Empty Words

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A Year in Reading: Matt Seidel

1.I’ve spent most of the year exploring (dictionary in hand) French and Italian contemporary literature, including Adeline Dieudonne’s La Vraie Vie. This engrossing, horrific coming-of-age tale involves a tyrannical father, taxidermy, time travel and the mortal dangers of ice-cream trucks. Luckily, the English translation, Real Life, is coming out this February. On the Italian (and as-yet-untranslated) side, Ezio Sinigaglia’s Il Pantarei features a young writer composing an idiosyncratic account of the 20th-century novel. It is about how novels shapes not only one’s style but also one’s life, and it doubles as a neat little primer on literary history. Il Pantarei, originally published in 1985 and reissued this year in Italy, would make an excellent addition to the list of an Open Letter Books or Dalkey Archives Press.

Three other works that stuck with me this year involved men in trouble, one farcical take on contemporary society and two sly, meta-literary comedies.

In the Uruguayan Mario Levrero’s Empty Words, a man embarks on a regimen of “graphological self-therapy” on the suggestion of a “crazy friend.” The idea is that beautifully formed characters reflect, or help shape, a beautiful character. His goals are both modest and comically ambitious. On the modest side, he hopes to replace his “microscopic scrawl” with a “large, expansive handwriting”’ and to write a “continuous” cursive in which the pen never leaves the page, thereby aiding the “continuity of thoughts.” His more outsized hopes are delivered with an irony that undercuts the project even before it begins:

I know these daily exercises will do wonders for my health and character, transforming a whole plethora of bad behaviors into good ones and catapulting me blissfully into a life of happiness, joy, money, and success with women and in other games of chance.  

The narrator is a Tristram Shandy figure diverted from his ambitious course of self-improvement by a stream of interruptions: “I live from one urgency to the next.” He is perennially distracted by his obligations as a writer and crossword setter, the misadventures of his dog, Pongo, and his girlfriend, a “fractal being,” so much so that he develops a persecution complex: “I know full well that every step I take toward self-affirmation on the inside is harshly punished on the outside.”  

Sometimes, the pestered cruciverbalist distracts himself, neglecting his graphology to program a computer to make chirping noises. And yet he perseveres with heroic resolve, sounding eerily like A Confederacy of Dunces’s Ignatius J. Reilly: “…I decided to prioritize this [handwriting] activity and put off—at no small personal sacrifice—my lunch.”   

When
the narrator does set down to work on his handwriting, another problem
surfaces. Nature, and narrative, abhors a vacuum. Despite his resolute efforts
to keep the exercises as mechanical as possible—pure exercises in calligraphic
style—content, or “discourse,” seeps in. His “narrative urges” overwhelm his
self-discipline. Or as he puts it in terms to which even the non-creative can
relate: “The blank page is like a big chocolate pudding; I’m not allowed to eat
it because I’m on a diet, but I can’t resist.”

Writing
crosswords is the opposite process in a way. In that work, he constructs a
hidden order out of blankness; in the writing exercises, he blindly stumbles up
against an unknowable order: 

I feel trapped inside a mechanism I know nothing about, gripped by the magical fear that my apparently private, personal, and innocent act has put me in touch with a formidable and dangerous world, a world I can’t control and can only barely, uncertainly, feel is there.

Then, at the very end, he matter-of-factly reveals a crucial piece of information that explains some of the anxiety, depression and self-loathing (he sees himself as physically and psychically grotesque) that motivated the project in the first place. After reading this self-referential twist on the self-help book, I’m awaiting the forthcoming translation (also by Annie McDermott) of another of Levrero’s works, The Luminous Novel.

2.From a narrator who forces himself to write, we move to one who is compelled to write, despite his yearning for silence. Sam Savage’s debut novel The Cry of the Sloth was an epistolary blaze of literary rancor; “My Life in Writing: A Confession in Fable,” one of the most memorable pieces in his posthumous collection An Orphanage of Dreams, is another lament of, or curious paean to, the writerly life. 

The
narrator is a thoroughly Beckettian figure: a clochard accustomed to
“proddings and nudgings administered by guardians of the law.” He stumbles
along in search of a former lover whom he wouldn’t recognize even if he should
come across her. Because of “erosions of time and blows to the head,” he has
forgotten, among other things, his name, though one fellow traveler informs him
he looks like a Ned. He is never without at least one notebook, a pencil and a
sharpener. The notebooks contains either 44 or 48 pages, presumably because of
a production inconsistency, which prompts the narrator to wonder whether he has
been ripped off or has cheated the shopkeeper with each purchase: “I never know
whether to count my blessings or curse my fate.” This is also the key question
surrounding the true, that is inescapable, literary vocation: is it a gift from
the gods, a torment, or, as suggested by this fable, both?  

Whenever
he feels overcome by the “thicket of words” crowding his brain, the narrator
writes them down, an “orderly production and disposal of dreams and
memories”: 

So I go on writing, laying down one sentence after another. I lay them down like sponges hoping they will soak up the noise, the howling, the mumbling, the creaking, the chattering, that they will become swollen with the noise, grow fat on the absurdity of the noise, and come to an end. 

Afterwards,
he crosses out the text (but not completely), rips out the page and tosses it
on the street, sibylline leaves scattered to the wind: “I leave them legible
out of vanity, I suppose, or loneliness, imagining as I walk along that
somewhere behind me someone will pick up the page…” Some people do, as it turns
out, but mostly because they think it’s litter. 

So
what then, causes him to forge on, despite the obstacles (“bad luck, a bad leg,
a lost bike, blows to the temple, tendencies to inebriation and sloth”) and
despite the clear view of all those promising ephebes who came, and failed,
before him (a “mountain of carcasses”)? The answer is simple: the hope,
inexhaustible if quixotic, for some glint of recognition, a readerly
communion: 

…a person reading it, if there is such a one, will be looking at my soul through the wire of its cage, or the other way around, that my soul is peeking out through laced fingers at the mystery of the world.

3.In Peter Mehlman’s #MeAsWell, Arnie Pepper is a wise-cracking sports columnist for the Washington Post with a growing disdain for sports (“The NFL’s biggest impact on society is that now dumb people donate their brains to science”), media coverage (“Turn to ESPN and there’s so much laughter, you’d think Rodney Dangerfield is giving the scores”) and fans, “putrefying savages” with a “wantonly false sense of entitlement.” Kibitzing with other reporters at Marlin’s Park during batting practice, he delivers a one-liner about an injury-prone basketball player: “How long does a guy usually stay on the injured list for a hysterectomy?” The male reporters find it funny, but then someone posts the joke on social media, landing Pepper—“content and carefree as a white, wage-earning, statin-popping, middle-aged American male could be”—at the center of a minor controversy.

After the joke stirs up moral outrage, a protester using the nom de guerre Bruce Bader Ginsburg sprays Pepper with “artisanal estrogen mist…with a drizzle of Malaysian sterilization powder.” Worse, the Post brass call him up to the carpet for what could be the end of his career. But what, Pepper protests, of his impeccable bona fides? “I named my daughter after Althea Gibson, for Chrissake!” and that’s just for starters. His columns have earned the admiration of stars like Martina Navratilova, Danica Patrick, and Brandi Chastain: “I’ve been on the right side of their every issue…NOW cited me as an example of forward thinking in the primitive tar pits of Sports Journalism,” he cries. 

The
novel would be less convincing if it merely echoed complaints about cancel
culture. “Giving people a break has become un-American,” says Pepper for
example, bemoaning a population high on “Moral Outrage Oxycontin.” Melhman’s
humor saves the novel from being an enervating lament—I should note here he
wrote for Seinfeld—and because Pepper’s righteous anger is tempered by doubt,
a sense that his self-pity might be overblown. Indeed, his patient but
exasperated daughter delivers the sagest hot take on l’affaire Pepper: “This is
the world now and you’ve finally gotten your first taste…a tiny taste….life
is unfair, but if you hang around, you can still steal a game here and
there.” 

The novel is also too busy to descend into bathos. Pepper gets a scoop involving one of the Trump administration’s odious members saying something odious; a Madoff-like friend on the lamb contemplates a return; he receives a mildly credible death threat; and dips his toes in the dating pool. And as if to prove the notion that sports are the great uniter, over one 24-hour period, the maligned sportswriter comes into contact with Kirsten Gillibrand, Bob Woodward, a prelapsarian Les Moonves, and, wait for it, Jamal Khashoggi. 

The turmoil shakes Pepper but doesn’t affect his antic garrulousness, and indeed his voice—wisecracking and quick-witted—makes the novel. Ironic, then, that Pepper’s breakthrough involves him discovering his “inner mute button.”

What If Better Penmanship Could Make You a Better Person

Cursive is supposed to happen at the right speed for steady thought. It hits the page slower than type and faster than print, and in this happy medium, one hopes the mind will hit its stride and think clearly, rationally, linearly. But what if the idea of cursive practice was to humble, even eradicate the content of the written word? That is the project of the narrator in Mario Levrero’s novel Empty Words—recently released in translation from the Spanish by Annie McDermott—to focus on neat, regular handwriting so careful that it smooths out all digressions of the mind. Though the narrator is, like the author, a writer and crossword setter, he takes a writer’s tool and divorces it from the act of connecting with the self or world. Instead, the physical act of writing becomes about avoiding spiritual searching, which has become too onerous—in an opening poem, before he begins his “graphological self-therapy” he writes “ It’s not worth searching, the more you look /  the more distant is seems, the better it hides.”

So the narrator delves into his penmanship not in hope of being a better writer, but to “make changes on a psychological level,” ones that he claims, in a burst of optimism, “will do wonders for my health and charachter, transforming a whole plethora of bad behaviors into good ones and catapulting me blissfully into a life of happiness, joy, money, and success with women and in other games of chance.” When his exercises pick up pace, though, the neat, ordered discipline of handwriting breaks down and sloppy print letters creep into that uniform line of script. This indication that thought has begun to flow freely is not positive—it runs contrary to the two-dimensional bliss he imagines neatness can herald. He takes frequent breaks to play around with his computer, which, even though the book was originally published in 1996, is a daunting tool, “very similar to the unconscious.” Nonetheless, he claims to prefer it to his own exhausted mind: “there’s nowhere left to go when it comes to investigating my unconscious; the computer also involves much less risk, or risk of a different kind.”

To avoid this “risk” he must suppresses the content of his writing, the meaning. He tries to keep his words steady and boring, though he fails hilariously, again and again. He is in a constant state of agitation about the need to stick to his task. He dreads interruptions, mostly from the family life that hums along in the background. So he tries to write nothing important, nothing complex. But when he leaves his handwritten pages out for his wife to critique, he complains that they “naturally became a way of telling her things—hence the anxiety that makes me write too fast when I have something important to say.”

The exercise is not dissimilar to the one put forth in Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, in which a young woman decides to hibernate for a year in the name of self-improvement. Both narrators lay out stringent rules for their supposed betterment, rules that, to the reader, seem arbitrary and obviously self-defeating. The mission, for both characters, is to blot out much of life. The byproduct is a heaping dose of both anxiety and moral superiority.

In spite of the narrator’s vague resolve to be better, his discipline makes him generally nasty within his household. When his stepson looks over the shoulder, he writes on the page “Juan Ignacio is a fool.” He begrudgingly cares for his dog, even encouraging him to run away by widening an opening in the fence—an act he insists repeatedly is not metaphorical. And when he returns to his work, he complains that it is difficult to concentrate after kicking a dog. Neither the narrator nor anyone in his household is catapulted blissfully into a life of joy, but his focus on handwriting over expression protects the narrator from reflecting on these failures.

The narrator has tender moments, though. He wonders when he and his wife, Alicia, will start “living together” apart from all the “hyperactivity” of the household. The two even earmark Fridays as a time to focus on their relationship, but they can’t sustain it because the narrator brings a similar mentality to improving their relationship as he does to penmanship. And he forgets that like communication is to writing, quotidian household tasks and banal decisions are the stuff on which domestic relationships are founded. The phenomenological isolation he seeks doesn’t exist and he lashes out in frustration: he refers to Alicia’s efficient approach to daily life as a “militarization of the self” and says it is akin to pruning a tree into a geometric shape.

In another moment of frustration with a household routine he finds chaotic and distracting, the narrator calls Alicia a “fractal being.” Though he complains that fractals have not been studied enough, he never gives readers a full picture of his wife; instead he uses her as a cautionary tale, though it is he who flounders on every page. If Alicia is a “fractal,” then the things that preoccupy him, like his irregularly racing heart, can be described best in fractals. The things that comfort him aesthetically—a tree growing through a ruined piece of architecture, shattered glass, the search for patterns in the randomness of dreams—are infinitely more fractal than pure forms.

Dreams are a recurring element of the book, treated with the same distance but less frustration than the other digressions and unpredictable moments that vex our narrator. He does not explore them or elaborate on them; he even becomes annoyed when he finds himself seeking to interpret them. Levrero’s approach to dreams—his approach to writing this book even—is about as far from Latin American magical realism as one can get. Earlier Uruguayan writer (and inspiration to many of the magical realists) Felisberto Hernández molded each plot in his Piano Stories into the dreams and obsessions of his narrator; reality followed the digression. But as much as Levrero’s narrator rejects his dreams, he still nods at the tradition: the final line of the book ends with another uninterpreted, unexplored dream. The final word of the books is “Alchemy,” the thing the narrator has stripped from his writing and life, but vows in the end to return to.

And it is a thrill in the final part of the novel to see his the narrator’s penmanship exercises gather speed, to see him put aside his frustration and concentrate on specific details like the formation of the letter “R,” or to see the pages littered with strikethroughs of words he resolves to execute better. But even when the exercises have begun to absorb him, they are not what bring about a final revelation. This comes when he finally writes about his mother’s illness and death, referred to only in passing throughout the book. The narrator has let story rise to the surface of his writing, and he is able call handwriting the “evasion tactic” it is. “When you reach a certain age, you’re no longer the protagonist of your own actions,” he reports “all you have left are the consequences of the things you’ve already done.” Exerting control over one small activity does not neaten up the other strands of life, it only throws its messiness into relief.

Empty Words is a very funny, very sad reflection on the ways people try (and fail) to simplify their lives. As the narrator says at one point in the story, “you cannot become less busy by getting things done.” Perhaps that is what Levrero thinks of self-help programs, that they become one more overbearing thing on an overwhelming to-do list. In the protagonist’s case, if he was trying to find relief from the emotional and intellectual work of life by reimagining handwriting as a Zen-like practice of  “invisible work,” he picked the wrong manual task. Handwriting is the ultimate in visible work—script, scrawl, or chicken scratch, it is the tool through which thoughts grow visible and complicated.

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