“I’ve been thinking about whether, on average, people are lonelier in real life than in novels,” Elizabeth Bachner wrote recently in the opening to an essay about (among other things) the novel Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann. I don’t have an answer, but the question makes me think about how much of life is about loneliness and efforts to cure or soothe loneliness, and how much of art is about loneliness and efforts to cure or soothe loneliness; and how loneliness is a word — easily enough spoken or written, like death or love – but really it’s a deep sadness, which is also a force, driving so many of our desires and actions, and at the same time shameful and hidden and nearly impossible to live with, out in the open, in any authentic way.
David Foster Wallace is often quoted as saying that fiction is about what it is to be a fucking human being, and so I guess what I am saying is that there are days – not every day, but often enough – when it seems to me that what it is is to be lonely; to be in this state of deep sadness and estrangement, and to know – not so much on the intellectual, conscious level but on the level where shame and fear live – that there is something terribly wrong about this loneliness on the one hand, and on the other (in knowing the wrongness utterly), something also potentially beautiful.
“All I ever really want to know is how other people are making it through life,” writes Miranda July. “Where do they put their body, hour by hour, and how do they cope inside of it.” July’s vision of life as relentlessly estranging resonates: we must “make it through” and, hour by hour, “cope,” alone, inside of our bodies. The “how” is where she seems to put her investigative eye, which is to say her hope.
In It Chooses You, July tells the story of how she became blocked in the middle of writing a screenplay, and, in an effort to get unblocked – to understand better one of the film’s protagonists (or, at the least, distract herself from having to) – embarks on a project: she begins calling people who advertise items for sale in the LA Pennysaver, asking them if she can come to their homes with a photographer and tape recorder to interview them — “about your life and everything about you. Your hopes, your fears…”
I read it while I ate lunch, and then, because I was in no hurry to get back to not writing, I usually kept reading it straight through […] Each listing was like a very brief newspaper article. News flash: someone is selling a jacket. The jacket is leather. It is also large and black. The person thinks it is worth ten dollars. But the person is not very confident about that price, and is willing to consider other, lower prices. I wanted to know more things about what this leather-jacket person thought, how they were getting through the days, what they hoped, what they feared.
July describes visits with individuals and households all around metropolitan LA. For sale: tadpoles, baby leopards, a large suitcase, traditional Indian clothing, photo albums, Care Bears, hair dryer, Christmas card fronts. July (and her crew of two) meet, among others, an older man living in a flophouse who is undergoing a gender transformation; a 17 year-old boy whose father has been laid off and who’s been inaccurately tracked as Special Ed; a man who reveals his house-arrest ankle bracelet and is both boastful and evasive about the nature of his crime; a childlike 45 year-old man who makes photo-collages on his bedroom wall of babies and young women; a middle-aged Greek woman who for 10 years has lived vicariously through the vacation photo albums of a wealthy couple she doesn’t know.
Most of the people July called said no, and so those who said yes, “the ones I met with did not feel random – we chose each other.” July offers $50 for her subjects’ time, and so a number of those who say yes are quite poor. Also, as the Pennysaver takes ads via phone and in-person, most of them don’t own or use computers (“of course they don’t, or they’d just use Craigslist”). All of them have a desire and need to tell their stories, to be listened to and to connect. So much so that, in more than one case, July and her crew have a difficult time leaving:
After a long time I began to understand that he would never let us leave. We just had to go. I silently counted to three and stood up […] We silently walk-ran to the elevator and Alfred hit the down button repeatedly until the elevator doors opened […]
I started to make a polite noise of regret, but seeing her face fall, I realized that refusing was the opposite of polite. I squeezed my iPhone in my pocket. Would it be weird to check my email right now? Or maybe read the news? […] The fullness of her life was menacing to me – there was no room for invention, no place for the kind of fictional conjuring that makes me feel useful, or feel anything at all. She wanted me to just actually be there and eat fruit with her. I went home and immediately fell asleep, as if fleeing from consciousness.
What makes us uncomfortable, what both repels and compels us, is always worth noting, and July is both candid and insightful about this:
Michael and Primila and Pauline had exhausted me with their openness and their quaint inefficiency […]
Domingo was […] the person whom I felt most creepily privileged around. We drove home, in my Prius. If I interacted only with people like me, then I’d feel normal again, un-creepy. Which didn’t seem right either. So I decided that it was okay to feel creepy, it was appropriate, because I was a little creepy […]
It suddenly seemed obvious to me that the whole world, and especially Los Angeles, was designed to protect me from these people I was meeting. There was no law against knowing them, but it wouldn’t happen […] when I leave my car my iPhone escorts me, letting everyone else in the post office know that I’m not really with them, I’m with my own people.
In her Malina essay, Elizabeth Bachner quotes Kafka: “If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it? […] what we must have are those books which come upon us like ill-fortune, and distress us deeply […]” July’s project is even more immediate than Kafka’s — not just reading books, but seeking out actual distressing human encounters, encounters with loneliness, in order to be awoken in some way.
And yet, her project is still relatively controlled, and measured; she can depart from her interviewee when she has had enough, she can determine the best subject-artist distance from which to extract material, transform it into “fictional conjuring,” through analysis, through reflection.
With Jeff, One Lonely Guy, Jeff Ragsdale, David Shields, and Michael Logan engage in a different project from July’s, though with shared interests in the how of coping and in close-ups of lives that repel and compel, that hammer one’s skull with the force of loneliness. The book’s genesis, from Shields’s introduction:
In late October 2011, my friend and former student Jeff Ragsdale posted this flyer around New York City:
I-f anyone wants to talk about anything, call me. (347) 469-3173
Jeff, one lonely guy.
Jeff recently realized he sabotaged his stand-up and acting careers. He was down and out, living in a tiny room in a boarding house in Harlem. Having gone through a painful breakup this fall, he was extremely lonely.
The flyer was then re-posted on reddit.com and other social networking sites, and by the time of Jeff’s publication in January 2012, Ragsdale had become an Internet sensation, receiving over 60,000 phone calls and texts from all over the world. The book is a compilation of these texts and transcribed phone calls, “rearranged [by Shields and Logan] into this chorus of voices talking about the searing loneliness of existence in America at this moment.” Short personal vignettes and memoirs written by Ragsdale are threaded throughout the material, which is divided into seven (loosely) topical chapters. “This is the authentic sound of human beings, at ground level […] trying to connect in whatever way possible,” Shields writes. “This is Occupy Loneliness.”
Whereas July reflects on her own flinchiness in the face of too-much raw humanity, giving herself and the reader some breathing space, Jeff’s goal, it seems, is to break down all protective boundaries between those who hide, deny, or manage their loneliness and those who act it out; between creepy privilege and fully-blown desperation. The curation, or “rearrangement” of Jeff’s material is thus much less mediated than July’s; the texts are given to us in a barrage, one after the other, with only Ragsdale’s occasional (italicized) interjections, no less raw and searing than the voices of those who contacted him.
From the chapter called “Notes on Childhood”:
My first memory is of my parents rolling on the floor, punching each other’s faces, my mom’s teeth clenched. The police were always at our house.
I had counseling because my mom found out I was cutting myself. Please don’t tell anyone… Smiling makes you live longer… I’m better than I was in the past so I’m really good… In the beginning I got molested by my older stepbrother. I never told anybody for 4 to 5 years. He also rapidly hit my head against a wall and had 2 knives […] Will you be my friend? I am – it’s just that I don’t have a lot of friends. (Anya, 13, North Carolina)
I need a boyfriend that doesn’t want me to stay anorexic. I need a family that actually cares, minus the red tape. I need maturity. And I have Xanax. I don’t want to have to need anything. I don’t. I just want to disappear. (Erica)
I hire a sweet old lady to babysit my son and then I put a strap on and do men I meet at sex parties… It usually goes on in locked rooms and takes the guy months before he’ll open up with me… Men like it but feel embarrassed about liking it… My friend and me are a tandem. She doesn’t speak English, so whoever the guy is, he needs to know some Spanish or he’s going to freak out at this screaming Spanish woman. She likes to spank people while I watch. Sometimes she likes to walk on a man’s back, yelling at him, before giving him a blow job and swallowing… (I ask if her friend does intercourse.)… No, she has a husband. (Amy)
From the section called “Love Sucks”:
If I lived with you in real life would you hit me?… Do you think I’m pretty?… I don’t want to fight with you but I do like your dominance over me… Why don’t you want to be with me?… I can’t talk… I’m in the car with my parents… I know I’m only 17… Kidnap me… Please Jeff… How old are you again?… You’re basically the same age as my dad, that’s why I can’t tell them… If I lived with you I would want to take showers with you… I love you Jeff. You care about me… I will be with you someday Jeff, I know it… As long as you don’t start drama or I’ll blackmail you… I like you a lot but I want to be able to trust you. (Krystal)
My life’s all-time low was when I had sex with a 75-pound Asian hooker I knew had AIDS, but I was so screwed up on coke and alcohol I didn’t even care. I actually felt sorry for her because she had to pay for the cab ride over to the hotel I was staying in. She got on top of me and it was like screwing a skeleton. I couldn’t even look at her.
It’s a difficult book to read, even more difficult to summarize: 138 pages of continuous confession, desperation, tales of abuse and self-destruction – a deluge of uncensored loneliness. There are blips of exuberance and encouragement, along with the occasional scolding/derision of Jeff’s project (mostly from men). Some people write more matter-of-factly about typical problems – can’t find a mate, confused about my life’s calling, wish I was skinny, lost my job. Jeff’s passages reveal that he actually meets some of the women for sex and dates, ever hopeful that romantic love will cure his loneliness, even as he continues to obsess over Kira, the woman from the recent breakup. At one point he sums up their relationship thus:
I know I should have left the relationship. We both should have. I hit Kira in the face once, but it’s not as simple as it sounds.
I remember that first punch. It started when I grabbed Kira’s leg. She sat up and punched me as hard as she could in the face. I actually saw stars. […] Things spiraled out of control after that. Our roommates were scared. They even slipped an eviction note under our door: “We’ve never been around this type of violence. It’s frightening. We know you’re not preparing for acting gigs, like you say.”
How are we – and by “we” I suppose I mean those of us who would not be likely to respond to Jeff’s ad – to engage with all these raw, ugly, lonelier-in-real-life-than-in-novels voices? Or is the project of Jeff as a book, as a text, packaged and offered to us as “America singing – singing a dirge,” intended to challenge our very conceptions of beauty and ugliness? Is Jeff meant to make the safe-at-home reader feel creepy about being protected, about the walls we typically put up between ourselves and these “authentic” voices? Or is the argument that all of us are these voices, distancing ourselves from ourselves, and walk-running to the elevator like July’s crew, at our own peril?
In life people drift more, there’s less closure, there’s less follow-up, there’s even more murkiness – which is a lot of murkiness. Novels have a terrible intimacy no matter what – because of what’s exposed when you write one. Because of what happens when you read one […] There are all these people, real and imaginary, breathing against our faces in any novel, not just accidentally jostling us like people in a crowded bar, but knowing us, or making us know them.
Bachner is talking about novels, but she could also be talking about Jeff, or about It Chooses You. The “terrible intimacy” that Bachner experiences with Malina, with the unnamed protagonist Ich (I/me), is in identifying with Ich’s struggle to hide her desire to be loved, to play the aloof game with her lover Ivan.
Ivan needs Ich to play harder to get, to be less eager, to trot or gallop toward him less. He tells her, You have to stay in the game. She says, “I don’t want any game.” He says, “But without a game it won’t work” […] “While we talk I can never allow myself to think that in an hour we will be lying in the bed or toward evening or very late at night […] Extreme self-control lets me accept Ivan’s sitting opposite me at first, silently smoking and talking.”
Ich must always hide how much she wants Ivan to love her, she must be ashamed that her happiness is tied up in being with him. She must pretend to be the person who doesn’t need to keep telling her stories or confessing her loneliness in order to feel connected to something. She must mind her boundaries, let the crew leave and run for the elevator once they reach the threshold of discomfort. She must not respond to Jeff’s ad, not pour out either her ecstasy or her devastation. She must be self-composed, her emotional distance always calibrated. Bachner, like Ich, doesn’t want any game, any concealment of her hunger for intimacy:
The bad self-help book [she is also reading The Therapy Tapes of Anne Sexton] sees the only measure of my worth in another’s eyes as managing to detach and not want him, to go to the movies alone or with some guy I love less than Ivan […] to have sex alone or with someone I want less than Ivan, to sit in the bath and […] think about astronomy or Austrian literature.
The last person that Miranda July meets through the Pennysaver is Joe, an 81 year-old retired house-painter and contractor, “an obsessive-compulsive angel, working furiously on the side of good.” Joe and his wife Carolyn have been married 62 years, very much in love; they’ve cared for and buried countless dogs and cats; Joe does grocery shopping for eight elderly neighbors; Carolyn is sick with diabetes; they live on social security. During the interview, Joe invites July over for Christmas, at which point she makes her move to exit, though not unaffected:
When we finally extricated ourselves, we just sat in the car, very quietly, and were oddly tearful. Alfred said something about wanting to be a better boyfriend to his girlfriend. I felt like I wasn’t living thoroughly enough […] And yet this visit was suffused with death. Real death: all those cats and dogs, the widows he shopped for, and his own death, which he referred to more than once – but matter-of-factly, like it was a deadline that he was trying to get a lot of things done before.
July writes earlier in the book about how getting married and trying to finish a movie had made her fixated on death and time:
So all my time was spent measuring time […] And now that I had vowed to hang out with this man until I died, I also thought a lot about dying. It seemed I had not only married him but also married my eventual death.
July can’t forget Joe and Carolyn, so she casts Joe in her film. Then Joe gets diagnosed with cancer, he has just a few weeks to live. But Joe wants to do the film, despite his illness. The protagonist has his epiphany and transformation via meeting the character Joe; the film, The Future, gets finished. Before its release, Joe dies.
Joe and Carolyn were not lonely, and not lonelier than the characters in the film, though many of the people July met through the Pennysaver were terribly lonely; July is the murkier character, drifting between art and life, running toward and away from loneliness. Elizabeth Bachner is living her real life, either at the movies kissing her Ivan, or in the bathtub with a bad self-help book, but still, we assume, finding connection and intimacy in novels. Jeff Ragsdale, from what I’ve gathered, is now both less lonely and more lonely, but it’s hard to say, because in real life, there is less closure, less follow-up. Today, I am having one of those days when what it is to be a fucking human being is to be lonely; but I’m reading a novel that’s just getting good, all these people breathing against my face, and plus, there’s always tomorrow, which is to say the hope of loneliness turning into an authentic voice, into something beautiful.
Image courtesy of .v1ctor./Flickr
The best book I’ve read this year, by a long chalk, is Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina. It’s been something of a revelation. She published it in 1971: it was meant to be the first of a trilogy, but she died, pretty young and in odd circumstances, before getting the other two down. It’s hard to describe: nothing really happens in it. Maybe a woman dies, maybe not. It’s set in Vienna – but a massively overdetermined Vienna in which all of history, with all its attendant traumas, is breaking through the surface of the present. It’s structured almost musically, with motifs quasi-repeating, or echoing on several ‘channels’ as it were: so in a typical sequence we pan from a chessboard to maps and atlases, with place names – Venice, the Danube – reeling off; then the narrative opens to a vision of wars over territory, humanity displaced and starving; then back to the game.
The second section (it has a kind of triptych structure) is a phantasmagoric interlude to rival the “Circe” chapter of Ulysses: passages to hell, gas chambers, murderous fathers right out of Plath, whole cemetaries of dead daughters – all the while remaining within the Ringstrasse and its polite confines. Bachmann, it turns out, was a friend of Celan, Frisch, Boll, Grass – the whole gaggle of important German-language writers of her period. And she outshines the lot of them – except Celan, of course, but that’s all-but impossible. Apparently she and he had an intense correspondence which has survived: something to look forward to in 2011 if I can get my hands on it!
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