Some of you may know that I’m currently up to my ears in grad school applications. Luckily, posting on The Millions has a salutary effect on me, and also, I just finished a book, so I need to write about it. Jamesland opens with Alice, great-granddaughter of philosopher William James, having an odd waking dream of a deer in her house. Alice fixates on the deer as a portent of a coming change in her life, and the very next day her life begins to change slowly and inexorably. The book does not dwell on the supernatural, though it does have a bemused dialogue with the otherworldly throughout. Mostly it is about three forty-somethings whose social and professional lives are deteriorating and reconfiguring. I’d call it a mid-life crisis, but these characters have that quality, peculiar to Californians, of being youthful, unserious adults. The book is mostly set on the East Side of Los Angeles in neighborhoods that I know well. It was great to read a book that addresses a somewhat larger Los Angeles than usual. Movie stars are around, and Hollywood is nearby, but they are just parts of the great stew of the city, things that are noticed but after a while not accorded any greater importance than things like Griffith Park or the LA River. The only other book that I have read that successfully turns LA’s flashy side into just another bit of peripheral scenery is T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain. Huneven is well-known in Los Angeles as the food critic for the LA Weekly, and the way she writes about food in this book is magnificent. Pete (who along with Helen, a modern sort of minister, are the other two wayward adults) is a former near-celebrity chef who is recovering from a nervous breakdown, suicide attempt combo. His character is both abrasive and charming, the type of person who makes you nervous the moment he steps into the room. As he coaxes himself back into the functioning world, he takes up cooking again, and this is the venue for Huneven’s descriptions of foods. It was nice to see that Huneven did not place this book firmly in the world of food and restaurants in the way that many writers tend to crib from their day jobs. Instead, Huneven manages to weave her knowledge skillfully into the larger narrative. The book itself is a rather satisfying meal, best taken over a few languorous days on a sunny balcony or sitting on a park bench.
I must’ve been terribly annoying when I was twenty.Infuriating and insufferable, I was so sure I knew all I needed to know about music and literature. One could document my tunnel-vision with loads of examples, but two stand out in my mind. The first was musical. At the time, my knowledge of The Kinks was minimal, a handful of hits that everyone knew, and which I liked, but which really didn’t even hint at the genius of Ray Davies’ songwriting. Then my friend Doug, presumably fed up with my hesitation, forced some tapes on me, and then patiently waited. Within days I was hooked, searching high and low for LPs about village greens, the British empire, the record-industry money-go-round, and Muswell Hill, along with collections of glorious and sad singles and B-sides, especially from those magical mid 60s to early 70s. The Kinks quickly became my favorite band. My early resistance is incomprehensible to me now, years later – a lifetime removed from those heady college days – as The Kinks remain on top of a very select list. And I find it baffling and more than a little irritating that more people haven’t caught on. People who should know better; people who…So, yes, books. Right. I was getting to the books part. The other instance of my youthful intransigence was literary. My reading at the time consisted of two or three authors. Great ones, to be sure, Kurt Vonnegut and Ernest Hemingway topping the list. But I was closed to everything else. Then – the ambush. I was in Toronto, riding the subway with a friend, (Doug, again) likely in one of my if-it’s-not-Kurt-Vonnegut-then-I’m-not-interested moods, when he pounced. I didn’t see it coming. He took out a paperback and pushed it into my hand, pointed to a passage and commanded me to read. Smart really, I tend to shrink from public confrontation, especially with someone seven inches taller than me, so a crowded subway would mean I wouldn’t, couldn’t put up a fight. Plus… you know… witnesses. Before I knew it I was reading colorful, vibrant narration and dialogue so explosively funny and sarcastic and bawdy that I couldn’t put it down.That writer was J.P. Donleavy, and his novel, The Onion Eaters, was the first time I heard his unique voice. I soon lapped up the first dozen of his books – novels, mostly, but also a short story collection and some other oddities.Brooklyn-born, Bronx-raised, the Irish-American James Patrick Donleavy wound up studying the sciences in Dublin and, except for some time in England, he pretty much remained in Ireland ever since. An accomplished painter and a trained boxer, his first novel, The Ginger Man, was an audacious debut. Published fifty years ago, this comic romp tells the story of Sebastian Dangerfield, rogue and scholar, an American studying at Trinity College, Dublin, and modeled loosely on one of Donleavy’s fellow expat American chums. Dangerfield has a wife and child, a friend, Kenneth, who shares his love of drink, debts piling up and an insatiable appetite for life.There’s a wonderful 45-minute audio interview from 1988 with Donleavy looking back on his work, and in particular to the remarkable back-story of The Ginger Man’s publication that resulted in a 25-year lawsuit. Turned down by 45 publishers, The Ginger Man finally found a home at the Paris-based Olympia Press, publisher of equally edgy Jean Genet and Henry Miller. But, rather than treating Donleavy as one of their genuine authors, Olympia Press published The Ginger Man as if it were the work of one of their pseudonymous porno-writers, of which they had many. When Donleavy subsequently accepted proper publication elsewhere and became noted, the writs were served. Twenty five years later it was settled. Donleavy won, and… wait for it… wound up taking ownership of Olympia Press!The Ginger Man is probably the best starting point for the neophyte, but once you’ve finished that, and if the ribald tale hasn’t offended your sensibilities, I highly recommend the woefully overlooked A Fairy Tale Of New York, probably my favorite Donleavy novel.Meet Cornelius Christian, orphan, Brooklyn-born and Bronx-raised, returning to New York as he closes in on thirty, after a decade of cultivation and education overseas. He arrives by ship, but, sadly, his wife died during the voyage. It’s at this point that the story begins. Cornelius is bereaved, penniless and in debt to the Vine funeral home. The stuff of comedy, no? Well, indeed, this is one of the funniest comic novels I’ve read. Vine takes a shine to Cornelius and offers him a job. Cornelius, the returning American, erudite, sophisticated, polite, gratefully accepts. This is a pattern that develops – Cornelius, taken under the wing of an American success; though he himself is never as convinced of his own future as his mentor seems to be. It happens again, later, when a captain of industry, impressed by Cornelius’ breeding and forthrightness, hires him as a sort of ideas-brainstormer. Cornelius, however, is never quite what others presumed that he would be.The women in his world also cling to some preconceived notion of what this man is all about, and when his true nature comes out, they accuse him of failing to meet their expectations. He’s no saint – a terrible drunk, a reluctant fighter who nevertheless has fists-at-the ready, his honesty which endeared him to others when sober, offends them when he’s drunk.A Fairy Tale of New York began as a play in the early 60s, then Donleavy recast it as a novel a dozen years later. It doesn’t feel theatrical or stagy, though. If anything, there’s a cinematic sweep to the narrative. Many chapters begin with an overhead shot of New York, then through a succession of descriptive fragments, pull down to the neighborhood, to the room, to Cornelius. And then, like a camera panning over the scene, we read:Vine guiding Christian by the arm. Past the chapel’s open gothic arched door. Four candles burning inside the blue glassed golden topped tabernacle on the altar.Behind it all is New York – a booming, post-war New York. But Cornelius is running at a different speed. He’s searching for “someone with faith in his nobility.” But everyone else has his own agenda. You might be wonderful, they tell him, but can you sell it? A disappointment to others, he himself grows weary of the rat race: “No one will ever give you two indifferent minutes out of their lives to save twenty five million desperate ones in your own.”An optimist at the outset, his optimism is being steadily chipped away, and he can’t shake feeling like an interloper. An American seeing America with fresh overseas eyes, he’s looked upon with suspicion. He’s a lightning rod, attracting America’s mid-century fears and attitudes, constantly met with “you’re not a subversive, are you” as he goes about politely tending to his affairs.Like most of Donleavy’s work, the language, especially the first-person ruminations and the dialogue that weave with the narration, is ribald, lusty, profane. But scathingly honest.So if you like a cracking good tale of an educated rascal with an appetite for life, intertwined with social satire, do yourself a favor and delve into Donleavy. Yes, I suppose I’m still as sure of myself as I ever was. The only difference is that when I was twenty, I only thought I was right. Whereas now, well, I really am right! And I might just have to ambush you on a subway or show up at your doorstep and force you, with gunpoint guerilla tactics, to take that first step.There are new rumors of a film version of The Ginger Man with Johnny Depp as Sebastian Dangerfield. And Donleavy recently shared a drink with, and was serenaded by, the great Shane MacGowan, who you may have guessed by now is a Donleavy fan. It’s no accident that the wonderful Pogues song is called “A Fairytale of New York.”Donleavy celebrated his 80th birthday this year, on April 23 – a birthday, incidentally, that he shares with those two pillars of literature: William Shakespeare and… well… me.J.P. Donleavy remains one of the overlooked heroes of twentieth century literature, still going strong. Lord of the manor of his sprawling Irish estate, he’s still writing and still in fighting shape. The country gentleman with the mean left hook.
In meme parlance: life comes at you fast. Perhaps that sentiment is so retweeted and relatable because it always feels true. Time is elastic, defiant of the order we pretend to impose, the past simultaneously whispering in our ear and calling long-distance, a continent away. Joan Didion wrote that we are “well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.” I have ghosts that visit every time I taste tequila or enter a room with faux-wood paneling, whose reappearances often coincide with tales of bad sex or bad choices or a sort of drunken, desperate ambition I often see in women between 18 and 25 with artistic temperaments.
It’s uncanny to slip as thoroughly into a character as I did with Jaracaranda Leven in Eve Babitz’s Sex and Rage, published in 1979 and reissued this summer by Counterpoint Press. The novel follows a young Angeleno, progeny of the Hollywood relatively-elite, as she fumbles with varying degrees of elegance through relationships and self-discovery, art-making and rent-paying. It is the story, really, of one’s 20s, or at least the kind I’ve had, wherein the clashes of reality and desire can lead to spectacular and terrifying confrontations with the chasm that divides them.
It would be foolish to ignore the differences—her West Coast upbringing vs. my North Carolina one, where I was more prone to encounter a screened porch than a screenwriter; her inherent ease with boys and men, which I feigned (poorly) until I could hide in my room with a notebook to exorcise my insecurities. We share more superficial things in common, though: an interest in books, a dicey relationship with alcohol, a scramble throughout our 20s to find meaning and fulfillment in unconventional, often fruitless ways. By the time I finished the online synopsis, I was already sniffing out the novel like a bloodhound, eager to meet a character that felt so particular but could be a stand-in for many young and reckless women like me, members of the Church of Reformed Libertines.
I picked up the novel just when I’d reached an odd détente with the city of San Francisco, about 390 miles north of Jacaranda’s native bars and surf breaks. I’d resigned myself to spending 46 percent of my take-home pay to live in an apartment two hours by train and bus from work in academic publishing. I’d effortfully carved out a niche of people who didn’t ask to meet for $15 cocktails, who read Clarice Lispector, and occasionally fed me at our Dungeons & Dragons games. I had the perilous sense that I had built a life for myself, but that it could shift with the next mass exodus of good friends, the price of the incumbent repairs on the car with the failing brakes. Unwilling to work in tech, tired of being hamstrung by the intermittent medical bill, I applied for a few gigs in a place I’d rejected for its West Coast opposite: New York.
Sex & Rage’s Jacaranda, reckoning with her alcoholism, exudes a similar reticence when faced with a voyage east. Recently launched from “the barge,” a cluster of high-rolling partiers who slept with, shit-talked, and enabled one another, she writes, “There seemed no place to go, after fourteen [gin, lemon, and egg-white] White Ladies, but into a spin that fell out of the sky, a smashed victim of impending gravity.” I thought of a particular summer, a night with cocaine and a blood ritual and the bruises I accrued by morning, outward tattoos that weren’t so different from the smashed way I felt inside, writing down my sins in the wood-paneled room. “She was lucky,” Babitz writes. “…because most of the girls they used for local color died before they were thirty.” A fateful encounter with an East Coast literary agent named Janet Wilton accelerates Jacaranda’s writing career from piecemeal freelance work to a book deal, and she’s faced with potential that’s almost as terrifying as its wanton, boozy opposite.
Babitz structures the novel such that its bulk occurs on Jacaranda’s sun-drenched home turf, in which she’s imagining the numerous ways her departure could end in tragedy. Live in coastal California long enough (about three years, personally) and it imprints on you—its languor and the subtlety of its seasons, the tendency towards liberality and the fringes. Even if Jacaranda and I spent most of our nights in bed with wine and cats, often both, I feel I know her enough to say that she, like me, felt she belonged on that furthest edge. What would a “Goodbye to All That” look like in reverse? Probably a long toke in Dolores or Griffith Park, and then a “meh” when someone asked what you thought of all that hustle & bustle, the concrete and steel. Maybe something more stringent. “She began feeling an even finer-tuned rage against material East Coast diamondy objects,” Babitz writes, and as soon as I read it, I thought about the visceral nausea I felt on a visit to Times Square.
This is a façade, though, especially in a place that contains multitudes. There are wide swaths of the western-most state that would rather ship out the homeless than care for them; rent is cheaper in Brooklyn than it is in San Francisco, and I have the anecdotal evidence to prove it. Who are we not to allow ourselves success, even if there is a part of us that bucks the conventional way, the one that would bring us less grief? “Up until this point,” Babitz writes, “it didn’t seem as though she was debauched at all, but the truth was that while she believed in being a washed-up piece of driftwood on the shore, she also believed in bold adventuresses, cigarettes, and suffered from one too many of anything.”
The novel’s most interesting section takes place when Jacaranda boards the plane, when she goes from spinning her wheels in a rut to launching herself forward, full speed. Babitz’s prose mirrors her new sobriety, both clear-eyed and frenzied. When she runs into Max, a beloved member of the barge with whom her romantic involvement was both vague and intense, Jacaranda has a revelation. “And once again [she] felt the aching waves roll over her from wanting what she couldn’t have. She couldn’t afford Max,” Babitz writes. “That much truth cost too much.” She doesn’t fall for the city like she fell for Max—she admires its glitter and lets herself feel simultaneously exhausted and enamored. She acknowledges its faults and sees its winsomeness, her affair with Manhattan an ember in contrast to roman candles like Max, like Colman or Gilbert or Etienne or Shelby before him.
Jacaranda and I were and are privileged white women with the bailouts and resources to fuck up many times between the achievements that buoyed us from year to year. Self-destruction can seem sexy until you’ve sobered up and seen how much easier it is to lay low—pay your rent on time, spend less on ibuprofen, allow yourself the simple pleasure of being good and thorough at your work. I think Jacaranda learned that, by the end of Sex and Rage, when she boards the plane back to L.A., having proven to herself that she could take a leap of faith, bet on her own will. I’m sitting in the July heat in Crown Heights, a black cat who’s the analogue of Jacaranda’s beloved Emilio splayed on the wood floor, with no return ticket to the place I thought suited me best. Finding your fictional parallel can be uncanny, but it can also be a reflection that brings your blemishes and beauty into a different relief. The future isn’t clear, it stands on shaky, sober legs, but here is the money I did not spend on rent. I’m placing my bets.
It is an innocent train ride, full of the banal chatter we save for our post-work hours, until my coworker Marthine pulls out her phone and shows me a video of her laughing son. At what she calls the “sweet spot,” those tender months between squalling and teething, Arun (whose name refers to the dawn in Sanskrit) glimpses himself in the mirror and chortles, drool pooling between his lips and chin. He is as smitten with himself as the world is with him. He observes himself; he loves what he sees. We observe him; we love what we see.
There is a portion at the end of Belle Boggs’s The Art of Waiting in which, as she’s holding her infant at home, a mason says, “Imagine if there was only one baby in the whole world…Wherever that baby was, we’d put down our things and go see it.” “You’re right,” she says. “I’d go.” At 26, newly struck with baby fever, I would be there in line, craning my neck to behold.
I can’t point to the moment that it started, and yet it accrues every day, the inverse of my bank account. The way I accuse men of thinking with their penises, I’ve begun thinking with my ovaries — sidelined by tiny outfits, ogling at babies on Instagram, indulging vague daydreams about pregnancy clothes worn with wide-brimmed straw hats. I am an unfit mother: a smoker, a shopper, a too-frequent cheese eater, and bill forgetter. I inhabit (with my husband) a tiny one-bedroom in the most expensive city in the country, where we can barely afford our square footage. I’ve over-drafted my bank account buying cat food. I’ve celebrated the arrival of my period in college with cake and champagne, bought anxiety-inducing pregnancy tests at the pharmacy with nail polish and cheap beer. And yet; and yet.
“It’s spring when I realize I may never have children,” Boggs opens the first chapter, this forthrightness setting a precedent for the rest of the memoir. The Art of Waiting delves directly into the process of assisted reproductive technology (ART) in all its pre- and mis-conceptions, its prose like a sledgehammer cracking through drywall. She probes beyond the clinical terminology and atmosphere of the doctor’s office and takes as her subjects cicadas and gorillas, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, and Raising Arizona. She sees motherhood everywhere, like I do: it’s inescapable, especially because we do not have it.
In a book that could easily become insular, instead the reader finds Boggs’s considered, holistic approach, wherein she covers families of numerous formations and facets — different races, socioeconomic categories, and world views pepper this intelligent and insightful treatise on fertility, medicine, and motherhood, which spans years of Boggs’s life and years of research on childbearing, its successes, and its failures. Science meets narrative; the global meets the personal; the reader meets the author, or at least feels that way, a knowing closeness that builds with every revelation and dispersal of personal, painful fact. The world of reproduction is hardly beautiful, with its sanitized wands, needles, and oocytes, and yet we’re privy to it, as if standing next to the stirrups.
We’re privy, too, to stories that vary dramatically from Boggs’s. There are her mentors, professors, and friends who choose to forgo children in favor of careers and lives of artistry. There is Virginia Woolf, who writes, feeling euphoric after completing The Waves, “Children are nothing to this.” There are gay couples facing rampant discrimination. There are her friends who adopt from overseas, and face the harrowing knowledge that their black child will live an entirely different life in their mountain community because of the color of his skin, the story of his origins.
Perhaps the most important lesson that The Art of Waiting imparted was its insistence on the long game; that the things worth wanting are worth waiting for, and that impatience is a tax we pay for arriving at our fateful conclusions. There’s a decided sense of fatedness about the entire book, a necessary corollary for a treatise on building a family. Who are we meant to be, and in relation to whom? Is a struggle with infertility a sign that we’re meant to walk a different path? Is resisting the body’s futility an act of bullheadedness, foolhardy? Boggs, who describes herself as non-religious, persists, questioning every phase of intrauterine insemination (IUI), the consideration of adoption, and eventually of in-vitro fertilization (IVF). The result is ultimately a baby — Beatrice — but the question lingers, essential to the book: if we’re always in the process of becoming, what are we meant to become? What if that end isn’t the one we had in mind?
Boggs aptly describes the arduousness of ART without writing an arduous narrative — she spares no detail, be it negotiating insurance coverage with a cut-rate pharmacy or injecting herself with one of many medicines each cycle. These details never become drudgery. They’re an inherent and interesting part of the narrative of modern pregnancy. It’s easy to forget, amidst the deftness of Boggs’s prose, that this book depicts a clinical process.
The experience of child-rearing, of adoption, of infertility, impacts more than just the person at their center, despite the feelings of isolation they bring about. Mr. Cheek, the aforementioned mason, embodies this knowledge. “He knew something bigger, more profound,” Boggs writes. “Each baby is born not just to her parents, but to the world surrounding her. To neighbors, friends, teachers, enclosure mates. To ex-cons and allomothers and cousins and grandmothers, who will each want a peek and will each have some impact.” The same could be said of unintended childlessness; in the void created by such powerful wanting, whole communities are implicated.
I pass babies in their carriages on my street and sometimes we lock eyes, as if my desire is transparent. Round-headed and wide-eyed, taking in the new world, they take me in, and I take them in right back, pining for something I’m too sacrilegious or jaded to call a miracle. Meanwhile, I care for my cats. I love my husband. I yearn, and I scheme, and I imagine what fate will deal me next year, or the year after that. In the present, I am only a collection of wants, imagining what it’s like to shape the destiny of a tiny, malleable being.
“Keep trying. Be content. How do you reconcile those two messages?” Boggs writes in her epilogue. She has no exact answers; this is not a textbook. Rather, it’s a primer on waiting and wanting, something we’re arguably always doing, whether it’s for the end of the workday or whatever missing piece we feel might complete us, for whatever unknowable reasons. We’re waiting for the world to adapt, to accept all forms of family; for our bumbling bodies to perform as we wish; for fate to unfurl like a carpet, its threads and fibers as intricately, tightly woven as our own desires.
Valeria Luiselli signed up for a tough project with The Story of My Teeth. It began as a story commissioned for the catalog of an exhibit in the Galería Jumex, a major contemporary art collection attached to a juice factory outside Mexico City. The purpose of the exhibit, and of her contribution, was to “reflect upon the bridges — or the lack thereof — between the featured artwork, the gallery, and the larger context of which the gallery took part.” So: a story about specific pieces of contemporary art, the art world at large, a juice factory, and an industrial neighborhood of which one of Luiselli’s characters says, “If there is a physical materialization of nothingness in this world, it is Ecatepec de Morelos.”
As if this weren’t challenging enough, Luiselli then decided to serialize her story to be read in the Jumex factory so that it would be “not so much about but for the factory workers.” The workers allowed Galería Jumex staff to record their discussions about what they’d read, and Luiselli recycled bits of those conversations in her novel. Oh, and one more thing: she did all this under a male pseudonym. Specifically, she did it as Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, which is her protagonist’s name.
At this point you’re probably laughing. You probably think that this sounds like performance art, which it might be, or like an MFA candidate’s anxiety-induced nightmare. But the thing is, Luiselli pulls it off. The Story of My Teeth is a great read. The writing is equal parts elegant and chatty, with a great sense of humor. It’s full of Big Ideas but never feels like a lecture. It’s episodic, a bit skittery, but has plenty of forward momentum. Luiselli never lingers too long in a section, or in one of Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez’s many anecdotes or digressions into the theory of auctioneering.
Highway announces early in the book that he is the inventor of a new method of auctioneering: the allegoric method. This makes him “not just a lowly seller of objects but, first and foremost, a lover and collector of good stories, which is the only honest way of modifying the value of an object. End of declaration.” Later, he explains to a young writer that “What auctioneers auction, in the end, are just names of people, and maybe words. All I do is give them new content.” In other words, he lies, and people buy. Draw connections to the art world as you will.
A lot of The Story of My Teeth is Luiselli letting the reader draw connections as he or she will. The book is littered with literary references. As a child, Highway works at Ruben Darío Jr.’s newsstand and helps Darío’s wife conceal her affair with a certain Mr. Unamuno. His next-door neighbor is Mr. Cortázar. His relatives all have names like Juan Sánchez Baudrillard and Miguel Sánchez Foucault. There are so many references that the book ends with a timeline put together by Christina MacSweeney, Luiselli’s translator, bringing them all together. (Yes, the book is a collaboration with her translator as well as the Jumex workers.) It can feel a bit like Roberto Bolaño circa The Savage Detectives, listing off all the Infra-Realists and their enemies, or like going to a party full of name-dropping jerks. The difference is that Luiselli doesn’t want you to take her names seriously.
Some of the names are jokes, like Highway’s cousin Juan Pablo Sánchez Sartre, who “couldn’t hold his drink [and] would inevitably tell us — around the time when the dessert was being served — that we were hell.” Some are shout-outs, like the bonsai store owned by Alejandro Zambra, the Chilean writer who published a novel called Bonsai in 2006 and whose most recent collection, My Documents, includes a story in which Valeria Luiselli is a character. And all of them, as Highway says, are just names of people. Assign them value or don’t. If you do, you might be getting tricked, or ripped off. On the other hand, who cares if you got tricked if you enjoyed the story?
The Story of My Teeth is a novel full of tricks and lies. Highway’s not exactly a reliable narrator, or a reliable auctioneer. He sells his own teeth as the teeth of Saint Augustine and Virginia Woolf. But, of course, all novels are full of tricks and lies. That’s what fiction is. And as Highway would have it, stories — or, you know, tricks and lies — are the only honest way to modify the value of an object. Not just an object. At the novel’s climax, Highway auctions himself to his son. He modifies his own value. Maybe that’s what fiction is, too: a way to make ourselves valuable. And you can’t blame a writer, or an auctioneer, for that.