In 1942, the classicist Edith Hamilton acknowledged the “dark spots” which encroach upon the worlds of Greek myth. Reading ancient poetry today makes you realize how those dark spots have grown. They may be sinister, but like black holes, they suck you in. They are timely reminders of the continuing power of classical verse.
There is nothing like ancient poetry for making you reassess your priorities. Homer, Virgil, and Ovid can make you feel small and insignificant, but those feelings tend to pass and are worth enduring for the clarity they bring to the bigger picture. If you only let them in, the poets of ancient Greece and Rome can bring the kind of life you are living and person you want to be into sharper focus. They are surprisingly adept at cutting through the noise of modern life.
Ovid captures the zeitgeist better than any contemporary writer I know. It’s remarkable, considering he died in the early first century, but his words have taken on new significance in the past few years. Where his Metamorphoses once seemed strange and fantastical, with their stories of girls turning into trees and sculptures transforming into living flesh, they now read like an entree to conversations of human fluidity.
A young man named Actaeon is out hunting when he stumbles upon the goddess Diana bathing. In her fury, the deity turns him into a stag. Unable to feel at home in his former palace or the woods with other animals—“shame impeded one route and fear the other”—Actaeon is torn apart by his hunting dogs and sense of displacement. There has never been a better description of what it’s like to be uncomfortable in your own skin. Other characters in the Metamorphoses are more fortunate. They change form to better manifest who they really are.
The anguish of Actaeon suggests to me that escapism shouldn’t be the primary reason for reading ancient poetry today. For sure, there’s diversion and joy to be found in the drinking poems of Horace—nunc est bibendum!—or the Cyclops-haunted adventures of Odysseus. Virgil even provides a lively debate on the virtues of the countryside relative to the city. Perfect for the daily commute. But it’s when the poets turn to their struggles and political angst that their voices feel most modern. Read them not for escapism but for the reverse: They found the words to express the dark spots we’re still facing today.
Long before the birth of Ovid, in the fifth century B.C., the Greek tragedians put the human condition under the microscope. No flaw or contradiction went unexplored. In his Bacchae, the poet Euripides let the tension play out between our inner wildness and outer sense of propriety. Is it better to suppress your desires or give free rein to curiosity? In the play, the reputation of a king is on the line. Put yourself in his shoes and you realize the stakes now feel somehow higher. Anyone today can suffer public humiliation for making the wrong choice. Let yourself go at your peril.
The Greek poets understood that extreme situations bring out the best and worst in us. That’s why they liked to present their characters with impossible choices. Sophocles’s Antigone, the inspiration for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction winner, Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, forces its protagonist to choose between obeying the law of her uncle and the authority of the gods. In choosing to bury her late brother, who died an alleged traitor, Antigone honored divine law. She has gone down in history as one of the great political protestors.
When I try to express the sense of unease I feel over politics today, though, it’s the Roman poets I turn to first. Rome of the late first century B.C. was not so very different from the White House or Westminster. The rise of Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great, and populist politics which threatened the status quo was far from universally embraced. The Latin poet Catullus, best known for his passionate poems to his lover Lesbia, grappled with a new question: How do you react to a people-pleaser without feeding his ego? At first, he recommends nonchalance:
I have absolutely no desire to want to please you, Caesar,
Nor to know the smallest thing about you.
And if that doesn’t work? Turn up the temperature without losing your humor. Not even the fact that Caesar was a friend of his father prevented Catullus from branding him a “shameless, grasping gambler” and worse in acerbic verse. His message got through. Caesar was offended by the poems. He forgave their author. I defy anyone to read a book of Roman polemics and resist nodding along to at least some of them.
At their best, the works of the ancient poets read like social commentary of our own times. They brim with uncomfortable but necessary home truths and highlight what really matters. A surge in translations of classical texts in recent years has brought the ancient poets even closer to us, the language no longer a barrier to our understanding. I’d wager that an hour spent in their company would reveal more about the realities of our world than a thousand scrolls of Twitter or Instagram ever could.
Image: Flickr/Balcon del Mundo
Two millennia ago in the Metamorphoses Ovid recounted the myth of Pygmalion, a hater of women. Disgusted with the Propoetides, who become the first women to prostitute themselves, he sculpts a flawless ivory maiden:
Offended by the faults nature gave in full
to the female mind, he lived as a wifeless bachelor….
Meanwhile with wondrous art he sculpted snow-white
ivory and gave it beauty no born woman can
possess, and he fell in love with his own work.
She looked like a true virgin, who you’d believe was alive….
So utterly does art hide art.
Pygmalion extends the moral faults he sees in the Propoetides to women at large—the female mind is simply defective. His umbrage extends to the aesthetic imperfections of the female body. The Latin word vitium, “fault,” is either an ethical shortcoming or a physical defect that spoils a lovely surface. Pygmalion’s artistic victory lies in his ability both to mimic and surpass nature in the manufacture of a chaste, beautiful woman.
The statue of course has no interior world, no notion of autonomous identity. She is not given a name (though in later versions she’s called Galatea, “milky-white”). She has no mind, so of course she cannot speak it. The perfect woman has no body, no soul, no voice. She is a thing.
Pygmalion eagerly kisses and fondles her ivory flesh, and our eye travels over her body as he adorns her:
He ornaments her limbs with clothing,
puts gems on her fingers, wraps long necklaces around her neck.
Smooth pearls hang from her ear, chaplets from her breast,
Everything flatters her, nor does she seem less beautiful in the nude.
The statue is an assemblage of beautiful body parts subjected to Pygmalion’s visual and artistic control. This fragmentation of woman into limbs, fingers, neck, ears, and breasts dehumanizes the female body, rendering it the superlative object of the male gaze.
There is something horrifyingly narcissistic about Pygmalion, who loves only what he himself has created. Like Narcissus, whose tale appears earlier in Ovid’s epic, Pygmalion is mesmerized by his own reflection. Yet since Pygmalion cannot sexually penetrate his statue, he beseeches Venus to bring her to life. The story abruptly ends the moment she wakes up.
The story must end where it does, or it would cease to be a tale of artistic triumph. The living wife would have every seeming imperfection that compelled Pygmalion to sculpt her in the first place. She’d no longer be a virgin. Pregnancy would transform her once taut belly. Nursing would alter her breasts. She would age, her surface lined with defects. The ivory would become flesh, a real body. She would eat and excrete. Most notably, she would have a mind. She would speak it, perhaps even nag. There is no doubt she disappoints Pygmalion, no doubt he considers picking up the chisel once more.
This story teaches damaging lessons to and about women that remain in full force: our worth is measured by the aesthetic pleasure we give men and only perfection passes muster. The ideal woman is a man’s creation. The 2016 presidential election offers the best gauge of how much we still endorse such misogyny. After all, Pygmalion won.
Donald Trump venerates beauty as his highest ideal:
My style is based on trying to make whatever I do breathtakingly beautiful. People react emotionally to my style; they appreciate, get pleasure from, and want more of it. My style excites me and inspires me to do bigger, better, and more magnificent projects. It’s no accident that I’m so involved with beauty; it’s my signature, my brand. (Trump 101)
Politics has not dimmed this enthusiasm. During his presidential campaign he attempted to alleviate criticism of his proposed southern border wall by promising it would be a “beautiful wall” with a “big, beautiful door.”
And Trump surrounds himself with beautiful women, at least those that fit a certain homogeneous aesthetic type—white, tall, thin. Trump admires such women in the same way he admires buildings—as parodied brilliantly on Saturday Night Live by Alec Baldwin’s Trump, who calms his nerves by repeating the mantra “big beautiful boobs and buildings.” Trump has explicitly made this connection: “Beauty and elegance, whether in a woman, a building, or a work of art, is not just superficial or something pretty to see. Beauty and elegance are products of personal style that come from deep within” (Trump 101).
It is no accident that the two main prongs of Trump’s “empire” prior to his foray into reality television and politics were real estate and beauty pageants: “What I do is successful because of the aesthetics,” he told The New York Times in 1999, “People love my buildings and my pageants.” He seems to believe the beauty of the women around him signifies not their own but his triumph—they too are part of the Trump brand. Such beauty, like that of Pygmalion’s statue, is merely a reflection of a narcissistic artist.
Like the statue, Trump’s ideal beauty queen has been excavated of interior value—her mind is best regarded as an absence. While promoting Miss USA on The Howard Stern Show in 2005, he quipped, “If you’re looking for a rocket scientist, don’t tune in tonight. But if you’re looking for a really beautiful woman, you should watch.” Earlier in 1998 he explained what set apart his Miss Universe pageant from the rest: “This is a real beauty contest. Others, such as Miss America, are not really beauty contests because they judge a great deal on talent. Miss Universe is all about beauty.” The merits of a woman’s intellect simply do not factor into the measure of her beauty. When he does draw attention to women’s minds, it is usually to dismiss them as intrinsically faulty. Last year in a series of polemical tweets, he labeled Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski “neurotic,” “not very bright,” “crazy,” “very dumb,” “low IQ,” and suggested that she was suffering from a “mental breakdown.”
Trump, like Pygmalion, wants women to behave—to dress and act—like ladies, an idea that echoes the fleshless statue’s ability somehow to look like a “true virgin.” This desire has fueled his reality television endeavors. In 2009 he executive-produced a show called The Girls of Hedsor Hall, in which young women deemed “party girls” attended a British finishing school. A similar 2007 effort entitled Lady or a Tramp never aired, but Variety quotes Trump’s description of its concept:
We are all sick and tired of the glamorization of these out-of-control young women, so I have taken it upon myself to do something about it. I am creating a real-life version of ‘My Fair Lady’ with my company Trump Productions. This show is all about getting a second chance and transforming for the better.
My Fair Lady was based on George Bernard Shaw’s successful play Pygmalion, an updating of Ovid’s myth, with Henry Higgins playing the sculptor to Eliza Doolittle’s ivory statue. Trump’s proposed show in fact has closer affinities with the original myth insofar as he, like Pygmalion, is fixated on the sharp dichotomy between virgin (“lady”) and whore (“tramp”).
Trump’s attempts to manufacture idealized female beauty extend to the women in his family. As he bragged to Howard Stern in 2003, “You know who’s one of the great beauties of the world, according to everybody? And I helped create her. Ivanka. My daughter, Ivanka. She’s 6-feet tall, she’s got the best body.” In 1994 Trump gave an interview to ABC News with then-wife Marla Maples in which he clearly casts himself as the Pygmalion-like creator of his wives: “I’m a great star-maker, which I’ve done with Ivana and Marla. I liked that. But once they are a star, the fun is over for me. It’s the creation process, like creating a building. It’s sad.” There can be no happy ending for Pygmalion. The work of art, having become “real,” quickly disappoints.
Trump’s gaze, like that of Pygmalion, views women’s bodies as an assemblage of discrete, dehumanized parts. As he told Esquire in 1991, “It doesn’t really matter what [the media] write[s] as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass.” The most chilling example of this comes in his infamous Access Hollywood recording, where he disassembles women into beautiful legs and grabbable pussies. He likewise diminishes women who do not fit his aesthetic standard by accusing them of having ugly or substandard parts. “A woman who is very flat-chested,” he told Howard Stern in 2005, “is very hard to be a 10.”
To Trump, the natural functions of the female body are a source of marked anxiety. His perfect woman, like Pygmalion’s statue, does not undergo biological processes. He claimed to Howard Stern in 2004, for instance, that he had never known his wife Melania to defecate or pass gas. In 2011 he called a female attorney “disgusting” for having to pause a deposition to pump milk for her infant daughter, and perhaps most notoriously he suggested in 2015 that debate moderator Megyn Kelly had “blood coming out of her wherever.” The most beautiful bodies aren’t even bodies.
Trump frequently mocks women as having had recourse to plastic surgery, itself an art form employed to overcome nature’s seeming imperfections. He does this especially to women who have somehow challenged him, retaliating against them by ridiculing their visual bodies. So Mika Brzezinski was “bleeding badly from a facelift,” while Cher has had “massive plastic surgeries that didn’t work.” In his Access Hollywood recording he strikes back against a woman he once unsuccessfully tried to “fuck” by reducing her to “big, phony tits.” Trump attacks these women as though they themselves are unsuccessful artisans—they have not lived up to Pygmalion’s victory whereby “art hides art.” As manufacturers of their physical selves, he deems women inferior.
Just as Pygmalion’s statue never speaks, Trump’s ideal woman pleases only when her voice is held firmly in check: “Often, I will tell friends whose wives are constantly nagging them about this or that that they’re better off leaving…. For a man to be successful he needs support at home…not someone who is always griping and bitching” (The Art of the Comeback). Trump’s current wife, Melania, has made it the acme of her wifely virtues to restrain her voice. As she told Harper’s Bazaar, “I’m not that kind of wife who would say, ‘Learn this’ or ‘Learn that.’ I’m not a nagging wife.” The chief sin of a nagging wife, it seems, would be to attempt a Pygmalion-like makeover of her husband.
As president, Trump remains every bit the Pygmalion he’s always been. From praising the “nice smile” of a female member of the “beautiful Irish press” to declaring the first lady of France “in good shape” and “beautiful” (a compliment delivered chiefly to her husband), he seems incapable of treating the world’s women as more than objects to be admired or censured on aesthetic grounds. He even recently reassured a group of young, mostly female trick-or-treaters that he could justifiably give them Halloween candy because they have “no weight problems.”
Trump’s idealizing of standardized, “perfect” female beauty has enabled him to eulogize himself as a lover of women when in reality he dehumanizes them. The reduction of woman to sculptable body, to a thing created by and for men, all too readily opens the door to abuse and exploitation. Numerous women have accused Trump of sexual harassment and assault, allegations he has simply dismissed as the lies of mendacious women.
Pygmalion lurks in far too many of today’s powerful men. Harvey Weinstein has become famous both for the creation of female stars and for his sexual assault of them. Woody Allen, who himself has faced serious allegations of sexual misconduct, centers film after film around the Pygmalion theme and has even spoken of his marriage with the much younger Soon-Yi in terms that evoke this story. The late Hugh Hefner built a magazine empire off the commodification of women’s bodies for the male gaze. For each of these men, woman is a kind of artistic project that measures his own masculine triumph.
Donald Trump is just one recent manifestation of a type of misogyny that has been entrenched for millennia. He says bluntly what many men think about women, what too many women think of ourselves. Pygmalion’s eyes have become our own collective gaze.
The president is a stark reminder of how far we have to go. Yet so many women have found in this moment a catalyst for raising defiant voices that demand to be heard. Something truly beautiful emanates from living, flesh-and-blood women when we refuse ever to become silenced statues.
Image Credit: Flickr/Michael Vadon.
John Keats’s 220th birthday falls this Halloween. Born on October 31, 1795, Keats survived only 25 years, but in that time developed into a poet of superhuman range, energy, and craftsmanship. The middle child of an orphaned family, Keats lived in a London populated by Dickensian characters: His father died in a freak fall from his horse, a loss that withered Mrs. Keats, who eventually succumbed to grief. His caretaker, Richard Abbey, was a weasley miser who jilted the Keats children out of their inheritance by hiding the money and playing their suspicions against each other.
The major events of Keats’s life also seem luminous enough to be taken from literature. His older brother, George, migrated to America where he was cheated out of his savings by none other than John James Audubon, a desperate shipping investor who had yet to become the famous naturalist. A younger brother, Tom, died of Tuberculosis in Keats’s arms. Trained as a physician, he abandoned the profession to make his living with poetry, an ambition that sounded less hubristic at that time than it would now, but still seemed childish enough to the saturnine Abbey, who took the announcement as an opportunity to cut Keats off from what little inheritance he had been granting him.
As a Londoner connected with one or two major publishers, Keats also met nearly every literary monolith of his day: Percy Bysshe Shelley became a friend and admirer, William Wordsworth got tipsy and joked with him at a dinner party, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge shook his hand after a chance encounter on the street. Coleridge was no medical man, but he sensed that Keats was ill: “There is death in that hand,” he said afterward. Keats was underground in less than two years.
From the meeting with Coleridge until his death, Keats spent the better share of his time juggling his poverty, disease, and genius. The first two would eventually bury him, but the third elevated his work to the grandest heights of English literature. His best poems are like xeriscapes: they surprise us with luxurious harmonies without burdening the language from which they’ve grown. Take for example the famous beginning of “Hyperion,” where the dethroned titan Saturn sits in a vale
…quiet as a stone,
Still as the silence round about his lair;
Forest on forest hung about his head
Like cloud on cloud.
The double resonances of repeated nouns and alliterative consonants — “Forest on forest;” “Still as the silence;” “hung about his head;” “cloud on cloud” — succeed each other rapidly without clogging the lines. Not just here, but throughout “Hyperion” and all the poems of this period, Keats combines classical and medieval source material with rich soundcraft and miraculous ease. The lines are majestic enough to be carved on a tomb, casual enough for table talk. Though he never achieved fame in his lifetime, posthumous readings were intensified by his tragic death and lead to a rapid ascent. He was a household name before Wordsworth, who’d once called Keats’s early “Endymion” “a Very pretty piece of Paganism” — perhaps with a dismissive wave — had met his own gentler fate.
Retrospect, especially about the lives of famous men, can elevate the mundane into the monumental, but the intensity of Keats’s commitment to art and the passionate goodwill he brought to friendships make it difficult to discuss his biography without a calcifying grandeur. Even his contemporaries tended to reshape Keats according their presuppositions about poetry and poets. William Hilton’s famous portrait is a visual example: using angle and shade, the painter elongated Keats’s strong face, and collapsed his alert posture, into the Romantic stereotype of the tender dreamer. The actual, burlier man picked schoolyard fights habitually in childhood, enjoyed vigorous exercise, and wouldn’t flinch at an open cadaver.
Most of all, Keats was driven by the desire to be “numbered among the English poets,” a destiny he predicted for himself, and eventually gained after his death thanks to a ravenous international readership. His work, derided by successors as famous as W.B. Yeats as that of “a schoolboy…With face and nose pressed to a sweet-shop | window…” has nonetheless become an academic industry, and a touchstone for all writers who hope to blend rococo imagery with the sound of sense.
Most often, Keats’s short life is read as an allegory about the power of persistence on the approach to a fixed creative object. But the actual story is more complicated. Keats was fired by the ambition to write an epic; an ideal that typified the contemporary perception of the master poet. In the wake of his many efforts to do this float grand fragments, but nothing in the genre that could approach Wordsworth’s Prelude for scale or command of subject. Aided by time and experience, Wordsworth learned to abandon classical inspiration and make an odyssey from his biography. The result, in a Napoleonic era where nationalist epics like The Faerie Queene seemed passé and even questionable, was a work calibrated to its time. Yet Keats never enjoyed the luxury of long reflection, and during the seasons he was working furiously at long narratives like “Hyperion” and “Isabella”, he relieved the pressure by writing cast-offs that would later be recognized as his masterpieces.
One of these was “The Eve of St. Agnes,” a short vignette about erotic love set in a snowbound medieval castle. Just after Tom’s tortured death from tuberculosis, Keats traveled south with his friend Charles Brown to shake off the grief. At coastal Chichester, working unsuccessfully to finish “Hyperion,” he diverted his forces to a subject his acquaintance Isabella Jones once suggested: the legendary evening when young women, if they followed a careful script of prayer and ceremony, could see visions of their future husbands. As biographer W. Jackson Bate recounts, with Spencer’s court romances rattling in his head, Keats shut himself in the home of some friends and finished the poem within a week. His hosts could hear him coughing from his room — the tuberculosis that would kill him, passed possibly from his brother, was already incubating.
“St. Agnes” is only one example of an apparent Keatsian sideshow that retrospect reveals to be the main event. For modern readers and especially writers, the poem is a reminder that mastery follows less from the grandeur of our plans than the measure of our effort. The great epics Keats hoped to write fizzled even at their best. But the statuesque perfection of “St. Agnes” is proof that Keats’s genius was at its finest when on a detour. Like the rest of his life and work, the poem both encourages and warns its readers, especially those who hope to make memorable literature during their own, inevitably rushed productive seasons.
“Prolonged work at any serious poem,” Bate wrote during his chapter on this phase in Keats’s life, “…frequently produced another result for Keats…If he turned temporarily to a less ambitious poem in a different form, the gate would quickly open and he would find himself…writing with remarkable fluidity…” “Remarkable fluidity” is accurate not only to the composition but the texture of Keats’s best romance. It is a ballet in gypsy costumes, its language concentrated to saturation point but stepping lightly at each turn of phrase, visually baroque yet cuttingly glib in its discourse on sex and love:
…Safe at last,
Through many a dusky gallery, they gain
The maiden’s chamber, silken, hush’d, and chaste;
Where Porphyro took covert, pleas’d amain.
His poor guide hurried back with auges in her brain.
In love with the ravishing Madeline, Porphyro has discovered that tonight she plans to follow the old superstitions about St. Agnes’ Eve. A bolt of lust-charged inspiration hits him: convince her handmaid Angela to lead him to Madeline’s bedroom. He packs a feast, and plans his appearance exactly according to legend, a conquest that will both grant him sexual access and convince her of his worthiness.
Hidden in her chambers, he watches Madeline follow the delicious stipulations of the legend: to sleep undressed, never taking her eyes from heaven. Rising from prayer, she steps in front of moonlit stained glass. At this moment Keats’s ornamentation and syntactic force reach their peak — this casement, he writes, is filled with triple windows,
And in their midst, ‘mong thousand heraldries,
And twilit saints, and dim emblazonings,
A shielded scutcheon blush’d with blood of queens and kings.
In the following stanza, these religious and heraldic images are offset by eroticism: Madeline disrobes in a flood of lines the consonance of which echoes the texture of sliding cloth. All the senses are engaged – Keats even finds time to note the transferred warmth still lingering in her dress’s jewels.
Of all its wreathed pearls her hair she frees;
Unclasps her warmed jewels one by one;
Loosens her fragrant boddice; by degrees
Her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees.
Barely able to contain himself, Porphyro waits for her breathing to steady, then wakes her with a song, possesses her, and finally escapes with her into the night. He has enemies at court, and his union with Madeline carries the finality of a lifelong contract, meriting huge risks. Keats leaves their future ambiguous, if not outright doubtful. But the abrupt ending suits his concerns. Like Ovid in The Metamorphosis, Keats most wanted to distil the unbearable passion that transforms those it possesses.
The key turns, and the door upon its hinges groans…
And they are gone: ey, ages long ago
These lovers fled away into the storm.
Susceptible to the creative trends of his time, Keats was haunted by an apparent lack of ability to realize a grand suite of characters in an urgent plot. But the simple and compact “St Agnes” has more elegance even than the Prelude, and achieves a florid energy within the line of which Wordsworth was incapable. And Keats’s characterization is just as fine: no longer burdened by “Hyperion’s” large cast, he renders the palsied, gossipy handmade Angela with Shakespearian subtlety. Porphyro comes off as the perfect teenage Romio, elevated to temporary brilliance by sallionlike lust; and Madeline’s humanity is visible beneath the ornament. Her escapade with Porphyro may have been inaugurated by a trick, but it ends for her part with decisive action in the face of serious physical and social dangers.
Though both poems date from the same period in Keats’s life, “St. Agnes” is greater than the celebrated “Hyperion.” While the latter drags under the weight of its intricacies, eventually collapsing before the drama can properly start, “St. Agnes” showcases a master poet at the height of his creative control. That Keats didn’t comprehend this superiority is a reminder of just how young he was: big-hearted and ambitious above all else, his mistake was to be too hard on himself, conforming to an artistic type when he could have been more sensitive to the nature of his gifts.
Given time, Keats’s sharp critical eye would doubtless have noticed that his talent flourished within the charged compression of the lyric. His great odes, “to Psyche,” “on Indolence,” “to a Nightingale,” “on a Grecian Urn,” and “To Autumn” followed soon after “St. Agnes” — a creative season so explosive it could have blown back even William Shakespeare’s magnanimous curls. But Keats stuffed these lyrics among his scrap papers. It was too early for foresight. It always is.
Yet we inheritors of the poetic tradition he did so much to shape will still do Keats dignity if we try to benefit from his example, combining the fraction we can muster of his inexhaustible energy with a willingness to abandon any convention that emaciates our writing. One of his famous letters had it that a real literary genius is capable of “being in uncertainties.” He partly meant that we all inhabit uncertainties — not the least about the length of life — but that a brave intellect inhabits the doubt without “reaching after” an escape. At 25, in Italy, Keats ended by facing the unknown with dignity. Back in England, his accumulated work was waiting to teach the readers who had ignored him the certainty of his greatness.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
At a wedding last summer, a guy seated at my table told me he hadn’t read a book in four years. I can’t remember the title of the traumatic work that occasioned his renunciation—perhaps it was Ovid’s Metamorphoses—but I distinctly recall panicking when asked by this prodigal reader to recommend something. Which magical text would show him the folly of his non-reading ways?
I entertained suggesting something patently inappropriate. Maybe one of those erotic French tales put out by Grove Press would get him back on track, something like Pauline Réage’s The Story of O, Guillaume Apollinaire’s incest-laden The Amorous Exploits of a Young Rakehall or Régine Deforges’s The Storm, the rawest of the lot. Or I could just say The Goldfinch and get it over with. However, with this tantalizing blank slate offered up before me, I froze.
“Let me think about it.”
I was mercifully saved by the start of a merciless best-man speech.
Ann Patchett would have turned that young man around. In a Washington Post article titled “Owning a Bookstore Means You Always Get to Tell People What to Read,” Patchett writes:
When Karen Hayes and I opened Parnassus Books in Nashville in November 2011, I hadn’t really considered what an enormous boon it would be to my lifelong preoccupation with forcing books on people.
There are many differences between Ann Patchett and me. She is a successful novelist and businessperson — I am most definitely not — but more important, I have a lifelong phobia of forcing books on people.
Patchett continues on the joys of hand-selling: “[Customers] just smile up at me, trusting and curious, waiting to follow my instructions. It makes my heart soar.” The very thought nearly stops my heart, cursed as I am with the neurotic inability to look into the smiling, trusting, and curious eyes of would-be readers and give them what they want.
One could charitably ascribe my hesitancy to recommend books an excessive respect for other people’s time: who am I to tell you how to spend so many hours? But that’s not really it. Reading is an investment, but unlike stock tips, there is profit to be had in even the most dubious recommendations. Nor does it have to do with the fear that the suggested title will reflect on my own aesthetic or moral deficiencies.
And still, as a recent encounter with a new neighbor made painfully clear, I just can’t not make a mess of things.
I first met him as he was pedaling by my house, bicycle-riding twins in tow. When I mentioned that I reviewed books, he naturally asked: “Oh, got any good ones to recommend?” For me, the equivalent of a politician’s “gotcha” question.
The usual reaction occurred: a rush of blood to the face, followed by blubbering equivocations and panicked attempts to stall for time as I cycled through every book I’d read over the last weeks, months, years, then all the books I hadn’t read over that same time. Given what I had gleaned about him in our brief chat, which of these hundreds of titles would be best?
Nothing was coming to mind. The helmeted twins glared at me, justifiably resentful that my deliberations were cutting into their playtime.
Come on, champ. Anything. Erik Larson has a new book about the Lusitania. Too many syllables? Anthony Doerr just won the Pulitzer. Or Phil Klay. Iraq, and all that powerful stuff.
But for some reason known only to my maker, I was seized by an almost Tourettic desire to scream out The Epic of Gilgamesh. I held it in, though as I squirmed I saw a flicker of doubt in his eye. He was wondering, I imagine, whether I had ever read, let alone reviewed, a book. Had a spy moved in next door, using the shaky cover of a freelance writer/editor? The twins grew more antsy, doing circles on the quiet street as they waited for their father to conclude with this stammering yutz.
Inspiration! I’d just read a Kindle Single, Jeff Wise’s The Plane That Wasn’t There, which put forth a rather fanciful account of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Alas, it didn’t seem like the best time to explain how the plane had been diverted to an airfield in Kazakhstan as a Russian-sent warning for NATO to stop meddling in Ukraine. I would save that for a summer barbecue when I had him good and cornered.
Good god, man, spit it out!
A book about neighborly quarrels could be fun, like James Hamilton-Paterson’s Cooking With Fernet Blanca. No, too arch. Or perhaps he could lose himself in some of Ezra Pound’s Cantos? That ought to keep him busy.
The light declining, I finally decided to put myself out of my misery.
“Let me think about it.”
The family pedaled off, fated to rely on more articulate acquaintances or Amazon’s algorithm for recommendations.
Perhaps because of my book-recommending block, I respect those with the courage to impose their reading will on others. Take my friend’s boss, who stopped him in the hall and “suggested” he buy a 600-page, dry-as-dust tome called Successful Executive’s Handbook, never to indicate any relevant sections or even mention it again. That’s a power move worthy of a successful executive.
Another good friend loved Norman Mailer’s massive CIA epic, Harlot’s Ghost, so much that for a period of six months he pressed it on people he met on the street, baristas, girlfriends, soon-to-be ex-girlfriends, and me. There was no dithering about whether you liked fiction or nonfiction, bios or memoir, character-driven or plot-heavy novels. You even hinted that you were looking for a book recommendation and the next thing you knew, there’d be a 1,400-page brick on your nightstand.
A few weeks after loaning me his copy of the Mailer, which I didn’t dive into quickly enough, he snatched it back to give to someone else. The new recipient trudged through 1,399 pages, hating every minute of it, before seeing “To Be Continued” at the bottom of the last page. This proved too cruel a joke. Released from her self-imposed burden, she refused to read the final paragraph as a matter of principle.
A few days later, when we were having coffee, my friend offered Harlot’s Ghost back to me if I promised to read it promptly this time.
“Let me think about it.”
Image Credit: Flickr/ginnerobot.
I’m not sure when I began following Nina MacLaughlin’s Tumblr, but for at least a year I’ve admired her thoughtful and elegant writing; it sometimes feels as if I’m reading a poem rather than a blog post. Just recently, for instance, she wrote this:
The wood, white oak, has the look of driftwood. Weather worn, sea bashed. The hole, former home of a long-gone knot, brings eyeballs to mind, or portals, entries to other worlds. Two inches thick, the slab got sawed to size yesterday afternoon, from a length of six+ feet to a little over two. In the cold air of yesterday’s afternoon, I sawed, which warmed me fast, and did a first run of sanding with coarse grit paper. Snowbanks have eclipsed the fence behind the house, and snowflakes, more, falling slow and small, landed on the board as I worked. They disappeared, but not for melting — I watched one linger on the wood — but for being sanded into the board, an adding and a stripping at once, layer by layer, instilling and smoothing. This is the beginning of an end table.
See what I mean?
MacLaughlin’s beautiful and wise first book, Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter, recounts how she left her job as a journalist at an alt-weekly in Boston and became the apprentice to a carpenter named Mary. When she started, Nina was burnt out from her former career, but had no experience working with her hands. Now she can tile a bathroom, build a deck, and renovate a kitchen — among other projects! — and remains energized by the work. The book not only lets its readers experience Nina’s career shift along with her, it also sneaks in some carpentry lessons and history. In Hammer Head, MacLauglin poses questions both big and small, and its default mode is one of consideration and wonderment: How did that wall get there? How do we decide what’s right for our own lives? It’s like if Annie Dillard had her own show on HGTV.
Nina was kind enough to answer some of my questions via email. What follows is that conversation.
TM: The book is organized by tools — the saw, the tape measure, the screwdriver, and so on. How did this organizing principle come about, and can you talk a little bit about how you balanced the book’s dramatized scenes (the memoir aspect of the book) with succinct histories of said tools?
NM: I’m drawn to books that braid together the personal, political, historic, cultural, and philosophical. Rebecca Solnit, Maggie Nelson, Anne Carson, Annie Dillard, Eula Biss, these are writers who, when they write about themselves, address questions on a human-wide scale, and when they write about politics, geographies, or journeys, demonstrate how decisions, history, and powers impact us as individuals. So I wanted to write something that did a little bit of blending. In early drafts, the book was much more heavily weighted on the meditative side. So much ruminating! Some of it had to give way for the sake of a forward-moving story. As for the tools, they provided a sort of spine, a way of grounding the story in the work. The order of the tools as they appear in the book loosely follows the order in which you’d use them on the job, a way of moving through time based on the state of completion of the project. First thing you’re likely going to use is your tape measure. The level comes at the end to see if what you’ve done is true.
TM: There are so many wonderful literary references in the book, from Ovid to Joan Didion. Did those just surface as you were working, or was that another organizing principle for the book?
NM: When I sat down to write the second draft, I started reading the Metamorphoses, which I’d somehow never read, despite majoring in classics in college. I figured poetry of that sort wouldn’t overly influence the writing I was doing, would be a good way of continuing to read without having someone else’s sentences, rhythms, ideas, etc. weasel their way into what I was up to. Wrong! It ended up being an enormous influence, and a guiding principle behind the whole book. I’d recommend everyone read or revisit Ovid’s Metamorphoses. (I read Alan Mandelbaum’s translation.) It’s violent, sexy, dark, beautiful. There’s a section in Book VIII that makes me cry every time I read it.
The other references happened more spontaneously and surfaced along the way. In reading, I’m often underlining, and when I’m lucky I’ll remember a particular passage when it relates to something I’m trying to get at.
TM: I love your descriptions of Mary — the wisdom she imparted, her small physical frame, how hard she worked. What was your process like for depicting her on the page?
NM: It’s so nice hearing how much people respond to Mary in the book. Whereas describing in words (and making clear and compelling) the act of tiling a floor or swinging a hammer proved tricky, writing Mary happened naturally and easily. That likely has a lot to do with who she is and what she’s about as a human being. She is so much who she is, a complete person, and that’s rare, I think, and it made it easier to present her on the page. We’ve also spent a lot of time together, working in close quarters, and you get to know someone pretty well when you’re in an attic crawl space trying not to cut the person’s hand off or bang them with a hammer.
TM: You came from a journalism career, but this book is very much about you and your evolution, your gathering of experience with and knowledge of objects and building, of working with your hands. How was it to write about yourself? Were there any sections in the book that felt difficult for what they revealed to the reader about you?
NM: Discomfort comes when I think about the people closest to me reading the book. It’s obviously strange to know that my parents and my boyfriend will read that I thought about boning the plumbers we work with, but that’s something you just have to deal with. I know as a reader, it’s difficult when reading a memoir not to think that this is this person’s whole life, that you know everything about them. In this case, I shone the flashlight on a narrow and specific part of my experience. In that way, it feels strange that people who I knew for six weeks while we renovated their kitchen and will likely never see again in my life, got more attention on the page than the people closest to me.
I suspect it’s true of all writers at some moment, but I definitely had to make big efforts to quiet the voices that said: Who cares about your dumb life? Why would anyone want to read about you? You had a job, then a different job, who cares? What makes your story more worth telling than anyone else’s? Those voices are still there, demanding attention as much as they did when I was writing. I try to hush them by reminding myself that everyone, really everyone, has, at one point or another, wanted to do something other than what they’re doing. We’ve all wanted to change our lives in big or small ways. It’s a human urge to want to leave one life for another, and it’s a story that can resonate with anyone who’s had a job or a relationship or a shitty afternoon. That’s my hope, anyway, and what I tell myself to quiet the voices that say otherwise.
TM: You write, “Finishing a piece of writing, the sensation was relief coupled with a spentness, a short temper and depletion, grinchy and hollow.” In contrast, you say of working with Mary, “I looked back on everything we’d built with satisfaction and pride.” I wonder how the writing of this book — rather than your past journalism — felt. Did writing this book feel like journalism did, or is writing about working, about doing, about the physical world, somehow different?
NM: Working on the book, the grinch quotient was high. More so than working on journalism stuff for sure. Writing about my own life as opposed to someone else’s turned out to shorten my temper and deplete me in a much more pronounced way. And so did the scope of the project and the length of time I worked on it. The book went through multiple drafts. It took me a long time to figure out how to write it, shape, pace it, make it a story. All I’ve done my whole life is read books and write about them, and I very wrongly figured that along the way I just absorbed how to do it, that I would just sort of know how to shape a book. I didn’t! I didn’t at all. I had a lot of trouble. It was a raw experience of coming up against my own limits, up against so much that I didn’t know and that didn’t come easily — a lot like my entry into carpentry. I was not good company for stretches while working on the book — I’m much better to be around after a day building a deck. But even in the pits of it, in some deep gut-level place, when I woke up in the morning and knew I had to work on the book, even if I was hating it and hating myself and wishing it were done or gone, in the deepest part of myself I felt happy — or not happy exactly, but calm and serious and motivated and grateful and glad — that I had this thing to work on, that I knew exactly what I faced, that I was doing what I always wanted to be doing.
TM: You’re still a carpenter and you’ve also returned to writing. How do these two careers balance and inform one another?
NM: What I’ve found: after a stretch of writing, I get antsy to get out of my head and back to the satisfaction — physical and mental — of building. I get antsy to leave the screen, leave my apartment, joke with Mary, use tools, forget about words.
And the same is true in the opposite way — after a bit of time goes by (usually a matter of about three days) where I haven’t written, I start to feel an itching in my head, and all I want is for some time putting sentences together. It feels a little like a hunger. A deep need. And it can be satisfied by writing a blog post or a book review. The best days usually involve some combination of the two.
There’s something about putting your brain where you hands are that frees up the word-centers of the mind, maybe a bit like meditating. It could be knitting or cooking or playing guitar or drawing or whatever. Letting that part of the brain go quiet allows things to cook in there without the grinding at the desk and the deliberate footfalls of one word after the next. Bodywise and brainwise, I feel so lucky to have these two pursuits in combination.
TM: When one is hiring a carpenter, what questions should one ask? What’s the closest way to a carpenter’s heart?
NM: Don’t be afraid to ask hundreds of questions if you don’t understand what’s being explained. People in the trades are fluent in the language of their work, and often forget that not everyone knows, for example, what sistering a stud means. Ask us to translate! Ask us the most basic questions. Don’t know what a joist is? Ask. Don’t know what 16-on-center means or how it relates to the wall you’re having built? Ask. It’s sort of like going to the doctor. There’s a specialized vocabulary, and it’s being spoken quickly and it’s good to slow down and make sure you understand what’s happening to your house. As for a way to our hearts, Mary and I have had good luck working for kind, warm, patient people (with a couple of exceptions). It’s a funny sort of intimacy that develops — we come to your home and spend days there, making a lot of noise. The people we tend to like most are ones who take interest in the work, who ask questions, who seem excited about what we’re up to and the changes taking place, who chat with us, and, gosh, a cookie every now and then definitely boosts morale.
TM: And, finally, because The Millions is a literary website, I must ask: What’s the last book you read and loved?
NM: I just finished up Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone. It instantly transports you to a specific time (late ’60s) and a specific place (southern California) and a specific atmosphere (crumbling of the counterculture, strung-out, confused, chaotic, disillusioned, failed gurus, dead dreams). Stone writes great sentences and the story moves fast.
Isotropic Films has begun filming a “fresh, modern horror [film] version” of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. At The New York Review of Books, Mark Harman offers a new translation of the late author’s “A Message From the Emperor,” which Harman calls “hauntingly oblique.” Further away still, Elif Batuman recognizes some Kafkaesque street signage in Turkey.
March 12, 2010
Five months from today, my first novel, You Lost Me there, is being published. Max from The Millions emailed me today wondering if I’d write something come publication time. I stared at the kitchen table. I drank a delicious Diet Coke. (Superfluous—all Diet Cokes are delicious.) How about, I suggested, a pre-publication diary?
I’ve always been curious about what it’s like for writers in that period before a first book appears. The back-room deals, the marketing plans. Perhaps, I suggest to Max, the subhed could read, “The Ecstasy and Agony of My First Novel Being Published.” Ecstasy because getting a novel published is an extraordinary thing! It’s a meteor landing in the backyard. It burns down the swing-set. It completely freaks me out. And agony because, obviously, such a thing would be terrifying. JEREMY WHO THE FUCK BURNED DOWN THE SWING SET.
You Lost Me There took me four years to write. Before it, I wrote two other novels, one that was junk and another that received many polite rejection notices from big publishers. What happens if this book is judged to be corrosive to the Earth? What if little girls cry when they read it?
This summer, a new David Mitchell novel and a new Gary Shteyngart novel will arrive on shelves, both of which I will rush out to purchase. A new Andrea Levy, new Tom McCarthy (Remainder—!!!), new Jennifer Egan. Six billion terrific “debut” novels will appear, I’m sure, in a year when many terrific novels have already been published. And then there’s Franzen. Franzen. For years, publishing executives have stage-whispered over lunch, “When will Franzen return to rezap our cojones?”
I am ridiculously lucky and deliriously happy to be so seriously fucked.
March 13, 2010
I’ve never kept a diary before. My wife and I live in the woods on the rural fringe of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. We moved here after stints in New York and Paris because we wanted to be around nature again. We have blueberry bushes, a gigantic fig tree, and thousands of ticks. Behind our house is an acre of forest. On its back side, there’s a guy with a lumber business who wields a much bigger, louder gun than I do. Mine is my wife’s dead grandfather’s BB gun, which we use to frighten away deer, whereas the neighbor’s gun is a shoulder-mounted cannon that he fires whenever he likes. Eleven o’clock tonight, I’m reading on our porch and the neighbor blasts five shots in a row. KAPLOW5. Does he wear night-vision goggles? In my fantasy he says to himself while reloading, in a Rue McClanahan voice, You sweet little motherfucker.
March 15, 2010
Nice day. Brisk. This afternoon, I submitted the final changes to the novel’s manuscript. My editor’s assistant bears with me. After this, I’m warned, I’ll be charged for every changed word, something like $20/sentence. I need to send brownies to my editor’s assistant.
March 16, 2010
I’ve been working on two other books for two years. One’s a novel about Tijuana. It will be completed in 2044, by which time David Mitchell will have already written it and written it better. Also working on a nonfiction book about Paris, or at least a proposal for one. I can’t seem to get it right, the proposal. It propels me away from my desk. Today I called a local author who’s become a friend. “Book proposals are hell,” she said. “They fuck you.” “Fuck you up?” I said. “No,” she said, “they fuck you.” She didn’t want to talk about it after that.
March 18, 2010
Worked late last night and went to bed happy. No crickets, no frogs, dead silence. Then this morning I erased the file I’d been working on. Who needs book proposals when I’m so competent at self-fucking? I should begin sleeping with a caffeine drip.
March 19, 2010
Sent brownies to my editor’s assistant.
March 20, 2010
Played tennis with another local author, Nic Brown. Per capita, I believe the Raleigh-Durham area to possess more writers than Brooklyn. Nic’s second book, a wonderful novel, Doubles, comes out in July. At one point in his book, there’s a doubles tennis team named Brown and Baldwin who aren’t very good. Today, Nic beat me 6-0. During a break I socked him in the head with a ball. I felt bad about that until bedtime.
March 21, 2010
If I’m not writing, reading, exercising, or talking on the phone, I worry about money. Ergo, I really, really love writing, reading, exercising, and talking on the phone.
March 22, 2010
7:43 a.m., the neighbor with the shotgun was out pounding squirrels. I saw him through the trees. Black cargo pants, tall desert boots, no shirt, American eagle/flag bandanna skullcap, and a pair of mirrored yellow Oakley sunglasses. Like he’s defending America while playing right field. Twice at night I’ve see him across the road in the woods, feeding trees into a big red splitter under construction lights.
Inchworm snuck into the picture
March 23, 2010
My brother-in-law and his wife had a baby. Wonderful day.
March 24, 2010
Awful day. Lost six hours to a panic meltdown. Anxiety is a future that hasn’t happened yet, but makes no other future seem possible. I made coffee, did some push-ups, and went for a walk. No problem can’t be solved by caffeine, push-ups, and a long walk in the woods.
March 25, 2010
Drizzling rain and severely windy. Did a lot of email, including asking an artist to help me make a video trailer for my book, Aya Padrón, a wonderful photographer based in Maine. Perhaps her pictures, I suggested, will get people excited about reading my novel, once rendered into YouTube format? Though, really, who the fuck knows. Does anyone know how to flog books online? Social-media flavor crystals don’t seem to be the answer.
March 26, 2010
No expression on America’s Defender today. Maybe he’s sad. He’s standing there holding some type of shotgun, staring at me. He pumps the gun, turns around, and goes back into his house.
March 29, 2010
Lovely spring weather. Spent an hour writing thank-you notes to various people at Riverhead, my publisher. I’ve heard nightmare accounts from other writers about their publishers. Let it be said, Riverhead is a dream, every employee.
March 31, 2010
On my birthday I have a tradition of taking the day off to bum around and get drunk and read stuff. I keep it classy. This year, my friend Melissa asked me to keep tally of what I consumed in chronological order. It went:
– 4 coffees
– 2 paper newspapers (News and Observer, Wall Street Journal)
– 1 Diet Coke
– 2 breakfast tacos
– 3 slices of vanilla cake with vanilla frosting
– 1 glass of milk
– 1 turkey, avocado, bacon sandwich
– 1 espresso
– 1 novel (The Wings of the Sphinx, Andrea Camilleri)
– 2 shots of tequila, 2 beers, 2 glasses white wine
– 1 cheese plate
– 1 slice of vanilla cake with vanilla frosting
– 1 glass of milk
– 1 magazine (The Atlantic Monthly)
– 1 coffee
– 1 glass of champagne, 2 glasses red wine, 2 glasses white wine
– 4 rounds of tapas
– 1 shot of tequila, 1 beer
– 1 college basketball game
– 1 slice of vanilla cake with vanilla frosting
– 1 glass of milk
– Half of Inspector Morse episode #31
April 2, 2010
Panic about the novel is set to low simmer. The next novel and the non-fiction book proposal aren’t flying, they’re flunking. Anxiety is causing my fingernails to reverse course and grow inward. What if You Lost Me There is perceived to be a bomb, would it be so bad? Playing around today, I figured out that Michiko Kakutani is an anagram for “Atomic Haiku Kink.” Michiko alone becomes, “Hi I Mock.”
April 4, 2010
Sunny day. Spotted two snakes, several lizards, and a pie-sized snapping turtle under our fig tree. Went to mow the yard, but the mower crapped out, so I called my wife’s uncle, a race-car driver with an elaborately equipped garage, and we threw the mower in his truck, grabbed some tools, cut a new spring, and refit the mower cap. Very satisfying afternoon.
April 7, 2010
Dread, the proper noun, is a pussy. Dread can’t stand Real Shit. When Real Shit turns up at the party, Dread resumes playing wall-flower, all envy. In a way, I’m thankful for today’s Real Shit, of a private nature that I’m not comfortable revealing here, but anyway, it’s a reminder. A novel’s only a novel. I’m extremely grateful for what I’ve got here in this world. My wife, my family, my health. And I am also thankful for Diet Coke and András Schiff.
April 8, 2010
Got off the phone. It happened again. In conversation and correspondence with other writers, two books routinely come up from the last couple years, as in, Dude, have you read this yet? David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. To the list, I would add Chimamanda Adiche’s Half of a Yellow Sun and Edward P. Jones’s The Known World.
I find it weird to meet writers who aren’t also big readers. Met one the other day at a bar and I looked at him queerly. He said he couldn’t find the time. This reminded me that readers are probably my people first, before writers. Writers are more likely to be dicks. Look at all the thug authors, unsmiling and posing so hard on their book jackets. I spent way too many afternoons in seventh grade reading Piers Anthony and Dragonlance books (and every one of my sister’s Babysitter Clubs) to pretend I’m a thug.
I just remembered I’m neither smiling nor appearing particularly thuggish in my own author photo. What’s really happening in that photo is I’m trying not to laugh, which is what happens when you’re trying to obey instructions not to smile or frown but to smile with your eyes and seem appealing. Not easy!
April 11, 2010
Dark outside. Woke up at four a.m. during a panic attack. Rocked myself back to sleep with visions of Andy Murray’s service returns.
April 13, 2010
Today I spoke to Daniel Wallace’s class of fiction-writing students. Daniel Wallace is the local king of novelists and a very nice guy. One of his students, after hearing about my work schedule, asked when I sleep. I told them something eloquent like, “Sleep is dumb.” Which is me paraphrasing Diddy, who says things like, “Don’t sleep, there’s too much to do,” and “Let’s go!” However, let’s call bullshit, bullshit. These poor kids only had a Pepsi machine in the lobby of the building, no Coke. Who could blame them for napping?
April 16, 2010
Ahoy! You Lost Me There was chosen by Entertainment Weekly for their summer list. I yelped when I received the news. My publicist and editor were as surprised as I was, especially by the caption, “a much-hyped debut novel,” since this is the first piece of “hype” we’ve seen. My book won’t appear for another four months. Have I already jumped the shark? I wet myself. Nearly.
April 19, 2010
First gunshot of the day, 8:42 a.m. Lesson relearned by the end of the day: nonfiction book proposals are hell. Very long walk followed by tequila.
April 29, 2010
Today we received the following email, from a newsgroup for people in our area:
A friend moved to a cabin across the road. On Monday afternoon she and her father were in her yard when they heard some close-range gunfire, said it sounded like a semi-automatic. Bullets were hitting the trees and even the house. She and her father lay flat until the shooting stopped, then called the sheriff’s department. If you have any information, could you please call the County Sheriff’s Office?
May 3, 2010
Finished Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano today walking around a New Urbanist community while Rachel went to the gym. Hard to imagine Lowry, with his extremely powerful imagination, imagining someone finishing his book in these circumstances.
May 4, 2010
9:43 a.m., first shot of the day. Ran into the squirrel hunter on the road yesterday. He waved. Warning sign of impending assassination? Vultures circled the house this afternoon, at least thirty of them.
May 12, 2010
Vultures are circling the house again, which means something died in the woods. After four hours, I’m nowhere with writing. Maybe ten satisfying lines. I wrote on my left wrist, WWDJD? (What Would Denis Johnson Do?)
Caught myself in the afternoon chasing a squirrel down from the side of the house while yelling Old Dirty Bastard lyrics at him, “Shame on you, if you step to!” First gunshot today, 10:12 a.m.
May 15, 2010
Finished the non-fiction book proposal and shipped it. Good riddance and good luck, dear proposal. Had drinks tonight with another writer, a friend of a friend swinging through town. I asked him what he writes. Among other things, he said, he’s the author behind a much beloved children’s series (that shall remain nameless). I.e., he’s the most current ghostwriter handling the work. I told him how I used to love the series when I was a kid. “Oh it’s different now. You’d hate it. The main characters are hackers,” he said. “They bust terrorists.”
May 16, 2010
Half the day I spend in my imagination, half I spend in car repair.
May 17, 2010
First advance review of You Lost Me There appeared today, a paragraph in Publishers Weekly. They’re giving it a pass. The anonymous critic found my book, among other things, to be “a highbrow melodrama.”
Afterward, my head’s hitting the kitchen table every ten minutes, spilling brain fluid. I’ll be thinking something else, then wham, my head hits the table. Melodrama? What’s so wrong with melodrama anyway? I told my editor never to send me another review, good or bad. Full of self-pity, I wondered, what do reviews offer anyway other than fluff jobs or despair? I moped until lunch, then I really started feeling bad for myself. In one month’s time my book had gone from “much-hyped” to passé. Maybe there’d still be time for a comeback?
The hardest part about jumping the shark is getting humped by its mouth.
May 21, 2010
Aya Padrón, the Maine photographer, loved the book and has decided to go shoot some pictures on Mount Desert Island, where the novel’s set. Wonderful news. Then I found out that You Lost Me There was recommended by TIME magazine for summer reading. Well, we flipped out.
May 24, 2010
Three days in New York with my sister. My sister lives in Brooklyn and we spent the weekend eating and drinking. Deviled eggs, I discovered, are in vogue in Manhattan right now, and now there’s a hatchery in my lower intestine. Diary note from the return flight, “New York is an office-park with a very good food court.” First gunshots this morning at 8:28 a.m. Good to be home.
May 25, 2010
Two events occurred simultaneously. 1) I found an egg on the counter; 2) a squirrel appeared on the window, clawing at the screen. I went outside and threw the egg at the squirrel. I hit a tree.
June 7, 2010
Woke up with dread around my neck like a chinstrap. Terrible hangover gave me a pork brain. Everything is horrible, only Publishers Weekly knows the future. I made coffee and it tasted like balsa wood. Worked from 6-10:30 am, then went back to bed to take a nap, but I couldn’t sleep for a panic attack about bad reviews to come, i.e., the end of the universe. (God, I’m pathetic.) Called my wonderful agent, PJ Mark, and if you account for our conversation based on what was actually said, rather than what was meant, I called PJ in order to apologize for calling him.
Went for a walk and listened to a radio show about tumors. Tumors are endlessly fascinating. Everything is interesting, inside I’m blank and unknowing.
June 9, 2010
Threw a can of generic diet cola at a squirrel because I hate both the fuckers, squirrels and generic diet sodas.
June 14, 2010
A week since I opened this diary. Well, diary, I spent the past week floating on air. Really floating. Received an offer on that nonfiction book and I’m still floating. Wolves briefly held at bay for a few more months. Writing is my peppermint-flavored heroin.
June 21, 2010
Yesterday something died in the woods. We could tell by the smell. This morning, Rachel barely made it to the car without barfing. It’s the smell of rotting flesh, of ninety-six-degree heat producing cheeseburger. I spent half an hour this morning beating the undergrowth for Death. Quite a sight, I had a black and white winter scarf wrapped around my head for a makeshift mask. Didn’t find Death.
June 22, 2010
Smell’s gone. Goodbye, Death. Thank you, vultures.
June 28, 2010
Had an article published on Slate about how frequently the phrases “a dog barked in the distance” and “somewhere, a dog barked” appear in novels, something I started noticing in college. Today, @dankois wrote on Twitter that he loved the new David Mitchell novel except for two instances where “a dog barked in the distance.” He added the hashtag, #thanksalotrosecransbaldwin. I felt the need to apologize.
July 7, 2010
There are endless sneaky ways to feel no good. Especially in the early hours, when Despair hides surface-to-air missiles in the couch and aims them at my amygdalae. This morning, I read a letter Nicholson Baker wrote to John Updike twenty-five years ago and I just felt awful. It’s one hell of a letter. Very Bakeresque. Me, I admire authors who keep digging after the same thing book after book. Baker, Ishiguro, Greene, Murakami. I mean, none of them’s a Philip Roth, a Coetzee, but who is? I go out into the woods and dig a hole with the toe of my boot to bury some coffee grounds and egg shells. No gun blasts.
July 12, 2010
Shotgun man just rode by my kitchen window on his motorcycle, stars and bars flying off the back. He was wearing tiny running shorts, tennis shoes with socks pulled up to his knees, and that’s it. Moustache blowing in the wind.
July 14, 2010
This afternoon, there was a thump on the front porch. The FedEx guy was walking back to his truck while I eyed the package. I knew what it was. Can I be a thug about this and still say I cried when I opened it and saw my book for the first time? Do thugs never cry? Who said thugs can’t be happy, can’t be true to themselves and their Lucy Lius?
July 20, 2010
Great advance review came in from the American Library Association. Thank you, Booklist! Libraries and librarians the world over, I honor you. Otherwise, my anxiety is causing acid reflux. I’ve started buying big bottles of chocolate milk. It is delicious, so sweet and so cold, and so fatty.
July 23, 2010
Book trailer went live today on YouTube. I love the novelty of book trailers. Why not? Why shouldn’t novels be sold every which-way? Look at the Shteyngart trailer, look at Sloane Crosley’s videos. We need more of this, not less.
Three years ago, I worked in advertising for 18 months and participated in a few big-scale shoots. One involved me interviewing Sir Sean Connery at his private Bahamas retreat. Highly ulcerous. Beforehand, the island faxed us a dress code requiring that men wear slacks and keep their shirts tucked in at all times. The filming was done in the afternoon after the photo shoot, and I can testify that the dock in the following picture was constructed that morning. I can also say that Sir Sean Connery was extremely nice. I’d say he was more nervous than me, but then he’d also been posing on a beach for three hours in ninety-degree weather in a wool sweater and a tuxedo.
July 26, 2010
Only way to get up in the morning and work steadily is to imagine there aren’t six million writers doing the same exact thing at the same moment with more imagination. That is one reason why I no longer live in New York.
July 29, 2010
Shit is really swinging. Reviews, interviews, news of reviews slated, online thingies solicited, and all are wonderful! I say yes to everything! And when I run my tongue over the gift horse in my mouth, I swear it’s chocolate and I pray it’s not squirrel inside. As you read these words I am very likely somewhere south of you, breathing into a paper bag. I am the luckiest bastard in the world.
August 3, 2010
We invited a farmer to visit and have his way with our fig tree. He brought a stepladder about sixteen feet too short; our fig tree is as tall as the house. He climbs up the tree and picks eight baskets full. The plan, he tells me, is to sell everything at a nearby farmer’s market, and in return he’s offering me trade in homemade sausage and cheese. Ne Fuck Pas Avec Les Benefits de La Semi-Rural Life. Evening lesson: Chocolate milk and tequila do not mix.
August 5, 2010
Self-Googling is never not shameful. Lots of push-ups today, some not very good work, a not very good nap, and I read a very good novel by Tove Jansson, The True Deceiver. Can NYRB Classics publish no wrong?
August 8, 2010
No gun shots in a week. Non-book stuff today: caught a pro-am tournament in Durham and watched NBA players battle in a tiny gym while listening to Gucci Mane. Man—or, as pronounced down here, mane—I wish I were athlete enough to get away with wearing shower sandals with dark socks pulled up to my knees.
August 10, 2010
So, this is what they call sleep deprived. Interviews have gone strangely, some wonderfully, some odd. One reporter called and we immediately went to tape for a radio broadcast while my mouth was full of a tomato sandwich. Most common question I’ve heard when people learn I’ve got a book coming out, “Are you touring?” The answer is, not really. I.e., I’m doing three readings in North Carolina and one in New York in September. But I wonder about the impulse behind the question. When did “author tour” become so popular a notion? What does happen when authors tour? I have no idea. Backyard amateur wrestling? Masked group sex? Eyes Wide Shut recreated nationwide in English department conference rooms? Diary, if I ever author-tour, it will be all of that, and commemorative T-shirts will be given out for free.
August 11, 2010
Last day of the diary. Diary, it’s been fun. To anyone reading, I hope you were entertained, I hope you laughed and cried, and I hope that was enough. Tomorrow my book will be published and shelved in stores, and we can socially-communicate regarding its inability to out-swim the hype shark. In the evening, I will visit one of my local bookstores, Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill (one of the events I’m doing), and they will serve (red) wine, (white) wine, and pabst (blue) ribbon. Perhaps I should invite my neighbor, America’s Defender.
I went running this afternoon to burn off some nerves. I saw him, my shotgun-toting neighbor, drinking beer outside his buddy’s trailer. He waved. I waved. I called out, “How you doing?” He yelled back, “Good man, good.”
Well, that’s exactly how I’m doing, times a thousand.