Palo Alto: Stories

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The Art of the Epigraph

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I don’t know what I’m preparing for. My whole life I’ve considered valuable certain experiences, accomplishments, and knowledge simply because I imagine they’ll be useful to me in the future. I’m beginning to doubt this proposition.

Here’s an example. For the last ten years, I’ve kept a Word document for quotes. Any time I come across a worthy passage, I file it away. By now, the file has grown to over 30,000 words from hundreds of books, articles, poems, and plays. I do this not in the interest of collecting quotable prose or for the benefit of inspiration or encouragement or even insight. What I’m looking for are potential epigraphs.

You see, I love epigraphs. Everything about them. I love the white space surrounding the words. I love the centered text, the dash of the attribution. I love the promise. When I was a kid, they intimidated me with their suggested erudition. I wanted to be the type of person able to quote Shakespeare or Milton or, hell, Stephen King appropriately. I wanted to be the type of writer who understood their own work so well that they could pair it with an apt selection from another writer’s work.

If I ever wrote a novel, I told myself, about a writer, maybe I could quote Barbara Kingsolver: “A writer’s occupational hazard: I think of eavesdropping as minding my own business.” Or maybe one of Philip Roth’s many memorable passages on the writer’s life, like:
No, one’s story isn’t a skin to be shed — it’s inescapable, one’s body and blood. You go on pumping it out till you die, the story veined with the themes of your life, the ever-recurring story that’s at once your invention and the invention of you.
Or, taking a different tack:
It may look to outsiders like the life of freedom — not on a schedule, in command of yourself, singled out for glory, the choice apparently to write about anything. But once one’s writing, it’s all limits. Bound to a subject. Bound to make sense of it. Bound to make a book of it. If you want to be reminded of your limitations virtually every minute, there’s no better occupation to choose. Your memory, your diction, your intelligence, your sympathies, your observations, your sensations, your understanding — never enough. You find out more about what’s missing in you than you really ought to know. All of you an enclosure you keep trying to break out of. And all the obligations more ferocious for being self-imposed.
In some cases, I’d read something that was so eloquent and succinct, so insightful, I’d be inspired to write something around it, even if I didn’t have anything to go on other than the quote. Aleksander Hemon’s The Lazarus Project is positively riddled with possible epigraphs. Right away, on page two, we get this: “All the lives I could live, all the people I will never know, never will be, they are everywhere. That is all that the world is.” (Recognize that one? If you do, that’s because it has already been used as an epigraph for Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, except McCann changes all of the I’s to we’s.) Then, on the very next page, this: “There has been life before this. Home is where somebody notices when you are no longer there.” A few pages later: “I am just like everybody else, Isador always says, because there is nobody like me in the whole world.” On page 106: “Nobody can control resemblances, any more than you can control echoes.” That one made me want to write about a despotic father and the son who’s trying to avoid following in his footsteps. I didn’t have a great need to write that story, but the quote would have fit it so perfectly I actually have an unfinished draft somewhere in my discarded Word documents.

This is, of course, a stupid way to go about crafting fiction. I learned that lesson. You can’t write something simply because you’ve found the perfect epigraph, the perfect title, the perfect premise –– there has to be a greater need, a desire that you can’t stymie. Charles Baxter once wrote, “Art that is overcontrolled by its meaning may start to go a bit dead.” The same is true of art overcontrolled by anything other than the inexplicable urge to put story to paper. I know this now.

Yet I still collect possible epigraphs. And so far, I have yet to use a single entry from my document at the beginning of a piece of fiction.

Epigraphs, despite what my young mind believed, are more than mere pontification. Writers don’t use them to boast. They are less like some wine and entrée pairing and more like the first lesson in a long class. Writers must teach a reader how to read their book. They must instruct the tone, the pace, the ostensible project of a given work. An epigraph is an opportunity to situate a novel, a story, or an essay, and, more importantly, to orient the reader to the book’s intentions.

To demonstrate the multiple uses of the epigraph, I’d like to discuss a few salient examples. But I’m going to shy away from the classic epigraphs we all know, those of Hemingway, Tolstoy, etc., the kinds regularly found in lists with titles like “The 15 Greatest Epigraphs of All Time,” and talk about some recent books, since those are the ones that have excited (and, in some cases, confounded) me enough to write about the subject in the first place.

A good epigraph establishes the theme, but when it works best it does more than this. A theme can be represented in an infinity of ways, so it is the particular selection of quotation that should do the most work. Philip Roth’s Indignation opens with this section of E.E. Cummings’s “i sing of Olaf glad and big”:
Olaf (upon what were once knees)
does almost ceaselessly repeat
“there is some shit I will not eat”
For a book titled Indignation, this seems a perfect tone with which to begin the novel. Olaf’s a heroic figure, who suffered unrelenting torture and still refused to kill for any reason, which means Roth here is also elevating the narrative of his angry protagonist to heroic status. Marcus Messner is a straight-laced boy in the early 1950s, attending college in rural Ohio. Despite his best efforts, Marcus gets caught up in the moral hypocrisy of American values, winding up getting killed in the Korean War. Marcus and Olaf are, as Cummings wrote, “more brave than me:more blond than you.”

Authors do this kind of thing all the time. They borrow more than just the quoted lines. In Roth’s case, it was Cummings’s moral outrage about American war he wanted aligned with his novel.

In Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad, she opens with two separate passages from Proust’s In Search of Lost Time:

Poets claim that we recapture for a moment the self that we were long ago when we enter some house or garden in which we used to live in our youth. But these are most hazardous pilgrimages, which end as often in disappointment as in success. It is in ourselves that we should rather seek to find those fixed places, contemporaneous with different years.

The unknown element in the lives of other people is like that of nature, which each fresh scientific discovery merely reduces but does not abolish.

The theme of Egan’s novel is time and its effects on us –– how we survive or endure, how we perish, how things change, etc. –– a fact established here by quoting the foremost authority on fictive examinations of time, memory, and life gone by. But more than that, Egan is connecting her novel –– which is full of formal daring and partly takes place in the future –– to a canonical author whose own experimentation has now become standard. Like the music industry in her book, the world of literature has changed, maybe not for the worse but irrevocably nonetheless, and Proust’s monumental achievement has become, to most modern readers, an impenetrable and uninteresting work. Egan’s choice of epigraph places her squarely in the same tradition. The Modernism of Proust gave way to the Postmodernism of Egan. Years on, to readers not yet born, A Visit from the Good Squad may seem a hopelessly old-fashioned relic. Such is the power of time.

James Franco also opens his story collection Palo Alto with a selection from In Search of Lost Time, but the effect is severely diminished in his case. First of all, the quoted passage reads:
There is hardly a single action that we perform in that phase which we would not give anything, in later life, to be able to annul. Whereas what we ought to regret is that we no longer possess the spontaneity which made us perform them. In later life we look at things in a more practical way, in full conformity with the rest of society, but adolescence is the only period in which we learn anything.
Though a fitting passage for a work that focuses on young, troubled California teenagers, there is nothing other than the expressed idea that justifies Franco’s specific use of Proust as opposed to anyone else. And Franco attributes the quotation to Within a Budding Grove, which is the second book in, as Franco has it here, Remembrance of Things Past. Those two translations of the titles are, by now, somewhat obsolete, the titles of older translations. Within a Budding Grove is now usually referred to as In the Shadows of Young Girls in Flower. There is something a tad disingenuous about Franco’s usage here, a more transparently self-conscious attempt to legitimize his stories, something he didn’t need to do. His stories, despite some backlash he’s received, are pretty good.

Some writers are just masters of the epigraph. Thomas Pynchon always knows an evocative way to open his books. His Against the Day is a vast, panoramic novel that features dozens of characters in as many settings. The story begins at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893 and goes until the 1920s, a period of remarkable technological change the world over. Electricity had been commercialized and was becoming commonplace. Tesla was conducting all his experiments. Pynchon reduces all of these pursuits to a wonderfully succinct quote:
It’s always night, or we wouldn’t need light.
–– Thelonious Monk
First of all, have you ever even thought about the universe in this way? That darkness is its default setting? Secondly, have you ever heard a more beautiful and concise explanation for one of the great plights of humanity? We’re afraid of the dark, and the desire for light (both literal and metaphorical) consumes us. Referencing Monk does the opposite of referencing Proust. Pynchon’s working with high theme here, but he’s coming at it with the spirit of a brilliant and erratic jazz artist.

His so-called “beach read,” Inherent Vice takes place at the end of the 1960s, an era that clearly means a lot to Pynchon. Earlier, in Vineland, radicals from the 60s have become either irrelevant eccentrics or have joined the establishment. It’s a strange, mournful meditation on the failures of free love. Inherent Vice takes a similar approach. Doc Sportello is a disinterested P.I. for whom the promise of that optimistic decade offers very little. That optimism is where we begin the novel:
Under the paving-stones, the beach!
–– Graffito, Paris, May 1968
A very pointed reference. Paris in May of 1968, of course, was a hotbed of protest and civic unrest, a time of strikes and occupations, and, for hippies and radicals, a harbinger of the changes to come. Well, Inherent Vice takes place on a beach. No paving-stones need be removed for the beach to appear. Yet the promise of the graffito –– i.e., that beauty and natural life exist under the surface of the establishment –– seems, to Doc Sportello (and us, as readers, in retrospect) a temporary hope that, like fog, will eventually lift and disappear forever. In the end, as Doc literally drives through a deep fog settling in over Los Angeles, he wonders “how many people he knew had been caught out” in the fog or “were indoors fogbound in front of the tube or in bed just falling asleep.” He continues:
Someday…there’d be phones as standard equipment in every car, maybe even dashboard computers. People could exchange names and addresses and life stories and form alumni associations to gather once a year at some bar off a different freeway exit each time, to remember the night they set up a temporary commune to help each other home through the fog.
The fog will lift, and the dream of the 60s will become a memory, murky but present. For Doc, and for us, all he can do is wait “for the fog to burn away, and for something else this time, somehow, to be there instead.”

For many, Inherent Vice was a light novel, a nice little diversion, and it mostly is, but for me it has more straightforward (and dare I say, sentimental?) emotional resonance than many of Pynchon’s earlier novels. And this epigraph is part of its poignancy. Doc’s complicated personal life becomes a panegyric for an entire generation, all in the form of a “beach read.”

Sometimes, though, epigraphs offer a different kind of poignancy Christopher Hitchens’s last collection of essays, Arguably, opens with this:
Live all you can: It’s a mistake not to.
–– Lambert Strether, in The Ambassadors
Hitchens, by the time Arguably was published, had already been diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He knew he was dying. This epigraph stands as Hitchens’s final assertion of his unwavering worldview. Even more retrospectively moving are the epigraphs of Hitch-22, a memoir he wrote before the doctors told him the news. One of these passages is the wonderful, remarkable opening of Hitchens’s friend Richard Dawkins’s book Unweaving the Rainbow:
We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of the Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, who are here.
Though I’m not sure how “ordinary” Hitchens viewed himself (he seems to have thought a great deal of himself), this still seems an uncannily prescient sentiment to be quoted so soon before his diagnosis.

But maybe my all-time favorite epigraph comes from Michael Chabon’s recent Telegraph Avenue:
Call me Ishmael.
––Ishmael Reed, probably

This is one of the cleverest, funniest, and most arrogant epigraphs I’ve come across in recent years. “Call me Ishmael” is, as we all know, the opening sentence of Moby Dick. Ishmael Reed was a black experimental novelist, author of the classic Mumbo Jumbo, a writer steeped in African American culture not depicted in mainstream art. Chabon’s novel takes place in Oakland and focuses, in part, on race. It is Chabon’s most direct attempt to write a Great American Novel (it even suggests as much on the inside flap of the hardcover), with its grand themes and storied setting, its 12-page-long sentence, its general literariness. By framing his book with an irreverent reference to one of America’s definitive Great American Novels, placed in the mouth of a black writer, Chabon both announces his intention to write a Great book and denounces the entire notion that there can be Great books. How does the supposed greatness of Moby Dick speak to the black experience? What does its language offer them? So here, the most revered sentence in American literature becomes, for a man named Ishmael, a quotidian utterance, a common request. Call me Ishmael. Just another day for Ishmael Reed. And Telegraph Avenue works like that, too. It’s just another day for Archy and Nat, the book’s main characters. Is Telegraph Avenue Chabon’s Moby Dick? His Ulysses? Perhaps. But it’s certainly in conversation with those books; the epigraph makes that much clear.

Epigraphs are, ultimately, like many components of art, in that they can pretty much accomplish anything the writer wants them to. They can support a theme or contradict it. They can prepare readers or mislead them. They can situate a book into its intended company or they can renounce any relationship with the past. And when used effectively, they can be just as vital to a novel’s meaning as the title, the themes, the prose. An epigraph may not make or break a book, but it can certainly enhance its richness.

And, more, they can enhance the richness of the epigraph itself. Because of Michael Chabon, I can never look at Moby Dick’s famous opening the same way again. When I read Cummings’s poem “i sing of Olaf glad and big,” I have a new appreciation for its political implications. Literature is wonderful that way. It isn’t merely the creation of new work; it’s the extension of the art itself. Each new novel, each new story, not only adds to the great well of work, it actually reaches back into the past and changes the static text. It alters how we see the past. The giant conversation of literature knows no restrictions to time or geography, and epigraphs are a big part of it. Writers continuously resurrect the dead, salute the present and, like epigraphs, hint at what’s to come in the future.

Now that I think about it, I realize that all those quotes I’d been saving up over the years finally have a purpose. Since I’ve become a literary critic, I’ve mined my ever-growing document numerous times, not for an epigraph, but as assistance to my analysis of a literary work. I’ve used them to characterize a writer’s style, their recurring motifs or as examples of their insight. These quotations have become extremely useful, invaluable even. In fact, I see my collection as a kind of epigraph to my own career. At first, I didn’t understand their import, but as I lived on (and, appropriately, as I read on), those borrowed words slowly started to announce their purpose, and when I revisit them (like flipping back to the front page of a novel after finishing it), I find they have new meaning to me now. They are the same, but they are different. Like Pynchon writes in Inherent Vice: “What goes around may come around, but it never ends up exactly the same place, you ever notice? Like a record on a turntable, all it takes is one groove’s difference and the universe can be on into a whole ‘nother song.”

Forget About James Franco

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Shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival and coming soon to a multiplex near you is a new movie called Palo Alto. It’s adapted from a book of short stories written by a member of the cast. Surely you’ve heard of the guy. There’s a sporting chance you despise him. His name is James Franco.

What’s interesting about James Franco is not that he has parlayed the job of movie star into a cottage industry of endeavors that includes short story writer, poet, novelist, memoirist, artist, teacher, movie director, Broadway star, Oscar host, fragrance pitchman, perpetual grad student, and, to hear my 25-year-old niece and her girlfriends tell it, the smokingest thing in pants. No, what’s interesting – what’s instructive – about James Franco is the way his precocity has turned him into a lightning rod, into one of those polarizing figures people either love, or love to hate.

I’ve always found such vitriol magnets irresistible. My personal pantheon includes the likes of Richard Nixon, Michael Jordan, Margaret Thatcher, Tom Cruise, Robert McNamara, and Dick Cheney – a gaggle of paranoiacs, megalomaniacs, sore winners, and evil geniuses so immaculately loathsome that they manage to flip my emotional gyroscope and become almost…lovable. Of course most people are content to hate such people, pure and simple, praying for their downfall and relishing the moment when it comes.

There’s a German word for almost everything and the German word for this icky delight people derive from the misfortune of others is schadenfreude, literally “damage joy,” or malicious gloating. To my knowledge there is no German word for the converse of schadenfreude, that is, resentment for the success of others, an emotion that’s especially prevalent in creative fields. I’ve been around enough creative types – writers and artists in New York, car stylists in Detroit, songwriters in Nashville, movie people in Los Angeles – to know that the only thing more toxic and debilitating than their schadenfreude is their seething resentment over the success of a rival. Especially when it’s seen as unearned.

You saw this same resentment go thermonuclear back in 2010 when Jonathan Franzen, another guy many people love to hate, got his unshaven face on the cover of TIME magazine. So unearned!, cried the outraged multitudes. The fury of their reaction was a telling sign of the times we live in, its toxic stew of snark and schadenfreude and resentment, all of it ready to go viral in the time it takes to hit Send. Before Franzen’s anointment, it had been a decade since a living writer had made the cover of TIME (Mark Twain did it in 2008, Stephen King in 2000). There was a time, the 1950s and ‘60s, when such appearances were virtually an annual rite (T.S. Eliot and Robert Frost did it the same year, 1950, and they were poets). These appearances were causes for widespread celebration in the literary world, not because everyone loved the writing of, say, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., but because it was a kick to see a writer enjoy a dollop of fame and increased sales. As Franzen and Franco have shown, those days are long gone. And we’re all poorer for it.

I spent my life believing I was immune to this kind of petty resentment, but recently discovered I am not. (I’m guessing no one is.) When an acquaintance of mine snagged a monster advance for his first novel, I actually sat down and did the math and figured out that his advance was exactly 400 times larger than the advance I’d just gotten for my third novel. This made me sick – not the whopping disparity in our paydays, but the very fact that I cared. It took me several days to get over the shame I felt for being so petty, and several more to come around to feeling what I should have felt all along – namely, delight for my acquaintance’s astonishing good fortune, and pride in the fact that I had sold another book. It was an unnerving emotional roller-coaster ride.

Which brings us back to James Franco. Judging by the reaction to Janet Potter’s recent essay here at The Millions, the people most likely to work up a foam-at-the-mouth hatred for Franco are aspiring writers. We’re back to the converse of schadenfreude. Potter’s essay grew out of a recent poetry reading she attended in Chicago featuring Franco and Frank Bidart, a renowned poet who has become a mentor to Franco and a vocal supporter of Franco’s literary ambitions. Franco’s first book of poetry is called Directing Herbert White, a reference to the short movie he directed that was inspired by Bidart’s poem, “Herbert White,” which is narrated by a necrophiliac murderer. At the reading, Bidart said it was “thrilling” to watch Franco turn his poem into a movie, and he praised Franco as someone who “astonishes the guardians of category.” To her surprise, Potter found that this unlikely pairing of the poet and the movie star made for an “unironically enjoyable and inspiring” evening.

Her sentiment was not unanimous. Ian Belknap, who also attended the reading, wrote that Franco is a “slack and slipshod writer – a writer whose name we would never know if we did not see it on marquees and posters.” Belknap added that Franco’s writing is “farcical beat-offery,” his poetry is an “aggressive and sustained campaign of dipshit-ification,” and Franco himself is “more pretentious than the leotard-wearingest mime.”

Vitriol can be so funny! Amusing as it is, Belknap’s rant raises serious questions, such as: since this is still sort of a free country, shouldn’t someone who is successful in one field be free to dabble in another field or, in Franco’s case, many other fields? And even if Franco’s celebrity makes it easier for him to get published than a more talented nobody, is it really true that a book by a movie star automatically siphons vital money from more deserving writers? I have my doubts. Franco has said that he hopes his celebrity will bring new readers to all poetry and fiction. Maybe it will. Given the sorry state of reading in America today, I say anything that might get people to read is worth a shot.

Ian Belknap, it turns out, wrote and performed a one-man show in Chicago last year with a title that says it all: “Bring Me the Head of James Franco, That I May Prepare a Savory Goulash in the Narrow and Misshapen Pot of His Skull.” Asked by a Chicago Tribune writer to explain his beef with Franco, Belknap replied, “The basic thrust is that Franco has taken the most bloated, lightweight approach to the arts I’ve ever seen…My problem is with the people who ostensibly believe in the arts, as Franco claims he does, who then erode the value of art from within…(M)y qualm is with the access to an audience, resources, publishing and galleries by people like him.” Among “people like him” Belknap includes Ethan Hawke playing novelist and Kevin Bacon playing in a band.

Wait a minute. Nobody squawks when established writers publish shitty books, something that happens every day, to the detriment of worthy unknowns. And nobody squawked when a bunch of bestselling authors – Stephen King, Amy Tan, Dave Barry, and Barbara Kingsolver, among others – formed a band called Rock Bottom Remainders and hauled in some $2 million from their performances and recordings – money that, in theory, was diverted from the pockets of more worthy professional musicians. (It probably helped that the wealthy authors didn’t take themselves too seriously and they donated the $2 million to charity.)

But back to Palo Alto and Palo Alto and “Palo Alto” – the place that inspired the book of short stories that inspired the movie. Franco grew up in this privileged California town, and his book of short stories attempts to capture the anomie of coming of age in such a place. The writing is flat, wooden, and disjointed, not an easy combo to pull off. The movie isn’t much better – a string of vignettes about teenagers hooking up, binge drinking, barfing, smoking weed, cutting down trees, and driving the wrong way on the freeway. We’re reminded, yet again, how tough it is to be a rich teenager.

Last year, Franco followed Palo Alto with his first novel, Actors Anonymous, which includes an actor named James Franco and feels like a dashed-off first draft in need of rumination and polishing. Like his other books, it got largely negative reviews and inspired widespread foaming at the mouth.

The self-referential streak in Franco’s writing announces that he has decided to write what he knows. Normally a hobbling strategy for a writer unless you happen to be a Proust, a Joyce, or an Updike, this might yet prove to be a smart move on Franco’s part. His intimate familiarity with the workings of celebrity puts him in touch with a potentially rich source of material, especially in a culture like ours that’s drunk on the stuff. Unfortunately, Franco has not yet figured out a way to write knowingly about what he knows. Consider the poem “Because,” which opens Directing Herbert White. It’s worth quoting in its entirety:

Because I played a knight,
And I was on a screen,
Because I made a million dollars,
Because I was handsome,
Because I had a nice car,
A bunch of girls seemed to like me.

But I never met those girls,
I only heard about them.
The only people I saw were the ones who hated me,
And there were so many of those people.
It was easy to forget about the people who I heard
Like me, and shit, they were all fucking fourteen-year-olds.

And I holed up in my place and read my life away,
I watched a million movies, twice,
And I didn’t understand them any better.

But because I played a knight,
Because I was handsome,

This was the life I made for myself.

Years later, I decided to look at what I had made,
And I watched myself in all the old movies, and I hated that guy I saw.

But he’s the one who stayed after I died.

After bumbling along on the surface of some mildly interesting ideas, the poem suddenly dives deep and says something visceral and revealing: I watched myself in all the old movies, and I hated that guy I saw. Now we’re getting somewhere dark and promising – the movie star’s dirty little secret, his loathing for that chimera on the screen who millions of people worship. Maybe, with time, Franco will grow into the role of Hollywood mole, delivering wise dispatches from inside the belly of the beast, à la Bruce Wagner or Joan Didion or Nathanael West.

I’m not going to wait and see, and I’m not going to waste my time hoping James Franco fails because I know this: schadenfreude and its evil doppelgänger, resentment, are a pair of stone-cold killers. They will kill you and they will kill your writing. So you might want to do what I’m going to do: I’m going to forget about James Franco and Jonathan Franzen and other writers’ advances, then get on with my own work.

Surprise Me!