At the center of Martin Clark’s comic legal thriller Plain Heathen Mischief is Joel King, a fallen preacher from Roanoke, Virginia, who got in a little too deep with a young female parishioner. After a stint in jail, and facing a broken marriage and a life gone to shambles, Joel is taken under the wing of Edmund Brooks, one of Joel’s former flock, a mysterious man whose dealings we quickly learn are rarely on the level. “I work the sag,” Edmund explains, “Sag’s the sneaky tax and the holdback and the cushion and the reserve and the contingency and the ‘ol thumb on the scale.” It’s a whole lot of other things, too, but we soon discover that for Edmund, “working the sag” is mostly insurance fraud. Joel relocates to his sister’s in Missoula, Montana, but by then, vulnerable and destitute, he has already been roped into Edmund’s schemes. Edmund’s co-conspirator is a Las Vegas lawyer of the slickest sort, Sa’ad X. Sa’ad, a smooth-talking con-man. Mischief would have been mundane as a straight thriller, but there’s a comic aspect to the book that keeps it entertaining. The three co-conspirators play tough, each in his own way, but to certain degree they’re each doing little more than playing the part of gangster, and part of the fun of reading this book is seeing through their big talk. Eventually the schemes and scams pile on top of one another and things spiral out of control, and while he has written Joel as an, at times, infuriatingly delusional character, Clark does a great job of untangling the Mischief in the end.
Andrew Durbin is the director of the 2000 thriller drama The Beach, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tilda Swinton. Midway through the film’s premiere, Durbin cradles Leo as the multimillionaire actor sobs on the floor of the theater’s bathroom, totally unmoored by his own performance in the film. Then Durbin stands on a sidewalk with Tilda Swinton, watching the distraught Leo pull away in a towncar. Earlier, Durbin was standing on a sidewalk, watching a grievously-offended Katy Perry pull away in a Bentley. Earlier, he was being jerked off by his friend while watching Clueless, just a few pages after pitching the film The Canyons to a television producer. Later, he will be at the Frieze Art Fair, but only briefly. Then he will buy a Multistrada 1200 for Ciara.
With company like this, you may be surprised that you don’t know of Andrew Durbin. Don’t be. Firstly, he’s young—in his mid-20s. Secondly, most of this isn’t true. Danny Boyle directed The Beach; Durbin has almost certainly never met Ciara, let alone bought her a motorcycle. Lastly, it doesn’t particularly seem like he wants to be known. His first full length book—Mature Themes, a collection of prose, poetry, and essays—doesn’t draw a cohesive biographical character so much as barrage its reader with an array of technicolor scenes, replete with camera flashes, expensive art, and totally fictional anecdotes about celebrities. It can seem, at first, a little overwhelming. So let’s start with what we do know.
Durbin was raised in South Carolina. In 2008, he moved to the Hudson Valley to attend Bard College, where he studied poetry and the classics. During the end of his time at Bard, he began spending less time in the Hudson Valley and more time in New York City, two hours south of the college.
In October of 2011, a few months after graduating, Durbin and the poet Ben Fama began to put together something they were calling “Wonder.” It was first conceived as a series of “crush parties”: Invitees would be asked to email Durbin and Fama with the names of their crushes. The crushes would then be invited, and their names posted on Wonder’s tumblr. Once they’d been invited, they could invite crushes of their own. Soon, there’d be a full party roster of people brought together by desire, nervousness, and implicit, anonymous propositions.
They threw the first crush party in January of 2012. It was an immediate success—and not just as a party. As Jeff Nagy wrote in the fourth issue of online poetry journal The Claudius App (under the pseudonym “Jacqueline Rigaut”):
This at a time when perhaps the most perversely clever reading of poetry involved no reading whatsoever, when Wonder Books’ pair of “Crush Parties,” by physically aggregating the same social networks that would typically aggregated be by [sic] a reading, but by releasing those networks from the tedious need for poetry as a social lubricant, created perhaps the first pure works of Poetry 2.0, catching the reading up to the opening, as a social space in which the less one says about the art (there to perform its lubricating function and be ignored) the better–at last.
Despite the acerbic undertone of Nagy’s bad-faith endorsement, it shouldn’t be mistaken for a condemnation of the parties themselves. The scene that Nagy is satirizing, in which culture vultures collect around art and poetry as an occasion for schmoozing rather than as catalyst for serious discussion and serious thought, isn’t a tradition to which the Crush Parties were blindly submitting. On the contrary, by creating an occasion explicitly geared to romance, sex, and social climbing, Fama and Durbin were effectively instantiating the way these desires were encoded in contemporary poetry (and at the readings thereof). Think of it as a sort of “de-theorization,” the transmutation of a supposedly-base subtext into a democratized good time.
Concurrent with the planning of the first Crush Party, Durbin began working with the poet Paul Legault on a full-length work which would later be published by Wonder under the name Mall Witch. (On the Wonder site, Ben Fama is accredited as the author of Mall Witch; Durbin, Legault, and the poet/designer Joseph Kaplan as “producers.” However, at a reading at Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop in the fall of 2013, Durbin said that he was the book’s real author, and that Fama had “nothing to do with it.” The truth is neither clear nor terribly important.) Around that time, Durbin and Fama also co-wrote “♥ This Will End In Tears ♥,” a chapbook-length “weird translation of Rimbaud,” which was distributed to the first fifty guests at the second Crush Party in April of 2012. For the third party, they published “The Story of a Stolen Kiss,” a chapbook by Bay Area poet Kevin Killian.
These initial publications marked Wonder’s transition from party series into the full-fledged press it is today. Over the three-odd years of its existence, it’s been responsible for a number of chapbook and full-length books, and has organized and facilitated a number of readings in New York. In 2013, the Wonder editors publicly declared that they’d be relocating to Los Angeles in 2015. In 2021, Wonder will, apparently, disband—they’re giving themselves 10 years. But to do what?
Ambiguity—perhaps even duplicity—plays as large a part in Durbin’s biography as it does in his writing. Is Wonder actually going to move to Los Angeles in 2015? Or is it just the protracted set-up to a punchline that will, in all likelihood, never come? Did Durbin actually do any of the things he describes in the confessional prose-poetry-essays that make up Mature Themes, or is the entire thing a fabrication?
This distinction could very easily be frustrating—or, even worse, boring. In Mature Themes, it is neither. Durbin breezes right past the temptation to coyly stimulate the ambiguity of his anecdotes, thereby preventing his writing from getting bogged down in dull questions of fact versus fiction. As the narrator for each of the episodes depicted in the book, he comes across as an earnest, articulate friend, someone warm and known, thrilled to be enthusing, never stumbling into cynicism or lazy conclusions. This hyper-engaged flâneur is our Virgil for the cavalcade of top 40 pop, Food Network détournement, and Baudelaire recastings that make up the meat of Mature Themes, keeping us calm and informed. A lesser book moving through the same territory would stake its worth on the frisson that results from reading about tabloid-cover names in dinner-party situations. Durbin uses that, but only as grist for his seductively comprehensive theorizing on the forces circulating underneath each strip of celluloid.
Although the use of celebrities in fiction has been a popular trope in alt-lit-associated writing over the past few years (thanks largely to Tao Lin’s novella Richard Yates), Durbin’s writing bears little resemblance to that of those poets. Instead, his clearest influences come from the art worlds of New York and Los Angeles, and the poetry and prose that’s made a space for itself in systems that are historically more sympathetic to visual or conceptual art than to writing. For instance, he’s frequently cited the poet Eileen Myles’s The Importance of Being Iceland as being “central to [his] understanding of critical writing’s possibilities.” The lineage is visible: Durbin’s wry, inconspicuous humor and canny-outsider affect is very much of a type with Myles. The poet and artist Etel Adnan is another figure whom Durbin has frequently cited and occasionally written on; although her influence on his writing is less explicit than that of Myles’s, there are times (most notably in “Landscapes Without End” and “Sir Drone”) when Durbin moves into a descriptive register that’s reminiscent of Adnan’s work. And I’d be remiss not to mention the art-pop musician Ariel Pink, whom Durbin explicitly namechecks in “Monica Majoli.” Much like Durbin’s writing, Pink’s lyrics flit quickly between glitz, braggadocio, self-deprecation, and pained confessionalism, never firmly forming a knowable person. (It’s also worth noting that Ariel Pink released an album in 2012 that shares a title with Durbin’s book.) There are also a number of younger poets with whom Durbin shares a sensibility—for instance, Trisha Low, Juliana Huxtable, Kate Durbin, Lonely Christopher, and Lucy Ives, many of whom have published or read through Wonder.
In Mature Themes, Durbin has caught something dazzling, even bewildering. But readers who are willing to admit that it might be on their side will find it to be a warm, thoughtful escort through a world populated chiefly by cold objects. Katy and Leo might desert us at the end of the night, our favorite records might start skipping, and we might be left feeling a little tweaky once the lights come up in the theater. It’s even possible that we’ll never make it to L.A., or that there might someday be a final party, or even a final crush. But Durbin has found, for us, a sustainable optimism with which to navigate these tragedies; one which requires only that we think, remain, attend, and care. He has composed the most accurate portrayal that I can imagine of a life spent earnestly cathecting with everyone from Paula Deen to Joe Brainard, a life spent feeling enormously about all the things that will never feel about us. He makes it look awfully good, whoever he may be.
Earlier this month, the editors of One Story sent out an email blast announcing the publication of the 12-year-old literary magazine’s first anthology, One Story Collected: Stories from the 2014 Literary Debutantes. Aside from the magazine’s annual “Literary Debutante Ball,” honoring the seven authors featured in the collection, and a reading at Brooklyn’s Greenlight Bookstore, the editors made no other effort to publicize the book launch. If the collection has been reviewed elsewhere, I’ve missed it. The book is being published via CreateSpace, a print-on-demand publisher owned by Amazon, which means that other than a few stray leftovers on Greenlight’s shelves, the book is only available for purchase online.
Yet despite its understated launch, One Story Collected is one of the strongest collections of short fiction I’ve read since Claire Vaye Watkins’s 2012 stunner Battleborn. Not every story in Collected is a gem, but the hits-to-misses ratio is high, and two stories in the collection, Molly Antopol’s “The Quietest Man” and Amelia Kahaney’s “Fire Season,” are lights-out terrific. If One Story Collected is a stethoscope to the heart of contemporary American fiction, the news is good: despite a run of economic shocks to the publishing industry, the muscle that pumps fresh blood into the system is still beating like a tom-tom.
In a subtler way, the collection offers reassuring evidence that there is in fact a functioning system to pump new blood into. In the digital age, anyone can start a literary magazine, but to keep going past the first few issues a journal needs to develop a revenue stream, and for publications with more writers sending in their work than readers willing to pay to read it, it makes increasing sense to monetize the submission process. Hence, the boom in writing contests, and the advent of online journals like Narrative, which offers its content for free but charges a fee for unsolicited submissions.
From its inception in 2002, One Story’s co-founders Hannah Tinti and Maribeth Batcha, have been more creative than most in finding novel ways to leverage their journal’s sterling reputation. The pair set up One Story as a non-profit, enabling its donors to get tax breaks, and they have run workshops taught by Tinti and others, sponsored a writing conference on Italy’s Amalfi Coast, and thrown fundraisers like the Debutante Ball that One Story Collected grew out of. One thing they don’t do is charge fees for writing contests. (The journal did once run a fee-based contest in 2004, and One Teen Story, the journal’s new young-adult offshoot, runs a contest today, but there’s no entry fee.) In other words, in a digital world that keeps making it easier for writers to submit to literary magazines but harder for those magazines to sell the work they publish at a price above zero, it is refreshing to see One Story choosing to monetize its actual product, the stories it publishes, rather than all the writers itching to appear in its pages.
It helps, of course, that the stories are good. As its subtitle suggests, One Story Collected is not a standard best-of anthology, but a celebration of the magazine’s “Literary Debutantes,” seven One Story authors who published debut books in the past year. The best of the lot, for my money, is the opening story, Antopol’s “The Quietest Man,” a small miracle of compression that manages to fit a novel’s worth of humor and anguish into 24 pages. The quietest man is Tomás Novak, a one-time dissident in Communist-era Czechoslovakia famous for maintaining a stoic silence under police interrogation. Having settled in the U.S., where he has traded on his revolutionary past to eke out a living as a writer and teacher, Tomás has learned that his daughter, Daniela, has written a play about him, which he fears will focus not on his dissident years, but on his lousy history as a father.
The story turns on a fraught weekend Tomás spends with 23-year-old Daniela, who was raised almost exclusively by his ex-wife, whom Tomás fears has good reason to have filled his daughter’s ears with unpleasant stories. The two warily circle each other, each suppressing a secret, as Tomás struggles to extract from Daniela the version of the truth she plans to tell about him, until it dawns on him that he is using the same tactics on his daughter the Czech police used on him. And yet he can’t stop. “Part of me was saddened that my daughter was the kind of person who would crack so easily,” Tomás writes, “that the wall she’d built around herself could be so easily kicked down, but a bigger part of me just needed to know how the play would begin.”
If “The Quietest Man” is a propulsive interior detective story, the success of Kahaney’s “Fire Season,” set in a marginal subdivision on the edge of California’s Death Valley, relies more on its foreboding setting and odd, finely drawn characters. The story opens with 13-year-old Marni gazing at her face, “sloped and shiny as a waxed apple,” in the mirror, “amazed to find that without warning, an endless period of ugliness seems to have finally lifted from her, leaving someone new. Someone altogether better.” Kahaney sets off Marni’s smoldering desire for a neighborhood boy named Pablo with a wildfire burning in the hills that threatens to engulf the subdivision. As the wildfire creeps in, Kahaney writes, the “kids are jangly, squirmy” while their parents “sit like bullfrogs in darkened living rooms, having abandoned their usual puttering efficiency to stare glassy-eyed at muted televisions, lulled by the soft wheeze of air conditioners.” The story, which rises to its crescendo in an unsettling scene in which Marni and Pablo hurl rocks at each other as hard as they can, carries the emotional weight of poetry with the assurance of naturalistic prose.
A studied quirkiness is the stock-in-trade of so much contemporary short fiction, and occasionally the writers in One Story Collected take it too far. James Scott’s meandering “The Strings Attached” takes 26 pages of misadventures with the oddball natives of the all too aptly named town of Tangent to drain the drama from a tale of a man grieving over the deaths of his infant twin daughters. Similarly, Rachel Cantor tries a bit too hard to crank up the wacky in “Picnic After the Flood,” though, in her case, her exertions are redeemed by sure-fire comic timing and the lingering anguish of a single mom hoping not to have her heart broken by a man who seems too good to be true.
The writers in One Story Collected work for their readers’ attention, but there is little of the desperation one sometimes feels when literary authors start tossing in gratuitous murder plots and characters with magical powers, as if the stories of actual people leading actual lives wouldn’t be enough to stop readers from peeking at their Facebook feeds. Thus, David James Poissant’s “Refund” taps into the hot-button issue of parental competitiveness over children’s IQ, but at bottom the story is a simple, and dead-on-accurate, portrait of a crumbling marriage. Likewise, Ben Stroud’s “Eraser” riffs and sallies in all manner of seemingly non-linear ways, but always returns to the core story of a boy coming to terms with the gruff man his mother has chosen as her second husband.
It may seem curious at first that One Story is publishing its first anthology on its own, but Tinti says she and the other editors never sought out a traditional publisher for One Story Collected. “We wanted to test the waters, so [we] just thought we’d try it ourselves,” she wrote in an email. “We’re excited to make these stories available (we’ve sold out of many of these in back issues), and most important, to help promote/spread the word on our Literary Debutantes’ new books.”
This makes an interesting kind of sense. By relying on print-on-demand technology and spending little to publicize the launch, One Story is hedging its bet. If readers find the book and like it, then One Story will have found a new way to recoup its investment in stories it has already edited and published. If, on the other hand, no one buys it, what really has the magazine lost? But if it’s a cautious gamble, it is a gamble nevertheless, one that turns on the quality of the writers the magazine has published, rather than the desire of writers everywhere to be among their number. This is a sign that the editors of One Story believe in the work they’ve published. In the case of One Story Collected, it isn’t hard to see why.
I’ve been on the Internet since I was fourteen years old. I’ve always loved it here. But a few months back, I found myself a bit troubled by what I perceived to be a difference in the way my mind was working. I would be at my desk writing and then I’d be on Twitter or Gmail or CNN, with no clear recollection of having decided to drop one task and switch to another. It was as if my brain, craving stimulation beyond the meticulous working out of plot issues, had jumped to a new task of its own accord. I wasn’t always this distractible.
The problem reminded me of muscle memory. I used to be a dancer, and my training was intense. After a certain amount of physical training, either in dance or in athletics, certain actions become almost unconscious. After all these years away from dance I can still assume a perfect arabesque line. I have a visceral memory of exactly what a triple pirouette feels like, the precise coordination and timing required, although I doubt very much that I could execute one anymore.
I began to realize that after all this time on the Internet, I’d trained my brain to expect a new stimulation every few minutes. After a short period of concentration on a given task, my brain would do what I’d trained it to do: it would turn its attention to something else. Concentrating on a single task for an extended period of time—as is required when one’s reading a book, for instance, or writing one—had become unsettlingly difficult.
I only occasionally read non-fiction, but I was struck by Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing To Our Brains from the moment I saw the title on a bookstore shelf. Carr describes the same phenomenon in his own life. “Over the last few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense,” he writes,
that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I feel it most strongly when I’m reading. I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or lengthy article… Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel like I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.
The Internet, he writes, is a system that might as well have been designed to foster distractedness. When you’re reading a book it’s easy to sink into the text—what Carr calls deep reading—for long periods. There’s nothing in that medium but the text itself. Reading on the Internet is a different matter. The Web is designed to allow you to move rapidly between interlinked pages, but even if you don’t click a link every few minutes, this is an arena of constant distractions. Even if one of those infernal pop-ups doesn’t float across your screen and demand your attention, even if there aren’t two or three animated banner ads flashing their messages above and to the side of the text you’re reading, there are usually links embedded in the text itself, and the second or two it takes to evaluate whether or not the link’s worth following forces a break in your concentration. In the meantime, you’re waiting for two or three important emails, and it’s been a few minutes since you last checked Twitter or Facebook, and what’s the weather supposed to be like later? Your brain is constantly switching tasks.
Neuroplasticity is the process by which the brain changes in response to experience. The human brain remains plastic, which is to say malleable, throughout our adult lives, meaning that new connections between neural cells are continually being forged. The changes wrought by neuroplasticity aren’t trivial; a famous 1990s study of London cab drivers (cited in this book) found that cabbies who’d been navigating London’s complex street system for two years or longer displayed a measurable increase in the size of the posterior hippocampus, a section of the brain associated with spatial memory, and that the longer a cabbie had been driving, the larger this part of the brain tended to be.
The advantages to this structural flexibility are obvious. Your brain is somewhat less plastic now than it was when you were a child, but it’s never too late to learn another language, or the street grid of a new city, or how to program an Excel spreadsheet. As you gain expertise in your new skills, new connections are forged and existing connections strengthened.
However, there’s a downside. “Although neuroplasticity provides an escape from genetic determinism,” Carr writes,
a loophole for free thought and free will, it also imposes its own form of determinism on our behavior. As particular circuits in our brain strengthen through the repetition of physical or mental activity, they begin to transform that activity into a habit.
The paradox of neuroplasticity, observes [the research psychiatrist Charles] Doidge, is that for all the mental flexibility it grants us, it can end up locking us into ‘rigid behaviors’. The chemically triggered synapses that link our neurons program us, in effect, to want to keep exercising the circuits they’ve formed.
In other words, if you’ve spent so much time online that you’re accustomed to focusing on something new every few minutes, you might have a hard time reading deeply for long periods of time without checking your BlackBerry, or writing uninterrupted at your desk without wandering into Twitter. As you continue to switch rapidly between tasks, the neural connections that have developed in response to this behavior continue to strengthen, while unused circuits weaken and fall away. Your brain is continually fine-tuning itself. “This doesn’t mean that we can’t,” Carr writes,
with concerted effort, once again redirect our neural signals and rebuild the skills we’ve lost. What it does mean is that the vital paths in our brains become … the paths of least resistance. They are the paths that most of us will take most of the time, and the farther we proceed down them, the more difficult it is to turn back.
The Internet has trained us. Which is to say, of course, that we’ve trained ourselves, since the Web is the most human of endeavors; we code the Web and we design its flashing graphics, we write its content and speak to one another through its zeros and ones. We’ve created an ever-more-speedy experience, and we’ve adapted to that speed. “Sometimes our tools do what we tell them to,” Carr writes. “Other times, we adapt ourselves to our tools’ requirements.”
Both statements, of course, apply to the Internet.
Carr has a weakness, here and there, for telling us what we already know. (“The ability to exchange information online, to upload as well as download, has turned the Net into a thoroughfare for business and commerce.”) There’s an unsettling inclusion, in the midst of far sounder studies, of what looks to me like junk science: a 2008 Adweek magazine study that followed four (4) typical Americans for a day and noted that what they all had in common was that none of them opened a book. Four isn’t a persuasive sample size.
He makes a couple of assumptions that I disagree with, most notably in a discussion of the ways in which a gradual shift from printed books to ebooks might change the way authors view their work, given the impermanence of electronic text:
Even after an ebook is downloaded into a networked device, it can be easily and automatically updated… It seems likely that removing the sense of closure from book writing will, in time, alter writers’ attitudes toward their work. The pressure to achieve perfection will diminish, along with the artistic rigor that the pressure imposed.
To which I can only reply: try writing for the Internet. (He does in fact write for the Internet; he must just experience it differently than I do.) Any mistake I make in a piece published online will be immediately pointed out to me in the comments section, with varying degrees of helpfulness or malice. Yes, I can log into WordPress and fix the mistake, but the cost of imperfection is public embarrassment, and the sharp-edged business of publishing books is genteel by comparison.
But by and large, I found The Shallows to be a persuasive and interesting work. The New York Times, however, was unconvinced.
Jonah Lehrer began his career as a scientist. He was a double major in neuroscience and English, and spent some years as a technician in the laboratory of Nobel laureate Eric Kandel. He’s gone on to distinguish himself as a science writer. In his New York Times review of The Shallows, he notes that “[t]here is little doubt that the Internet is changing our brain.
Everything changes our brain. What Carr neglects to mention, however, is that the preponderance of scientific evidence suggests that the Internet and related technologies are actually good for the mind. For instance, a comprehensive 2009 review of studies published on the cognitive effects of video games found that gaming led to significant improvements in performance on various cognitive tasks, from visual perception to sustained attention. This surprising result led the scientists to propose that even simple computer games like Tetris can lead to “marked increases in the speed of information processing.”
Being able to process information quickly is useful, but it doesn’t quite negate Carr’s thesis, which is that the neurological changes brought about by Internet usage can erode our ability to focus deeply for prolonged periods and that this has implications for society at large. What the video game studies (pdf) suggest is that gameplay—which Carr views as a useful proxy for certain aspects of Web use—can “induce a general speeding of perceptual reaction times without decreases in accuracy of performance.” Or as Carr puts it, “video game playing improves performance on tasks that require rapid shifts of visual attention. Clearly, an important benefit, but hardly a proxy for deep, critical, or conceptual thinking.”
Toward the end of The Shallows, Carr discusses a study that measured concentration and attentiveness in people who, before they were subjected to the researchers’ tests, spent an hour walking in a woodland park; they performed much better than a group who spent an hour walking on a busy downtown street.
Walking on an urban street is certainly analogous to the experience of spending time on the Internet: a chaos of bright lights and fleeting interactions and fast movement, stimulating and by turns interesting and banal. In the course of an impressively gentlemanly post-New York Times review debate on Jonah Lehrer’s blog, Carr wrote that “[w]e love the city street and the web for many good reasons, but we should also be aware that that they aren’t conducive to some of the deepest—and to me most valuable—forms of thought our brains are capable of.”
I followed Lehrer and Carr’s discussion, and what I found most interesting about it—aside from the sheer civility of discourse, which made me long for a magical alternate-universe version of the Internet where everyone’s reasonable and trolls don’t exist—was that no clear victor emerged. Both have considerable evidence at their disposal to back up their points of view.
But there, in the quote above: to me most valuable. The point, it seems to me, isn’t whether the Internet is “good” or “bad” for our brains. The Internet has changed us, just as the printed book and the typewriter did. The Internet sharpens us and makes us faster thinkers, more adept at shifting between tasks, even as it erodes our ability to focus on a single topic, a single work, for long periods of time. The point is that whether you think the Internet is “good for your mind”, or exactly the opposite, depends on your values.
I wouldn’t want to give up the sheer vertiginous over-stimulation of walking down a Manhattan street, any more than I’d want to give up the Internet. I live in a metropolis for a reason. But what if your work depends on the ability to fall into a state of deep focus for long periods?
Carr is the author of two other books, and has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, and other publications. His degrees are in literature and language. Although he’s done his research, it seems to me that he’s approached this problem primarily as a writer—in other words, as someone whose profession requires the ability to close oneself in a room and remain utterly focused on the business of researching and completing a manuscript for hours at a time. For a writer, an inability to focus for long periods on the work at hand is at best an impediment, at worst a disaster.
In search of greater productivity, I downloaded an ingenious application a few months back. (Note: I am not being paid to remark on its ingeniousness.) It’s called Freedom, and it turns off the Internet for however many minutes you specify, up to eight hours. It costs ten dollars. Turning the Internet back on once you’ve launched the program requires restarting your computer, which is both such a colossal hassle (ask me how many Word documents I have open at the moment) and such an admission of weakness (what, you couldn’t go 120 minutes without checking your email?) that I’ve never done it.
At first when I turned off the Internet, I would automatically drift into Twitter or Gmail or CNN anyway. The familiar pattern: I would be working and then I would switch tasks almost without realizing what I was doing and find myself staring at a browser window or at Tweetdeck. It would take a moment to remember that I was actually offline.
I’ve been trying to retrain myself. A few months after downloading Freedom, I’ve noticed a change. I’m much more productive than I was a few months ago. I can write for longer periods now, uninterrupted. Sometimes even when I’m not running the application, when the bright lights of the Internet are available at my fingertips.
(Image: Mini Cooper New York City, from norriswong’s photostream)
He’s the guy with the electric eyes and unkempt hair. The guy with the daddy issues and the temper and the drug problem. One day, he loves us, and the next, he’s gone. We are the good girls. We don’t drink or make trouble. We come from good families. So why do we need to tame that wild thing?
In her memoir, Land of Enchantment, 32-year-old Leigh Stein takes us inside this invisible addiction. In 2007, she pursues a life in Albuquerque, N.M., with her own wild thing: 18-year-old rebel Jason, who she meets at an audition for Medea. They make a pact to live together, be in love, and work on their careers — she will write her novel while he will chase acting gigs. Everything about their life starts out exciting, until slowly, Leigh realizes, it isn’t anymore.
Enticed by other girls and stricken with manic episodes, Jason’s violence breaks the surface. He begins by playfully hitting Leigh on her arms and legs, and then escalates his frightening behavior. Leaving Leigh increasingly anxious and depressed, his abuse takes her to the point where she no longer recognizes herself, “I could feel myself molting like an animal–,” she says, “shedding my childish skin, my kindness, my passivity, and in its place growing the scales of a woman who would do anything to get what she wanted.” Leigh feels like Jason’s only hope. She will take the physical and figurative hits for him. Even when she tries to move on with her life, Jason continues to haunt her. Then in 2011, everything changes. She learns that Jason has died in a motorcycle accident. The book cycles mostly between 2007 and 2011, and recounts Leigh’s mental exercise in recognizing her abuse, processing her grief, and at last, attempting to heal.
While reading, I couldn’t help but picture my own wild thing. I’ve always been a good girl. I was raised to follow the rules and do what was asked of me. The guys I dated were Nice Jewish Boys (NJBs), who my mom applauded and who I smiled at, uninterested. What I craved was the bad boy. In college, I ventured slightly out of my comfort zone and met a poet at my first frat party. It felt like he and I were the most uncomfortable people in the room, and we started talking over my first drink ever. He had an entrancing accent; troubled eyes; a murky past; and was also, I later found out, a severe alcoholic. I was in trouble, but I didn’t turn away.
Stein’s book made it easier for me to see why I would make that choice, and continue to make those choices even after I supposedly learned my lesson. I recently got the chance to talk to her about the book and the puzzling cycle of abusive relationships for FORTH Magazine. We also discussed her various dimensions of grief after Jason’s sudden death, as well as her dependence on the Internet to make friends and get her voice out to the world. Plagued by depression as a young girl, Stein felt comforted by the burst of life that Jason gave her, even if the experience was largely abusive. “If you’ve never experienced it,” she told me, “you might think, why is she with that asshole if he’s such a dick to her, and she says it’s so bad? But it’s not so bad all the time — sometimes it’s amazing.”
This is how the young brain works, Stein said. That wonderful “sometimes” is enough to justify all the not-so-wonderful other times. She told me that she’s done some research: The prefrontal cortex, or the part of the brain responsible for decision-making and behavioral control, doesn’t stop developing until we’re 25. This, Stein said, could be why “people become addicted to drugs and alcohol when they’re young. Of course they want to try, and then they become hooked and can’t control their behavior. That’s what happened with Jason. I was young; he was young. I couldn’t say no.”
Not being able to say “no” is something I’ve heard as early as D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) in elementary school, then again in health class in junior high, and again in Sex Ed in high school. It would seem we’d be able to get it into our heads by now. But the good girl complex makes us resistant to displeasing, and we’re often those girls that say “yes” to everyone and then end up overwhelmed by promises we make that we can’t deliver. Addiction is often invisible in the same way that abuse or depression can be. Depression, Stein told me, makes women more vulnerable to abuse, and vice versa. As a person who has experienced bouts of depression, I asked her about criteria. I’m often frustrated by criteria provided by the DSM-V — a manual on mental health (not one easily digested by the lay-person). In a similar way, people often think there are criteria for abuse. If there are no bruises to prove it, was I abused? In Land of Enchantment, Stein tells us that abuse, like depression, can live beneath the surface, that emotional abuse can be even more painful and long-lasting than physical abuse.
It seems as though for me, Stein’s book came out too late. If I had had the opportunity to read it in college, I might have avoided some heartbreak. But sometimes the only way to understand something is to go through it yourself. While I hadn’t heard anything bad from my peers about the poet, I just had a bad feeling I couldn’t name. The day I officially became his girlfriend, there was a massive hurricane — the corniest omen I could have expected. (Almost as corny as Leigh meeting Jason at an audition for a Greek tragedy.) I called my mom and she told me to get out of the relationship. Curiosity and boredom with my follow-the-rules philosophy got the better of me though, and I decided to wait out the storm instead.
It took a month for me to realize that the omen and my mom (as always) were correct. I would walk home alone at night after the poet dismissed me coldly from his apartment. A friend of mine found him one morning passed out under a bench. He had cut his face in a fist-fight that he said was from a fall on the street and covered it with makeup. He told me he thought about killing himself, but didn’t want to scare me away. He didn’t want to be the good boy. He didn’t know how to be good. I felt sorry for him and wanted to help, but knew I needed to get out.
In a similar way, the last time Jason visits Leigh is in New York years later. She has great friends and is enjoying her prestigious new job. The visit starts out with as much excitement as when they first met, until Jason hooks up with a bartender. He has another manic episode when Leigh invites him out with her friends. She realizes it’s over for good, and she just wants him to leave.
I knew it was over with the poet when we went home for spring break. Stein’s book made me think about the reasons I wanted him in the first place. He needed help, and I was available. I was bored and craved his intrigue, his foreignness. I didn’t want to be treated like a princess. I wanted to be treated like a confidante or therapist. In a way I loved to feel miserable with him. Then I realized I spent way too much time trying to fix someone who didn’t seem to want to be fixed.
Melissa Febos, author of Whip Smart, echoes my sentiments in her blurb of Stein’s book: “I wish I could give this memoir to my younger self, and to all those smart, deeply feeling girls who so easily mistake intensity for intimacy.” This intensity, Stein told me, is something that feels like love, and sometimes is indistinguishable from it. The success of abuse is attributable to its duality. One moment, you hate each other, and the next, you don’t know how you could ever live without each other.
Leigh writes that though her mother, like mine, warned her about Jason’s empty promises, she remained “his believer, the one person in his life willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.” Finally, with the aid of therapy, antidepressants, and a new attitude, Stein was able to siphon her painful experience into something good. After Jason’s death, Stein started following a Facebook group devoted to women writers, which led her to found a nonprofit organization called Out of the Binders that encourages women to pursue careers in film and television.
Stein’s Land of Enchantment teaches us that it’s not cowardly to retreat at signs of trouble. Early on, she quotes a torch song by John Moore that I think sums up the nature of the good girl’s eternal obsession with the wild thing: “It no longer matters why she loved her mediocre man while he was there, all that matters is that she loves him now [that] he has gone.”