Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name.
May is blooming and fertile, spring in its full flower. Unlike the storms of March and the “uncertain glory” of April, Shakespeare’s May, with its “darling buds,” is always sweet, and ever the month for love. Traditionally — before the international labor movement claimed May 1st in honor of the Haymarket riot — May Days in England were holidays of love too, white-gowned fertility celebrations. It’s on a May Day that Thomas Hardy, always attuned to ancient rites, introduces Tess Durbeyfield, whose “bouncing handsome womanliness” among her fellow country girls still reveals flashes of the child she recently was.
May has long been the month for mothers as well as maidens, even before Anna Jarvis chose the second Sunday in May in 1908 for Mother’s Day to honor the death of her own mom. The mother of them all, the Virgin Mary, was celebrated for centuries as the Queen of May, and in “The May Magnificat” Gerard Manley Hopkins reminds us that “May is Mary’s month,” and asks why. “All things rising,” he answers, “all things sizing / Mary sees, sympathizing / with that world of good, / Nature’s motherhood.”
The many meanings of a simple word like “May” can get to be too much, though. When the mother in The Furies, Janet Hobhouse’s fictional memoir of a life caught up in isolated family dependence, chooses Memorial Day to end her own life, her daughter mournfully riffs on May in an overdetermined frenzy: “month of mothers, month of Mary, month of heroes, the beginning of heat and abandonment, of the rich leaving the poor to the cities, May as in Maybe Maybe not, as in yes, finally you may, as in Mayday, the call for help and the sound of the bailout, and also, now that I think of it, as in her middle name, Maida.”
Here is a selection of recommended May reading, including love, friendship, underground adventure, and a very bad prom:
Memoirs by Lord Byron (unpublished)
You might wish to read Byron’s Memoirs (who wouldn’t?), but you can’t, thanks to a decision made by six men in the drawing room of the publisher John Murray in May 1824, a month after their dangerous friend had died of fever in Greece. Fearing the effect of its publication on “Lord Byron’s honor & fame” (and perhaps on their own reputations), they instead fed the pages of the manuscript, unread, into the fire.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865)
She may have met a March Hare that was mad as a hatter, but it was in the month of May — the birthday month of Alice Liddell, Charles Dodgson’s model for his heroine — that Alice followed a rabbit with a watch in his waistcoat pocket down a hole and began her adventures underground.
In January he had written to her, “I love your verses with all my heart, Miss Barrett,” but it wasn’t until May 20 (from 3:00 to 4:30 pm) that Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett met in person for the first time, in her invalid’s bedroom in the house of her domineering father. They eloped the following year.
Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (1954)
What better cure for end-of-term blues than the campus novel that launched the whole genre (along with Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution, published the same year)? You may never want to go back to class at all, especially if you’re lecturing, miserably, on medieval history at a provincial English university.
“The Whitsun Weddings” by Philip Larkin (1964)
Amis based Lucky Jim on, and dedicated it to, his good friend Larkin, who made his own mark on postwar British culture with this ambivalent ode to the hopeful mass pairing-up of springtime, three years before the Kinks captured the same lonely-in-the-city melancholy in “Waterloo Sunset.”
“The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” by Hunter S. Thompson (1970)
A son of Louisville returned home for the ninety-sixth running of the local horse race in the company of the bearded British illustrator Ralph Steadman and emerged with his first piece of journalism that earned the adjective “gonzo.”
Frog and Toad Are Friends by Arnold Lobel (1970)
The lesson of “Spring,” the opening tale in Lobel’s thrillingly calm series for early readers, is, apparently, that there is honor in deception, as Frog fools hibernating Toad into joining him on a fine April day by tearing an extra page off the calendar to prove it is, in fact, May.
Carrie by Stephen King (1974)
“Remember, it’s YOUR prom; make it one to remember always!” With over 400 dead in the town and the school gymnasium a charred and blood-soaked ruin, it’s not likely that anyone — assuming they survived it — will forget the climactic late May event of King’s debut.
Lulu in Hollywood by Louise Brooks (1982)
An early May visit to the Eastman film archives in Rochester and then to the nearby apartment of the forgotten elderly woman who had starred so thrillingly in the silent films he screened there led first to Kenneth Tynan’s classic New Yorker profile of Louise Brooks, “The Girl in the Black Helmet” and then, following her rediscovery, to the publication of this collection of Brooks’s own sharp-witted memoirs and film criticism.
Small Island by Andrea Levy (2004)
All within the month of May 1948, Hortense Roberts and Gilbert Joseph meet, become engaged, and are wed, and Gilbert sets off from Jamaica for the larger island of Great Britain, to be followed six months later by Hortense, who had funded both their journeys in an immigrants’ alliance that’s as much a business partnership as a marriage in Levy’s subtle, sympathetic novel.
Reborn: Journals & Notebooks, 1947-1963 by Susan Sontag (2008)
“I AM REBORN IN THE TIME RETOLD IN THIS NOTEBOOK,” sixteen-year-old Sontag scribbled on the inside cover of her journal for May 1949, marking a moment when she was colossally precocious — rereading Mann, Hopkins, and Dante — and falling in love for the first time, with a young woman in San Francisco.
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand (2010)
In late May 1943, just a few days after Memorial Day, Second Lieutenant Louis Zamperini, former Olympian runner and holder of the NCAA mile record, crashed in the Pacific with two fellow airmen, beginning a record forty-seven days drifting on a raft, which proved to be just the beginning of his ordeal.
Image via Leland Francisco/Flickr
A Word on Weddings
Like many people whose marriage impends, I have been initiated into the strange, febrile world of weddings — a world whose population is varied and ever-changing, a time-lapse version of the actual world. The wedding world is headquartered at sites like The Knot or Weddingbee, where the affianced and the “waiting” (for someone to put a ring on it) alike convene to commune in questionable spelling and reverent platitudes of surpassing banality: “marrying my best friend,” and “it’s not the wedding, it’s the marriage,” uttered in the course of a discussion about five-dollar chair covers.
Making fun of The Knot or Weddingbee is like shooting fish in a barrel, and most of the womens’ interest blogs of the sort I favor have taken aim. But Jezebel cannot tell me anything about tipping the caterer, while Weddingbee bristles with opinions on the subject. Moreover, long after I harvested the helpful hints I needed from Weddingbee, I return frequently to view the forums, which I have found absorbing to an almost debilitating degree.
It began with the unkind voyeuristic impulse behind something like The Hairpin’s Today’s Top Ten Wedding Bee Discussion Board Thread Titles. The Internet, more than travel, more than almost any other thing, gives you a glimpse of how other people live and what they care about. And with weddings being a widespread but mostly un-ideological phenomenon, a wedding website attracts a real slice of life. On Weddingbee there are the expected Marxian differences, as well as significant regional and hemispheric variations.
In spite of this, these boards are a friendly place. Women are frequently reminded by the world at large that they are catty and shrewish, but I am often struck by the fierce generosity demonstrated by groups of women unknown to one another (also by the speed with which a group of female strangers will turn to topics of contraception under the right circumstances). As in any community, some members are just assholes. But someone asks if she is too fat to see daylight, and everyone tells her no, no, no. Someone loses her job a week before her wedding, and the hive gathers round her in an online embrace.
Disdain for these sites is often of a parcel with another phenomenon the wedding-haver encounters — a sort of race-to-the-bottom humblebrag about the minimal expense of the interlocutor’s wedding, sometimes phrased so that the implication is that the success of a marriage is inversely proportionate to the cost of the shindig. “Had it in the backyard,” they say, and the Lord rained down gratis BBQ and compostable cutlery to reward their lack of pretension. Then there is Caitlin Flanagan, who characteristically manages to be right about a lot of things while sucking the joy right out of the world, reminding us that weddings are a colossal, farcical, tasteless, and needless expense representing a hollowed-out institution — just another example of our sick culture.
Everyone has their own line for what constitutes folly. I am not without my own strain of Flanaganism. But one thing I really like about weddings is that though they are a folly, they are to the best of my knowledge a relatively universal folly (and one of the few driven by some ostensibly joyful and optimistic instinct). Even in less libertine cultures than my own, they often represent a union in which not a shred of virginity, financial health, or, sometimes, likelihood of enduring love remains. Even so, we are going to get spruced up, create a festive atmosphere of one sort or another, and take photographs. In a thousand languages, people spend money, fight about the guest list, and try not to get any unsightly hives on the big day. Then, they try to stay married. We are unlikely to make ourselves less stupid than we collectively are, so we should have parties.
My own experience of wedding planning has been a very traditional cocktail shared with my beloved, composed of anxiety, guilt, and joyful anticipation. Like many people, I made a lot of lists of things and fretted too much about some things and not enough about others. I did things that were called “wedding planning” which were actually just mindless Internet trawling, looking at pictures of things that have no bearing on my life, and patting myself on the back for at least not being as x as the people who say y on Weddingbee.
What the wedding sites made clear to me about weddings generally and ours in particular is that they are inevitably one iteration of a thousand other weddings — a melange of logistical and aesthetic decisions dictated by social forces largely imperceptible to you. You find that choices you believed you had arrived at quite on your own are some current staple of Pinterest, totally characteristic of your particular station in life. My demographic, evidently, is very fond of the “rustic” and the “vintage.” And while I have grown to shudder at these terms (one wedding theme I read about: “vintage books”), part of it is the pain of realizing that you are part of a vast, rushing current, and your tastes are not your own.
I eventually resigned myself to rusticity and sameness, but one place where I thought I could assert my personality (without leaving my fiance totally by the wayside, or course), was the wedding reading. I was confident that Weddingbee could tell me nothing that I did not already know about a pithy piece of writing.
How Literature Failed Me in my Hour of Need
It is now customary in many weddings to write one’s own vows, tailored to fit the bride and groom’s individual quirks. Faced with this prospect, some dour inner Protestant stirred and grumbled. I could not picture us telling the assembled that we enjoy fattening food, Breaking Bad, and architectural boat tours. That when I mop the floor, I like to get drunk and listen to Groove Armada. When you sneeze, you sneeze five times. That I promise to always like the Redskins even when they are dismal. No, I am partial to “death do us part.” And brevity, ironically.
Thus the reading became the one place in the ceremony for a little customization and flair. My beloved also likes books, but I am bossier, and I took the reigns on this project. And since I find literature sufficient for expressing most of what there is to express about human life, the bar for this particular passage was very high.
As a bookish person, it felt like cheating to be searching for beautiful passages from the Internet. I preferred for it to happen more organically (so precious, so mistaken). I read books all the time, I thought to myself; surely I should have some interior commonplace book chock-full of beauty and inspiration to consult. But the only two poems I can recite in their entirety — Philip Larkin’s “High Windows” and “This be the Verse” — are so far from wedding-worthy it’s hard to imagine anything worse: “When I see a couple of kids/ And guess he’s fucking her and she’s/ Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,/ I know this is paradise.” (Or “They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” obviously.)
I love “The Whitsun Weddings,” which is technically a poem about weddings. But while, contra Christopher Hitchens, I think its last line is romantic, the romance is that of life, not of individual human relationships: “A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower/ Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.” “Broadcast” is love poem, but a more sneering and cringing love poem there never was: “…Then begins/ A snivel on the violins:/ I think of your face among all those faces,/ Beautiful and devout before/ Cascades of monumental slithering.” Most unsuitable for a wedding. And anyhow, Larkin — more on him later.
My favorite poem is probably T.S. Eliot’s “Preludes,” the last lines of which reveal the haunting ordered chaos of the universe, but hardly warm the cockles: “The worlds revolve like ancient women/ gathering fuel in vacant lots.” In a book shop pawing through the poetry, I sensed this was a theme, in poetry in general, and especially in the poetry I like. Tomas Tranströmer seemed promising for a minute in “The Couple,” if a touch erotic: “The movements of love have settled, and they sleep/but their most secret thoughts meet as when/ two colours meet and flow into each other/ on the wet paper of a schoolboy’s painting.” But that ending: “They stand packed and waiting very near,/ a mob of people with blank faces.” It leaves an impression of a lonely echo in a hallway, a little like “Preludes.”
Googling had seemed like cheating, but I started to Google, and found, predictably, that I was hardly the first person to have had this problem. Book snobs abound. I went to the library and took out several anthologies, including a book of readings specifically for weddings. There are things I have seen before — sonnets, for example — but I like free verse. There were many things I hadn’t seen. Margaret Atwood has a poem about marriage called “Habitation,” evidently used in some weddings. I liked it, stupidly, because it mentions eating popcorn, which happens to be something that my beloved and I do together on a shockingly regular basis. But it seemed a little fraught for a wedding. The last line, “We are learning to make fire,” hangs at the bottom of the page, lonely as early man: I pictured us shivering in our damp cave.
I liked an excerpt from Toni Morrison’s “Jazz” — “It’s nice when grown people whisper to each other under the covers” — but that’s so private, and then the poem invokes an off-stage “chippie” and “stud.” I checked out Love Letters of Great Men, but the problem, aside from the sort of ethical weirdness of reading someone’s mail, is that great men tended to write romantic letters to a number of different women, which is not really on-message for our marriage (this was not in the collection, but I remember Malcolm Lowry once wrote one of his wives that he wanted to use her toothbrush instead of his own). I looked to the eminently quotable Flaubert in the pages of Julian Barnes’ wonderful Flaubert’s Parrot. Here’s a good one: “You ask for love, you complain that I don’t send you flowers? Flowers, indeed! If that’s what you want, find yourself some wet-eared boy stuffed with fine manners and all the right ideas. I’m like the tiger, which has bristles of hair at the end of its cock, with which it lacerates the female.”
Rumi figures in anthologies of love poetry. I like Rumi, but for a wedding I feel that the Sufis are off-limits. As far as I know, which is not very much, the beloved of whom they speak is likely to be God, or the young man who brings you your wine. Context matters. Also, my favorite line from Rumi is fiercely individualistic: “I drip out of a spout drop by drop — But like the deluge I crush myriad palaces.” (Rappers have nothing on Rumi). I toyed with finding something in Turkish — but it seemed to me that this was a moment for my mother tongue. And my knowledge is limited, and my favorite Turkish poetry is in any case a line written by the twelfth century poet Yunus Emre, too defiant for a wedding unless it was one disapproved of by all relatives: “What should the ignorant know of us?/ Greetings to the ones who know.”
Context matters, and that’s really what takes Philip Larkin out of the question: he loved Monica Jones so much he helped Kingsley Amis turn her into one of literature’s great hysterics, a caricature of a pain-in-the-ass female (Lucky Jim’s Margaret Peel). When I think about literature I don’t typically dwell on the private life of the author, because it’s a slippery slope. But I found when looking for a wedding reading that I became more interested in whether the writer him or herself had been married and gave at least the appearance of contentment.
On love, Emily Dickinson basically sums it up: “That Love is all there is/ Is all we know of Love;/ It is enough, the freight should be/ Proportioned to the groove.” But love and marriage are not the same thing. Most unkindly, I wondered what the virginal shut-in would know of the long intimacy, the vaunted tedium of marriage. Bizarrely, I veered into some exclusionary policy regarding Auden and Forster, whose circumscribed personal lives were in the broad sense casualties of a bigoted and ignorant society. Nabokov was promising; he is known to have loved Vera, and wrote her poems. But the 1974 poem “To Vera” is just that, a poem to Vera, and seemed to have nothing to do with us. “How I Love You” is Nabokovian in a way that confounds a ceremonial reading: “…gnats:/ hanging up in an evening sunbeam, / their swarmlet ceaselessly jiggles…”
There is the religious angle — a friends’ wedding featured Isaiah 43:1-7, which I believe is a particularly badass selection from the Old Testament: “When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned.” But novels are my sacred texts, and we are in any case rather unclear in our feelings about the Lord. His brief invocation in Robert Louis Stevenson’s cheerful “Wedding Prayer” is enough: “Lord, behold our family here assembled” (which one could also read: “Oh Lord, they’re all here.”)
Poetry letting me down, I turned to the novels that I love. No passage suggested itself to me — unless you have a very certain kind of mind, you can’t survey the text of every book you’ve ever read all at the same time. And if it’s not cricket to go looking for a previously unencountered reading that somehow has meaning to you, it’s equally uncricket to read everything with an eye to appropriating some piece of it for your marriage ceremony. But I began to see that’s how I should have been reading for the entirety of the preceding year.
What had I read most recently? We Need to Talk About Kevin, for chrissakes, and a book about rabies. I reread Goodbye to All That, which Graves closes with “…marriage wore thin. New characters appeared on the stage. Nancy and I said unforgivable things to each other. We parted on May 6th, 1929. She, of course, insisted on keeping the children. And I went abroad, resolved never to make England my home again…” My fiance had most recently read Travels With Charlie, and suggested I look there. But Travels With Charlie is about a man and a poodle, and the poodle goes “ffft.”
I began to comb through my favorite novels, but from the outset it was clear that most would never do. There’s Burmese Days or Of Human Bondage, where goodish men are driven mad by worthless women, with differing outcomes. A Suitable Boy is a spectacularly romantic novel, weddings all over, but it portends falling in love with the man you can marry, in lieu of the one that you can’t. The Tin Drum, full of obscenity. Wodehouse, too facetious. The aforementioned Lucky Jim closes with a romance, but it is a revenge story, against all Welches and Margarets, rather than a love story about the well-formed Christine. Iris Murdoch’s novels are full of bizarre marriages and strange perversity. (The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, anyone?) Till We Have Faces, jealous sibling love and spinsters. I opened Possession, even Swann’s Way — they presented unyielding blocks of text. The closest I came was from A Dance to the Music of Time, and in fact explained why I was having so much trouble:
A future marriage, or a past one, may be investigated and explained in terms of writing by one of its parties, but it is doubtful whether an existing marriage can ever be described directly in the first person and convey a sense of reality. Even those writers who suggest some of the substance of married life best, stylise heavily, losing the subtlety of the relationship at the price of a few accurately recorded, but isolated, aspects…Its forms are at once so varied, yet so constant, providing a kaleidoscope, the colours of which are always changing, always the same. The moods of a love affair, the contradictions of friendship, the jealousy of business partners, the fellow feeling of opposed commanders in total war, these are all in their way to be charted. Marriage, partaking of such — and a thousand more — dual antagonisms and participations, finally defies definition.
It defies definition, and yet I wanted something romantic, weighty but not melancholy, in English, about marriage. It was finally Louis C. K. who drove it all home, how hard this is to do:
…Or you’ll meet the perfect person who you love infinitely and you even argue well and you grow together and you have children and then you get old together and then SHE’S GONNA DIE. That’s the BEST CASE SCENARIO, is that you’re gonna lose your best friend and then just walk home from D’Agostino’s with heavy bags every day and wait for your turn to be nothing also.
That is indeed the best case scenario, the lost best friend, that friend so abstract on the Weddingbee message boards, so real in practice. I listened to Donald Hall reading about the death of Jane Kenyon on This American Life and bawled my eyes out.
In the end, I stood again in a book shop, rifling through every poetry book they had. (In the course of the hunt I was descended upon by the proprietor, and because the last thing I wanted was someone’s advice on the matter, remained mute on the subject of the wedding and was thus compelled to read two suggested Bill Hickok poems while he stood watchfully at a remove.) Finally, I picked something, a poem by Billy Collins from his collection Nine Horses. I picked something, but what I thought was even better in that collection was something else, “Bermuda,” which is basically a poetic version of the Louis bit. A husband and wife lie together on a beach: “and the two of us so calm/ it seems that this is not our only life,/ just one in a series, charms on a bracelet,/ as if every day we were not running/ like the solitary runners on the beach/ toward a darkness without shape/ or waves, crosses or clouds,/as if one of us is not likely to get there first/ leaving the other behind,/ castaway on an island…”
It turns out that it was hard for me to find a good wedding reading because I’m a gloomy old bastard.
There, it would seem, is the rub. But I wasn’t going to put this foreboding stuff into the wedding ceremony. No, with several days remaining until the wedding I picked Collins’s “Litany” (“You are the bread and the knife,/ the crystal goblet and the wine”), which I thought was lovely and romantic and yet also conveyed the promised prosaic qualities of long relationships. It’s funny, but not too much. I find the long dashes of the last lines poignant: “You will always be the bread and the knife,/ not to mention the crystal goblet and — somehow –/ the wine.” There is an element of the sacramental which appeals to me, something that begins to approach the reverence I feel for my own beloved.
After all this, after the fretting and gnashing of teeth and weeping over sad poems and vases in empty rooms, I learned I could have found my reading on the Internet. It’s on a list of wedding readings compiled by Publisher’s Weekly, for one. I could even have found it on Weddingbee, where some fiercely unique soul, someone just like me, recommended it in a thread five years ago, lauded as a “a quirky expression of love, perfect for an English major who likes playing with metaphors.”
But I don’t care, I’ve got my love to keep me warm.
Image via camerakarrie/flickr
Like another bold book that’s just hitting the shelves, Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be?, Matt Dojny’s The Festival of Earthly Delights is a novel from life, though the life that it’s from — to judge by the book that resulted — must be radically, grotesquely different. Dojny’s novel is high entertainment: a wildly heightened and distorted assembly of painfully funny, jaw-dropping misadventures that resolve themselves, in almost classical style, into a big old-fashioned technicolor ending. No less a literary funnyman than Gary Shteyngart called The Festival of Earthly Delights “A glorious novel” — with exclamation marks! — and I can’t help but agree. This is a quintessential summer book, but not the kind that you’d want to take to the beach, if only because it would turn you into the kind of snorting, cackling deviant that people tend to move their towels away from. Also, it has funny pictures.
Boyd Darrow, the novel’s epically star-crossed hero, has just landed in the tiny Southeast Asian country of Puchai (“The Kingdom of Winks!”) with his grouchy and distinctly less-than-faithful girlfriend, Ulla. In a series of letters to a mysterious figure from his past known only as “Hap,” Darrow narrates a string of cultural gaffes and psychosexual misadventures as his relationship and professional life and understanding of the world in general are radically and permanently Puchafied. But the country of Puchai itself is the real star of the novel, from the atomically smelly garong fruit everyone finds so delicious to its national fondness for the music of the mid-career Eagles and the Festival of Taang Lôke Kwaam Banterng Sumitchanani, the “Festival of Earthly Delights” of the title, the absurd and improbable celebration of which also serves as the rococo end of the novel itself.
In tribute to the novel’s theme of cultural dislocation, and to its author’s storied past on the Asian subcontinent, this interview was held in a Malaysian karaoke parlor in midtown Manhattan. Dojny, for reasons unclear to this writer, had smuggled in a bottle of Rémy Red Berry Infusion.
John Wray: You worked for a while as an actor in karaoke videos in Singapore, if I’m remembering rightly. I know that you drew on many experiences from your time in Southeast Asia when you were plotting out Boyd Darrow’s misadventures in The Festival of Earthly Delights — how come acting in karaoke videos didn’t make it into the book?
Matt Dojny: I’d originally planned to have Boyd’s journey more directly mirror my own — the first half of the book was going to be set in “Puchai” (my fictionalized stand-in for Thailand), and the second half was going to recount Boyd’s travels around the continent, including a stint doing some karaoke-acting. However, if I’d stuck with that structure, the book would’ve been 1,000 pages long, which seemed kind of excessive for a first novel, so — hey, do you want to perform “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” [Smashing Pumpkins], or can I?
JW: Wow, this interview is heading south in a hurry. Go ahead.
MD: Here, try a sip of this of Remy Red. It tastes like a strawberry popsicle soaked in turpentine.
JW: Ugh. Okay.
Unlike a lot of novels that arise more or less directly out of the author’s coming of age, yours seems unfettered by any particular desire to represent your own life accurately, or even fairly, which may be part of the reason it’s so hilarious — you’ve given yourself the freedom to shape the material for maximum kick. Was transforming Thailand into the fictional (and very weird) country of Puchai an important step in that direction? Did it liberate you to get especially freaky?
That version of “Bullet” made me just a little uncomfortable, by the way. The lyrics really seemed to speak to you on a fundamental level. Do you consider yourself an angry person?
MD: No, I don’t think I’m particularly angry. But, I will admit that the lyrics “Despite all my rage/I am still just a rat in a cage” speak to my innermost being. Is that so wrong?
In answer to your first question: I mainly set the novel in Puchai because I’m lazy, and didn’t want to have to do a lot of research about Thailand. I loved living there, but it was more interesting for me to make up a new culture rather than having to interrogate an existing one. If that allowed for maximum freakiness, then, bully for me. Does that answer make sense? I feel like I’ve gotten drunk too early in this interview. This Remy Red might’ve been a mistake. I’m switching to beer. You pick a song.
JW: I’m going to vote for something classy this time. Do you do women’s voices?
MD: Not in my daily life. But I’ll do my best.
Did you have any particular models in mind when you were writing this novel? I’ve been trying to come up with some guesses, which hasn’t been easy. Kingsley Amis keeps springing to mind for some reason — especially his masterpiece of institutional satire, Lucky Jim. But maybe that’s just because Kingsley Amis was an angry writer too.
MD: I like to think that I’m not as much of a misanthrope — or a misogynist — as Amis was, but, that being said, Lucky Jim was absolutely a reference point — my book is basically half campus novel, and half epistolary novel. Oh, and half bildungsroman.
I’d like to reiterate that I do not think of myself as an angry writer — I feel like you’re still picking up on the powerful reverberations of that Smashing Pumpkins song.
And, with all due respect to Mr. Green, I’m going to pass on that song request. I feel like for a karaoke performance to be truly successful, you have to know the song inside and out, and my kinship with that track isn’t deep enough. Can I do some Otis Redding instead? Maybe “Try a Little Tenderness?”
JW: I’d never discourage anyone from performing that number. It also resonates with my next question, which touches on the sensual side of your writing. To wit: there’s a lot of sex in this book — a lot more than one tends to encounter in contemporary fiction by polite and well-spoken young men. Katie Roiphe would never have had to write her polemic in the Atlantic Monthly (or wherever that was) if the culture had more novelists of your stripe. What purpose does sex play in the novel? Were you setting out to write our generation’s version of Updike’s Couples? And don’t you worry what your mother will think?
MD: I absolutely worry what my mother might think; I’m even chagrined that she’s likely reading this interview. Hopefully she doesn’t know about the Internet.
My natural inclination is to be shy and retiring, and yet I also felt obligated to explore the more cringe-inducing corners of my psyche while writing the book. I’m guessing that inclination is somehow related to my Catholic upbringing? Anyway, I guess the purpose of my acknowledgment of the existence of human sexuality in the novel was to make myself and my family (and probably the reader) as uncomfortable as possible…Speaking of which, instead of Otis Redding, I’m going to sing “My Humps.” Hold my beer, please.
JW: Jesus. That was actually really, really good. I feel as if I’ve never truly heard that song before. And now I’ll never be able to erase it fully from my mind.
MD: That was the effect I’d intended.
JW: I wanted ask about the drawings in the book. There are so many of them, and they’re so illustrative, that the experience of reading it comes close, at certain points, to that of a graphic novel. Did you ever consider going in that direction with the story?
MD: My background is as a visual artist, and, when I first conceived of working on a book, I originally thought it’d be mostly art, with a little bit of text. I didn’t really think of myself as a writer back then, so this approach allowed me to ease myself into the concept of being a novelist. Once I started writing, the text took over, and the illustrations became secondary, or, at least, subservient to the story. I’d love to do a graphic novel someday, but it seems like so much work. It took me four or five years to write this book — if it had more art and fewer words, I’d probably still be working on it.
Can you do me a favor and do a rap song? I want to level the playing field after that Black Eyed Peas number. I feel unclean now.
JW: I’m not sure I have the sense of rhythm required for hip hop, but I’ll do something in that general direction. How about “Work It” by Missy Elliott? That song has always spoken to me for some reason.
I’m now going to do something that I strongly disapprove of and get annoyed by in interviews, which is to bring up specific episodes from your novel and ask about the stories behind them, as though the whole point of writing fiction weren’t the excitement and challenge of making things up. But I have to ask: did you, at any point in your time in Asia, have a job interview with an embittered Vietnam veteran gone native who asked you to smuggle a tiny bottle of his urine back to America, just so you could pour it out on to the ground when you arrived?
MD: The character of Sam is, in fact, based partially on the Vietnam vet who ran the language school where I taught English in Thailand. In reality, though, the man asked me to smuggle a bottle of urine into Vietnam and pour it onto the ground, not America. I’m sure he’d been through some terrible things there, and I fully understand why he might’ve had an adverse reaction to the young American backpackers such as myself who were now tourists in the country where he’d once fought. The image of the tiny vial of urine stuck with me, though, and seemed like it should be repurposed for the general reading public.
JW: How about the brothel in the novel — “Meowy X-mas?” Did it exist, and did you go there, and did a buxom and well-intentioned bar girl actually swallow your wedding ring? Feel free to pass on this question if answering it will ruin your life.
MD: First of all, I want to go on record as saying that your flow is formidable. Don’t sell your rap-skills short.
Regarding Meowy X-mas: I actually didn’t get around to visiting any brothels during my visit in Southeast Asia, and I have never had anyone eat my jewelry, so I had to rely on my fiction-making skills for that scene. I did, however, go to a bar in Singapore that was full of very ruddy and overweight middle-aged Englishmen and their incongruously beautiful 20-year-old Singaporean love interests. It had an unsavory vibe that makes me think that, in retrospect, it was basically a more evolved version of a brothel. I wasn’t actually propositioned there, but maybe I was too obviously poverty-stricken. Or maybe it was my lack of ruddiness.
Okay, I’m going to sing a Lionel Richie song now. You have a problem with that?
JW: Depends on the number. May I suggest “All Night Long?” Not sure I’m ready for a ballad from The Lion King right now.
I was impressed to see an ecstatic blurb from Kristen Schaal on the back of the book — I’ve loved her ever since she played the stalker fan on Flight of the Conchords. How did you get a copy of the novel to her, and do you know if she’s currently single?
MD: Kristen used to live upstairs from me and, back in the day, would walk my dog, before she went all Hollywood on me. She is very awesome, but I’m pretty sure she’s in a committed relationship — maybe you could woo her with your rapping skills.
Now, what should we do next — maybe a duet? What would you say to a little “Islands in the Steam?”
JW: Dear lord. If that’s not a sign that this interview’s over, I don’t know what is.
Image courtesy of the author.