On Literary Cravings and Aftertastes

1. I awoke in the middle of the night with an intense craving. I had been warned about the pickles and ice cream, about the strange, non-food items like chalk and laundry detergent that some pregnant women are moved to consume. This particular craving wasn’t for anything found in the freezer or pantry, however. It wasn’t for the kind of thing I could sink my teeth into at all. I had awoken with a deep and urgent hunger for a story. Out in the living room, under the light of a moon whose three o’clock glow I would come to know well after my baby’s arrival, I searched the bookshelf for my copy of Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s Collected Stories. I turned to the story the words of which I could already taste: the tale of three men who fumble around, hand-in-hand, after their eyes have been pecked out by long-billed birds during a night of drinking. I read the story’s six surreal pages, and then I read them again. I felt the hunger subsiding, the belly of my spirit filling up. That was weird, I thought. And with my first literary craving satisfied, I returned to bed and slept well. 2. For years I had curated my nightstand book stack according to what I thought I was supposed to be reading. Nobody (except for certain professors during grad school) had been explicitly telling me what to read, it’s just that I was letting recommendations and book reviews do the selecting for me. It wasn’t a bad way of doing things, since I encountered any number of books I was glad to have read. It just wasn’t intuitive, until now. Now I had a voracious appetite to consume certain books I’d read long ago, revisiting passages that had always been especially moving. Or -- and this was fun and also eerie in its accuracy -- I found myself submitting to cravings for books I had never before read but the combined language, plot, and characters of which turned out to produce the perfect meal of prose for this pregnant bibliophile. For instance, somewhere around the time that an email alerted me to the fact that my unborn son or daughter was now the size of a sweet potato (that’s around 18 weeks of gestation for the uninitiated), I found myself at the library, practically drooling as I checked out Jami Attenberg’s novel The Middlesteins. I devoured this book. In the same way that we’re cautioned against grocery shopping on an empty stomach, The Middlesteins -- a novel as much about food as anything else -- is best consumed alongside a meal, ideally something hot and greasy that’s served to you in the dark corner booth of a strip mall dining establishment. That is to say, the book paired well with my second trimester penchant for shame-snacking. But the story of the over-eating Edie Middlestein and her mess of a family fulfilled me in another way as well. They say that when you crave a particular food, you are responding to your body’s need for certain nutrients. This, I discovered, holds true for literary cravings as well. With a child on the way, I had become preoccupied by thoughts of family life, and although The Middlesteins was in many ways a perfect lesson on how not to do things, it was also the kind of story about a mother’s imperfect love that I hungered for: funny, messy, often heartbreaking, and ultimately redeeming. Just as my body had for weeks been craving endless clementine oranges, my mind had craved the very vitamins and nutrients -- the sentences and language -- that this book was made of. It was delicious. 3. I had always imagined that, as a pregnant woman, I would adopt a sort of Earth Mother persona: confident, innately nurturing, glowing from the inside out. It turned out that, in reality, I handled pregnancy with all the grace of George Costanza at a cocktail party. I was clumsy in my changing body and nervous about the safety of the baby who was changing it. And although I was already tremendously in love with the person forming inside of me, when faced with the impending responsibility of bringing up this new life in the world, it seemed very obvious how easy it would be to screw things up. From feeding to diapering to the general task of keeping a small human alive, parenthood is no small venture. And on top of that you have to make sure you’re not raising an asshole. These anxieties accompanied me day and night, and even followed me to the middle of the Pacific Ocean. When I was six months pregnant (that’s a cantaloupe on the produce-to-baby conversion chart), my husband and I took a trip to French Polynesia. While I had always considered myself a fearless traveler, this trip was fraught with anxiety from the start. There was the tiny island’s fresh Dengue Fever outbreak to consider, the constant worry over the availability of pasteurized dairy, and the inevitable neurosis of negotiating a bikini with said cantaloupe rearranging the shape of my entire body. I tried to relax with the books I had brought to read, the Serious Literature that had been in my queue for a while. Stoner was too slow for my racing mind, however, and for similar reasons I had no patience for The Sense of an Ending. Lying on the deck of our overwater bungalow, I remembered that I had brought along a copy of Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck. I had grabbed it from the library at the same time as the other books. Something about it had called to me, and I figured that something had been its title: while I didn’t feel particularly bad about my own neck at the time (that would come in the third trimester), I did feel bad about my butt. So I’d checked it out, thinking that a Nora Ephron book was the sort of light reading I might like to flip through in the last lazy days of vacation. Now I could feel myself craving Ephron’s essays the way I had come to crave so many other stories over the past several months. I could already taste her wit, her vulnerability, her heart. I set the other books aside for the time and opened the Ephron essay collection. It only took a few pages to discover how wrong I had been to believe that her writing, while deliciously accessible, was anything less than commanding. In the essay titled “Blind as a Bat,” she writes, “Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it's a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it's a way of making contact with someone else's imagination after a day that's all too real." On the island of Moorea, slathered in worry and useless mosquito-repelling essential oils, it was by making contact with Nora Ephron’s imagination that I was finally able to relax and appreciate the paradise surrounding me. Once again, through the peculiarity of my literary cravings, I had found the right book to feed me, to settle my stomach and my anxiety. Reading had always been emotional for me, viscerally felt, but while I continued to indulge these literary cravings over the following months, the act of reading began to more closely resemble the satisfaction of slurping up spaghetti noodles than anything involving intellect. The cravings came most often in the middle of the night, often for stories that featured people doing what they do best: messing up. Late one night I read a story from Megan Mayhew Bergman’s collection Birds of a Lesser Paradise three times in a row. The narrator of “Yesterday’s Whales” faces an unplanned pregnancy and asks her “vegetarian epicure” boyfriend to go buy saltines and Gatorade for her nausea. “Don’t come back with any organic stuff,” she tells him, “I need the real thing.” This I understood. Don’t come back with what I should be reading, I told myself over and over again, come back with what will nourish me: the real thing. 4. On Bastille Day 2013, our baby was born: a big beautiful boy, who we named Jude. The joy of Jude’s arrival was soon smudged with fear, however, when he was taken to the NICU due to complications. During the eight days that my son was in the NICU -- connected to a fistful of colorful wires, his fidgeting limbs setting off a constant commotion of alarms, his nearly nine-pound body awkwardly large compared with those of his two-pound neighbors -- I stayed just down the hall in a room with a single, unreliable mechanical bed and a bathroom the dimensions of which recalled the European budget hostels of my early travel days. In a gesture of solidarity with Jude, who had yet to take in his first breath of fresh California air, I chose to remain indoors as well, going days without wandering further than the jaundiced tile corridor between my room and the NICU. My vision blurred under legion fluorescent light boxes, my uniform was a rotation of unflattering sweatpants. During one of my many walks down this hall, a passage came to mind from “The Night of the Curlews,” the Gabriel Garcia Márquez story I had inexplicably craved early on in my pregnancy. “We felt the prolonged emptiness of the hallway before us,” says the narrator, one of three men trying to navigate his way home after having abruptly lost his sight in a wild bird attack. “Around us, surrounding us, there was always a wall,” he says. All that worry about what could go wrong while I was pregnant, about the many potential ways I might mess up as a new mother, and it turned out that when my child was in danger there was nothing I could do about it but wait. He would be healthy soon -- the doctors were clear about that -- and I understood even then how fortunate we were compared with many other NICU parents. Still, it was the most painful and disorienting time of my life. It felt like drowning, but worse: it felt like Jude and I were both drowning and I could do nothing to save either of us. My family -- the three of us -- were supposed to be alone at home, skin-to-skin, blissed-out, and sleep-deprived together in bed, with a dog sighing in the sun-drenched corner. Not here in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, where in order to hold my baby I had to watch a clock while scrubbing my skin raw, unfold a privacy screen beside the plastic cot marked “Gibson -- Baby Boy,” and negotiate the wires, monitors, and IV that weighed him down. We were trying to get home, but around us, surrounding us, there was always a wall. I had always thought of “The Night of the Curlews” as a hopeless story. I fixated on the random violence of it, on the savage way the men had been blinded. They were lost and hopeless and the sadness of their story would linger with me after every reading. In fact, I was sort of disgusted with myself when I’d felt such a strong urge to read it while pregnant; it was the one literary craving I couldn’t rationalize. Now that I had been blindsided by my own version of a curlew attack, it made sense that such a bleak story would come to mind. But I didn’t want to be hopeless. I couldn’t drown, I was a mother now. After five days and repeated suggestions that it would be restorative for both my sanity and my physical recovery to at least get some fresh air in the hospital’s outdoor courtyard, I finally relented and stepped outside. I did not change out of my sweatpants. As I ate an In ‘N Out grilled cheese sandwich beside my husband at a picnic table, the setting summer sun warmed my face and I remembered the ending of the Garcia Márquez story. The three men also find themselves in what seems to be a courtyard. They’ve lost all sense of time and direction. They are waiting for something or someone familiar to lead them back home. One of them suggests going back toward the wall -- the wall that is a constant wherever they go -- but the other two know that another wall, or another maze of halls, however familiar, is not what they need. They sit still, their heads lifted, and say, “Let’s just wait till the sun begins to burn us on the face.” I finished my dinner outside and thought of those three blind men in mid-century South America, their arms linked, their faces turned to the sun’s heat and invisible light. It is a hopeful story: theirs, mine. In the confusion that follows random tragedy, while we hope and pray and wait to be led back home, sometimes we just need to sit still for a moment and turn our faces to the sun. If it burns us, fine, that’s how we know we’re alive. If we’re alive, our story isn’t over. While I was pregnant, I learned to follow my instincts -- my hunger -- to lead me to stories that would nourish me. And, as I learned from that first 3 a.m. craving for “The Night of the Curlews,” certain stories are meant to be savored so that the words continue to nourish long after the last sentence has been swallowed. The best stories leave an aftertaste.

He Hit Send: On the Awkward but Necessary Role of Technology in Fiction

1. “Can the hoary trope of mistaken identity still play in the age of Google images?” asks Alex Witchel in the New York Times Book Review. Witchel is talking about the premise of Michael Frayn’s new novel Skios and soon answers herself: “Well, no,” she says, “but since the author is Michael Frayn...it’s tempting to cut him some slack.” Is it? Maybe — it’s fiction, after all, and that being the case Frayn can do whatever he wants — but as a reader, and a writer, I wonder about that slack. More generally, I wonder about works of fiction that take place in a world identical to that which you and I inhabit, except for one thing: technology is all but ignored. I’m not referring to Luddite authors here — to Jonathan Franzen's rejection of e-books and Twitter. I’m talking about whether a character in a literary novel set in the year 2012 need even be aware of Twitter, or at the very least, email. It isn’t hard to make a case against including technology in fiction. First, technology can be awkward to write about. Also, to read about. The jargon is clumsy: download, reboot, global positioning device. It’s embarrassing, really. So I understand an author’s impulse to avoid littering pages of otherwise lyrical prose with the bleep-boop-beep of tech speak. For this reason, authors often forgo current technologies when they want their characters to communicate with one another, or to reveal important, plot-forwarding information. I get it. What could be less romantic than a text message? Fiction allows for a certain level of restraint, after all, where the author need not include a protagonist’s every bathroom break or end each scene with the characters saying goodbye. Why then, if it’s common practice to avoid including other unglamorous functions of characters’ daily lives — like said bathroom break — is it necessary to show them texting and refreshing their inboxes? Think of it this way: in most cases, a bowel movement will not move the plot forward; an email will. Despite all the trouble technology might cause, when it’s absent from contemporary novels, a big white elephant appears on the page and starts ambling around. (Perhaps searching for an unprotected Wi-Fi network?) Usually these are good books, full of beautiful language and arresting characters that teach me what it means to be human. But, as was the case with Vendela Vida’s Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, the obvious absence of things like search engines and smart phones makes me pause and think, "Couldn't she have at least Googled her father's name before she set off to the Arctic in search of him?" In “A Kind of Vast Fiction” — an essay in the form of an email thread published in The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books (edited by Jeff Martin and The Millions’ C. Max Magee) — David Gates and Jonathan Lethem discuss strategies for including, and avoiding, technology in fiction. Midway through the conversation, after Gates admits to being wary of certain social networking sites, Lethem asks, “So you’re Googling and YouTubing, if not Twizzling or Fnorgling, fair enough. But are your characters doing the same? Do you find it as difficult as I do to get this un-Brave, no-longer-that-New World onto the page in any credible way?”  Gates’s response is packed with insight: I have no idea how to handle this new mode of living (I guess “living” is the word) in fiction. I probably spend more time emailing and reading online than I do having non-virtual human contact — and I bet I’m not that unusual. If my characters were like that, would their lives be eventful enough to write about? On the other hand, if I write about people for whom the internet is — as far as the reader can see — peripheral or nonexistent, am I not essentially writing historical fiction? In the last story I finished, I used the expedient of sending my main character on a vacation where she’s sworn to limit her internet and cell phone use. And how do you deal with the problem of writing something that may be dated by the time the book comes out? My novel Preston Falls, which appeared in 1998, has a now-hilarious account of an email exchange — “He hit Send,” and so forth. And I just received a piece of student fiction which mentions Facebook and Skype in adjacent paragraphs; my instinct is that this is showing off, but maybe it’s no different from Jane Austen mentioning a fortepiano and a huswife on the same page. I’m interested in novels that render what Gates calls “this new mode of living” — those that successfully incorporate technology into their characters’ experiences. The following came to mind when I began to think about what recent works of fiction had either pulled this off or at least tried. 2. Consider Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding: The fact that they didn’t communicate by cell phone, didn’t chat or text, could reasonably be chalked up to the fact that they didn’t need to, they lived fifty yards apart and saw each other five days a week, but then again the students did little but chat and text, text messages were their surest form of intimacy, and to never have texted or been texted by Owen, not to know Owen’s number even for emergency purposes, not that this was an emergency, seemed suddenly to expose a great gulf between them. The above appears almost 300-pages into this 512-page novel. Though The Art of Fielding takes place on a college campus, this is one of the first mentions of texting in the book. And I can recall no mention of social networking in the first few hundred pages. This struck me as odd, perhaps because I recently spent two years on a university campus as a graduate student; I’m all too aware of how fiercely attached students are to technology. (I saw more bicycle accidents than I can count at USC because cyclists tend to keep both their hands and their eyes glued to iPhone screens while they ride.) So when these basic technologies are finally acknowledged in the book, the moment feels inevitable, as if the white elephant has at last grown impatient and begun to scuff his great foot, threatening to charge. But the above excerpt is more than a cursory reference to text messages. This paragraph-long neurotic meditation, written from the point of view of sixty-year-old Westish College president Guert Affenlight (who has fallen in love with a student), provides the book’s most profound thoughts on modern relationships. College student or otherwise, who hasn’t known the specific despair of being unable to get a hold of a lover? These days, to get a hold of means to text or to Skype or to email with an all caps subject line. Chad Harbach knows this. He might have fought it at first, but with this passage he illustrates that there is no way around mentioning technology — that if your characters aren’t going to use it they still need to acknowledge it. Because either way, it’s going to affect them: they are alive and in love in the Twenty-First Century. Now here are a few sections from early on in Jennifer Egan’s 2006 novel The Keep. In it, Danny has traveled from New York to stay at his cousin’s remote castle-cum-New-Age-resort, somewhere in Austria, Germany or the Czech Republic (he isn’t sure), where there is no internet or cell connection: Danny tried to get away after breakfast to set up his satellite dish. The need to be back in touch was getting uncomfortable, distracting, like a headache or a sore toe or some other low-grade physical thing that after a while starts to blot out everything else. And when he finally does get his satellite dish hooked up (is there any less elegant sounding piece of equipment than a satellite dish?), it soon falls into a mucky, black swimming pool and he in turn chucks his phone into the forest: Eventually Danny calmed down enough to start looking for his phone. The longer he groped in the cypress, pulling threads in his jacket and sending fat little birds squawking out into the air, the more precious that clunky plastic thing started to get in his head. Like a relic. Just to have it. And there it was, finally, caught between two branches. Danny felt like sobbing. He couldn’t resist holding the phone up to his ear one more time. Maybe that’s all a tad melodramatic, but isn’t it accurate that even in 2006 a person who’d been separated from his cell phone would be brought to some level of hysteria? It isn’t for nothing that there are two ways of being haunted by a missing cell phone: the phantom weight of it in your jeans pocket, and the phantom vibration of a call you couldn’t possibly have received. You miss the object — the gadget — and you miss what it represents. Egan’s use of technology in this book is successful because it speaks to both gadget lust and a longing to be in touch in a way that only technology can deliver. A quarter of the way into his 2009 novel Await Your Reply Dan Chaon plugs in a concise, seemingly arbitrary chapter written in the second-person. After briefly painting a portrait of “you” as an unknowing target of identity theft and victim of suburban malaise, the narrator says: You don’t feel particularly vulnerable, with your firewall and constantly updating virus protection, and most of the predators are almost laughably clumsy. At work you receive an email that is so patently ridiculous that you forward it to a few of your friends. Miss Emmanuela Kunta, Await Your Reply, it says in the subject line, and there is something almost adorable about its awkwardness. “Dear One,” the email begins. What follows is perhaps my all-time favorite fictionalized email, if not my favorite page of published writing of the last decade: a spam email claiming to have been sent by a nineteen-year-old girl from the Ivory Coast. The fact that the passage nearly brings me to tears each time I read it has to be proof that what we tag as technology (email and the like) is surely more human than machine. Or maybe it’s proof that Dan Chaon is a master of the art of fiction. I’d argue both. Technology propels the plot throughout Await Your Reply, a book about shedding and remaking identities. Chaon is smart enough to capitalize on the many ways that the internet and gadgets make this work more possible now than ever before. Where he excels is in knowing just how and where to aim his lens at these tools. Rather than blur the human element of the narrative, technology helps bring into focus an honest story about our modern life: computer viruses and stolen identities and missed connections: “Who falls for this?” you would like to know...But for some reason, driving home, you find yourself thinking of...Miss Emmanuela Kunta in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, the orphan daughter of a wealthy gold agent...and she walks along a market street...and she turns and her brown eyes are heavy with sorrow. Await your reply. If an email can demonstrate this kind of vulnerability and hope, then email it will be. Technology it will be. 3. It turns out that each of these instances of technology in fiction has to do with the way that technology connects characters. And what are characters if not people like us — people for whom the stuff of connecting with others is messy and hard and all we ever really want? Maybe, then, if this is the truth about technology, there shouldn’t be any slack given to those authors who forgo including it in their books. You might even say it’s foolish to miss the opportunity to show that technology is not a series of tubes, or a high-pitched beeping sound, or an awkward element to work around, but rather a vital part of the modern human experience.   Image via Nate_Steiner/Flickr