Overwhelming and underwhelming: that’s the phrase that some bloggers and I settled upon to describe this massive event. It’s overwhelming in the sense that it is truly massive (as any big industry trade show must be), with endless rows and rows of booths where publishers big, small, (and self-) hawk their wares. There is a seemingly endless spray of people flowing into the giant exhibition floor from all entry points, and you are jostled constantly as you thread through the crowds. On top of this there are wacky promotions going on at nearly every juncture – an author dressed up like an Elizabethan princess, dancing dogs and grannies wearing matching outfits, a balloon animal sculptor – along with lots of promotional freebies being thrust at passersby who must also avoid the snaking lines of people waiting to see some personality or another signing books at a publisher booth. The independent row felt like a safe haven – much less crowded and populated by less frenzied folks. But it was underwhelming too in that the interactions I have with some of these folks over email already are far more valuable than the hurried face to face meetings that end up happening at this event. While the Expo itself is an exercise in endurance, the parties that came after – including the LBC affair – were much more fun and relaxed. But more on that later, I need to get downtown to dive in again. I’ll wrap things up with a more detailed report – including my finally meeting so many great bloggers whose blogs I read daily – by the end of the weekend.
A Friday morning in mid-July: opening day at the Saratoga Race Course. We’re in the final throes of a heat wave that’s been smothering the entire Eastern Seaboard for days on end, and this morning the thermometer reads 97 — with the humidity, it tops 100 in the shade. I’ve worked days like this before, and it’s daunting, thinking of the eleven sticky races that will stretch on into early evening. I head across town, following the long dip of East Avenue down and then up again, and as I pass the Oklahoma training track, the festooned iron gates of the main race course blossoming out before me, I worry absently about the temperature and the safety of the horses.
If the crowd inching towards the admissions gates looks diminished, perhaps it’s because they’re drooping beneath the punishing sun. A good number of them will give up by the sixth race or so, throwing out a rash of perfunctory bets for the rest of the card. “I’m melting out here,” half a dozen men tell me, soaking through their tank tops, beads of sweat colonizing their upper lips. “You guys got air-conditioning in there?” I manage to bark out a laugh every time. “Don’t worry, honey, you still look good,” one woman assures me — without provocation — and I am surprisingly relieved. We’re all melting, outside and inside the Paddock, the converted barn in which two long rows of pari-mutuel clerks sit taking bets and counting cash. Sweat collects in the corners of my eyes, blurring my vision as I punch out $2 exacta boxes.
The heat eventually breaks after dark, when a series of violent thunderstorms sweep in and knock the weather into submission. Half the town loses power. Finally, maybe a little inexplicably, it really feels like summer to me; I throw open the windows and listen to the thunder retreating, the gentlest rumble now beneath the steady pulse of the rain.
I’d returned to Saratoga Springs, in upstate New York, four days prior. My hometown had seemed largely unchanged as I drove in (as if I were coming home from the war or something — in fact I was here at Christmas), though the sidewalks are now littered with enormous disembodied feet encased in ballet slippers, each one individually painted and nearly as tall as man. It’s some sort of project to showcase local artists, but the freestanding feet are perhaps creepier than anyone probably intended, like the collected crime scenes of a giant serial killer.
I’m happier with the track’s anniversary logo, a red oval with a golden horse blazing through it, which has been plastered all over town — affixed to front doors and printed on flags and at the track itself, on banners and t-shirts and tote bags. The Saratoga Race Course opened in August of 1863, though it hasn’t quite been 150 consecutive seasons since — it was shuttered a few times, like when gambling was outlawed in New York state in 1911, and during the Second World War. Still, it’s billed as the oldest continually running thoroughbred track in the country. The track is a constant in this town, the six-week season an anchor around which the year rises and falls.
Saratoga is humming in anticipation, the population visibly swelling as crowds collect and loiter along Broadway. It’s hard for me to avoid sentimentality when it comes to the racing season, but I can almost feel a sort of romantic momentum picking up as the town sails towards August — the ornate Victorian mansions, thrown open for six weeks of garden parties, or the bars, heaving with tourists flush with winnings from the big race, waving cigars and spilling beer in the streets. We all cast our glances backwards a bit when the races begin, and before long the real world ebbs away, at least for a few weeks. I’ve always found it a little funny, though, that for all the nostalgia and the celebration of tradition, at the track you have to take it one race at a time. Thirty seconds, a minute at most — if you’re lucky, a tight, dramatic finish, and if you’re luckier still, a winning ticket — and then it’s on to the next race, just twenty-eight more minutes to post.
I join the crowd trudging through the stultifying heat on opening day and it all seems to be the same as it ever was: the admissions gates give way to a long, broad footpath and a sea of red-and-white-striped awnings, and there’s the Dixieland band, wailing away, and there are the hat sellers, the boys hawking the Daily Racing Form, the stands charging obscene prices for lemonade — it feels like nothing so much as the distillation of summer, everything lazy and affable beneath the unrelenting sunshine. The park stretches out on both sides, swaths of patchy green covered with picnic tables and banks of televisions displaying the morning odds, and the back of the grandstand looms ahead, white lattice and flowers and ushers standing guard at the entrances.
A ribbon of gravel flanked by a pair of white fences cuts a sharp channel through the park: the route along which horses are led from the stables to the paddock. Security guards pull chain-link barriers across a gap in the fences as the horses pass, and they are an astonishing sight up close, sleek and muscular and so much larger than I ever expect they’ll be, tongues lolling out, nosing slightly to one side or the other as they are led with what appear to be the lightest of touches at their reins. Today they pant a bit in the heat. I won’t see another live horse for the rest of the day.
Eventually I reach the grandstand, and as I walk inside I am greeted by a blinding expanse of white: maybe a few hundred people milling around, greeting each other after eleven months away like it’s the first day of school, clad in white-collared shirts and toting lunch boxes and already a bit weary, as if the first race has gone off and some angry drunk is shouting that their mistakes have cost him a huge trifecta. These are my people: these are the pari-mutuel clerks.
We take bets. It’s the simplest explanation for a job that’s more nuanced than I’d ever have guessed, before any of this, before the track was something more than a disruptive abstraction on the east side of town. I learned the basic logic of horse gambling ten years ago, hovering over a keyboard as seasoned tellers called out sample bets, struggling to understand the terminology and the different combinations, exactas and doubles, keys and partial wheels, ten-ten on the eight horse, Seabiscuit in the fifth. I’ve learned a lot in the intervening decade, like how to harness the patience to explain the fundamentals to a novice, or how to decipher the ramblings of a drunk. I work hard to be effortlessly adept when professional gamblers come to the windows, printed stacks of racing stats clipped together, the carefully-calculated permutations of a morning spent handicapping printed at the top in neat pencil. Each series of bets, each exchange is a single moment encapsulated: beneath the numbers, horses and dollar amounts, it’s flirtation or anger or joking banter or the drudgery of playing a game only the very lucky can seem to crack.
I am assigned a window in the Paddock, a self-contained bay of sixty betting machines populated by cheerful crowds on both sides of the windows. The customers are a mixed group, but on the weekends, it’s a lot of picnickers, juggling their programs and Miller Lite tallboys, cigarettes dangling from their lips. I draw the first bills of the day, close to $1,000, and as I count my money and the reunions continue around me, I feel unexpectedly out-of-place. It’s been three years since I worked a regular season at Saratoga, and I have lost both my seniority and my points of reference. I’m not eager to talk about how it’s been just a few days since I left behind my entire life in New York City. In the slow minutes before the first race, I am eager for the steady flow of customers, for the grounding effects of a long, impatient line of gamblers.
Eventually a nondescript man saunters up and leans in against my window. “I’ll take a dollar tri box: 1, 6, 8,” he says distractedly, laying a pair of bills across the top of my machine. I punch the ticket and as he plucks it out I wish him luck. It’s extraordinary how quickly everything slots back into place; taking bets is mostly habit by now. By the time the horses are called to the post, I’ve travelled back across the past decade, suddenly deep in a long stretch of late summer spent sitting behind the betting windows, fingers working in a sort of rapid, monotonous variation, rote transactions punctuated by the most genuine human interaction, when then entire world narrows to a fine point, just me and my customer, exchanging cash and one-liners and the smallest slivers of each others’ lives. Another man comes to my window, and then another, and then another.
Once the heat breaks, the threat of rain hangs over the rest of opening weekend. It’s around the seventh or eighth race on Saturday and the strip of sky I can see is growing murky. A customer is lingering at my window, checking over his tickets, and I ask him if he thinks it’s about to rain. He leans in, eyebrows raised. “Why?” he asks. “You got a tip for the mud?”
It does rain soon, a few quick, furious downpours, sending the crowds sprinting for cover. A woman wanders past my window in polka-dotted cowboy-boot galoshes. They’re just flash storms; the track isn’t sloppy yet. A supervisor once described a steadily rainy afternoon as a “telephone-number day,” when track conditions made things so unpredictable that the only way to pick a winning combination of horses was to toss out random numbers, an address or a birthday. “Little old ladies will be cashing ’em in like crazy,” he said. I know the type — women who come up and tell me, slightly abashed, that they’re here to “play my numbers.” We’re not quite there yet: the professionals are still hard at it, betting slightly too much in the heady rush of opening weekend. “Will you be my lucky girl?” a few guys ask, and I assure them that I am an especially lucky teller, but this weekend, the lie feels more barefaced than usual. I sell a lot of tickets, but I cash next to nothing. I collect tips in dimes and quarters rather than bills, relegated to weary offers to keep the change. Men are down hundreds, thousands already, and it’s only day two.
A large, ruddy-faced man with a Boston accent cashes a big ticket — a few dollars bet, more than a few hundred won back — and as he’s about to pocket the stack of money, he pauses. I do my best to avoid looking too eager. Then he holds up a hand and indicates I should cup my palm, and when I do, he drops forty cents into it. “There you go,” he says. “For your scholarship fund.”
I like the little dramas of the racetrack, the smallest fortunes, rising and falling from one race to the next. I like the completely bizarre cross-section of people, the brusque and the flippant, or the guys that lean in and tell me their life stories. They wear shirts unbuttoned too far and masses of gold chains resting on curling chest hair, or white linen suits with matching pocket squares and straw boaters, or the blandest suburban dad uniforms, khaki cargo shorts and neatly-tucked-in polos. When the rain begins, the lines dry up, and in the slow stretches, I watch people walk by — groups of women in dagger-like platform heels, hunched in on themselves for balance; groups of women strutting past in flip flops beneath super-short dresses; a woman wearing a tiny top-hat fascinator, feather jutting from the band, maybe something swiped from an enormous bird of prey. A man hollers across the pavement, “I gotta use the can!” He is wearing a Hawaiian shirt open over a red t-shirt that reads THING 1. There is no sign of THING 2.
The Monday after opening weekend, the weather has settled into something spectacular, mid-seventies and sunny, fluffy white clouds and a light breeze; the track is fast and the turf is firm. Early this morning, an essay I wrote about leaving New York was published, and it is hard to think about all of that as I key out dollar pick-3 part-wheels, but I do think about Joan Didion a little bit — my essay is partly a meditation on her famous leaving-New York essay, “Goodbye to All That.” There is a line in there that gave me pause, something about New York, like the rest of it, but a phrase that followed me up through the Hudson Valley to Saratoga Springs: “…the trees just coming into full leaf, the lament air, all the sweet promises of money and summer.” Didion is on 57th Street; I am at the betting windows, but the phrase turns perfectly here.
It’s only money, some of my customers say. But it’s only money, for a lot of them. Across the park, through the grandstand, past the bleachers and out on the dirt, the horses are being led to the starting gate. I walk up and down the long row of tellers, catching dozens of single moments encapsulated, people handing over cash, people calling out combinations, people laughing, shaking hands, fist-bumps for luck. It smells like sunscreen, and the cloying heaviness of cigar smoke. I return to my window and flip open my money box, and a customer appears out of nowhere, bets scrawled across the top of his program. “Are you ready for me, sweetheart?” he asks. I look down at the screen, the simple architecture of a bet laid out and waiting — dollar amount, type, horse, and the tiniest stroke of luck — and then back up at him and nod. “Go ahead.” He squares his shoulders and begins to rattle off numbers; I begin to take his bet.
Next: On Luck
Images courtesy the author
We here at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop have been surprised to find ourselves – for lack of a better word – trending. From Eric Bennett’s allegations in “How Iowa Flattened Literature” to n+1’s book MFA vs NYC, we really didn’t think there was more to say about our institution…and then Hannah Horvath, in an odd twist of fictional life becoming reality, was accepted on Girls.
Of course we were excited by the buzz. But in this larger discussion, we found that something was lacking: namely, the view from Iowa City. Right here, right now.
So: here it is.
On a dismal midwinter Thursday, we – eighteen current students of the Writers’ Workshop, poets and fiction writers alike – set out to chronicle one ordinary 24-hour period in our lives. That February 13th, we took copious notes. We worked, whether on our novels or on our Twitter accounts. Some of us taught classes. Some of us went to a poetry reading and after-party. And some of us just ran around tossing Valentines into each other’s houses.
My colleagues’ responses may vary widely in form, ranging from poems to stories to lyric essays, but all of them are, like my colleagues, entertaining. And furthermore: excerpts from their responses, when laid out to roughly span those 24 hours, give a decent picture of what it’s actually like to be a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop right now – that is, to be one of many people all striving to do the same difficult thing, in the same moderately-sized city, at the same talked-about school.
Hannah Horvath: take note.
(Van Choojitarom, second-year fiction)
Van is having trouble leaving his apartment. The problem today is getting dressed. It’s not that Van is particularly vain or fastidious. It’s that as he’s putting on his suit and necktie he invariably begins delivering a bad guy monologue to the bathroom mirror. Welcome to my island, Mr. Bond, the solid grey suit seems to say. Sometimes he can cut it down, but other times, some inner Hans Gruberian impulse cannot be checked and he ends up trying on all his different coats in front of the mirror, regardless of the actual weather, lapels folded over his throat, inveigling the ceiling, delivering solid broadly humanitarian, ultimately Marxist reasons for Bruce Willis to surrender.
This morning he’s fixated on a grey plaid double breasted jacket that puts in him in mind of Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lecter. It seems to be driving him to wider, patterned ties: “I don’t really think your story has POV problems, Will. I just wanted to see how you’d react…”
(Jessie Hennen, second-year fiction)
Every morning I wake up and Colin is still asleep. Usually I lie there for twenty minutes and try to ease myself out of the bed without him noticing, but inevitably he does. “Stay,” he says, not quite awake. Then I have to sound like an absolute bitch and say that I am done sleeping, that I have things to accomplish. Really it is that I am sick of looking at the light fixture, at the sky coming in bright against my peach-colored curtain, the ceiling shimmering like the northern lights. While I look at the ceiling I think too much about the future.
“I can’t sleep in any more. I have to finish (x),” I always say. Today (x) is a novel chapter about giant deep-sea fish who grow weary of being imprisoned in a tank and incite their angry brethren to make the oceans swim with rage.
“Oh, okay,” he says, but he doesn’t let go. Frida the cat sits in the middle of the bed, meowing. I suppose she is cozy. I tell him I had a very episodic dream. “I was surviving the Rapture with my family. Our house was under siege, people kept throwing rocks at our windows, everyone wanted in. Finally the call came from heaven, and our whole house floated up into the sky above the angry mobs. I almost got Left Behind because I was drinking a beer, but I tossed it out and we made it to heaven.
“Heaven, it turned out, looked a lot like Milwaukee. Very small houses, a very bright sky. The powers that be were keeping us in a strip mall until they could find proper heavenly places for us. It was packed – kind of a shantytown, really. It had a barter economy going. Some guy had a computer with Facebook, and I convinced him to check mine. Jen Percy had been posting these really great photos of Hell. As it turns out, Hell is a dusty Victorian with vintage drapes and canopy beds. I wasn’t sure whether she was there on assignment, or permanently.”
“Well, you have to include that,” he says, and we get up.
(David Kruger, second-year poet)
I walk through a parking lot, down a flight of outside stairs and into an old brick building where I teach what is essentially Basket Weaving 101, but instead of palm fronds and twigs, I talk as vaguely as possible about metaphors.
Today I say things like: student A, you need more flesh and muscle for that prostitute in your car, and Student B, the statue of David you encounter during your trip to Florence might be thought of as symbolic of the patriarchy and therefore of the trials you and your gal-pals endure. Student C’s story is about the big game, and so I simply point to Plot Mountain on the board and suggest that stakes, when raised, are like little plateaus for the reader to climb and consider.
Toward the end of all of this, I really have to pee.
(Mallory Hellman, second-year fiction)
4:07 pm – I’m late to pick everyone up, and I’m the one leading our lesson today. When I pull up to Dey House, all four of my fellow Youth Writing Project volunteers are assembled on a snowbank waiting for me. One holds a bag full of construction paper. Another shivers under a hat with long ear flaps. Troopers. They get in, and I gently disrespect the speed limit until we’ve reached Cedar Rapids.
4:45 pm – Our gang of ten is happy to see us, even though we didn’t come bearing snacks. We cluster three tables together in the classroom and hang up our laminated Writing Club sign.
5:15 pm – Teonie, who is eight, has written an ode to tacos and nachos. Most of it is a meditation on her two favorite foods’ similarities, concluding with a tenderly inflected, “Are you sisters?” This leads, naturally, to a heated debate about which foods are sisters, which are brothers, which might be cousins, and which aren’t related at all.
5:45 pm – Lasagna and calzones are parents to spaghetti. Pizza is a cousin, on the calzone side of course. Macaroni wants to be in the family but isn’t – it rolls with the hot dish instead. Peaches and plums go hand in hand, but mangoes and green peppers have never met. Avocados and pears hate it when they’re mistaken for sisters.
(Matthew Weiss, first-year fiction)
Taught Interpretation of Literature. Big old room. Clonking around in my shoes.
Talked about the etymology of the word symbol.
It originally meant two shards of a ceramic pot broken at the moment two parties made a deal. Later, you’d know things were legit if the two pot shards fit back together.
Hence Plato’s: man is a symbol of himself, looking for his other half.
Also, a symbol could mean: a chance meeting, a receipt, a watchword, or a Pythagorean cult password.
For example, the Pythagoreans would recognize a brother by muttering things like, “What is the sea?” and getting back, “The tear of Kronos!”
Lost track of time. Possibly I showed the kids a clip from the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I claimed was “symbolic.”
They’d never heard of 2001: A Space Odyssey before.
(Patrick Connelly, first-year fiction)
There is a girl in the hall where I teach rhetoric. She looks like she is about eighteen, nineteen years old. I always see her. She is hunched in an electric wheelchair with her wrists and her neck bent and her chin down. She isn’t quadriplegic; I have seen her hands and fingers move. I think she has a neuromuscular disease. Her body is small. She is sitting against the wall, alongside the other kids, waiting for the classrooms to empty. To be honest, I try not to think about her beyond the end of the hall (outside, at Prairie Lights Café, at the gym, at home, and then at a party after a poetry reading), but I can’t help it. Today is different. When I pass her, she is playing Bejeweled on her iPad Mini, swapping the colors around the screen with her finger; she is bored.
In class, I ask for a show of hands. Who’s read To Kill a Mockingbird? I get up and talk about empathy. You can never really understand a person until you climb into her skin and walk around in it. You can’t understand a controversy or advocate for a proper solution until you’re able to consider things from other people’s point of view.
Is simply being aware of something or someone any good? Because I probably won’t ever talk to this girl in the hall. I will only write about her.
I should ask my students what they think.
(Misty Woodford, third-year poet)
On the way home from teaching, I’m thinking about trochees, and this happens: “GUTzon/BORglum/GUTzon/BORglum/GUTzon/BORglum” – by now I’m stomping out the rhythm as I walk – and I don’t realize I’m also saying this out loud until I near my apartment building, and see a figure freeze up on the lawn. It’s the guy who lives in the basement and I’ve scared him this time. I start to walk normally, more pyrrhic, I guess, and say, “Hello!”
He says “Hi” and attends to his cigarette. Dinner is multiple cups of tea and the hope that chamomile and valerian work tonight.
(Thomas Corcoran, second-year fiction)
After rereading the last day’s work, I begin the current day’s session, writing on a 1971 Olympia SM-9 typewriter with a 12-point font similar to Garamond. Typewriters are useful when the desire is more to make daily advances on a draft than to polish the prose. Before being written, sentences are usually imagined but not too precisely; and except for the occasional “xxxx” (over which I always feel a pang), corrections are simply too hard to make in great number. As with writing generally the challenge is to convert insights that might have limitless depth but no duration into sentences that are stretched out in length but constrained by their gathered energy, like ocean waves striking the shore. After a lot of practice the prose is reasonably good in this format anyway. The rhythm of the typing helps. What may still be needed are selection, precision, and courage.
(Dini Parayitam, second-year fiction)
…This place is about vulnerability. Every second of it is a lie you tell yourself. “I belong here. I am happy here. I am happiest here among people like me.” Really you are very hyper-conscious of the fact that you aren’t actually happy here. Being with so many people who do these things that you love better than you makes you question why you are worthy of doing it at all in the first place.
This is what Iowa Writers’ Workshop teaches you:
1. The wish to write a good story is fake.
2. The will to write a good story cannot be trusted.
3. The insecurity you feel when you are done is normal.
4. The insanity of the writer is a very real thing.
(Andy Axel, first-year poet)
“Observatory Log: 13 February 2014 Iowa City”
1 discreet tree relief
10 a whole class chanting what sounds like “TOGA” with increasing speed
11 dough-faced boy in american flag vest with cup not actually from starbucks
12 prime view of the capitol from the waiting room
1 the word “widowed” on a dropdown menu
2 when I see more than three robins in the same place I start to get suspicious
3 I check to see whether I’m wearing a sweater
5 child ode to cat:
“Feliz: you are not like a garbage can.
You are like a light when you surprise me.
Do you speak Spanish?”
6 when I enter the Dey House it smells like ink and xmas
7 my view field’s all baldspot
11 dogs express interest in the terrible smell of my boots
12 enough of weather
(Jake Andrews, first-year fiction)
After lunch, I sat down to write. The main character’s girlfriend had just walked into his room and told him some good news. He recollects: “Had I ever thought about sex as a way to celebrate academic achievement?” (I, the author, certainly have; Daniel was a bit more surprised.) The story had taken a turn I wasn’t expecting, and I was stuck. So I started cleaning up my desktop (the one on my computer, not the one on which the computer usually sits, though it wasn’t there on this day in any case; I was sitting in a chair in the living room because – to re-emphasize the solitude that prompts reflection – my wife was out).
I stumbled on a collection of photos that my step-mom had put together for my dad’s funeral back in December. I had downloaded them and forgotten about the folder.
Two photos in particular jumped out at me. In the first one, my dad has me on his shoulders. I can’t be two months old. (My mother remembers taking this picture and being horrified.) My head peeks out above his hair, and his hands hold me in place. My pudgy feet are almost to his chin. In spite of the 1970s glasses, he looks remarkably like my middle brother, mainly because he is skinnier than he was in later life. He’s smiling like a kid – he would’ve been 20 – and looking at the camera. I’m gazing off to the left, my hands gripping his hair, my face – wide cheeks and a small chin – looking remarkably like my own son’s the day we removed him from life support.
In the second photo, my dad isn’t looking at the camera, but he’s still smiling. He’s on all fours, and I’m crawling between his arms, probably just over six months old. My left hand is raised, reaching for a balloon. If you look close enough, you can see that he’s holding it for me. My straight blond hair has lost the red hue from the earlier photo; like my nephew, I’ve got pudgy cheeks and pudgy fingers. I’m in motion. There’s a blur to my hand.
I don’t really know how long I looked at the photos in the folder. I didn’t write for a while after finding them. I made myself a cup of tea.
On readings and parties:
(Sean Zhuraw, second-year poet)
A friend, SE S, sees the stich of my saccades trailing the runaway cambus down Clinton Street, sees I’ve missed the bus.
She gives me a ride to the doctor.
My eyes are fine.
Try this when looking at something, she says, after looking at it, look away.
Take sanitary breaks, she says.
Take mind off.
There are layers among the distances, magnifications.
Her assistant returns to dilate my pupils.
When the doctor leans into my eye, she says, don’t look at the light; keep focus past it.
I buy a few Valentines.
I live in a small town, so on the way home I stop by JM’s house, open her door, sneak into her kitchen, stuff a rabbit down the back of her shirt.
It says, Ears Hopping you’ll be mine.
I also make one Valentine from two.
They’re angels unless you mess with their halos – the TV’s ad.
Later, I catch myself eating a sandwich in a mirror. It is the only way I can see what my hands are on.
Ditto the poetry reading that night.
Language is an organ, he says, not just sensate but reciprocal too.
Q: Do the eyes rhyme with their host?
A: I don’t know. I keep checking to see if it’s changed.
(Laura Ferris, first-year poet)
Now that my schedule for the day has played out, I feel less certain of how I spent my time. Tomorrow I know I am going to the library to do more research for my historical-ish surrealist-adjacent poem, spending hours at a microfilm scanner. I consider going out because I’m supposed to be writing about my day, but ultimately decide I don’t care enough about making the day seem like anything.
I watch more episodes of Sailor Moon with Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune, think about to what extent I care about Valentine’s Day. I want to say that I usually do more, write more, than this. Today, though, I’m spent, uninspired, and a little lonely – and unable to go out.
(Will Jameson, first-year poet)
Anthony and Elyse and Jordan and I are drinking gin and tonics. Elyse doesn’t have a lime but she has a lemon. We finished the pepperoni and mushroom pizza from Falbo’s we’d ordered which was a circle cut into squares. Jordan is playing Drake on his computer and Anthony is drawing a grid in his notebook that plots where our poetics stand in relation to each other. It looks like a sketch of Orion without the helpful lines drawn in between to illuminate the figure. Elyse reads aloud some Norman Dubie. Anthony reads aloud some James Tate. Then we keep talking about ourselves.
(D.R. Simonds, second-year poet)
“The Willow Tree on the West Bank, Iowa River”
For Emma Woodhouse
Near the “Train Only” bridge we footbridge, you burn
willow branches two at a time, saying
you know I know
how to respond
in a heartbreaking situation, (having broken
hearts before), spine-burn
running thru your hands, but the other
white-hot willows nearby
I am never showing you, my first impulse for our survival
I can’t never show you.
(Jerika Marchan, second-year poet)
I want to be original and smart. I want to not feel guilty about eating half a chocolate bar for breakfast. I don’t eat microwave dinners. I want to delude myself into health. I listen to this interview on Iowa Public Radio because I feel like I can participate and because the conversation is smart. People feel strongly about things and I can, too. I Can Too.
I go downstairs and make a bean burrito. The door to the house is usually left unlocked, and as I’m guiltily overstuffing my burrito, someone busts in to tuck in the tag hanging out of my dress and leave me a Valentine. I scream for a long time.
Jessie gets home and asks if I wanna go to Meredith’s for pad thai and sake. Yes get me out of this house, I’m full of burrito. (I will eat only bunny-amounts of pad thai is what I tell myself.) Pad thai happens in a sake-induced fog. (Meredith googles “what’s in sake bombs?”) Meredith and I successfully open a very-difficult-to-open jar of organic coconut oil. I bust my ass trying to sit on what I thought was a chair but really was a cookie sheet resting on a chair, and I fall to the ground. It’s kinda nice. (Is that weird?) I haven’t fallen on my ass in a while. It’s nice to know what it feels like from time to time.
Jessie and I tell Mere about my ongoing boob-angst, and she looks at me for a quick second before deciding that I’m at least a D-cup.
(Rachel Milligan, second-year poet)
I wake up at noon, spend the day reading Maggie Nelson’s Bluets on the couch, lighting three candles, blowing them out, and then lighting them again. I have a glass of wine before the Richard Kenney and Carol Light reading. My night concludes with one of my best friends scream-singing at me, perched on top of the refrigerator.
(Cassidy McFadzean, first-year poet)
After dinner, we walk to Dey House for Richard Kenney’s reading. Nathan slips on the ice outside our apartment, but he doesn’t see the blood on his hand until he leaves a mark on the door of the workshop. He wipes it off. We sit with Will, with Connor in front of us. The three of us were in Rick’s workshop last semester, and I see the other seven students scattered around the room. Rick refuses the microphone and reads a mix of riddles, charms, and pun-filled haikus, occasionally stepping out from behind the podium to address us, bringing his words closer to our ears.
The after party’s at Will’s and I make him show me the group pictures he took of our class last semester. I feel nostalgic. I eat pita chips and hummus and talk with Connor and Nikki about the classes we’re teaching. I talk with Winter about the buttons on the sleeves of her dress. I talk with Clare about how amazing Hy-Vee is, though she does not share my sentiments. I talk with Chad about Canadian poets, and Petro about Trailer Park Boys.
Every party proceeds the same: the bass gets turned up, the lights get dimmed down. Someone plays Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own.” We talk about how every party ends this way. It’s around midnight, and some of us leave, and some of us stay.
Image Credit: J.Y. “Warmer is not warm.”
During a recent visit to Cologne, I avoided the city’s most magnetic tourist attraction – you’ve seen one Gothic cathedral, you’ve seen them all – and instead I explored the city’s bookshops. Large and small, general and specialized, spacious and cramped, there seemed to be no end to the variety. But they all had one thing in common: they were thriving.
How do the Germans do it? When a huge, once-mighty book-selling chain like Borders is going down in flames across the Atlantic, how do the Germans manage to keep their book publishing industry so diverse, so robust, so stable? How do booksellers consistently turn a profit on everything from Goethe to Grass to Grisham? Is it because of careful planning? Dumb luck? Some mystical Teutonic gene? Or could it be a Kultur thing?
Buchladen, a small shop on the north side of Cologne, is as good a place as any to begin searching for answers. It doesn’t look like much from the street – green awning, small display window – but as soon as you enter the shop you’re stunned by the quality and quantity, the variety and beauty of what’s on the shelves. At the front of the shop are new fiction and history books, in hardcover and paperback, by well-known German authors and numerous Americans in translation, including Philip Roth, Richard Price, Nicole Krauss, Paul Auster, and Richard Powers. In the paperback fiction section, 30 feet of floor-to-ceiling shelves, I found books by David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Safran Foer, Karin Slaughter, Don Winslow, and Elmore Leonard mixed in with German, French, Scottish, Irish, English, and Japanese authors. German readers have catholic tastes. They consume crime novels as hungrily as literary fiction, history, philosophy, erotica, and just about everything else.
One thing you will not find on the shelves at German bookshops, large or small, is that mainstay of big American bookstores – signs announcing steep discounts on current bestsellers. That’s because the cost of all new books in Germany is strictly regulated by something called the Buchpreisbindung, a uniform pricing policy that was adopted voluntarily by booksellers in 1888 and became national law in 2002. By forcing all stores and on-line vendors to sell new titles at the same price, the law is, obviously, a boon to small stores that can’t compete with the volume purchasing of the big chains and online giants like Amazon.de and Buch.de.
“The idea [of the Buchpreisbindung] was to eliminate price competition in order to promote the sale of little-known books,” says Simone Thelen, spokeswoman for the Mayersche chain, which was founded in the 19th century and now has 49 stores, mostly in the state of North Rhine Westphalia. “It makes it possible for publishers to publish a variety of books and authors, and it gives us the chance to promote young, unknown authors and books that are not blockbusters.”
This seemingly counter-intuitive strategy – protecting books by keeping them expensive – is actually in line with much of what goes on in Germany today. The country enjoys the healthiest economy in Europe, rising employment, a balanced budget, and an enviable trade surplus not in spite of, but because of, its well-paid workers and their vast network of social services, including universal (that is, mandatory) health care, plus at least four weeks of paid vacation and in some cases more than seven. It makes perfect sense to prosperous, book-loving Germans to pay a fair, strictly regulated price for new books because they believe that the health of the book industry – that is, of publishers, booksellers, and writers, from famous to unknown – is vital to the health of the whole society.
The idea of the government regulating the price of consumer goods is anathema to most Americans, who have bought into free-market gospel and the Walmart mantra that price is everything, and lower is always better than higher. It comes as no surprise, then, that many Americans are wailing about the coming cost of universal health care, our onerous tax rate (among the lowest in the industrialized world), and the need to trim the federal deficit by slashing government spending while preserving tax breaks for the rich. And yet, as the Borders debacle illustrates, allowing booksellers in America to set prices anywhere they choose is no guarantee that even the biggest fish will survive. Pity the vanishing small fry.
Marion Krefting, a sales clerk at Buchladen for the past 13 years, is, like most Germans, widely read, fluent in English, and addicted to foreign travel. Krefting happens to be in love with Australia, which she first visited in the late 1970s and has revisited many times since, most recently two years ago. In Australia she saw first-hand what happens when the government stops regulating the price of books and lets market forces do the job. “The first time I visited Australia, about 35 years ago, they had regulated pricing like we do,” she told me. “When I went back a few years later they had stopped it. What happened was that the bestsellers became cheaper, everything else became more expensive, and there was less variety.” And now the predictable kicker: “The little bookshops don’t exist anymore.”
Australia’s experience is not unique. After price regulation ended in England, the price of books rose by 8 percent; and when it ended in Sweden, one out of four bookstores went out of business. Always willing to go against the grain, the Swiss, who do not now have a book pricing law, are talking about instituting one.
Krefting, the daughter of a bookseller, is a fan of such writers as Tad Williams, Elizabeth George, and William Boyd. But her great love is children’s books, and she points with pride to her personal fief, the large, colorful section devoted to children’s books at the back of Buchladen. When a customer comes in and asks for an appropriate book for a 6-year-old girl, Krefting steers her to a book called Rita das Raubschaf. She gives the customer a concise synopsis of the plot – it’s about a sheep named Rita who gets bored chewing grass and runs off to become a pirate – along with her enthusiastic personal endorsement. The customer buys the book without hesitation. Such crisp professionalism is the norm in German bookstores because clerks are required to study for several years – literature, accounting, and the mechanics of the book business – then pass a standardized exam before they can become certified booksellers. In DIY, blue-sky, go-for-it America, such rigid standards are almost unthinkable. Which is not to say there are no knowledgeable booksellers in the U.S. There are many, of course. It’s just that Americans hope to find knowledgeable employees when they go to a bookstore, while Germans insist on it. To Krefting, the German way makes perfect sense. “This is not a job, it’s a profession I love,” she says. “The pay is not good, the hours are terrible, but I just love books.”
At a nearby shop called Agnes Buchhandlung, the display window contains copies, in German translation, of Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, and Salman Rushdie’s Luka and the Fire of Life. The owner, Uli Ormanns, leaves no doubt about the importance of the Buchpreisbindung for small shops like his. “It’s absolutely critical to our survival,” he says. Another thing that helps, he adds, is the national network of book warehouses and its shipping system. “Of the one million books available in Germany, we can order 400,000 of them overnight, just like the big chain stores,” Ormanns says. “Other books, like textbooks, technical books, university presses – which are not a big part of our business – we can get in a week.” He then leads me to the corner of the shop devoted to books – in English – by American and British authors. Particularly popular with Agnes Buchhandlung’s customers are Stephenie Meyer, Philip Roth, Paul Auster, and Jonathan Franzen. “It’s a small part of our business,” Ormanns says, “but more and more customers are asking for American and English authors in English, usually after they’ve read the book in German.”
Catherine Brull, a native of Belgium who has worked in the shop for seven years, is getting ready to crack open her new copy of Super Sad True Love Story, which is priced at 19.95 euros, about $28, including tax. (The sales tax on books in Germany is 7 percent, compared with 19 percent for most consumer goods.) “The German people like the American way of writing,” Brull says. “Sometimes the German authors aren’t easy to read. They have a heavy heritage – Grass, Mann, Boll – and they’re always thinking about that.”
Discounted books are not unheard-of in Germany. When I walked into the venerable Buchhandlung Walther Koenig in the heart of Cologne, I was greeted by a large table festooned with high-quality art books reduced in price by as much as 75 percent. There are four ways sellers can make such sharp price cuts: if the book is used, if it’s damaged, if it was imported from a country without a Buchpreisbindung, or if the sales are so slow after 18 months that the publisher declares it a “remainder,” thus freeing stores to set their own price. The effect of the rule is that large chain stores tend to offer remaindered books at sharp discounts, which smaller stores rarely try to match. Similarly, there are no price rules on audio books, and therefore it’s almost impossible to find them at small shops. The prices of e-books, which currently account for less than 1 percent of all book sales in Germany, are regulated by the Buchpreisbindung.
Which brings us, finally, inevitably, to the elephant in the middle of the bookshop. I’m talking of course about the differences in reading habits between Americans and Germans – or, to be a bit more broad, between Americans and most of the rest of the civilized world. Simply put, one of the major reasons Germany has a healthy book publishing industry, beyond its pricing law, is because Germans (like the English, the Irish, the Japanese, the French, and many other nationalities) tend to read more, and more seriously, than Americans. I can’t cite statistics to prove this, but after traveling much of the world I know in my bones that it’s true. I became convinced of it the day I boarded an airplane in Dusseldorf and sat next to a perfectly typical German hausfrau who spent the flight devouring Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco, a novel that has defeated me every time I’ve tried to read it. I remember thinking: Germans are different.
“It’s true that the tradition of reading is very deep-rooted in German culture,” says Michael Roesler-Graichen, an editor at the magazine put out by the Borsenverein, the national society of publishers and booksellers based in Frankfurt. “It’s not the whole population. The so-called higher literature, or belles lettres, is read by a small percentage. But it’s a very vital tradition.”
In 2007 an Association of American Publishers (AAP) survey revealed that one in four Americans did not read a single book – not one book – the previous year. Things seem to have improved since hitting that nowhere-to-go-but-up nadir. In 2009 the National Endowment for the Arts reported that the number of Americans reading literature (novels, short stories, poems, and plays) had increased for the first time since 1982. And this summer a joint survey by the AAP and the Book Industry Group revealed that American publishers’ net sales rose by 5.6 percent from 2008 to 2010, thanks to surging sales of e-books as well as juvenile and adult fiction. Much is now being made of the ascendancy of e-books and the boost they’re giving to the American book industry. I say hooray. But I’m inclined to wonder if this ramping-up of e-reader and e-book sales is an indicator that Americans are suddenly reading more. I suspect they’re merely downloading more. I hope I’m wrong. Time will tell.
None of this is to suggest that the German system of selling books could or should be transplanted wholesale to the United States. Nor is it to imply that all Germans are better-read and better-educated than all Americans. Roesler-Graichen, the editor, is happy to set the record straight on that score. “Whenever I visit America, people say, ‘Oh, you Germans are so well educated, you’re so well read,'” he says. Then, with a laugh, he adds, “I have to tell them it’s not true of all Germans.”
He’s right, of course. But there can be no denying that books occupy a special place in the life of Germany, the country that gave us the printed book. Thelen, the spokeswoman for the Mayersche chain, sums that place up nicely. “Books are not just a commodity here,” she says. “They have a cultural value that has to be saved.”
So in the end, yes, it’s a culture thing.
Image credit: chascarper/Flickr
Bound copy of “Corrections of Typos/Errors for Paperback Printing of Infinite Jest” from David Foster Wallace to Nona Krug and Michael Pietsch. Image courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center.
“It’s more intense every time I think of him,” said the woman in line behind me.
We were waiting to get into the opening panel at last month’s David Foster Wallace Symposium in Austin. She wore a black and white sundress (more appropriate for 90-degree Texas-in-April weather than, say, my blazer and wrinkled gray wool pants), and spoke in the elevated volume of someone who wants her private conversation to be heard by a crowd of strangers.
“The longer he’s dead,” she continued, eliciting reflex-type coughs from her audience, “it’s like he’s more dead.”
To be honest, before the conference, I imagined that my task as an observer would consist mainly of plucking quotes like this from the air — of eavesdropping my way into conversations among Wallace devotees that would seem, both in the moment and on further reflection, cliché and naïve and, like, ten percent crazy. I think I expected to vindicate my own normal-seeming degree of Wallace fandom by exposing myself to the extremist sect of his readers — folks who wear Enfield Tennis Academy t-shirts (ETA being the fictional setting of Infinite Jest), or who are apparently in the process of trying to memorize the entirety of that 1,000-page novel (endnotes and all), or who participate regularly in the longstanding Wallace email listserv (1,200 strong, according to its creator and moderator Matt Bucher), and have ready responses to questions like “How do you characterize the influence of Lacan on Broom of the System?”
In one of the weirder moments during the proceedings, JT Jackson (who apparently makes the rounds on the circuit of DFW events) asserted to a panel that Wallace had been an un-credited writer of Good Will Hunting, and that if we wanted the truth, we should all “ask Matt about it.” Jackson has long gray hair and spindly gray mutton chops. He wore an olive green military-style jacket and introduced himself to me as a “good jarhead” that served during Vietnam. A classmate of Wallace’s in the MFA Program at the University of Arizona, he seems very invested in exposing hidden truths about Wallace’s life. [Ed. Note: Please see Jackson’s comment at the end of this piece for his responses.]
I guess this is to say that the symposium had its share of characters one might expect to find in a David Foster Wallace novel.
But thinking back to two days of talking about suicide, love, literary commitment, illness, perfection, and grief, it seems silly to sneer at the earnestness of readers who understand Wallace’s work much more deeply than I could ever hope to. I can’t report feeling any closer to a resolution about how writers should carry forward Wallace’s considerations of the constitutive struggles of ordinary life.
The symposium did repeatedly drive home the obvious fact that I don’t miss him as badly (and can’t miss him as badly) as the people who knew him personally. Not just as a spectral, textual, complex set of sometimes life-changing ideas about the world, but rather as a fleshy, six-foot-plus, pain in the ass, bandana-ed human dude who once asked Rolling Stone to provide a special caregiver for his dogs with “emotional issues” before covering the McCain campaign in 2000, and who left behind friends and family and a heap of paper that now sits in catalogued boxes for the rest us all to decipher, dissect, and translate.
More importantly, it revealed something of the motivating force behind our collective desire to discover for ourselves the ordinary humanness of writers we admire, and the ways we go about trying to do it by opening those boxes full of paper.
The event was made up of a series of moderated discussions among some of Wallace’s closest literary collaborators and friends, and was being held to consider the archive of unpublished story drafts, correspondence with editors, excised chapters of Infinite Jest, personal copies of John Barth novels, etc. It’s the kind of collection that the Harry Ransom Center — which acquired the steroidal volume of material for more than half a million dollars and meticulously prepared it for public use — will have to marshal serious ingenuity to protect against the drool of rabid pilgrims that visit their headquarters on the UT-Austin campus during the coming years.
Among the conference’s participants were Bonnie Nadell (the agent who stumbled across Wallace’s work in a slush pile in 1985 and worked with him for the subsequent 23 years); Michael Pietsch (the Little, Brown editor who helped Wallace bring Infinite Jest into the world, and assembled the posthumous Pale King from pieces that Wallace left behind); critics and writers (some of whom openly expressed their intimidation at having to face a crowd of hyper-smart DFW junkies); and Deborah Treisman, fiction editor of The New Yorker, whom I talked with after the final panel.
As the room emptied, I asked her what it felt like to know she wouldn’t ever find another DFW story in her inbox.
I immediately regretted it.
Yank back the curtain around Wallace’s genius and one finds a cast of fairly normal-seeming smart literary characters — people who pull the levers of the publishing industry’s machinery and who started careers hoping to work with someone like Wallace. I don’t think they ever expected to expend publicly this kind of emotional energy to describe the loss of a friend, and the question seemed crass, insensitive, stupid.
“It’s an intense sadness,” she said, as I felt the blood come to my face, “and being here brings it back. We haven’t spent too much time talking about that today. But it’s really sad.”
I stood there, pretending to be a real-life journalist, inspecting the pattern of the carpeting and managed to capture her last sentence: “He wasn’t going to give us something easy.” She was referring to his stories and the challenges that Wallace presented his editors.
But I ended up wondering whether this could stand as an encapsulation of a sentiment that ran throughout the symposium. It’s not easy — especially not when so many readers still feel the pain of personal loss with regard to Wallace. Many found it hard enough to say the word “suicide.” They said “early death,” “untimely death,” “untimely end,” “unfortunate end,” “tragic way that he died,” and even “the way he resolved himself.” They want to get into the archive to find a personal version of an answer to “why?” or alternatively, simply want clues about his writing process and about the way that his written work evolved — to look over his shoulder.
Christopher Gordon flew down from Boston to attend the conference with his son Noah. Together, they embodied these two most prevalent reasons for wanting access to the material. The elder Gordon, a mental health professional who has read Infinite Jest three times (the number of times one has gotten through the book has become a sort of currency — everyone gives you their “number”), wants to know more about Wallace’s use of psycho-pharmaceuticals. Meantime, Noah teaches high school English in New York and told me that the archive would help him demonstrate to his students the difficulty of creative activity.
“I want to expose how much work goes into writing,” he said, adding, “When you’re a student, you only see the gift.” He was talking about the polished final products that we hold in our hands and store on our e-readers. In other words, we can too easily assume that writing “just happens.”
The party line throughout the entire conference was that this new archive would precisely help us understand the evolution of Wallace’s ideas, and that this in turn would help us comprehend his life, his work, his mind. All of this has clear academic value and it’s the kind of thing that places like the Ransom Center put in their website mission statements. But the symposium made it plain that most of us also go to archives, or attend conferences on the lives of authors, or coordinate desperately with Public Relations professionals in the hopes of meeting the friends of authors (totally hypothetically, of course) to experience a sense of enhanced emotional proximity to the person we knew only in book form.
Despite our coolly intellectual association with the “death of the author,” the freedom of the reader, the independence of the text (as a friend of mine puts it plainly: “fuck biography”), we cling to the shards of evident ordinary humanity that an archive lays out for us.
“Any time you go into an archive, you get this burst of excitement,” said D.T. Max, whose biography of Wallace Every Love Story is a Ghost Story will be published this September. We sat outside the Ransom Center underneath its large trees during a break in the symposium. “You see how somebody writes. You see their handwriting. There’s nothing like that moment of delight.” When I asked if he thought that Wallace fans are unique in the depth of their desire to see this kind of material, he answered unequivocally in the affirmative.
Some of these fans will be disappointed because not all of the material will be available. Wallace’s personal collection of self-help books has been quietly removed. Shortly after the appearance of an online article analyzing the marginalia in those books, they were closed off. It seems understandable — though I identify with the frustration of researchers who contend that the self-help books would offer insights into Wallace’s own reflections on his mental illness. The archive will tell an incomplete story and this fact reminds us that its contents are contingent on raw and real emotions: that there’s a hierarchy in which readers come second (personal bias here, having met Wallace’s wife Karen Green and having observed the rigidity of grief in her posture as she patiently answered an attendee’s questions about her husband’s views on religion: rightfully so).
I’m not an expert on Wallace’s work. But I remember sitting on the curb outside an aquarium-themed bar in Washington, DC (one of the five worst establishments in the world) on a September night in 2008. I’d just learned about his death via text message from an ex-girlfriend. It was awful. I was blubbering with disbelief and shock and an unexpected sense of loneliness and stupidity that I’d be this upset about the death of a stranger. I remember thinking that there were other people out there who deserved to be more upset — people who knew him as more than a dust-jacket picture.
Yet as it turns out, even for some of the people who knew Wallace personally, the most difficult memories to talk about are the ones dealing with his writing.
Pietsch choked up when he described the process of editing The Pale King. He told his audience that Wallace was trying to unlock the “hallucinatory possibilities of boredom” — to explore ecstatic human freedom in desolate-seeming moments of mental life. It was tough to watch him characterize the almost unfathomable difficulty of this challenge, and to describe the degree to which his friend fought it. He had to cede the floor to Nadell, looking down at the stage as she picked up the thread of the conversation.
Over breakfast the next morning, Pietsch told me about reading the first 250 pages of the manuscript, which began from the perspective of a character named David Wallace.
“Reading those first words,” Pietsch said, “I was able to forget he wasn’t alive for a little while.”
How strange this moment must have been: the aliveness of the character and the realness of the voice strong enough to overshadow actual death (though one hesitates to concede that he was less dead). Isn’t the achievement of this kind of togetherness the motive force behind reading itself? Don’t we hope to connect at an irreducible level with the consciousness of another person in this way? And doesn’t fiction offer us the promise that this kind of experience can help us understand how to live?
To his fans, Wallace struggles more mightily in his work with these kinds of questions than any author of his generation, though they’re certainly at the heart of a lot of fiction that Wallace didn’t write. He was, as Pietsch puts it, “an extraordinary mind struggling with the challenge of ordinariness.” But what we seem to be searching for in an author’s archive (or even in a biography, a memoir, or whatever) is precisely an indication of the ordinariness of their struggle. So although we say we go to fiction for what we think is a unique set of experiences, we still crave the tangible evidence that an author was a person: that Wallace made sometimes-unreasonable demands of his editors, that he hid in hotel rooms while on assignment, that it was harder for him than the effortlessness of his prose would suggest.
When I asked Pietsch about the challenges of working with Wallace in everyday life, he responded with a tennis anecdote, telling me about a time when David had ask him to play a few sets.
“I demurred,” he said, “but David said ‘trust me, it’s great. What I’m really good at is putting the ball just outside your range.’”
I grew up on tennis courts (and sometimes think I’m doomed to forever find the overlaps between tennis and literary life). I know from experience that these kinds of players — torture-experts who can, at will, place a crosscourt forehand or down-the-line backhand just two inches beyond your panting body — are the worst people to play. Their befuddling facility with your personal limitations gets inside your noggin. You feel as though they have elemental knowledge, not only of your athletic ineptitudes, but your moral and intellectual shortcomings. They know about the time you peed your pants in first grade, about your unreported short-term capital gains, about your secret belief that recycling is bullshit. Yet to duel against this kind of brain can also provide the best and most fulfilling kind of joys, both on the court, and on the page.
Perhaps this tennis-like skill marks the unique quality of Wallace’s genius and explains the unique fervor of his readers. He rarely overwhelms us or bludgeons us into submission with the sheer force of his intellect. He uses big words and asks us for patience, and drives us nuts with the freaking footnotes. But the fact that his work is so addictive to so many arises from the tantalizing closeness of his observations of ordinary life to our own experience.
He puts the ball just out of reach. When we go up against him, we push our capacities for attentiveness to their limit. We want to see the world the way he does, and feel like we almost do — and maybe an archive suggests that by seeing the remainders of his ordinary life, we might get closer. It might reveal that his effortless-seeming performance requires an enormous amount of effort.
But we might have to come to terms with the fact that he’ll remain out of reach.
Millions readers in the Toronto area should check out the Lit City exhibit at the Market Gallery (second floor of the St. Lawrence Market, on now through the spring, free).As part of the ongoing festivities marking Toronto’s 175th birthday, the Market Gallery, occupying a room that served as council chambers in the mid-late 1800s, marries the visual with the literary. The gallery divides up Toronto neighborhood by neighborhood, presenting paintings and other visual expressions of each particular neighborhood, and pairing the art with excerpts from literary texts.So, there’s a painting of the Viaduct on Bloor Street, paired with an excerpt from Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, which explored the world of the immigrant worker who broke his back building the viaduct in the early part of last century. A painting of Chinatown sits next to an excerpt from a Cory Doctorow story about the neighborhood. Margaret Atwood, Paul Quarrington and Dennis Lee are among the novelists and poets whose works are excerpted and placed in a neighborhood context.It’s fascinating to see literary works take on an alternate existence. Stripped of storyline, stripped of principal characters and themes, the short excerpts here serve a different purpose, a new context. Like the paintings they’re paired with, they provide eloquent commentary on the specific neighborhood.Overhearing my fellow gallery-goers, I discovered that none were extolling the quite evident artistic virtues of the paintings or texts. Instead, they were discussing the depicted neighborhoods themselves, inspired by the excerpts to draw on their own memories, creating there, on the spot, their own sense of community.
“HELLO MY NAME IS MARX,” read the candy cane colored name tag handed to me. One woman actually said that I looked like a Marx, the scruffy beard and omni-directional head of hair. Another teased that she and I ought to make Marx the latest mintage in Manhattan baby name trending by starting a blog to promote it. A University of Chicago grad said, “Go” — she was ready to talk me under the table with Marxist theory, and when I protested how little I actually remembered off the cuff, she said she would settle for Durkheim, Weber, or Mills. Wasn’t there someone? Goffman? I responded, Nietzsche: Down with the old gods, up with the mania for replacing them! Then our time was up. I joked about how I intended to use the event and number of dates I would meet as a chance to rally support for socialist thought and motion toward a groundswell to upend the capitalist system, which, didn’t they agree, had gone on long enough?
Nobody said they didn’t.
With doomed grandeur, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “there are no second acts in American lives” — not accounting, perhaps, for the fortune and fame that could follow publication of a memoir premised on there being no second act. Fitzgerald lived true to his word: his twilight in Hollywood, the mythic cradle of American radical self-reinvention, figured as a long wait for the notes of the nightingale’s song to sound. Marx, on the other hand, declared that everything that has ever happened happens twice: “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” The third time, fourth, fifth, and so on, we are on our own.
Not everyone knows, per Jonathan Sperber’s recent bio, that Karl Marx’s earliest manuscript was called The Book of Love. Student Marx composed the collection of romantic poems for childhood sweetheart and lifelong partner Jenny von Westphalen. Over the course of their lives together, his romance with Jenny transformed into a romance of a different kind, a belief in the inevitability of international revolution whose contours were somewhat hazy, if keenly felt.
This is what happened on the day before Valentine’s Day, 2013, a Wednesday, at the Housing Works Bookstore on Crosby Street just south of the Calvin Klein billboard in SoHo. A first ever. A good cause: “I Like Your Glasses: Literary Speed Dating.” Each participant found at the entrance a neon green envelope, including a library card in manila sleeve for taking notes on each “date,” and a name tag featuring the handle of a character from a favorite book (favorites requested earlier by e-mail). These would be our pseudonyms for the night. Each date would last an almost militantly enforced four minutes. A single case of lingering — whether affectionate, desirous, or uncertain — could cause the entire caterpillar crawl to go legs up. There was to be no lingering. Lingering is for books.
We each were to have brought one, a title to display for the sake of conversation. From my messenger bag I drew John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse. Each “date” station had a name — my point of origin dubbed Heorot for Beowulf’s banquet hall where Grendel was a regular gate-crasher. Café tables set in rows through the heart of Housing Works Bookstore’s assembly space formed the stations, solicitous waiters snaking around them to offer speed-date refreshment, tonic of composure or forgetting.
Two emcees spoke over a scratchy sound system by the bathrooms, raging like Dylan Thomas against the frenetic buzz of our voices. They joked we would hate them and use our hatred of them as grist for conversation with the strangers across from us. I succeeded at not mentioning them until my final match of the night, a brunette with an anchor tattooed on her bare shoulder. Her pseudonym was Estha, one plucked by the organizers’ naming committee from Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. I looked at her and she looked at me, fleetingly at one in our total disdain for the emcees as they pleaded everyone be quiet. In that moment, I am sure of it, we both wished for their overthrow.
This was as close to authentic connection as I found. Estha was probably about five years my senior (although, impossible to say: she could have been 29, too, a lover of the wind and the rain and the sun on her cheeks). She said that she was bouncing back from a divorce to the guy with whom she had cofounded a restaurant in Brooklyn — the same restaurant, it turns out, I went to on my first date with the last woman to cohabitate with me. I was touched by the coincidence and the total lack of rationale for verbalizing the coincidence to Estha, as we had about a minute left in our exchange, and a top 10 rule of first dates, the real kind, is not to mention exes unless desiring to come off as a pet pitifully leashed to a station wagon pulling obliviously away and gaining speed.
My eyes might have gone a little fuzzy, all the same, and Estha took my expression of fuzziness for susceptibility, emphasizing how she always made sure to mention the name of the restaurant she and her ex founded when possible. I realized Estha, like me, was attempting to find a purpose for the evening, what it had really all been about, if it had not been what it was supposed to be about (the exceedingly worthy charitable cause, notwithstanding). What it had all really been about, I decided, was capitalism, making a product of ourselves and pitching it to strangers at four-minute intervals: life as an ad incarnate. Estha, at least, had the class not to be promoting specifically herself but a physical location in the world that she had played a part in dreaming a reinvention for, one that we, any of us guys carouselling by, could go visit.
There was also Karenina from Idaho — a girl from Idaho! — and June, who was quiet, and Ruth, whose pseudonym’s source text was, for me, a winner, and Grace, who knew her political and sociological thinkers, and Kit, who laughed at me or an awareness of the cool, amusing film through which we saw each other, the cattle stall of the standard speed dating experience retrofitted with funhouse literary mirrors.
I tried not to steal peeks at the next woman over both because it was rude to the woman I was speaking with and because I wanted every meeting to be a surprise with a genuine response, not performed or calculated. Though, Reader, I tell you, my naïve ambition became difficult to maintain as I stood up to move on to Calliope of the Marx babies, then Babette, who had the air of a cigarette-smoking beauty queen, and Anne, and Hazel, and Lizzy, and my consciousness of the fact that the more I repeated myself in response to the same questions, the less sincere I became, our comedian hosts droning on, their voices insistent, their words incomprehensible, the face presently across from me feeling more and more like a test-marketing subject for a new product which was My Projected Self. Shame at projections gone awry sloughed away as new conversation played immediately over old, like a new album in place of last year’s, with Daisy, who wondered whether or not she ought to read The Corrections, and Margaret Peel, who was significantly older and to whom I said I was probably not the guy she imagined meeting that evening, but what about her make-believe name, its literary origin? (Lucky Jim, she explained, our organizers having conflated her favorite author, Martin Amis, with his father, Kingsley, then named her after a character in Kingsley Amis’s most famous novel, a novel she had never read…although I had, I was reminded then), and Isabel, whose expression was like a runner’s in the early miles of a race, and finally, Estha, of the anchor tattoo and lovable Brooklyn restaurant.
One thing about capitalism, I have noticed, is that its appeal is never stronger than in the aftermath of a breakup, love spilling forth from the vessel that shaped it, all that energy and longing to be known and to know in turn seeking new forms to cleave to, things that did not previously define you. Conceivably a human being could live this way forever, making bonds, breaking bonds, and reaching out through expenditures of concentration and will to take on more trappings, assume other forms, a kind of perennial runaway from the prurience of small-town gossip and stifling judgment, glorying in the purity of the new.
There is what we forget and what we remember, and I cannot say for certain how accurately I have recalled an event now seven months distant, or where fiction, despite conscious intention, has blurred the edges of fact and so made them softer, the facts, but thematically more concentrated, molding from a chaos of temporarily overlapping paths something that reads as almost retraceable. A moment of possible return.
To find yourself speed dating is to acknowledge, at least to yourself, not without humor, a waywardness of romantic course, to become increasingly conscious of yourself as an advertisement for yourself, a mercurial herald, as you move from one table to the next, one consciousness and then another and another flitting by image-saturated eyes. In your remove, the recognitions you have but don’t speak, a story begins to build, refined by each new face, each curious glance, the unspoken attempt to find a hold in the world everyone shares. It is almost possible to believe that the world consists entirely of surfaces and that the ones presently before us are the only we will ever know.
If it is true that capitalism is the final organizing principle humanity will ever know, the snaking tables around which we are to carousel forever, but not just capitalism in the abstract, but this capitalism, where big companies merge with big companies, big publishers with big publishers — the fewer meaningful players on the field, the less actual competition, the closer our capitalism resembles Soviet Russia, a state ruled by one all-encompassing company whose elite direct the bureaucratic circus — then I might have been seeing symptoms in the material conditions of the speed dating scene, or the shape the material conditions gave my sense of self, those of us on the carousel that night in February. As we passed each other by, our personalities become weightless, the stories inside the books we carried felt more and more real.
Image Credit: Flickr/Alan O’Rourke