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.
The other night, four of us sat around the table in an airy, sparse loft apartment in the Marais: J — my non-marital male partner of 10 years; S — Paris resident and J’s oldest friend, for whom he stood as best man when she married a woman 20 years ago; M — S’s current non-marital partner (male); and me. M speaks not a word of English, only French and a bit of Arabic, but is gregarious no matter the company; S speaks accented English and French (native language = Taiwanese); J speaks and understands only English; I speak English and decent French, some infantile Korean. S and J are both significantly older than M and me and are great cooks; S and I earn most of the income these days and both travel regularly for work. Only J has children.
We dug in to a giant communal bowl filled with three kinds of shellfish, a plate of white asparagus, and a platter of oysters. The dinner cost 15 euros total, plus a bottle of 5-euro wine. We talked about S’s recent stomach-removal surgery, after a late cancer diagnosis, and the French healthcare system; J’s daughters and our new puppy; the grapevines growing from a pot on the windowsill, finally bearing raisins after three years; tennis (playing and watching) and taekwondo (M is a brown belt); S’s upcoming sci-fi film project in Berlin and the book that I am researching this summer in France.
It was Sunday evening in Paris: family supper. In the moment, the rather odd details and dynamics of our group were quietly subsumed and absorbed; we were just being together, enjoying our time, without much thought.
J and I came home to our tiny AirBnB rental in Belleville bearing leftovers and in good spirits — much better spirits than after other dinners we could remember, dinners with the families we refer to as “real.” It was late, but J pulled up Netflix on the laptop, and we crawled into bed. We’d been churning through old seasons of Mad Men — partly because we can’t get enough, and partly because I was trying to write something about the current season. The opening sequence came on, that pulsing, percussive theme, and just as it started beating toward its diminuendo, I hit pause. “I’ve got it,” I said, “I know what I’m writing about.” I’d been brainstorming out loud for a week, since the half-season finale. I clicked onto our video library, found “The Strategy,” the penultimate episode, and scrolled to the end.
There they were: Don, Peggy, and Pete, supping together at a Burger Chef — “a clean, well-lighted place” — the image saturated in rich turquoise and red. At this point, Don and Megan have quietly called it quits, Pete just fielded Trudy’s You’re no longer part of this family, and Peggy has lost the only steady in her life, Julio, the neighbor boy who comes by to watch TV.
“What if there was a place where there was no TV and you could break bread and, whoever you were with, that was family?” Peggy had asked, happening upon her brilliant pitch for their newest potential client during a late-night work session with Don. They both knew her concept was good; they needed Pete to get on board. And so they gathered.
Two weeks before, I had beheld this image, actually shaking my head in awe. This is it, I thought. The whole series in a nutshell. This is what it’s about. The image — the moment — was both surprising and inevitable; in other words perfect. And after our beautiful makeshift dinner with our motley family-of-choice, the poignancy of that moment crystallized. If Mad Men is itself a kind of advertisement — a reflection and dramatization of our deepest desires, the ones we didn’t know we had — then its message is both timeless and markedly modern: family is everything; we are hungry for family; your “real” family are, simply, the people who actually know you.
We’re in a golden age of TV; we all know this. There is so much good TV to watch — just look here and here and here. Today’s best dramas are serials, requiring, thus, commitment. If you are a person with, you know, other obligations — you have a demanding job or small children or like to read books (maybe you’re even writing one) — it’s impossible to keep up. You must prioritize. Of all the great TV to choose from, what grabs you and won’t let go? What must you make time for, week after week?
I have watched six-and-a-half seasons of Mad Men, now twice through; that’s nearly 8,000 minutes, or 130 hours. Evidently, I’ve established my TV priorities. But next comes the inevitable question: Isn’t this really a colossal waste of time? “It’s great entertainment” may cut it for 100 minutes of The Hangover, but the demands of serial TV these days call for deeper justification — a substantive understanding of value. And if you are a literary person, there is that nagging additional requirement: your TV shows must do all that literature does; must do it even better.
Mad Men is far from perfect; despite the show’s popularity, the case for a favorable value-to-time ratio is not necessarily self-evident. On the interwebs, critical chatter spins endlessly: Don is an asshole, Don is boring, Don is getting old and fat; plot lines are riddled with non-sequiturs and inconsistencies, too frequently straining credibility; back stories are overly foregrounded, or confoundingly obtuse; the scripting of politics and racial dynamics is clunky, smug, and sometimes offensive (not in an ironic way); the hairstyles are over the top!
There is truth in all these criticisms. Like all ambitious, voluminous work — like an epic novel — there is bagginess, missteps. But also like a great novel, each viewer is grabbed by something different: a particular through-line keeps her watching, crowds out the shortcomings; a specific narrative or emotional thread compels devotion.
One could argue that an artist aims for this, prefers not to think about “overall audience appeal,” but rather to focus on creating a captivating world, characters, ideas — hoping that a great wide audience is responsive by virtue of depth and universality. Matthew Weiner confirms this idea:
What I mean and what it means to people are not related to each other and none of my business. All I have to do is get my house in order when expressing it, but when people get it and own it, that’s your dream…Sometimes, you put down a steak and they think it’s pudding, and that’s all you can do.
Roger Sterling could not have said it better.
It’s all about family. About knowing and being known. Real family. Once I saw it, I couldn’t un-see it.
J hrrmphed. The idea wasn’t coursing through him like a current, and I couldn’t imagine why not. It’s true that Matthew Weiner would hate the idea of Mad Men having some overarching “message,” and yet, I am convinced that the creation and dissolution and re-creation of families — literally and conceptually — is Weiner’s steak; no way it’s pudding. In gathering for family dinner, the Don-Peggy-Pete triumvirate enacted a Great Convergence — of three physical bodies, along with a clan of invisible secret selves. Their so-called “real” families were also present — specters of dysfunction and failure, but muted in the wake of Technicolor clarity.
Has it been a colossal waste of time? For me, the Burger Chef scene was pay-off, big time. There is so much that ties these characters, inextricably, to each other, so much that has evolved. It seems inconceivable that Peggy was once Don’s wide-eyed secretary and that she mooned over Pete, all the while carrying his child; that Don once fired Pete and that Pete threatened to reveal Don’s identity as the army deserter Dick Whitman; that Pete once said to Peggy, “You know me, you know everything about me, and I know you, and I think you’re perfect.” Among them, they’ve inflicted cruelty and betrayal all around; and they’ve shared just as many profound moments of recognition and mutual respect. For those of us who’ve lived through the complexity of these intimacies, all of it culminates perfectly at Burger Chef. It’s true that the show’s infamous opening sequence evokes solitary free-fall, and the characters themselves express feeling alone; but we know different. Don, Peggy, and Pete have each survived much, and they’ve done it, despite themselves, together. They’ve been there, for and alongside each other — not just like family, but in place of.
(Notably (J reminded me), Peggy has never been explicitly apprised of Don’s alter-life as Dick Whitman; and Don never asked about the father of Peggy’s baby. Not on screen, anyway. But such is the nature of the trust and familiarity among them: there is a feeling that all is known, even if not spoken. Put another way: if it were spoken, each would feel that he/she had already known.)
It seems at times implausible that these characters go about their days in such close proximity, pitching and collaborating and strategizing around conference tables, smirking and drinking scotch with their feet up. How is it that these subtexts matter so much and at the same time not at all? Is this how life is really lived? I would say, No, not really. In our world, one wouldn’t work side by side, year after year, with so much water under the bridge; the bridge would have flooded and collapsed long ago. Again, these are the behaviors of family, not co-workers. But Weiner and company achieve believability, to my mind, by virtue of a quality that these three characters share absolutely: ambition. The subtexts are functionally subsumed because, for Draper-Olsen-Campbell, more than any of the others, the work matters. Success matters. From the beginning, it is for these three that this craven, insipid business has truly meant something. Advertising — and winning at advertising — is their blood tie.
The extended family equally enthralls. Roger and Joan are the more jaded and battle-wounded big brother and sister to their entitled younger siblings Don and Peggy; and they share yet another unspoken family secret (baby Kevin). Young Sally comes of age, prevailing over Betty’s attempt to use her as a tool of revenge by acing her family tree project — “Daddy’s first wife” Anna Draper included — and by seeing something authentic in her father’s love for this mystery ex-wife. On the topic of Anna’s terminal cancer, Anna’s sister tells Don that he has “no say in the affairs of this family,” but the viewer recognizes her villainy: Anna and Don exemplify pure family, agape — unconditional love between the strangest of bedfellows, their kinship born of deceit and a peculiar mutuality. Sally and Glen nurture their close-cousins bond, battling disapproval all the while (Betty, boarding school, adolescent peer pressures), and yet we see in them a version of the same powerful knowingness shared by Peggy and Don.
On the flipside, “real” family falters, again and again: after announcing over dinner that she and boyfriend Abe are moving in together, Peggy says to her mother, “It’s important to me that you understand what we’re doing…I want you in my life” — to which her mother replies, “I need my cake…because I’m not giving you a cake to celebrate yas livin’ in sin.” Pete’s old-money/squandered-money parents, while alive, are stingy and cold, through and through, and when his father dies in a plane crash in Season 2, he goes straight to Don: “I don’t know what to do…What does one do?…Am I going to cry?…Everything’s exactly the same.” And of course we know more than we ever wanted to about Don’s whorehouse boyhood. We’ve also seen divorce after divorce after divorce: Don (twice), Roger (twice, plus daughter Margaret estranged), Joan, Pete, now Harry Crane (always late to the party, but still finding a way to crash). Remember when divorcée Helen Bishop was such an anomaly?!
My favorite moment of traditional family gone awry is the closing shot of “At the Codfish Ball” in Season 5, when Megan’s parents join Don and Roger, along with Sally, at an advertising awards ceremony: the Calvet’s are on the outs, and Sally has just walked in on Megan’s mother Marie fellating Roger; Megan is pissed because her father has just accused her of “skipping the struggle” and giving up her dreams; Don, for once, is clueless. The family members take their seats around the table, awkwardly sipping drinks and staring into the What-the-hell-am-I-doing-here unknown.
The one core relationship that currently puzzles me is that between Joan and Don: Don respects Joan and has been nothing but decent towards her (Season 4: he takes her for a joy-ride and drinks after her loser husband serves her divorce papers; Season 5: he tells her not to sleep with the skeezy Jaguar exec in order to get the business). In Season 7, she votes him out of the company — twice. “I’m tired of him costing me money!” she shrieks. Perhaps Don deserves it, but I find myself wanting him to make Joan feel like shit about her lack of loyalty, to the family. There is something regressive about Joan in the end — she is Colette’s bohemienne dancehall girl, always orderly, her garments pressed and hung, her gold hidden in a secret compartment in her purse. Some interpret Joan’s Season 7 refusal to be Bob’s sham wife (we all know by now that the handsome upstart is gay) as a show of self-determination; I read it as precious and fundamentally conservative. Why can’t Joan have both love and a benevolent provider? Bob sees that these are not mutually exclusive, which is why he offers it, no strings attached. But Joan hasn’t understood yet about real family; she’s still trying to configure herself into the conventional formula.
And now I can add another 500 minutes to those 8,000 — more time spent thinking and writing about what all this mental investment means.
In an interview with Salon, Matthew Weiner said:
I try to make it so that every season finale could be the end of the series. I plot the story out that way and deliver it that way.
Had the Burger Chef snapshot been the end of the series, I would have been thoroughly satisfied. This tells me that, given the unsavory horribleness of so much of what happens on Mad Men — the lies, the pettiness, the violence and despair and random acts of betrayal — I need to sense some sort of moral vision when all is said and done. By “moral” I simply mean endowed with meaning, somehow adding up (even if 2 + 2 = a flying unicorn, or pudding, for that matter). For there is no value without meaning, and it’s value that I’ve set out to uncover here.
It doesn’t much matter whether Weiner intended this meaning or not: he rendered it so — patiently and in fine detail, I would argue — even as he goes about writing merely “what interests me and what I’m feeling.” His vision is moral — it invokes questions about what matters in this life, and whether those things are attainable — but certainly not deductive or conclusive. The family supper at Burger Chef is filled with longing, mostly unfulfilled, and fear — “that I haven’t done anything, and I have no one” — as Don put it. The visual image evokes the haunting solitude of an Edward Hopper painting, the verbal reference is to Hemingway’s story of aging and the great void (nada y nada y nada). Loneliness and disconnection are diseases of the human condition; the many variations of family that we construct seem to reflect this chronic, sometimes fatal, condition.
And, of course, “The Strategy” was not the final episode; that there are seven episodes to come in 2015 is for me both exciting and worrying. What will happen to my cherished, epiphanic through-line? My Technicolor image of convergence and poignancy? What shenanigans will Don commit, how will the vectors of trust and intimacy shift?
M and S do not have a television in their apartment. This is Paris, small-dwelling capital of the world, and a TV would dominate the room. They’ve been discussing it, though — how much to spend, how big the screen, where to put it — in preparation for the World Cup. “But don’t you want to watch it down at the café with other people?” I ask, channeling Peggy. “Isn’t it a kind of communal thing that brings Parisians together?” S nods, M shrugs. I realize that behind the decision is a desire to spend more time together, at home, given S’s health. Will they buy this television? How will it change their life? Perhaps they will host more Sunday dinners around the table at home. In a year, we’ll be back in Paris, and Mad Men will have concluded. As they say, stay tuned.
Image courtesy of the author.
Jonathan Russell Clark sits at his desk, writing an essay about free indirect discourse. Surrounding him are books by authors who employ the technique with considerable skill: Jane Austen, Gustave Flaubert, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Stephen Dixon, and Joshua Ferris. He recalls a time when he did not even know what free indirect discourse was, and a time, later, when he knew the term but viewed it more as a descriptor than a crucial component. He remembers how his relationship to the term evolved over the years: his initial distrust of it, as many of his favorite writers cavalierly disregarded the tactic; his frustration with its limitations: how would he communicate the thoughts of other characters if he couldn’t leave the brain of the protagonist?; his eventual understanding of its importance while reading James Wood’s illuminating (though much debated) book How Fiction Works, in which he refers to it as “close writing”; and then, finally, his acceptance and full embrace of the method. Though he still admired novelists who could successfully avoid using free indirect discourse, he knew he would never break from it himself. It was just too liberating, the way close writing allowed his sentences to spill out of him, effortlessly, like thoughts, rapid and rabid and rampant, just spit out onto the page––it was so easy, or, well, easier, because it’s not as if he’s without problems, creatively speaking, oh he has problems, like how is he supposed to know which thoughts are important and which simply aren’t? and why is he unable to write economically, why are his pieces always longer than they need to be?––but yeah anyway, he now loved close writing because it made writing fun.
To be clear: close writing is not vital to all fiction. In fact, it doesn’t even speak to most fiction. For instance, first-person narrations cannot use free indirect discourse. When a character is speaking directly to a reader, the aim of close writing is already happening; no technique required. Also, novels and stories that feature an omniscient narrator are similarly excluded––all-knowing narrators simply tell us information. The skill required to pull off such a voice is its own subject. No, close writing only relates to third-person limited narrations, and, even more specifically, ones with an active interest in the inner lives of the characters. Not all fiction cares about that.
Here’s how James Wood explains close writing:
So-called omniscience is almost impossible. As soon as someone tells a story about a character, narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character, to take on his or her way of thinking and speaking. A novelist’s omniscience soon enough becomes a kind of secret sharing.
Note the gain in flexibility. The narrative seems to float away from the novelist and take on the properties of the character, who now seems to “own” the words.
Without being able to articulate it, free indirect discourse appealed to Clark greatly. Novels that used the style effectively gave him a giddy sensation, the prose seeming to not have been written but transcribed from a person’s mind but filtered through the ostensibly distancing third-person point-of-view, and though he didn’t know it, he came to depend on such techniques to let him “settle” into a character. Even more striking, when he read a piece of fiction (especially in a workshop environment) that failed to use close writing and didn’t effectively employ another style, something irked him as his eyes moved over the words. He was made uncomfortable by these stories, but he didn’t know why. What the hell was it?
When he finally learned the term––in a college course, he thinks––he started to understand what it was that had been bothering him. Once he read How Fiction Works, he knew with satisfying finality. Free indirect discourse. Close writing. Thankfully the grey cloud hovering over his frustration had a name. Nameless things give aimless dreams.
How important is free indirect discourse? In the history of the novel, it’s extremely important. Clark at first didn’t even realize that the technique had to be developed at all, but in fact it was an astonishing feat. According to Michael Schmidt’s monumental and astounding work of scholarship and criticism, The Novel: A Biography (a book so big and important it merits its own essay, which is forthcoming), early iterations of the novel concerned themselves less with verisimilitude than outright deceit. When Daniel Defoe composed Robinson Crusoe (or, to use its full title––no joke––The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, All Alone in an Uninhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having Been Cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein All the Men Perished but Himself. with an Account of How He Was at Last as Strangely Deliver’d by Pirates), “he believed he had to honor readers’ expectations of a true and edifying story. An untrue story had to seem true.” The nuanced psychology of the characters was irrelevant to the task of moral tutelage. But the method of mimicking eventually morphed into the representation of human thought.
Generally, the development of close writing into its modern form is attributed to Gustave Flaubert in novels like A Sentimental Education, but the early traces of “inner monologue” are as subtle and elusive as the technique itself. Gabriel García Márquez “detects the original use of ‘interior monologue'” as far back as Lazarillo de Tormes, a picaresque work from 1554. James Wood points out an example in Pope’s mock-epic The Rape of the Lock from 1712. Jane Austen, who died four years before Flaubert was born, occasionally abandoned her lofty point-of-view in order to take the reader into the character’s mind, if only briefly, as in this passage from Pride and Prejudice:
Elizabeth felt herself completely taken in. She had fully proposed being engaged by Wickham for those very dances:––and to have Mr. Collins instead!––her liveliness had been never worse timed. There was no help for it however. Mr. Wickham’s happiness and her own was per force delayed a little longer, and Mr. Collins’s proposal accepted with as good a grace as she could. She was not the better pleased with his gallantry, from the idea it suggested of something more.––It now struck her, that she was selected from among her sisters as worthy of being the mistress of Hunsford Parsonage, and of assisting to form a quadrille table at Rosings, in the absence of more eligible visitors.
Austen’s tactics are very subtle––the exclamation point punctuating the shock over Mr. Collins, the italicized she, and the sound of contemplative flow in “There was no help for it however”––but those little moments of language all belong to Elizabeth, not Austen. It is Elizabeth who can’t believe she has Mr. Collins instead; it is Elizabeth who can’t believe that she was selected from among her sisters, and it is Elizabeth who doesn’t think there was any help for it however. A reader may not be able to articulate with precision the, as Wood describes it, “marvelous alchemical transfer” that just took place, but they’ll feel it. They’ll understand Elizabeth a little bit more.
Flaubert took it a bit further. He organized his entire style around close writing. In A Sentimental Education, the prose moves into the protagonist Frédéric’s mind without any explicit hint at the shift. Here is Frédéric’s first seeing Mme Arnoux, the older woman with whom he falls in love with:
Never before had he seen more lustrous dark skin, a more seductive figure, or more delicately shaped fingers than those through which the sunlight gleamed. He stared with amazement at her work-basket, as if it were something extraordinary. What was her name, her place of residence, her life, her past?
Those last questions are Frédéric’s, as if transcribed verbatim from his thoughts. But where did that shift happen? There was no, “He thought…” Instead, the language slips first into the character’s vernacular––the words “lustrous,” “seductive,” and “delicately” are all Frédéric’s––and then into his mind. It’s quite a nifty trick. “Thanks to free indirect style,” James Wood writes, “we see things through the character’s eyes and language but also through the author’s eyes and language. We inhabit omniscience and partiality at once.”
If this all seems very basic to you, consider that there was a time when close writing simply didn’t exist. Additionally, though readers and writers often implicitly understand these ideas, sometimes the act of naming something and recognizing its traits leads to understanding. Like David Foster Wallace’s fish parable, sometimes you have to say: This is water.
Moreover, once the modernists enter the picture, close writing is taken to new depths: the inner thoughts of characters become just as important––or more important––than the plot. Virginia Woolf and James Joyce went so far as to construct novels that took place in a single day, Mrs. Dalloway and Ulysses, meaning the reader spends most of the narrative inside a mind as it thinks. Joyce loved to catalogue very ordinary thoughts, and through Leopold Bloom he mastered close writing like nobody before him. Here is Bloom just after he is first introduced, as he prepares breakfast for Molly:
Another slice of bread and butter: three, four: right. She didn’t like her plate full. Right. He turned from the tray, lifted the kettle off the hob and set it sideways on the fire. It sat there, dull and squat, its spout stuck out. Cup of tea soon. Good. Mouth dry.
Listen to the fragmentary nature of Bloom’s thoughts as they mingle with action. Taking Flaubert’s technique even further, Joyce gives us full access to Bloom’s mind with almost no indication he’s doing so. His thoughts aren’t profound––they’re quotidian, mundane, banal. Clark’s favorite moment comes when Bloom is unable to recall someone’s name:
Stream of life. What was the name of that priestylooking chap was always squinting in when he passed? Weak eyes, woman. Stopped in Citron’s saint Kevin’s parade. Pen something. Pendennis?
Who hasn’t had a similar moment, a name stuck on the tip of the tongue? Then, a full 25 pages later (in the 1922 text, that is), as Bloom assists a blind man across the street, and whose face strikes him “like a fellow going in to be a priest,” it suddenly hits him: “Penrose! That was the chap’s name.” The image of a priest brings to mind the “priestylooking chap” whose name he couldn’t recall earlier and he’s able to conjure the name, except Joyce doesn’t clue the reader into the association. The line is simply plopped down in the middle of another scene.
Virginia Woolf wastes no time delving into her titular character’s inner life. After her famous opening––”Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself”––the prose immediately becomes one with Mrs. Dalloway’s ruminations:
For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer’s men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning––fresh as if issued to children on a beach.
What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen; looking at the flowers, at the trees with the smoke winding off them and the rooks rising, falling; standing and looking until Peter Walsh said, “Musing among the vegetables?”––was that it?––”I prefer men to cauliflowers”––was that it? He must have said it at breakfast one morning when she had gone out on to the terrace––Peter Walsh.
Who’s Lucy? Why does she have her work cut out for her? Why is Mrs. Dalloway buying flowers? And who is Peter Walsh? Why does he suddenly appear in her mind? Remember: this is the first page of the novel. In 1925, when Mrs. Dalloway was published, people still expected some exposition, some introductory orientation, but Woolf provides none. She doesn’t have to. That’s the power of close writing.
>Since then, free indirect discourse has become an integral part of third-person novels. Grab any one at random and you’ll probably find that it employs close writing. And there are still writers who experiment with this voice in their fiction. Stephen Dixon’s I. plays around with the separation of author and subject. The protagonist’s is named I., which means Dixon gets to write sentences like: “I. met Fels more than twenty years ago.” Yes, it’s third person, but it’s also first. Dixon, then, further erases the gap by having the character, I., also be the writer of the prose, so that he can stop in the middle of a paragraph (which, in Dixon’s fiction, are always long) and say, “Oh, he’s not explaining himself well,” or “What’s he going on about?” Then, those murmurs of uncertainty become full-blown self-doubt:
Oh, stop with the crypt of memories swinging open and all that. Fine, then what? Simply this: he finished something yesterday––okay, a short story––wanted to start something new today––story, novel, two-page short-short: what did he care? A fiction of any length––even a play if it was possible––because he gets agitated with himself and grumpy with his family if at the end of the day after the one he finished a fiction he still doesn’t have something to work on the next day. In other words––but he thinks he explained that okay.
He continues to edit himself as he goes, noting, at one point, “that last parenthetical sentence could be clearer, and he knows it’s going to take work.” After a lengthy explanation of I.’s morning, he writes, “He could have done that so much more simply: he finished writing something yesterday, wanted to start writing something today, saw the obituary and started to write.”
The transfer of voice from the author to the character, here, is thrown right back to the author. Dixon’s I. is also the writer, so close writing here traces not simply the character’s thoughts, but the very words he’s typing. Thinking and writing meld into one organism. Dixon’s metafictional approach could be thought of as elaborate autobiography, but whatever it is it shows how close writing can still be stretched and expanded for new purposes. Dixon’s work is often neglected, or deemed too difficult for casual enjoyment. Too bad; he’s wonderful.
The last writer Clark wants to focus on is Joshua Ferris, a writer noted for his experiments with voice. His Then We Came to the End is written in first-person plural, an entire office represented with the narrative we. Recently long-listed for the Man Booker Prize for To Rise Again at a Decent Hour (in the first year Americans were considered), Ferris is one of contemporary fiction’s most assured practitioners. His abilities with close writing are prodigious, as unequivocally demonstrated by his New Yorker story “The Pilot.” It basically focuses on the neuroses of Lawrence, a wannabe television writer who gets an email invitation to a producer’s “yearly blowout.” “He’d R.S.V.P’d,” we’re told, “but not immediately. Two days after the message came in. Two days plus maybe an hour.” When he receives no reply from her, he starts to worry:
He would have liked a reply. After a few days went by, he’d have liked a reply a lot. Was his e-mail too effusive? Was it a mistake to use the word “sick” to describe her show? Or maybe she was just busy shooting the season finale. She was just busy shooting the season finale. He should have just written back quick-like, something like “Thanks for the invitation, Kate. See you then.” Then she might have quick-like hit Reply, with a confirmation, and he’d have known that she knew he was coming. Did she even know she’d invited him? Sometimes, with e-mail, some programs, you hit All Contacts or something and invite people you didn’t even mean to invite. Of course she’d meant to invite him. He just didn’t have any confirmation that she’d received his R.S.V.P. That was kind of unnerving. But, think about it, would he then have to confirm her confirmation? That wasn’t really feasible. It was just…Everything was fine. She was just wrapping. He was too effusive. “Sick little fuck-you”: that might have been––no, it was fine––just a little insulting? No, no, it was fine, who knows, not him.
That is a virtuoso stretch of comic writing, and a better representation of human thought as it occurs than almost anything Clark’s read in his life. The thoughts interrupt each other, the narrator oscillates between two poles of neurotic uncertainty, even repeating himself to emphasize a statement’s validity (yet inadvertently showing how questionable Lawrence finds that validity), and yet the reader never loses the train, the writing is crystal clear, the rhythm natural. Even though Lawrence isn’t technically narrating, he owns every single word on the page. The reader is in his mind.
Close writing really is an amazing thing. Consider that this essay right now has been narrated in the third person, and yet there is no question as to what Clark’s opinions are. There was never any confusion over “who” was asserting the statements made above. The “marvelous alchemical transfer” made it so the separation between Jonathan Russell Clark and some ostensible narrator disappeared––after a while, you probably stopped noticing, except for the occasional use of Clark’s name. Here, of course, Clark and the author are the same, but the same technique used in fiction functions the same way. The writer disappears and only the character is left––the voice, the thoughts, the little details that make us human.
Image via John Lester/Flickr
A year ago, when my editor at Tin House Books first asked whether I had any suggestions for the cover of my second novel, The Virgins, I drew a blank. I couldn’t think of anything specific, but I knew what I didn’t want. I tend to dislike covers that are too literal, I told him, and I think that abstraction is often a wonderful choice for fiction. My novel focuses on three teenagers at an East Coast boarding school, two of them in a complex, sexually charged relationship, and a third who observes them obsessively from a distance and tells their story. I joked: “Just promise me that it won’t be of two young people lying together in soft focus in a field. That would really depress me.”
So I wasn’t sure what to think when I saw what Tin House Books was proposing for The Virgins. Admittedly, it wasn’t two young people lying together in a field. It wasn’t in soft focus. But there was a photograph of a young girl lying languidly on her side. In a field.
That wasn’t all. She had her hand on her crotch.
Let me back up a minute. I had plenty of positive reactions to the cover. Its composition was elegant and intriguing; I loved the softness of the girl and her floral dress against the bolder geometries of the cutout circle and the rectangle of the book itself. I loved the vintage-y, dusky green jacket color. I loved the retro feel.
I didn’t like where the girl’s hand was lying. Specifically: I couldn’t get past the way my eye was drawn straight to the spot between her legs, smack in the middle of both the photo and the cover.
Why, though, I had to ask myself, did I have such a strong reaction? My novel is about many things, but one of those things is certainly sex. The Virgins contains numerous explicitly sexual scenes. Body parts are called by straightforward names. It wasn’t as if Tin House Books was trying to grab stray eyeballs at any cost, relevance be damned. And I did find something quite compelling in the image of the girl that couldn’t be reduced to titillation. So what exactly was my objection?
There were my kids, of course. I’d so been looking forward to walking into a bookstore with them and seeing copies of my novel on a table. My kids aren’t exactly kids anymore. They are 16 and 15 years old, just about the age of the protagonists in my novel, which is shot through with the acknowledgement that teenagers are deeply sexual creatures. But we all know that even grown men and women find it seriously icky to associate their parents with sexuality. How would my son and daughter feel about the fact that — in my gloomiest judgment — Mom’s new novel looked like soft porn? I had somehow believed that for my children to know what was in my book, they would have to open it. They would have to read it, page after page. This would necessitate an act of will, which they would probably commit only if they felt really ready. I hadn’t stopped to consider that a cover image could fly right under the radar of their will, entering them and exploding its meanings within them without their full assent.
After the kids, came the worries about in-laws. Neighbors. Former teachers. That’s when I began to see that my unease wasn’t really, or wasn’t only, about the cover. It was about the way the cover advertised what was in my book and gave a taste of its sometimes solipsistic and voyeuristic eroticism. The sexuality in The Virgins has many different meanings and implications, some of them contradictory. Sometimes it is an attempt to express or forge love and affection; sometimes it is exhibitionistic, a performance; sometimes it is desperate or aggressive or, as the proposed cover suggested, self-pleasuring. If anything, the cover perfectly captured the overdetermined, shifting nature of sex in the novel. And there lay the problem. It hit me that the cover I’d hoped for, though I’d never been able to create a distinct picture of it, was really a cover that would have covered up, like the brown-paper wrappings that mask the dirty books and magazines at newsstands. If the cover accurately expressed the feel and content of the novel, and the cover embarrassed me, what did that say about my relationship to my work? And had I really never pictured what it would be like to have people read The Virgins?
Apparently not. When I was typing alone in my room, it felt entirely natural to write about sex, which has always seemed to me a great and rich subject. None of the scenes I wrote troubled or embarrassed me at the time. But now, the whole endeavor felt horribly intimate. Aviva Rossner, my female protagonist, is not me, even if I gave her my hometown and my departure for boarding school at age 16, but the sex in The Virgins clearly comes from my own, personal brain — whose else’s could it have been? Would readers find that sex — and therefore me — laughable, sick, or otherwise distasteful? Years ago, I published a long, meditative essay in the Michigan Quarterly Review about breastfeeding in which I got pretty specific about body parts as well as the spiritual and physical yearnings that breastfeeding aroused in me. A neighborhood acquaintance who happened upon the piece online told me with a frown that she “couldn’t believe” I would “put that out there.” Was I ready to be revealed to her and others as the author of a novel sprinkled with the words “cock” and “cunt?”
I was in college when I first came across Virginia Woolf’s famous dictum, in her essay “Professions for Women” from the collection Women and Writing, that writers must kill the Angel in the House. By the Angel, Woolf meant the female — more specifically, the mother and wife — whose role in life was to be the gracious hostess-cook-and-mender, smoother-over of family tensions, and graceful supporter of the endeavors of husband and (male) children. Woolf had to kill the Angel, she said, because its top priority is self-suppression and conciliation, while to write one has to display “what you think to be the truth about human relations, morality, sex.”
My reaction at the time was: Doesn’t apply to me. It was understandable that Woolf, born in 1882, had been intimidated by the Angel ideal, prominent in Victorian poetry and sentimental novels, but to me that ideal was absurd. I was 19; it was the early 1980s. The second wave of feminism had transformed the culture, and women and niceness no longer necessarily went together. There were women on campus with shaved heads or green, spiked hair; there were rugged women athletes and pro-porn activists; the era’s patron saint was Madonna.
But time — 20, 30 years — went by, and I went from being a student to a single working woman to a married working woman to a stay-at-home mother in the suburbs. Those changes in status, I saw, had changed me. Motherhood in particular gave me an appreciation for the value of “nice” — patience, softness, nurture, and, yes, self-sacrifice. Living in a small, tight-knit community made me want to be seen as agreeable and a good neighbor. I liked to think I in fact was patient, nurturing, agreeable, and a good neighbor. I’d spent a couple of decades building up my kinder, gentler persona, while at the same time daily sitting down to my computer to write about sex and/or people who thought and did things that were sometimes very peculiar or ugly. I had managed for a long time to keep these two sides of my life from having much to do with each other. My first novel, about an antisocial man with severely obsessive-compulsive habits, must have tipped off my neighbors that I was thinking about more all day than feeding the kids and folding the laundry, or even the local school board elections. But in part because the novel was published by a very small press and sold in limited quantities, I was able to continue to be the woman in the red-and-white house who’d written, well, something or other.
Woolf wrote that “when I came to write I encountered her [the Angel] with the very first words. The shadow of her wings fell on my page…” I suppose I should be grateful that my Angel cast her shadow not during composition, but during the strange limbo between completion and publication. Surely this is cultural progress. Yet I’m startled at how relevant Woolf’s words remain, despite the example of so many women writers who in past years have opened up the possibilities for writing about sex. After Woolf (who never did write much directly about women’s bodies), there were Mary McCarthy, Anaïs Nin, Edna O’Brien, and Erica Jong, among many others. In recent months, Jamie Quatro’s story collection, I Want to Show You More, and Alissa Nutting’s novel, Tampa, have made waves for their powerful depictions of women and desire. My reticence, my fear of departing from the Angel ideal, feels almost silly in light of such examples. But the Angel ideal must run very deep in many of us, not excluding those who in our youth were smugly convinced we were immune to it.
I want to be clear that I am in no way mocking or belittling the Angel ideal. In fact I have a great respect for it. It’s now clear to me now that Woolf wasn’t mocking the Angel either. When I reread “Professions for Women” recently, I discovered that I had seriously misremembered it. I’d recalled that Woolf put her hands around the Angel’s neck and strangled her. In fact she simply says that she flung her inkpot at her. We don’t even hear the thud of impact. Yet Woolf otherwise uses the strongest possible language, saying that “the struggle was severe,” that “had I not killed her she would have killed me,” that, left to live, the Angel “would have plucked the heart out of my writing.” I suspect that Woolf couldn’t bring herself to be graphic about the imagined killing because the Angel is, in fact, an angel and not a devil. Even Virginia Woolf saw the beautiful side of the ideal; she lovingly embodied it in the vivid Mrs. Ramsay of To the Lighthouse. I can’t read that novel without wanting to be Mrs. Ramsay — calm and competent, beloved, the arranger of marriages, the felt center of the family — far more than I want to be Lily Briscoe, the novel’s solitary, fretful artist. There is a place and a role for the Angel in the House, even if her perfections are unattainable, and I feel unapologetic about spending good part of my adult life aiming to be more like her.
But, like Woolf, I also sit down each day and try to tell what I “think to be the truth about human relations, morality, sex.” Thanks to her and others, I can have it both ways, because, in the 21st century, the Angel need not be quite so ethereal and self-denying, and the public has a far greater tolerance — not to say appetite — for the sexually frank. There will always be neighbors ready to make thoughtless comments, or people who consider a frank book to be smut, but I don’t risk public ostracism of the sort Edna O’Brien details in her new memoir, Country Girl, or (as far as I know) divorce.
After admitting to some of the handwringing detailed above, I told my Tin House editor that I was fine with the proposed cover, but of course it wasn’t all Zen from there on. That became evident when the image was finalized and I made it my profile picture on Facebook. Not being all that Facebook savvy, I didn’t realize that this meant my new cover would pop up in the News Feeds of my however many Facebook Friends. All of a sudden people were “liking” the cover and commenting on it left and right — positive things, but I had peeled back another layer of protection and subterfuge. The same exposed feeling was roused again and again as more people saw the image or heard about the book, but I know now that this was merely the continuation of a kind of coming-out that had started well before, when my agent and I came up with the title The Virgins — no, earlier, when I’d sought out my agent in the first place. I wanted to be published again, after all; that is to say, from the beginning there was a desire to let others once more into my private imaginative world. Like the girl on my cover — like the girl in my story — I was presenting myself to be seen. Look, I said. And later: But don’t look. Look. Don’t look. Look…Does the toggling ever end?
I doubt it.
A good friend of mine recently sent me an email with the subject line, “so so great.” The body of the email was just a link to a speech Jeffrey Eugenides gave to the 2012 Whiting Award winners. I immediately read the speech and felt the kind of pristine calm one experiences in the face of lucid wisdom. I wrote my friend back, “Wow. That is fucking excellent.” A few minutes later I tweeted it, because somehow I’ve become a person who tweets (it’s not a source of pride). My tweet: “Absurdly good advice for a writer, however difficult to follow,” and then the link. A friend of sorts, a fellow writer, a woman I only know via Twitter, begged to differ. Indulging in almost 280 characters, she wrote, “Eh. This is worthy of coffee discussion. If it was just ‘art’ & not a commodity, writers wouldn’t try to get published. It is a business & J.E. can plant his flag wherever he wants, Oprah’s book club made him so…you have to straddle the line.” We went back and forth, until, rather quickly, the restrictions of Twitter once more proved unbearable. Which eventually led to this.
But okay, what exactly is Eugenides’s “absurdly good advice,” and is it, upon further reflection, in fact “fucking excellent”? Here’s the main bit, which isn’t even his, coming as it does from Nadine Gordimer via Christopher Hitchens: “A serious person should try to write posthumously…one should compose as if the usual constraints — of fashion, commerce, self-censorship, public and, perhaps especially, intellectual opinion — did not operate.” As Eugenides explains, writing as if you’re dead, or as if your writing will only appear after you’re dead, will prevent you from following literary fashion, writing for money, censoring your true feelings, etc., because all these things will “suppress the very promptings that got” the writer “writing in the first place.”
Eugenides argues that the writer’s work initially emerges in the form of a marvelously and necessarily singular “response to the wondrousness and humiliation of being alive.” This act of responding, I believe, is one of translating as well, of taking experience, feeling, and emotion and transposing them into words. To do this remotely well, to find not just any words, but beautiful, meaningful, original words, isn’t so much difficult as it is monumentally improbable. As Eugenides comments, you don’t “know exactly how you did it,” but “miraculously, it worked out.”
I suspect Eugenides uses that last adverb knowingly. Our language forces us to categorize writing as a direct object, “Mary wrote the wonderful story,” no different than we’d say, “Mary threw the red ball.” But Mary and the rest of us writers know it’s hardly ever so simple. Mary may have prepared for this act in all sorts of ways and then summoned up enough determination to sit on her butt for hours, days, weeks or more at her laptop or journal, but ultimately, if we’re talking about something we might justly call “literature” or “art,” then some other agent, some other thing, is involved, too.
Mary wrote the story, but she transcribed it as well. She managed, against all odds, to hear this not-yet verbal thing inside her, and she managed, against all odds once more, to give it the kind of sustained, careful attention that let it expand and solidify so that she might name it and in this way make it available to the world beyond her. We have a number of names for this other thing — a gift, talent, the muse, inspiration — each of which points to a slightly different feature from a slightly different perspective. But however we think about it, I’d claim that it’s both Mary and not Mary at the same time. It belongs to her, but only sort of. The miracle of becoming a writer is finding a way to receive this other thing inside you, to be an object of some internal thing seeking to give.
Needless to say, it’s awfully easy to destroy this magical conduit. Eugenides uses the language of disease — viruses, immune system, pathogens — to describe what these foreign bodies — praise, money, fame — can do to this delicate, internal pathway. A writer so infected quickly mutates into a version of herself deaf to that internal communication, and thus someone who now creates unrecognizable and, quite likely, bad writing. And so his advice: write like you’re dead, like there’s only you and the writing, as if you cannot possibly receive those other things that sometimes come to a writer and interrupt the main, crucial pathway. Eugenides’s advice, in and of itself, makes profound sense.
But there’s a powerful counterargument that challenges Eugenides’s advice as both simplistic and naïve. And perhaps stemming from a bit of bad faith as well. If the writer has any goals whatsoever beyond just creating a story and storing it in the relative privacy of his hard drive, then other factors necessarily come into play. In other words, if someone aims not just to write, but to get published as well, and not just published, but widely read too (not to mention make enough money to justify spending even more time writing in the future), then the situation — process actually — turns into something a good bit more complicated. And, just to be clear, the honorees in Eugenides’s audience that night (as well as Eugenides himself) are already pursuing these goals, and it’s quite clear that he’s not instructing them (or himself) to hide their work or simply gift it out into the world.
Their work may have first emerged as an instance of pure artistic transcription, but Eugenides is not warning these award winners against allowing it to be transformed into a commodity. Because that’s what happens when you’re reviewed in the Times and interviewed by Terry Gross and endorsing your royalty check. For these other things to happen, especially more than once, for a writer to have what we, perhaps preposterously, call a writing career, the writer has no choice but to open himself to all manner of potentially pathogenic foreign bodies: deadlines, an agent’s recommendation, an editor’s requests, the faceless and inexplicable demands of the folks from marketing and sales — all of which are intertwined with the latest intellectual, cultural, and industry trends. Writing might initially happen in a vacuum, but books emerge and live somewhere very different. To ignore all this is at best wishful thinking and at worse self-sabotage.
Eugenides’s decision to ignore this vast reality is less troubling than another feature of his advice: that it comes from the Pulitzer Prize winner himself. After all, Eugenides can write inside his make-believe casket and enjoy the spectacle of his well-attended funeral, too. Moreover, there are publishers willing to give him — I’m guessing with supreme confidence here — a six or seven figure advance for the results of his pseudo-posthumous efforts. Eugenides’s enormous success surrounds his advice with a seductive aura, as it’s virtually impossible to agree with him without mistaking his advice for a roadmap leading to all those things he tells us not to write toward in the first place: money, fame, relevance, etc.
If you think I’ve got this wrong, ask yourself: would this advice sound equally compelling were it to come (with equal eloquence, of course) from, say, me? I’ve done okay, but you can be sure my publisher hasn’t invested in a billboard plastered with my likeness to promote my new book. Might it be possible that we are most attracted to the implicit counterclaim in Eugenides’s advice? Resist worrying about the results of your actions, take it from me, someone whose results are the stuff of your wildest dreams. Eugenides has made it to the far, coveted side of every pitfall he tells these writers to avoid: he’s wealthy, he’s popular, and he’s taken quite seriously, too. He’s not bemoaning his success, nor even instructing these young writers not to want the same, he’s merely telling them not to write with their coveting in mind. Which, again, makes it more than possible for us to conclude that the best way to get all that stuff is to write as if you don’t care about it.
Still, this doesn’t mean that his advice is bad. But perhaps he should have reminded his audience not to mistake a necessary condition with a sufficient one. Writing like you’re dead may safeguard your work against deformation and plain, old-fashioned suckiness, but diligently writing from the subterranean cooler of your own private morgue hardly ensures you of finding an agent, a publisher, a sizable advance, or a spot on any Best of The Year lists. Because here’s a longer (but likely still incomplete) list of the other necessary conditions: oversized talent, industrial-strength persistence, endless patience, unwavering discipline, and, perhaps most of all, at least a few healthy doses of luck and good fortune. Those 2012 Whiting award winners? Gifted and promising, every last one. But we all know that the chances of even one of them having a career rivaling Eugenides’s are not great. After all, it’s a rough business, and, yes, it is a business.
So maybe this is what Eugenides is ultimately telling us (or should have told us): true, it’s a business, and true, we have writing careers, but it’s deadly to think about any of that while you’re actually writing. This strikes me as absolutely sage advice, especially in regards to the writing of that first draft. We all call it different things (the muse, inspiration, the gift), but by any name it’s fragile and fleeting and not exactly ours. You must write like you’re dead, because otherwise that essentially mystical thing will simply hide, rendering you a lost, helpless hack.
Here’s what Eugenides should have added by way of closing: the so-called writer has to wear all sorts of hats: writer, reader, editor, negotiator, businessman, self-promoter, etc. And only the first of these hats should never be worn outside one’s private necropolis. The next two have the odd responsibility of communing — patiently, cautiously, and courageously — with the dead self. The rest must find of way of coming to terms with life among the living. In the end, the task of the writer with any ambitions in that world (i.e. our world) is to first write like you’re dead and then do whatever you can to bring this writing to as many readers as possible without, paradoxically, draining it of its miraculous life.