I’ve decided to reinvent The Millions. The blog world is crowded. I cannot possibly add to or improve upon the innumerable blogs out there that are about music or politics. So many of the things that I have a casual interest in are covered so obsessively in the blog world that it is hard to find something to write about in any sort of compelling way. Nor do I have much interest in cataloging my daily life. I know from experience that my life is capable of producing, tops, a paragraph or two of mildly amusing reading every few weeks, which does not a blog make. Plus, I would like to try to lure some people into reading what I write, and writing about what I ate for lunch today will likely not do the trick. As for the two of you (you know who you are) who read this blog regularly, I hope you will not be disappointed by my change away from that format. And finally, after some thinking, I have figured out what these changes will be. The Millions will be about books. For a book lover without a whole lot of free time (not to mention money) it can be very hard to consistantly find new and interesting books. To do so, in my experience, requires reading dozens of book reviews weekly and trolling book stores looking for the new and interesting (or the old and interesting). The internet improves this process slightly, mainly by cutting out some of the time required, but it offers little help in locating a book that you might like to take a look at. I have yet to find anyone that has had much luck with Amazon’s recommendations. I recently realized, though, that I am singularly qualified to write a blog about books. I work in a great little book store and therefore, in pursuit of my paycheck, I see with my own eyes the hundreds of books that come out weekly and I read reviews in dozens of newspapers and magazines. Finally, I have always loved books and I have always loved telling people about books, and now I have myself a little blog that can serve both of these loves. I hope to update several times a week, if not daily, and hopefully this thing will be chock full of interesting books at all times. So there it is… it feels good to get started on this thing, and if anyone has any comments, questions or suggestions let me know.
In the fall of 2011, as the first protesters began assembling in Zuccotti Park, a different sort of occupation was underway in my apartment. My son had just turned one, and another kid was due in the spring. My life now consisted largely of early-morning adjunct gigs, late-night sessions banging my head against the writing desk, and afternoons measured out in the tiny spoons used to scrape the last bits of Gerber from the jar. Also: NPR. Lots of NPR.
By late September, the top of each hour brought new details about the methods and motives of “Occupy Wall Street.” Here, it seemed, was the cause I’d spent my twenties longing to throw my body behind. But now that it had materialized, there was a catch: mine was no longer the only body I was responsible for. I could take my son with me to the demonstrations, but did I really trust the NYPD to lay off the pepper spray, should he rattle the bars of our protest pen?
Plus who would take care of him if I got carted off to jail? Not his mother, whose nine-to-five job was our primary means of keeping the fridge stocked and the rent paid, and whose sick days would convert to precious maternity leave come the spring. There was always daycare, of course…but, then, as a would-be placard-carrying member of the 99%, I couldn’t even afford the hours of daycare I was already paying for. And here I ran up against the first great fallacy of the mainstream media’s OWS coverage. Of course the occupation as such was heavy on students, the unemployed, and men who looked like a cross between Santa Claus and Wavy Gravy. Stroller-pushing contingent-workers like me were constrained from spending all day and night at Zuccotti by the very conditions that made them want to do so. Thus does insecurity—financial, physical, psychological—become the stick that keeps us on the rutted path of late capitalism. (Consumer electronics being the carrot.)
Then again, another of the things too often glossed over in accounts of Occupy Wall Street is that it wasn’t a top-down program, whose output was a certain number of sleeping bags on the pavement. Rather, it was a piece of tactical hardware designed to execute any app deemed useful by its users—techno-utopian cant made collectivist flesh. This should have been apparent to anyone who spent more than half an hour down at Zuccotti. At first, you’d see the modest size of the occupation, relative to the number of cameras trained on it, and you’d think, Wait: Is this it? Then, out of nowhere, thousands of union electricians would appear, or affordable-housing advocates, or undergraduates, or, more likely, all of the above, and another drive or meeting or march would whir into motion. (As Michael Greenberg has noted in The New York Review of Books, those circuits would be reactivated after Hurricane Sandy to channel vital aid to the Rockaways.)
By October, my son and I had found our own way to take part. With his mother’s blessing, we pursued a sunshine policy, steering clear of martial-sounding or geographically marginal events in favor of those well-publicized enough to ensure my small comrade wouldn’t become another casualty on YouTube. We marched on Citigroup. We marched on JPMorgan Chase. We repaired to Zuccotti for pizza and purée, and then we marched some more. Well, I marched; he rode.
One memorable afternoon, in the company of a whole holy host of freaks and straights, aging lefties and juvie anarchists, friends from other events and perfect strangers—plus, this being a Saturday, my wife—we even took over Times Square. It was the same rainbow coalition I’d observed a decade earlier, marching against the Iraq War. In 2002, though, in the streets of D.C., everyone seemed to recognize that the switches on the war-making machinery had already been thrown. You could sense the inertia in the way the message decayed into calls for the abolition of the WTO and the World Bank, the liberation of Palestine and Mumia. Those chants that managed to break through the discord rang hollow off executive buildings emptied for the weekend.
By contrast, the message of Occupy Wall Street was so clear and so obvious as to subsume any ancillary concerns. Obviousness, in fact, may be why Occupy Wall Street proved such an effective counterweight to the Tea Party movement, with only a fraction of the money and organization and time. It takes great resources of all three to persuade Americans that Keynesian deficit spending is the source of our ills, because it’s total horseshit, whereas it takes very little to remind people of what they’ve already discovered in the most grinding, empirical way to be true: As an allocator of resources, our economic system is needlessly unjust, and getting more so by the day. And when the hoary old cry went up from Times Square—”We are unstoppable; another world is possible”—this, too, felt self-evident, assertion and evocation in a single stroke. For here was a halter-topped woman with frizzy hair leading thousands of people in social democratic chants from atop someone’s shoulders, and here was the commercial center of the world coming disobediently to a halt. Here were tourists taking buttons from engagé tweens and affixing them to jackets that would soon travel back to every corner of America. And here it all was again, up on the giant news screens overhead, the peak of a “high and beautiful wave” (to crib from Hunter S. Thompson). Under all those lights, we seemed to be waking, however briefly, from a long bad dream.
Notwithstanding the Monday-morning harrumphs of the commentariat, that autumn of idealism has left behind consequences of the most solid, realpolitik kind. The ongoing debate over whether creditors—i.e., capital—or borrowers—i.e., you and me—will bear the losses of the Great Recession has been permanently rebalanced, to the great annoyance of the business class. (Last December’s $43-million PR push was not so much about how to “Fix the Debt” as about whom to affix it to.) On its own terms, though, the Occupy project remains incomplete. When we argue over whether to set top marginal tax rates at 35% or 39.6%, or what to do about the sequester, or the class politics of Girls, we have turned from debates about an unjust system to debates within it. And though the possibility of “another world” has been preserved from total eclipse, it now seems hazy again, as if glimpsed from the far side of sleep. We need some outside force to jolt us back awake.
All of which is a very roundabout way of trying to explain why It’s No Good, the first major English-language publication of the writing of Kirill Medvedev, is so necessary, and so timely. Medvedev is a Moscow-based poet in his late 30s, and the book, the latest entry in Ugly Duckling Presse’s redoubtable Eastern European Poets Series (and the first to be published jointly with N+1), assembles English translations of his most important “poems/essays/actions” from over the last fifteen years. This was a period of radicalization for Medvedev, and the work amounts to a guerilla attack on the stagnation of Russian cultural life in the new millennium. By itself, this would make It’s No Good an invaluable document. But for readers beyond the old Iron Curtain, there’s a further twist of the knife: as with the best science fiction, the outrageous world Medvedev brings so vividly to life starts to sound awfully like our own.
An introduction by editor Keith Gessen sets the scene for Medvedev’s evolution. In “the years of mature Putinism, between about 2003 and 2008,” he explains, the atmosphere in Russia was one of “boredom, suffocation, and surrender…”
Nothing happened. No one wanted anything to happen. “Stability” was the word of the day and in service of this stability people were willing to give up a great deal. The liberal opposition that still made appearances in the New York Times not only had no real presence…[but was] also permanently discredited.
In the texts that follow, Medvedev will link this surrender to two mutually reinforcing phenomena, one political, one aesthetic. On one side was a problem of ignorance: Members of his generation, the first to come of age after the fall of Communism, “spent the 1990s not really knowing what politics was,” he writes. “We lived outside it; we never believed it could affect our private lives.” On the other side was a problem of sophistication: literature, which might have enlarged those private lives, had become content merely to reproduce them.
An exemplar here was the poet and impresario Dmitri Kuzmin, who published Medvedev’s early poems in his magazine, Vavilon…and who hovers over It’s No Good as a sort of Oedipal-Hegelian father figure, to be rebelled against and absorbed. A long, valedictory “essay-memoir” two-thirds of the way through the book may put some readers in mind of McSweeney’s circa 2003:
The central literary tendency of Vavilon was the so-called “new sincerity”: the appeal to personal experience (childhood; romantic and sexual encounters; family life) to the exclusion of social and political experience, justifying this by appealing to its authenticity (personal, emotional, etc.)
Of course, Russia’s liberalizing culture industry had no more difficulty assimilating Vavilon’s “authenticity” than the Politburo did assimilating social realism. As Medvedev sees it, this was art as gesture, as narcotic, as commodity, “a series of irresponsible infantile games and so-called independent intellectual proclamations – covering the terrain specifically assigned to such proclamations.”
The poems that make up the bulk of It’s No Good burst out of that terrain like bombshells. Superficially, their debt to Kuzmin is obvious. Medvedev’s voice, as translated by Gessen and others, is resolutely direct, colloquial, and personal. At times, it sounds like a Muscovite Frank O’Hara. “I don’t know why / I decided to work / at the nightclub Sexton / when I was eighteen,” begins one poem. Says another: “I really like when / a series of arches in moscow run /one after the other /creating their own kind of tunnel / out of arches.” As with O’Hara, the specificity of reference almost overwhelms argument; viewed from a certain angle, Medvedev’s poems might seem merely a catalogue of people, buildings, and foodstuffs signifying life for a young cosmopolite. Yet read him at any length (the poems are rarely under three pages, and sometimes swell to dozens), and it becomes impossible to confuse his urbanism with urbanity, or, as he puts it, “dignified aloofness” to the wider world. Medvedev complains, of one Vavilon-affiliated contemporary: “a person in his poems is always / returning from work / moving around the glaring twilit / cityscape / given shape by information streams.” His own Moscow resists such streamlined shapes. It is “glaring” in a different sense, made discontinuous by eruptions of frustration, pessimism, and rage. One moment, it’s true, we may be among the office towers, cruising through a catalogue
of everyone who turned out to be a computer genius
of everyone who became an assistant
or a designer
for major fashion magazines….
But then suddenly, we are hearing
of all the half-drunk and stunted intellectuals
who (unlike me)
matured too early,
then burned out,
of everyone who found work in the morgue
of everyone who did time in jail
then died of an overdose
of everyone who worked at
the politician kirienko’s campaign headquarters
and then joined his permanent team.
The closing descent from threnody back to sarcasm bespeaks the scale of Medvedev’s loss of faith in that distinctly Russian class formation, the “intelligentsia.” These were the people who were supposed to lead his country out of its slumber and instead discovered a taste for Ambien. But the dramatic expansion of the point-of-view, the deepening of emotion, and the Beatnik anaphora holding it all together produce a countervailing movement: One feels the quickening of an almost spiritual belief. Medvedev wants his poetry not only to “appeal to personal experience,” but to transfigure it, to break it open, to disclose what is underneath. And what is underneath, he insists, is always already political. The meticulously name-checked fruits of bourgeois existence—parties, nightclubs, careers, and even much of contemporary art—are underwritten by exploitation, militarism, and a more nebulous brand of postmodern unfreedom. Reader, you are hereby called to consciousness. Or at least deprived of an alibi.
Alongside Medvedev’s messianic streak runs a notable impatience with the formal strictures of Russian lyric poetry—the elegant prosody of Anna Akhmatova or his beloved Joseph Brodsky. Gessen’s introduction presents these tendencies as merely coincident. But really, I think, one compels the other. Trained at Moscow’s famed Gorky Literary Institute, Medvedev has a considerable, if well-disguised, capacity for artifice—for finding Pushkin in the punkish. Still, his conception of poetry is one of vision, rather than of craft. This helps explain the porousness (some might say sameness) of these largely untitled poems, which tend to flow together into a single Poem. It also helps explain their peculiar rhythms, and their general aversion to beauty. They gather force not by rhetorical turns, but by incantation, as Medvedev strains “to see without distortion by one’s social position, without limitations by one’s artistic milieu.” The results are frequently startling:
we dance around others’ misfortunes like mischievous wolves like some sort of
lascivious bats in a frenzy
we make our way toward them by the light of bonfires on the outskirts of town
through desolate fields of garbage
we fall on them swoop down throw ourselves at them with all of our might oozing
the syrupy poison of empathy.
Which isn’t to say that the artist-monk can’t be funny, because Medvedev’s puckish streak runs deep. It surfaces sometimes at the expense of others (“as a janitor / I was always beyond suspicion”), but more often at the expense of his own ambitions. One of my favorite poems in the collection concludes on a note of perfectly serious ridiculousness, or ridiculous seriousness:
misha is going to do everything right
in this life,
whereas I’m going to continue sitting here
deep in shit
with my principles.
In 2004, Medvedev’s principles led him to make an unusual move: he renounced copyright to his own oeuvre. Henceforth, he declared in his “Manifesto on Copyright,” his poems would cease to be grist for the culture industry. They would appear on his website, and on facebook and LiveJournal, but reprinting them “in any anthologies, collections, or other kinds of publications” would be “consider[ed]…a disgusting manipulative action by one or another cultural force.” They were to be published
ONLY AS A SEPARATE BOOK, collected and edited according to the desires of the publisher, released in a PIRATE EDITION, that is to say, WITHOUT THE PERMISSION OF THE AUTHOR, WITHOUT ANY CONTRACTS OR AGREEMENTS.
The “Manifesto on Copyright” marks a hinge moment in the book, and in Medvedev’s career. Immediately before comes the longest, finest poem in the book (“Europe”) and an incendiary essay called “My Fascism.” The poems that follow the manifesto are thinner—at times they feel like Medvedev doing Medvedev—but the critical essays, by way of compensation, grow richer and more prophetic.
In the piece on Kuzmin and especially in “Literature Will Be Tested,” from 2007, Medvedev begins to articulate a dialectical vision of a new global humanism. Its acolytes, he argues, must preserve “postmodernism’s irrepressible critical outlook.” At the same time, Medvedev departs from the main body of post-’68 critical thought by insisting on the value of “grand narratives and global concepts.” To forego them, he says, is to accede to “an idealized consensus between the goals of ‘diversity’ and the interests of the global marketplace.”
And as he pursues the links between the stagnation he’s been confronting in Moscow and the larger, global situation, parallels that have heretofore been sub rosa become explicit. For Russia isn’t the only place where the notion of a life beyond politics gained traction after the collapse of Communism. “The end of history,” we called this period in the U.S. And what were the results? Open-ended war, accelerated environmental destruction, and the further consolidation of class power. History, history, and more history. Meanwhile, “the idea of ‘contemporary art’” grew ever more attenuated, as every imaginable gesture of “authenticity,” literary or otherwise, became a fungible commodity—one whose sale or purchase gets broadcast to your social network. “You can’t change the world that way,” Medvedev reminds us. “You can’t rise to the next level of existence that way.”
After the bracing cynicism of some of the poems, this formulation might sound preachy. But as a craftsman and as a human being, Medvedev knows he must make the political personal, even as the arrow also runs the other way. Taken as a whole, then, It’s No Good is less a sermon on change than a narrative enactment of it. In aesthetic terms, the distinctions among poems and essays and actions come to seem as provisional as those subtitular backslashes suggest; there’s criticism in the poetry, poetry in the criticism, and action in all of it. And in political terms, we get a portrait of the poet’s awakening to futility where he’d thought there was power, and vice versa. The thing might as well be a Bolaño novel…albeit one with a happier ending.
In another of his more unguarded moments, Medvedev confesses
I think it was genuine contact–
when two completely different people
begin to understand one another
in my opinion this
is a real event
in art and in life.
It’s No Good is just such an event. It awakens us to the contingency of contemporary reality’s ceaseless argument for itself, and to what might still be possible outside it. Archimedes famously said something like, Give me a place to stand, and a long enough lever, and I’ll move the world. Kirill Medvedev and his translators have given American readers another place to stand, a kind of Zuccotti of the mind. Now if only we can keep our grip on the lever.
Bonus Link: Four poems from It’s No Good
Yesterday, as Emily was writing her response to David Brooks’ most recent New York Times column, I was stewing about exactly the same topic. I had been similarly inspired a few months back, when Kevin wrote on the rise of pop-intellecutalism, but had found myself too enervated to complete a post. Now, spurred by Emily’s questions, and those of our commenters, I thought I’d give it a try.
The answer to “the mystery of the two faces of David Brooks” is, I think, precisely that he is a divided soul. His New York Times columns and NewsHour appearances reveal a man torn between a heterodox sensibility (the Dr. Jeckyll who is clearly disappointed by the Bush years) and his paying gig as a 21st Century pundit… that is, as the Mr. Hyde whose job is to regurgitate talking points.
Unlike Robert Louis Stevenson’s protagonist, however, Brooks’ double life is heavily incentivized. The success of the Brooks franchise rests on his reputation as “The Republican Who Explains Republican thinking to Democrats.” And so he’s rewarded – financially and reputationally – for flourishes of ideological eclecticism. “Ah, what a fresh take on things,” we think, reading his appeals for a new politics. “A center-right analyst who speaks his mind, regardless of partisan pieties.” (It bears mentioning that there are few pundits on the left who show comparable flexibility or felicity.)
But it is documentable that Brooks’ flexibility only lasts while the electoral stakes for the G.O.P. are relatively low – as they were for most of the long ’07 – ’08 Democratic primary season. Whenever things begin to look dark for the national Republican party, Mr. Hyde emerges, dagger in hand. As a deft reciter of the party line, Brooks becomes an apparatchik for the very status quo he spends 20 months out of every election cycle bemoaning. (This is, by the way, the exact pattern that has characterized the 2008 McCain campaign, except that it’s easier to forgive McCain; he’s a politician, not an “analyst.”)
In print and on TV, Brooks comes across as a smart and sympathetic guy, but for at least seven years now, he’s been (however consciously) perpetrating intellectual fraud. In Aristotelian terms, he embezzles from a surplus of hard-won Ethical appeal to support a slush-fund of Pathetic biases. A dramatic case in point comes from the 2004 Democratic convention, when, immediately after John Kerry’s speech, he told PBS’ Jim Lehrer that Kerry had done “quite a lot better” projecting “muscular centrism”:
I think the lesson for Republicans is you’re not going to destroy this guy John Kerry. You’re not going to disqualify him from being president after this week. You’re going to have to make the other alternative that you’ve got your own version of muscular centrism.
The next day, in the Times, Brooks, apparently unnerved by Kerry momentum, pronounced the same speech, “an incoherent disaster.”
Perhaps Brooks actually bought his conceit that the “unforgiving light of day” had chemically altered the contents of the speech; a critic of partisan posturing should know better. More likely, he merely underrated the overlap between NewsHour viewers and Times readers. A writer who claims intimacy with the Bobo lifestyle putatively lived in, say, Chicago’s Hyde Park – the “exlusive enclave” where my schoolteacher in-laws rent an apartment two blocks from the Obamas’ lovely but by no means extravagant home – should know better.
In any case, it should have come as no surprise to see Brooks skewer Obama the day after the convention – particularly when I suspect that Brooks, like Paul Krugman, wrote his column on Thursday afternoon, prior to watching Obama accept the nomination. (Note the rhetorical ambiguity of Brooks’ column, the way it skirts the question of whether it is a reaction or a prediction. Ask yourself if Brooks could have based his analysis not on Obama’s delivery, but on the leaked text of the speech – a text he praised on the NewsHour, by way of denigrating the delivery. Now ask yourself again if you want to take Brooks’ reaction seriously.)
A foolish consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds, but, if history is any indication, David Brooks is consistently inconsistent, and so screwed either way. In the last two months before a closely fought presidential election, we can expect him to rediscover his talent as a canny, cynical partisan shill, for whom politics is merely a rarefied form of marketing, designed to play on consumers’ fears. And in this, he will be no more or less than a member in good standing of a proud band of brothers and sisters – Frank Rich, Der Krauthammer, George Will, Cokie Roberts, et al. Perhaps we should rebrand the Op/Ed pages as what they really are – Special Advertising Sections – and be done with them. Me, I’ll be off reading Andrew Sullivan.
Author Mira Bartok was scheduled to talk to Terri Gross on Fresh Air this past Monday, but because of the attempted assassination of Congressman Giffords, the program focused on Arizona gun laws. Fresh Air featured Bartok and her memoir, The Memory Palace on Tuesday.
The irony of the shift is not lost on Bartok, who suffers from Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). The artist and writer was hit by a tractor-trailer in 1999. The accident happened nine months after she got a concussion slipping on black ice, which left her brain vulnerable to future wounds.
Recovery from TBI is lengthy, and often incomplete, leaving people with fatigue, confusion about daily tasks, and memory problems. TBI is among those invisible disabilities with which people are perceived as functional because they present as such. This is frustrating for all involved, including the patient who assumes she should be better. Bartok herself needed time to learn that she was changed.
While she received treatment for some physical injuries form the accident, her longterm cognitive problems were not immediately identified. She couldn’t do the things she used to do, like teach art, or draw while listening to music. Eventually, her TBI was diagnosed and she began working with cognitive therapists to develop strategies to handle the new ways her brain works.
Bartok describes her old self as having boundless energy and a sociable nature. She could make art while listening to music and help people when she wasn’t working on her own projects. Now she has to protect herself. Grocery shopping can be impossible because of the lights and the choices. Having dinner in a restaurant with friends might be more sensory input than she can bear, and leave her unable to work on writing or art projects the next day.
These problems are hard to see. I met Mira Bartok at a writers’ conference in 2009. She was part of a panel on brain injury, and spoke eloquently about her struggles to rebuild her writing life. Even from a podium, her warmth and wit are apparent. She’s the kind of person you want to get to know.
When I had the opportunity to interview her for a disability rights newspaper, I fantasized that we might meet at an art museum so I could observe her observing the art.
“In your dreams, Amy!” she laughed.
Such an excursion was out of the question because it would involve driving, and focusing on our conversation in an uncontrolled environment. The day we spoke on the phone, she had no plans to write. Even the phone interview, she said, was draining.
Bartok keeps a memory table in her studio to remind herself of what she’s doing and what she’s done. While writing her memoir, she built a cabinet with a slot for every chapter, and filled it with notes and writing on the topic. The cabinet is cleared now, ready for her next project, an illustrated young adult novel.
“Above my desk are lists of things I can’t remember anymore, the meaning of words I used to know, ideas I’ll forget within an hour or a day. My computer is covered in Post-its, reminding me of which books I lent out to whom, memories I’m afraid I’ll forget, songs from the past I suddenly recall,” she writes in The Memory Palace.
The workings of the mind and the creative process are ripe subjects for memoir, and Bartok’s is not the only book written from a TBI informed point of view. Floyd Skloot, father of Rebecca Skloot of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks fame and author in his own right, caught a virus on a plane that attacked his brain. The poet, marathon runner, and civil servant – Skloot worked for the Illinois Bureau of the Budget – was forced to stop and change completely. His book, In the Shadow of Memory is a tour of the virus, his childhood, and the way he reassembled a sense of self.
He followed this with The Wink of the Zenith: The Shaping of a Writer’s Life, a map of how he became a writer, and how he became a writer again, after his illness. Skloot’s persona on the page is very human and endearing, worth reading whether you are trying to figure out how to be a writer, or just trying to figure out how to be alive.
My interest in brain injury and writing is personal. My father’s first set of strokes didn’t hit his writing center, and he elegantly described his rehabilitation in a newspaper column. When, two years later, he had another series of strokes, he lost the ability to write. He used to be able to weave together nostalgic storytelling and current events and to sculpt his rage into thoughtful arguments on the op-ed pages of local papers.
My desire to help my father drew me to that panel where I met Mira Bartok. I took home hints from Linda Hogan and Allison Hedge Coke, other writers who learned to live and write in the wake of brain trouble. I left the room inspired by the way poet Peggy Shumaker’s husband helped her heal and rebuild her ability to write.
The Alaska State Writer Laureate, Shumaker was riding her bicycle when a kid on a four-wheeler crossed into the designated bike path and almost killed her. Just Breathe Normally is her memoir in poems, and the poems span her childhood through her recovery. The book marks her path from being unable to read to being able to write again, and from anger to forgiveness for the person who hurt her.
I took what I heard from these authors, and tried to bring it home to my father. I told him about the steady application of self to task, and the slow progress that these writers made. I talked with him about stories he wanted to write, and helped flesh out some ideas.
His productivity has diminished since his last strokes, but he keeps at it, and the newspapers occasionally run what he writes.
I thought of him for another reason as I read The Memory Palace. The illustrated memoir unfolds the details of Bartok’s mother’s schizophrenia, and begs the question of what we owe our parents.
Bartok’s mother, Norma Kurap Herr, was a gifted pianist who slid into mental illness early in her daughters’ lives. Eventually, the two sisters changed their names and got unlisted phone numbers to insulate themselves from their mother’s paranoid intrusions. She wasn’t just suggesting what they wear, but visiting their jobs and threatening their employment, and making harassing phone calls that could number a hundred a day.
After Mira and Natalia’s attempts to help their mother dramatically failed, Norma was homeless for nearly twenty years. During that time, Bartok corresponded with her mother, using a post office box. At the end of her life, a social worker stitched the family together with a phone call, and Mira, Natalia and Norma have a hospital reunion.
We cannot save our parents. They gave us life, and we struggle as adults with how to give them their due. In Bartok’s case, she had to funnel her care and love for her mother into a letter driven relationship. As I struggle with how to help my father and mother navigate this revision of their lives, I am grateful to the writers who share their stories, which are maps, to help us all.
It starts out innocently. I recommend Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. “I think you’d like Johnson,” I say, after reading one of his short story drafts. “The violence and the tenderness together. ‘Emergency’ will knock you out.” He’s never read Johnson before. I know it will knock him out.
It does (of course). He can’t stop talking about it. I introduce him to some of Johnson’s poetry. What else? he asks. Meaning: more, more, I want to be knocked out again.
We’d talked about minimalism. I recommend Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. He is European, so I am sure he’s read it, but he hasn’t. Again, he loves it. What else? Now I have cred. Now we’re rolling.
He goes back to Europe. The email exchanges begin. He sends me “In Memory of My Feelings” by Frank O’Hara. I send him Galway Kinnell’s “The Bear.” Don’t be intimidated by Kierkegaard, he writes, start with the Diapsalmata. And Proust goes fast, once you get into it. Read Sherwood Anderson, I write. Winesburg, Ohio.
Then David Foster Wallace dies, and we both read Consider the Lobster before even mentioning it to one another. What a coincidence. The Dostoevsky essay. Yes, yes, the Dostoevsky essay.
Rilke creeps in (of course he does). He reads Letters to a Young Poet, I read On Love and Other Difficulties. It all comes together in Rilke, he writes. It crystallizes. Yes, I write, Rilke goes his own way, beauty and goodness are one – not sequential, not interdependent, but one.
More Hemingway. I find him unanalyzable, I write. The greatest work is like that, don’t you think? I read For Whom the Bell Tolls and quote this passage:
Then there was the smell of heather crushed and the roughness of the bent stalks under her head and the sun bright on her closed eyes and all his life he would remember the curve of her throat with her head pushed back into the heather roots and her lips that moved smally and by themselves and the fluttering of the lashes on the eyes tight closed against the sun and against everything, and for her everything was red, orange, gold-red from the sun on the closed eyes, and it all was that color, all of it, the filling, the possessing, the having, all of that color, all in a blindness of that color. For him it was a dark passage which led to nowhere, then to nowhere, then again to nowhere, once again to nowhere, always and forever to nowhere, heavy on the elbows in the earth to nowhere, dark, never any end to nowhere, hung on all time always to unknowing nowhere, this time and again for always to nowhere, now not to be borne once again always and to nowhere, now beyond all bearing up, up, up and into nowhere, suddenly, scaldingly, holdingly all nowhere gone and time absolutely still and they were both there, time having stopped and he felt the earth move out and away from under them.
My God, I write, what is there to say? Yes, he writes back, I could not have stated it better, the way pure language leaves you speechless; I feel exactly the same way.
For two months, neither of us writes. His father is ill, my manuscript is due. An awkward, quiet phase, during which I slog through The Brothers Karamazov (can’t seem to keep my head in the game – guilt, theology, melodrama. Too much, too much…). He writes again, responds to my last email in which I complained about the Twilight phenomenon in the US. There are so many other better guilty pleasures, I’d written – Edith Wharton, Balzac, Palahniuk and Pelecanos. Yes, he writes, recalling a particular page-turning summer of his youth: Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Borges’ A Universal History of Iniquity. All mind-blowing, all in one week.
Then, a small thing I notice – a reference to the Norwegian writer Erlend Loe, which he’d recommended some time before, maybe more than once. When you get to it… he writes. That book really changed my life. When I get to it. In the back of my mind – a tiny thought, barely perceptible – I think: when am I ever going to get to Erlend Loe, when I’ve got Jean Rhys, Bolaño, Toni Morrison, and Tolstoy on the nightstand? I think also about whether I’d ever say such a thing: That book changed my life.
He writes that The Name of the World – a minor Johnson novel I’d recommended as an alternative to Tree of Smoke – didn’t speak to him, but Douglas Coupland is wrecking him. I write that since it was the scene in The Name of the World where the narrator has an atheistic epiphany (he is sitting in church and realizes, ecstatically, that he doesn’t believe in God) that really got me, I’d be interested in Coupland’s Life After God. But really, I only half mean it. In the back of my mind, I think: I am too old for it.
I don’t know exactly how old he is, likely a few years younger than I; but now I begin to wonder just how many years.
He’s reading more David Foster Wallace, sings the cultic praises of Kerouac (I roll my eyes a little). He raves about Lars von Trier (ok, but Breaking the Waves made me literally vomit). I recommend In Bruges – Martin McDonagh is kind of a genius, I write – which he watches and then reports back as “odd” and “all falling apart at the end.” We both agree that “Sonny’s Blues” is indeed a masterpiece.
I don’t hear from him for over a month. I do google searches on Erlend Loe and read this at 3000 Books:
If Tao Lin is the self-referential, disaffected freak-pop on the literary twenty-something’s jukebox, then Erlend Loe is the guy sitting in the corner at the piano, picking out notes that eventually turn into a tune.
I add Life After God to my goodreads.com to-read list.
I think: what the hell am I doing?
He writes again, back from travels. I decide to throw in a curve ball, just to see what happens. Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living by the Australian novelist Carrie Tiffany is the best book no one’s ever heard of, I write. I happen to believe this, but I don’t imagine he’ll agree. For good measure, I add: Have you seen Superbad? I could watch that movie over and over again. (This, too, is true.)
I think: what the hell am I doing?
The next I hear from him the email is short. He has deadlines to meet. He is planning a trip to Berlin for work, then Venice with his girlfriend.
You must bring Death in Venice along for the trip, I write.
Ah, yes, it’s been years, he writes. I suspect it holds up over time.
I suspect it does, I write. One of the great literary endings. The decrepit Aschenbach, slumped over in a beach chair, that final reverie of youth and eros.
He asks me if I am on Facebook.
I write yes.
Let’s be Facebook friends.
Yes, let’s. (My mind flashes to all the profile photos of me and J. – grilling fish on the porch, gussied up for a film opening, canvassing for Obama.)
I read on about Erlend Loe: “Naive.Super is a tiny charmer, a ripe fig that falls out of a budget store Christmas cracker onto your toe. Sure, it’s 12 years old, but it remains a fresh antithesis to the meta-literary swagger of the 21st century, an antidote to superanalysis and overcomplexity.” I think: that sounds refreshing. And J. might like it, even though he generally prefers nonfiction. I click, moving it from my wish list into the shopping cart.
This is the history: there was a time when Prato, the capital of the Province of Prato in Tuscany and a historic center of the Italian textiles industry, was fueled largely by an intricate network of small companies, many family-operated, some tiny, involved in various extremely specialized niches of the textile trade.
Among them was Lanificio T.O. Nesi & Figli S.p.A., founded in the 1920s by Edoardo Nesi’s grandfather, Temistocle, and his brother Omero. Like many family companies, T.O. Nesi & Figli was a shot into the future, a company intended to last for generations, to be passed down the bloodline like a gene or a name. In the 1920s, going into textiles in the city of Prato must have seemed like a supremely safe bet. “Try to imagine a product,” Nesi writes, “that for thirty years never needs to be changed.
Imagine a company that only manufactures that product and whose one problem, if it has any problem at all, is that it can’t keep up with the demand of a market that is so strong and vast that the threat of competition is not worth worrying about. Imagine being able to set your watch by the punctuality with which invoices are paid ten days from receipt, never a protest, never a deduction for unjustified complaints, never a bankruptcy, with checks pouring in with the morning mail in pastel-hued, square-format envelopes. Zero expense for research and development, trade fairs, advertising, or fashion consultants.
But you’ve no doubt guessed where this is going. By the beginning of the 21st century, the flood of pastel-hued, square-format envelopes had slowed to a trickle. Globalization was wreaking havoc on the city’s textile industry and business after business was going under. The culture of the industry had changed. Designers demanded ever-deeper discounts, even while selling clothing marked up to ten times the cost of production. Everything could be done more cheaply in China than in Prato. Clients began to force textile companies into bidding wars, and all that seemed to matter now was the price; clients were disinterested in a company’s commitment to quality, in their reputation, in their history.
The bidding wars were impossible to win, Nesi writes, because “there was bound to be someone somewhere whose desperation was greater than ours.” Desperate companies competed for contracts in which they could not possibly turn a profit. “And so, self-fulfilled and self-fulfilling, the certainty spread unstoppably that, with no one making profits, the textile industry no longer had a future. ”
In 2004, Nesi sold his family’s company. It seemed the only reasonable option, and yet:
I can’t manage to get out of my head that & Figli—& Sons—that seals the end of the name of the woolen mill, that announcement of continuity that was at once an evocation and an invocation, a promise made to me sixty years ago now by a grandfather I never knew. I can’t say whether I was a sly fox or a miserable coward, whether I did the right thing or betrayed my birthright, as if the same daring and courage were demanded of a captain of industry as of the captain of a ship, as if it were a moral requirement that he stay with his command until it settles on the bottom of the sea, that he stay with the company that bears his name.
Story of My People is an angry, eloquent, and beautifully written book, a hybrid of memoir and social commentary that took Italy’s prestigious Strega prize in 2011. This is a story about a man who loved his company and had to sell it, but this story is a microcosm for the decline of the Italian textiles industry and, more broadly, for the decline of manufacturing in the first world as industry has turned to cheaper labor markets elsewhere.
Clothes are armor. One of my countless day jobs was at a now-defunct luxury chain in Canada that sold housewares, furniture, clothing, and overpriced little aloe vera plants potted in glass vases. My job was mostly based in the stock room, because I’d discovered at previous day jobs that standing around on retail sales floors carries some risk of actually dying of boredom. But of course every now and again I’d have to venture out onto the floor, which was apparently somewhat embarrassing to our managing director. He wore crisp white shirts and the shiniest shoes I’d ever seen. “I’d like to challenge you to dress for the floor,” he said once, in a performance review. Another time, in a staff meeting, he addressed the following to all of us: “You dress a certain way, people treat you a certain way.”
I already knew the truth of this, because I’d grown up dressing out of thrift stores, which had proved an effective route to social suicide in my teenage years, but this line crystalized the matter. Since then, I’ve tried to dress well. Lately I’ve been making some of my own dresses, in part because I like the meditative aspects of sewing and in part because the dresses I make from scratch are generally nicer than the dresses I can afford to buy off the rack. The dresses I can afford to buy off the rack, I can’t help but notice, have seemed a little shoddy lately. The fabrics are usually synthetic. There’s usually no lining. Seams come apart quickly.
After I read Nesi’s book, I turned to Elizabeth L. Cline’s Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion in search of a wider context for the decline that Nesi describes.
In her account of the precipitous freefall of the American textiles and apparel industries, Cline makes a compelling argument that the demise of this sector in western countries has to do not only with the obvious and relatively new pressures of globalization that Nesi alludes to, but with the changing nature of fashion itself. Our clothing has become less formal.
Our grandparents relaxed at home on weekends in structured dresses, button-down shirts, and tailored trousers. Now fast-forward to 2013, and consider the t-shirt: our default article of leisure clothing consists of two pieces of stretchy fabric with rudimentary sleeves. “The less skill involved in making our clothes,” Cline writes,
the cheaper [our clothing] becomes, and the less we are willing to pay for it. The more basic clothes are, the less it matters where they’re made. A tank top can be made anywhere in the world. Does this mean we should return to wearing dresses so elaborate we have to be helped into them? Probably not, but I know that these changes are all tied up in the bulldozing powers of cheap.
In past decades, a decent wardrobe would have consisted of a very few well-made pieces, carefully maintained, taken to a seamstress to be let in or out as required. Few people owned more than a few outfits, because clothes were expensive. Now our wardrobes bulge with articles of clothing purchased for the price of lunch. The shift in apparel jobs to low-wage countries has shifted the cost of clothing downward, and with it, our expectation of how much an article of clothing should cost.
We’re caught in a spiral. “The joke in the industry,” Cline writes, “is that consumers want to pay $9 for whatever they paid $10 for last year.” The more cheaply a piece of clothing is made, the less we want to pay for it, and the more corners a manufacturer is forced to cut in order to meet an ever-dropping pricepoint: fabric becomes cheaper, details fall by the wayside, blazers are unlined, seams come undone.
We’re not stupid. We know cheap when we see it. “Most mass-market clothing is now so poorly made and ordinary,” Cline writes, “that many consumers intuit that it’s not worth much money.” If there’s a place in this landscape for exquisitely-made Italian fabrics, it’s much smaller than it was.
But what was lost in Prato, beyond the actual companies, the actual fabrics? Where Story of My People succeeds most brilliantly is as a vision of what a creative and ethical model of capitalism can look like. Nesi describes moments of exhilarating creativity: gathering with colleagues in the factory after hours, the conversation turning to the fabrics worn by Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Nesi rushing to bring the books out of his office, designers peering excitedly at the clothes worn in author photos, a week later those same fabrics lying before them on the table. In the years before he sold the company, Nesi lived something of a double life. He was a manufacturer who wrote novels, and it shows in his prose.
His first three novels were written largely at the office, in any spare moments he could find “during a workday that began at nine and often dragged itself exhausted over the threshold of seven in the evening, because it just wasn’t right for the company to be open without an owner inside.”
Those italics are his, but if they weren’t already there I’d have added them. If you live and work in North America, you might’ve experienced a touch of wistfulness and/or laughed hysterically just now at the thought of ten hours constituting an unusually long workday. But adjusting for proximity to the Mediterreanean, the reason for Nesi’s long days is striking.
This attentiveness to the company dovetails neatly with a speech Nesi’s mentor delivered, when Nesi was starting out in the company and they’d gone on a business trip to Germany together. The profession, his mentor told him, wasn’t glamorous:
[B]ut it was a profitable profession, if practiced properly, and by properly he meant conscientiously, seriously, with respect for other people, and it could bring in plenty of money and provide jobs for many people and feed many families, and in his opinion, I’d be good at it, provided I learned German perfectly and always remembered the things he had just told me.
We’ve seen what the opposite model of capitalism looks like. At one end of a spectrum is Nesi’s mentor, speaking seriously with his charge about practicing the profession in a conscientious and ethical manner as they drive back to the airport. At the other end, a hole in the ground on the outskirts of Dhaka marks the place where the Rana Plaza collapsed two months ago on five garment factories full of workers.
The day before the collapse, cracks had appeared in the walls. Workers were evacuated, but the following morning they were ordered back to work. When the building collapsed an hour later, 1,127 of them died. There are certain parallels with the Tazreen Fashions fire the previous November. The Tazreen Fashions building was equipped with fire alarms, but a government report found that supervisors prevented workers from leaving their sewing machines when the fire alarms sounded. One hundred twelve workers were killed in the blaze.
And all this, all of these cheaply-made clothes at this unbearable human cost, for what? We might say that we can only afford to buy cheap clothing, and in some cases that’s true. There have been times when this has been true for me. On the other hand, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American throws out sixty-eight pounds of clothing and other textiles every year. At some point along the way, we decided that clothes were meant to be more or less disposable.
Globalization isn’t, of course, a black-and-white issue. Millions have been lifted out of dire poverty by overseas manufacturing jobs. There are trends that can’t be reversed. Beyond individual efforts to think about clothing differently—taking a moment to consider whether it might not be better to buy two or three exquisitely well-made shirts in a given year, for instance, rather than ten or fifteen disposable ones—the solutions aren’t entirely clear.
What is clear is that when we decided that price mattered more than anything, something vital was lost and the human cost was steep. Story of My People makes an eloquent argument for a marketplace infused with a touch of humanity and grace.
Image credit: Beatrice Murch