On March 28, 2019, Norwegian filmmaker Kristoffer Borgli attempted to interview David Shields at a NORMS Restaurant in West Hollywood, Calif. Later he attempted to interview Shields by a hedge and at a bookshop. Later he attempted to interview Shields and Bret Easton Ellis at the latter’s nearby apartment. Luckily, Borgli’s cameras were rolling, and The Millions is proud to present its readers with what is likely the most awkward author interview in the history of American letters.
A couple of weeks ago, finding myself between books, I went to my shelves in search of something to read. After a time, I came to a copy of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime that I’ve had for years, but never got around to reading. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate is one my favorite novels, and I recently enjoyed his Homer & Langley. That settled it: Ragtime it would be.
However, when I opened it that night, I let out a disappointed groan. Highlighter marks were everywhere; on the first page of text alone, seven words (among them “stouter” and — snort — “steamers”) were underlined in neon blue, and the sentence “There was a lot of sexual fainting” had been, for some reason, parenthesized. I flipped ahead, and the blue marker was even thicker on subsequent pages. Though I’ve occasionally read secondhand books that previous owners had scribbled through, Ragtime was far too damaged to read. There was practically more highlighter than printer’s ink.
The handwriting had a bouncy innocence to it, leading me to believe that it had come from a high school student, maybe a freshman or sophomore. It also seemed to have come from a female, though the vandal’s gender is immaterial.
Do I have this right? I’m asking you directly, teenager who ruined my copy of Ragtime. Have I identified you correctly?
By now, you’re probably in your 30s; I’ve had the book for at least a decade, and it was old when I got it. Since so much time has passed, then, I hope you won’t be upset with me for pointing out a few absurdities in your novel-wrecking note-taking style. You destroyed Doctorow’s masterpiece; the least you can do is understand my frustration.
First: when you highlighted a word, did you look it up soon afterward? Or did you wait until much later, seeking the definitions of 50 or 60 words at a time? I’m genuinely baffled by your approach. For example, the word “vaudeville” is underlined three times in the first six pages, and “vaudevillian” is marked not long after that. Did you ever look up “vaudeville,” or did you just keep underlining it in manic exasperation? You underlined “affidavit” three times in the same paragraph. Wouldn’t one mark have sufficed? Or did you just think that the blue looked neat? And could you really not figure out what a “sexologist” was? Was it that difficult to parse? Wouldn’t a “cheeseologist” be someone who studies cheese?
Chapter three ends with the sentence “And up through the slum alleys, through the gray clothes hanging listlessly on lines strung across air shafts, rose the smell of fried fish.” A highly evocative passage, seemingly straightforward enough. Yet you drew a bracket around “fried fish” with an arrow pointing to a plaintive question: “Why?” Why? Why would the smell of fried fish rise through the slum alleys? Sadly, I never had the chance to meet Doctorow — he died in 2015 — so I’ve never been able to ask him what he meant by this riddle. But I’d guess — and mind you, it’s only a guess — that it had something to do with the fact that SOMEONE WAS FRYING FISH.
A similar conundrum confronts us on page 17, where you wrote “what year is this???” I assume you’re asking in what year Ragtime takes place — not that, addled by the book, you forgot what year you were actually living in. Operating on that assumption, we can see that, on the first few pages alone, Doctorow secreted a number of clues as to when his story occurs. First, there are references to Harry Houdini, Jacob Riis, and to the shooting, years before, of “the steel millionaire Henry Frick” — so anyone with a decent grasp of American history might begin to infer an answer. Ragtime also depicts European immigration to Ellis Island and Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency. Still, one can’t be sure. Yet there is a tantalizing nugget that, if looked at in the proper way, could answer your thrice-punctuated question. It’s buried deep within the very first line of Ragtime’s very first chapter: In 1902…
Again, though, one can’t be sure. “In 1902.” What does that even mean?
At the bottom of page 25, you scrawled “what kind of jail is this?” I assume you’re referring to the prison that Doctorow described Houdini escaping from, but there’s an existential poignancy to your question that I can’t fully shake. Is Ragtime itself — assigned by some tweedy English teacher; full of arcane terminology and long-dead characters — the jail you were referring to? If so, you pulled your own shrewd Houdini move, didn’t you? Because just eight pages later, the highlighting ceased. The rest of the book is blessedly free of your scrawlings, as unmarked as the day it came off the press. It appears that you escaped the novel, mad with glee, never to blue its pages again.
I truly wish you the best. I hope the time you spent trapped in Ragtime didn’t scar you too much, now-aging teenage highlighter. Hopefully, you’re now a well-adjusted adult — and aren’t the sort of almost-middle-aged crank who complains incessantly about trivial matters like, say, highlighter marks on an old paperback. That sort of person can seem like an irritating character in an old vaudeville show, don’t you think?
I like an intricately plotted story, full-fledged characters, and crisp dialog as much as the next novelist, but those things don’t come cheap. They take time, and time is money. So when it came time to begin work on a new novel, I headed for a retailer that could help me break into the NYT bestseller list without breaking the bank.
I made a beeline for the “Plot” aisle, where I bumped into the owner, Ned. I told him I needed some simple props to keep things moving, just a gun and a briefcase. “Well, we are a discount store,” he told me, “but we can come close.”
Especially pleased with my cardboard box, which was an affordable and recyclable plot device, I headed over to the “Cardboard Cutout Characters” aisle to pick up my old standby, the tortured detective.
Ah, the irony — an out-of-stock stock character! I would have to use that in a novel someday. A new strategy was called for. I happen to write women very well, better than most women do, truth be told, and The Frugal Scribe had every variety I could want.
After much deliberation, I managed to select a few of the most well-rounded characters. But what would they say to each other? Ned directed me to the “Wooden Dialog” section to pick up some budget lines.
I couldn’t afford mahogany — the stuff James Patterson buys — but I found some reasonably priced pine that was far superior to the particle board I used in my first novel. Now I needed to infuse the project with some emotion, preferably unearned.
What to do with the savings from this great deal? Critics called my last book a “minor effort,” so I asked Ned if there was some way, short of investing more time and energy in the writing, to show how much I labor over every sentence. “It’s your lucky day,” he said leading me to the “Stationary” aisle.
Next stop was the “Title” aisle, where I was disappointed in the offerings on displa; Anna Karenina II or Title TK weren’t going to cut it. I explained to Ned that I wanted something freshly derivative — The Da Vinci Code for Millennials. “I don’t show this to all my customers,” he replied, “but I think I’ve got just the thing…”
Eureka! For the low cost of $22.30, The Frugal Scribe provided me with all the materials for a critical and commercial success. I certainly won’t forget them when The Galileo Sudoku takes the literary world by storm and I finally have the money to get that MFA.
Illustrations by Zane Shetler who lives and works in Durham, NC. Check out more of his art and writing at zaneshetler.tumblr.com.
On a recent foray into the deepest, dankest corners of my basement, I came across a box of college mementoes — old photographs, bottlecaps, blue-book exams. As I dug through the strata, I uncovered a largely-forgotten treasure: a stack of novels that I’d read and loved as an idealistic, horny, often hungover student. These books helped usher me from my teens into adulthood — and opened my eyes to the breadth, and often the harshness, of the surrounding world. I’d adored these books. So why had I left them in this box, like discarded memories? Looking through them again, I may have found the answer.
Dancing Soup with Coyote Girl • Tom Robbins
As a sophomore, I discovered Robbins’s Another Roadside Attraction and was blown back by his sentences’ studied freedom and his generous worldview. I quickly read Still Life With Woodpecker and enjoyed it slightly less; Skinny Legs and All, less still. By the time I got to Jitterbug Perfume, I was openly annoyed by the patchouli miasma that hovered over everything. The last Robbins book I read was Dancing Soup With Coyote Girl, published in 1992. The more Coyote Girl I read, the more I felt almost physically ill, as if a sketchy-bearded hippie was talking me through a brown-acid trip. I couldn’t finish the book. And when I saw Dancing Soup With Coyote Girl’s long-forgotten cover — a purple can of mushroom soup hovering above a desert mesa — I had a sweaty flashback that left me shivering under the utility sink.
Monsters of Privilege • Bret Easton Ellis
Of all the Ellis novels I ripped through in college — American Psycho, Glamorama, Less Than Zero — I remember very little about Monsters of Privilege aside from the fact that it featured hard drugs, an anorexic girl seeming to die without anyone caring, and lots of dead-eyed sex. As I flipped through my copy — the cover shows a backlit silhouette of a high-cheeked young man and a bold san-serif font — my eye landed on a passage that seemed representative: “Derek looked around, blood draining from the wound. The glass vase lay smashed on the Italian marble. ‘I need some coke,’ Derek muttered to the empty foyer. Out by the pool, someone had put on a Tears for Fears cassette.”
Garbageman • Charles Bukowski
Bukowski’s third novel, the autobiographical Garbageman, is about Los Angeles trash collector Henry Chinaski, who, when not working for the city’s Public Works Authority, writes short stories on a broken typewriter in his grimy cold-water flat. Chinaski rages against his circumscribed lot with a steady, heroic intake of hard booze and cheap women, unconcerned by the bleakness of it all. While some have criticized Garbageman as a carbon-copy of much of his other work — Post Office and Factotum come to mind — the differences are obvious. In Post Office, he’s a postal worker, and in Factotum, he’s a factotum (or handyman). In Garbageman, he’s a…well, I won’t ruin it for you.
The Gutter • Hubert Selby, Jr.
What I’d consider to be Selby’s lightest, frothiest novel, The Gutter follows the exploits of a heroin-addicted gigolo named Bunny. At the book’s outset, we find Bunny writhing in a flophouse basement, covered in blood and vomit while scratching at infected boils. Two hundred forty-seven pages later, Bunny is near death, “bad skag” spreading through his veins, spittle at his purple lips, as he moans in the titular gutter. “I always wanted to write a comedy,” Selby said to The New York Review of Books in 1987, upon The Gutter’s publication. “This is my Without Feathers.”
Ishmael 3: Going Ape • Daniel Quinn
I read the gorilla-philosophy classic Ishmael at the precise moment I should have, when I was about 19 and, like its narrator, had “an earnest desire to save the world.” Its message — basically, that we’re a species of selfish bastards, and we need to stop hacking everything to pieces — seemed sound, and I became a vegetarian not long after reading it. A sequel, My Ishmael, offered more of the same, and I responded in kind, cutting dairy from my diet and riding my 10-speed everywhere, no matter the distance. I was nearly at my limit — and the Gaia-minded self-sacrifice urged in Ishmael 3: Going Ape pushed me over the edge. After reading it, I sought out a remote yurt-based community, where we drank home-brewed scallionmilk and fashioned socks from dryer lint. It was a rough period, to say the least (it was the year of the Great Eastern Chigger Invasion), and as the memories flooded back, I shoved Ishmael 3: Going Ape into the deepest recesses of the box, along with its companions: the Selby, the Ellis, the Bukowski, the Robbins. I sealed it with fresh tape, hurried up the basement steps, and shut off the light. Upstairs, slightly shaken, I laid on my living-room couch and continued reading a book that, I’m positive, will never seem embarrassing in retrospect.
Image Credit: Flickr/Angelo Yap.