Inspired by the recent release of The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, podcaster Len of Jawbone Radio paid a visit to Bill Watterson’s home town, Chagrin Falls, Ohio. He ended up interviewing Watterson’s mom, laying eyes on some original Calvin and Hobbes artwork and sharing some interesting bits of trivia about the beloved strip.
Chin Music Press has put together a nice-looking blog to chronicle the long, lingering aftermath of Katrina in New Orleans:After Katrina and its horrible aftermath, Chin Music Press felt compelled to shine its wobbly flashlight on New Orleans. This effort resulted in our second book, Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans? Along the way, we met a community of passionate, eloquent writers who care deeply about what happens to the Big Easy. This blog became a natural extension of the book. It’s our way of adding voices to the unfolding story of New Orleans.
A friend of mine told me this story. He was sitting in a medical office waiting to get a CAT scan, trying to read Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pnin. He’d started the book some years before, then lost it, found it again, and started over. He didn’t like it all that much (it wasn’t as good as Lolita or Pale Fire, the novels that had driven him to pick it up in the first place), and as he sat there reading in the waiting room, he thought about the CAT scan he was about to undergo. I may have only a few months to live, he thought. Is this the book I want to spend my remaining hours on?
My friend is fine, it turns out. The CAT scan came back normal. But as he told me this story, I thought back to a recent evening when I lay in my bed reading The Pale King, David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel. Like Wallace’s oeuvre in general, the book has some absolutely stunning sections that command your attention and make you feel intensely alive and aware (see chapters 6, 19, 22, or 46, e.g.), along with some that drive you batty with their dullness and perseverating detail.
I was struggling with the long, tedious section in which “David Wallace” is caught in a traffic jam outside the Peoria IRS office. In the next room, my two daughters, five and seven, were not going to sleep. I was getting more and more irritated with them and their demands for water, etc., which kept interrupting me from concentrating on the book.
Underlying my irritation was another anxiety: my sense that here I was, yelling at my kids to go to sleep just so that I could finish reading something that I myself found incredibly boring, a book that I had no practical need to read, a book whose own author had committed suicide before he was able to finish. A precious, irreplaceable moment of my own life was slipping away. I was declining a chance to interact with my children in a more positive way. And why? To read something that might best have been left on the cutting room floor.
I’ve read a fair number of short story collections. In most of them, there’s at least one and usually several stories that seem so clearly inferior to the rest that I have to wonder, Why is this in here? Does the author know that this story is bad? Is it here merely to serve as filler?
These questions remind me of an old Kurt Vonnegut appearance on Charlie Rose in which Vonnegut explains that he has graded all of his own novels. Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five received A pluses. Slapstick got an F. The book he was on the show to plug at the time (I think it was Timequake) was a B minus.
Vonnegut’s admirable candor makes me think that writers must have a sense of the relative merits of their works. Indeed, the placement of mediocre stories in short story collections is usually a good indicator of the grade the writers would give them. Such stories tend to be buried in the middle of the second half of a collection, or sandwiched in between two more successful pieces.
But why publish them at all? Why not spare us readers that experience of feeling that we’re spending finite moments of our lives on something that is less than the best?
Zadie Smith wasn’t addressing these particular questions at the time, but she pointed nevertheless to one answer to them when she wrote that “writers do not write what they want, they write what they can.”
If Vonnegut could have written nothing but A pluses, he would have. He couldn’t, however. No writer can. Yet Vonnegut still had contracts to fulfill, bills to pay. He had to publish books. It was in his job description.
Moreover, I suspect that, for Vonnegut and for most writers, there comes a time when they just need to accept that a novel or a story or a song is as good as it’s going to get, even if it’s not an A plus. The book needs to come out. The collection of stories needs to be a certain length. The writer’s time has been spent on the piece, for good or ill. It might as well see the light of publication as long as someone is willing to publish it. Who knows: some reader or critic might actually like it. Even if no one does, the writer needs to move on to the next story, the next novel.
It’s a delicate calibration. When do we, as writers, accept that a piece is as good as it will ever be, even if it’s not that great? When do we decide that a piece will never be good enough to be published? As readers, when do we decide that a book or a story is simply not going to be worth reading? When do we decide to press on in the face of boredom?
The CAT scan might come back normal, but in the larger sense, we’re all dying anyway. Our lives as writers, as readers, as human beings, will come to an end. What we write, what we read, what we spend our time on—these are incredibly weighty choices, though we may fool ourselves into thinking otherwise.
There’s a danger in perfectionism, in the compulsive attempt to make every novel and story and essay an A plus, or to finish reading everything we start. Yet there’s also a danger in easy abandonment, in the lack of persistence needed to push through the slow parts of War and Peace or Infinite Jest, or in the lack of writerly belief in one’s powers of revision and discovery.
In this way, as in so many others, writing and reading are metaphors for living. In the end, you do the best you can, and then, in one way or another, you let it go and move on.
(Image: fading contrail from dnorman’s photostream)
Last week, the internet buzzed about and puzzled over the newly unveiled cover of Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, forthcoming in September. While Franzen is sure to grab many headlines in the months to come, we’re also intrigued by Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, which also sports a cover with a blue and white color scheme. Along with the cover above, we have the book’s opening paragraphs below. Fates and Furies has so far been cryptically described as “an exhilarating novel about marriage, creativity, art, and perception,” and, as you’ll see, the book wastes no time, uh, introducing us to its protagonists.
Two people were coming up the beach. She was fair and sharp in a green bikini, though it was May in Maine and cold. He was tall, vivid; a light flickered in him that caught the eye and held it. Their names were Lotto and Mathilde.
For a minute they watched a tide pool full of spiny creatures that sent up curls of sand in vanishing. Then he took her face in his hands, kissed her pale lips. He could die right now of happiness. In a vision, he saw the sea rising up to suck them in, tonguing off their flesh and rolling their bones over its coral molars in the deep. If she were beside him, he thought, he would float out singing.
Well, he was young, twenty-two, and they had been married that morning in secret. Extravagance, under the circumstances, could be forgiven.
Her fingers down the back of his trunks seared his skin. She pushed him backward, walking him up a dune covered in beach-pea stalks, down again to where the wall of sand blocked the wind, where they felt warmer. Under the bikini top, her gooseflesh had taken on a lunar blue, and her nipples in the cold turned inward. On their knees, now, though the sand was rough and hurt. It didn’t matter. They were reduced to mouths and hands. He swept her legs to his hips, pressed her down, blanketed her with his heat until she stopped shivering, made a dune of his back. Her raw knees were raised to the sky.
He longed for something wordless and potent: what? To wear her. He imagined living in her warmth forever. People in his life had fallen away from him one by one like dominoes; every movement pinned her further so that she could not abandon him. He imagined a lifetime of screwing on the beach until they were one of those ancient pairs speed-walking in the morning, skin like lacquered walnut meat. Even old, he would waltz her into the dunes and have his way with her sexy frail bird bones, the plastic hips, and the bionic knee. Drone lifeguards looming up in the sky, flashing their lights, booming Fornicators! Fornicators! to roust them guiltily out. This, for eternity. He closed his eyes and wished. Her eyelashes on his cheek, her thighs on his waist, the first consummation of this terrifying thing they’d done.
It’s Thanksgiving here in America, a day of infamy for turkeys. At my place in Humboldt County, northern California, turkeys learned their lesson a few years ago, when five fine specimens of Meleagris gallopavo—wild turkey to you—wandered onto my property. I assume they forgot to check the calendar. Under California fish and game regulations, you can shoot them legally for two weeks around Thanksgiving.
Out came my 12-gauge, and I loosed off a shot that at some 100 feet did no discernible damage, and after a brief bout of what-the-hell-was-that the turkeys continued to forage. A fusillade of two more shots finally brought down a 14-pounder. I hung him for four days, plucked him and by Thanksgiving’s end he was history.
Wild turkeys hadn’t been seen in California since earlier in the Cenozoic era, but in recent years two ranchers in my valley imported a few and now they’ve begun to appear in our neighborhood in substantial numbers. I’ve heard reports of flocks of up to 100 wild turkeys 15 miles up the Mattole River around Honeydew, an impressive quantity though still far short of the thousand birds counted in one day by two hunters in New England in the 1630s. The taste of wild turkey? Between you, me, the drumstick, and my dog Jasper, it was markedly similar to farm-raised turkeys, though of course superior to the flanges of blotting paper consequent upon the familiar overroasting of store-bought turkey at low temperatures for 10 hours. I’m for high heat and about three-and-a-half hours for a turkey of average size, though not for the dirigibles they use to raise on a farm in Loleta, near here, which turned the scales at 40 pounds.
Globalism has its alluring sides. It was good that turkeys, potatoes, and peppers got to Europe (though I have my doubts about the squashes, which evoke the bland horrors of pumpkin pie). That was early globalism. It was much more rapid in those days. The speed with which New World foods spread across Europe and Asia is astounding. The first Indian housewife got the basics for what we regard as part of the eternal Indian diet — curry — in about 1550, and within five years it was on every household menu in India.
The Spanish brought turkeys back to Europe from Mexico, and by the 1530s they were well-known in Germany and England, hailed at the festive board as part of tradition immemorial. The Puritans had domestic turkeys with them in New England, gazing out at their wild relatives, offered by the Indians who regarded them as somewhat second-rate as food. Of course, wild turkeys have many enemies aside from the Beast called Man. There are swaths of Humboldt and Mendocino counties where coyotes and mountain lions now hold near-exclusive sway.
Ranchers running sheep used to hold off the coyotes with M-80 poison-gas canisters that exploded at muzzle touch, but these are now illegal, and the alternatives are either trapping, which is a difficult and time-consuming job, or getting Great Pyrenees dogs to guard the flock. But the coyotes are crafty and wait till the sheep have scattered, then prey on the unguarded half.
And not all Great Pyrenees have that essential sense of “vocation.” My neighbors down the river, the Smiths, who raise sheep, had a fine Great Pyrenees, Esme, partnered with the idle Tofu. Esme would rush about protecting sheep while Tofu lounged under the trees near the homestead, reading the paper and barking importantly whenever cars drove up.
Before she died in childbirth, Esme produced Baxter, taken by my neighbors up the river, the Weaver-Wrens. Baxter grew bored at the Weaver-Wrens. I would see him trotting down the road, then up every driveway to gossip with the locals. Jasper would run him off, and Baxter would never make a fight of it but collapse instantly like a vast white eiderdown, paws in the air and throat exposed.
It’s ended well for Baxter. He rapidly ingratiated himself with a new couple on the road, implanting in their minds the notion that he would be a good match for another vast white dog, Grendel, already in their possession. He correctly perceived they were from Berkeley, where he knew that at last he would be able to get a decent shampoo. They commute to the Bay Area and I hear that Baxter is now a familiar flâneur on Shattuck, pausing to review the menu outside Chez Panisse before crossing the road to greet the pizza crowd next to the Cheese Board.
I’ll have to check with Baxter, but doubtless turkey is on the menu at Chez Panisse for Thanksgiving. Most Americans, even the stylish crowd at that fabled restaurant, won’t eat anything else on the big day.
A version of this essay first appeared in 2011 in The Week, a London-based magazine to which Alexander Cockburn contributed a regular column. It is included in A Colossal Wreck: A Road Trip Through Political Scandal, Corruption, and American Culture, a collection of nearly two decades of Cockburn’s writing published this year by Verso.
Image credit: Flickr/tuchodi