I began 2018 with the earthquake room by Davey Davis, and inadvertently set the tone for the rest of the year. Immutable dread permeates the novel, which tells the story of a disintegrating queer relationship against the backdrop of a very-near-future Oakland in which the threat of devastating natural disaster looms. Yet amidst the pre-apocalypse, life—aka dyke drama—must go on. The novel’s unfortunate prescience struck me this week, as I hid in my apartment from the Most Unhealthy Air Quality in the World, perusing an Instagram feed that alternated between respiratory mask selfies and personal ads (“NON-TOXIC MASC 4 RADICAL TENDERNESS”). I couldn’t help feeling as though Davis’s vision of the very-near-future had in fact already arrived.
Anne Garréta’s Not One Day followed, an archive of desire and liaisons that deserves to be remembered for more than this line, but it was the one that stuck with me, perhaps because the banality of death felt more tangible this year: “Life is too short to resign ourselves to reading poorly written books and sleeping with women we don’t love.” Then, After Delores, Sarah Schulman’s first book, a pulp murder mystery about a jilted waitress nursing her broken heart in dimly lit bars, which I happened to read while nursing a broken heart in a dimly lit bar.
In the spring, I read A Lover’s Discourse by Roland Barthes, though it was probably the wrong time. By then my broken heart had healed into a cold, callous thing, and Barthes’s obsessive lamentations, however brilliant, left me unmoved. A note I wrote in my phone from that time reads: “writing toward The Other / but what about / The Other’s / discourse / The Other didn’t ask / to be watched like this.” I dipped into Carmen Maria Machado’s collection, Her Body and Other Parties, and was most compelled by her story “Inventory,” which felt like the offspring of Davis’s and Garréta’s books, as it was also an archive of sexual encounters, set in another near-future apocalypse. Apparently it is a truth universally acknowledged that not even the end of the world will quench our libidos. I finished Estrangement Principle by Ariel Goldberg, which had been lingering half-read on my shelf since 2017 (the inscription on the inside cover, written by an ex-lover: “In case having one nonbinary masc white Jewish person constantly musing about what it means to call art ‘queer’ hanging around wasn’t enough for you, here’s a whole book of that same thing! Xox, ———”).
I got coffee with a friend who recommended José Esteban Munoz’s Disidentifications, after I admitted to him that I generally read too many books by white women. I immediately ordered a copy and blasted through the first hundred pages, finally finding language for the many cross-identifications I’d been practicing all my life. But then, summer came. Summer seems on the surface to offer myriad opportunities for uninterrupted reading; international flights; camping trips by the river; lazy Saturday mornings tanning in the backyard hammock. But who can actually find time to read when parties—and their attendant hangovers—beckon? I took a trip in June to Toronto, where I discovered a wonderful bookstore (Glad Day Bookshop), but read neither the books I brought nor the ones I bought. In keeping with the season, I did find myself at a pride event, drunk on vodka cranberries, crying in the basement of a college campus that looked like Hogwarts; queer culture is nothing if not a second/perpetual adolescence.
Autumn brought better conditions for reading: crisp air, etc., etc., hot cups of tea, etc., etc., and most important, fewer social distractions. I purchased on eBay, of all places, I Go to Some Hollow by Amina Cain; I had been searching for it in used book shops since 2015, after I read Cain’s stunning, ethereal collection, Creature. I had even emailed the publisher (Les Figues), to no avail. Cain’s highly internal, experimental short short fictions are brief blinks at relationships, which, in her signature style, are as uneventful as they are quietly devastating. I followed it with an appropriate seasonal choice—White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi, a haunted-house-story-cum-bildungsroman published in 2009 that remains relevant as ever in 2018. The ghosts, as it turned out, were (spoiler alert!) a metaphor for anti-Black racism and xenophobia against refugees.
And then, cooped up in my home this week with my roommate’s air filter on blast, I read The Queer Art of Failure by Jack Halberstam. A particular refrain is repeated throughout the book, a quote from Quentin Crisp, which I think could appropriately grace a motivational poster embodying the spirit of 2018: “If at first you don’t succeed, failure may be your style.”
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Vanishing Twins: A Marriage (Soft Skull Press, 2018) is a rumination on desire, creativity, and the people who complete us. Told in elegant, precise vignettes, author Leah Dieterich uses ballet, philosophy, pop culture, and literature to gently tilt and examine the many facets of her identity.
Dieterich got in touch with me when she moved from Los Angeles to Portland, Oregon, this year—I’m a recent transplant from New York—and we started going to readings and writing events in PDX together. Earlier this summer we spoke about monogamy, performance, and craft at her dining room table, a fuzzy outline of her sleeping daughter on the baby monitor between us.
The Millions: Was there a particular incident or feeling that spurred Vanishing Twins?
Leah Dieterich: I was writing a novel that was based on myself and my advertising partner, where I was imagining that we were running away from our jobs and responsibilities and taking a VW van up to Big Sur. I had been working on this novel for a couple of months, and then this one night when I was writing at a café in Santa Monica (where I ended up writing most of the book), it started to take a different turn.
I started writing about the French ligature with the O and the E smashed together, and I really didn’t know how it fit into the scene that I was writing, but it was coming out. I remember feeling so good about it but also concerned. I knew I wanted to follow this thread, but I had no idea what it had to do with the novel. At the same time, it felt like an epiphany. I realized that instead of the novel, this was what I wanted to write about. I wanted to explore my actual life in these weird ways—not necessarily as straightforward memoir, but using the interests I have in language and in other writers and thinkers to explore certain events and themes in my real life, rather than trying to make things up. I finally gave myself permission. I said, “I just want to write about my own life and that’s OK.”
TM: I’ve been reading a lot of Sheila Heti, somebody who’s known for straddling that line between fiction and non-fiction. How Should a Person Be? is a “novel” but—
LD: I think the subtitle of that book is A Novel from Life.
TM: Yes! And Motherhood has an unnamed narrator, but in How Should a Person Be? the narrator is also named Sheila. And of course real-life Sheila also has a best friend named Margot, same as in the book. Were you ever tempted to call Vanishing Twins fiction?
LD: Yeah. Once I started being really honest about my story, I got scared and thought, “Maybe I should call this a novel.” It felt like a way to hide, perhaps. I tried to query agents with it as an autobiographical novel in the vein of Sheila Heti’s book, but in the end, the agent who wanted to represent me called it a memoir (since I think I’d had a casual conversation with her about whether to call it fiction or nonfiction) and I was like, “OK. If you wanna call it a memoir, and you think you can sell it as a memoir, then let’s go for it.” I didn’t really have to do anything to the book to call it a memoir. I’d already changed all the names of the characters from my life, and since that’s totally acceptable in memoir, I just kept them the same as they’d been when it was called a novel. The names were an important part of the narrative or structure of the book—having all three of my main characters’ names begin with E.
TM: I was wondering about that choice.
LD: Yes. I wanted to make them feel sort of interchangeable. I wanted them to overlap.
TM: Did the people—the three Es—know you were going to write about them?
LD: Yes. I had written a short story inspired by my relationship with Elena before I started this book, and she’d seen that. My work colleague, Ethan, also knew; I had written a short story with characters inspired by us that I’d shown him. That scene actually appears in the book.
Eric (my husband) always knew that I would be writing about our life. I didn’t have him read the book until I thought it was ready to send out to agents. At that point, I’d already had my mentor, Sarah Manguso, read it and give me edits on two separate occasions over the course of two years. The first time my husband read it, he said it was beautiful but he didn’t like the way that he was portrayed. To his credit, he was like, “I’m not the audience for this book and I still think you should send it out.” I did send it out, although somewhat reluctantly, and luckily I didn’t get an agent for it then. It was kind of a relief because if someone had been like, “We want this,” and then I would have had to decide if I wanted to sell the book knowing he was unhappy with it, that would’ve been horrible. Some of the agents that rejected it had interesting feedback that I read to him and he total agreed with. I thought, “If I work on the book with this feedback in mind, hopefully it will satisfy this, or any other agent, and also my husband.” I showed him the manuscript before I sent it to a new batch of agents and he was like, “This is amazing–this version totally solves all of my problems and I think it’s incredible.” In the end, it worked. He was happy and I got an agent, but it took a year of revisions until I queried again, right before I was about to give birth to my daughter. That had been my deadline for myself.
I think the process of revising the book helped our relationship in a certain way. It helped me have more perspective on the time in our lives that I was writing about, to have delved into it more deeply. I think that’s why the book ended up being better. I think before, I was just scratching the surface with his character, and mine too for that matter. We weren’t full people on the page.
TM: So it wasn’t that you didn’t include enough about him, but maybe you just needed to include—
LD: The right things. I was so selective in what I had chosen to remember, but luckily, I had a lot of documentation. During that time in our life, we had been living apart, (he in New York and I in Los Angeles) so much of our communication was written.
LD: iChats. A lot of instant message. I would save all of the conversations that felt significant, both with him and with Elena (who lived in London). I had all of that. I knew that I would do something with it someday, so I saved it all. I literally went through about 20 chat transcripts that were each two to three hours long. This is weirdly masochistic and totally the way I operate, but instead of just reading them, I transcribed them all word for word. I had read some of them many times already for research, but I tended to skim them. Transcribing forced me to relive them. I spent a few months just doing that every single day. I’d be at the coffee shop crying over my laptop because I felt like I was in that moment again, but this time I could be the observer, too, which was even more heartbreaking for me. I could drop into the role of myself eight or nine years ago, but also see her from a distance.
TM: That’s crazy to think about going back through and kind of reliving it.
LD: It was amazing.
TM: You incorporate a bunch of outside texts into Vanishing Twins. Did you write the narrative first and then go through and add in the research bits? Or would things jump out at you as you were constructing the story?
LD: That’s a great question. One of the main outside texts is A Lover’s Discourse, by Roland Barthes. I was obsessed with that book. I’d bought it while we were living apart. I hadn’t started writing Vanishing Twins yet, but years later when I was working on the book, I’d be writing these little snippets of action, a scene I remembered from my life and it would remind me of something from A Lover’s Discourse, or from Adam Phillips’s Monogamy and I’d think “I should go get that and look at it.” When I’d feel blocked, I’d transcribe all of the quotes I’d underlined in these books. That way I felt like I was always accomplishing something even if it wasn’t generating new material. Once I copied down all the things I’d underlined, they started finding their ways in or inspiring new sections.
When my husband and I moved back in together after living apart for nearly three years we went to dinner at a friend’s house in LA and the friend started talking about Adam Phillips, and he was like, “Have you read Monogamy? It’s amazing.” He brought this little book down from the shelf. I don’t remember perfectly because I was really drunk, but I remember being upset about the book and its title, because though my husband and I had closed our open relationship, I was still very anti-monogamy in theory. We borrowed it and my husband read it, and was like, “This is amazing. I think you’d really like it.” I was resistant but I acquiesced and once I did, I was like, “Oh my God.” I was floored. That book changed my life. It complicated everything I thought about monogamy and made it seem dangerous (which I liked) and a worthy challenge, instead of something boring you do out of laziness.
[Monogamy] is so short. There’s basically just a paragraph on each page. They’re vignettes, or propositions. As I began writing Vanishing Twins, that book started to find its way in too. I write in a program called Scrivener. Do you use it?
TM: I don’t, but people love it.
LD: I really love it. Especially for this type of book where there’s a lot of short sections that are interchangeable. I would spend hours rearranging them. It’s really easy to do because each section is listed in a column on the left and you can just drag and drop them and move them around. Before I started using it, I was using Word and I had like 20 pages and I just couldn’t keep track of everything. I think having Scrivener helped the book start to grow, just from a file organization standpoint. It’s a really important part of how the book came together.
TM: In Vanishing Twins there’s heavy use of white space—it’s a distinctive form. Were there other writers besides Phillips who gave you permission or encouragement to do that? Was there a particular blueprint you used as you were constructing the book?
LD: Maggie Nelson’s Bluets was my blueprint, really. That moment I described, when I was working on the road-trip novel and I began writing about the O and E ligature. That was when I was like, “I want to write nonfiction. I want to write lyric essay or memoir in the vein of Bluets or Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay.” There’s this thing in L.A. called Writing Workshops Los Angeles that Edan Lepucki started. That’s how I met Sarah Manguso, actually—I took a one-day poetry workshop with her. Anyway, they had a memoir class, but I was like, “There’s no way in hell I’m going to be able to actually get to this class on time after work and/or have time to participate and read everyone’s work,” but I thought the teacher and the syllabus sounded really interesting, so I contacted her.
Her name is Chris Daley and she’s now running WWLA, and I said, “Can I just do an independent study with you?” And she said yes. We met at a coffee shop and I showed her the pages I had, and said “I love Maggie Nelson and I love Sarah Manguso. I want to write a book that is about my life but is not straightforward memoir. I want it to be more…”
LD: Yeah. I told Chris, “Here are my pages. I love Bluets. What advice do you have for me?” Some of the pages were about the œ ligature and some were about my open relationship and some were about twins because concurrent to wanting to write this book, I had also had the idea to write a movie about a young married couple who are struggling to grow as individuals while maintaining their bond who meet a set of identical twins and end up getting into a relationship with them—the woman with the one sister and the man with the other sister.
Chris said, “Maybe twins could be your blue.” It was like a lightbulb went off over my head. But it was her head. Then she said, “That’s just a thought—it doesn’t have to be that.” I wasn’t even listening anymore. I was off and running. I hadn’t seen how I could connect all these seemingly disparate ideas and concerns but once she presented it to me, it was so obvious.
TM: It’s always interesting when someone else can see the common themes in your work more clearly than you can.
LD: It made it so much easier to write, because any time I was trying to come up with new material, I would be like, “What about binary stars? Those are twins.” It was like a prompt.
TM: Before writing this book, you existed in two different artistic spheres: dance and advertising. I wonder how ballet and writing ad copy influenced the writing of Vanishing Twins?
LD: To write for advertising, you have to be very concise. I was telling someone the other day that there is a rule that you can’t have more than six words on a billboard. So I was used to cutting things back to their core. Sarah Manguso is all about concision and cutting everything you possibly can, which for me was easy because it’s what I did all day. That I think, definitely informed my style and the way that I write.
For dance, I don’t know. That love of performing might be one of the reasons I write memoir. It’s a way to put myself out on stage in a way. I think I miss that from dancing, that feeling of being out there and being exposed. Somehow I think if I was writing fiction, I would feel more like I was hiding and that wouldn’t be as satisfying.
TM: In the book, you talk about making the decision to cut your hair short and stop wearing makeup—abandoning what some might refer to as performative femininity. At the time, your husband is not into this change. I wonder if that issue has persisted—are you aware of femininity as a performance still?
LD: Ever since I started writing this book I feel like it has allowed me to express the fullness of my identity so I worry less about how I dress or how long or short my hair is. I don’t need my appearance to do all the heavy lifting anymore. My hair is really long right now and I like it, but of course I still sometimes think, “What if I cut my hair really short again?” but I resist because I know my husband likes it longer and at this point in my life and relationship, I want him to find me attractive just like I want to find him attractive. I have a LOT of opinions about his appearance so it’s only fair that he should have them about mine. I’m sure I’d have to have those negotiations with anyone I was in a long-term relationship with, regardless of their gender. I rarely wear makeup anymore which is something I’ve carried over from my more tomboyish days, but occasionally, and I should say VERY occasionally, I put on some lipstick.
TM: It feels a little like a costume to me at this point, especially after having kids. I wasn’t wearing it for a long time because I was too busy, but I do now on occasion. My kids will be like, “You look different. You look pretty.” It’s so weird that they notice that, and weirder that they like it, that they’re already receiving cues about what is “pretty” and that they’ve attached a value to that. It’s so bizarre.
LD: It is. I feel the same way. I’ve always felt weird about wearing makeup that is observable—stuff like red lipstick. I own it and think it’s pretty, but I still feel the same way I felt when my mom put lipstick on me the first time for Halloween when I was eight, and I felt like I couldn’t close my mouth. I still feel like that. I don’t know how to hold my mouth when I’m wearing it.
TM: Did you feel a duty to be honest in this book? Were there things that you specifically left out because you didn’t want to hurt somebody?
LD: I did leave things out. There were other relationships I had while we were open, but they weren’t as significant. They felt extraneous and would have complicated the narrative. I think that was one of the main things I learned about memoir—that you don’t have to talk about everything. That was the thing that was hardest for me to realize: I have the freedom to give this thing a shape.
Chelsea Hodson and I have only met once, briefly, on a stroll through the book fair at AWP in Los Angeles in 2015. I was negotiating the nausea and fashion choices of early pregnancy and coveted her sleek style. Her leather jacket, black tights, and mini skirt. Despite her serious appearance, I found her incredibly funny, warm, and unguarded. I remember sharing my impatience with how long it was taking to finish my book and feeling refreshed by her acceptance of the amount of time it was taking to write her own (we have a couple of other things in common: We are both students of Sarah Manguso and share an agent).
Three years later, both of our books are finished, and I’m excited to see that they explore some of the same themes: identity, art-making, bodies, and love. I spoke to Chelsea over the phone about the writing of Tonight I’m Someone Else.
Leah Dieterich: Early in the book, you begin the essay “Near Miss” with a quote from Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse: “Waiting is an enchantment: I have received orders not to move.” It’s got a sort of BDSM-y vibe, this particular quote.
Chelsea Hodson: Yes, it does.
LD: A Lover’s Discourse was formative for me. I was curious how you came to it and what effect it had on you and your writing.
CH: I first learned about it when I workshopped with Maggie Nelson at Tin House. I came to it pretty late in writing my book. I’d never read anyone talking about waiting, so it set me on this path of thinking about what happens in between, ad interim, which Schopenhauer also writes about. I started thinking: Why is there this emphasis on the end result and not the life itself? I think in America, goals are always the only thing. Everyone’s always asking, “What’s your long-term goal? What’s your short-term goal?”
I feel like my life has been kind of propelled forward toward goals in this way that I really started to question as I was writing the book. I started to be OK with the fact that it was taking me six years to write. My life just didn’t look the way I thought it would look. I could be really frustrated by that or I could try to appreciate that and think about what it means to wait. So honestly, I love Barthes’s book, but that was the line in particular that really stood out to me.
LD: There’s another line in the first essay (“Red Letters from a Red Planet”) about waiting and its relationship to writing. You were working for a PR person during NASA’s Mars lander mission, and your boss said, “Make sure to explain that the signal could come later. It doesn’t always reach us right away.” When I read that line, I related it to how the signals for a particular essay don’t necessarily come right away. How much distance was there in terms of the writing and some of these events?
CH: I’m glad that you read it that way, because I think of that quote in a lot of different contexts. I meant it to directly echo any kind of reflection I had on the character Cody in that essay. You don’t always know what you get from a relationship until much later. The signal of that revelation or whatever lesson you may have learned or didn’t learn…that always takes a long time. And for that, it definitely took a long time, and I put that process into the essay itself by writing the line, “I wrote this essay once before, but I wrote it wrong. I made him the villain. I forgot women can be wrong too. I forgot I could be.” I always like reading essays where you see the exploration and second-guessing on the page. You can feel someone working it out, and I always like that, so I always try to not censor it out the way I’m sometimes tempted to.
LD: There is a moment in the essay “Simple Woman” where you talk about touch. “What I miss most about modeling, besides the money, is the way I was touched on set….the way a makeup artist would be brushing my face with powder while another stylist fixed my hair…My mother used to lightly touch my head or my arms when we watched television together and the touch of the stylists brought me back to that place of my childhood.” I really related to that, because I also feel like there have been a couple of experiences in my adulthood where I’ve had that type of maternal touch from someone, and I wondered if there were any other times besides in modeling that you experienced that in adulthood?
CH: When I lived in Los Angeles, I went to this Eastern European tailor and I would bring dresses to her and she would pin me into the dress, the same way that I wrote about in the book about the stylist, but she just kind of touched me all over with the fabric, figuring out where it should fit. These sensual experiences with people that are not romantic partners do kind of stick with me. I think I’m just naturally, I don’t know, I’m very calmed by that kind of touch.
LD: When I was reading that modeling scene, I thought about when I had to get orthotics to wear in my shoes, and they cast my foot with Plaster of Paris and then pulled it off. The medical tech was this sort of macho-looking dude who very carefully soaked the strips and applied them to my foot in a really gentle and deliberate way. I just remember feeling so comforted. So cared for. I think I allow myself to really enjoy these kinds of intimate experiences because they are touches that don’t ask anything in return. When there’s the potential for something sexual to happen, I automatically get a little bit on-guard in a certain way that doesn’t allow me to relax into it.
CH: When I’m writing, the element of having a body and something physical happening in the essay has been a good tool for me to use. I’m interested in the body in that way…either how I’m responding to the world around me, or even just kind of describing certain things that I can only know about my own body. I think there’s a lot you can do with that. If you have a really good physical description, I think your reader is maybe more inclined to follow you even if you go to a weird place.
LD: I was really taken with the scene where you have anxiety about losing a tampon inside yourself. I think a lot of people have had that fear, but the part I so related to was when you say you were “repulsed by your own texture,” when you stuck your hand up there, looking for it. You ask, “How do other women learn to love their bodies? I feel that I missed out on some phase or lesson.” I thought, Me too. How did that happen? I’m curious: Has your relationship to your body has changed since writing about the tampon experience?
CH: I don’t think it really has. I still have little wars with my body all the time. Like, just feeling uncomfortable being a woman. I don’t know. I think this discomfort is very common no matter what gender you are. I think I wanted to write about the tampon incident because to me, there’s something really wild about this idea that there’s this space that I can’t myself even reach.
LD: Yes. That is one of the most upsetting and amazing things about the female body. There’s this regular cycle you’re aware of, but you can’t see all of what’s going on inside. I’m thinking about fertility in particular where you’re like, they’re my eggs, but I can’t see what they’re doing and I certainly can’t control them. It’s so frustrating.
CH: This, to me, seems somewhat like a metaphor for writing about oneself, or even exploring certain ideas about humanity. Even in turning the gaze on myself, there’s so much that I can’t see and that I can never know. I feel like that’s an interesting inquiry for essayists and nonfiction writers. I’ve heard people in MFA fiction programs say, “Well, at least you know what you’re writing about,” and I’m like, “I actually don’t.” That’s why I’m interested in writing about it. I love the idea of navigating the uncertainty of something that’s supposed to be fact.
LD: Absolutely. That relates to a bunch of questions I had about your writing process. You talked at one point in “The New Love” about not wanting to tell your mother what was wrong when you were a kid because you liked the intensity of emotion, even if it was bad—I’m paraphrasing, but you say talking it out or walking it off dissipated what you were feeling, and soon after, it would be gone. I was intrigued by that, especially in terms of how writing figures into this aversion. Does writing ruin the intensity of emotions for you? Or does it somehow have the opposite effect?
CH: I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I don’t really know. I think that moments of intensity are what I’m drawn to a lot in writing because they’re the things I can’t get out of my mind. In writing about certain people in my essays, I almost come out the other side. Even if I’m writing about something super negative, the next time I think about them, I only think something really positive. In writing about these moments, I somehow become both closer and further away from them.
LD: I think it also relates to the Backstreet Boys fan fiction you wrote as a kid. In the essay “I’m Only One Thousand Miles Away” you write, “What I wrote wasn’t meant to be entertaining, it was meant to change fate’s course.” I wondered if you still feel that way? Do you think writing has the power to change fate’s course?
CH: That’s such a big question; I don’t know. I definitely feel that I’ve manifested certain things in writing, even though I know that sounds really wild. I have, I think three times, seen people on the streets of New York in Brooklyn that I was just writing about, people that don’t even live here. And I’ve talked with other female writers that have had this experience. I do actually kind of believe in the possibility of that, of bringing someone back into your life as a result of just thinking about them and obsessing over them so much. And that feels dangerous and real to me.
LD: I want to ask you about freedom. In “Pity the Animal,” you talk about missing the structure of school. You write, “I always thought I wanted to be free. But as soon as I was free, I longed to be corralled and guided.” Later, in “The New Love,” you bring up freedom again in relation to the pleasure of ghostliness, where you write, “No one knew where I was, which meant I was free.” I wondered, how do you think freedom and accountability relate?
CH: Whoa. That’s such an interesting question, freedom and accountability. Well, I guess I like the idea of those things meeting. Accountability definitely has to do with writing things down that are true. I like that element of accountability a lot. But there is some side of me that, I mean, I keep mentioning it, of keeping things to myself or being very private. When something is kept to myself, it maintains some kind of heat. I don’t really think it’s a good thing, but it’s something that I do experience where it heightens things for me. Even if it’s something kind of trivial, like talking it out with my mom as a child, that heat of whatever it was inside of me, gets released and dissipates. Beyond that, I’m not sure.
LD: It reminds me of when you say in another essay that strangers are the only perfect people and that you prefer to be a stranger to yourself. “I see myself as a stranger, and I love her better, I barely know her.” When I read that, I wondered: How do you write about your life and remain a stranger to yourself?
CH: I think a lot of it has to do with tricks, like writing very early in the morning. Some of the things I wrote were written in a haze of half sleep and almost confusion. The next day, I actually wouldn’t recognize it. It was as if I was reading something that someone else wrote, and then I could see it from an editor’s standpoint—I could efficiently pick it apart and rewrite it.
LD: Yes, and that is such an amazing feeling. I’ve definitely had that experience of wondering, “Wait, did I…where did this come from?” It’s kind of wonderful.
CH: Yeah. I wish I had more methods to do that. But for me, it only happens if I trick myself. If I’m writing with a bunch of coffee in the middle of the day, bright lights, fully awake—like what you would consider to be a “good” writing mindset—I will never surprise myself. It always has to be a little messy and a little sloppy to get to something surprising.
LD: That’s good. Because I love your desire and urge to keep that heat within yourself. I thought, “I hope writing this book doesn’t ruin it for her!” So I’m glad to hear that you feel you still can do both.
CH: It’s a really interesting point. And I’m excited about the idea of [the book] being a document of a certain version of myself, because of course, everyone is always changing all the time. And even if that does “ruin it” for me, I’m OK with it because those were the memories I was drawn to, those were the people I wanted to write about, and I did that. So I accept the consequences of that.
LD: I also loved in the final essay when you equate completion with death. And then you write, “I become attached to ongoing problems as if they might carry me somewhere.” I wondered if you see writing as one of those ongoing problems, and if so, where is it taking you?
CH: I’m currently dealing with writing about what art’s role even is. I’m working on a novel that I think will be partially about that idea. Yeah, writing is definitely an ongoing problem for me. But I like problems, so that’s OK.
The debate between writers and critics over authorial intent is literally a life and death struggle. By literally, I mean figuratively. On the one hand, you have critics who have trumpeted “the death of the author” for several decades now, the view that holds that authors can’t be the true masters of their creations, can’t fully grasp the implications of language they pluck, seemingly, from a great assembly line of words and idioms. On the other hand, you have writers like those anthologized in The Story About the Story and The Story About the Story II, who argue, more often than not, that to read is to feel your mind, however fleetingly and incompletely, jacked into the mind of another, a connection that is perhaps more alive than even our relations with those we consider intimates.
The debate is preposterous on its surface. Of course the publishing industry, with its book packaging scandals and its ridiculous pseudonym play (I once met a man, an ex-convict, who claimed to have profited three-quarters of a million dollars ghostwriting a series of Little House books for a descendant of Laura Ingalls Wilder), undermines the sense that reading is interaction with another discrete life. But anomalies don’t founder what is intuitively true. When I read, I read for what I think an author wants to be expressing. In this, I’m not alone. Many years ago, Henry James complained – a plaintive cry, really – that critics of his own time were “apt to stand off from the [artist’s] intended sense of things.”
Where does this impulse come from? There are many sources, of course: the new critics and the intentional fallacy, and T.S. Eliot would probably be in this camp, and maybe the surrealists, and perhaps someone like Mallarmé. I don’t claim to be a scholar of all that, and anyway “the death of the author” traces most directly back to Roland Barthes’s 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author,” a short piece that, pound for pound, may be one of the most influential texts ever produced.
And what did Barthes intend? That’s not entirely clear. “The Death of the Author” begins with a quote from Balzac’s story “Sarrasine,” a musing passage that Barthes reads as neither a character’s free indirect speech, nor the author “acting directly on reality.” From this he declares both the death of the author and the “birth of the reader”: an active interpreter of writers who are no longer authors at all, in the old sense of the word. Proust is Barthes’s best example of this new writer, the “scriptor” whose character is a depiction “of he who is going to write.” This “enunciation is an empty process,” and scriptors merely supply a “tissue of quotations.” “I is nothing other than the instance of saying I,” Barthes writes. It’s only in the mind of the new reader that words and images come to mean anything at all.
The old position of the author, Barthes claims, mistakenly demanded that we think of books as written in code. Hear, hear. Other than that, all Barthes really seems to mean is that reading has become a cooperation of imaginations. What he doesn’t recognize – couldn’t have recognized – is that the same electric jolt that he had used to execute the author would shock to life a correspondingly monstrous critic.
To back up a bit. What’s meant by the “literary canon”? Literally, a canon is any authoritative set of standards, but figuratively the literary canon most closely resembles the processes of Biblical canonization, by which Christian sects debated and decided which ancient scriptures were of divine origin, inspired. In other words, a bunch of folks got together to look at work they knew was written by a person, and they simply decided that whoever wrote it no longer mattered, because God wrote it. Those writers might as well be dead – and that’s sort of what became of Barthes’s essay. Literature is a secular revelation of a more earthly god, human consciousness, and all that was needed was a critic/theologian to interpret it for laypeople, for mere “readers” who would be less encouraged to read for themselves than compelled to listen to interpretations. That pretty much describes both the modern Ph.D. in English and the practice of teaching literature to children as a compulsory subject in the public education system.
But the demotion of writers to figures stumbling blindly through the collective unconscious falls to the same arguments that toppled B.F. Skinner’s, and behaviorism’s, simplistic claim that consciousness doesn’t exist (See Chomsky, Koestler, Carl Rogers, and others). More simply, Samuel Butler once refuted this same species of skepticism – the claim that matter itself was hypothetical – by pounding his foot on a stone and proclaiming “I refute it thus!” To the literary obstetrician Barthes attempting to midwife a new reader, one might feel compelled to proclaim, “It has always been thus!”
Because he wasn’t saying anything new. And I don’t mean new critics or Mallarmé For at least a couple hundred years, writers have understood that their work wouldn’t amount to much without the reader’s imagination percolating away on the other side of the page. It was there in 1837, in “The American Scholar,” when Emerson coined the phrase “creative reading” in the same sentence that gave us “creative writing.” It was there six decades later, when Henry James described The Turn of the Screw as a “process of adumbration,” a sketch the reader colors in with “his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy.” And it was there a couple decades after that, in Barthes’s beloved Proust’s “On Reading”:
And there, indeed, is one of the great and marvelous characters of beautiful books (and one which will make us understand the role, at once essential and limited, that reading can play in our spiritual life) which for the author could be called “Conclusions” and for the reader “Incitements.” We feel quite truly that our wisdom begins where that of the author ends, and we would like to have him give us answers, while all he can do is give us desires. And these desires he can arouse in us only by making us contemplate the supreme beauty which the last effort of his art has permitted him to reach. But by a singular and, moreover, providential law of mental optics (a law which perhaps signifies that we can receive the truth from nobody, and that we must create it ourselves), that which is the end of their wisdom appears to us as but the beginning of ours, so that it is at the moment they have told us all they could tell us, that they create in us the feeling that they have told us nothing yet.
To be fair, Barthes had his regrets. Ten years after “The Death of the Author,” and shortly before he died, he kicked back at his own, “I is nothing other than the instance of saying I.” In its first pages, A Lover’s Discourse insists that “To that discourse has been restored its fundamental person, the I.”
So how does the struggle end? Perhaps with simple statements, rather than melodramatic metaphors. Critics who have taken up the dead author standard would have us regard creative work as an elaborate Freudian slip: don’t read for what a writer is trying to say, read for what they’ve said in spite of themselves. That’s wrong. Literature (and all the arts, really) is the product of concentrated, intelligent minds to which we are granted intimate, but temporary and incomplete, access. We should embrace and not denounce that opportunity to comingle thought. Art is not an accident.
Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse, which I first read in college — doesn’t everyone? — and reread this year piecemeal, in five-minute snatches between bouts of chasing my children, did more concrete good for my way of reading than many other books. I realized, reading it again, how it had changed me; I saw at age 43 what it had done to me at age 19.
Its form and its content were both revelations, back then — its form because it was beautiful and abstract and I hadn’t read much in that vein before that didn’t bore me; its content because I’d never before understood that love is more about its subject than its object. That may seem elementary to smart people over the age of 18, but it wasn’t elementary to me at the time: I lived in a longing, teenage-girl world of German and English romantic poets, with a little surrealism thrown in.
With Barthes I could retain my romanticism, because of the beauty of his language, but also I could contain Freud, I could contain, for the first time, a knowledge of how my egocentric self made up its narrative arc of love, how desperate I was to love myself by telling a story about loving others.
What Barthes also did for me, because I wasn’t versed in theory, was persuade me that I could read well without reading perfectly, that part of reading should always be failing to understand. I know now that whenever I read a book I believe I’ve understood perfectly, a terminal failure has occurred — a failure either of my imagination or the author’s. For reading to be successful it should know its own failure as it goes along, live with perpetual, familiar failure and see that failure shine.
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Zadie Smith’s fourth novel, NW, sees her return to Willesden, northwest London, the same setting as her debut novel, White Teeth. Her first novel in seven years, NW signifies a departure for Smith in terms of her prose as well as her thematic scope: not only is NW a more poetic and abstract novel, but it is also one that calls iteratively to its reader to “keep up!” Indeed, it is in the pacing and in the gaps amid the fractured narrative structure that the reader locates NW’s most incisive social criticisms, insights, and its numerous laments about what it means to be “modern.”
A novel of visits and visitations, ghosts and hauntings, NW begins with the destabilizing visit of Shar, who rings the doorbell to Leah’s council flat to ask for money. This uncanny encounter sets off a chain of events and memories, a narrative spiral that occasionally feels out of control, but which comes full circle in a surprisingly satisfying way in Smith’s sure hands. When the narrative does return back to this initial moment, its effects are just as unexpected on the two main female protagonists as they are on the reader.
On the surface, NW is the story of two childhood friends, Leah and Keisha (who later changes her name to Natalie, to sever ties with the council estate on which she grew up), brought together by a “dramatic event:” as a young girl, Natalie saves Leah from near-drowning, causing the two to be joined together for life in spite of their different cultural backgrounds. United by this near-death experience and their shared socioeconomic status, the two girls grow up in a council estate in Willesden, northwest London, sharing their experiences with a host of characters ranging from Cheryl, Natalie’s sister who, despite several pregnancies, refuses the financial assistance of her now much wealthier sister, to the drug-addicted, morose Nathan Bogle, Leah’s childhood crush.
But NW is much more than a tale of a friendship. Indeed, Smith chooses to structure the novel in such a way that it textualizes the chaotic world of the estate and its inhabitants while, at the same time, dramatizing the intense anguish, emptiness, and despair found in the psychological lives of her protagonists. As Leah muses at one point: “She has forced a stillness in herself, but it has not stopped the world from continuing on.” She is ostensibly happily married to Michel, a Frenchman of African descent who works as a hairdresser, and yet secretly takes contraceptives to maintain control over her body and her life (“He is two feet away. He is on the other side of the world”); by contrast, Natalie marries the affluent, debonair Frank De Angelis strategically — or so she thinks — only to find her sexual desires wandering, enhanced by the technological world and myriad websites offering quick, anonymous sex with no strings attached. Technology is one of the major culprits in NW, causing rifts in our interactions with others and creating more distance when there should be more intimacy: “Everyone comes together for a moment to complain about the evils of technology, what a disaster, especially for teenagers, yet most people have their phones laid next to their dinner plates.” Eerily enough, Smith suggests that the two women know one another better than anyone else does, and yet the secrets each keeps from the other enhance their states of isolation within a community to which each still feels indebted in often inexplicable ways, despite an ever-growing distance.
Several critics have already pointed out NW’s debt to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Both novels are concerned with female characters who are lost in their marriages and in their modern worlds. The pace of Smith’s prose, especially in the opening section, is reminiscent of Woolf’s, but in NW Smith creates a rhythm all her own:
Nothing to listen to but this bloody girl. At least with eyes closed there is something else to see. Viscous black specks. Darting boatmen, zig-zagging. Zig. Zag. Red river? Molten lake in hell? The hammock tips. The papers flop to the ground. World events and property and film and music lie in the grass. Also sport and the short descriptions of the dead.
The two different Londons are utterly incongruous in this intertextual alignment in rather jarring ways: Clarissa Dalloway encounters crowds in Hyde Park baffled about the modern aerial advertising upon which no one can agree as far as the trade name goes. “But what letters? A C was it? an E, then an L? Only for a moment did they lie still; then they moved and melted and were rubbed out up in the sky, and the aeroplane shot further away and again, in a fresh space of sky, began writing a K, an E, a Y perhaps?” As Leah journeys through the NW district, she is even more bombarded than Clarissa is; not only can Leah not escape the commercialization of the city itself, but she is similarly trapped in a multicultural space where different groups — while joined in similar socioeconomic circumstances — carve out different spaces, thus creating rifts of separation in a zone that is already a kind of No Man’s Land:
Polish paper, Turkish paper, Arabic, Irish, French, Russian, Spanish, News of the World. Unlock your (stolen) phone, buy a battery pack, a lighter pack, a perfume pack, sunglasses, three for a fiver, a life-size porcelain tiger, gold taps. Casino! Everybody believes in destiny. Everybody. It was meant to be. Deal or no deal? TV screens in the TV shop. TV cable, computer cable, audiovisual cables, I give you good price, good price.
As in Mrs. Dalloway, there is a death that sends a rupture through the community; however, unlike Woolf’s more direct approach, Smith has complicated the dynamics and inserted two characters who are affected by the death rather than just one. This demonstrates how contemporary identity is shared, collective, and yet also at risk of being subsumed beneath another’s; it also underlines how compartmentalized each of our identities become in our high-paced, technology-driven culture. Mrs. Dalloway does this in its own way, but Smith’s strength here in updating Woolf’s novel is in her hopeful pessimism: while Septimus Smith’s death allows Clarissa to see her own anguish reflected, the death in NW actually upsets the mirror images Leah and Natalie reflect for each other. As such, the individual stands both for and against the community, and the harrowing walk Natalie finds herself on toward the novel’s close — where Smith indicates the need to meet one’s own ghost, if only to prove that one is solely a ghost in this world — coupled with the two women’s final act suggests that living is at the cost of sacrificing a part of oneself and also a willful condemnation of one’s own subculture.
To stress NW’s debt to Mrs. Dalloway alone, though, would be to Smith’s great discredit. The reader is asked here to read between the lines, and the events are not given in chronological order; in fact, we begin with Leah’s adult life (which includes some memories of her past and her friendship with Natalie), and, after a rupture that places a marginal Felix front and center to centralize a noble kind of masculinity (a rare kind indeed in Willesden), we are then presented with a very postmodern bildungsroman that grants us access to Natalie’s formative years. As this section progresses with its deployment of short sections almost reminiscent of Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse — a text that is about its author coming to terms with the end of a relationship, much as Natalie’s section is, too, in its own way — one gets a full sense of Natalie’s identity from the fragments themselves. Smith is able to build a very solid portrait of her protagonist from bits and pieces, implying that this is how we are all fashioned by our society and that perhaps such a form is the best way to render modern experience. To be sure, we are all shaped by devouring films, books, music, from our early love affairs, and from our traumatic experiences; it is no surprise that, in shaping Natalie’s subjectivity, Smith manages in a masterful way such allusions to figures as seemingly disparate as Jean-Luc Godard, Søren Kierkegaard, John Donne, and Michael Jackson.
Although her prose owes much to the modernist school and her structure to the postmodernist dissection of time and identity, Smith continually returns to “the modern” as a continuum: “At some point we became aware of being ‘modern,’ of changing fast. Of coming after just now. John Donne was also a modern and surely saw change but we feel we are more modern and that the change is faster. Even the immutable is faster. Even blossom.” As we witness Leah swallowing her pride and working for a charity despite her university degree, rendered moot in the economy; as we witness Natalie rising as a barrister despite her class status and in spite of an ambivalence she can never wholly express, one which she tries to correct or mask through motherhood; and as we witness how these women relate to the men in their lives (whether central or tangential), we are left with the sense that, like Anna in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, modernity wreaks havoc on individuals’ conceptualizations of their own identities.
Smith’s great skill in NW is not only questioning this — and, in so doing, allowing her prose to mimic the nuances, cadences, and occasional sing-song slang of the NW district, proving her yet again a master of dialogue and tone — but in the way she finds dangerous such a compartmentalization of experience, desire (“Desire is never final, desire is imprecise and impractical”), and subjectivity when it comes to how we relate to others in the world, whether these be the strangers we pass on the street or the ones with whom we share our beds. Smith seems to be calling us to unite these disparate parts of our lives, and perhaps NW’s strength is in her insistence: “Global consciousness. Local consciousness. Consciousness.”
Could geeking out over a mutually beloved novel surpass even alcohol as the ultimate social ice-breaker? In my three months of solo travel in India, shared literary interests have opened the doors to several new friendships. Quite like the bond formed between travelers on similar journeys, the bond formed around a favorite novel is one of shared immersive experience, usually open to impossibly wide interpretations. When we meet someone else who’s “been there,” there’s a biting urge to know exactly what the other person saw, what scenes remain strongest in her memory, what crucial knowledge or insight was retrieved, and what her experience reveals or changes about our own?
If we try to extend this “traveler’s comparison” to other narrative mediums — television programs, movies, plays — it can often lose some of its steam. Why is this? Relative limitlessness in physical and emotional sensory potential is the privilege and burden of the reader. The book, more so than any other form of narrative media, rings true, more synonymous, with the limitlessness and loneliness to be found while facing the open road or holding a one-way airline ticket to Azerbaijan. In my hypotheses, it is the loneliness quality in particular, physically and intellectually inherent to the act of reading, that lays the bedrock for the powerful social bonding achieved through literature. The limitlessness is critical too, as it promises a bounty of fertile avenues for conversation, but it’s the loneliness of the reader — or, as Rainer Maria Rilke might say, it’s how “two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other” — that assigns to a very special category those friendships formed over books.
Enjoying a good work of literature entails getting lost. Vast and foreign is the journey, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. If the book is good, then the intelligence that guides us through the story will appear many degrees superior to our own. Even in the case of a child narrator like Harper Lee’s Scout Finch, or an impaired one, like Christopher John Francis Boone — the autistic 15-year-old narrator of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident Of the Dog in the Night-Time — the narrative intelligences of our books should leave us feeling a bit pressed intellectually, a bit outmatched, amazed ultimately by the talent of the author who brought such an exquisite intelligence to life. It should be our expectation as readers to be transported into a compellingly drawn, but very foreign and unique reality. Our guide, the local aficionado, attempts to help us understand everything we’re taking in, though we’ll inevitably overlook and misunderstand things from time to time, sometimes big, important things. Reading Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, for me, was an experience similar to that of using one’s brain; I was able to intellectually command perhaps 10 percent of the content at hand. If this was part of Pynchon’s intent for his novel, I commend him for crafting an impressive and very odd reflection of the human condition. Yes, reading is both a richly gratifying and lonely act, at both intellectual and sensory levels, which is why meeting someone with whom we share a favorite book has a way of jump-starting our social batteries, even on our more quiet nights.
Maya Dorn, a 41-year-old copywriter, musician, and avid reader from San Francisco, uses shared literary interests as a litmus test for social compatibility. “Liking the same books is like having the same sense of humor — if you don’t have it in common, it’s going to be hard to bond with someone. You risk ending up with nothing to talk about.” Maya specifically cites Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, as popping up again and again on the fringes of her social circles. Funny she mentioned that title; though I’ve not read The Master and Margarita, it was recommended to me a month prior to meeting Maya, at a café in Goa, where a vacationing Russian day-spa owner — stoned to a point of spare, clear English and silky slow hand gestures — explained to me the premise of Bulgakov’s post-modern “Silver Age” classic. “It’s about different type of prison, a prison of the mind!” The Russian pointed meaningfully at his own head. Sharing such intensely themed, café-table book-talk with a strange Russian proved quite an adventure in itself, with our caffeine jitters occasionally morphing into anachronistic, Cold War-era paranoias of Pynchonesque mirth. He was the first Russian I’d met abroad.
Currently I’m 100 pages out from finishing Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, quite a relevant book for this topic, as so many of Eugenides’ principal characters’ social lives are influenced by literature. Clearly Eugenides sees the unique social potency of books as a given fact, something that can be leveraged as a plausible plot-building tool. College seniors, Madeleine Hanna and Leonard Bankhead, sow the early seeds of the novel’s epic romance while discussing various books in a Semiotics 211 seminar. The two of them quietly ally with one other, colluding intellectually against the opinions of the cerebral and pretentious Thurston Meems. Madeleine and Leonard criticize the gratuitous morbidity of Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, while Thurston extols the text for its originality. A bit later on in the story (spoiler alert) it is nothing other than a brief, semi-drunken bout of book chatter that opens the door for Madeleine’s unlikely one night stand with the villainous Thurston:
‘A Lover’s Discourse.’
Thurston squeezed his eyes shut, nodding with pleasure. ‘That’s a great book.’
‘You like it?’ Madeleine said.
‘The thing about that book,’ Thurston said. ‘Is that, ostensibly, it’s a deconstruction of love. It’s supposed to cast a cold eye on the whole romantic enterprise, right? But it reads like a diary.’
‘That’s what my paper’s on!’ Madeleine cried. ‘I deconstructed Barthes’ deconstruction of love.’
In the story-world of The Marriage Plot, literature maintains a power to broker alliances and define enemies. Books are also cited in the mediations of religious and political debate. Books influence career paths, and weigh in profoundly on other critical, life-defining decisions faced by Eugenides’ characters. At one point in the novel, Eugenides finds it perfectly reasonable that nothing other than a positive social experience — three young women bonding at a conference on Victorian literature — would be enough to inspire his protagonist, Madeleine, to pursue a career as a Victorian scholar.
The Marriage Plot isn’t really about books so to speak — I say this despite the title itself being an allusion to the standard plots that recurred throughout the great Victorian-era novels — nevertheless, Eugenides is most comfortable and successful in using the phenomenon of literary community to facilitate settings and move his plots. The success of The Marriage Plot may help illustrate and confirm that the social utility of literature may be by its own right capable of assuring literature’s imminent survival.
As Eugenides’ novel illustrates, the social reach of literature doesn’t end with discussions of stories and novels. Academic texts and non-fiction contribute peripheral influence to communities of all kinds, even those not squarely centered around literature. Avid reader and rock climber, Joe White, of Leeds, England cites Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void as indispensable to his adventurous social circle. “Though I can’t recall ever forming a particular personal bond over just one book,” Joe says, “being heavily involved in climbing and mountaineering fraternities has led me to form many friendships based around that specific activity, and the literature that surrounds the activity often provides talking points or focal points for the community. Pretty much everyone’s read Touching the Void, I mean, it’s not only relevant to climbing, but it’s an amazing story in its own right.”
I recently happened into a brief but enjoyable encounter with the esteemed Joyce Carol Oates. She was promoting her memoir, A Widow’s Story, and was fielding questions from her audience. Amid the 100-plus crowd, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to ask her one:
Ms. Oates, in a recent interview you spoke of the unique type of distress that comes from having one’s work rebuked in a public forum. You cited the experience of your contemporary, Norman Mailer, after having his second novel, Barbary Shore, denounced by the literary critics of the day, making, as Mailer put it, “an outlaw out of him.” But could you speak to the opposite side of this dichotomy — what might you share with us concerning that unique thrill and gratification that comes from producing a superior work of art, a work you know to be beloved by people all over the world. Do those who love your work weigh as heavy on the writer’s mind as those who detract from it?
Oates, took some time in silence to prepare her response.
“Art is a communal experience,” she replied.
As far as directly quoting the writing legend, the exact integrity of my recollections end with that phrase, but I can attest that she expounded for some time on the personal connections to be achieved through these special artifacts, books, these “communal experiences.” But does the act of reading, at a glance, feel in any way communal? Or does it feel, in fact, quite the opposite? Even members of the most ambitious and tightly-knit book clubs tend to do their actual reading in solitude. As such, when the noise of the world becomes occluded by the bestseller between your hands, it’s easy (and perhaps optimal?) to forget that so many others are journeying across this exact same text. You can’t see your companions now, your fellow patrons. They’re nowhere on your radar. You have no idea who they are or that they exist at all. Nevertheless, as you read, your fellow adventurers are out there waiting to meet you, biding their time behind a chance encounter, a well-fated introduction, a tweet, or a blog post, or an otherwise interesting article of prose. You didn’t realize it, but so much mystery, so much anticipation has amassed behind your new friendship, a cosmos-load of potential energy. You didn’t know it — you were too engaged with the mind behind the words — but through all the sentences, the pages, the lovely, lonely hours past, a part of you secretly longed for a flesh-and-blood friend with whom you could share your experience. When you meet your friend, you’ve met an instant confidant. You unburden yourselves on one another, reliving the adventures, revisiting those daunting and glorious experiences you dearly miss, refining and refreshing your perspective in the silver gazing pool of another soul, one that’s triumphed through similar loneliness. Book-bonding is soul-mating, pre-arranged through art, fun-filled and beautiful as a wedding.
Image Credit: Flickr/nSeika
I read Middlesex in 2002 as a college sophomore. I read it again in 2004, and probably two or three times after that. In early 2007, I went into a bookstore and, looking helplessly at the stacks of new releases, asked when there was going to be another one from Jeffrey Eugenides. It was the first time in my life I felt impatient for a book I wasn’t sure had been written or was going to be.
Unlike childhood and adolescence, which are a sustained exercise in waiting — you count the hours till your TV show, the days till your sleepover, the years till you turn eleven — the adult self has a different relationship with anticipation. If you are not The Marriage Plot’s Leonard, for whom there is no baseline of normalcy, if you are not in flux and falling in love or out of love or into some tragedy, the pangs of anticipation lose their childhood acuity and become muddled with complexities. So it is a rare pleasure to wait for something with that pure and uncomplicated eagerness. I carried this book around in my bag all day, waiting for the moment to open it. I went to a meeting and as I half-listened I moved my hands over the smooth pages with near-erotic pleasure. Perhaps I was just channeling a zeitgeisty fetishization of the endangered physical book. But I think it is more the relief born of nine years of waiting. “Waiting is an enchantment,” writes Roland Barthes in The Lover’s Discourse, to which Eugenides’s heroine Madeleine transfers all of her anxieties about her aloof lover Leonard; “The Festivity is what is waited for.”
I waited for this book, Madeleine waits for Leonard, Leonard waits for his side effects to dissipate, Mitchell waits for Madeleine, and also for a variety of religious experience. Madeleine is pretty, and smart, and rich, and “slightly anxious.” Leonard is maybe smarter, definitely poorer, and worse, sick. The hangover of Madeleine and Leonard’s great Festivity is the grim reality of Leonard’s mental illness. Madeleine is with Leonard through his illness, ostensibly because she loves him, also because she didn’t get into grad school and she’s not sure what to do. Eugenides describes with convincing and heartrending detail a Leonard in thrall to his lithium, a prisoner whose act of liberation is the heroic and misguided recalibration of his meds leading to a spectacular crack-up. Meanwhile, Mitchell travels through Europe and India pining for Madeleine and the Lord.
In some respects, Madeleine is a surface upon which people project their respective wills. Everyone knows that Madeleine is bookish, but we only hear her discussing her actual books of interest with other young women at a conference. We don’t know why Mitchell and Leonard love her exactly, except that she is beautiful, with clean sheets, full of (mostly unspoken) bookish thoughts. Mitchell spends years mesmerized by the memory of a glimpse of her “pale, quiet, Episcopalian breast.”
Eugenides is kinder to Madeleine than I, out of envy, might be inclined. The year I read Middlesex was the year my boyfriend, a student at Brown University, broke up with me. During my weekend visits, Brown seemed to teem with beautiful women who exuded the possibility of “clean-sheet Wednesday,” and who didn’t bouy the spirit with intimations of their stupidity. This book could have been an act of vengeance on girls who are pretty and thin and rich and go to good schools and read novels and have sex, but not too much sex or too soon. But even I don’t hate Madeleine. Leonard is most blameless and deserving of sympathy in the novel — his illness is a real and perpetual problem, a horse on his chest. And yet I guiltily celebrated when Madeleine met her intellectual compatriots for a few short days at the conference, or when she kissed Mitchell on a French leave to New York.
The novel invites us to like Madeleine; the novel, like Mitchell, loves Madeleine in spite of her being, and probably because she is, a “Fortnum & Mason’s drinker, her favorite blend Earl Grey. She didn’t just dump a bag in a cup, either, but brewed loose leaves, using a strainer and a tea cozy.” Mitchell describes his problem of being subsumed in the Godhead thus: “it was hard to kill your self off when you liked so many things about it.” We might say the same thing about Madeleine. The liberally-distributed acidity and self-loathing of Jonathan Franzen — and I cannot fail to compare the two after reading Evan Hughes’s illuminating piece on the fraternity of contemporary heavy-hitters — is a contrast to the more benign treatment found here. (Of the primary characters, that is. The supporting cast — Larry, Claire, Thurston, Abby — are intensely unlikable).
The Marriage Plot is a nod to the humanity of sexy women who feel like lumpen embarrassments around the right kind of man. It’s a nod only, though; we hear about Madeleine’s bowel movements through their absence, revealed by the interrogation of Leonard. We do not see her sneak off to to take an anxious crap, the way we do Leonard. Madeleine’s WASP mystique largely endures.
That Madeleine is a WASP is put forth ad nauseam. When Madeleine takes Mitchell home for a fateful Thanksgiving, she brings volume 1 of A Dance to the Music of Time, which, like The Marriage Plot, is a both a witty society novel and a work whose great depth belies its light touch. Like a Powell character, Madeleine lives in rarefied air, with rarefied people like Pookie Ames surfacing here and there at Brown and in New York. Unlike in a Powell novel, the class markers occasionally jangle. Madeleine’s father, Alton, begins a graduation weekend hotel strategy session with “When your cousin graduated from Williams…” Alton’s “voice was surprisingly good; he’d been in an a capella singing group at Yale.” Madeleine comes to Mitchell’s guest room “dressed in a Lawrenceville T-shirt and nothing else.” Perhaps these last two are Mitchell’s Detroiter observations more than the novel’s, but they sometimes grate.
I can’t know anything about the author’s process, but The Marriage Plot must have been daunting to visualize and see through after Middlesex, which was built on the rock of historical adventure, unusual genitals, and the American dream. Eugenides has taken a risk with this novel, with his knowing tone and his aggressive syllabus. I found the first page repellent in its presentation of Madeleine’s shelf list — the “Colette novels she read on the sly” and “the first edition of Couples, belonging to her mother, which Madeleine had surreptitiously dipped into back in sixth grade and which she was using now to provide textual support in her English honors thesis…” I was happy when we got to the good stuff, like a hangover.
But Eugenides knows what he is doing. At first, the heavy reading list and ponderous references are pompous, like a student who has done her homework and is trying to drop some pithy stuff into the class discussion. On its face, The Marriage Plot appears to be a novel that mentions a lot of novels without talking about any of them. These facile, knowing references disguise the sly ways that this novel engages with its predecessors.
Eugenides layers his allusions in an exciting and well-concealed way so that viewed from one angle, the novel is a relatively old-fashioned love-triangle cum young adult drama. But the novel is full of parallels and inversions, using its sources on a number of levels. As the novel opens, we look at Madeleine’s shelves, upon which are arranged the novels of Wharton, Austen, Eliot, “and the redoubtable Brontë sisters.” But, it’s immediately clear, Madeleine is no Lily Bart, no Ellen Olenska. She’s May Welland, Emma Woodhouse. As The Marriage Plot continues, she becomes Dorothea Brooke or Jane Eyre.
At the end of her own novel, saintly Jane Eyre tells us that “my time and cares were now required by another — my husband needed them all,” a moment with clear echoes in Eugenides’s book. Jane looks after her maimed husband, but her narrative closes with St. John Rivers, gone to India where he
…clears their painful way to improvement: he hews down like a giant the prejudices of creed and caste that encumber it…His is the ambition of the high master-spirit, which aims to fill a place in the first rank of those who are redeemed from the earth — who stand without fault before the throne of God; who share the last mighty victories of the Lamb; who are called, and chosen, and faithful.
Mitchell’s Calcutta gross-outs, his religious yearnings, his bhang enthusiasms, are a new take on the monastic St. John.
This novel is a surface upon which we might project the other novels we have read; Eugenides invites us so to do. In Calcutta, all Mitchell sees of Mother Teresa are the yellow soles of her feet, and I thought of T.S. Eliot: “You curled the papers from your hair,/ Or clasped the yellow soles of feet/ In the palms of both soiled hands.” Mitchell and Madeleine return from Thanksgiving, “walked together up College Hill, hugged, and parted,” which conjures a vague jumble of 19th century and earlier works in my brain. Every fictional hangover past 1954 owes something to the ur-hangover of Jim Dixon in Lucky Jim. Like Jim, Madeleine has to perform a duty with a blinding hangover after a night of bad sexual decisions. Like Jim, she enlists a person whom she has wronged to help her. The echoes are so subtle I heard them only after I had finished the book. Maybe I’m reaching, but I think the novel encourages us to reach. Eugenides’s characters appear to have read everything; we assume that he has read everything, and more.
I initially wondered if, with this book, Eugenides will alienate readers who are not readers like the readers in his novel. I doubt it, because I’m not a reader like the readers in his novel, not by a long shot, and even without having read Thomas Merton or Deleuze & Guattari I can follow and enjoy a story about a pretty girl, a crazy boy, and a pining best friend.
Madeleine’s Semiotics 211 classmates like the theorists who “wanted a book, that hard-won, transcendent thing, to be a text, contingent, indeterminate, and open for suggestions. They wanted the reader to be the main thing. Because they were readers.” Even though her classmates are silly, they have a point. Like Madeleine, I think of myself as a reading traditionalist, a person who wants “a book to take her places she couldn’t go herself” and who additionally wants “something to happen” to its characters “in a place resembling the world.” As a reader, I make tea with leaves and tea cozies, and as that kind of reader, this book satisfies me. I have to say that for adventure, pizzazz and magic carpet rides, The Marriage Plot doesn’t do it for me like Middlesex. As a book snob, The Marriage Plot does more. I can guess at the references and congratulate myself on recognizing the novel’s technical complexity.
But my opinion is like, problematized, as the Semiotics 211 kids might say. I waited for this book. I waited nine years and I wanted it bad. I rubbed my hands and its pages and fondled it and felt a physical stirring. Getting what you wait for makes the awaited thing both better and worse than it is. Was it good for me, this book? Yeah, it was good. It surprised me; it got me thinking about the things that Eugenides can do as a writer. The poor man doesn’t even get to bask a moment in his achievement before his fans are impatient for the next thing. I begin the long wait anew.
Image credit: Bill Morris/[email protected].