Looking back over what I wrote on this occasion last year, I see that my first sentence was this: “For me, 2012 has been at least as much a Year in Not Reading as a Year in Reading.” I re-read this now with rueful irony, like Beckett’s Krapp listening to the voices of his younger selves. What the hell did I imagine I knew about not reading in 2012? 2012? Before my wife and I had a son, and the remains of the day became consumed by the rigors of infant-admin — of feeding and changing and dandling and soothing and wiping and sterilizing? “No, no, no,” I mutter to my former self. “Believe you me, pal, you don’t know shit about not reading. But you’re about to learn. Stick around another few months, then we’ll talk about not reading.” I wouldn’t want that time back, of course — not, as Krapp would say, with the fire in me now — but I wish I’d been more appreciative then of how much leisure time I actually had, of how much I was, in fact, at liberty to read.
All of which filibustering is by way of saying, I suppose, that my year in reading has been compromised somewhat by my year in living; and yet — heroically, I feel — I still managed to consume a fair amount of high-end lit over the last 12 months. Looking back, my interest seems to have run more toward non-fiction than fiction, and the books that had the strongest impact on me tended to come in under that vague rubric. My favorite new book this year was Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby, which I read when it came out in June. It’s a beautiful and profound book of essayistic reflections on memory, family, grief, travel, and storytelling. The jacket copy (like its author) categorizes it as an anti-memoir, which makes it sound maybe more abstruse than it is, but it’s accurate enough. It begins with Solnit’s brother delivering a gigantic pile of apricots to her home — a haul from the garden of her Alzheimer’s-suffering mother who has just been placed into care. The fruit sits rotting on her floor, and become a pungent and seeping metaphor for mortality at the center of the book, prompting all sorts of beautiful meditations on time and loss and decay and storytelling. “The object we call a book,” she writes, “is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is in the head of the reader, where the symphony resounds, the seed germinates.” Solnit’s book is at home in my head now.
This summer, I read Janet Malcolm’s new collection Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers, which immediately made me realize that I needed to read as much of her as I possibly could. So I went on a minor Malcolm binge — although “binge” is not nearly the right word for Malcolm: it was more like a rigorous and salutary diet. So I read Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession and In the Freud Archives and The Journalist and the Murderer, and felt much the better for it.
Fiction-wise, I was very taken with China Miéville’s The City & the City — a book which I’d been meaning to read for a couple of years, but which I only got around to when I put it on a course I was teaching. (This, incidentally, is a great way to force yourself to read a book; I’ve found it to be pretty much foolproof over the years.) It’s a sort of speculative police procedural that slyly insinuates itself into your experience of everyday life. It’s set in the two imagined (but vaguely eastern European) cities of Ul Quoma and Besźel. These cities are culturally and economically distinct, but occupy the same geographic space — are in fact exactly the same city — a situation that is sustained by a brutally stringent system of laws and surveillance and the diligent disregard — or “unseeing” — of the two cities’ residents. Although it’s by no means a satirical fable, the experience of reading it nonetheless provokes a kind of unsettling realization of the ways in which we ignore certain obvious dimensions of the spaces we live in.
Another book that really got me was I Await the Devil’s Coming, the confessional diary of the 19-year-old Mary MacLane, written over three months at the turn of the last century (republished this year by Melville House after a near century of, I think, comparative obscurity). In a lot of ways, MacLane is a fairly typical teenage girl — exasperated by her family and bored insensible by the stultifying life of a small town — but she is also possessed of an unshakeable conviction in her own genius, a phenomenally snazzy prose style, and an erotic obsession — at once ironic and sincere — with the actual devil. It’s funny, troubling, touching, and finally kind of amazing. There are passages on her love of food (porterhouse steak in particular) and her fuming hatred of her family’s toothbrushes that will never leave me.
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We live in a performative age. This is an era when restaurants have had to adopt formal camera policies, because so many diners persist in taking pictures of their meals on their iPhones to post online. On any given day, my Facebook and Twitter feeds are filled with self-portraits: This is my new haircut. This is my new shirt. This is the face I make when I wish to convey that I am wry and self-aware, and this is my confident, I-can-take-on-the-world grin. Or details of lives, broadcast to the world: This is my dinner. This is my cat. This is how I feel at this moment. Look, I made a pie! Etc. “All the world’s a stage,” Shakespeare wrote, “and all the men and women merely players,” but it seems to me that only the first half of this statement remains true. The conventions of social media encourage us to see ourselves not as players in a larger drama, per se, but as the stars of our own individual reality shows.
There are moments when I love social media. There are other moments, actually a lot of moments, when I question how much of my finite life I want to spend on the Internet. In the plus column, I’ve met some wonderful people via social media, including a few who I’d count among my dearest friends. It’s an easy way to keep in touch with my siblings, who are as phone shy as I am and live 3,000 miles away. There are people who use social media in interesting ways. The conversations are occasionally good.
But I’ve been a sporadic and somewhat ambivalent participant of late. Long periods of time go by when I post almost nothing of my own and only respond to other people’s updates, because what it comes down to, I think, is that either you have an instinct for broadcasting your life on the Internet, or you don’t. It’s not that I find my life uninteresting, it’s just that I’m not at all sure why anyone else would be interested, aside from my mom. I keep a sporadic diary, because I want to remember my life, but I have a hard time imagining why I’d want to display that life for public consumption. I deeply value my privacy.
Mary MacLane, on the other hand, would have been a natural. Mary MacLane’s enthusiasm for broadcasting her life to the world was unparalleled in her time. Her staggeringly self-obsessed first book, I Await The Devil’s Coming, was published in 1902, and, as I read it, I found myself thinking that this was a woman who was temperamentally perfectly suited to the social media age. And then, a week later, I read Emily Gould’s excellent introduction to Melville House’s new e-book edition of I, Mary MacLane, the book that followed a few years later, and Gould said more or less the same thing. So much for my original insight.
But in any case, these are the facts: Mary MacLane’s main interest was herself, she found it necessary to exhaustively explore her own personality, and it wasn’t enough to write to herself in the pages of a diary. She required an audience. The audience, it turns out, was waiting for her. I Await The Devil’s Coming, originally published under the more sedate title The Story of Mary MacLane, sold 100,000 copies in its first month.
I Await The Devil’s Coming is a peculiar and fascinating piece of work. At the time of writing, Mary MacLane was an intellectually frustrated, profoundly restless 19 year old living a middle-class life with her family in Butte, Montana. Little was expected of her. The days passed slowly. High school was finished, and college didn’t seem to be part of anyone’s plan. She did a little light sewing, she wrote in her notebook, she read, she went on long walks. She was unbearably lonely.
She seems to have been unable to relate to anyone in her family, or even in Butte, and felt like a foreigner among them. She alludes to a miserable, loveless childhood. She has one friend and one friend only, referred to throughout as the Anemone Lady. She is in love with the Anemone Lady, but the Anemone Lady has left town. “My life,” MacLane wrote, “is a desert — a desert, but the thin, clinging perfume of the blue anemone reaches to its utter confines. And nothing in the desert is the same because of that perfume. Years will not fade the blue of the anemone, nor a thousand bitter winds blow away the rare fragrance.”
The Anemone Lady, she wrote, offered her the first and only glimpse of love she’d experienced in her life. She fantasized about meeting and marrying the Devil, although it isn’t entirely clear to me whether she actually believed the Devil exists, or if this was more of a vague desire to be rescued combined with an instinct for shock value. Regardless, the overall impression is of a young woman driven half-mad by loneliness and boredom. “My life lies fallow,” she wrote. “I am tired of sitting here.” MacLane called this book “the record of three months of Nothingness.”
Those three months are very much like the three months that preceded them, to be sure, and the three that followed them — and like all the months that have come and gone with me, since time was. There is never anything different; nothing ever happens.
In that nothingness, she wandered the plains outside Butte, and her descriptions of that spare landscape contain some of the most beautiful language in the book. When she could focus on subjects other than herself, she was capable of sublime prose.
It was rare, though, for her to focus on subjects other than herself. Mary MacLane’s primary interest was Mary MacLane. But she was extremely self-aware, and there are moments when she seems to recognize the corrosive potential of her self-absorption: “If I were not so unceasingly engrossed with my sense of misery and loneliness,” she wrote, “my mind would produce beautiful, wonderful logic. I am a genius — a genius — a genius.” It’s a startlingly candid admission: If I weren’t so engrossed with myself, I could accomplish greater things.
It’s a slippery thing, genius. The above quote isn’t an anomaly. In I Await The Devil’s Coming, MacLane informs us that she’s a genius again and again, until the question becomes unavoidable: okay, sure, but a genius at what? MacLane was a good but not transcendently gifted writer. (There’s something underdeveloped about her writing. There are glimpses, here and there, of what she might have been capable of if she’d been more interested in writing about subjects other than herself; if perhaps she’d lived a little longer, if some editor had perhaps taken an interest and redirected her talents; if she hadn’t been quite so cripplingly self-obsessed.) Her genius didn’t lie in any other obviously identifiable fields: she wasn’t developing new mathematical theorums, composing symphonies, or elucidating groundbreaking philosophical ideas. She was prone to curious leaps of logic: “A genius who does not know that he is a genius is no genius,” she wrote.
Just after I read I Await The Devil’s Coming, I read Savage Beauty, Nancy Milford’s exquisite biography of the American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. There are certain similarities between the two women. They were more or less contemporaries — MacLane was born in 1881, Millay in 1892 — and neither had much interest in living within the constraints of societal convention. At 18 and 19, Millay, too, was writing about an imaginary consort in the pages of her diary, and living a life shot through with desperation in Camden, Maine: “Sweep the floor,” Millay wrote at 19, “and sweep it again tomorrow and the day after tomorrow and the day after that and every day of your life; — if not that floor, why then — some other floor.” This is MacLane’s territory, these endless interchangeable days, this narrow life.
Both Millay and MacLane were sprung into new lives by works written at 19. Millay wrote a magnificent long poem, “Renascence,” that propelled her to Vassar and then a new life in New York, while the wild success of I Await The Devil’s Coming gained MacLane the fame she craved and enough money to escape Butte. Both women were bisexual, took many lovers, passed through Greenwich Village a few years apart, and lived bold and unconventional lives.
It’s important to note that MacLane made no claim to literary genius, but reading Savage Beauty and I Await The Devil’s Coming back to back throws one of the difficulties of MacLane’s work into sharp relief: one can’t help but notice that while MacLane was busy declaring herself a genius, certain other people were busy actually being geniuses without spending too much time announcing it.
But as the nature of MacLane’s “genius” is gradually revealed, there’s something deeply poignant about it. MacLane was excruciatingly sensitive. “I am not good,” she wrote. “I am not virtuous. I am not sympathetic. I am not generous. I am merely and above all a creature of intense passionate feeling. I feel — everything. It is my genius. It burns me like fire.”
That year, she stood watching the sunset in the landscape outside Butte and let her mind wander to a daydream of standing by the sea: “I stood on the shore and looked at the rocks. My heart contracted with the pain that beautiful things bring.” Against the beauty and pain and loneliness of her life, of the world, she had no armor. She barely had skin.
She was driven by a fervent longing. She wrote, “My wailing, waiting soul burns with but one desire: to be loved — oh, to be loved.”
MacLane was condemned and widely mocked for her immodesty, her self-stated lack of morals, and her open self-absorption, but I Await The Devil’s Coming turned her into an overnight sensation. It turned out there was a vast audience waiting for confessional writing, before confessional writing existed.
MacLane specifically wanted fame. She longed to be seen. As Emily Gould notes, she would have been a Tumblr and YouTube star. I’ll take this a step further and suggest that MacLane was someone who might have benefited immensely from the existence of the Internet, a person who might have been shaped, for the better, by the exposure to a wider world that the Internet can provide to isolated people. MacLane was cursed with a certain narrowness of imagination: she could summon up an imaginary Devil in perfect detail — the look in his eye, his tone of voice, the cut of his suit — but at 19 she couldn’t conceive that in all of this vast world, very little of which she’d actually seen, there could possibly be anyone remotely like her.
In a 1986 article about confessional writing in The New York Times, Patricia Hampl made reference to MacLane’s “repellent self-absorption.” I find myself repelled too, but also I am fascinated. MacLane was an original. I Await The Devil’s Coming is frequently irritating, but it’s also audacious. This was an era when women were expected to be modest to the point of invisibility, to all but disappear into the wallpaper, and MacLane refused. The new Melville House edition of her first book has gained considerable traction, including a recent long excerpt on The New Yorker website. I find myself wondering if what seemed repellently self-involved when Hampl wrote that article in 1986 seems merely mildly eccentric in the social media age. We expect self-involvement in the social media age; we are, after all, publishing photographs of what we had for breakfast. The only eccentricity is in openly declaring one’s own genius.
“But I would give up this genius eagerly,” MacLane wrote, “gladly — at once and forever — for one dear, bright day free from loneliness.”