing it. One of the things that’s going on with a lot of writers today is that they get big contracts for two- or three-book deals, and they get caught in the intense need to fulfill that contract. They crank the novels out. As a short story writer, I’m under pressure to write a novel now, but it seems stupid to me to just make yourself work in a completely different genre if you’re already doing what you want to do.” – David Means, at Powells
“I don’t believe I have a mission. Sometimes I really have a spiritual need to say something more general about the world, and sometimes something personal. I usually write for the individual reader–though I would like to have many such readers. There are some poets who write for people assembled in big rooms, so they can live through something collectively. I prefer my reader to take my poem and have a one-on-one relationship with it.” – Wislawa Szymborska, in the LA Times
“Recently I was giving a talk, and someone asked if I would ever write a romance novel. It was a funny question. But then I thought, well, okay, maybe. I come from a different culture and it could work to my advantage or disadvantage. What I consider romantic may not necessarily be what other people consider romantic. I’ve lived in this culture long enough to test some of the hypotheses of what romance is to me on a few people, and it hasn’t worked out quite that well [laughs]. For example, in the context of Sierra Leone, romance could mean a woman cooking for a man and sending a dish to the man’s house as a sign of showing that she cares and that she loves the man. Whereas in the West if you ask some women to cook for you, they may think otherwise—they may think you see them as belonging to the kitchen and that sort of thing.” - Ishmael Beah, in FSG Work in Progress
“If I can see the landscape, I can put people in the world of the story. It’s very visual, even if it might not register that way with the reader (“Carleyville left late because of the rain.”) I have every texture and tone I need there-In the character’s name, in the alliteration of “left late”, and the rain . . . suddenly a very specific rain, for my story alone! Really, it was more than enough to begin. Yeah, I watch surfaces. In our house in Virginia, my husband hung a relief he’d carved on the living room wall (he is perverse: the room is charcoal grey; his relief of two intertwined figures is verdigris), and at a certain time of day, just for a matter of minutes, a shadow is cast and the peacock feathers (homage to Flannery O’Connor) in the vase above the bookcase make a strange foliage shadow that seems to suspend the real and reflected figures in a forest – but all the while, you know you’re looking at quickly changing shadows and reflections, as well as the original object.” – Ann Beattie in Folio
“i don’t think that the internet has changed the way i write, necessarily, but it certainly has opened up a new set of possibilities for myself and other writers in terms of finding an audience, and i think that has had a pretty profound impact. when i started writing, there were very few feasible options in terms of publishing work, and even then, the feasibility was questionable. there was also a predictability – i wasn’t aware, then, of journals like conjunctions or grand street, and everything else was just too…agrarian. every lit journal i was exposed to was named after a tree, or an antique milliner’s tool, or something having to do with the ocean.” – Matthew Derby, in Identity Theory
“Musil and Broch saddled the novel with enormous responsibilities. They saw it as the supreme intellectual synthesis, the last place where man could still question the world as a whole. They were convinced that the novel had tremendous synthetic power, that it could be poetry, fantasy, philosophy, aphorism, and essay all rolled into one. In his letters, Broch makes some profound observations on this issue. However, it seems to me that he obscures his own intentions by using the ill-chosen term “polyhistorical novel.” It was in fact Broch’s compatriot, Adalbert Stifter, a classic of Austrian prose, who created a truly polyhistorical novel in his Der Nachsommer [Indian Summer], published in 1857. The novel is famous: Nietzsche considered it to be one of the four greatest works of German literature. Today, it is unreadable. It’s packed with information about geology, botany, zoology, the crafts, painting, and architecture; but this gigantic, uplifting encyclopedia virtually leaves out man himself, and his situation. Precisely because it is polyhistorical, Der Nachsommer totally lacks what makes the novel special. This is not the case with Broch. On the contrary! He strove to discover “that which the novel alone can discover.” The specific object of what Broch liked to call “novelistic knowledge” is existence. In my view, the word “polyhistorical” must be defined as “that which brings together every device and every form of knowledge in order to shed light on existence.” Yes, I do feel close to such an approach.” – Milan Kundera in the Paris Review
“On the other hand, I think Great Books should be taught and read—but there are certain subjects that are difficult to embrace at a young age, and certainly the impact of time is going to fall pretty flat. So this book,Goon Squad, is very much a response to the rereading of Proust, honestly. I thought, “How would you write about time now?” And technology plays a big part in In Search of Lost Time, which is really not much talked about. There is one part: He [Proust] looks up in the air and an airplane goes by and it is so shocking because it feels like such a 19th-century novel. It’s really not.” – Jennifer Egan, in the Morning News
“I had that same relationship with Plath, actually. I think I was too caught up in her biography to give her poetry the attention and work it deserves. Also, my biggest love right now, the British Renaissance, was not a love of mine in undergrad. Not at all. It came later in graduate school. But now I can’t get enough of “Paradise Lost,” for example. No lie. It’s amazing. Frightening, really sexy, and incredibly dense yet completely readable like a novel.” – Erica Dawson, in The Black Telephone
“Dialogue is a process and we are at the beginning. Looking back in history we now see that Christianity has been in dialogue since its inception. Jesus was a Jew. He spoke like a Jew, thought like a Jew and acted like a Jew. Christianity was at first seen as a Jewish sect. The person who brought it into the Greek world and initiated the first great dialogue was St. Paul. Then in the 13th century, when Aristotle was introduced into Europe, Aquinas initiated a dialogue that resulted in a Thomism that dominated Catholic theology until the Second Vatican Council. Now, even as we speak, Christianity is in the process of extracting itself from one culture and becoming incarnate in another. The new culture is deeply influenced by Asian religions and the work of dialogue is only the beginning. ” – Shusaku Endo in America
“When I write a story, I type a sentence and read it out loud. And then I change it, and read it out loud again. And then I write the next sentence, and I read it out loud, and I read the previous sentence out loud, and I change that. And this goes on for a while. The repetitions tend to come out of a desire for a musicality to the writing, which follows from the fact that I am reading it out loud as I am writing it.” – Matthew Simmons, in Dark Sky
“My whole life I’ve seen those elevator inspection certificates. I’d go to school, when I was a kid, and come back and the person had been there, the exact same guy for 10 years. The elevator seemed perfectly fine, so what’d he do? I was thinking about what would make a funny detective story. Well, why not put this person in a situation where he actually has to apply his esoteric skills to a straightforward mystery? But then I had to actually make up what kinds of skills he had, and it became all about elevators and not so much this chase-the-McGuffin sort of story.” – Colson Whitehead, in Salon
“I said something simple about the situation and there was tremendous applause. The strange thing was that afterwards many people came up and said that they had not known I was living in Prague all these years. Blacklisted writers had been made non-existing persons by the regime. People thought we lived in exile; in a way we did.” – Ivan Klima, in The Guardian
“Oh yes, I explicitly used cutups for this novel. Lots and lots, especially during the big push, the heavy lifting that took place in ’06. And I’m talking cutups in the classic Burroughs/Gysin sense, two texts sliced down lengthwise and reattached with their opposites: AA and BB become AB and BA. Then you strike out the word fragments caught in between so it looks like a crooked seam. They’re great aesthetic objects, just on their own. You may notice a few words and scenarios in the OEC crop up again and again—I think some of the sections involving day laborers—and that’s the residue of the cutups. Eventually I rewrote things so much that the effect was mostly obliterated, but it did help generate content, which was my reason for doing them. I wanted to come up with ideas that I couldn’t simply conjure up through ordinary means—out of thin air, the old fashioned way.” – Grace Krilanovich in Hobart
“Early on there was an assumption from editors that I could write about hip-hop and black music but not about white music. Once an editor suggested I’d be lost writing about Eric Clapton, which is strange because he’s steeped in black music. I just kept fighting and I found white subjects who others didn’t want to cover and did them well. In time my editors realized I could write about anything.” – Touré in No Strings Attached News
“I don’t see a great difference between The God of Small Things and my works of nonfiction. As I keep saying, fiction is truth. I think fiction is the truest thing there ever was. My whole effort now is to remove that distinction. The writer is the midwife of understanding. It’s very important for me to tell politics like a story, to make it real, to draw a link between a man with his child and what fruit he had in the village he lived in before he was kicked out, and how that relates to Mr. Wolfensohn at the World Bank. That’s what I want to do. The God of Small Things is a book where you connect the very smallest things to the very biggest: whether it’s the dent that a baby spider makes on the surface of water or the quality of the moonlight on a river or how history and politics intrude into your life, your house, your bedroom.” – Arundhati Roy in The Progressive
“I think poetry should do what it was meant to do—exist. And then the big things that need to be done—like saving the world, for instance—needs to be up to us as humans. We need poetry, but we need it like we need a tool. Poetry is our poetry hammer. And likewise, poetry is human, even as it is dead. And so I think poetry can connect us to our humanity if we bring the human back into it. I am interested in this Armantrout statement, as I think I know what she means (or at least can interpret what she means to support my own views). I think she is saying that poetry should bring in the superhuman—the everyhuman—and be the summation of all the voices that it can summate. Because in every person there is some power that can be brought—whether it be coaxed or triggered depending on the specific personality—into every poem. And when we only seek out “voyeuristic identification” in our poems, we only expect the smallest parts of humanity (its meaningless specifics) from them. And in that way, humanity becomes even more and more entrenched in meaninglessness when we identify with poems in these empty ways. To make meaning we need to value meaning and vice versa. It is a feedback loop.” – Dorothea Lasky in Octopus
“It is diﬃcult to be a so-called successful writer and to occupy a marginal position at the same time, even in our day and age.” – J. M. Coetzee in Ohio Swallow
“Devil Girl From Mars is the movie that got me writing science fiction, when I was 12 years old. I had already been writing for two years. I began with horse stories, because I was crazy over horses, even though I never got near one. At 11, I was writing romances, and I’m happy to say I didn’t know any more about romance than I did about horses. When I was 12, I had this big brown three-ring binder notebook that somebody had thrown away, and I was watching this godawful movie on television. (I wasn’t allowed to go to the movies, because movies were wicked and sinful, but somehow when they came to the television they were OK.) It was one of those where the beautiful Martian arrives on Earth and announces that all the men on Mars have died and they need more men. None of the Earthmen want to go! And I thought, ‘Geez, I can write a better story than that.’ I got busy writing what I thought of as science fiction.” – Octavia Butler in Locus
“I wonder if my kind of work will appeal to the West. Writers like Michael Ondaatje are wonderful, I admire them, but they are based in Britain or Canada, in the land of the expatriates, and very consciously write with an eye and ear to another kind of readership.” – Jean Arasanayagam in The Hindu
“An idea had been with me since about 1972: the idea of a siege, as in a besieged city, but it was not clear who was besieging it. Then it evolved into a real siege, which I first thought of as the siege of Lisbon by the Castilians that occurred in 1384. I joined to this idea another siege, which occurred in the twelfth century. In the end, the siege was a combination of those two historical ones—I imagined a siege that lasted some time, with generations of besieged as well as generations of besiegers. A siege of the absurd. That is to say, the city was surrounded, there were people surrounding it, and none of this had a point. In the end all of this came together to form a book that was, or that I wanted to be, a meditation on the notion of the truth of history. Is history truth? Does what we call history retell the whole story? History, really, is a fiction—not because it is made up of invented facts, for the facts are real, but because in the organization of those facts there is much fiction. History is pieced together with certain selected facts that give a coherence, a line, to the story. In order to create that line, many things must be left out. There are always those facts that did not enter history, which if they had might give a different sense to history. History must not be presented as a definitive lesson. No one can say, This is so because I say it happened this way.” – Jose Saramago in the Paris Review
“I thought The Recognitions was—Lowry being English—the great American novel of that period. That’s the only other letter I wrote to a writer, but it was different from the Lowry one. When The Recognitions came out, it was shat on by every reviewer. They said, ‘How dare he write so long a book? How dare he deliberately try to create a masterpiece?’ I wrote this casual letter, saying, ‘Screw them. Some of us out here know what you did.’ When my wife and I went to Mexico for three years, an editor came down there, and Aiken had given him my name. We had him to dinner, and all I did was talk about The Recognitions. And this guy said, ‘Shut up already. Tell me about Mexico. I’ll read it when I get home.’ And he did. The Recognitions came out in 1955, and this would have been about 1961. One day I get a letter there: ‘Dear David Markson, If I may presume to answer yours of”—whatever it was—’May 16, 1955.’ It turned out that this editor, Aaron Asher, had come home, read the book, and decided to resurrect it. There had never been a paperback, and he put it in print, and it brought Gaddis back to life.” – David Markson, in Conjunctions
“I first conceived of this novel as one that would explore the occult & religion as mythologies, but as I started researching, I found a lot about numerology and mathematics. Since I was little, I wanted to be a scientist or a mathematician (I’m not quite sure why I’m not, to be completely honest!) so I decided to use the superficial constraint of the form of a parabola to shape this text. Again, while researching, I came to understand that there were so many more mythologies out there than just the occult & religion. As such, I expanded the scope of my novel. I wanted to create a work that dialogued within itself. As for the shape of the text, I wanted to mimic the traditional triangular structure of a novel, but I wanted to invert it. A parabola was a perfect fit! I love interactive novels. I think the various tests that appear throughout the text add a new level of interactivity. Ideally, readers would actually take some of the tests. Additionally, I know many people (myself included) who put a great deal of weight on personality tests, IQ, and psychology. I see these as modern-day myths, a new form of “religion” and a method of categorization. To me, IQ seems to be especially troubling, particularly because of the mass sterilization in the early to mid 20th century based on the Army Beta IQ test. I based some of the questions on my test on that original test.” – Lily Hoang at Experimental Fiction / Poetry
“If Literature is to be defined by that which bears and even demands repeated readings, then certainly, of all the genres, lyrics are the most dominant form of Literature in the Mandarin-speaking world at the moment—due to the ubiquity of the Internet, the traditional ‘being quoted’ has taken on the technologized form of ‘being forwarded’, or ‘being cut and pasted’.” – Li Zhuoxiang at Asymptote
” As a publisher, I once edited the Icelandic translation of another ‘untranslatable’ work; ULYSSES by James Joyce. I went with the translator to Dublin, we met some relatives of Joyce, saw the sites of the book, and I think the translation is very well done and gives a lot to the Icelandic reader. One just has to accept that it is another work, the connotations are different, and there is another audience. Once you have accepted this, translations are a wonderful add-on to literature. And for writers who write in a language like Icelandic, which only 300 thousand people can understand, they are an absolute necessity.” – Halldor Gudmundsson in IceNews
“Japanese people today are becoming more and more interested in Taiwanese literature, primarily because of Taiwanese movies, which are very popular in Japan. Flicks like March of Happiness and Lament of the Sand River ran for a month or two at theaters. Movies directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien are very popular in Japan. It’s easier to get hooked on a movie than a novel, so a lot of people will see a movie first and then go out and start buying novels.” – Fujii Shozo in Taiwan Panorama
“That’s what gave me such trouble and why it took me so long to write the damn book at first. It took me two years to get this first-person omniscient narrator. I was sure I needed a first-person narrator for many reasons. I wanted the story of Calliope’s transformation to be intimate. I also wanted to avoid — and this is a very practical writerly point — to avoid the pronominal problem with he/she that we’re having in this interview. I wanted it to be ‘I.’ And the point is also that we’re all an I before we’re a he or a she. So it seemed important to have this ‘I,’ but in order to tell the story of the grandparents and the parents, if I remain in a first-person narrative voice, I can’t go into their minds and tell you what they’re feeling. It becomes very dry and voyeuristic. It took me a long time to figure out how to have a first-person that could also switch into the third-person. I had to basically give myself permission to do that, and I had a lot of scruples against doing it for the first couple of years. So I wrote the story many different ways — sometimes all third-person, sometimes all first-person. I knocked my head until I finally realized I could have the narrator do both things and give the sense to the reader that Cal, telling the story years later, is possibly inventing things and maybe knows things that he can’t but that’s all right. I worried that the reader would resist certain things that Cal knows, but I’ve found that actually readers don’t bother themselves with the details as much as I do. In general, readers don’t worry about things like, how would he know this about his grandmother?” – Jeffrey Eugenides, in Salon
“The novel is the opposite of pornography. Pornography suggests desire everywhere and at every moment. The novel proves that this does not exist, that it is a construct meant to keep women willing, because they are usually pornographic objects anyway, while men look at them, and can almost penetrate their bodies with their gaze. But I am used to being misunderstood. I am even blamed for what I attempt to analyze in my writing. As so often happens, the messenger is attacked, and not what she expresses. No one is interested in that.” – Elfriede Jelinek at Serpent’s Tale
“I’m not sure my writing in English is a choice. If a Nigerian Igbo like myself is educated exclusively in English, discouraged from speaking Igbo in a school in which Igbo was just one more subject of study (and one that was considered ‘uncool’ by students and did not receive much support from the administration), then perhaps writing in English is not a choice, because the idea of choice assumes other equal alternatives.” – Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie in WOCALA
“Periods of rapid and fundamental change were never favourable for literature. Significant works, have nearly always and everywhere been created in periods of stability, be it good or bad. Modern Russian literature is no exception. The educated reader today is much more interested in non-fiction. However, I believe that justice and conscience will not be cast to the four winds, but will remain in the foundations of Russian literature, so that it may be of service in brightening our spirit and enhancing our comprehension.” – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in The Independent
“In surfaces, perfection is less interesting. For instance, a page with a poem on it is less attractive than a page with a poem on it and some tea stains. Because the tea stains add a bit of history. It’s a historical attitude. After all, texts of ancient Greeks come to us in wreckage and I admire that, the combination of layers of time that you have when looking at a papyrus that was produced in the third century BC and then copied and then wrapped around a mummy for a couple hundred years and then discovered and put in a museum and pieced together by nine different gentlemen and put back in the museum and brought out again and photographed and put in a book. All those layers add up to more and more life. You can approximate that in your own life. Stains on clothing.” – Anne Carson, in the Paris Review
“When you’re not wearing your glasses, all you can see is what is close to you. You can’t see the context. You can’t see the rest of the room or across the street. I also didn’t wear my glasses some of the time out of vanity. I have thought about this because I notice it all the time—that in reading students’ work or discussing other peoples’ work, I don’t have much trouble focusing on detail, word to word, sentence to sentence, but I have to make a major effort to step back from a piece of writing and summarize what its themes are. As a child I resisted knowing much about the outside world—politics, international situations. In college I had only a very vague sense of facts, of distances. I remember being asked in some psychological test how far it is from New York to London, and even though I’d been to Europe at least twice already, I said about 15,000 miles. I was terrible at current events in school. I did well on one assignment which was to take a newspaper article and point out where the reporter was showing bias. Again, that was a close textual analysis.” – Lydia Davis in BOMB
“I am enthralled by syntax, by the sinews of the sentence. Often my absorption in the line leads to language becoming pure sound for me, something like murmur, but of course the printed word itself and at least the shadow of its meaning always remain. I love Wittgenstein’s take on this stuff, the way he seems so utterly perplexed by it, which I think is the correct attitude to take when it comes to thinking about the relationship between the look of the word on the page and the sound of the word in your head or your ear. There’s a line somewhere in the Investigations: “Remember that the look of a word is familiar to us in the same kind of way as its sound.” I suppose “Tree Tree Tree” speaks to this look–sound problematic in some way.
My first language was Spanish. Writing in a language other than that with which I grew up, with which I learned to think and feel, has surely had some bearing on my relationship to writing. I love finding words and sounds from other languages buried in English; I prefer to imagine discrete languages as continuous, like adjoining rooms connected by a common door — sound. When I revise a poem, I’m thinking primarily about sound, syllables as phonemic puzzle pieces. I wrote “Tree Tree Tree” in graduate school; I think it was exhibitive of my coming to this awareness of new sonic possibilities in my writing.” – Carmen Gimenez-Smith in La Bloga
“I write about sex the way it is. I try not to be salacious. I, in fact, go out of my way not to be. I feel the best way to handle sex is naturally. I don’t write to get anyone excited by my depictions of sex. But I don’t want to write something other than the way it happened. Lots of times I just say the couple did it. Other times, because of what’s happening in the sex act that reveals plot and character, it’s necessary to go in to greater detail. Sex has usually been an important part of most of the characters in my fiction, but just one part.” – Stephen Dixon in Bookslut
“When people ask me what my novels are “about”, the word “about” gives me the chills. I believe that, in any novel of mine, the principal objective is the construction of the whole. The excitement for me is the architect’s excitement. That little road map I make, making my way backwards to where I think the story should begin, that little sketch, the skeleton of the novel, the scaffolding of the building I’ve not yet made, is nothing but an outline of the action of the story. There are no details. The details emerge as the sentences do. I sometimes think that what I do as a writer is make a kind of colouring book, where all the lines are there and then you put in the colour. I never start writing the novel, consecutively telling the story, until I’ve gone from that last sentence to the first. I now have those two poles and I know all the action. From the moment I start writing, I don’t have to think about what’s going to happen, and maybe this is why Thomas Hardy is almost as important to me as Dickens. I like the writing in Dickens far better than I like the writing in Hardy, especially the dialogue. For someone like me, who knows the fate of all his characters, how wonderful it is that Hardy believed, as he surely did, in the predetermination of all his characters.” – John Irving in New Statesman
“Ah, Middlemarch! Yes, of course! You mean the whole universe is linked together; everything linked. Well that’s one of the reasons the Stoic philosophers had for believing in omens. There’s a paper, a very interesting paper, as all of his are, by De Quincey on modern superstition, and there he gives the Stoic theory. The idea is that since the whole universe is one living thing, then there is a kinship between things that seem far off. For example, if thirteen people dine together, one of them is bound to die within the year. Not merely because of Jesus Christ and the Last Supper, but also because all things are bound together. He said—I wonder how that sentence runs—that everything in the world is a secret glass or secret mirror of the universe.” – Jorge Luis Borges in the Paris Review
No, I think all writing is experimental. The very obvious sort of experimental writing is not really more experimental than that of a conventional writer like myself. I experiment all the time but the experiments are hidden. Rather like abstract art: You look at an abstract picture, and then you look at a close-up of a Renaissance painting and find the same abstractions.
From Robert Birnbaum’s 2003 interview with Percival Everett:
RB: And then there are the attacks on writers like Morrison and Salman Rushdie and DeLillo and now young guys like Franzen and Foer and it strikes me that they are being attacked by people who haven’t read them…
PE: It’s always easier to condemn something when you haven’t read it.
RB: But why get so worked up? On the other hand, maybe it’s a good thing that people are passionate about these things.
PE: If that’s really what they are passionate about? If somebody is really offended by the artistic sensibility of some writer that would be a great discussion. But if they are simply jealous of that person’s success or something personal, I don’t get it.
Have you checked out the Writers at Cornell interview series? The latest installment is twenty-five minutes of Nicholson Baker answering to J. Robert Lennon’s questions about formal experimentation, John Updike, libraries, Human Smoke, and so on. Also worth your time (all of these interviews are downloadable MP3′s): Lydia Davis, Julia Alvarez, Terrance Hayes, Patrick Somerville, Alison Bechdel, George Saunders, and Junot Diaz.
SOMETIMES I GET LETTERS FROM DISAPPOINTED OLD FRIENDS
Someone asked me today whether I would be sad if I published (x) book and it alienated people from my community of origin, lost me their affection, etc. (I was raised a Southern Baptist, attended an extreme fundamentalist Christian school where many of the faculty were educated at places like Bob Jones University for the fourteen years preceding college, broke from those places to become an associate pastor in a more moderate tradition briefly after college, worked briefly in religious publishing, finally gave all of it up entirely, and I haven’t believed in god for almost ten years now.) I said that the only time I hear from most people from that time is when I publish something they don’t like & then they reach out “in love” to express displeasure and offer correction. Those who really love me, I said, have been in my life all along, regardless of whether or not they disagreed with me. My friend said he was in a similar place in life as me, but that it wasn’t worth it for him to lose the affection of those who have been in his life since he was a child, especially members of his family.
He said he feared other consequences, too — loss of opportunity at work, possibly the loss of his job, possibly even the loss of his wife and children. He said he had resigned himself to live a double life for the rest of his life, or at least until he was financially secure and his children were grown. So he would be one person in the private place where he lived with his thoughts and in the private life he kept secret from those closest to him, and another person in the public place where he lived most of his life and in his own home, around his family. Part of this idea is repugnant to me — it’s a lifelong lie he’s decided to live, right? But I also understand his choice. I fear that one day my parents will no longer speak with me because of my choices, and already I feel the loss of friendships that were once dear and important to me.
The book I’ll publish that will probably cause me a greater disruption of those relationships is a nonfiction account of the life of my childhood pastor who came out as a gay man and lost pretty much everything. The more I learn about his story, the more I identify, strongly, with what I’m learning is a condition common to gay people of all stripes. I think our culture is changing to become generally more accepting, but the pronouncement of a simple truth — I am attracted to people of the same sex and desire sexual relationships with them as a condition of my happiness — has cost gay people, especially those of the generation preceding mine, so much that many have chosen to live a similar double life. I can’t condemn them for it. However repugnant you might find the attitudes you find among your community of origin, it’s the only one you’ll ever have, and you’ll always crave the acceptance of those whose acceptance you craved early in life.
A hallmark of the kind of adult maturity to which I aspire is the acceptance of these kinds of difficult things, and a cultivation of a way of being in the world that allows them to exist in tension without undoing any chance at happiness. I wish for friends as dear as I once imagined my old friends held me. I wish, too, for a way to reconcile with old friends I’ve lost. I can see a future ahead that is full of contradictions and uglinesses, but also good relationships, comings-to-understandings, newfound pathways to decency. I want to believe these things are possible and then work to make them possible. In the words of the narrator of Andrew Hudgins’s “Heat Lightning in a Time of Drought”: “I wish my soul were larger than it is.” Maybe it can be.
EASTER EGGS, OR B-SIDES AND RARITIES, OR WHATEVER YOU WANT TO CALL THEM:
Does the color red change the way you look at this photograph? It is difficult to escape the received standard ideas of red: Red as an erotic color, red the color of heat, red for danger, red means stop before you roll into the path of injury, red means embarrassment (but in this case later for the lovers who ought not have been together caught by the camera, their transgressions revealed by the resulting prints, which are made in a red-lit darkroom, and developed in a black-and-white developer bath lit red by the darkroom lamp, so the first time they’re seen they’re blushed [a word which means red has come into the cheeks, and therefore blood] by the red lamp, which means the first time the photographer sees them they already carry the color temperature that calls to mind the heat and the shame he means to initiate), and now we consider the role of the blood in the interpretation of emotions or intimacies, the way the swelling or engorgement of vessels carrying red blood reveals involuntarily things we may want to reveal or we may want to hide, and the way the possible ultimate receiver of the photo — the lover-done-wrong, perhaps, or the husband or wife — might “see red” upon receiving the red photograph, by which we mean fall victim to the body’s own involuntary expression of rage, and if the rage is sufficiently manifested physically in the rager, blood vessels may pop in his or her eyeballs, at which point whether or not they literally see the color red, those who look at their lookers will see the red that rims them in spidery tributaries, which calls to mind that fiercest of plagues, the river run red with blood, or the great fear of my childhood, the sky turned blood red announcing the arrival of the warrior Christ riding on a white horse, leading a company of angels and the saints on a mission preparatory to the destruction of the world by fire, which I’ve seen in my imagination in giant flames of red, which is also the color of the devil, the demons, hell itself, and according to those who first told me these stories, these caught lovers in the red-lit developer bath are writing their own ticket there, a ticket probably printed in red ink upon red paper sufficient to withstand the ravages of the red fire, and since, in this way of seeing the world and seeing it red, to think an act in your red heart is the same as having committed it in the bloody redness of your fallen body, there might also be a red-inked red ticket bearing my name in red as well, and if that is true, then I want to know why the one who filled us with these rednesses filled us with these rednesses if he knew these rednesses would be our undoing which delivered us into the eternal rednesses, and if it is not true, then I hope to find some compassion for what happened in reddest secret between two so consumed with acts of red and thoughts of red and the reds that passed between them on their way to the reddings and unreddings they set into motion the moment this red photograph caught the reds they meant to keep hidden behind the white blinds the photograph has rendered in their more appropriate color.
Transcription of Dialogue Spoken Three Seconds After This Photograph Was Taken
“As Søren Kierkegaard said in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, I shall certainly attend your party, but I must make an exception for the contingency that a roof tile happens to blow down and kill me; for in that case, I cannot attend.”
Looking at the Looker and the Lookee and Thinking About the Looking and the Looking
Sometimes I see a picture of someone looking at someone else in a certain way — the tilt of the head, the position of the eyes relative to the face, the width of the pupils, the relationship of the head to the body, the proximity of one head to another head, the attention implied by the position of the eyes — and I think: I wish someone would right now be looking at me in the way that the person in the picture is looking at the other person in the picture, and that it made me feel the way I imagine it makes the object of the looking feel, and that the person doing the looking meant the looking in the way I imagine the looker in the picture means the looking, and that both of us were as attractive and therefore societally vetted as worthy of giving and receiving looks like the looks that are being given and received in the picture, and that the confidence implied in the giving and receiving of the looks was a confidence that corresponded to my ability to give and receive the looks rather than the confidence that corresponds to my ability to talk about thinking about looking at the people doing the looking.
Which Problem is the More Vexing Problem?
1. You want to make a thing, but the thing you want to make is too big, so you spend your time thinking about how big it is instead of making it big.
2. You want to make a thing, but the thing you want to make is too big, so you spend your time trying to make it big instead of attending to the smallnesses from which big rises.
3. You want to make a thing, but the thing you want to make is too big, so you spend your time reading other big things searching for pathways to bigness instead of working on your big thing.
4. You want to make a thing, but the thing you want to make is too big for your ability as a maker to accommodate, and instead of working to expand your ability as a maker, you work to expand a thing that is growing ever physically bigger, but which will never be anything that is worth anything to anyone except you.
5. You want to make a thing, but the thing you want to make is too big for other people to understand, yet you keep consulting them in the hope of convincing them that its bigness is worthy, and you don’t get around to the act of making the big thing because those you hope will approve the big thing haven’t yet and won’t ever get around to endorsing the big thing until the big thing is already made and they can pass judgment upon it as a big thing instead of as the idea of a big thing.
6. You think you want to make a big thing, but what you really want is to have made a big thing, so you don’t make the big thing, and you’re miserable because you haven’t made the big thing.
7. You think you want to make a big thing, but what you really want is to have made a big thing, so you make a thing you think is big, but since all you’ve been doing is thinking about its bigness, you’ve not attended to the many small things from which big things are made, so the thing you’ve made which you’ve hoped would bring you the things the making of a big thing brings doesn’t bring you any of the things the making of a big thing brings, and you must consider the possibility that the thing you’ve made which you think is a big thing isn’t a big thing at all, but rather it is a not-big thing which is masquerading as a big thing.
8. You think you want to make a big thing, but what you really want is to have made a big thing, so you make a thing you think might be big, but since all you’ve been doing is thinking about its bigness, you’ve not attended to the many small things from which big things are made, and now the thing you’ve made which you’d hoped would bring you the things a big thing can bring is actually a thing which is bringing you the things a big thing can bring, because the thing you’ve made is physically and otherwise superficially big, and everyone looks at it and says Look at that big thing!, and although everyone is looking at the thing you have made and calling it a big thing, and even though you are enjoying the things which the making of a big thing can bring the maker of a big thing, the making of the thing which everyone is calling the big thing has brought you an insight into big things and the distinction between things that are made to be big things and things which actually are big things, so you look at the thing you have made which everyone is calling the big thing, and you decide that the thing is a thing but it is not a big thing, and although you don’t tell any of the people who are bringing you the things a big thing brings that your ostensibly big thing is not a big thing, you know that it is not a big thing that you have made but rather just a thing you made while thinking about the big things big things bring, and what do you do now?
A Conversation with Deb Olin Unferth
Deb Olin Unferth is the author of Minor Robberies, a collection of stories, andVacation, a novel, both published by McSweeney’s. Her new memoir, Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War, has been excerpted in Harper’s and The Believer. It will be published tomorrow in hardcover by Henry Holt.
MINOR: You left college in 1987 to join the Sandinista Revolution. You’ve written plenty between then and now, but not this story. Why did it take so long to decide that this was a subject for a book, and then to write and publish the book?
UNFERTH: I was very self-conscious about writing a memoir. For many years I wasn’t sure if it was a form with enough intellectual energy, which I now know was silly, since I’m very excited about memoirs and feel like they have tremendous intellectual energy. It was probably just an excuse for me. Also, I think maybe the story wasn’t over yet? Maybe I had to live a little more to figure out what the story was. Also I think I’ve struggled as a writer to figure out how to open up and reveal myself. Writing my novel, Vacation, helped me figure out how to do that, and afterwards I was ready to jump into the memoir. People had been telling me to write up my “revolution story” as a memoir for years. Tao Lin mentioned it to me I don’t know how many times. Also Nate Martin.
MINOR: What was the thing you figured out that allowed you to open up and reveal yourself more than you had in the earlier stories?
UNFERTH: I started out as a philosophy major. And I’ve always had an interest in form and in more intellectual styles of fiction writing. I think I was afraid to write with bald emotion, I thought it was too feminine or something. I think the breakthrough came when I read Chris Ware. I read that big red book of his, the compilation of Acme Novelty Library. It was very formal and right from the first pages dealt with ideas and theories about art and philosophy, and yet it was one of the most emotional books I’d ever read. Then I read an interview with him where he said he tries to put as much emotion in his work as possible. I found that very freeing. I saw that I could do both. My first effort was with Vacation, and then in Revolution I found it easier to open up.
MINOR: The book’s progression is not strictly chronologically linear. We open, for example, with the McDonald’s chapter, where the returning would-be revolutionaries meet a pair of parents at the border, and even though your father would have taken you anywhere you wanted to go, you wanted the familiar fast food. I wondered about that choice — why not start at the beginning? Or, if the idea is to hook the reader with something like a movie’s teaser trailer, why choose something that comes after the book’s major action. But then I started to think about how it’s a beginning that undercuts all the romantic associations the title might promise: Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War. And I thought similarly about the way the book manages information from then on. There is a tentativeness that seems to match the interior life of the narrator and the person she was during the time of the events. She doesn’t have a confident narrative to offer. Instead, she seems to say, like the poet Molly Peacock: “Here, use my rags of love.” And, of course, there seems to be a corresponding confidence beneath that choice: I’m not going to give you the story I want or the story you want. I’m going to give you the story I’ve got.
UNFERTH: Oh that’s nice. I especially like what you say about not having a confident narrative to offer. I had such a hard time with the tone and the voice of the book. Once I got that down, I realized the book could work, but until then, I thought it probably wouldn’t work. The voice had to contain all the doubts and fears I had about everything having to do with this project: the going to “join” the revolution in the first place, the writing about it later, all of it was tinged with self-conscious hesitation or even embarrassment. That had to be part of the voice. And the confidence you detect is my realizing that I found the voice.
MINOR: And yet there seems to be a continuity between this book and the fiction that precedes it. Sometimes the fiction seems to draw on similar source material (“Passport,” to give one example.) And there are certain formal similarities between the short chapters and the very short fiction.
UNFERTH: Yes, in fact those stories and even big chunks of Vacation are evidences that I was always half-writing this book. Or trying to figure out how to. This subject matter was part of my shadow-life, always had been. Maybe what you are doing at eighteen forms you even more than what you were doing at five or two (to argue against Freud for a moment) and that might be because at eighteen you are taking control of your life, probably for the first time, you are becoming. I say this because when I started looking at memoirs I realized a huge number, a ridiculous number, of them were about being eighteen or thereabouts. So if you see the subject matter being dragged through all my work, that might be why. And the formal similarities — yes, there is a Deb Olin Unferth style and voice, that’s for sure. Like it or not, I do have that, if nothing else.
MINOR: Do you have the fear, then, that you might have exhausted the material that is at the center of your consciousness, and what now?
UNFERTH: Ha! You know, there is another part of my life that I’ve written about over and over and over. After I finished grad school and moved back to Chicago, I was kind of floundering there for a few years — I touch on it a little in Revolution, toward the end. They truly were the worst years of my life and nearly all of my published stories came out of the experiences I had during those years. Or at least all the stories that weren’t about Nicaragua. And what now? Indeed. I do feel an exhaustion, but it isn’t with writing. It’s some of kind of sensory overload. Or brain overload. Or my brain is breaking down or something. But I think it’s okay for the moment. I’m willing to wait it out a bit. In the meantime, I’m working on a couple of things that are interesting to me.
MINOR: Here is the most extraordinary description of a person’s attraction to evangelical Christianity that I have ever read: “I liked how confusing Christianity was, how it required so much explaining: why we’d sip blood, why we’d pretend to sip blood, why God would punish us, why He’d punish someone else and pretend it was us, and so on. The enormous mystery of God was much more congruous with my disorienting experience of the world than the arrogant certainty of atheism.”
UNFERTH: Ha. Yes, that’s how it was! It was very, very hard to figure out how to write about Christianity, how to express the reverence I once had, the strangeness and the beauty I saw in it, without flat out making fun (what could be more boring than another writer coming along and poking fun at Christianity for being nonsensical?), and at the same time I couldn’t be simply reverent, because I’m no longer reverent and I’m so irreverent that I doubt my previous reverence. I tried to think back and remember, impressionistically, what it was that I loved about it. I tried to capture the initial attraction and desire and piece of me it filled up.
MINOR: And yet there is much about the young woman in the book that is willing to place limits on reverence and its corollary, control, even to a degree that the adult narrator later comes to regret. For example, the moment in the orphanage where she takes a stand against Hermana Mana over the issue of wearing a bra.
UNFERTH: Yes — she? I? –that young woman was, at heart, a bit of a brat, and I do regret that. Over the years I had written that scene and played it in my mind so many times, wishing I could play it differently and that the ending would be me being a bit of a hero, a caretaker of children, a soldier for the poor, and so on, but it just wasn’t me.
MINOR: The other major figure in the book is the man you call George (I assume that’s not his real name.) There’s a real wrestling with him throughout the book. He is an attractive, charismatic figure, and it’s not difficult to see why the speaker is attracted to him. But he is also an enigmatic figure in some ways — he hasn’t yet figured himself out, even though he acts out of a confidence that would seem to indicate that he thinks he has. Even the adult narrator seems puzzled about what to do with him, and it’s a puzzlement that announces itself from the first chapter. On page 27, we get this: “Maybe he’s sitting somewhere looking typical right now. Maybe for years now he’s been looking that way, and no one around him knows who he really is.” But did you? Do you? Does he? How difficult was it to construct his character in the pages of this book?
UNFERTH: Wow, yeah, good. It wasn’t hard to have the image in my mind of who he was. That was easy because it was already fully formed and has been sitting there for me to measure everything I’ve ever done against over and over since I was eighteen. It was hard to create that outside my head. I felt immensely sympathetic to his vision and defensive on his behalf against anyone who might criticize him for God-only-knows, not being a responsible enough citizen or some such. I’ve always felt like I had this unique person during a formative time in my life, and also that this figure represented a generation, and that what he was isn’t around much anymore. I felt like I wanted to preserve it.
MINOR: That protective impulse seems to manifest itself in other ways. You don’t tell us his name, you obscure the name of the college and the megachurch and even which state the early part of the action is set in. It’s a tightrope, right?, this balancing act between what to give and what to withhold in a memoir in which you’re the only character who signed up for the job. How did you think about these matters and make these choices, and are there ongoing consequences, personally and otherwise?
UNFERTH: The school of writing I tend to gravitate toward — a more minimalist, even slightly Lishian school — frowns on proper nouns, for the most part. I’d been in the habit for years of shying away from place-names and proper names. Actually I was doing that before I encountered or learned about Lish, and when I started coming across his students’ work, I recall it was one of the ways I knew I’d found friends: I noticed the resistance to naming. So when I started the memoir, I was pretty stuck. I’d confronted the problem in Vacation and I got away with a lot. The wife has no name. Several other characters have no names or have place-holders for names or have names that sound slightly fake. But a memoir, boy, that’s tough. And on top of that I did want to protect George’s identity as much as I could. So if you read carefully you can figure out where all this stuff is taking place in the passages that are set in the U.S. Colorado is eventually mentioned, for example, but I tried to keep as much away from it as I could, until we get to Central America — that was a completely different challenge because I wanted to identify everything, and how to do that and keep the tone and voice and humor and style? Rough going.
MINOR: I wanted to ask you about the ending of the book. I’ve never read a memoir with multiple endings before. It seems right — these are the things we’ve been talking about, right?, the narrative persona that ultimately must give itself up to the irresolvability of the narrative in the conventional sense. Of course I was thinking right away of what Malamud did in The Tenants, except that in that novel, there were three literally different endings, whereas in this memoir, there are multiple choices for endings that are raised by the narrator as possible places to “land” (“land,” again, not quite conveying the openness that is intended, if I’m reading the book intelligently.) And I wondered — what is it like to take a survey of the big story at the center of your formative years and walk away requiring a multiple ending? Is this what it means to be an adult, or is this another way in which the narrator places herself in opposition to expectations toward sometimes productive and sometimes unpredictable ends?
UNFERTH: At one point when I kept going back to Nicaragua in the early 2000’s, I met up with another former Internacionalista (one who seemed to have actually accomplished a few things) and I told him I was writing a book about Nicaragua (I don’t even remember which horrific incarnation the book was in at that point). He asked me what the ending was and I said there would be two or three endings. And he said that any book about Nicaragua had to have more than one ending. I thought that was a perfect statement. The history of Nicaragua is like that of a person to me. I can see the hopes and desires, the strivings, the failures and lessons learned, the energy, the personality. It feels that way to me. And I suppose in order to fully express the identity of a person, you can’t just have one ending or have one final word on them. A person or a country is too complicated for that, and narrative does them a disservice to pretend otherwise. Also I wanted to create a sort of yoyoing sensation, where you first think one thing, then another, then another, and your understanding of what happened keeps shifting and changing. Part of the reason for writing the book was to express that shifting feeling.
I’m With Ishiguro
”As a writer, I’m more interested in what people tell themselves happened rather than what actually happened” — Kazuo Ishiguro
Nabokov on Collaboration
(from the Foreword to Lolita: A Screenplay):
By nature I am no dramatist; I am not even a hack scenarist; but if I had given as much of myself to the stage or the screen as I have to the kind of writing which serves a triumphant life sentence between the covers of a book, I would have advocated and applied a system of total tyranny, directing the play or the picture myself, choosing settings and costumes, terrorizing the actors, mingling with them in the big part of guest, or ghost, prompting them, and, in a word, pervading the entire show with the will and art of one individual–for there is nothing in the world that I loathe more than group activity, that communal bath where the hairy and slippery mix in a multiplication of mediocrity.
”It is permitted you in time of grave danger to walk with the devil until you have crossed the bridge.”
Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 1
”What’s done cannot be undone.” – Lady Macbeth
Big G, to Cain, early in the Book of Genesis
”The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.”
Epigraphs for a Novel-in-Progress
“At any rate, when a subject is highly controversial—
and any question about sex is that—one cannot hope to tell the truth.”
“Se lè koulèv mouri ou konn longè-l.”
(Only when the serpent dies can you take his measure.)
“Could this be love?”
“The Plaine . . . echoed with barks and blasphemies.”
“Yet on the walls of my brain, frescoes . . .”
“. . . loaded like spoons into the belly of Jesus . . .”
“’Let us change to another story,’ said Obiageli.
‘This one has no end.’”
Where I Get the Titles for My Stories and Essays
by Kyle Minor
Special language from within the story, the King James Version, the taunts of small children, Shakespeare, place names, anger, Fleetwood Mac songs (an editor complained), college football bowl games, character names, hospital talk, quotations from my mother, descriptions of physical objects, emotions, Broadway musicals, Flannery O’Connor, Yeats, John Madden color commentary, Lenny Bruce jokes, cliches, cliches inverted, cliches ironicized, cliches used unironically, combinations of letters and numbers, years and other dates, puns, synecdoche, the mimetic fallacy and the intentional fallacy and other fallacies, newspaper clippings, New Yorker articles, anything by Lawrence Weschler or Wislawa Szymborska or Frank Stanford, overheard conversation near the railroad tracks, transcripts from murder trials, 19th century advertisements found in Lexis Nexis searches, outdated jargon, the Urban Dictionary, Wikipedia, famous plagiarists, trucker talk, cop talk, astronomer talk, sideways syntax, gerunding nouns, nouning verbs, anything with the words Sweet, Sour, Syrup, or Syringe, diagrams of dental procedures, anything with D-11 Root Extractors, anything flapper, flipper, flamer, or phalangical, the Southern Baptist Hymnal, issues of the Gospel Trumpet from 1921-1923, father-in-lawly utterances, Latin, Haitian Creole, Hebrew, Hungarian, slurs of all varieties, and any variety of harsh or hateful speech, memos from secretaries, misheard Michael Stipe lyrics, distillations of ideas stolen from Elliott Smith or the band Smog (such as paraphrases of “The kind of memories / That turn your bones to glass”), varieties of grass, varieties of dirt, bodies of water, land masses of all kinds, cheap and easy deployments of metaphors such as the Grand Canyon as a vast sunken emptiness, diseases, tombstone inscriptions, archaeological terminologies, presidential pardons, law school entrance examination questions, the words of cuckolded lovers, descriptions of the violent vengeances of cuckolded lovers, Anglicized Yiddishisms stolen from Isaac Bashevis Singer.
(originally appeared in Puerto del Sol)
Deb Olin Unferth and the Double-I
I make a portion of my living helping other people write, rewrite, fix, or otherwise fiddle with their memoirs. Generally speaking, these people are not interested in the Single-I point of view, or the “dispatch from the moment,” or a memoir proceeding entirely in a progression of chronologically linear scenes from the point of view of the person they were at the time of the events they’re offering the reader. The reason is usually a lack of desire for discipline — there are very few tasks more difficult than the task of writing a chronologically linear book in a progression of scenes which are not hijacked by a latter-day narrator who regularly swoops in to essay, explain, make meaning, apologize, or otherwise interrupt the experience the reader is having with the person the narrator used to be. The primary benefit of the Single-I is that it is the closest thing we have in memoir to the simulation of someone else’s experience of life, since life is lived in the moment to moment and offers little in the way of summary, dispatches from the future, and so on. All that comes later, when we impose narrative on past events. Narrative is one of my favorite things, but it is, let’s remember, a fundamentally artificial thing, different in almost every way from the actual experience of living life. All the boring stuff is cut out, all the everyday stuff is cut out, all the sleeping, most of the eating and pissing and pooping, most of the banalities of conversation, etc. (I should note here that the exception that points back to this rule is the craftsmanly recent fiction of Tao Lin, whose last two novels are very interested in restoring these banalities alongside the discipline of the Single-I, and toward interesting ends including reproduction of a kind of self-centered Americanized young person’s Buddhist-ish consciousness — but that’s not what I want to talk about here.)
What I want to talk about is a brief passage from Deb Olin Unferth’s new memoirRevolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War, a book that decidedly rejects the Single-I point of view in favor of the much more popular alternative, the Double-I. (This terminology is not standard, by the way. I borrow it from my old teacher Lee K. Abbott. I have found it very useful for descriptive reasons, so I’m going to keep using it.)
Quick primer in the Double-I. (Why two I’s?, you’ll say.) The two I’s in question are the “I of the now,” or the teller of the tale, and the “I of the then,” or the person to whom events happened. The “I of the then” corresponds to the narrator in the Single-I account. Let’s say you, at 34-years-old, are the narrator. That would make you the “I of the now,” because it’s now, and you’re I. But here the pronoun fails us. Because the you you are now is I, but the you you were then is also I, yet the I you are now is not the same as the I you were then. So much has changed since you were, say, the 12-year-old “I of the then.” The story is about the things that happened to the 12-year-old, but the teller of the tale is the 34-year-old. If the whole story is told from the point of view of the 34-year-old, we’ll have a 22-year distance on everything that is being reported. We’ll get it mostly in summary, and all of it through the gauzy and distorting lens of memory. Maybe it would be better to say the “machinery” of memory rather than the lens of memory, because memory, it would seem, has agency. It wants some things and doesn’t want others. It is very tied to the you you are now. It has grievances that stem from the experience of the you you were then, but those grievances are different from the grievances that were grieved by the you you were then, because time and experience and knowledge have changed the grievances, or mutated then, or muted or amplified them. Also, the you you were then was only living the story you’re telling, but the you you are now is telling your story for an audience, which means the you you are now has a whole lot of calculations to make in deference to or fear of or defiance of or opposition to your audience, whereas the you you were then will be (so the naive version of the theory goes) constructed from a simple transcription of the pertinent moments, without any kind of censorious or redemptive or otherwise transformative intervention from the you you are now. As regards the central thing narrative imposes — the question of how one makes meaning or doesn’t make meaning or thinks about or otherwise decides upon the experience — the main determining factor is time. The Single-I performs these functions from the final moment of the story, since there is no future from which to perform them. But the Double-I performs these functions from a definite place in the future, and the question of how the past event is interpreted or presented, finally, is subsidiary to the question of how much time has passed between the you you were then and the you you were now. From middle-age, a broken engagement at age nineteen looks very different to the person who once experienced it than it does from, say, age twenty-one. Time plays the changes on the importance, meaning, and interpretation of the past experience.
Here’s the thing: The Double-I is very attractive to most memoirists, because it offers the opportunity to grandstand and manipulate and generally tell the reader how and what to think about everything. In the hands of a really genius expositor, that’s a thrill. Imagine, for example, an entirely expository memoir by David Foster Wallace about the memory of a trip to the grocery store with his mother. No doubt he could thrill a certain kind of reader (one like me) for two or five hundred pages. (This kind of thing, in fact, is the central project of many of Thomas Bernhard’s novels — a deep and deeply subjective and reflective reminiscence upon a past event.)
The problem is that not many people are up to that expository task. But even for them, the Double-I offers an elegant solution: Stay with the “I of the then” as often as possible, especially toward the beginning and middle of the narrative, and stay in scene, and keep your incompetent meaning-maker out of the game until the very end.
That’s not what most people ultimately choose. Instead, they usually split it down the middle. The pattern we get is action (“I of the then”) – reflection (“I of the now”); action-reflection; action-reflection. This pattern accounts for a very large portion of the mediocre memoirs written by writers better compensated than you or me. It does ultimately produce a competence, and there is usually feeling enough produced in the reader to serve the writer’s goals, the central one of which is usually: “Please validate the worth of my life.” (And why not? This is not a motive exclusive to memoirists. They just don’t have anywhere to hide.)
Very rarely, though, we get a really strong writer who uses the Double-I in a manner that at first glance seems to be something like the action-reflection model, but which on closer examination proves to be something different — the reason we’re getting the I of the now and the I of the then close together at book length is because the narrative itself is a conscious attempt to reconcile the past life with the present life, even though the present-day speaker is intelligent enough to know that it’s probably a mostly-impossible task. The moment of convergence is often rendered by way of a metaphor that rises organically from a particular moment in the past. This is almost always the province of poets and fiction writers who have turned their hand to memoir, and, indeed, the Double-I book that does it best is not marketed as a memoir at all, but rather as a work of fiction, and that’s Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son.
It’s big trouble to talk so abstractly at such length about a matter such as this. I’m doing it because I just finished reading Deb Olin Unferth’s Revolution, and, this once, I didn’t read a memoir half-angry the whole time because it could have been so much better. This book is so much better — better made, better felt, better constructed, smarter, and more self-aware — than almost all the memoirs I’ve read in the last five years.
Here is the passage that illustrates the thing I was trying to say. To give context, Deb Olin Unferth has dropped out of college with her Marxist-evangelical boyfriend George to join the “revolution” in Central America. He has recently proposed to her on a roadside in El Salvador, and now they’ve taken a bus to the coastal resort town of La Libertad, hoping to see the ocean. They have secured and lost their first “revolution job” at an evangelical orphanage for war refugee children on account of Unferth’s unwillingness to wear a bra, and they have had their first big fight, and they have said “I love you” for the first time, and they have decided to get married. But when they get to the beach and look out at the water, it is brown, and “streaked with black lines in both directions as far as we could see.”
They meet a man who works at a hotel overlooking the beach, and ask him why the water looks like that. Here’s how the passage ends:
He took us upstairs. We looked down at the water. You could see the heavy streaks across the water, running out into the sea. The man told us the water wasn’t really brown. It looked like that because of algae. It would be gone soon, we should wait a few days, he said.
I’d never seen the Pacific Ocean look like that.
It must be a terrible war to make the water look like that, I thought.
I looked over at George. I wondered if I should be marrying someone who took me to places like this.
We couldn’t have been very high, looking down on the beach, maybe one or two floors up, but in my memory it seems as if we were very high and I could see a long way.
What’s brilliant about this passage, to me, is that in that very last move, where the “I of the now” asserts herself in an otherwise conventional summing-up way, we get something more complicated, because in that very last line (“in my memory it seems as if we were very high and I could see a long way”), the two I’s converge in a way that allows us to see the ocean through both points of view at the same time, and then to understand what is being seen through both points of view at the same time, and, wow-ingly, by using the very same words (“we were very high and I could see a long way”), which we know, because of the writer’s skillful handling of the moment, means two different things to the two different I’s. To the younger self, it seems as if they were very high and she could see a long way, and it’s easy enough to read it as a hopeful metaphor for the future into which the two would-be revolutionaries are bravely embarking. But to the older self, the stress falls on the “in my memory it seems,” which we know from inference is the invocation of an interpretation of the moment which the older self has not only rejected but also will find laughable and mockable throughout the memoir, because, in fact, these two young people are as low to the ground as it gets, and their vision doesn’t allow them to see or understand much at all. Only the great distance of time and the corresponding knowledge and increasing interpretive power it allows will make possible any thing resembling height or vision, and what that height and vision will reveal couldn’t be any more distant from the romantic notions that spurred them to Central America.
Seminar in Sentence-Making #36: Nabokov Edition
This is from Chapter Two, Part 4, of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin. The protagonist, immigrant professor Timofey Pnin, has just had all his teeth pulled:
A warm flow of pain was gradually replacing the ice and wood of the anaesthetic in his thawing, still half-dead, abominably martyred mouth. After that, during a few days he was in mourning for an intimate part of himself. It surprised him to realize how fond he had been of his teeth. His tongue, a fat sleek seal, used to flop and slide so happily among the familiar rocks, checking the contours of a battered but still secure kingdom, plunging from cave to cove, climbing this jag, nuzzling that notch, finding a shred of sweet seaweed in the same old cleft; but now not a landmark remained, and all there existed was a great dark wound, a terra incognita of gums which dread and disgust forbade one to investigate. And when the plates were thrust in, it was like a poor fossil skull being fitted with the grinning jaws of a perfect stranger.
The first thing I notice is that the description isn’t static. It is wedded to narration in the forward motion of time. When we get “was gradually replacing,” we get the description of the before and after and the transition from one to the other because of the verb.
Nabokov, as he often does, takes big risks with figurative language in his description. He’s likening sensations to objects when he talks about the “ice and wood of the anesthetic.” It works because these objects so rightly represent the way the anesthetic makes the mouth feel — frozen (you can’t properly control the muscles of the mouth and tongue and lips the way you can’t when you’ve been sucking ice, and you can feel things but only dully, also in a way that recalls the post-ice-sucking sensation) and wooden (dull, heavy, strangely solid in a manner that becomes more apparent when contrasted against the “warm flow of pain” that replaces it, which is rightly given liquid and thawing qualities.)
The next big descriptive task, also framed in a way that shows the workings of the mind in reaction to the sensations of the body over time, is to talk about what it feels like to no longer have your teeth. Here, too, Nabokov gets figurative, parsing an extended metaphor comparing the tongue to “a fat sleek seal,” and familiarly tracing the former trajectory of the seal through a natural habitat that has more or less one-to-one corollaries with the habitat of the mouth. (Even the food stuck between the teeth gets nostalgic love, for it was “a shred of sweet seaweed in the same old cleft,” a cleft that is will no longer hold anything because it is gone.) The seal’s former “secure kingdom” has been replaced by a “terra incognita,” a “great dark wound.” What has been lost was daily beautiful, and it has been replaced by a place of “dread and disgust” which “forbade one to investigate.” (The abstractions are more than earned — t he progression of rightly juxtaposed images have clearly shown why it is no longer any pleasure for his tongue to live in his mouth.)
In the last sentence of the passage, Nabokov switches metaphors: “And when the plates were thrust in, it was like a poor fossil skull being fitted with the grinning jaws of a perfect stranger.” It can’t be anything but intentional that these are death and decay images, or that the one set of bones he’s going to be showing everyone every day for the rest of his life are not even his own bones. How horrible, this fate, for a man who already has done his best to replace the outward way of being in the world — his Russian walk, his Russian language, his Russian propriety, his Russian style of dress and demeanor — for another which is neither Russian nor American, but which is a recognizably imitative version of the American which he didn’t set out to be until it was forced upon him, like the new teeth.
Finally, notice why the sentences are so beautiful in their sonic qualities. The thing I notice most is the way Nabokov makes use of repeated sounds within sentences, and especially in adjacent sets of words. His tongue is not a seal. It is “a fat sleek seal.” (And note, too, that at this moment, when he gets lyrical, the prose tightens to regularly iambic feet: “His tongue, / a fat / sleek seal . . .”) Along the same lines: “plunging from cave to cove” (a lesser writer would have said cave to cave or cove to cove, but the description keeps the sounds adjacent while varying the music by changing the vowel, and the description is more precisely right in so choosing) — and note, too, the broader sonic context of c-based sounds: “checking the contours of a battered but still secure kingdom, plunging from cave to cove, climbing this jag, nuzzling that notch, finding a shred of sweet seaweed in the same old cleft . . .), and note, too, that in addition to that syntactical run beginning and ending with the k sounds in checking and cleft, it also contains the n pairing of “nuzzling that notch” and the s pairing of “shred of sweet seaweed” (which moves the w sound slightly from word to word, again, in a way that pleases the ear.)
“These Little Love Letters”
Katherine Mansfield to Princess Bibesco, March 24, 1921:
Dear Princess Bibesco,
I am afraid you must stop writing these little love letters to my husband while he and I live together. It is one of those things which is not done in our world.
You are very young. Won’t you ask your husband to explain to you the impossibility of such a situation.
Please do not make me have to write to you again. I do not like scolding people and I simply hate having to teach them manners.
Reading as a Comfort
The suicides and untimely deaths of friends and family have been piling up the last ten years. I had a close friend when I lived in Florida who was a city utilities worker. He was into kung fu movies and karate and beach volleyball and very unlucky with women. He met a woman after he was diagnosed with leukemia, and they married, but it must have been hard to be married to a terminally ill person, and she left him in the end, but before the end. It seemed unexcusable to me that she left him before the end, but then she was the one who was changing the bedsheets and holding his head over the toilet and watching him turn skeletal and lose teeth.
When he was close to the end, somebody called to tell me. I had moved away, and drove the two and a half hours to his hospital bed. There was some kind of magnetic resistance pushing at me from the direction of that hospital. I drove around it several times and didn’t park. I went into a movie theater to watchSunshine State, a John Sayles movie. It was a comfort to be in the movie, but not the kind of comfort that is comfortable. Watching a film in a darkened theater when you are full of darkness is a weird uncomfortable stasis. It’s dream-like, but not a pleasurable dream. My attention drifted from my dying friend, but also from the movie, into a vagueness. Someone cleared their throat in the front row, and someone near me reeked of popcorn oil. I remember a scene with two people paddling a canoe, and I remember learning later that Sayles had blown up a portion of the print because a boom mic had got into the top of the shot, and so that part of the movie was somehow grainier. But I don’t remember thinking it was grainier at the time I was watching the movie. I only remember being comforted when Edie Falco was on the screen, some kind of weird motherly feeling I had when she was on the screen.
I went to see my friend in the hospital bed after the movie was over. I coughed, and he was angry with me, because leukemia destroys your immune system. My cough could have killed him. I remember my friend had shit on himself, and I crawled briefly into the bed with him and got a little of the shit on my pants. Later, at the funeral, I was asked to speak, and I got emotional, and one of the officiants told me later that in time I wouldn’t get so emotional about people dying. I said it depended upon the person.
For awhile I was watching television, but television was a lot like being in the movie. It was hard to sleep for awhile, and some nights I didn’t sleep. The days afterward might be eight hours removed from what would have been the previous day, but instead it felt like weeks had passed. Colors became briefly associated with smells, but only pungent smells, like onion or garlic, or softly bitter and unidentifiable smells, like when you stick your nose near the spice rack.
Somebody had recently turned me on to Kurt Vonnegut books. At this time in my life, I hadn’t read very much literature at all. I had read Faulkner and Hemingway in high school, and Hawthorne and George Eliot, one novel each by all of them, but I wasn’t ready to know how good they were, because I hadn’t read enough yet. But something about Kurt Vonnegut lit my head on fire. I read all the books, one after the other, in whatever order I could get my hands on them.
If you think about what those books are about — suicide, genocide, American imperialism, religious control, Nazis, the ruthlessness of natural selection, etc. — you’d think it’s weird that these books were a comfort. But for two or three months, I lost myself in them. What a strange comfort — it was something like oblivion, just complete lostness.
This lostness is really what saved me, I think, from a deep despair, and not just about the suicides and the deaths, but over the idea of death, and the world of atrocities, and a fundamental feeling of differentness or aloneness or separation from other people.
Writing doesn’t offer the same kind of lostness. Writing requires a giving that is harder-earned the more of it you do, except maybe the occasional, once- or twice-a-year gift of flight that leaves you not long after it seizes you. But reading, good reading, reliably welds you to the most fluent, able part of another human being’s interior life, and if they’ve done they’re job, you’re pleasantly enslaved to it for as long as it takes you to finish the thing you’ve started.
I know a man, an engineering professor, who says his life’s work is reading Proust. I asked him why. He said because the end of it is never in sight, and he fears he’s not strong enough to be a person who lives in the world the way other people live in the world once he’s come to the end of it. The it he fears coming to the end of, I think, is the lostness. His great despair would be the loss of the lostness, which would require the gaining of the present knowledge of the greater lostnesses that end with the greatest loss.
The contemplation of death is for some people this great terror, and the best reading is often full of the contemplation of death, and so they stave off the contemplation of death by choosing the lostness of a contemplation of the contemplation of death.
The concerns that spur this reflection today are less than the concerns of death, but they are the concerns of the sustenance of life that rise from fear and upheaval in the workplace. Mine is particularly scary lately, full of uncertainty, with lawsuits and threats of recrimination buzzing from office to office as one group tries to wrest power from another. I’m not actively involved in any of it, as a target or an actor — I am, indeed, a person without a place in any of the competing power systems — but the uncertainty and the atmosphere of fear is difficult some days to escape.
This morning I turned again to some books I’ve been reading or rereading in fitful starts and stops — Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser, DeQuincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Kafka’s The Trial, John Wray’s Lowboy — and I was transported to some Germanic rehearsal space, or to a nineteenth-century opium haze, or to the house of detainment, or to the New York City subway, and — there is no way to gild these abstractions — it was a comfort, and I knew it was would be a comfort, because it is reliably the comfort when there isn’t another comfort. I take refuge in the trouble of others rendered in twenty-six characters arranged in meaningful orders and transformed by my synaptic storm into something that briefly becomes more real to me than the woman who delivers my mail, the first person I saw this morning after rising from the deep place into which I had dropped myself with aid of the books.
There is an asterisk in the accounting of every serious worry or grief I’ve borne subsequent to my friend’s death from leukemia. I can remember the book, and I can remember the bathroom or bedroom or Fazoli’s restaurant or cloth-upholstered bucket seat to which I withdrew in the middle of something for which I should have been more present. I will probably never be able to enjoy Harry Crews’s A Feast of Snakes again because it was in my pocket graveside three days after the suicide of my seventeen-year-old nephew. It’s sitting here beside me on my office desk. There is a face on the cover of indeterminate sex. The left side of the face is green, and the right side of the face is orange. It was overcast at the graveside, in Lexington, and before the end of the service it started to rain. Some people fled for their cars, and others stood in the rain, as though it meant something, but it meant nothing at all, except that two varieties of air and moisture met in some meteorologically describable way, and water fell from the sky. If we’d been on a different planet, it might have been mercury or methane that fell from the sky. Or maybe instead of falling, it would hover. There is something in my training that wants to strain for a metaphor and make some meaning and make you feel something, but there’s not a metaphor here or anyplace else in the world that is useful to describe the horror of that afternoon. Thinking about it, I can’t wait until lunchtime, so I can replace my darknesses with someone else’s for an hour or so, while I eat my roast beef and drink my Coke.
What Do You Mean When You Say “Brooklyn”?
When I visit Brooklyn, there is Brooklyn, and then there is the idea of Brooklyn I have before I visit Brooklyn, and then there is the idea of Brooklyn the people I’m visiting in Brooklyn have of Brooklyn, and then there is the idea of Brooklyn the people I tell I’m visiting Brooklyn have of Brooklyn, and there are the Brooklyn streets and the Brooklyn people and the Brooklyn buildings, and Manhattan is across the river, and there is the idea of Brooklyn as part of New York City, and there is the idea that Brooklyn isn’t a part of New York City, because New York City is Manhattan, and when I read Edward Falco I visit a Williamsburg where it is not safe to walk the streets, and when I visit Williamsburg it is very safe to walk the streets, even alone at night, and when I walk through a neighborhood full of Hasidic Jews walking on a Saturday, the people I’m with tell me how it is to live in a neighborhood of Hasidic Jews walking on a Saturday, but I don’t know anything about what it’s like to be a Hasidic Jew walking on a Saturday, and when I’m with people who like to talk about literature, Brooklyn is a place where everyone talks about literature, but when I’m not with people who like to talk about literature, no one in Brooklyn is talking about literature, and when I read about Brooklyn in newspapers I hear stories about Brooklyn trends, such as it’s cool to have a potbelly, but when I’ve been in Brooklyn, I’ve never met anyone who believes it’s cool to have a potbelly, and what I’m wondering is: What is Brooklyn?, and: What does a person mean when a person is saying Brooklyn to me?, and: If I only visit Brooklyn but never live in Brooklyn, do I know very much about what Brooklyn is?, and: If I lived in Brooklyn but never visited other places, how would I have any idea of what Brooklyn might be without having other places against which to compare Brooklyn?, and: If I grew up in Brooklyn, would Brooklyn be Brooklyn now or the Brooklyn I knew then or both or neither, and: If I didn’t grow up in Brooklyn but I lived in Brooklyn, would Brooklyn be Brooklyn now or the Brooklyn I imagine from then or both or neither, and: If I’ve never lived in Brooklyn, but I frequently visit Brooklyn, is Brooklyn the Brooklyn I visit or the Brooklyn I imagine Brooklyn to be when I’m not there or the Brooklyn I imagine Brooklyn used to be or the thing I think Brooklyn can do for me or the thing I think Brooklyn is doing for other people or none of these things or all of these things?, and: Why is it always I’m wanting to think about my idea of Brooklyn and never I’m thinking about my idea of the place I really live, which seems too out-of-the-way and inconsequential to mean anything to anyone, or even to mention to anyone I meet in Brooklyn, and what does that say about my idea of Brooklyn?
Loving All These Thieves
Here is the opening to Lolita:
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
“She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.”
Note the correspondence between the two openings in terms of wordplay, the repetition of the consonant sound (p- and l-), and the use of the name to show the personas the character inhabits in different places and times and in different relationships. I prefer Nabokov’s opening on grounds of language, but wonder if it would have been possible without its mining of the riches of Dickens.
I also noticed that Philip Roth, in American Pastoral, uses a trick equivalent to Nabokov’s to show how the protagonist’s name is pronounced. Nabokov gives the actual position of the tongue (I didn’t notice this — I read about it in a Brian Boyd biography), which shows that the “t” in Lolita is pronounced with the tongue on the teeth rather than on the roof of the mouth. Roth’s solution to the problem of his protagonist’s name — Swede Levov rhymes with Swede the Love. There is no reason to think that Roth was thinking of Lolita, but it’s interesting to watch two writers find a not-clunky solution to the same clunky problem.
“‘Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting,’ she said.” – “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” Amy Hempel
Openings simply establishing who speaks and/or when and where we are in space and/or time:
“William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen.” – Stoner, John Williams
“When I am run down and flocked around by the world, I go down to Farte Cove off the Yazoo River and take my beer to the end of the pier where the old liars are still snapping and wheezing at one another.” – “Water Liars,” Barry Hannah
“I am Gimpel the Fool.” – “Gimpel the Fool,” Isaac Bashevis Singer
Expository openings whose primary purpose is to introduce us to the trouble at story’s beginning (and these often also include the matters of who speaks and/or when and/or where we are in space and/or time):
“Of the twenty stallions brought to Cap Francais by the ship’s captain, who had a kind of partnership with a breeder in Normandy, Ti Noel had unhesitatingly picked that stud with the four white feet and rounded crupper which promised good service for mares whose colts were coming smaller each year.” – The Kingdom of This World, Alejo Carpentier
“For the first three years, the young wife worried that their lovemaking together was somehow hard on his thingie.” – “Adult World (I),” David Foster Wallace
Quick-to-scene openings (sometimes expository, but they signal that they won’t be for long) whose primary purpose is to introduce us to the trouble at story’s beginning (and these often also include the matters of who speaks and/or when and/or where we are in space and/or time):
“I was coming down off the Mitchell Flats with three arrowheads in my pocket and a dead copperhead hung around my neck like an old woman’s scarf when I caught a boy named Truman Mackey fucking his own little sister in the Dynamite Hole.” – “Dynamite Hole,” Donald Ray Pollock
“The child had been warned. His father said he would nail that rock-throwing hand to the shed wall, saying it would be hard to break windshields and people’s windows with a hand nailed to the shed wall.” – “Gentleman’s Agreement,” Mark Richard
“Lizard and Geronimo and Eskimo Pie wanted to see the scars.” – “Miracle Boy,” Pinckney Benedict
In Medias Res:
“Strike spotted her: baby fat, baby face, Shanelle or Shanette, fourteen years old maybe, standing there with that queasy smile, trying to work up the nerve.” – Clockers, Richard Price
“The gun jammed on the last shot and the baby stood holding the crib rail, eyes wild, bawling.” – The Plague of Doves, Louise Erdrich
“He wanted to talk again, suddenly.” – “In the Gloaming,” Alice Elliott Dark
Contextless fragment whose function will become apparent later:
“Short story about a church on the ocean floor.” – From Old Notebooks, Evan Lavender-Smith
“Oh, poor Dad. I’m sorry I made fun of you.” “Nietszche,” Lydia Davis
Establishes alternative donnee (possibly because of altered consciousness, possibly because of space/time/physics displacement):
“In sleep she knew she was in her bed, but not the bed she had lain down in a few hours since, and the room was not the same but it was a room she had known somewhere.” – “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” Katherine Anne Porter
“It’s one thing to be a small country, but the country of Inner Horner was so small only one Inner Hornerite at a time could fit inside, and the other six Inner Hornerites had to wait their turns to live in their own country while standing very timidly in the surrounding country of Outer Horner.” – The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, George Saunders
Essaying of some sort:
“They are conduits of emotion, kids are.” – “AM:31,” Amelia Gray
“So, Monsieur, it began with a great gust of wind.” – Street of Lost Footsteps, Lyonel Trouillot
Yammering by foregrounded omniscient narrator:
“Any mention of pirates of the fair sex runs the immediate risk of awakening painful memories of the neighborhood production of some faded musical comedy, with its chorus line of obvious housewives posing as pirates and hoofing it on a briny deep of unmistakeable cardboard.” – “The Widow Ching – Pirate,” Jorge Luis Borges
The language of advertising:
“So, you don’t believe in a future life. Then do we have the place for you!” – The Quick and the Dead, Joy Williams
“Since your letter is accompanied by an endorsement from your minister, I am happy to reply.” – “A Wilderness Station,” Alice Munro
(*) Note that many of these openings do many of these kinds of work, and could well be counted across four or five of these categories. I find those kind of openings – openings that manage information very elegantly while getting us quickly to the trouble and using interesting language all the while — to be particularly pleasing. For example, almost every opening in dialogue is in medias res by definition. (But not always: Roth uses the opening dialogue in Sabbath’s Theater toward an expository end. That whole first page deserves an analytical post of its own. But I digress.) I’ve categorized the openings in these ways to stimulate some thought about the kinds of work an opening sentence might do, and why, and toward what ends. Mainly, as usual, I’m trying to educate myself.
Last sentences are more difficult to evaluate absent context than first sentences, because first sentences are a handshake, a promise, an invitation, an opening. They are establishers of context. They mean in conversation with what follows them, but not only in conversation with what follows them. Last sentences mean only in conversation with what precedes them. Still, I think it is (or I hope it will be) a useful exercise to look at some last sentences absent context, and see what’s there. I plan to post about this matter again, and at greater length, but for now I want to just offer a selection of last sentences for your edification and mine:
“The widow begs you, therefore, if you ever pass through our village, to be good enough to spend the night in her house as her guest, and when you leave in the morning, to take the santuri with you.” – Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek
“These spirits, they’d left her for good the morning that the news was broadcast on the radio that her brother had set his body on fire in the prison yard at dawn, leaving behind no corpse to bury, no trace of himself at all.” – Edwidge Danticat, The Dew Breaker
“He. She. Sleeps. O.K.?” – John Updike, Rabbit Redux
“He opens his mouth again and does one better.” – Erin McGraw, The Good Life
“Now everybody–” – Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow
“Ana said, ‘Perhaps it was not my life either.’” – V.S. Naipaul, Half a Life
“Missed you so much, thought about you every day.” – A.M. Homes, The End of Alice
“Like a comic actor shouting on a stage, I screamed with all my remaining strength, ‘Help! Help!’” – Tayib Saleh, Season of Migration to the North
“The rooks come down to scrabble in the grass as every evening at this time they do, her companions while she watches the fading of the day.” – William Trevor, The Story of Lucy Gault
“He is sitting there cross-legged in front of the wall, and slowly his face bursts into a smile like flames.” – Bobbie Ann Mason, In Country
“On the last day I swam in the Nile–overhand–and they drove me to the airport, where I kissed Geneva–and the Cabots–goodbye.” – John Cheever, The Stories of John Cheever
“There was no call to make such a fuss about it.” – Anne Tyler, Saint Maybe
“I say those words.” – Todd Grimson, Within Normal Limits
“Anyway, I prefer coffee, and not to be recalled as a tyrant.” – Amelia Gray, Museum of the Weird
“‘You dumb bastard,’ he said, his eyes blinking rapidly, ‘I love you.’” – Daniel Woodrell, Under the Bright Lights
“Look where your hands are. Now.” – Toni Morrison, Jazz
“Now the trumpets sound, the downhill charge, the slaughter, thousands, a short sharp ascent, a curve and before us the edge, we slide to it and across and before us the same long wide valley, and Jauja, a lake of golden light, but look, the glow is steady, not fire but cradled streetlights, we lower toward them, and a thousand miles away the pacazo wakes.” – Roy Kesey, Pacazo
“It unleashed its dreadful cry.” – Adam Novy, The Avian Gospels
“She stayed out there, waiting for me.” – Grace Krilanovich, The Orange Eats Creeps
“I’m willing to find out.” – Jesus Angel Garcia, badbadbad
“‘Instead of us fuckin’ up the story, let Scooter do it.’” – Elmore Leonard, Be Cool
“What did you see?” – Terese Svoboda, Pirate Talk or Mermalade
“I don’t know if it’ll be the same when I get back there but if it is then I’ll likely be home when I get home.” – Robert Lopez, Asunder
“‘Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!’” – Imre Kertesz, The Pathseeker
“Perhaps quite soon, in the new house she would be living in (alone) with David, she would be looking at the box, and there, in a shot on the News of Berlin, Madrid, Los Angeles, Buenos Aires, she would see Ben, standing rather apart from the crowd, staring at the camera with his goblin eyes, or searching the faces in the crowd for another of his own kind.” – Doris Lessing, The Fifth Child
“You guys are amazing.” – Martin Wilson, What They Always Tell Us
“I watch my hands pretend they’re birds and then I take a sip of my coffee, and he takes a sip of his and we’re sort of pleased with ourselves, with what feels like a revelation but isn’t.” – Mary Miller, Big World
“Ja viens. Why not?” – Norman Rush, Mating
“Time ends each sentence with and.” – Craig Morgan Teicher, Cradle Book
“Though sometimes in my brain I go back to that afternoon, to relive it, sail up there again toward the acoustic panels, the basketball hoops, and the old oak clock, the careful harmonies set loose from our voices so pure and exact and light we wondered later, packing up to leave, how high and fast and far they had gone.” – Lorrie Moore, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?
“As they went down the valley in the new fell dark basking nighthawks rose from the dust in the road before them with wild wings and eyes red as jewels in the headlights.” – Cormac McCarthy, Child of God
“She looked, tried to see what he was seeing, drew away from him to touch the wheel, reach for the key.” – Joy Williams, Breaking & Entering
“‘I’m here to help,’ I whisper, and the door swings open.” – George Saunders, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline
“She moved over the fields like a bird shadow, then, dropping, soaked dewlike into the soil so that she felt the wheat sprouting from her shoulders, the trees from her thighs while the early stars whispered her secret name.” – Annabel Thomas, The Phototropic Woman
“Someday I shall write about all this in greater detail.” – Peter Handke, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams
Recurring Themes in John Irving Novels
A Conversation with Lawrence Weschler
Lawrence Weschler is widely regarded, alongside John McPhee, Calvin Trillin, and William Langewiesche, as one of our foremost practitioners of literary nonfiction. He was a staff writer at The New Yorker for twenty years, retiring in 2001 to direct the New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University. His books include Vermeer in Bosnia, Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, Boggs: A Biography, Calamities of Exile, and, most recently, Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences.
MINOR: Do you mind if I record you?
WESCHLER: Sure, but I don’t like using a tape recorder. A straight transcript of a conversation invariably falsifies what happens in two ways. First, every reporter knows that all the good stuff happens after you turn off the tape recorder, so there is obviously something that happens when the tape is running that does not when it’s off. But beyond that, the transcript only records the words. There is a whole subset of communication—gestures, the language of the body, facial expressions—taking place that is not words, and when you take that away, you have in fact falsified what has taken place. You might have had a very interesting, articulate conversation with someone, but when you read the transcript, what you find is not at all articulate.
MINOR: So how does one record information?
WESCHLER: I generally don’t use tape recorders. I take notes and work from memory. You can use the tape recorder as an aide-memoire, but I can tell you that I have been doing this for thirty years, and I’ve never had anyone challenge a quote. And I never quote what people have actually said. I quote what people remember having said. I try to create a fair rendition of the point they were making in the spirit in which it was recounted.
MINOR: The bigger issue, I suppose, is how one convinces other people to reveal information about themselves.
WESCHLER: Way back in college I had a marine biology teacher who learned I was just floundering on this big, amorphous topic, and I told him I was struggling, that I didn’t know what I was doing. And he said, “When you’re doing a big essay, it’s like you’re walking on the beach and you come upon a dead sea walrus and you’re curious about how he died. You can do one of two things. You can pick up that piece of driftwood over there and start bashing the flank. And all you are going to do is make blubber and hash of him. Or you can pick up that driftwood, go sit down on a boulder, pick up a rock and start sharpening the driftwood. It will take all afternoon, but by the end you’ll have a blade. Then you can do the autopsy, and in five minutes you’ll know what happened.” So when you’re dealing with a huge, amorphous subject, it’s best not to ask huge, amorphous questions. Better to spend ninety percent of your time honing the questions, and after awhile the subject will open up.
MINOR: In Vermeer in Bosnia, you write, “It’s one of the great things about great works of art that they can bear—and, indeed, that they invite—a superplenitude of possible readings, some of them contradictory.” Could the same be said of your own work, or of the literature of nonfiction in general?
WESCHLER: I want to get rid of the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. The class I teach at NYU is called “The Fiction of Nonfiction”, and it is less a class about reporting methods than it is about the fictional methods that can be applied to nonfictional writing. It presupposes that the writer will try to be fair, but also acknowledges that there is no such thing as objectivity, and revels in that fact. Then we get down to business and talk about all the stuff that’s interesting: form, freedom, irony, voice, tone, structure. We are looking at masters—Ian Frazier, Jane Kramer, John McPhee, A. J. Liebling, Joseph Mitchell—and if you look at their books, absolutely they are works of literature. What drives me crazy is that my books are spread all over the bookstore. My Boggs is in Economics, my A Miracle, A Universe is in Latin America. This book here (holds up a copy of Vermeer in Bosnia), who the hell knows where they’re gonna put this. I was in a Barnes & Noble somewhere and looked for Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders and found it in New Age Psychedelics. And it’s not just me; the same is true of Ian Frazier and Jane Kramer and so forth. The point is that they should be in alphabetical order, in Literature. It’s not just that my books have a superplenitude of meanings, but that they are designed to illuminate each other. Boggs and Mr. Wilson, for example, even have the same type face, the same trim size. They’re meant to be read side-by-side, but no one ever knows that.
MINOR: What kinds of things do your books say about each other?
WESCHLER: I’m interested in people or places that were moseying along in the everydayness of their lives, and they suddenly caught fire, and their lives became different than they thought they would be. That’s not only interesting on an artistic level, but also on a political level. When it happens in individual lives—Dave Wilson, Harold Shapinski—it’s almost comical. When it happens to a whole country, when a whole polity catches fire, it’s enthralling. When it happened in Poland, people said that Solidarity was the embodiment of the subjectivity of the Polish people. People who throughout history had been content to be treated as objects suddenly demanded to be treated as subjects. Repression consists of taking people who had been treated like subjects and turning them into objects, and the resistance was that refusal to be turned back into objects. So what is pervasive across my body of work is an interest in objects becoming subjects and what is involved in asserting that, or in the case of Vermeer, inventing that, dealing with all the forces that mitigate against that intention. And what becomes interesting, then, is an awareness of the workings of grace. You work and you work and you work, and then it is as though whatever happens, it happens by itself. It never would have happened without all that prior work, that preparation, but that prior work did not make it happen.
MINOR: What are some examples of these workings of grace?
WESCHLER: Solidarity is a good example. All the activists who spent the years of the Seventies in jail—all those years preparing for Solidarity—when August 1980 happened, it blew their minds. They had no idea why it happened. They acknowledged that it would not have happened without the prior work, but that the prior work did not make it happen. It was that plus something else. On the artistic level—you know this from your own writing—you work at something and it’s not working, it’s not working, it’s not working—and then suddenly it works. You’re in the zone. And that’s all very mysterious and very interesting to me. There’s something important going on there, and it’s unclear exactly what it is. The word grace comes from gratis: for free.
I’m very interested in Socratic artists, people who make you say, “Wait a minute. What’s going on here? How is it that we are able to fly at all?” I love artists who can throw you into that state of perplex. In the case of the Mr. Wilson book, I endeavored to replicate the experience of going to the Museum of Jurassic Technology, where you’re reading the captions (beneath exhibits), where after awhile you ask yourself, “What the hell is going on here?” There’s that sense of slippage across media that’s very interesting to me.
MINOR: Vermeer in Bosnia ends with a short piece—something you call a convergence—in which you put a poem (Wislawa Szymborska’s “Maybe All This”) into conversation with a painting (Vermeer’s Lacemaker), and this ending also seems like a beginning, as you have published many more convergences since the book was released. Is the convergence a new literary form, and if so, what does it offer the reader and the writer?
WESCHLER: I offered that piece to a lot of places—The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s—and no one wanted it. But I’ve come to see it as sort of a natural form, something haiku-like, and I would love to see other people try it. It’s not a form original to me. When I published the first one, I was sure to give credit where credit is due, to John Berger. After Che Guevara was killed, Berger wrote an essay that began with that famous photograph of the general. He said that we all know where this photograph came from. It’s based on Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson, a painting which is hotwired into everyone’s brain. That painting taught the general where to stand, the photographer what angle to take the picture from. The subtext—Che as Christ, as resurrection; the corpse of the thief in Rembrandt alludes to the corpse of Christ—taught me something. That was a huge, formative event for me. I think that’s how we tend to think anyway, but our thoughts are muffled by so much noise.
MINOR: You often deal with calamities and atrocities, but there always seems to be an almost corresponding awareness of wonder in the things you write. Are you conscious of that?
WESCHLER: I’m not unaware of it, and occasionally I am intent on it. I would say that I experience things at the two poles. Wonder and horror.
David Hockney [an artist about whom Weschler has written frequently] is an inspiration in this regard, having survived probably more than the rest of us—the AIDS crisis, and the whole devastation of his entire cohort of friends. That would have turned anyone else into a raving, howling shade of themselves, but Hockney refuses to let that happen. His response is to celebrate life all the more. I admire that choice. If you spend part of your time thinking about the horrors, as I think you must if you are a citizen, you can either go stark, raving crazy, or you can commit to the other side. So they are of a piece to me, wonder and horror, and I don’t think I’m all that unusual in that regard. Perhaps as a writer you have to express it more.
MINOR: You tell a story in Vermeer in Bosnia about the Italian jurist Antonio Cassese, who was presiding over the preliminary hearings of the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. He spent his days hearing about the cruelest rapes and murders and tortures humans can devise to inflict upon each other, and you asked him, “how, regularly obliged to gaze into such an appalling abyss, he had kept from going mad himself?” His response was that he kept sane by going to the Mauritshuis museum and looking at Vermeer paintings.
WESCHLER: He said that, and I had been doing it also, and I don’t think either one of us was aware that the other had been doing it. It’s not that surprising when you consider that Mauritshuis housed The Anatomy Lesson right next door to the room containing the Vermeers. It’s a pretty amazing museum.
The trail of epiphanies there, the chain of pearls, was his saying that all of Europe was Bosnia when Vermeer was doing his paintings, and in fact, that’s what those paintings were about. The way that Vermeer was inventing his pieces was the very invention of subjectivity.
That’s pretty much how it happened. I won’t pretend that it happens that way with all my writing. I pride myself on sometimes giving a fictive account of how things happen in terms of ordering matters so they can be more clearly understood. Not (a fictive account) in the actual reporting, but in the reporting of how the insight is happening.
MINOR: An earlier book, Calamities of Exile, collects three nonfiction novellas, and that tripartite pattern repeats itself through much of your work. In Vermeer in Bosnia, for example, the reader is offered “A Balkan Triptych”, “Three Polish Survivor Stories”, “Three L.A. Pieces”, and “Three Portraits of Artists”. What do you mean to do when organizing your work in this way?
WESCHLER: Triptychs work very nicely. A single piece by itself is whatever it is. Two pieces side by side set up artificial priorities. With a triptych you get all kinds of nice resonances. Flaubert says if you’re a fiction writer, if you’re setting a new scene, you need to mention three objects in the room, and that will pop the scene into three-dimensional reality.
I’ve just been reading this incredible essay by Walter Murch, the film editor, at transom.org, where he talks about a principle he calls Two-and-a-Half. If you have one conversation, people can hear it. If you have two overlapping conversations, people can keep track of both. You could even have a half of another conversation, perhaps a mild, uninteresting conversation, and people can hear that. If you add another conversation, people can’t hear it; it becomes noise.
MINOR: You’ve started a new literary journal.
WESCHLER: Omnivore. It’s hopeless.
MINOR: I haven’t been able to find the prototype issue anywhere.
WESCHLER: There’s one place you can buy it. The bookstore at the Museum of Jurassic Technology.
One of the reasons I quit The New Yorker and took this job at the NYU Institute was to put up or shut up. I keep complaining about the fate of magazines, and I wanted to take a chance and show what I mean.
MINOR: Is the magazine going to happen in any regular way?
WESCHLER: On any given day, it looks like it might, but then it doesn’t, and it’s very frustrating. There is not a patronage system in America for general interest magazines like there is for ballet, for opera.
There was a moment when Newhouse was taking over The New Yorker, and a bunch of us went up to William Shawn, the editor—Alistair Reed was in the lead—and we said, “Why don’t we all just leave and start our own magazine?” And Mr. Shawn said, “Mr. Reed, you don’t understand. Writers don’t found magazines. Millionaires found magazines.”
MINOR: What is it that you would hope to do with such a magazine?
WESCHLER: It seems to me that the great crisis in this country is a media environment which is attention-squeezed, hate-driven, ink-blotted, sound-bit. Basically neo-Pavlovian, treating you like a salivating dog. Stimulate, jolt, salivate. You find that you are treated as a consumer, not as a citizen, not as someone capable of absorption and marvel and wonder.
I write books, but what really turns me on, what really captivates my thinking, is magazine culture. That’s a difficult thing, because magazine culture is in big trouble. If I write a book, it gets read by ten thousand people, if I write a magazine article it gets exposed to a hundred thousand people who are reading about something they didn’t know they had any interest in. The kind of writing I love comes at things from the side, and it relishes narrative itself. You find yourself reading, and about halfway along, you realize that what you’re reading is the most important thing in the world.
(originally appeared in The Journal, and reprinted in The Rumpus.)
Psychological Realist Story-Generating Machine
Instructions: 1. Don’t be lazy. This machine isn’t going to write your story for you. It’s just going to provide your parameters.
2. You can drink beer while working with the assistance of the machine. But cut the Bukowski crap, cowboy. You need to be sober when you’re doing the real work. This ain’t word salad or dream-casting or automatic writing or cut-ups. This is psychological realism, where you can’t hide behind fancy talk or transgressive posturing. You got to get people right, and that ain’t easy.
3. You have to go to the supermarket or the toy store and buy some dice. Or at least one die, but I don’t think anybody sells them that way, except for those weird 273-sided ones the kids use when they dress up in chain mail and pretend to be ancient wizards or whatever. Don’t get that kind. Get the kind with six sides.
4. You’re allowed to re-write this machine to make it more interesting in the way that might generate the kind of story you want to write or couldn’t possibly think of writing. Also, you’re allowed to rig the Ohio lottery so I can win it. I would prefer if you did this sooner than later, because there is crazy shit going down at my place of employment, and who knows how long before the gravy train stops, you know, bringing the gravy.
5. If you enjoyed this machine, please Paypal me seventeen to seventeen hundred dollars. I learned this trick from another indie writer, whose brilliance as a merchandiser I hope to soon replicate, on account of (see Instruction #4.)
6. The Machine will require you to roll your six-sided die at least once per prompt. Sometimes your choice will require a second roll, or a third or fourth or fifth. Get rolling. Write down your answers. Rolling papers available if you PayPal me $17-17,000.
POINT OF VIEW: 1-5 Subjective 6 Objective If Subjective: 1-2 First Person 3 Second Person 4-6 Third Person If First Person: 1-2 Single-I 3-4 Double-I 5 Observer-Narrator 6 Voice of Town Gossip (Plural 1st; see Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”) If Second Person: 1-3 Choose Your Own Adventure point of view 4-6 Ladies Magazine point of view (see Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help) If Third Person: 1 close 3rd, writer’s language 2 close 3rd, Jamesian central consciousness 3 Alternating close third, 2 characters 4 Omniscience, one focal character, free-indirect narration 5 Omniscience, many focal characters, silentish narrator 6 Omniscience, many focal characters, narrator who is nosy and opinionated as hell
POINT OF ENTRY: 1 Start where the trouble particular to the point of view begins 2 Start on the day something different happened 3 Start at the beginning of time 4 Start in the middle of the action 5 Start at the end 6 Start with a description of the weather If weather: 1 Cloudy 2 Rainy 3 Very Hot 4 It’s Like a Sauna in Here 5 Snow 6 Magic Hour
PROTAGONIST / SEXUAL IDENTITY: 1-2 Male 3-5 Female 6 Hermaphrodite If Male: 1 Gay 2 Bisexual 3 Cowboyishly Macho 4 Hemingwayishly Macho 5 Bookish 6 Nearly Asexual on Account of Childhood Inflictions If Bookish: 1 Lord of the Rings 2 Narnia 3 Alice Munro and Deborah Eisenberg 4 Roth, Updike, and Bellow 5 Blake Butler 6 How-to Manuals If How-to Manuals: 1 Do-It-Yourself Home Repair 2 LINUX 3 Sexual Know-How 4 Libertarianism and Tax Evasion 5 Poker 6 Winning Friends and Influencing People If Female: 1 Butch Lesbian 2 Femme Lesbian 3 Bisexual 4 Likes Nice Men 5 Claims to Like Nice Men But Prefers Scoundrels 6 Only Dates Men Who Would Be Played By Vince Vaughan or Alec Baldwin in Any Given Hollywood Movie If Butch Lesbian: 1 Owns a Motorcycle Shop 2 Owns a Beauty Salon 3 Holds Elected Office in a Conservative District 4 Writes Poetry and Raises Horses 5 Is an Accountant 6 Is a Stay-at-Home Mom If Likes Nice Men: 1 Wears Glasses 2 Enjoys Wearing But Does Not Often Wear Cocktail Dresses 3 Is an Attorney 4 Works in an Ice-Cream Shop 5 Scrapbooks and Performs at Birthday Parties as a Clown on Saturdays 6 Is a Deacon in an Episcopal Church If Likes Scoundrels: 1 Is Over the Age of 60 2-5 Writes “Memoir” or “Creative Nonfiction” 6 Is Married to Someone Else If a Hermaphrodite: 1 Is Greek 2 Drives a Porsche 3 Lives in a Mud Hut 4 Is a Professional Golfer 5 Feels Guilty for Drinking a 12-pack of Coca-Cola Each Day 6 Enjoys Thinking of Self as a “Metrosexual”
PROTAGONIST/OCCUPATION (Skip this step if occupation already established): 1 Working class 2 Unemployed 3 “Unemployed” 4 Professional class 5 Cubicle class 6 Something exotic If Working class: 1 Bartender 2 Dock worker 3 Preschool teacher’s aide 4 Plumber 5 Machinist 6 Janitor If Unemployed: 1 Stay-at-home parent 2 Laid-off middle manager 3 Lives in Detroit or Toledo 4 “Writer” 5 Retired 6 Has a Sugar Daddy or Sugar Momma or “Sugar Uncle” If “Unemployed”: 1 Drug dealer 2 Street hustler 3 Creative writing teacher 4 Prostitute and/or Pimp 5 CIA or NSA 6 Mafia If Professional class: 1 Nurse 2 Dentist 3 Attorney 4 Chief Financial Officer 5 Professional athlete 6 Architect If Cubicle class: 1-5 Miserable 6 Very Miserable If Something exotic: 1. Alligator wrestler 2. Works the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland or the Magic Kingdom 3. Runs escort service for wealthy widows 4. Intern at the Conan O’Brien Show 5. Writes tour riders for Iggy Pop 6. R&D for Lego
TONE: 1-5 Flat 6 Exuberant
SETTING: 1-5 North America 6 Elsewhere If North America: 1-5 United States 6 Elsewhere If United States: 1-4 New York 5 Someone’s Kitchen 6 Elsewhere If Elsewhere: 1-3 Long Island 4 Upstate New York 5 California 6 Elsewhere If Elsewhere: 1 Florida 2 “The South” 3 Texas 4 Montana 5 Boston or Chicago 6 Anyplace else in the United States (your choice) If Not North America: 1-5 An American Theme Park Abroad 6 An Actual Non-American Abroad Place If Actually Abroad: 1 Europe 2 Asia 3 Africa 4 Oceania/Australia 5 South America 6 Aboard a Greek-Flagged and Recently Pirate-Boarded American Yacht Off the Shores of Somalia or Yemen
INCITING INCIDENT: 1 Love Trouble 2 Sex Trouble 3 Love and Sex Trouble 4 Extended Family Trouble 5 Child Trouble 6 Other Trouble If Other Trouble: 1 Nuclear Submarine 2 Immigrant Story 3 Begin with Funeral, End with Wedding 4 Science-Fiction Obsession But Everything Is Earthbound 5 Horses 6 A Crime Submerged Rather than Foregrounded w/ Heavy Doses of Revelation-of-Self
Scene v. Summary: 1 All Dialogue 2 All Scene, Not Much Interiority 3 Scene-Driven w/Expository Set Pieces 4 Exposition-heavy, Some Scenes 5 We Yammer On But Nothing Really Happens 6 Virginia Woolf Style
Structure: 1 Single-Movement 2 Set-up/Payoff 3 Juxtaposition of Things Happening in Two Adjacent Rooms 4 Three-Act Structure 5 Five-Act Structure 6 Meandering Thing Possibly Written by Joan Didion
Ending: 1-5 Epiphany 6 Ends abruptly If Epiphany: 1 Joycean epiphany 2 Oprahic epiphany 3 Retelling of the Christ story 4 There is Nothing Good in the World 5 People die but humanity carries on 6 He left behind a stack of letters declaring his misunderstood love
Miroslav Penkov on “memory, loss, guilt, identity, family, country . . .”
So there is a story in the book, about the Ottoman times when Bulgaria was under Turkish rule and the Ottomans forcefully recruited Bulgarian boys for their army; janissaries, who were made to deny their families and god. There is a story about Bulgarian rebels who fought for Macedonia’s freedom, about the aftermath of the Balkan Wars. Stories about the 1923 Communist uprising, about the events of 1944 when the Communist Party finally seized control of Bulgaria, about the so-called Process of Rebirth during which the Party forcefully changed the names of all Bulgarian Muslims to what were deemed “proper, Bulgarian” names. There are stories about things I myself witnessed and lived through: the fall of Communism in 1989, the results of this fall, or about the people who leave Bulgaria every year to make their luck abroad.
I did not want history to overwhelm the stories, but to inform them. I wanted the stories to be, above all, about people. There is a story in the collection called “Buying Lenin” which shows an old man who, on some level, has had a great life during Communism. I wanted to balance this story with another that showed the other side of the coin (as if there are only two sides to History’s coin). So I decided to include in “A Picture With Yuki” a story I knew from my father, about the Communists taking control of Bulgaria in 1944 and painting the word KULAK on my great-grandfather’s gates (no physical violence was done to my family). In terms of history, this is where “A Picture With Yuki” stands. But above all, this is a story, like the others in the book, about people; a story with which I’ve tried to give meaning (for myself) to such abstract constructs as memory, loss, guilt, identity, family, country…
“enslaved by its structure”
“When you examine most recent novels or screenplays, you can’t help but notice that there’s a very strong goal-motivation-conflict structure. I watched UP with my kids recently (in 3D!) and every single character, even the giant, voiceless bird, had a very clear goal and motivation that conflicted with the other characters’ goals and motivations in really obvious ways. It was actually kind of irritating, because the conflicts just deteriorated into logistics by the climax (one too many people dangling over precipices for me). The movie seemed enslaved by its structure.” — Rhian Ellis, in 2009.”I find myself thinking of this as a ‘masculine’ storyline, though I’m not particularly eager to defend that characterization; I will say, though, that the primary way girls get to be the heroes of contemporary children’s movies is by proving that they can do the same stupid shit boys can. Miyazaki, on the other hand, makes movies about intense, often directionless exploration. He is contemplative, and his films often remain movingly unresolved. Pixar movies look great, but the visuals are illustrative. In Miyazaki, the images are the movie. They make the story. I can’t, for the life of me, remember the plot of Howl’s Moving Castle–but I will never, never forget the sight of it. Is this perhaps a feminine ideal–that it is sometimes enough simply to be? In any event, it is a worthwhile ideal, gendered or not.” — J. Robert Lennon, follow-up post, 2011.”We went through a lot of different options that way. But
people just coming out of the theater on screening it here for ourselves, felt like, ‘Whoa, were you leaving it open for a sequel, that Muntz is going to come back and get the bird?’ No, we wanted the sense of closure that when the bird goes off with the babies, we know everything’s going to be fine and there’s no danger.” — Pete Docter, director of UP, 2009.
“. . . I did go to New York to meet this man, this Harvey Weinstein, and I was bombarded with this aggressive attack, all these demands for cuts. I defeated him.” – Hayao Miyazaki, 2005.
Bolivian Marching Powder
Was thinking about Jay McInerney’s “Bolivian marching powder” (prompting lecture here) and thinking: You could invent your own 50,000 Watt idiom anytime you wanted by following that pattern (Place name / adjectived active verb / sensory noun).
Sometimes You Don’t Recognize What’s In Front of You Until A Writer Makes It Clear for You
When I was a child, my father worked in air conditioning. I never thought that was a particularly high calling, even though we lived in Florida, in the heat, and even though I seldom felt the heat when I was indoors, since the default indoor condition of everything in Florida was cool, comfortable air, or sometimes air that was uncomfortable because it was too cold. I never figured out the value of what my father did until I read Arthur Miller’s essay “Before Air Conditioning.” Here is a representative paragraph:”Given the heat, people smelled, of course, but some smelled a lot worse than others. One cutter in my father’s shop was a horse in this respect, and my father, who normally had no sense of smell — no one understood why — claimed that he could smell this man and would address him only from a distance.”
In Peter Bien’s introduction to his biography of Nikos Kazantzakis — Kazantzakis: Politics of the Spirit, Volume 1 — he quotes (apologies: this gets meta pretty fast) Stanley Hoffmann’s review of Annie Cohen-Solal’s Sartre: A Life, in which Hoffman says there are at least four ways to write biographies:
“especially those of writers as monstrously prolific as Sartre. One way is to try to deal both with the events in their private and public lives and with their writings. In the case of Sartre, this would require several volumes and an author who would feel competent to handle philosophy, epistemology, novels, plays, screenplays, politics, literary and art criticism and psychoanalysis . . .”
“Another possibility . . . is to try to find in the works the expression . . . of the writer’s personal traumas and conflicts.” A third possibility is to discuss the works at least briefly and to show “their connection with the author’s and the general public’s concerns of the moment, without providing an extensive analysis of the content or indulging in psychological reductionism.” Lastly, one can leave the work aside and concentrate on the life. “It is, of course, a debatable choice. What is Sartre without his books?”
I find all four approaches useful in different ways. The broadly contextualizing approach is the most thorough, and when it is about a writer whose work is very much about an intellectual engagement with a time and place (i.e., the recent Deleuze/Guattari biography), it’s especially helpful. The second approach — the writer’s trauma in the work — is more appealing, but not as appealing as a fifth approach that I don’t see here, except in its opposite (the fourth): A biography that proceeds out of direct engagement with the work first, the man or woman second. I’m most interested in the writer’s life as it sheds light on the writer’s process, way of thinking about the work, etc. — the biography that sheds as much or more light on the work as it does the writer of the work.
Sometimes the path from here to there requires more of the other moving parts — the public context, the private context, etc. — because of the nature of the work. For example, Kenneth Silverman’s excellent Begin Again: A Biography of John Cage helped me understand the ways in which the work was in conversation with the work that came before, the conversation about music with Schoenberg and others with which Cage was engaged, and the special musical way of hearing percussive noises which helped Cage to overcome his frustrations with writing harmony (and which later helped him to hear them in a new way, and get to them by new methods of his own devising.) All of that is useful to the writer or the maker of any sort of things, not just because it amplifies or contradicts past readings of the made things, but also because it is invariably suggestive of possible future directions and processes for one’s own work.
Interviews are likewise helpful in these ways, and sometimes even more helpful, especially if the interviewer is interested in the thinking and making process rather than in superficial things.
Where to Begin?
One writer I know said a story begins on the day something different happened. Another said the story begins where the trouble particular to the point of view starts. Another said give away everything at the beginning, the way John Irving does. Another said start with the strongest possible bit of language or the strongest sentence. Another said start in the middle. Another said start with something mysterious and compelling. Another said start with some nonsense to make the promise you’ll keep. Another said start ambiguously. Another said start unambiguously. Another said start at the end. Another said start at the beginning. My uncle committed suicide, and I wanted to write an essay about it, but I couldn’t figure out where to start, so instead of writing about my uncle’s death, I wrote about “The Question of Where We Begin.” There was no satisfactory answer to the question of where we begin. Every time the question gets asked, it raises a hundred new questions. Where did the trouble begin? If you believe, as some stories do, in a cause-and-effect chain, can’t it be traced back to the beginning of everything? What then? Isn’t this the argument they’re having in school board meetings in Kansas and Texas? And isn’t it true that by dint of deciding where you begin, you’re already giving the lie at the center of “nonfiction”? Because nothing is untouched by subjectivity, and no story doesn’t betray something about its maker?I’m intrigued, then, by the strategies employed by an old mass market writer named James Michener, who didn’t write books about Bob or Jane or Dick or Tiger or Terry or T.J. or Tylene. He wrote novels about Texas or Poland or South Africa or Space. And with subjects so large — subjects usually tackled by historians or political philosophers geologists or geographers or journalists, rather than by novelists — wouldn’t he have to come up with a strategy that made a rather different kind of promise than “Friday morning, Evelyn woke up to find her husband dead”?Here is the opening to Michener’s novel Hawaii:
Millions upon millions of years ago, when the continents were already formed and the principal features of the earth had been decided, there existed, then as now, one aspect of the world that dwarfed all others.
It was a mighty ocean, resting uneasily to the east of the largest continent, a restless ever-changing, gigantic body of water that would later be described as pacific.
Over its brooding surface immense winds swept back and forth, whipping the waters into towering waves that crashed down upon the world’s seacoasts, tearing away rocks and eroding the land. In its dark bosom, strange life was beginning to form, minute at first, then gradually of a structure now lost even to memory. Upon its farthest reaches birds with enormous wings came to rest, and then flew on.
Agitated by a moon stronger then than now, immense tides ripped across this tremendous ocean, keeping it in a state of torment. Since no great amounts of sand had yet been built, the waters where they reached shore were universally dark, black as night and fearful.
Scores of millions of years before man had risen from the shores of the ocean to perceive its grandeur and to venture forth upon its turbulent waves, this eternal sea existed, larger than any other of the earth’s features, vaster than the sister oceans combined, wild, terrifying in its immensity and imperative in its universal role.
How utterly vast it was! How its surges modified the very balance of the earth! How completely lonely it was, hidden in the darkness of night or burning in the dazzling power of a younger sun than ours.
At recurring intervals the ocean grew cold. Ice piled up along its extremities, and so pulled vast amounts of water from the sea, so that the wandering shoreline of the continents sometimes jutted miles farther out than before. Then, for a hundred thousand years, the ceaseless ocean would tear at the exposed shelf of the continents, grinding rocks into sand and incubating new life.
Later, the fantastic accumulations of ice would melt, setting cold waters free to join the heaving ocean, and the coasts of the continents would lie submerged. Now the restless energy of the sea deposited upon the ocean bed layers of silt and skeletons and salt. For a million years the ocean would build soil, and then the ice would return; the waters would draw away; and the land would lie exposed . . .
I’ve elided the next two-and-a-half paragraphs in the interest of getting to the next part of the opening you should notice. What you might already have noticed is that we haven’t even got to the origin story of the Hawaiian islands yet. The time we’ve been parsing is geological. Michener was patient in these matters. Almost all of his books are doorstop-suitable. By comparison, Jonathan Franzen has published four novellas. But, finally, we get to our titular subject:
Then one day, at the bottom of the deep ocean, along a line running two thousand miles from northwest to southeast, a rupture appeared in the basalt rock that formed the ocean’s bed. Some great fracture of the earth’s basic structure had occurred, and from it began to ooze a white-hot, liquid rock . . .
The next fifteen paragraphs cover a few million years, from first underwater lava eruption to the pre-human rise of island life. A friend at the University of Texas told me that when James Michener made his large bequest to the university to build a world-class writing program, some people at the university turned up their noses at the money because he wasn’t a literary enough writer. But I’ve been reading around in his books lately, and they are full of useful, interesting, intelligent, and appropriable tropes that would enrich books of all varieties, point of entry being only the first worth studying and discussing.
The world of genre fiction is full of hidden treasures of this sort, from the intelligent (and appropriable) strategies for reckoning with ideas and managing volumes of information (how do they breathe on the methane planet Zooli-19, anyway?) in science-fiction, to the intelligent (and appropriable) first- and third- person observer-narrator procedural tropes of cop and law (which, whether they know it or not, are deeply rooted in point of view questions, since the central story is unknown to the teller of the tale at the beginning of the dramatic present, which makes them kin to Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”), to the strategies for complicating or undoing mythic American themes that we see in the better Westerns (Oakley Hall’s Warlock or John Williams’s Butcher’s Crossing, to name two.)
As literature gets smart enough to operate in a spirit of aesthetic openness and generosity, and borrows more broadly from art, philosophy, video games, microbudgeted films from Sweden and Singapore, minimalist installations, conceptual thises and thats, may its practitioners also be smart enough to look in the seldom opened cabinets out in the garage, where the ugly stepchildren stashed the treasures hoping someone would find them. It’s good to find them.
Here is a good way to approach a book:
Go in with low expectations, a generous readerly spirit, and a desire to take incomplete pleasures on their own terms.
Possible Paths to Freedom
Two competing suppositions:
1. The path to maximum freedom is maximum knowledge, maximum mastery, so that the largest possible range of options and possibilities is on the table, and so that improvisations and inventions and productive acts of play might rise from the foundation laid by the broadest possible exposure to everything.
2. The path to maximum freedom is a rejection of preexisting things. The way to invention, improvisation, and productive acts of play begins with a willful resistance to the idea that the making of art coincides with an engagement with the world of ideas, information, or the discourse of others. It is better not to think too much about these things. Good things rise from organic processes divorced from the analytic.
137 Rules for Writing
47. If it seems like some rules you’ve heard about writing will serve your project, then don’t be ashamed of adhering to them.
48. If one of those rules rubs you the wrong way, push it as far as you can in the opposite direction, and your opposition will be usefully fierce.
49. But don’t be wishy-washy about it. If that’s what you’re going to do, just follow those rules you don’t like.
50. But at least have a reason for doing whatever it is you’re doing.
51. And don’t forget that formal constraints can yield up super-cool things.
52. Think you’re right while you’re doing whatever you’re doing.
53. But don’t be an asshole later and really think you’re right about everything. You’re not.
73. There is a set of rules for each individual piece of writing, and you find them as you go along.
74. But that doesn’t mean it’s not intelligent to have listened to and internalized what other people have said.
75. It’s best if you internalize contradictory advice given by contrary givers. You build a storehouse of technical, practical, and theoretical knowledge, and then, one day, you might find you have a reason to use it you wouldn’t have expected.
76. And if you don’t have a reason to use it, it will still make you a better reader.
77 – 107. Rules #77-107 are: Read everything.
113. Learn about art, philosophy, history, religion, geography, and at least one other specialized body of knowledge that doesn’t directly bear upon writing.
117. No matter your aesthetic inclination, eventually you’ll be faced with the reality that all you have to work with is dialogue, narration, indirect dialogue, interior monologue, exposition, and description. So it would be wise to know what they are and what they do and what their inherent strengths and weaknesses and other inherent qualities are.
118. Also: If you don’t choose a point of view, or allow a point of view to choose you, you won’t be able to fully exploit the possibilities latent in whatever thing you’ve drafted.
119. So it might be wise to learn every possible deployment of point of view, so you have every available option, even if you decide to only use one of them all the time.
121. The most accomplished criminals are the ones who best know the ins and outs of the laws they’re breaking. So maybe all those rules you hate? You should learn all of them.
123. Make up some of your own rules, too.
127. Eventually you will die. It is the only thing I can promise you. Think about that when you’re thinking about the value of the time it takes you to make things, and then think about it some more when you’re choosing what things to make.
131. If you give away your knowledge to someone else, you won’t lose any of your knowledge, and you might begin to grow in your knowledge, since your knowledge is being tested by the act of communicating it.
136. You have to take time to actually sit down and write. A lot of time. Seriously.
137. Beginnings and endings matter.
Literature as What Survives
In this 2003 interview with Robert Birnbaum, Jane Smiley said:
I am taking a medievalist’s view. That’s what I studied in graduate school. And when you are a medievalist you don’t study what’s good, you study what’s left. And you try to find good things in it. So you come to appreciate every fragment of every bit that’s left. And try to glean something from that fragment, whatever it is.
How does it survive? There are a lot of copies of J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown around. Not so many of Cynthia Ozick and Barry Hannah, relatively speaking. And way fewer of, say, Christine Schutt and Ben Marcus. Are they in physical danger?
There is also the priestly tradition — what gets revived, by whom, and how does it impact future readership or future revivals? (Justin Taylor did Donald Barthelme a huge favor on these grounds, didn’t he?, when he did the McSweeney’s tribute, which in turn contributed to new interest in and new reprintings of Barthelme’s work? Ditto Stewart O’Nan for Richard Yates, and George Pelecanos for Don Carpenter, and the NYRB editors for so many neglected writers. Smiley alludes to these matters in the interview, as well.)
Some say the digitization of things is the salvation of things. Nicholson Baker worries that the destruction of physical copies of, say, newspapers, in favor of virtual modes of storage, is woefully inadequate. Among other reasons: Are you doing well accessing things you once saved on 5 1/4″ disks? Technology changes. Besides, are you more likely to peruse a stack of shelves or wade through digitized information? The search engine is optimized to find specific things. The joy of stumbling onto something adjacent might soon be lost as libraries curtail or cease their physical operations.
Someone will soon argue that there is no such thing as permanence, or that permanence isn’t desirable. I’m very happy to have access to Dante and Chaucer and Shakespeare and the fragments of Sappho. Perhaps you think it’s better that we have only the fragments of Sappho. Would it be better to have none of Sappho?
I want to build a weatherproof, temperature-controlled underground library, and bury it for the archaeologists of the future to find.
Cuckold, Widow, Retard
Cuckold, widow, and retard are three of the many words we’re not supposed to use anymore. They’re being phased out of socially responsible speech, and not for no reason. The idea of cuckoldry implies that a man whose wife has taken another lover is shamed by behavior not his own. Some would say that this implies an outmoded social contract — the man is only so shamed if the woman is an object his possession and one chief component of his shame is his inability to control his object. The word widow is derided on similar grounds — the woman’s identity, some would say, rests in her position with relation to the husband, which has now changed because the husband is dead. Therefore, the woman has attained a status more pitiable than wife, until she can find another husband. The word retard is rejected on grounds of sensitivity. Although the phrase “mental retardation” has not been entirely replaced in civil discourse by phrases like “mentally challenged” or “mentally handicapped,” its derivative, retard, has taken on a pejorative cast that makes the objects of its use feel particularly badly about themselves, and it is therefore out of bounds in civil usage.Since when, though, is literature the proper place for civil usage?
Civil usage is the battleground for the story we are deciding to tell ourselves about ourselves. Literature is the place where we replace the story we tell ourselves about ourselves with the truer and often darker story about ourselves that we don’t want to be caught telling ourselves about ourselves. In polite society, perhaps someone should be castigated for bad behavior, such as calling someone a retard. But makers of literature should be castigated for pretending that such behavior doesn’t exist. In literature, if someone says or thinks someone else is a “retard,” then retard is the construction that literature should use, because “mentally handicapped” and “retard” don’t mean the same thing.There might be, in fact, no such thing as a synonym. No two words mean exactly the same thing.
If a man’s wife cheats on him, then no decent person would walk up to him and say, “Hey, Cuckold!” unless the man himself had started the joke of calling himself “The Cuckold” and invited his friends to join the joke as a common and shared expression of his sorrow toward the end of sharing and ultimately minimizing the man’s sorrow. But the man himself might self-identify as “the cuckold” as an inward expression of his shame.
If he did, and we were to write about him, it would be wise to title our story “The Cuckold,” because that is the truest expression of what the man has come to be to himself. Similarly, if a man has come to think of himself as the terrible thing people call him — The Retard — then it would make sense to title our story “The Retard,” because that is the shame the man carries with him as the foremost manifestation of his consciousness.
(Isaac Bashevis Singer is the guiding angel of this discussion. Seek out his Collected Stories this afternoon.)
If a woman loves her husband and has subsumed her life in his life, despite her seeming freedom to make other choices, she might spend the balance of her life after his death thinking of herself as “The Widow.” Perhaps we might pity her for not assuming the breadth of what her agency allows, or perhaps we might be angry at her for the same thing, or perhaps we might say that she is a product of a culture that teaches women that their worth is subsumed in the worth of a man. Or perhaps we might acknowledge the vision of herself she has embraced, and try to enter into it with great empathy, and if we were true to her own version of herself, perhaps we might title our story “The Widow.”
All three of these stories — “The Cuckold,” “The Widow,” and “The Retard,” would perk our attention, because their power as language might actually have been amplified in response to the culture-wide attempt to diminish their power as social construct. Perhaps you can think of other words that fit this category. Perhaps these words ought not be out of bounds for the writer, but instead the writer ought to seek them out and wring from them the power they still hold over the lives of people for whom they are words of dread. Perhaps writers aren’t doing their jobs when they accede to the tyranny of the policing of words by the people who believe that it is better to look the other way in response to things that give offense instead of staring directly at offense, and reporting on it, and learning about it, and crawling inside it to see what’s really there.
Literary Forebears of V.C. Andrews #1: The Book of Genesis
When I was seven years old, an elderly deacon at Belvedere Baptist Church in West Palm Beach, Florida, challenged me to read the entire Bible start to finish, as he himself had done seven times. Being a reader and a baptized, you know, Baptist, I took him up on the challenge. After a few thrilling days in the early chapters of Genesis, in which I experienced two stories about the creation of the world, a worldwide flood (which one family survived by building a boat and filling it with all the animals of the world), and the invention of competing languages and subsequent dispersal of the nations at the Tower of Babel, (and here I know I’m leaving out all kinds of high-stakes trouble, none of it comparing to the serial genocides commanded by God in the Book of Exodus, but I digress), I came across the headscratching thirty-eighth chapter, which introduced me for the first time to such topics as coitus interruptus, legally-mandated sort-of incest (brother-in-law-on-sister-in-law and father-in-law-on-daughter-in-law), prostitution, extortion-by-prostitute, and threats-of-burning-to-death-as-a-result-of-unwanted-pregnancy (the extortion prevents the burning, thank god.) Here, by permission of King James I of England, in his commissioning proclamation of 1604 at the Hampton Court Conference, I bring you Genesis 38, for your entertainment and possible edification:
1And it came to pass at that time, that Judah went down from his brethren, and turned in to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah.
2And Judah saw there a daughter of a certain Canaanite, whose name was Shuah; and he took her
, and went in unto her.
3And she conceived, and bare a son; and he called his name Er.
4And she conceived again, and bare a son; and she called his name Onan.
5And she yet again conceived, and bare a son; and called his name Shelah: and he was at Chezib, when she bare him.
6And Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, whose name was Tamar.
7And Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the LORD; and the LORD slew him.
8And Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother’s wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother.
9And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother.
10And the thing which he did displeased the LORD: wherefore he slew him also.
11Then said Judah to Tamar his daughter in law, Remain a widow at thy father’s house, till Shelah my son be grown: for he said, Lest peradventure he die also, as his brethren did. And Tamar went and dwelt in her father’s house.
12And in process of time the daughter of Shuah Judah’s wife died; and Judah was comforted, and went up unto his sheepshearers to Timnath, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite.
13And it was told Tamar, saying, Behold thy father in law goeth up to Timnath to shear his sheep.
14And she put her widow’s garments off from her, and covered her with a vail, and wrapped herself, and sat in an open place, which is by the way to Timnath; for she saw that Shelah was grown, and she was not given unto him to wife.
15When Judah saw her, he thought her to be an harlot; because she had covered her face.
16And he turned unto her by the way, and said, Go to, I pray thee, let me come in unto thee; (for he knew not that she was his daughter in law.) And she said, What wilt thou give me, that thou mayest come in unto me?
17And he said, I will send thee a kid from the flock. And she said, Wilt thou give me a pledge, till thou send it?
18And he said, What pledge shall I give thee? And she said, Thy signet, and thy bracelets, and thy staff that is in thine hand. And he gave it her, and came in unto her, and she conceived by him.
19And she arose, and went away, and laid by her vail from her, and put on the garments of her widowhood.
20And Judah sent the kid by the hand of his friend the Adullamite, to receive his pledge from the woman’s hand: but he found her not.
21Then he asked the men of that place, saying, Where is the harlot, that was openly by the way side? And they said, There was no harlot in this place.
22And he returned to Judah, and said, I cannot find her; and also the men of the place said, that there was no harlot in this place.
23And Judah said, Let her take it to her, lest we be shamed: behold, I sent this kid, and thou hast not found her.
24And it came to pass about three months after, that it was told Judah, saying, Tamar thy daughter in law hath played the harlot; and also, behold, she is with child by whoredom. And Judah said, Bring her forth, and let her be burnt.
25When she was brought forth, she sent to her father in law, saying, By the man, whose these are, am I with child: and she said, Discern, I pray thee, whose are these, the signet, and bracelets, and staff.
26And Judah acknowledged them, and said, She hath been more righteous than I; because that I gave her not to Shelah my son. And he knew her again no more.
27And it came to pass in the time of her travail, that, behold, twins were in her womb.
28And it came to pass, when she travailed, that the one put out his hand: and the midwife took and bound upon his hand a scarlet thread, saying, This came out first.
29And it came to pass, as he drew back his hand, that, behold, his brother came out: and she said, How hast thou broken forth? this breach be upon thee: therefore his name was called Pharez.
30And afterward came out his brother, that had the scarlet thread upon his hand: and his name was called Zarah.
Naming People and Places and Things
You can learn a lot about the texture of a book — its way with language, its sense of humor, its aesthetic ballpark, perhaps even its thematic preoccupations — by isolating naming conventions, proper nouns, special language. For many books, a list of these words might tell the prospective reader more about what the book is like than a summary of events or aboutness. To test this theory in a casual way, I pulled the names of people and things from the six books that are right now set on my desk. Here’s what I found:
The Feet of Yemen, the Condition, Dr. Filth, The Dogs of New Jersey, More Facts About Beavers, Wet Places at Noon, the Cleveland Agora, Kill the Rich/Eat the Poor, The Eldest of Things, Aunt Pecos, LZ Thelma, Buzz King, Mr. Prosecutor, the Big O store, Gee Gee Gambill, Lamar Fike, Beaumont in Ft. Bliss, King Daddy, Zion, The Verdigris Kid, Chicken Jim, X. (Lee K. Abbott, Love is the Crooked Thing)
Old Bull, Red Moon, Sandman, Whiteshield, YoYo, Mrs. Tigertail, Johnson L. Freebird, Scorp, Biggoose, Spot, Chainsaw Kittens, Shorty, Jefferson Dreadfulwater Jr., Evangelo’s, Catamount, El Farol, the Ore House, Psych Mike, COOLWATER #1, Death Went Riding. (Eddie Chuculate, Cheyenne Madonna)
percussion grenade, frogmen, epiphaneedle, riflebutt, worrywarm, equipage, valkyrie banshee, Yorick socks, Opineofmine!, OpeeOrkneyIslanders!, Bush Twins!, C3PO, St.DenisDarfurKabulKabul, King Prion, Fata Androgyana, Death, Maria Montez, Old Diabolical Engine, Old Granite, Old Labial, OldArchdiocesal Ironsides, Jumbotron of the Ox, Phil Levine, Comrade Duch, Guadaloop, Robert Lowell, DJ Denver, Fi Jae, Ms. Mergrongrong, the Dutchman, Hannie Oakley, Hammie Oakley, Louis Braille, Harry Houdini, Narcissus, The Swan, Fiend, Devil, Bradley Manning, Lynndie. (Percussion Grenade, Joyelle McSweeney)
Mother, Franz, Dog, Good Taste Contest, Kafka, Milena, Aunt Klara, The Caterpillar, Joseph O., Mary K., Pete Seeger, Mother, Worstward Ho, Oxford, Boulevard de la Gare, Mrs. D., Mr. D., the Maid, poor Dad, Nietszche, the Baby, Henri Bergson, Her Mother’s Mother, Helen and Vi, Vi and Helen, Mother, L., K., C., R., B., M., a wa wam owm owamn womn, Head, Heart, The Strangers, The Fly, Mother, My Son, Shelly, A Different Man. (Lydia Davis, Varieties of Disturbance)
The Trespasser, The Yard Man, Daddy’s Girl, Holroyd, The Inventor, Dagos, Camel jockeys, Mr. Strong, Belle, Hal Little, King Cole. (Bonnie Jo Campbell, American Salvage)
David, Franny, Franny, David, Franny, David, Chico, David, David, Franny, Franny, David, David, David, Chico, David, Franny, Marlon, Shelly, Chico, David, Dr. Walls, Marie, Franny, David, David, Franny, David, —–, Edward, Franny, David, Samson, David, Franny, David, Franny, Samson, Franny, David, Franny, David, David, Franny, David, Shelly, the Sumerians, the Muslims, the French, Hell, David, Dentistry, David, David, Shelly, Chico, David, David, David, dental X-rays, Aileen, David, Marie, David, Chico, David, Marie, David, David, Aileen, David, Aileen, David, Franny, Chico, Shelly, Shelly, Marie, David, Chico, Marie, David, Mr. B—-, She, He. (Amelia Gray, Threats)
More Opening Sentences
- Lee K. Abbott, “One of Star Wars, One of Doom”
“That was the year Hunca Bubba changed his name.”
- Toni Cade Bambara, “Gorilla, My Love”
“What he first noticed about Detroit and therefore America was the smell.”
- Charles Baxter, “The Disappeared”
“Alberto Perera, librarian, granted no credibility to police profiles of dangerous persons.”
- Gina Berriault, “Who Is It Can Tell Me Who I Am?”
“A man stood upon a railroad bridge in Northern Alabama, looking down into swift waters twenty feet below.”
- Ambrose Bierce, “An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge”
“The visible work left by this novelist is easily and briefly enumerated.”
- Jorge Luis Borges, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote“
“This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night.”
- Raymond Carver, “Cathedral”
“I received one morning a letter, written in pale ink on glassy, blue-lined notebook paper, and bearing the postmark of a little Nebraska village.”
- Willa Cather, “A Wagner Matinee”
“I seem sixty and married, but these efforts are due to my condition and sufferings, for I am a bachelor, and only forty-one.”
- Mark Twain, “The Invalid’s Story”
“None of them knew the color of the sky.”
- Stephen Crane, “The Open Boat”
“The Governor’s wife thought the Governor was looking especially well this evening.”
- Susan Dodd, “Public Appearances”
“We didn’t in the light; we didn’t in the darkness.”
- Stuart Dybek, “We Didn’t”
“He was an orphan, and, to himself, he seemed like one, looked like one.”
- Stanley Elkin, “I Look Out for Ed Wolfe”
“The woman in front of him was eating roasted peanuts that smelled so good that he could barely contain his hunger.”
- Ralph Ellison, “King of the Bingo Game”
“We started dying before the snow, and, like the snow, we continued to fall.”
- Louise Erdrich, “Matchimanito”
“When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral: the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old man-servant–a combined gardener and cook–had seen in at least ten years.”
- William Faulkner, “A Rose for Emily”
“This is not a happy story. I warn you.”
- Richard Ford, “Great Falls”
“The first children who saw the dark and slinky bulge approaching through the sea let themselves think it was an empty ship.”
- Gabriel García Márquez, “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World”
“When the time came at last and they removed the wealth of bandages from his head and face, all with the greatest of care as if they were unwinding a precious mummy, the Doctor–he of the waxed, theatrical, upswept mustache and the wet sad eyes of a beagle hound–turned away.”
- George Garrett, “Wounded Soldier”
“The day the cease-fire was signed she was caught up in a crowd.”
- Nadine Gordimer, “A Soldier’s Embrace”
The first time I saw Brenda she asked me to hold her glasses.
- Philip Roth, Goodbye, Columbus
Dear Gabe, The drugs help me bend my fingers around a pen.
- Philip Roth, Letting Go
Not to be rich, not to be famous, not to be mighty, not even to be happy, but to be civilized–that was the dream of his life.
- Philip Roth, When She Was Good
She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise.
- Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint
Sir, I want to congratulate you for coming out on April 3 for the sanctity of human life, including the life of the yet unborn.
- Philip Roth, Our Gang
It began oddly.
- Philip Roth, The Breast
Call me Smitty.
- Philip Roth, The Great American Novel
Far from being the classic period of explosion and tempestuous growth, my adolescence was more or less a period of suspended animation.
- Philip Roth, Reading Myself and Others
Temptation comes to me first in the conspicuous personage of Herbie Bratasky, social director, bandleader, crooner, comic, and m.c. of my family’s mountainside resort hotel.
- Philip Roth, The Professor of Desire
First, foremost, the puppyish, protected upbringing above his father’s shoe store in Camden.
- Philip Roth, My Life as a Man
It was the last daylight hour of a December afternoon more than twenty years ago – I was twenty-three, writing and publishing my first short stories, and like many a Bildungsroman hero before me, already contemplating my own massive Bildungsroman – when I arrived at his hideaway to meet the great man.
- Philip Roth, The Ghost Writer
“What the hell are you doing on a bus, with your dough?”
- Philip Roth, Zuckerman Unbound
When he is sick, every man wants his mother; if she’s not around, other women must do.
- Philip Roth, The Anatomy Lesson
“Your novel,” he says, “is absolutely one of the five or six books of my life.”
- Philip Roth, The Prague Orgy
Ever since the family doctor, during a routine checkup, discovered an abnormality on his EKG and he went in overnight for the coronary catheterization that revealed the dimensions of the disease, Henry’s condition had been successfully treated with drugs, enabling him to work and carry on his life at home exactly as before.
- Philip Roth, The Counterlife
Dear Zuckerman, In the past, as you know, the facts have always been notebook jottings, my way of springing into fiction.
- Philip Roth, The Facts
“I’ll write them down. You begin.”
- Philip Roth, Deception
My father had lost most of the sight in his right eye by the time he’d reached eighty-six, but otherwise he seemed in phenomenal health for a man his age when he came down with what the Florida doctor diagnosed, incorrectly, as Bell’s palsy, a viral infection that causes paralysis, usually temporary, to one side of the face.
- Philip Roth, Patrimony
For legal reasons, I have had to alter a number of facts in this book.
- Philip Roth, Operation Shylock
Either foreswear fucking others or the affair is over.
- Philip Roth, Sabbath’s Theater
- Philip Roth, American Pastoral
Ira Ringold’s older brother, Murray, was my first high school English teacher, and it was through him that I hooked up with Ira.
- Philip Roth, I Married A Communist
I knew her eight years ago.
- Philip Roth, The Dying Animal
It was the summer of 1998 that my neighbor Coleman Silk–who, before retiring two years earlier, had been a classics professor at nearby Athena College for some twenty-odd years as well as serving for sixteen more as the dean of faculty– confided to me that, at the age of seventy-one, he was having an affair with a thirty-four-year-old cleaning woman who worked down at the college.
- Philip Roth, The Human Stain
On the Friday in September 1986 that I arrived in Turin to renew a conversation with Primo Levi that we had begun one afternoon in London the spring before, I asked to be shown around the paint factory where he’d been employed as a research chemist, and, afterward, until retirement, as manager.
- Philip Roth, Shop Talk
Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear.
- Philip Roth, The Plot Against America
Around the grave in the rundown cemetery were a few of his former advertising colleagues from New York, who recalled his energy and originality and told his daughter, Nancy, what a pleasure it had been to work with him.
- Philip Roth, Everyman
I hadn’t been in New York in eleven years.
- Philip Roth, Exit Ghost
About two and a half months after the well-trained divisions of North Korea, armed by the Soviets and Chinese Communists, crossed the 38th parallel into South Korea on June 25, 1950, and the agonies of the Korean War began, I entered Robert Treat, a small college in downtown Newark named for the city’s seventeenth-century founder.
- Philip Roth, Indignation
He’d lost his magic.
- Philip Roth, The Humbling
The first case of polio that summer came early in June, right after Memorial Day, in a poor Italian neighborhood crosstown from where we lived.
- Philip Roth, Nemesis
“Our God surpasses the Gypsy god; He is more avuncular and noble, though some of us begrudgingly admit their god is more assertive than our God, whom we haven’t seen or heard from since He rose from His own corpse and promised to rescue us from peril, and He has, though in secret, and if you could witness His wondrous methods you surely would fizzle in awe, so decent and grand is He, our Savior, who speaks in a voice that is no voice, not the song of any bird, not the snap of burning logs or crunch of shoes on sand.”
- The Avian Gospels, Adam Novy
“This book is largely concerned with Hobbits, and from its pages a reader may discover much of their character and a little of their history.”
- The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien
“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”
- The Secret History, Donna Tartt
“I am the recording angel, doomed to watch.”
- The Children’s Hospital, Chris Adrian
“So. You don’t believe in a future life.
“Then do we have the place for you!”
- The Quick and the Dead, Joy Williams
“See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt. He stokes the scullery fire. Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a few last wolves. His folk are for hewers of wood and drawers of water but in truth his father has been a schoolmaster. He lies in drink, he quotes from poets whose names are now lost. The boy crouches by the fire and watches him.”
- Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy
“He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful.”
- Underworld, Don DeLillo
“Francis Marion Tarwater’s uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the signs of its Saviour at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up.”
- The Violent Bear It Away, Flannery O’Connor
“Christmas again in Yucatan.”
- Gringos, Charles Portis
“–Money . . . ? in a voice that rustled.”
- JR, William Gaddis
“When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful of spaghetti and whistling along with an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie, which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta.”
- The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami
“A screaming comes across the sky.”
- Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon
“124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.”
- Beloved, Toni Morrison
“Garp’s mother, Jenny Fields, was arrested in Boston in 1942 for wounding a man in a movie theater.”
- The World According to Garp, John Irving
Margaret Atwood says:
The Progymnasmata Narrative,
False Dichotomies Are Not Honorable
1. Money and art are not mutually exclusive.
2. The issue of a piece of writing’s power as art is a separate issue from the question of whether the piece of writing was published by a large commercial press or a small not-for-profit press.
3. When large commercial presses invest in new literature, despite the market pressures which discourage investment in new literature, those presses should be embraced and supported by the community of readers which also embraces and supports the small presses who invest in new literature.
4. If a work of literature or the person who made it becomes successful in externally validating manners that transcend the small circle of serious readers that constituted the original audience because the work was promoted by the high-powered machinery that can attend to a book released by a large commercial publisher, that work of literature and that writer ought to be congratulated and their worldly success applauded by the small circle of readers that constituted the original audience.
5. Obscurity as a writer is neither inherently honorable nor inherently dishonorable.
Samuel Johnson Advocates for Well-Earned Freedom
Samuel Johnson: “Whether Shakespeare knew the unities, and rejected them by design, or deviated from them by happy ignorance, it is, I think, impossible to decide, and useless to inquire. We may reasonably suppose, that, when he rose to notice, he did not want the counsels and admonitions of scholars and critics, and that he at last deliberately persisted in a practice, which he might have begun by chance. As nothing is essential to the fable, but unity of action, and as the unities of time and place arise evidently from false assumptions, and, by circumscribing the extent of the drama, lessen its variety, I cannot think it much to be lamented, that they were not known by him, or not observed: Nor, if such another poet could arise, should I very vehemently reproach him, that his first act passed at Venice, and his next in Cyprus. Such violations of rules merely positive, become the comprehensive genius of Shakespeare . . .”
Gun, Gramophone, Violin, Bawling Baby
The gun jammed on the last shot and the baby stood holding the crib rail, eyes wild, bawling. The man sat down in an upholstered chair and began taking his gun apart to see why it wouldn’t fire. The baby’s crying set him on edge. He put down the gun and looked around for a hammer, but saw the gramophone. He walked over to it. There was already a record on the spindle, so he cranked the mechanism and set down the needle. He sat back down in the chair and picked up his work as the music flowed into the room. The baby quieted. An unearthly violin solo in the middle of the record made the man stop, the pieces of the gun in his hands. He got up when the music was finished and cranked the gramophone and put the recording back on. This happened three times. The baby fell asleep. The man repaired the gun so the bullet slid nicely into its chamber. He tried it several times, then rose and stood over the crib. The violin reached a crescendo of strange sweetness. He raised the gun. The odor of raw blood was all around him in the closed room.
Bonnie Jo Campbell and the Strategy of Negation
I keep returning to Bonnie Jo Campbell’s story “The Solutions to Ben’s Problem,” which was first published in The Diagram, and was subsequently reprinted in her collection American Salvage as “The Solutions to Brian’s Problem.” (American Salvage was originally published by tiny Wayne State University Press, and then republished by Norton after the book became an unlikely but well-chosen National Book Award finalist.)
“The Solutions to Ben’s Problem” is structured unlike any other story I’ve read. The problem, which is never directly articulated, is that Ben’s wife Connie is a meth addict who can’t moderate her increasingly dangerous behavior. To make matters worse, Connie is the mother of Ben’s baby, and Ben fears losing the baby one way or the other (to Connie’s neglect, to child protective services.) The text of the story is seven numbered possible solutions Ben might choose to the problem of Connie. Cleverly, Campbell fills in the pertinent story details progressively within the solutions. The reader knows the things Ben knows which the reader also needs to know in order to enter into Ben’s dilemma alongside Ben.
What interests me the most about the story, from a storytelling perspective, is that the solution Ben ultimately chooses — in effect, to do nothing, to tread water, to continue taking care of Connie and thereby enabling Connie but also keeping anything bad from happening to Connie and the baby for one more hour, one more day — is the least inherently dramatic of all the posited solutions. If the story were constructed the way most stories in this mode (high stakes psychological realism) are constructed, then we wouldn’t really have much of a story. Nothing happens, in other words.
However, because the story presents the ultimate solution to Ben’s problem as only one of seven possible solutions — and the others are extreme and often violent — Ben’s ultimate choice to do “nothing” becomes a highly dramatically charged ending to the story, and one the reader feels with a weight that must approximate the weight that falls upon Ben. It is an ending that presents a possibility available to all stories whose stakes are higher than their direct articulation would ordinarily indicate — tell the terrible things that didn’t happen (let’s call it a “Strategy of Negation”) and in so doing, show the dramatic power of the apparently less dramatic thing that did.
Peter Taylor on His Teachers
(from Conversations with Peter Taylor, edited by Hubert H. McAlexander)
“What Reconciles Me to My Own Death”
“What reconciles me to my own death more than anything else is the image of a place: a place where your bones and mine are buried, thrown, uncovered, together. They are strewn there pell-mell. One of your ribs leans against my skull. A metacarpal of my left hand lies inside your pelvis. (Against my broken ribs your breast like a flower.) The hundred bones of our feet are scattered like gravel. It is strange that this image of our proximity, concerning as it does mere phosphate of calcium, should bestow a sense of peace. Yet it does. With you I can imagine a place where to be phosphate of calcium is enough.” – John Berger
Department of Regret, Kurt Vonnegut Edition
A few years before Kurt Vonnegut died, I paid a visit to the studio of Joe Petro III of Lexington, Kentucky. Petro was Vonnegut’s late-life collaborator on several series of silkscreened art based upon Vonnegut’s drawings, some of which were new, and some of which were elaborations upon the drawings he had incorporated into middle-period-and-later books such as Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions, and Hocus Pocus.
Petro generously offered me a tour of his studio, where, in addition to his work with Vonnegut, he had completed work for the likes of Ralph Steadman and Greenpeace. The Greenpeace work had caused him some problems, so he was a little nervous about people knowing where he lived. Nonetheless, he wanted to do his part to champion the work that had become the passion of Vonnegut’s late life, so he consented to an interview, and then he consented to put me in touch with Vonnegut, who had indicated that he, too, was willing to yammer with a nobody such as I was, so long as that yammering was about drawings and silkscreenings.
What happened? I never went through with it. Part of me felt uncomfortable at the discomfort I was causing Petro by doing the project at all. And part of me was plain intimidated by Vonnegut, whose work had been my gateway drug into hardcore literature (and whose work I continue to admire, haters be damned.) Uncharacteristically, I got all squishy about all the privacies I was violating, so I let it go.
A few weeks ago, I read a reminiscence of Vonnegut by Michael Silverblatt, the host of KCRW’s Bookworm. Silverblatt said that at one of Vonnegut’s late-life readings, he slipped Silverblatt his phone number, with a message saying that Vonnegut was very lonely and could use a friend. Would Silverblatt call?
I did the math and saw that the timeframes — Silverblatt’s meeting with Vonnegut and my meeting with Petro — matched up fairly closely. What Silverblatt did was follow up, calling Vonnegut at regular intervals, talking about literature, and providing the warmth of friendship-from-a-distance. What I did was nothing.
I won’t pretend that Vonnegut would have wanted to be my buddy. I was a kid, and Silverblatt was an adult, a first-rate intellect, and a former student of Donald Barthelme’s to boot. They had matters to discuss, whereas I had learning I needed to do to get from here to there. But I’ll always regret that once upon a time I had a chance to share five or fifteen minutes talking with somebody whose work made me feel like I could make for myself a different and better life, and whose work made me feel less alone, and, hell, maybe for five or fifteen minutes I could have offered him even the faint companionship of an acolyte on his best behavior, trying to act not like an acolyte but like a professionally interested interviewer, whose very presence validated the late-life project of a man whose life project was to bring comfort to the rightly cynical and tell the truth to the uppity and falsely righteous. I could have given him that much, at least.
Some Thoughts on Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day”
Here is a very popular American poem, frequently lauded and anthologized:
The Summer Day
by Mary Oliver
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
The poem opens with three rhetorical questions. First: Who made the world? Second: Who made the swan, and the black bear? Third: Who made the grasshopper?
These questions seem to be addressed directly to the reader from the speaker. Or perhaps the questions are questions that the speaker is asking herself. Or maybe the speaker is asking herself and the reader at the same time.
The questions grow from the general—the world—to the specific—the swan, the black bear—to the immediately particular–”The grasshopper, I mean—/the one who has flung herself . . .” The first four lines of the poem move us toward a meditation upon who made the grasshopper, and the fifth through the tenth lines of the poem amplify the object of our meditation. The poem invites a very close attention to the workings of the grasshopper’s locomotion, mastication, sight mechanism, grooming, and flying. There is a sense of wonder that attaches to the abstractions the speaker uses in the observation of the grasshopper (her eyes are enormous and complicated) and to the verbs the speaker uses to dramatize the grasshoppers actions (the grasshopper gazes, lifts, snaps open, and, ultimately, floats—rather than flies—away.)
In the eleventh line, which follows immediately upon the extended meditation/observation upon the grasshopper and the question of the grasshopper’s maker, we get these lines:
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
Followed immediately by:
which is what I’ve been doing all day.
An equivalence is being drawn between the act of prayer, and the act of communing with the natural, and of being present in the “idle and blessed” moment, acts which were dramatized by the encounter with the grasshopper. There is a defiance in the line “which is what I’ve been doing all day,” which indicates a kind of justification. We might read all that precedes the line as a further justification. The speaker has not simply been idle and blessed, but she has also been engaged in a reckoning with the unknowable cosmological things, such as the questions of who made the world, the black bear, and this wondrous grasshopper.
There is a simultaneous romanticization of the things she has been doing with all day – of her idleness, sure, but also of the natural world in which the blessed idleness and contemplation are made possible.
The poem concludes with the four lines that are thrilling in their own way:
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
And now we know that the poem’s initial questions were not questions that we were meant to contemplate in an open-ended way. Rather, they were questions meant to move the reader along a trajectory of thought that mirrors the speaker’s trajectory of thought, which will end with (1) an implicit justification of the idle and blessed day, (2) a drawn equivalence with the act of prayer, (3) a further justification by way of two leading question (“Tell me, what else should I have done?” and “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?”), and (4) a challenge to the reader:
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
The poem seems to take for granted the reader’s agreement, after the reader experiences the poem’s sequence alongside the speaker.
Anecdotal stuff: Every time I have encountered this poem in a public setting, there is an audible gasp of surprise and delight from the hearers. If there is a discussion attached to the poem, the hearers will often use words such as beautiful, true, brilliant, insightful, and challenging. Sometimes, someone will say that the poem is subversive, because in asking the question “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” the poem is asking a question that is often answered in ways that privilege achievement or hard work or money making or school-going or some such thing, but which is meant to offer, in this poem, an invitation to contemplation, to communing with the self and with nature, to blessed idleness, to a life that willfully opposes the ordinary struggle, or which at least holds forth the time of engagement with nature and of blessed idleness as representative of that which is worthy of the expenditure of the finite time available to a life that is wild and precious.
I have never heard anyone, in public discussion of “The Summer Day,” say that perhaps part of the reason the poem is so widely appreciated is that it flatters the reader by telling the reader something the reader is longing to hear: That the reader’s one life is both wild and precious.
The use of the word wild, in this context, is especially interesting, because the reader’s one life is the only natural thing in the poem that gets to be wild. The natural world has been reduced to a benign physical space. While we do enjoy the presence of the bear and the grasshopper, we hear little about their fearsome power over smaller creatures.
And the human being in the natural setting does not seem very concerned about what dangers might be about. There is no worry, while lounging in the grass, about errant poisonous snakes. Not even spiders or fire ants. The only thing that passes for pestilence, in the poem, is the grasshopper, who is harmoniously eating sugar out of the speaker’s hand.
There are also space, time, and class luxuries in this lovely setting. No one is firing bullets, throwing spears, or setting the forest on fire. No one is worried about where his or her next meal might come from. No one is turning anyone else on the rack in order to extract a confession of belief in the wrong god. No one is beating anyone else. No one is seeking shelter from the hot or the cold. No one is forced to be to work on time in order to avoid getting fired and missing the paycheck that starts the chain reaction which ends in the homelessness of one’s children.
The poem proceeds, I mean, from a place of privilege which might color not only its means, but also its conclusions.
The first time I read “The Summer Day,” I was sitting in an orphanage in Haiti. In my backpack, I also carried a book about the forced starvation of Ukrainian farmers by Stalin. Earlier that day, someone said that the Haitian side of the island of Hispaniola would soon be uninhabitable, because it was almost entirely deforested, the water sources from up the mountain were growing contaminated, and the water table beneath the island was suffering the intrusion of saltwater from the ocean. I had also been told that five hundred feet from where I was sitting, a thief had recently been hacked to death with machetes, doused in gasoline, and lit on fire, for the crime of breaking into a shipping container which was being used as a general store.
Does the poem want us to answer the question of who made the world, the bear, and the grasshopper?
Would it be impolite to answer the question of who made the world, the bear, and the grasshopper, as best as we could?
Would it be a violation of the poem to engage in good faith in the contemplation that the poem invites, but to come to radically different ends, after we’d finished the contemplation?
The Summer Day
by Kyle Minor
in response to Mary Oliver
No One made the world.
The swan and the black bear evolved from a common ancestor.
The grasshopper is a vicious killer,
When hungry enough will eat another grasshopper,
Scavenge the grasshopper dead.
When Stalin starved the Ukraine,
Parents killed their weakest child
And served her flesh to the others for dinner.
The black smoke rising from the chimney
Told the tale the Party wanted to quiet.
There is no starvation
If there is no report of starvation.
But there is always a report.
One day a farmer digging a fencepost
Finds five hundred skulls and skeletons.
One day a mortar man pulls away a piece of wall
And finds a letter. Dear Volodya:
Three boys in uniform came and took the seed grain.
Have you ever seen what children do
When no one is watching and one wants the other’s toy?
The big child takes the toy, and if
The little child fights for the toy,
The big child knocks the little child down.
This evening I have sutured two bloody lips.
In the substitute nurse’s clinic at the elementary school,
The story of the world unfolds on cots.
The little girl with Guillain-Barré syndrome won’t
Anymore see her thirteenth birthday
Than the the little girl who was one day my schoolbus seatmate,
The next day the body in the casket,
Not the last body,
The bodies mount and mount:
Abby, Addie, Allie, Adam, Andie, Andrew, Anthony, Ariana,
And that’s just the A’s.
I know what a prayer is:
It is a cry of anguish to a being that never existed.
When I fall down in the grass, kneel in the grass,
When I stroll through fields,
When I eat, sleep, shit, fuck, laze, or work,
There is nothing to do but ease the blueberry
Between tongue and palate, squeeze the juice,
Spruce up for the evening party, brush the blue
From lips and teeth like a child.
What if my one life is neither wild
Nor precious? What if our star overtakes our world
Before the other planets take notice?
Soon the ball of fire will swallow everything.
Everything small is swallowed in the end.
Why pretend otherwise?
Now there are two versions of “The Summer Day.” This version runs in the ruts laid by the Oliver version. But why couldn’t this second version spawn further versions? Isn’t this version as limited, in its point of view, as Oliver’s, and as prescriptive?
I prefer Oliver’s version.
But I am a sucker for wish fulfillment fantasies.
Aren’t there always at least three darknesses that accompany each wish fulfillment fantasy? First, the “bad” things that the fantasy wishes away. And second, the wish itself, which rises from the harshest workings of the self – the wants, the needs, the desires of the self. Third, the inflictions upon others that make the fantasy possible.
But the second version, my version, has fulfilled a wish and a fantasy of its own. It is the fantasy native to art, which posits that we can create and control and will a thing into being, and that this thing will stand taller than other things.
In the art version of any thing, the answer to the question Who made the world? is always, at least partially, answered by the artist like so:
I wish to fantasize versions of “The Summer Day” narrated by the following other Me’s:
The One who made the world
The No One who made the world
The One who did not make the world
The No One who did not make the world
The one who made the One who made the world
The one who tried to make the One who did not make the world
The common ancestor of the swan, the bear, and the grasshopper
The grasshopper dead
The grasshopper cannibal
The Ukrainian peasant farmer
The Ukrainian peasant farmers
The city Ukrainian Stalinite
The city Ukrainian Stalinites
The weakest child
The stronger children
The cannibal parents
The little girl with Guillain-Barré syndrome
The I I used to be before I was the me I am
The body in the casket
The being that never existed
The ball of fire
The pretender otherwise
The unpretender otherwise
Title: The Summer Day
Nick Flynn on “A Crisis of Narrative” in Memoir
“A lot of it feels, to me, like a crisis of narrative. These stories basically follow the same model, often it’s the redemption narrative—a Christian redemption narrative of sinking low then rising above. This same narrative is repeated over and over, the culture can’t get enough of it for some reason. It’s not a bad story, but it’s crowding out alternative tellings, alternative versions, and this is very limiting, and basically false because it is limiting.”(Read the rest, from the 2006 print interview newly posted at the Sycamore Review.)
Matt Bell’s Catalog of Structures
I admire the way the stories in Matt Bell’s How They Were Found tackle so many forms. Here is a list of those forms, superficially described:
“The Cartographer’s Girl” — a cartographer’s map key as prompt for story fragments
“The Receiving Tower” — nineteen-part structure, which ascends like the tower at the story’s center
“His Last Great Gift” — two-hundred “revealments,” some of which are given directly
“Her Ennead” — nine reflections on the repetition “her baby”
“Hold on to Your Vacuum” –nine chronologically linear “turns” (the one variation is a “not turn”)
“Dredge” — twenty-five chronologically linear crots in close third person on a single character (this is the most “conventional” story in the book, and also perhaps the most emotionally impactful)
“Ten Scenes from a Movie Called Mercy” — ten scenes from a movie called Mercy
“Wolf Parts” — A collage of story, competing story, teller’s take on story, facts & objects (think Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried), and not-instruction where the moral instruction might otherwise go. Built on the chassis of a common fairy tale, which it resists strongly.
“Mantodea” — Three-part structure (set-up/action/denouement) in a muted first-person dramatic monologue
“The Leftover” — Two-part structure, with three months in the white space between parts one and two. Implied free indirect discourse (the way the present tense is deployed is what implies it, I think), which pushes the protagonist to a distance greater than what we get in “Dredge” — even though we have access to the inside of the character, the effect of the story is one of seeing the character from the outside
“A Certain Number of Bedrooms, A Certain Number of Baths” — story proceeds in a simulacrum of catalog copy
“The Collectors” — complicated intersecting matrix of numbered parts and lettered parts, number-lettered like so — 1A, 3A, 2A, 4A, 3B, 1B, 3C, etc. — which implies at least three ways to read the story (in the order it’s arranged in the book, numerically, or alphabetically — these are the three ways I’ve tried it, anyway), and probably more — quite a feat, to make something more formally complicated than Cortazar’s Hopscotch in less than five percent the space
“An Index of How Our Family Was Killed” — an alphabetic index (this is, strangely, the second-most emotionally impactful piece in the book, despite a surface that would imply something intellectual and cold)
Ten Comic Novels I Like
1. Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, by Donald Antrim. It is not terribly later in the history of the universe than it is now. We’re on Florida’s west coast. Mayor Jim Kunkel has fired Stinger missles into the Botanical Garden reflecting pool. Picnickers have died. Our hero, ex-third-grade-teacher Pete Robinson, would probably make a better mayor than Jim Kunkel, and it’s not probably a liability that he creates a 1:32 scale model interrogation chamber (the Inquisition is what he’s mocking up) in his basement.
First sentence: “See a town, stucco-pink, fishbelly-white, done up in wisteria and swaying palms and smelling of rotted fruits broken beneath trees: mango, papaya, delicious tangerine; imagine this town rising from coral shoals bleached and cutting upward through bathwater seas: the sunken world of fish.”
2. The Fermata, by Nicholson Baker. Our hero can stop time, drop into “the Fold,” and do whatever he wants for awhile, while the rest of the world stays helpfully still. What he mostly does is check out what women look like, beneath their clothes. If this seems a premise too flimsy to sustain a book-length narrative, well, it is, and half the fun of the book is watching Baker find a way to make a novel out of a paper-thin conceit. When he does, it’s all the more thrilling.
First sentence: “I am going to call my autobiography The Fermata, even though “fermata” is only one of the many names I have for The Fold.”
3. Too Late, by Stephen Dixon. This is one of those lost Stephen Dixon books nobody ever talks about. It’s strange that it is, because it’s also one of the most approachable Stephen Dixon books. It’s also the rare Stephen Dixon book that flirts with genre (in this case, the procedural), and it comes early enough in Dixon’s publishing career (1978) to have Harper & Row on the spine. Here we don’t have the fractured narrative, the irreconcilable set pieces, or the Bernhard-esque paragraphs-without-end. But we do have plenty that is recognizably Dixonian–the snappy, talky dialogue; the tortured, tie-yourself-in-knots interior life of the speaker; the everything-turned-up-to-seven-and-a-half-but-not-eight-out-of-ten event machine. It also offers up the dark urban pleasures of the late ’70′s, which are hard to find anymore except in novels and on late-night proselytizing movies on Christian cable television (for starters–and for funny–I recommend The Cross and The Switchblade, shot on location in Hell’s Kitchen, in which the big gangland conversion scene involves a massive zoom-in on a picture of Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ. It also has the most “realistic” tie-off-and-shoot-up-heroin-in-the-stairwell scene I’ve ever seen in American cinema. But I digress.)
First sentence: “She says, ‘This movie’s much too violent for me. I have to leave.’”
4. Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn. I can’t beat the jacket copy for titillation: “Geek Love is the story of a carnival family, the Binewskis, who save their traveling ‘Carnival Fabulon’ from bankruptcy by giving birth to fabulous freaks–the children born to Lil Binewski after she ingests drugs, insecticides, arsenic, readioisotopes, anything to make her babies more ‘special.’”
First sentence: “‘When your mama was geek, my dreamlets,’ Papa would say, ‘she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing.’”
5. The Magic Kingdom, by Stanley Elkin. Eddy Bale’s wife abandons him. His twelve-year-old son dies. He gins up a Make-a-Wish-Foundation-ish scheme to bring terminally ill British school children to Disney World. Of course, this being Elkin, we don’t get the inspirational halftime-of-the-Sunday-football-game version of the story. We get kids who want things. Jealousies, longings for sex, pettinesses. We get a snowstorm. We get a nasty conversation between Mickey Mouse and Pluto on the subject of “puppy poop.” We get sentences such as: “And then, without so much as threatening him with exposure if he failed, Colin Bible, who was confident he wouldn’t, who believed in and accepted on trust the existence of a sort of freemasonry among them, a given, never-to-be-abused loyalty that was not only understood but actually available, actually advocated and depended upon between all kinds and conditions of homohood, admitted Matthew Gale into Mary Cottle’s bed.”
First sentence: “Eddy Bale took his idea to the Empire Children’s Fund, Children’s Relief, to the Youth Emergency Committee.”
6. Erasure, by Percival Everett. Here we must defer, again, to the genius of the jacket copy writer–in this case, the jacket copy writer for the U.K. edition published by Faber and Faber: “Thelonius ‘Monk’ Ellison is an erudite but seldom-read author who insists on writing obscure literary papers and avant-garde fiction rather than the ‘ghetto prose’ that would buy him commercial success. After witnessing, with horror, the runaway success of the latest novel in the genre, We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, he hits back with a parody called My Pafology (later retitled Fuck) which he submits, to the dismay of his agent, under the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh . . .”
First sentence: “My journal is a private affair, but as I cannot know the time of my coming death, and since I am not disposed, however unfortunately, to the serious consideration of self-termination, I am afraid that others will see these pages.”
7. Threats, by Amelia Gray. Who is hiding threats around David’s house and neighborhood? Is it his dead wife Franny? (Isn’t naming a character Franny reason enough to frame a novel as comic?) And what lovely threats these be:
I WILL CROSS-STITCH AN IMAGE OF YOUR FUTURE HOME BURNED. I WILL HANG THIS IMAGE OVER YOUR BED WHILE YOU SLEEP.
I WILL GATHER YOUR OLDEST FRIENDS AT YOUR HOME AND WE WILL HAVE A CONVERSATION. YOU WILL HEAR US TALKING BUT WHEN YOU COME INTO THE ROOM WE WILL STOP TALKING.
IN THAT HALF SECOND WHEN YOU REACHED FOR THE DOOR, I CAME UP BESIDE YOU, DRILLED A HOLE IN YOUR HEEL AND ATTACHED A TUBE THROUGH WHICH I AM CONCURRENTLY COLLECTING YOUR BONE MARROW. IT IS GOING INTO A BAG. I AM GOING TO SELL IT.
First sentence: “The tape on the package was striped with waxed string.”
8. The Puttermesser Papers, by Cynthia Ozick. If you think Cynthia Ozick isn’t a funny writer, it’s probably because you only read the story “The Shawl,” and you didn’t read the sequel, “Rosa,” which is collected in the same book. Ozick has had a sharp satirical streak running through her entire career, and whenever she gets funny, there is often a knifeblade nearby. (Be careful, especially if you are a failed Yiddish writer who is jealous of Isaac Bashevis Singer.)
The Puttermesser Papers is a collection of five linked (but not reconcilable, at least not on a single space-time continuum) stories and novellas, which cumulatively form something we could call a novel in the same way we call Stephen Dixon’s Frog or Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler a novel. The hero, Ruth Puttermesser, is a bookish New York attorney who wants a daughter so creates one who happens to be the first female golem in recorded history. (By the end of this episode, she becomes Mayor of New York.) Other stuff happens, too — more than you get in most seven-volume series. I’ll spare you more description so you won’t miss out on the outrageous pleasures that await you.
Third sentence: “Though she was no virgin she lived alone, but idiosyncratically–in the Bronx, on the Grand Concourse, among other people’s decaying parents.”
9. The Tragedy of Arthur, by Arthur Phillips. Arthur Phillips is a writer more people should read. Why don’t more people read Arthur Phillips? I have a theory–these days too many books get undeservingly heralded by too many marketing departments, so the books that get deservingly heralded too often get lost in the cacaphony of loud and monied heralding.
Here is a book that needs re-heralded. It’s a hoax book. The conceit is that maybe we’re reading the front matter for a recently discovered and previously unknown Shakespeare play. Or maybe we’re not. But, either way, we get the play at the end, and–hot damn!–it’s a pretty good Shakespeare play. How did Arthur Phillips find a way to write a pretty good Shakespeare play? I don’t know, but I bet it was heavy-lifting enough that he won’t write another one. The thing about Arthur Phillips, though, is that there’s no way to predict what the next book will be. Almost certainly, it will be completely different from this one. I don’t feel the need to sell you on the other ones, because I figure once you read this one, you’ll go find the other ones. God Bless America. And Elizabethan England.
First sentence: “Random House is proud to present this first modern edition of The Tragedy of Arthur by William Shakespeare.”
10. Sabbath’s Theater, by Philip Roth. This is the gold standard, my friends. Don’t read one more word of me. Just start with the first sentence, then run to the bookstore so you can read the second through the three-thousand-eight-hundred-and-eighty-fourth sentence. You’ll feel the happiness of revulsion, and you’ll realize, after the book is done, that what you first thought was prurience turned out to be the closest analogue contemporary literature has to King Lear.
First sentence: “‘Either foreswear fucking others or the affair is over.’”
Laura Kasischke v. John McCrae
The rondeau is a fifteen-line poem appropriated from a French form dating to the 13th century. Here is John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields,” the most famous rondeau in English:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Note the straitjacket of the form — the AABBA AAB(refrain) AABBA(refrain) structure, and the refrain itself lifted from the first half of the first line.
Here is Laura Kasischke’s “Rondeau,” from the April 2011 issue of Poetry:
Small and panting mass
Of moonlight and dampness on a log
This glistening tumor, terrible frog
Of moonlight and dampness on a log
My small and panting mass
Kasischke’s “Rondeau” retains some of the elements the form required before she un-fixed it. We get the repetition of the two dominant rhymes (-og and -ass), the repetition of an entire line (in this case two entire lines, more or less, instead of a refrain that moves across strophes), you can dance to it (the original French rondeau, like the ballade and the virelai, was set to music), and the meaning of the refrain (in this case, I guess, the first and final line does this work) is changed when it reappears on account of the new context the intervening lines have offered.
The two poems invite very different approaches from the reader. “In Flanders Fields” holds the reader’s hand as it rings its changes. It is in many ways a didactic poem. It’s no mistake that the point of view is revealed in the quatrain as We the dead, who just died a few days ago in battle. Their lesson? If you don’t take up the battle that cost us our lives, we die in vain. Their charge: “Take up our quarrel with the foe! / To you from failing hands we throw / The torch; be yours to hold it high!” And they follow it with a guilt-inducing threat: “If ye break faith with us who die / We shall not sleep, though poppies grow / In Flanders fields.” The poem is, in a sense, a forerunner of the contemporary country song that romanticizes war and the troops, as practiced by the likes of Toby Keith:
Perhaps this is one reason why the poem is so broadly popular. It is a well-crafted, ostensibly lyrical, and verifiably beautiful verse that simply tells its readers the thing that the readers have already been conditioned to hear. It is a call to death that appeals to the desire of young men to be courageous, to honor the other members of their (for lack of a less problematic term) tribe, and to avenge what has been wronged by violence by the infliction of a superior violence sufficient to end further violence. As such, in its call to bravery, it is not brave. Perhaps it is a useful articulation of the bravery required of a soldier. But the bravery required of an artist is to wade into complications, to show them, to problematize. “In Flanders Fields,” instead, reduces. It is not art. It is propaganda that is artful in its appropriation of the conventions of the highest craft associated with the art of poetry, and because of its beauty, it is propaganda sufficient to incite an emotional response even from a reader as jaded as this reader.
Laura Kasischke’s “Rondeau” does not give up its secrets so easily. Neither the title nor poem’s first line (“Small and panting mass”) does anything to orient us in the questions of who speaks, when and where we are in space or time, or what the dramatic situation might be. It lacks, in other words, the markers we ordinarily associate with narrative or the narrative-heavy lyric (the kinds of moves we might expect from a poet such as James Wright, say, or Andrew Hudgins.) We have to wait, then, until the second line, to learn what it is a small and panting mass of –”moonlight and dampness on a log” — and the third line further clarifies: “This glistening tumor, terrible frog”
. . . and here the reader has trouble finishing the sentence, because “Rondeau” has no punctuation of the sort that ends sentences. No periods, no question marks, no exclamation points, no interrobangs. If the sentence ends at the end of the third line, then everything that preceded modified the noun “frog,” which means we have a literal frog on a log at nighttime who glistens like a tumor and reflects the moonlight. And — fair enough — that is what we have as we read forward through time, line one to line three.
But the sentence potentially extends itself in the fourth line, with a further prepositional phrase — “Of moonlight and dampness on a log” — which means that we must now entertain another possible reading. What we’ve been reading about, in this version, is the terrible frog of moonlight and dampness. Now: Is there a frog, or is the moonlight and dampness manifest on the log being likened to a frog?
The poem’s primary liberty with a form the poem has already undone and reconstructed arrives in the fifth line, where, instead of the simple repetition of “Small and panting mass,” we get “My small and panting mass.” Here, more readings present themselves. Has everything preceding this moment in the poem simply existed as an opportunity to speak to the question of “My small and panting mass,” as modifiers, or as likening agents? Has the encounter with either the frog-on-log or the frog of moonlight (or both) caused this reckoning with the speaker’s own small and panting mass? Or is the speaker the literal small and panting thing on the log?
(Or does the stress fall on the poem’s middle, the word tumor, which invites a different kind of reading, in which we think differently about the malignancy of the small and panting mass, that terrible frog which is foreign to my body and is yet mine?)
These are all first- and second- level readings, and they aren’t the only ones. Certainly the reader very quickly is interrogating the poem in all sorts of ways. Are we talking about the body here? Are we talking about sex? Is this poem about cancer, and if it is, are the metaphors about the speaker’s cancer, or is the speaker’s cancer meant to open up a discussion of extracancerous things, or both? Do we have a metaphor about the relativity of the positions of things large and small? What about this tumor talk? It’s nighttime, right? The frog is vulnerable. Death is a possibility here, the end of a thing among things that will continue despite its ending. Why is the tumor and/or frog and/or frog of moonlight and dampness glistening? (I suppose it’s because of the moonlight upon the dampness.) Is the my of the last line identified with, in ownership of, or set apart from the subject of the poem? Can a poem have a subject without a verb? Given the circular nature of the form, does the poem have a beginning or end? Is its true structure a loop? Must the ending return us to the beginning, or is the ending an end? If it is, how does that change the way the reader enters into the poem?
In Lawrence Weschler’s meditation on Vermeer and the Bosnian War Crimes tribunals, he wrote: “It’s one of the great things about great works of art that they can bear—and, indeed, that they invite—a superplenitude of possible readings, some of them contradictory.”
In Laura Kasischke’s “Rondeau,” we have the superplenitude and the contradictory readings in five lines. I don’t know what good it does, a month after publication, to even have a discussion about a poem’s greatness. There is a sense in which John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” has already made its claim to greatness. It is probably the greatest rondeau ever written in English. But one possible reading of Kasischke’s rondeau is that it is an interrogation of greatness by way of an examination of a small thing. Putting many possible readings side by side, greatness is being examined alongside darkness, the inevitability of death, the largeness of the log compared to the smallness of the frog but the smallness of the log compared to the largeness of the moon but the smallness of the moon compared to the largeness of the Earth. Soon night, too, will come to an end, and the Earth itself will be forced to confront the largeness of the sun.
I have no idea what the poet intended. It seems likely, given the openness of the poem’s construction, that Kasischke intended an an openness to multiple and contradictory readings. If she did not, then why would she destabilize the subject, and why would she avoid offering end-of-sentence punctuation, or a verb?
There is a modesty to the poem, but it is a deceptive and confident modesty, a rejoinder to bombast. And there is concurrently something very ambitious about the poem, seeking as it does to do the work of the rondeau in five lines, to double the difficulty of the requirements of the refrain by repeating two of the lines instead of a portion of one, and to ask the sentence to do something that the sentence was not made to do. I admire all of it.
Five Hazards of the Book Review Biz
1. Sometimes when I’m reading a review of a Book B, and Book B is written by the author of Book A, which was widely and favorably reviewed and which sold pretty well and got a lot of well-deserved attention, but Book B isn’t as good as Book A, but you wouldn’t know it from reading the review of Book B, which seems, implicitly, to actually be a review of Book A. Book A, it seems, was so amazing, that the love it engendered spilled into the love the reviewer is offering Book B, and the reader wonders: Is the reviewer reviewing Book B or the reviewer’s preexisting idea of Book B and the author of Book B based upon the good things that attach to Book A?
2. Sometimes when I’m reading a review of Book D, which is the second book by the author of Book C, the reviewer will spend half or more of the review of Book D talking about Book C, often using phrases like “sophomore curse.” The reviewer seems to be disappointed that Book D isn’t Book C, or that Book D doesn’t have the relationship to Book C that the reader would have admired in Book D, or that Book D is too much like Book C and therefore doesn’t represent the “step forward” that the reviewer would have hoped to find in Book D. But ought not the measure of Book D be Book D, rather than the relationship of Book D to Book C?
3. Sometimes the editor who assigns the review will assign the review to the author of a book that is superficially similar to the book to be reviewed, or which is about the same subject. Although the publications often have rules against reviewing books by friends or colleagues or relatives, the overlap in book subject or the superficial similarities of the books aren’t seen as a conflict of interest, even though the reviewer often uses the review to bash the book in question for not being the version of the book the reviewer would have written. Maybe this is good for stirring up controversy, but is it a good practice when assigning reviews?
4. Sometimes a book gets “killed” by a poorly written and poorly thought-out review (there’s only one publication that seems to have this kind of power) that mischaracterizes the book in question and influences people who might otherwise read and enjoy the book to avoid the book. This is terrible, but what can you do?
5. Sometimes a book gets reviewed by a person who isn’t a very good reader but who occupies a place of positional prominence as a book reviewer, and misreads the book in a way that makes a lot of people want to read the book, and whether or not those people liked or admired the book, they bought the book, and the capitalist machine, once fed, leads to more sales of the book, and eventually a lot of people come to think: That was a really successful book. That must be a really good book. I don’t get it, but who am I to say? It must have been pretty good, right?
Some Notes on the First Two Poems in Saint Monica, by Mary Biddinger
Saint Monica begins with an entry from the online Patron Saints Index. It goes like so:
Memorial: 27 August
Mother of Saint Augustine of Hippo, whose writers about her are the primary source of our information. A Christian from birth, she was given in marriage to a bad-tempered adulterous pagan named Patricius. She prayed constantly for the conversion of her husband (who converted on his death bed), and of her son (who converted after a wild life). Spiritual student of St. Ambrose of Milan. Reformed alcoholic.
Born 322 at Tagaste (South Ahrus), Algeria.
Died 387 at Ostia, Italy
Patronage: abuse victims, alcoholics, alcoholism, difficult marriages, disappointing children, homemakers, housewives, married women, mothers, victims of adultery, victims of unfaithfulness, victims of verbal abuse, widows, wives.
Then we get a dedication: “For all the girls with names that begin with M.” The reader notices right away that the author’s first name begins with M.
Already, by the dedication, before the first poem begins, the reader is attuned to a strange quality that attaches to the cult of saints, which is that their personhood is inextricably mingled with the personhood of the latter-day people who revere them. Saint Monica, mother of St. Augustine, was born in Africa in the fourth century, and died in Italy sixty-some years later. What has that to do with American girls whose named begin with M., in the twenty- and twenty-first century? What is the relationship between the Saint Monica of help and reverence and the Saint Monica who gave birth to a son, took up and then gave up devotion to alcohol, and studied with St. Ambrose, more than 1700 years ago?
Time and tradition have warped a flesh-and-blood person into an abstraction useful to contemporary people for whom knowledge of Saint Monica comes indirectly, through the words of others. So there isn’t a single Saint Monica of tradition. Instead, there are as many Saint Monicas as there are latter-day imaginers of Saint Monica. The person Monica was becomes conflated in the mind of the person who imagines a version of Saint Monica with the things inside the imaginer that give rise to the imaginer’s version of Saint Monica, so Saint Monica becomes out of joint, time-wise. She can’t be the fourth century Monica anymore, because that Monica is dead and mostly lost to memory. All that remains of her is some words written by other people. What replaces that Monica is a new idea and cult of Monica, and a little army of abstract Monicas that exist in the imagination of those for whom this or that idea of Saint Monica is useful.
It is not surprising, then that the first poem in Mary Biddinger’s Saint Monica introduces us to a Saint Monica who is clearly a contemporary person. That poem, “Saint Monica of the Gauze,” begins like this:
The room is red with iodine. Her ears stop
and her thighs slacken against
the bed. . . .
Soon we get news of “the goldfinch / bathing in a pile of spilled parmesan / in the convenience store parking lot,” static wracking the telephone line, and “a dry tornado / on the helipad after the freeway crash.” She’s been rolled in on a gurney. We’re in a hospital, clearly, with linoleum floors that have seen “years of other feet / and beds rolling in and out.” But there’s a heightening. It’s not the gauze that’s red with iodine. It’s the room.
The poem holds forth the trouble that precipitated Saint Monica’s arrival in the hospital, and the trouble that requires her to lay in the iodine-red room, but there is also another trouble outside the room. Amid reports of the plants Monica isn’t tending on account of being here, the “they” who hauled her from the gurney ask about “the clematis / your husband promised to burn if it / came back?”
It’s not difficult to read that line the first time and consider that Saint Monica’s husband might be inclined to violence of the sort that extends beyond plants to people. And clematis is a freighted choice of plant to burn. According to tradition, wild clematis is the plant that gave shelter to Mary and Jesus during their flight to Egypt. What a thing to burn!
The poem ends like this:
. . . They say that she will get out.
There will be time and muscle
enough for hanging wet towels on a line.
The reader notices how we’ve gone an entire poem without hearing from Monica herself. Everything is coming from “They,” and They is always a problematic construct, in literature and in life. Do They get it right?, and if They do get it right, for whom do they get it right? For They, or for Monica?
The reader also notices how our introduction to this Saint Monica is as “Saint Monica of the Gauze.” Gauze is a thing that is offered when there is a wound, when there is bleeding. Gauze is offered as an aid to healing, but it is also a thing that can harbor infection if it is not frequently changed. Gauze requires constant intervention, constant tending, constant changing. Gauze is not a permanent condition, but instead it is a waystation, either to healing or to decline.
If healing is in the cards, what awaits Saint Monica when she gets out, if They are right to say she will? What does it mean that the available time and muscle will allow for “hanging wet towels on a line”? There is a heaviness in the image. The reader worries for her.
In the second poem, Monica is transformed into “Saint Monica of the Ice.” Immediately, we get the return of They:
No, they would never find her under the ice
like a lost scarf snowed away for months
and replaced. . . .
This Monica “didn’t even know the cold, / had to lie when friends asked about her / bare legs under a kilt, the muslin slips / she slept in, . . .” Unlike “the rest,” who huddle, “hot bricks at their toes” on cold January nights, Monica sleeps beneath cracked windows. When she falls into the icy river, no one pulls her out. She pulls herself out, before the attempted and problematic intervention of a teacher and a rope.
It is a testament to Biddinger’s skill as a manipulator of words and images that it is difficult to write summary of these poems, and not because they resist the reader’s attempt to understand them or to fall into them–Clarity is one of their virtues–but, rather, because once she begins to set everything into motion, the literal surfaces spin a web of attachment that causes the reader to understand many things at once, which means an attempt to summarize what is happening in important lines of a poem like “Saint Monica of the Thaw” requires a lot more space than the lines themselves require.
For example, here is the poem’s concluding lines, which follow Monica’s fall into the icy river, her climb out, and the somersault of a teacher and a rope down “the crusted ledge”:
Monica did not even peel off her coat
before untangling Miss Nells, brushing
the snow from her pin curls, flipping her
skirt back over her knees. How did she
keep quiet about the dingy pantalets, red
garter hidden under all that wool, the way
the rope knotted itself around them both.
It’s not just the exterior action that the poem is being clear about. The poem is spinning a web of inferences. The teacher comes to the rescue of the poor girl, but then it is the poor girl who actually does the rescuing. The rescuing doesn’t just come in the form of physical rescue. There is also a rush to save dignity, by “flipping her skirt back over her knees.” But this is also a concealing move. It shows something about what’s important to the community both characters inhabit. It’s telling that the first move isn’t to comfort or warm or untangle, but rather to conceal. And the thing that is concealed is that which the skirt covers. And what it covers is not only “the dingy pantalets” — an image that conveys dirtiness, poverty, ruin, and smallness all at once — but also the “red garter hidden under all that wool.” And here we’re into the intrigue of the suppression of female sexuality.
It’s a strange thing about skirts. They conceal, but they also tease, because they are open, and they are mobile. It is possible, sometimes, when they move, to catch a glimpse of what is beneath them. And what is beneath them? It could be dingy pantalets, and it could be a red garter, and it could be both. Or there could be no fabric at all. The skirt, in a place and time like Monica inhabits, is a necessary thing for a virtuous woman to wear, to show and own her apartness, at the level of the uniform, from the pants-wearing men. It keeps their eyes away from the shape and the form of the legs and the place where the legs meet. But it also invites attention to the places it covers. In hiding, it also invites speculation about what is hidden. Somehow, it is natural for the speculators to speculate, but it is wrong for the hiders to unhide, even if the unhiding is accidental. Even if the unhiding is the thing the speculators desire, and even if the speculators enjoy the unhiding, the unhider is shamed by the unhiding, and the speculator is not shamed.
And what is happening between this teacher, Miss Nells, and Saint Monica, when one or the other of them is keeping quiet not only about the dingy pantalets and the red garter, but also about “the way / the rope knotted itself around them both?” And what does it mean that they find this condition after a botched rescue, both of them wet and cold? And what does it mean that the putative instrument of rescue — the rope — becomes a thing that binds? Once the figurative is introduced, it is nearly impossible to succinctly summarize what is happening in the poem, because so many things are happening. The moment in the poem offers what a moment of life might offer an observer if it the moment observed not simply as a snapshot of surface events but instead as an experience that attaches to all the previous experiences, and all the knowledge we have of the world and the people in it and the way they think and the way the patterns of thinking and the patterns of understanding they have achieved in community bear upon the way They understand the moment, and the ways in which They’s understanding of a moment is a central agent that brings the consequences the individual experiences because of what happened in that moment. Saint Monica’s identity isn’t something Monica gets to construct on her own. The workings of They and the tyranny of they in some ways have more to do with the persona of Saint Monica than Monica herself does.
This is something the book is constantly interrogating. What does it mean to be a person? What does it mean to be an individual? What does it mean to be a saint? Who gets to determine who and what we are? What matters more, what is more lasting: The individual, or the persona? For whom are these things useful, and how and why? What does it mean, to identify an individual with a persona? What does it mean for the individual? What does it mean for the observer? What does it mean for the community from which all of this rises?
Thoughts about a Televised Performance of John Cage’s 4’33″
If I were a person who coughed at such a performance, or held a screaming baby, or whose cell phone rang, or who owned the corporation that operated the train which whistled as it went past the concert hall, I’d probably be embarrassed. I noticed that between the movements, people coughed more than the whole room of people had probably coughed in the entire day, probably because all of them had been so intent on holding their bodies still and holding their coughs during the movements. But the coughs they coughed between movements and the laughter they laughed after they coughed certainly represented the most enjoyable part of the performance, other than perhaps the conductor’s ad lib between movements, when he theatrically took a rag and wiped his forehead as though he had been working up a sweat with his conducting. (Maybe he had, but not because of exertion, but rather because of the tension that attaches to publicly not doing anything, and that was part of the gag, too, when he wiped his forehead with the rag.)If someone intentionally coughed, or caused their cell phone to ring, or sent a train, or pinched their baby so the baby would cry, that person would deserve to be embarrassed by their behavior, but they would probably be proud of themselves instead. It’s not the intentional disruption that enhances a performance, it’s the inadvertent disruption punctuating the performance that enhances the performance. That’s one of the reasons why a live performance is so much more freighted with tension for the viewer/listener/audience than a recorded performance — because anything could happen at anytime, and the performers or producers can’t control all the variables.The inadvertent disruption can also enhance a recorded production (I think that literary texts are more like recorded productions than live productions, although I don’t think it’s necessary to compare everything to literary texts.) Some of my favorite moments on recordings are inadvertent — the dog barking halfway through a Vic Chesnutt track, the tape catching William Shatner telling Ben Folds he always has time for one more take, the guide vocal leak where somebody’s ghost shouts “All right!” before “He bag production” in the Abbey Road version of “Come Together.” (Completist list of Beatles anomalies here.)Analog technologies seem generally better suited to these kinds of unplanned gifts than digital technologies. ProTools lets a music producer polish the grit out of everything, but if you got a good take down on 3/4″ analog tape, it’s tough to cut a little bit of fret squeak from the middle of the best acoustic guitar solo you ever voiced. I have a copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions that was printed cheaply, and the ink runs suggestively from the book’s iconic asterisk. Neither the author nor the printer intended it, but this copy is special because of it. It will never happen in any future print-on-demand run.I’m typing these thoughts at 4:35 am. A couple of hours ago, I accidentally typed the word rooster in a passage of a story about a man planning to assassinate a Caribbean president. I meant to type roasted, but I’m sure my fingers were just listening to a different part of my brain than the part I thought was calling the shots, because as soon as I typed the word rooster, I recognized its usefulness. This particular president belonged to a political party whose symbol is the rooster, and in his country you can still see roosters painted on the sides of shanty houses, sometimes just beneath the scrap tin roofs. Of course this passage needed the rooster, even though the rooster’s emergence meant the end of the tidy shape I’d meant to impose. I didn’t scrub it away. The problem it caused me helped me make something better of what I had.When I was in graduate school, sometimes someone would suggest that the key to fixing a thing was to cut everything that “didn’t belong.” Cut the fat and cut the sinew and cut the blemishes and the baggy skin. I watched people do that, and sometimes I did it, and what we were often left with was a thing that was hard to criticize, but it was equally hard to muster any enthusiasm. Everybody knew what a shapely object was supposed to look like, and every once in awhile somebody made one, but when that even rarer thing happened–somebody made something that took the top of everybody’s head off and rearranged our brains–inevitably there was so much “wrong” with it, and we could all articulate what was wrong with it, and, perhaps inevitably again, the thing that was wrong with it was part of what gave it power. By what high-wire act, we might say, were you able to get away with that? But what we knew–what all of us knew, even those who were pissed off about what it was we knew–was that the writer did get away with it, and in so doing traversed, if ever briefly, the abyss separating writing from artistry.It’s not true that greatness is separable from work or effort or craft, but it might be true that greatness is more difficult to achieve without a willingness to let go control of every single thing that can be controlled, and to embrace the willingness to allow the act of artistry to truly operate at least from time to time as an act, a performance, a thing without net, and then to avoid the impulse to scrub clean the “imperfections” where the angels live.
from the Lonoff-Roth Medical Dictionary of New England:
xanthopsia xan·thop·si·a (zān-thŏp’sē-ə) n. Chromatopsia (a visual condition) in which all objects appear as yellow as the pages of an old book of extraordinary value. A list of such fictions follows:
All Things, All at Once, by Lee K. Abbott
The Box Man, by Kobo Abe
The Children’s Hospital, by Chris Adrian
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by James Agee
Dora Flor and Her Two Husbands, by Jorge Amado
Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, by Donald Antrim
The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
Obabakoak, by Bernardo Axtaga
Red Cavalry Stories, by Isaac Babel
The Mezzanine, by Nicholson Baker
Going to Meet the Man, by James Baldwin
The Sweet Hereafter, by Russell Banks
Later, at the Bar, by Rebecca Barry
60 Stories, by Donald Barthelme
The Lives of Rocks, by Rick Bass
The Stories of Richard Bausch
The Collected Works of David Bazan
The Lost Ones, by Samuel Beckett
The Collectors, by Matt Bell
Humboldt’s Gift, by Saul Bellow
Isabella Moon, by Laura Benedict
Town Smokes, by Pinckney Benedict
25th Hour, by David Benioff
Women in their Beds, by Gina Berriault
Amazons, by Cleo Birdwell
Nazi Literature in the Americas, by Roberto Bolano
Labyrinths, by one Mr. Borges
“All We Read is Freaks,” William Bowers
Tooth and Claw, T.C. Boyle
You Believers (working title), by Jane Bradley
Things That Fall from the Sky, by Kevin Brockmeier
Fay, by Larry Brown
A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
Ever, by Blake Butler
The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain
Tobacco Road, by Erskine Caldwell
The Palace Thief, by Ethan Canin
The Bloody Chamber, by Angela Carter
Where I’m Calling From, by Raymond Carver
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon
The Stories of John Cheever
“Gusev,” by Anton Chekhov
We’re In Trouble, Christopher Coake
Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad
A Feast of Snakes, by Harry Crews
The Dew Breaker, by Edwidge Danticat
In the Gloaming, by Alice Elliott Dark
Break It Down, by Lydia Davis
Silent Retreats, by Philip F. Deaver
Mao II, by Don DeLillo
“Bleed Blue in Indonesia,” by Adam Desnoyers
Drown, Junot Diaz
The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick
Deliverance, by James Dickey
I. and End of I., by Stephen Dixon
The Shell Collector, by Anthony Doerr
The Collected Works of Fyodor Dostoevsky
Selected Stories, Andre Dubus
How the Water Feels, Paul Eggers
The Magic Kingdom, Stanley Elkin
Happy Baby, Stephen Elliott
Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, Nathan Englander
Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides
A Fan’s Notes, Frederick Exley
St. John of the Five Boroughs, Edward Falco
As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford
The Sportswriter, Richard Ford
Poachers, Tom Franklin
The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen
Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, Ben Fountain
The Recognitions, William Gaddis
I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down, William Gay
Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol
The House of Breath, William Goyen
The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene
Adverbs, Daniel Handler
Airships and Bats Out of Hell, Barry Hannah
Legends of the Fall, Jim Harrison
The Buddha in Malibu, William Harrison
“Hills Like White Elephants,” Ernest Hemingway
The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel
“Auslander,” Michelle Herman
A Widow for One Year, John Irving
Under the Red Flag, Ha Jin
Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson
All Aunt Hagar’s Children, Edward P. Jones
“I Want to Live!,” Thom Jones
Finnegans Wake, James Joyce
all of Kafka
The Collected Novels of Yasunari Kawabata
The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis
any third word uttered by Frank Kermode
Lucy, Jamaica Kincaid
Hearts in Atlantis, Stephen King
Steps, Jersy Kosinski
The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera
The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri
Mystic River, Dennis Lehane
Solaris, Stanislaw Lem
The Collected Crime Novels of Elmore Leonard
The Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem
Desires, John L’Heureux
The Collected Novels of Bernard Malamud
Death in Venice, Thomas Mann
Collected Novellas and Novels of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez
The Least You Need to Know, Lee Martin
Singular Pleasures, Harry Mathews
Time Will Darken It, William Maxwell
The Collected Novels of Cormac McCarthy
The Cement Garden, Ian McEwan
The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard, Erin McGraw
A Bunch of Stuff by Larry McMurtry
The Collected Stores of Leonard Michaels
The vast canvases of James Michener
“Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven” and “Demonology,” Rick Moody
Birds of America and Like Life and Self Help, Lorrie Moore
Beloved, Toni Morrison
Open Secrets, Alice Munro
Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami
Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov
Female Trouble, Antonya Nelson
The Assignation, Joyce Carol Oates
In the Lake of the Woods, Tim O’Brien
The Collected Works of Flannery O’Connor
The Collected Works of Cynthia Ozick
Trilobites, Breece D’J Pancake
The Wire, by Price, Pelecanos, Simon, et. al.
The Collected Stories of Miroslav Penkov
Refresh, Refresh, Benjamin Percy
Knockemstiff, Donald Ray Pollock
Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Katherine Anne Porter
The Collected Stories of J. F. Powers
The Gold Bug Variations, Richard Powers
The Collected Novels of Richard Price
Close Range, Annie Proulx
Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon
Serena, Ron Rash
Call It Sleep, Henry Roth
The Collected Works of Philip Roth, esp. Sabbath’s Theater, American Pastoral, Patrimony, The Counterlife, The Ghost Writer, and Everyman
Mating, Norman Rush
Straight Man, Richard Russo
all of Salinger
all of Saunders
Write Your Heart Out, Geoff Schmidt
all of Christine Schutt
King Lear, William Shakespeare
Love and Hydrogen, Jim Shepard
The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer
“Vien a ca, Beda,” Bart Skarzynski
“The Age of Grief,” Jane Smiley
Sophie’s Choice, William Styron
“The Old Forest,” Peter Taylor
Blankets, Craig Thompson
The Collected Works of Adrian Tomine
all of Turgenev
A Bit on the Side, William Trevor
The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, Brady Udall
The Rabbit Tetralogy, John Updike
Shebang, Valerie Vogrin
all of Vonnegut
“Good Old Neon,” David Foster Wallace
All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren
“Against Specificity,” Douglas Watson
the screeds in Ill Nature, Joy Williams
The Stories of Eudora Welty
Our Story Begins, Tobias Wolff
Winter’s Bone, Daniel Woodrell
***please note: This list is not exhaustive.***
GUSEV, by Anton Chekhov
translated by Constance Garnett
It was getting dark; it would soon be night.
Gusev, a discharged soldier, sat up in his hammock and said in an undertone:
“I say, Pavel Ivanitch. A soldier at Sutchan told me: while they were sailing a big fish came into collision with their ship and stove a hole in it.”
The nondescript individual whom he was addressing, and whom everyone in the ship’s hospital called Pavel Ivanitch, was silent, as though he had not heard.
And again a stillness followed. . . The wind frolicked with the rigging, the screw throbbed, the waves lashed, the hammocks creaked, but the ear had long ago become accustomed to these sounds, and it seemed that everything around was asleep and silent. It was dreary. The three invalids — two soldiers and a sailor — who had been playing cards all the day were asleep and talking in their dreams.
It seemed as though the ship were beginning to rock. The hammock slowly rose and fell under Gusev, as though it were heaving a sigh, and this was repeated once, twice, three times. . . . Something crashed on to the floor with a clang: it must have been a jug falling down.
“The wind has broken loose from its chain. . .” said Gusev, listening.
This time Pavel Ivanitch cleared his throat and answered irritably:
“One minute a vessel’s running into a fish, the next, the wind’s breaking loose from its chain. Is the wind a beast that it can break loose from its chain?”
“That’s how christened folk talk.”
“They are as ignorant as you are then. They say all sorts of things. One must keep a head on one’s shoulders and use one’s reason. You are a senseless creature.”
Pavel Ivanitch was subject to sea-sickness. When the sea was rough he was usually ill-humoured, and the merest trifle would make him irritable. And in Gusev’s opinion there was absolutely nothing to be vexed about. What was there strange or wonderful, for instance, in the fish or in the wind’s breaking loose from its chain? Suppose the fish were as big as a mountain and its back were as hard as a sturgeon: and in the same way, supposing that away yonder at the end of the world there stood great stone walls and the fierce winds were chained up to the walls . . . if they had not broken loose, why did they tear about all over the sea like maniacs, and struggle to escape like dogs? If they were not chained up, what did become of them when it was calm?
Gusev pondered for a long time about fishes as big as a mountain and stout, rusty chains, then he began to feel dull and thought of his native place to which he was returning after five years’ service in the East. He pictured an immense pond covered with snow. . . . On one side of the pond the red-brick building of the potteries with a tall chimney and clouds of black smoke; on the other side — a village. . . . His brother Alexey comes out in a sledge from the fifth yard from the end; behind him sits his little son Vanka in big felt over-boots, and his little girl Akulka, also in big felt boots. Alexey has been drinking, Vanka is laughing, Akulka’s face he could not see, she had muffled herself up.
“You never know, he’ll get the children frozen . . .” thought Gusev. “Lord send them sense and judgment that they may honour their father and mother and not be wiser than their parents.”
“They want re-soleing,” a delirious sailor says in a bass voice. “Yes, yes!”
Gusev’s thoughts break off, and instead of a pond there suddenly appears apropos of nothing a huge bull’s head without eyes, and the horse and sledge are not driving along, but are whirling round and round in a cloud of smoke. But still he was glad he had seen his own folks. He held his breath from delight, shudders ran all over him, and his fingers twitched.
“The Lord let us meet again,” he muttered feverishly, but he at once opened his eyes and sought in the darkness for water.
He drank and lay back, and again the sledge was moving, then again the bull’s head without eyes, smoke, clouds. . . . And so on till daybreak.
The first outline visible in the darkness was a blue circle — the little round window; then little by little Gusev could distinguish his neighbour in the next hammock, Pavel Ivanitch. The man slept sitting up, as he could not breathe lying down. His face was grey, his nose was long and sharp, his eyes looked huge from the terrible thinness of his face, his temples were sunken, his beard was skimpy, his hair was long. . . . Looking at him you could not make out of what class he was, whether he were a gentleman, a merchant, or a peasant. Judging from his expression and his long hair he might have been a hermit or a lay brother in a monastery — but if one listened to what he said it seemed that he could not be a monk. He was worn out by his cough and his illness and by the stifling heat, and breathed with difficulty, moving his parched lips. Noticing that Gusev was looking at him he turned his face towards him and said:
“I begin to guess. . . . Yes. . . . I understand it all perfectly now.”
“What do you understand, Pavel Ivanitch?”
“I’ll tell you. . . . It has always seemed to me strange that terribly ill as you are you should be here in a steamer where it is so hot and stifling and we are always being tossed up and down, where, in fact, everything threatens you with death; now it is all clear to me. . . . Yes. . . . Your doctors put you on the steamer to get rid of you. They get sick of looking after poor brutes like you. . . . You don’t pay them anything, they have a bother with you, and you damage their records with your deaths — so, of course, you are brutes! It’s not difficult to get rid of you. . . . All that is necessary is, in the first place, to have no conscience or humanity, and, secondly, to deceive the steamer authorities. The first condition need hardly be considered, in that respect we are artists; and one can always succeed in the second with a little practice. In a crowd of four hundred healthy soldiers and sailors half a dozen sick ones are not conspicuous; well, they drove you all on to the steamer, mixed you with the healthy ones, hurriedly counted you over, and in the confusion nothing amiss was noticed, and when the steamer had started they saw that there were paralytics and consumptives in the last stage lying about on the deck. . . .”
Gusev did not understand Pavel Ivanitch; but supposing he was being blamed, he said in self-defence:
“I lay on the deck because I had not the strength to stand; when we were unloaded from the barge on to the ship I caught a fearful chill.”
“It’s revolting,” Pavel Ivanitch went on. “The worst of it is they know perfectly well that you can’t last out the long journey, and yet they put you here. Supposing you get as far as the Indian Ocean, what then? It’s horrible to think of it. . . . And that’s their gratitude for your faithful, irreproachable service!”
Pavel Ivanitch’s eyes looked angry; he frowned contemptuously and said, gasping:
“Those are the people who ought to be plucked in the newspapers till the feathers fly in all directions.”
The two sick soldiers and the sailor were awake and already playing cards. The sailor was half reclining in his hammock, the soldiers were sitting near him on the floor in the most uncomfortable attitudes. One of the soldiers had his right arm in a sling, and the hand was swathed up in a regular bundle so that he held his cards under his right arm or in the crook of his elbow while he played with the left. The ship was rolling heavily. They could not stand up, nor drink tea, nor take their medicines.
“Were you an officer’s servant?” Pavel Ivanitch asked Gusev.
“Yes, an officer’s servant.”
“My God, my God!” said Pavel Ivanitch, and he shook his head mournfully. “To tear a man out of his home, drag him twelve thousand miles away, then to drive him into consumption and. . . and what is it all for, one wonders? To turn him into a servant for some Captain Kopeikin or midshipman Dirka! How logical!”
“It’s not hard work, Pavel Ivanitch. You get up in the morning and clean the boots, get the samovar, sweep the rooms, and then you have nothing more to do. The lieutenant is all the day drawing plans, and if you like you can say your prayers, if you like you can read a book or go out into the street. God grant everyone such a life.”
“Yes, very nice, the lieutenant draws plans all the day and you sit in the kitchen and pine for home. . . . Plans indeed! . . . It is not plans that matter, but a human life. Life is not given twice, it must be treated mercifully.”
“Of course, Pavel Ivanitch, a bad man gets no mercy anywhere, neither at home nor in the army, but if you live as you ought and obey orders, who has any need to insult you? The officers are educated gentlemen, they understand. . . . In five years I was never once in prison, and I was never struck a blow, so help me God, but once.”
“For fighting. I have a heavy hand, Pavel Ivanitch. Four Chinamen came into our yard; they were bringing firewood or something, I don’t remember. Well, I was bored and I knocked them about a bit, one’s nose began bleeding, damn the fellow. . . . The lieutenant saw it through the little window, he was angry and gave me a box on the ear.”
“Foolish, pitiful man . . .” whispered Pavel Ivanitch. “You don’t understand anything.”
He was utterly exhausted by the tossing of the ship and closed his eyes; his head alternately fell back and dropped forward on his breast. Several times he tried to lie down but nothing came of it; his difficulty in breathing prevented it.
“And what did you hit the four Chinamen for?” he asked a little while afterwards.
“Oh, nothing. They came into the yard and I hit them.”
And a stillness followed. . . . The card-players had been playing for two hours with enthusiasm and loud abuse of one another, but the motion of the ship overcame them, too; they threw aside the cards and lay down. Again Gusev saw the big pond, the brick building, the village. . . . Again the sledge was coming along, again Vanka was laughing and Akulka, silly little thing, threw open her fur coat and stuck her feet out, as much as to say: “Look, good people, my snowboots are not like Vanka’s, they are new ones.”
“Five years old, and she has no sense yet,” Gusev muttered in delirium. “Instead of kicking your legs you had better come and get your soldier uncle a drink. I will give you something nice.”
Then Andron with a flintlock gun on his sh oulder was carrying a hare he had killed, and he was followed by the decrepit old Jew Isaitchik, who offers to barter the hare for a piece of soap; then the black calf in the shed, then Domna sewing at a shirt and crying about something, and then again the bull’s head without eyes, black smoke. . . .
Overhead someone gave a loud shout, several sailors ran by, they seemed to be dragging something bulky over the deck, something fell with a crash. Again they ran by. . . . Had something gone wrong? Gusev raised his head, listened, and saw that the two soldiers and the sailor were playing cards again; Pavel Ivanitch was sitting up moving his lips. It was stifling, one hadn’t strength to breathe, one was thirsty, the water was warm, disgusting. The ship heaved as much as ever.
Suddenly something strange happened to one of the soldiers playing cards. . . . He called hearts diamonds, got muddled in his score, and dropped his cards, then with a frightened, foolish smile looked round at all of them.
“I shan’t be a minute, mates, I’ll . . .” he said, and lay down on the floor.
Everybody was amazed. They called to him, he did not answer.
“Stephan, maybe you are feeling bad, eh?” the soldier with his arm in a sling asked him. “Perhaps we had better bring the priest, eh?”
“Have a drink of water, Stepan . . .” said the sailor. “Here, lad, drink.”
“Why are you knocking the jug against his teeth?” said Gusev angrily. ” Don’t you see, turnip head?’
“What?” Gusev repeated, mimicking him. “There is no breath in him, he is dead! That’s what! What nonsensical people, Lord have mercy on us. . . !”
The ship was not rocking and Pavel Ivanitch was more cheerful. He was no longer ill-humoured. His face had a boastful, defiant, mocking expression. He looked as though he wanted to say: “Yes, in a minute I will tell you something that will make you split your sides with laughing.” The little round window was open and a soft breeze was blowing on Pavel Ivanitch. There was a sound of voices, of the plash of oars in the water. . . . Just under the little window someone began droning in a high, unpleasant voice: no doubt it was a Chinaman singing.
“Here we are in the harbour,” said Pavel Ivanitch, smiling ironically. “Only another month and we shall be in Russia. Well, worthy gentlemen and warriors! I shall arrive at Odessa and from there go straight to Harkov. In Harkov I have a friend, a literary man. I shall go to him and say, ‘Come, old man, put aside your horrid subjects, ladies’ amours and the beauties of nature, and show up human depravity.’ “
For a minute he pondered, then said:
“Gusev, do you know how I took them in?”
“Took in whom, Pavel Ivanitch?”
“Why, these fellows. . . . You know that on this steamer there is only a first-class and a third-class, and they only allow peasants — that is the rift-raft — to go in the third. If you have got on a reefer jacket and have the faintest resemblance to a gentleman or a bourgeois you must go first-class, if you please. You must fork out five hundred roubles if you die for it. Why, I ask, have you made such a rule? Do you want to raise the prestige of educated Russians thereby? Not a bit of it. We don’t let you go third-class simply because a decent person can’t go third-class; it is very horrible and disgusting. Yes, indeed. I am very grateful for such solicitude for decent people’s welfare. But in any case, whether it is nasty there or nice, five hundred roubles I haven’t got. I haven’t pilfered government money. I haven’t exploited the natives, I haven’t trafficked in contraband, I have flogged no one to death, so judge whether I have the right to travel first-class and even less to reckon myself of the educated class? But you won’t catch them with logic. . . . One has to resort to deception. I put on a workman’s coat and high boots, I assumed a drunken, servile mug and went to the agents: ‘Give us a little ticket, your honour,’ said I. . . .”
“Why, what class do you belong to?” asked a sailor.
“Clerical. My father was an honest priest, he always told the great ones of the world the truth to their faces; and he had a great deal to put up with in consequence.”
Pavel Ivanitch was exhausted with talking and gasped for breath, but still went on:
“Yes, I always tell people the truth to their faces. I am not afraid of anyone or anything. There is a vast difference between me and all of you in that respect. You are in darkness, you are blind, crushed; you see nothing and what you do see you don’t understand. . . . You are told the wind breaks loose from its chain, that you are beasts, Petchenyegs, and you believe it; they punch you in the neck, you kiss their hands; some animal in a sable-lined coat robs you and then tips you fifteen kopecks and you: ‘Let me kiss your hand, sir.’ You are pariahs, pitiful people. . . . I am a different sort. My eyes are open, I see it all as clearly as a hawk or an eagle when it floats over the earth, and I understand it all. I am a living protest. I see irresponsible tyranny — I protest. I see cant and hypocrisy — I protest. I see swine triumphant — I protest. And I cannot be suppressed, no Spanish Inquisition can make me hold my tongue. No. . . . Cut out my tongue and I would protest in dumb show; shut me up in a cellar — I will shout from it to be heard half a mile away, or I will starve myself to death that they may have another weight on their black consciences. Kill me and I will haunt them with my ghost. All my acquaintances say to me: ‘You are a most insufferable person, Pavel Ivanitch.’ I am proud of such a reputation. I have served three years in the far East, and I shall be remembered there for a hundred years: I had rows with everyone. My friends write to me from Russia, ‘Don’t come back,’ but here I am going back to spite them . . . yes. . . . That is life as I understand it. That is what one can call life.”
Gusev was looking at the little window and was not listening. A boat was swaying on the transparent, soft, turquoise water all bathed in hot, dazzling sunshine. In it there were naked Chinamen holding up cages with canaries and calling out:
“It sings, it sings!”
Another boat knocked against the first; the steam cutter darted by. And then there came another boat with a fat Chinaman sitting in it, eating rice with little sticks.
Languidly the water heaved, languidly the white seagulls floated over it.
“I should like to give that fat fellow one in the neck,” thought Gusev, gazing at the stout Chinaman, with a yawn.
He dozed off, and it seemed to him that all nature was dozing, too. Time flew swiftly by; imperceptibly the day passed, imperceptibly the darkness came on. . . . The steamer was no longer standing still, but moving on further.
Two days passed, Pavel Ivanitch lay down instead of sitting up; his eyes were closed, his nose seemed to have grown sharper.
“Pavel Ivanitch,” Gusev called to him. “Hey, Pavel Ivanitch.”
Pavel Ivanitch opened his eyes and moved his lips.
“Are you feeling bad?”
“No . . . it’s nothing . . .” answered Pavel Ivanitch, gasping. “Nothing; on the contrary — I am rather better. . . . You see I can lie down. I am a little easier. . . .”
“Well, thank God for that, Pavel Ivanitch.”
“When I compare myself with you I am sorry for you . . . poor fellow. My lungs are all right, it is only a stomach cough. . . . I can stand hell, let alone the Red Sea. Besides I take a critical attitude to my illness and to the medicines they give me for it. While you . . . you are in darkness. . . . It’s hard for you, very, very hard!”
The ship was not rolling, it was calm, but as hot and stifling as a bath-house; it was not only hard to speak but even hard to listen. Gusev hugged his knees, laid his head on them and thought of his home. Good heavens, what a relief it was to think of snow and cold in that stifling heat! You drive in a sledge, all at once the horses take fright at something and bolt. . . . Regardless of the road, the ditches, the ravines, they dash like mad things, right through the village, over the pond by the pottery works, out across the open fields. “Hold on,” the pottery hands and the peasants sho ut, meeting them. “Hold on.” But why? Let the keen, cold wind beat in one’s face and bite one’s hands; let the lumps of snow, kicked up by the horses’ hoofs, fall on one’s cap, on one’s back, down one’s collar, on one’s chest; let the runners ring on the snow, and the traces and the sledge be smashed, deuce take them one and all! And how delightful when the sledge upsets and you go flying full tilt into a drift, face downwards in the snow, and then you get up white all over with icicles on your moustaches; no cap, no gloves, your belt undone. . . . People laugh, the dogs bark. . . .
Pavel Ivanitch half opened one eye, looked at Gusev with it, and asked softly:
“Gusev, did your commanding officer steal?”
“Who can tell, Pavel Ivanitch! We can’t say, it didn’t reach us.”
And after that a long time passed in silence. Gusev brooded, muttered something in delirium, and kept drinking water; it was hard for him to talk and hard to listen, and he was afraid of being talked to. An hour passed, a second, a third; evening came on, then night, but he did not notice it. He still sat dreaming of the frost.
There was a sound as though someone came into the hospital, and voices were audible, but a few minutes passed and all was still again.
“The Kingdom of Heaven and eternal peace,” said the soldier with his arm in a sling. “He was an uncomfortable man.”
“What?” asked Gusev. “Who?”
“He is dead, they have just carried him up.”
“Oh, well,” muttered Gusev, yawning, “the Kingdom of Heaven be his.”
“What do you think?” the soldier with his arm in a sling asked Gusev. “Will he be in the Kingdom of Heaven or not?”
“Who is it you are talking about?”
“He will be . . . he suffered so long. And there is another thing, he belonged to the clergy, and the priests always have a lot of relations. Their prayers will save him.”
The soldier with the sling sat down on a hammock near Gusev and said in an undertone:
“And you, Gusev, are not long for this world. You will never get to Russia.”
“Did the doctor or his assistant say so?” asked Gusev.
“It isn’t that they said so, but one can see it. . . . One can see directly when a man’s going to die. You don’t eat, you don’t drink; it’s dreadful to see how thin you’ve got. It’s consumption, in fact. I say it, not to upset you, but because maybe you would like to have the sacrament and extreme unction. And if you have any money you had better give it to the senior officer.”
“I haven’t written home . . .” Gusev sighed. “I shall die and they won’t know.”
“They’ll hear of it,” the sick sailor brought out in a bass voice. “When you die they will put it down in the _Gazette,_ at Odessa they will send in a report to the commanding officer there and he will send it to the parish or somewhere. .
Gusev began to be uneasy after such a conversation and to feel a vague yearning. He drank water — it was not that; he dragged himself to the window and breathed the hot, moist air — it was not that; he tried to think of home, of the frost — it was not that. . . . At last it seemed to him one minute longer in the ward and he would certainly expire.
“It’s stifling, mates . . .” he said. “I’ll go on deck. Help me up, for Christ’s sake.”
“All right,” assented the soldier with the sling. “I’ll carry you, you can’t walk, hold on to my neck.”
Gusev put his arm round the soldier’s neck, the latter put his unhurt arm round him and carried him up. On the deck sailors and time-expired soldiers were lying asleep side by side; there were so many of them it was difficult to pass.
“Stand down,” the soldier with the sling said softly. “Follow me quietly, hold on to my shirt. . . .”
It was dark. There was no light on deck, nor on the masts, nor anywhere on the sea around. At the furthest end of the ship the man on watch was standing perfectly still like a statue, and it looked as though he were asleep. It seemed as though the steamer were abandoned to itself and were going at its own will.
“Now they will throw Pavel Ivanitch into the sea,” said the soldier with the sling. “In a sack and then into the water.”
“Yes, that’s the rule.”
“But it’s better to lie at home in the earth. Anyway, your mother comes to the grave and weeps.”
There was a smell of hay and of dung. There were oxen standing with drooping heads by the ship’s rail. One, two, three; eight of them! And there was a little horse. Gusev put out his hand to stroke it, but it shook its head, showed its teeth, and tried to bite his sleeve.
“Damned brute . . .” said Gusev angrily.
The two of them, he and the soldier, threaded their way to the head of the ship, then stood at the rail and looked up and down. Overhead deep sky, bright stars, peace and stillness, exactly as at home in the village, below darkness and disorder. The tall waves were resounding, no one could tell why. Whichever wave you looked at each one was trying to rise higher than all the rest and to chase and crush the next one; after it a third as fierce and hideous flew noisily, with a glint of light on its white crest.
The sea has no sense and no pity. If the steamer had been smaller and not made of thick iron, the waves would have crushed it to pieces without the slightest compunction, and would have devoured all the people in it with no distinction of saints or sinners. The steamer had the same cruel and meaningless expression. This monster with its huge beak was dashing onwards, cutting millions of waves in its path; it had no fear of the darkness nor the wind, nor of space, nor of solitude, caring for nothing, and if the ocean had its people, this monster would have crushed them, too, without distinction of saints or sinners.
“Where are we now?” asked Gusev.
“I don’t know. We must be in the ocean.”
“There is no sight of land. . .”
“No indeed! They say we shan’t see it for seven days.”
The two soldiers watched the white foam with the phosphorus light on it and were silent, thinking. Gusev was the first to break the silence.
“There is nothing to be afraid of,” he said, “only one is full of dread as though one were sitting in a dark forest; but if, for instance, they let a boat down on to the water this minute and an officer ordered me to go a hundred miles over the sea to catch fish, I’d go. Or, let’s say, if a Christian were to fall into the water this minute, I’d go in after him. A German or a Chinaman I wouldn’t save, but I’d go in after a Christian.”
“And are you afraid to die?”
“Yes. I am sorry for the folks at home. My brother at home, you know, isn’t steady; he drinks, he beats his wife for nothing, he does not honour his parents. Everything will go to ruin without me, and father and my old mother will be begging their bread, I shouldn’t wonder. But my legs won’t bear me, brother, and it’s hot here. Let’s go to sleep.”
Gusev went back to the ward and got into his hammock. He was again tormented by a vague craving, and he could not make out what he wanted. There was an oppression on his chest, a throbbing in his head, his mouth was so dry that it was difficult for him to move his tongue. He dozed, and murmured in his sleep, and, worn out with nightmares, his cough, and the stifling heat, towards morning he fell into a sound sleep. He dreamed that they were just taking the bread out of the oven in the barracks and he climbed into the stove and had a steam bath in it, lashing himself with a bunch of birch twigs. He slept for two days, and at midday on the third two sailors came down and carried him out.
He was sewn up in sailcloth and to make him heavier they put with him two iron weights. Sewn up in the sailcloth he looked like a carrot or a radish: broad at the head and narrow at the feet. . . . Before sunset they brought him up to the deck and put him on a plank; one end of the plank lay on the side of the ship, the other on a box, placed on a stool. Round him stood the soldiers and the officers with their caps off.
“Blessed be the Name of the Lord . . .” the priest began. “As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.”
“Amen,” chanted three sailors.
The soldiers and the officers crossed themselves and looked away at the waves. It was strange that a man should be sewn up in sailcloth and should soon be flying into the sea. Was it possible that such a thing might happen to anyone?
The priest strewed earth upon Gusev and bowed down. They sang “Eternal Memory.”
The man on watch duty tilted up the end of the plank, Gusev slid off and flew head foremost, turned a somersault in the air and splashed into the sea. He was covered with foam and for a moment looked as though he were wrapped in lace, but the minute passed and he disappeared in the waves.
He went rapidly towards the bottom. Did he reach it? It was said to be three miles to the bottom. After sinking sixty or seventy feet, he began moving more and more slowly, swaying rhythmically, as though he were hesitating and, carried along by the current, moved more rapidly sideways than downwards.
Then he was met by a shoal of the fish called harbour pilots. Seeing the dark body the fish stopped as though petrified, and suddenly turned round and disappeared. In less than a minute they flew back swift as an arrow to Gusev, and began zig-zagging round him in the water.
After that another dark body appeared. It was a shark. It swam under Gusev with dignity and no show of interest, as though it did not notice him, and sank down upon its back, then it turned belly upwards, basking in the warm, transparent water and languidly opened its jaws with two rows of teeth. The harbour pilots are delighted, they stop to see what will come next. After playing a little with the body the shark nonchalantly puts its jaws under it, cautiously touches it with its teeth, and the sailcloth is rent its full length from head to foot; one of the weights falls out and frightens the harbour pilots, and striking the shark on the ribs goes rapidly to the bottom.
Overhead at this time the clouds are massed together on the side where the sun is setting; one cloud like a triumphal arch, another like a lion, a third like a pair of scissors. . . . From behind the clouds a broad, green shaft of light pierces through and stretches to the middle of the sky; a little later another, violet-coloured, lies beside it; next that, one of gold, then one rose-coloured. . . . The sky turns a soft lilac. Looking at this gorgeous, enchanted sky, at first the ocean scowls, but soon it, too, takes tender, joyous, passionate colours for which it is hard to find a name in human speech.