We went out for Chinese with some friends last night, and this is the fortune that came in Mrs. Millions’ fortune cookie. Auspicious, no?
We went out for Chinese with some friends last night, and this is the fortune that came in Mrs. Millions’ fortune cookie. Auspicious, no?
C. Max Magee created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.
Pitting a novel entitled Am I a Redundant Human Being? against Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love may initially seem like an imbalanced match. Eat, Pray, Love is more than double its length, a best-seller turned blockbuster movie, an inspirational book devoted to the pursuit of sensuality, spirituality, personal independence, and love. Mela Hartwig’s Am I a Redundant Human Being? is a conspicuous underdog, a slight volume in translation written by the Austrian actress turned novelist Mela Hartwig who befriended Virginia Woolf in Woolf’s final years. Gilbert’s book is a travel memoir that recounts a year-long pilgrimage in search of personal enlightenment that Gilbert the writer planned to chronicle well before booking her flights, while Hartwig’s is a bildungsroman, centered on the ineffectual Aloisia Schmidt who aspires to significance as she bemoans the dullness of the existence she was born into. The titles alone reveal the divergent natures of the two books, and demand that you answer, as a reader, are you drawn to pleasance or neurotic self-doubt?
The Library of Congress classifies Am I a Redundant Human Being? primarily as a book about “self-realization in women,” which is the topic of Gilbert’s book, too: the process of growing into the person you dream of becoming (or, in Schmidt’s case, of failing to do so). Gilbert’s path to self-actualization is fairly clear-cut: first stop Italy, where she learns Italian and binges on pasta and pizza merely because she wants to, next an ashram in India in pursuit of spiritual enlightenment, and a final stop in Bali for balance, where inevitably, it’s no secret, she falls in love. As Gilbert states towards the end of her journey: “I think about the woman I have become lately, about the life that I am now living, and about how much I always wanted to be this person and live this life, liberated from the farce of pretending to be anyone other than myself.” However inspiring or cloying or annoying you find Gilbert’s self-satisfaction by book’s end, this becoming one’s ideal is exactly what Hartwig’s Aloisia Schmidt yearns to do, so desperately in fact that she’s willing to destroy her life in this pursuit.
Aloisia Schmidt is wonderfully insufferable. She recounts the sad events of her insignificant life in tireless detail. She is neither beautiful nor ugly, intelligent nor stupid, good student nor bad: the sum of her life is one large zero, or at least that’s what she would lead you, dear reader, to believe. However, Schmidt has penetrating insight into her own inadequacies and shortcomings, as well as the strength to willfully unravel her unexceptional life, as her first boyfriend, Emil K., accuses: “it’s hubris, Luise, to think so little of yourself… You’re acting as if you’ve been singled out. As if it’s your destiny to feel this way.” She rejects suitors with good intentions in favor of caustic affairs, erodes the faith of others, especially lovers, with her own self-doubt, and alienates anyone who believes in her – true to Groucho Marx’s adage, she wouldn’t care to join any club that would have her as a member.
Gilbert, on the other hand, identifies as being “social and bubbly and smiling all the time,” and makes friends wherever she goes. Her tone conveys personal warmth. She speaks plainly, offering intimate details and asides as if confiding in a good friend. In India, Gilbert admits her lifelong desire “to be the quiet girl,” but then counters this quickly with: “Probably precisely because I’m not.” She is the well-intentioned socialite, and never, however much she halfheartedly wishes, the despondent wallflower. However, Gilbert’s glibness and sometimes pussyfooting make one wonder about her depth. We need not forget that Gilbert is on a professional mission. Following her divorce and failed love affair, the self-proclaimed “administrator of my own rescue” had the wherewithal to pitch her book, pack her bags, and journey solo around the world for a year, under the pretense of finding herself.
Gilbert is closer in nature to one of Schmidt’s prep school classmates who are better dressed, better prepared, just more advantaged in general, something that Schmidt later identifies as “two-faced arrogance that comes with money and social position – things I completely lacked, and still lack.” When she has moved on to office life, Schmidt becomes “conscious of my pathetic tendency to be impressed by anyone the least bit self-assured.” Lacking confidence distinguishes Schmidt from the women she both envies and admires, and this distinguishes her from Gilbert, too.
Schmidt later befriends an actress (uncannily) named Elizabeth, who she wants so much to be that she imitates her, and this emulation becomes Schmidt’s one inspired role. After Elizabeth’s suicide, Schmidt attempts to inhabit her character, wanting “to make her fate my own, to experience it as a dream and desire.” Aloisia Schmidt is like Eve Harrington, the cunning understudy in All About Eve, though it’s not Elizabeth’s fame and prominence she covets, it’s her entire existence. Where Gilbert grows into her ideal self in the end, Schmidt’s ideal self is someone else entirely.
Of the two books, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love is the one Aloisia Schmidt would prefer to read. Of her reading habits, Schmidt says, “I read in order to forget myself, to slip from one life into another, to identify myself with my newest heroine… When I read, I lived on credit; I literally borrowed from the author what I myself so painfully lacked – namely, fantasies. I dreamed, you could say, at the author’s expense. But wasn’t it his job to dream for me?” Gilbert speaks to fantasies, specifically the twenty-first century American variety of jet-set enlightenment by way of paradisiacal settings, and reassurance that broken hearts mend to love again. The fantasy is so persuasive that her book has singlehandedly augmented spiritual tourism in Bali.
Eat, Pray, Love owes no small part of its success to the fantasy it sells to multitudes of readers who, à la Aloisia Schmidt, question the significance of their lives, who find, if not hope, then escape from their thwarted aspirations and dreams. Schmidt would prefer to lead Elizabeth Gilbert’s life, and honestly, if I had to chose between their lives, I would, too. But as a reader, I find that Schmidt’s hand in her own downfall and her relentless refusal to settle for redundancy make her a more interesting if also more complicated character.
Bonus Link: Zen and the Art of Image Maintenance
The holidays are upon us, and I suspect that many of the folks reading this will be cutting out early this week. I think I’ll do the same, so don’t expect much in this space until 2005. I’m glad everyone seemed to enjoy the year end extravaganza. It was great fun seeing what everyone read this year. I’ll leave you with a couple of late additions and addenda before sending you off to your holiday jollification.Dan Wickett, proprietor of the Emerging Writers Network, previously gave us his Emerging Best of 2004, but he recently wrote in with some more of his personal favorites from this year. Novel: Steve Yarbrough – Prisoners of War; George Garrett – Double VisionShort Story Collections: Aaron Gwyn – Dog on the Cross; Percival Everett – Damned If I DoPoetry Collections: Beth Ann Fennelly – Tender Hooks; David Huddle – GrayscaleNon-Fiction: Steve Almond – Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America; Owen Gingerich – The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus CopernicusAnd last week, Brian shared with us his thoughts on a couple of books he enjoyed this year, but he couldn’t let me close things out without posting this:Chronicles, Vol. 1 by Bob Dylan: I lived in mortal fear that the genius of Bob Dylan – lyrically, melodically, and just plain cool-as-a-motherfuckerally – wouldn’t translate to prose. Naw, nothing to worry about. His book reads like nothing else: a smashed-up collage of history, (auto)biography, anecdote, music criticism, politics, fiction, lies, truth, and more. Dylan hangs with Chinese philosophers, New York playwrights, John Wilkes Booth(!!!), Tiny Tim, John Wayne, Gorgeous George, Bono, and, in my favorite scene in the book, during an early 60’s freezing cold NYC day, within the confines of a friend’s crash-pad, a teenaged Dylan skims through a wall of books and loses himself in ancient Greece, the Napoleonic wars, the Civil War, etc… a badass rootin-tootin’ tale of America(na) told through the eyes of one of its greatest (and most eccentric) poets.Now that sounds pretty good! Enjoy the holiday everyone. Coming after the break: a new installment from Millions contributor Andrew, the introduction of two brand new Millions contributors, my year in reading, and, yes, much, much more.
Six months after David Foster Wallace’s suicide, The New Yorker published a novella-length piece by journalist D.T. Max on Wallace’s last difficult years and his encompassing effort to surpass Infinite Jest. That article started the drumbeat for two books: The first, The Pale King, was released last April and pored over by critics and readers; the second, Max’s biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: The Life of David Foster Wallace, arrives next week. The biography was written with the cooperation of Wallace’s family and is the first definitive treatment of the author’s life.
What follows are the book’s opening paragraphs:
Every story has a beginning and this is David Wallace’s. He was born in Ithaca, New York, on February 21, 1962. His father, James, was a graduate student in philosophy at Cornell, from a family of professionals. David’s mother, Sally Foster, came from a more rural background, with family in Maine and New Brunswick, her father a potato farmer. Her grandfather was a Baptist minister who taught her to read with the Bible. She had gotten a scholarship to a boarding school and from there gone to Mount Holyoke College to study English. She became the student body president and the first member of her family to get a bachelor’s degree.
Jim and Sally had their daughter, Amy, two years after David, by which time the family had moved to Champaign-Urbana, twin cities in central Illinois and the home of the state’s most important public university. The family had not wanted to leave Cornell—Sally and Jim loved the rolling landscape of the region—but Wallace had been offered a job in the philosophy department in the university and felt he could not turn it down. The couple were amazed when they arrived to see how bleak their new city was, how flat and bare. But soon, happily, Jim’s appointment turned into a tenure-track post, Sally went back to school to get her master’s in English literature, and the family settled in, eventually, in 1969, buying a small yellow two-story house on a one-block-long street in Urbana, near the university. Just a few blocks beyond were fields of corn and soybeans, prairie farmland extending as far as the eye could see, endless horizons.
Here, Wallace and his sister grew up alongside others like themselves, in houses where learning was highly valued. But midwestern virtues of normality, kindness, and community also dominated. Showing off was discouraged, friendliness important. The Wallace house was modest in size and looked out at other modest-sized houses. You were always near your neighbors and kids in the neighborhood lived much of their lives, a friend remembers, on their bikes, in packs. Every other kid in that era, it seemed, was named David.
There was elementary school at Yankee Ridge and then homework. The Wallaces ate at 5:45 p.m. Afterward, Jim Wallace would read stories to Amy and David. And then every night the children would get fifteen minutes each in their beds to talk to Sally about anything that was on their minds. Lights-out was at 8:30 p.m., later as the years went on. After the children were asleep, the Wallace parents would talk, catch up with each other, watch the 10 p.m. evening news, and Jim would turn the lights out at 10:30 exactly. He came home every week from the library with an armful of books. Sally especially loved novels, from John Irving to college classics she’d reread. In David’s eyes, the household was a perfect, smoothly running machine; he would later tell interviewers of his memory of his parents lying in bed, holding hands, reading Ulysses to each other.
For David, his mother was the center of the universe. She cooked his favorites, roast beef and macaroni and cheese, and baked his chocolate birthday cake and drove the children where they needed to go in her VW Bug. Later, after an accident, she replaced it with a Gremlin. She made beef bourguignonne on David’s birthday and sewed labels into his clothes (some of which Wallace would still wear in college).
I found an interesting interview with Jonathan Safran Foer today. I’ll be including this in an upcoming post about books to look forward to this year, but I wanted to post it separately first because I think it’s pretty interesting, and I can’t recall seeing it posted anywhere else. In the interview he talks about his forthcoming novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which will include photography along with the text, and which seems to be a continuation of the rule-breaking, avant-garde style he has been cultivating. The rest of the interview provides an interesting picture of this young author. The only annoying thing is that the interview is kind of hard to get to. First go to this link, click on Foer and then click on “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.”
Last week, my New Yorker didn’t show up. This has happened a handful of times in the close to ten years I’ve been reading the magazine. Typically, wherever I’ve lived, my issue has landed in my mailbox between Tuesday and Thursday. If I haven’t gotten my issue by Thursday, I tense up a bit and begin to plan, setting some time aside for a run to a bookstore or newsstand so that I don’t fall behind and so that my gnawing yen for the New Yorker is satisfied.But over the last decade, my New Yorker addiction has felt burdensome at times. I like to read – a lot – and yet with busy work schedules and other demands, I don’t have as much time to read as I’d like. And though my Reading Queue occupies several linear feet of shelving, I still find myself devoting about four days a week to the New Yorker (which I read all the way through, skipping only reviews of theater, dance, and music). Being the best magazine in the world, the New Yorker is guaranteed to provide me with at least one transcendent reading experience per month, often more than that, and very few clunkers. It is exceedingly rare that I quit reading an article halfway through. Still, though I love it so, I sometimes grow resentful of the time I must devote to the New Yorker and I sometimes fantasize about the day I’ll decide not to renew, though even formulating the reasons behind such a rash act is difficult.And so this week, when Thursday rolled around and my mailbox was still empty, I again felt that nervous pang and began to set aside some time for the ten-block walk to the Barnes & Noble. But then, I thought about it some more, and decided to miss this week’s New Yorker (though it may still arrive inexcusably late). So far, I feel pretty good, no withdrawal symptoms, and I think, if the day comes that I have to give up on the New Yorker entirely, I’ll survive, bonobos be damned.Update: That missing issue turned up after all.