Anyone who has made a living sitting in a cubicle has at one time or another wondered if there is more to life than pushing the proverbial pencils. These second thoughts are central to our existence as working folk. Often, when that meeting has dragged on an hour to long or when the boss is peppering you with inane suggestions, you wonder what it would be like to do something that really matters. Absolutely American by David Lipsky is about a group of people, West Point cadets, who have decided to or been thrust into a profession that, in the eyes of the government and much of the population, really matters. Their concerns are not the cubicle but of hewing to countless regulations, eight-mile road marches in full gear, and ultimately sending people into battle one day. According to Lipsky’s introduction, he went to West Point, the military academy that trains army officers, to write an article for Rolling Stone, and he eventually found himself fascinated by the enthusiasm he found there. Lipsky ended up spending four years following the cadets. The book reads like a magazine article, and Lipsky’s writing rarely falters. He presents a West Point that is infinitely more complicated than the typical stereotype of the army. It is an Army that is at war with itself internally, as it tries to become more diverse and progressive. The book covers the years 1998 to 2002, so we get to see the transformation that September 11 causes in both the cadets and the army itself. Lipsky’s greatest feat is to make the reader realize that behind the “high and tight” haircuts, the uniform, and the stern demeanor, those who are called to the military are as complicated and conflicted as the rest of us.
This is what happens when I don’t take notes. Two months ago, I sat down to read Yesterday’s People, a collection of eight short stories by Goran Simic. Born in Bosnia, Simic was already a noted author and poet when he immigrated to Canada ten years ago. I decided to write about these spare, haunting and haunted stories, many of them about life in Sarajevo in the mid 90s. But for reasons that now completely mystify me, I wasn’t making notes, which would have been fine had I begun writing this immediately. Two months and three or four novels later, I began to write and I hit a brick wall.While I remembered the images and the tone of the stories, damned if I could remember any names, or specific details. And the images that I did remember were beginning to blend into each other. I was in a haze. I had been immersed in that world. And then I was out. I had shifted through time and space into other worlds. I was in Jonathan Lethem’s Brooklyn, then in Stephen Clarke’s contemporary Paris, and most memorably I was amongst Balzac’s characters in 1800s Loire Valley, as drunk on his words as I would be if I’d been one of his wine growers in the French countryside. The images of the Bosnian war had been overshadowed. I could never do them justice.So I began to re-read. I cracked open Simic’s collection and dove back in, revisiting the characters, and the horrors of war, and the resourcefulness and resilience of spirit that had moved me the first time.I revisited Nina. We were back in Sarajevo, during the war. A gothic wild west of thievery and morgues, where “we were all slowly going mad.” Nina and our narrator shared a past, and our narrator now spots her amongst the people lining up for water, “a shadow of what she used to be.”In “Minefield,” volunteer soldiers protect a ravine. Their initial Rambo bravado is shattered when one of them blows himself up with a grenade. They grow up fast. They begin doing deals with the other side: “as time passed and our ammunition dwindled, we shot less and swore more.” It’s trench warfare except the two sides volley benign insults and supplies. And then grim reality throws them a curve.In “The Story Of Sinan” we see the early days of the war when “we thought it all a brief private nightmare that the world had nothing to do with.” We meet Sinan whose daily routine has been inconvenienced by the war. To him, it’s an annoyance. He’s a gambler and carouser who lives by his wits. (He tells women, when he’s through with them, that his wife has been released unexpectedly from prison though she was supposed to have served five more years for murdering his ex-mistress). Then another curve, this time a sudden and unexpected act of kindness and selflessness.And as I re-read Yesterday’s People I noticed something that I hadn’t really picked up on the first time. I noticed that the stories are not just about Bosnians – then. They’re also about Canadians – now. In every story, a character either escapes to Canada or someone linked to him does. Sometimes the stories are actually written from the point of view of someone here, now, flashing back to his life there, then. There are photos throughout the stories, snapshots of the narrator’s past. The stories are about memory, about trying to remember and trying to forget. They’re about one’s tenuous link to one’s history. They’re war stories that don’t end in the trenches or in the long line-ups for water. They don’t end when the shooting stops. They’re brought up to date through the memory of the narrator. They’re immigrant stories.
New York City, 1924: the Volstead Act has spawned a thriving bootlegging industry, jazz throbs from secret speakeasies, the hemlines are scandalous, and girls are bobbing their hair. The world has changed so rapidly that even some of the young are disoriented. Rose, Suzanne Rindell’s narrator, is a straitlaced young woman who was raised by nuns. She views the excesses of the jazz age from afar and with some suspicion. Rose understands that some people have the luxury of risking the wild freedoms of this new era, and others don’t. She has an orphan’s understanding of the precariousness of her place in the world. She follows the rules.
In early adulthood, she’s built a respectable life for herself: she’s employed as a typist at a police station in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where she sits in on confessions and types up reports, and goes home in the evenings to a boarding house. She is extraordinarily competent in her work — 160 WPM on a manual typewriter? Okay, fine, it’s fiction — and cautious in her day-to-day life.
The other typist is Odalie. When she appears for a job interview at the station, she exerts a magnetic pull on the others; Rose is mesmerized, as is the sergeant, the lieutenant detective, and everyone else. “There was an excitement in the air around her,” Rindell writes, “an excitement that might include you in some way, as though you were her secret collaborator.”
Rose is wary of “modern girls” like Odalie, with their bob haircuts and their casual entitlement, their way of moving through the city as if the city existed for their amusement. The Other Typist is a chronicle of a woman’s unraveling, but it’s also a subtle examination of economic privilege. The rapidly loosening mores of that time looked like freedom, but the level of risk that comes with freedom is never, of course, the same for everyone. Everyone who frequented the speakeasies of 1920s New York was taking a risk, but some had a net to catch them if they fell, and others didn’t. Rose’s impression that the new era isn’t for people like her doesn’t seem unwarranted.
But for all of Rose’s love of the rules, she has a certain weakness. She introduces herself as an orphan, but technically she isn’t, or at least she wasn’t when she was dropped off at the orphanage as an infant. Rose wasn’t orphaned, she was abandoned by her family, and Rindell expertly suggests the subtle vulnerability that lingers in her as a result. Odalie is a con artist, but in order for a con to work, the dupe has to want to believe. When Odalie turns the full force of her charms on Rose and eventually invites Rose to move in with her, Rose is flattered and grateful enough to ignore her doubts. By the time Rose discovers Odalie’s true business and what she’s doing working at the police station, it’s too late. She is enmeshed, for precisely the same reason that no one thought to ask why a woman of such obvious means as Odalie required employment as a typist in the first place: “I can only say we are all susceptible to blind spots when exposed to the right dazzling flash.”
Given the era, it’s impossible to avoid comparisons between Odalie and Jay Gatsby. Odalie is magnetic, charming, mysteriously wealthy, and engaged in shady business practices. There’s even a climactic party on Long Island. But if anything, Odalie is Gatsby’s mirror image; the trick of Fitzgerald’s character was that while Gatsby was obviously a fraud — James Gatz of North Dakota — he was in some essential sense a better and truer man than the careless and frivolous and perfectly respectable people who used their own names and their own unembellished backstories as they flitted through his life. Odalie is much darker. It isn’t that her charm and beauty and mysterious wealth conceals any malice; in order to feel malice, a person has to care.
There’s a certain amount of unnecessary exposition in the first half of the book, and the novel is hampered at times by a weakness for excessive foreshadowing; in the early chapters especially, there are a great many of those “but little did I know what would come next” asides that do little to move a story forward and that can even suggest a certain — in this case entirely unwarranted — insecurity on the part of the writer. But Rindell is a fine writer, and she’s written a suspenseful and well-executed novel. The Other Typist is an elegant debut.
When Samuel Beckett was a young man, his parents wanted him to work in the family’s accountancy business and assume his place in Dublin’s Protestant merchant class. As Tim Parks writes in his new book, Life and Work: Writers, Readers, and the Conversations between Them, “a battle of wills ensued between mother and son…As the impasse intensified, [Beckett] developed a number of physical symptoms — boils, anal cysts, pelvic pains, tachycardia, panic attacks…” The panic attacks would plague Beckett for years, and his biographer Anthony Cronin tells us, in Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist, that he didn’t reflect on his maladies in a conventional manner. In 1935 he attended a lecture by Swiss psychiatrist and former Freud protégé C.J. Jung. Beckett was 29 years old, in analysis, and believed he suffered from a neurotic disorder that “had its origins in infancy, in a time he could not remember,” Cronin writes.
In the lecture, Jung described the case of a young girl whose difficulties baffled him until he fell upon a simple, though rather esoteric diagnosis: “The girl had never really been born.” The idea immediately fired Beckett’s imagination. Cronin claims it triggered something crucial in Beckett and would become central to his self-understanding, and a recurring motif in his works. Beckett, he writes, “thought the diagnosis was a profoundly suggestive illumination of his own case, his sense of alienation from the world and of not being ready or fitted to cope with it, to join in its activities as others did, or even to understand the reasons for them.”
In Life and Work, Parks writes about Beckett and 19 other writers, including Fyodor Dostoevsky, Georges Simenon, Muriel Spark, Peter Stamm, Haruki Murakami, Stieg Larsson, and E.L. James (Parks examining Fifty Shades of Grey is great fun). Here and there in the collection, one occasionally glimpses the true existential cost of the so-called “writer’s life,” where writing is both an act of self-abnegation — with all of its consequent anxieties — as well as a struggle against such a personalized nihilism.
Parks tells us that after Beckett published the novel Molloy at the age of 45 — finally setting the stage for literary renown after years of “retyping…for rejection,” as Beckett put it — he had his then girlfriend (and later wife) Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil write to his publisher. She requested they do not enter Molloy for the prestigious Prix des Critiques, because the prizewinner would have to schmooze and make speeches, and “it is impossible for the prizewinner, without serious discourtesy, to refuse to go in for the posturings required by these occasions: warm words for his supporters, interviews, photos, etc. etc. And as (Beckett) feels wholly incapable of this sort of behavior, he prefers not to expose himself.” In light of Beckett’s self-diagnosis, it occurs to me that a man who doesn’t exist, a man who isn’t there, can’t be expected to sign books and sip burgundy with a bunch of boring editors and press types.
But this malady isn’t unique to Beckett and his Parisian, mid-century modernist milieu. Julian Barnes had a similar feeling. In his 2008 memoir/treatise on death, Nothing to be Frightened Of, Barnes writes he has a “grown-up fear of just not existing.” Parks believes Barnes is unable to “find consolation for the eventual extinction of his personality… bereft of a reassuring metaphysics and given the findings of science, life this side of the grave is anyway irretrievably devalued, and individual personality doesn’t in fact exist.” For Barnes, it seems to be a rather simple conclusion: If there is no God, then there must be no “me” as well.
Parks suggests we can think of personality as something that emerges vis-à-vis “one’s negotiations with others,” and he notes this has always proved problematic for the South African writer J.M. Coetzee. In examining Coetzee’s autobiographic trilogy, Boyhood, Youth, and Summertime, Parks wonders what happens when you come-of-age in 1940s South Africa — at a time when tribal identification is everything — yet you don’t identify with any one community. In Boyhood the protagonist attends a new school where he must self-declare as Christian, Catholic, or Jewish. The boy is from an Afrikaner family, but they speak English instead of Afrikaans. He is born in a Christian milieu, but his parents are agnostic. Because his family is “nothing,” he randomly chooses Catholic, but this doesn’t work either, leading only to ostracization and disgrace. I wonder, if one is outside of all recognized models of community — as some writers are, or at least feel themselves to be — is it possible to know you really exist?
It’s unlikely that a gnawing sense of being unborn tops the neuroses of most writers these days, but I’d argue that Beckett’s Jungian insight is more commonly known today as anxiety. In the last century, writers largely handled it by drinking. Beckett’s mentor and friend in Paris, a certain genius named James Joyce, was so fond of the drink he had to forbid himself from starting before six o’ clock—but when dark came, he was as game as Hunter S. Thompson.
I think the daily act of sitting alone for hours and purposely conjuring up emotions and disturbing memories — precisely the kinds of things people use Percocet, vodka, food, and Netflix to forget — serves as the ideal petri dish for anxiety. Parks mentions that Barnes and Simenon also suffered from panic attacks. Without doing any real research, I can add the names David Foster Wallace, Philip Roth, Virginia Woolf, John Steinbeck. These are all prose writers, of course. If we begin to add the names of the poets, the list gets real long, real fast.
In his essay on Peter Matthiessen, Parks describes a scene in the novel In Paradise, where “pilgrims” are meditating at Auschwitz in a kind of retreat/holocaust remembrance ritual. Parks writes, “The practice of meditation has the effect of breaking down the ego; in hours of silence, the mind intensely focused on breath and body in the present moment, there is no place for the narrative chatter that feeds the constant construction of the self.” In some ways this is not a bad description of the idealized writing state. I think it would certainly fit a kind of Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones, Zen-inspired, Esalen Institute vision of creative writing. But whereas Zen meditation is about an empty mind, writing fiction requires a full page, and that means cultivating lots of narrative chatter, ultimately pulling you back into yourself.
But just as writing may induce multifarious forms of anxiety, the right words are also a middle finger to the dying of the light. The God of the Old Testament announced himself to Moses with the startling declaration, “I am who I am.” And writing, at its best, is like that: a declaration of existence, an expression of self-hood and — when we’re not shaking with fear as Moses did — a reminder that heaven is not as far from us as it often seems.