I have had some dim and unformed sense, a sense which strikes me now and then, and which I cannot explain coherently, that Joan Didion is an extraordinarily gifted and prescient writer whose enterprise seems to me to be poisoned by something that may or not be fatal: she can be cloyingly precious.
Didion’s preciousness is on full display in her new book, South and West, a sampling of notes for two magazine articles that never got written. The “Notes on the South” section consists of observations Didion made as she drove aimlessly from New Orleans through Mississippi and Alabama in a rented car with her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, in the torpid summer of 1970. The shorter “California Notes” section is a series of stray reflections while Didion was trying to write about Patty Hearst’s trial in San Francisco in 1976.
The prescience that justifies this slight book’s existence is contained in a single sentence:
I had only some dim and unformed sense, a sense which struck me now and then, and which I could not explain coherently, that for some years the South and particularly the Gulf Coast had been for America what people were still saying California was, and what California seemed to me not to be: the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center.
This “unformed sense” may have seemed outlandish in 1970, but the election of Donald Trump has anointed it with an aura of prophecy. But was it so outlandish? In Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory in the presidential election of 1964 — the year Congress passed the Civil Rights Act — five of the six states that voted for the Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater, were in the Deep South. Before 1964 it would have unthinkable for Southerners to vote wholesale for the party of Lincoln; today it is unthinkable that they would not. So 1964 marked the beginning of the wholesale tipping of the country to the right, toward the Republican party, toward the red-state ethos that spread from the South and became strong enough to elect the unlikeliest of presidents. Joan Didion was one of those rare people who voted for Goldwater. After segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace took up Goldwater’s far-right mantle in the 1968 election, with nearly identical results, Didion would write, “The thought that the reason Wallace has never troubled me is that he is a totally explicable phenomenon.”
Six years after the 1964 election, Didion and Dunne set out on their road trip along the Gulf Coast. One day the couple drove through Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish, which Didion calls “peculiar country.” Here’s why:
There were run-down antiques places, and tomato stands, and a beauty shop called Feminine Fluff. The snakes, the rotting undergrowth, sulphurous light: the images are so specifically those of the nightmare world that when we stopped for gas, or directions, I had to steel myself, deaden every nerve, in order to step from the car onto the crushed oyster shells in front of the gas station.
I had a visceral reaction to this passage, something close to anger. I thought, Get out of the car and pump the fucking gas, already, or catch a plane back to L.A. where you belong. Later, Didion reports:
It occurred to me almost constantly in the South that had I lived there I would have been an eccentric and full of anger, and I wondered what form the anger would have taken. Would I have taken up causes, or would I have simply knifed somebody?
My anger resurfaced. What horseshit, I thought. You couldn’t bring yourself to kill a mosquito.
After reading South and West three times, I have come to realize that my visceral reaction to such passages misses the central point. The central point is that ever since she burst onto the scene in 1968 with her stunning collection of New Journalism, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion has been playing a role. Her fragile, remote, bewildered, haughty persona is a construct, a fiction, a way for her to give voice to the writing. She is not the first writer to do this — Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer come immediately to mind – but she is arguably the first to get readers to conflate reality with her fictionalized persona and its hardware: the cigarettes, the Corvette, the cool gaze, the Céline sunglasses ads, the perpetual drip of dread. As Emmett Rensin wrote recently in The New Republic, “Her constructed personality is so well rendered that we are often willing to suspend our judgment and believe in its reality.” I believe he’s right about this, and I also believe that this is the central problem with Joan Didion. She gets a pass because, well, because she is capable of prescience, wisdom, and gorgeous sentences. She is allowed to inhabit a constructed — and frequently annoying — personality because legions of readers are convinced that the payoff has earned Didion a suspension of judgment, a disinclination to remain aware that her constructed personality is merely a pose.
In his introduction to South and West, Nathaniel Rich writes words that are intended as high praise but that strike me as an unintended exposure of the source of this problem. Rich lauds “the cool majesty of her prose, written as if from a great, even empyreal distance.” The operative words here are cool and empyreal. “Cool” has long been the default adjective to describe Didion’s personal style and her approach to observing people and turning her observations into sentences. But “empyreal” seems to me to be the true killer — this notion that a writer operates from on high, far above the grubby lives of people who set their husbands on fire in Volkswagens, people who live in trailers with the air-conditioning on all night, who go to cosmetology school and wear pink Dacron housedresses and drink beer out of cans and name their daughters Kimberly or Sherry or Debi. There is no possibility for such a writer to inhabit the lives of her subjects, to achieve empathy; the only possibility is preciousness and cool detachment, which produces observations that always come back to the primary importance of the observer, and the secondary status of the observed.
At the Mississippi Broadcasters’ Convention in Biloxi, for instance, Didion writes:
The isolation of these people from the currents of American life in 1970 was startling and bewildering to behold. All their information was fifth-hand, and mythicized in the handing down. Does it matter where Taos is, after all if Taos is not in Mississippi?
And yet Didion’s aloofness from these people has gotten her snared in a trap. “When I think about New Orleans,” she writes, “I remember mainly its dense obsessiveness, its vertiginous preoccupation with race, class, heritage, style, and the absence of style.” In her best books — among which I would include Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Where I Was From – Didion is obsessed with the very things she disparages here about New Orleans, particularly the absence of style. The San Bernardino Valley, as she wrote in the ground-breaking essay “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” is “the country of the teased hair and the Capris and the girls for whom all life’s promise comes down to a waltz-length white wedding dress and the birth of a Kimberly or Sherry or Debi and a Tijuana divorce and a return to hairdressers’ school.” Style doesn’t get any more absent than that.
This obsession with class, heritage, style, and the absence of style has opened Didion, inevitably, to charges that she is an “elitist.” This is a serious sin in a society that tells itself it is “classless,” but it strikes me as a perfectly reasonable thing for a writer to be, provided it doesn’t negate the capacity for empathy or lead to preciousness. Was any writer more of an elitist than Marcel Proust? Or Henry James? Or Virginia Woolf? Or Flannery O’Connor? Arguably not, but that didn’t stop the late Barbara Grizzuti Harrison from writing a takedown of Didion way back in 1979, in an essay so dyspeptic that it flirts with both lunacy and hilarity. “Didion’s lyrical angst strikes me as transparently ersatz,” wrote Harrison, who went on to call Didion “a neurasthenic Cher” and “a lyricist of the irrational” whose “imperialist mentality” led her to vote for Goldwater, among other unpardonable sins. Grizzuti identified Didion’s preciousness as a source of her popularity: “That coddled singularity/superiority is, I am afraid, one of the reasons readers love Didion.” But in Grizzuti’s eyes, there is no worse sin this: “Didion’s heart is cold.”
The charges have merit, but since South and West is a Joan Didion book, you know there will be gem-like sentences. Here are a half-dozen random samples:
“A little girl with long unkempt hair and a dirty periwinkle dress that hung below her knees carried around an empty Sprite bottle.”
“A somnolence so dense that it seemed to inhibit breathing hung over Hattiesburg, Mississippi at two or three o’clock of that Sunday afternoon.”
“When I left Basic City a train was moaning, the Meridian & Bigbee line. One is conscious of trains in the South. It is a true earlier time.” And: “Maybe the rural South is the last place in America where one is still aware of trains and what they can mean, their awesome possibilities.”
“We crossed the Demopolis Rooster Bridge over the Tombigbee River, another still, brown river. I think I never saw water that appeared to be running in any part of the South. A sense of water moccasins.”
“On weekday afternoons in towns like Winfield one sees mainly women, moving like somnambulists through the days of their lives.”
“The kudzu makes much of Mississippi seem an ominously topiary landscape.”
“The time warp: the Civil War was yesterday, but 1960 is spoken of as if it were about three hundred years ago.”
Another of the book’s delights is Didion’s portrayal of the Deep South through its motel swimming pools. Like Neddy Merrill swimming home through a string of Westchester County pools in John Cheever’s indelible short story, “The Swimmer,” Didion swims her way across Dixie, filing regular reports on the water quality. In Biloxi: “The swimming pool is large and unkempt, and the water smells of fish.” In Birmingham: “I went swimming, which occasioned great notice in the bar. ‘Hey, look, there’s somebody with a bikini on.’” In Winfield: “There was algae in the pool, and a cigarette butt.” In Oxford: “Later when I was swimming a little girl pointed out that by staying underwater one could hear, by some electronic freak, a radio playing. I submerged and heard news of the Conservative victory in Great Britain, and ‘Mrs. Robinson.’”
In addition to such gems, this book produces an outsized irony. The meat of the book — if a 126-page book can be said to be meaty — was supposed to lead to a magazine article, a “piece” in Didion-speak, that her editors at Life magazine referred to as “The Mind of the White South,” a nod to W.J. Cash’s masterpiece, The Mind of the South. Indeed, Didion doesn’t talk to a single black person, preferring instead to spend her time with New Orleans aristocrats, white women in laundromats, the white owner of a black radio station, and Walker Percy, who serves up gin and tonics. The closest Didion comes to acknowledging the plight of black people in the South is a memory of a girlhood visit to her father’s military posting in Durham, N.C., when a bus driver refused to leave the curb until the Didions had moved to the front of the bus, where white people belonged according to the iron dictates of Jim Crow. Here is Didion’s closest encounter with a black person during her 1970 trip: “On that same afternoon I saw a black girl on the campus: she was wearing an Afro and a clinging jersey, and she was quite beautiful, with a NY-LA coastal arrogance. I could not think what she was doing at Ole Miss, or what she thought about it.” Tellingly, Didion doesn’t bother to ask. This section ends with a simple epitaph: “I never wrote the piece.”
The irony is that the 13-page section of the book called “California Notes” also failed to produce the hoped-for magazine article, but it led to something much bigger. “This didn’t lead to my writing the piece,” Didion reports, “but eventually it led to — years later — Where I Was From (2003).” That book, a reappraisal of Didion’s long-held myths about her family, her native California, and the rugged individuals who settled the place, is among her very finest writing, and it’s entirely driven by her thoughts on class, heritage, style, and the absence of style. With deadpan scorn, she sums up the bankrupt myth of the “frontier ethic”: “Show spirit, kill the rattlesnake, keep moving.” The inconvenient reality, from the railroad tycoon Leland Stanford on through big agriculture and the aerospace industry, is that the rugged individualism of the frontier ethic has always been supported by generous infusions of federal tax dollars. Where I Was From is such a richly reported and deeply reasoned book that it’s hard to believe it grew from the closing pages of South and West. But one thing must be believed: the fact that a major publisher has brought out these jottings in a handsome $21 hardcover is proof that Joan Didion can do no wrong because, quite simply, she was canonized a long time ago and readers have come to love her constructed personality and its coddled singularity/superiority.
My default location on weather.com is Walt Disney World.
This makes no sense. For one thing, I live in Cambridge, Mass. For another, there are places I visit far more often than I visit Orlando: my hometown in Monterey, Calif., for example. I’ve tried to change my settings on the website to better reflect this. But for some reason, the four trips I’ve taken to Disney World have thrown a wrench into the algorithm, and as a result I’m always cognizant of whether or not it’s warm enough for a spin on the Kali River Rapids. (Today, it’s 89 and cloudy in the Animal Kingdom, so the answer is yes.)
As a result of this little computer glitch, I think about Disney every day. I think about Monterey every day, too. I spent the first 18 years of my life there, although when I go back, I feel like a tourist. Growing up, there was no greater insult. I recall the uncharacteristic vitriol with which my dad (who is usually a jolly and even-tempered fellow) would mutter the epithet at the crowds on Cannery Row or at the drivers of the rental RVs that went way too slow down Highway One.
Intense feelings demand action. We confront them or dull them or change them, or we question ourselves for having felt so strongly in the first place. Reading Joan Didion’s Where I Was From, I get a sense of the latter. The book is, among other things, a late-in-life exploration of her youth in California. I’m not talking Slouching Toward Bethlehem youth or Play It as It Lays youth: I’m talking early years. She was born in Sacramento in 1934, but her family’s tenure in the West stretches back to 1846, when her mother’s ancestors traveled, for a time, alongside the infamous George Donner-James F. Reed party. The depths of Didion’s California roots are troublesome for her. There is a “dissonance,” she says “which has to do with the slippage between the way Californians perceive themselves and the way they were, between what they believed to be their unlimited possibilities and the limitations of their own character and history.” She seems both skeptical of California’s allure and inescapably caught up in it: a contradiction that encapsulates the very nature of nostalgia and its discontents.
Nostalgia is something she shares with Walt Disney, another legendary Californian. Disney, however, did not share Didion’s ambivalence, and his nostalgia wasn’t a product of California. Rather, it was inspired by Marceline, Mo: his home in childhood. It was, to his mind, the perfect example of small-town America. The countryside was lush and welcoming. The downtown was charming and safe but also, because it served as a railroad division point, alive with commerce and community and all sorts of entertainment. The years Disney spent there were short but formative: “more things happened to me in Marceline than have happened since,” he once commented, “or are likely to in the future.” When Walt and his team were planning the layout of Disneyland, Walt would hold forth for hours on the charms of his former home: an exercise that eventually resulted in the Main Street sections of the parks that bear his name. Walking down these faux boulevards is a very strange experience. You get the sense that Walt never questioned the purity of his nostalgia. In fact, his hallucination of yesteryear is so dense and detailed and complete that even the most cynical visitor—myself included—can’t help but feel a weird twinge of homesickness. This twinge isn’t accidental or unique. It is, in the words of one Disney scholar, “a fantasized but nearly pitch-perfect representation of [our] deepest commitments and beliefs.” It is the bedrock of the Disney brand, and it is exploited at every turn. Welcome home! is how all visitors, even first time ones, are greeted by Disney hotel staff.
I’m drawn in by the hallucination but, like any good curmudgeon, I’m also irked by it. I’m always on the lookout for a chink in the armor, a glitch in the matrix. In 2013, the company began making revamped versions of its classic Mickey Mouse cartoon shorts. While the new storylines retain much of the harmless whimsy of the originals, there are times when the themes dig deeper, especially in Potatoland. In this short, Goofy longs to visit Potatoland: a theme park devoted to potatoes. The problem is, Potatoland doesn’t actually exist; it’s just a billboard slogan for Idaho that Goofy, as a child, took literally. Mickey and Donald are so touched by Goofy’s enduring enthusiasm and naiveté that they take it upon themselves to make his boyhood dream come true. They construct a Disney World entirely out of potatoes and guide an enraptured Goofy to each of the potato-centric attractions. As they’re walking down Potatoland’s Main Street, Goofy exclaims, “It feels so…magical!” The accompanying visuals, however, are anything but. We see Goofy peering into a storefront window, imagining the treasures within. The treasures, however, are nothing more than a dirt floor, some scrap lumber, and a potato on a stool: a fact that Goofy, from his perspective, cannot discern but that we, as the audience, can. Disney, in other words, is calling itself out on its own bullshit. But, in so doing, it also reinforces the bullshit’s primal power. You know it and we know it, the cartoon seems to say, and yet…here we are.
What, then, does this imply about the value of the hallucination, especially in relation to the behind-the-scenes mechanisms required to keep it alive?
I’ve never been behind-the-scenes at a Disney park. I have, however, worked at The Monterey Bay Aquarium: a tourist destination that, although it welcomes far fewer visitors than the Disneyland or Disney World, is extremely popular in its own right. Its popularity is due to the fact that it is a distinctly beautiful aquarium experience. The tanks are flawlessly curated and maintained, the viewing corridors are spotless and thoughtfully lit and, where appropriate, full of haunting ambient music. When people describe their visits, it is often in borderline spiritual terms. Over the course of my tenure there, I had ample opportunity to see the fallacy of this. I could have seen a seamy underbelly. I could have witnessed corners cut or animals mistreated. I could have glimpsed the potato on the stool, so to speak. But I never did. If anything, the private spaces of the Monterey Bay Aquarium are even more magical that the public ones. The exact same aesthetic sensibility that pervades the viewing galleries—clean, calm, scientifically sound, technologically advanced—also characterizes the service corridors, which is nice because it appeals to my sense of symmetry. But does it actually matter? Does it change the intended visitor experience? Does it make the enacting of the touristic ritual any more blameless? If the hallucination doesn’t evaporate when you peek through the fake storefront window, is it replicated into infinity thereby becoming an even more convincing—and potentially insidious—performance of substance?
Unlike my Dad, I’m not interested in condemning tourists. I’ve been a tourist myself on countless occasions, and there are few things more maddening than someone bemoaning a phenomenon in which she is complicit. Like everyone else, I’ve spent money at places designed to meet the needs of the transient as opposed to the permanent. The fact remains, however, that the Monterey of 2016 is nothing like the Monterey in which I was born and raised. It has, in our culture’s parlance for something commercialized and sanitized to the point of self-parody, been “Disneyfied.” I’m sad about this but, like Didion, I question the validity of the sadness. I recognize that the aquarium—an institution I love and respect—is largely responsible for the town’s transformation. I also recognize that the sturdy structure of my childhood impressions is someone else’s (John Steinbeck’s, maybe?) flimsy façade. In Didion’s words:
Discussion of how California has ‘changed’…tends locally to define the more ideal California as that which existed at whatever past point the speaker first saw it: Gilroy as it was in the 1960s and Gilroy as it was fifteen years ago and Gilroy as it was when my father and I ate short ribs at the Milias Hotel are three pictures with virtually no overlap, a hologram that dematerializes as I drive through it.
I have similarly non-overlapping holograms, or hallucinations, of Cannery Row, the street on which the aquarium now resides. First, as the site of suspiciously well-contained warehouse fires; second, on the aquarium’s opening day; and third, as Monterey’s faux Main Street cum Times Square: a place where the crowds are bad, the commerce is frivolous, the prices are high, and where locals almost never go unless they’re entertaining someone who lives elsewhere.
At the turn of the prior century, when Monterey was experiencing its first burst of attention from the leisure class, this onstage/offstage friction reached a literal flash point. The proprietors of the luxurious Hotel Del Monte were convinced its well-heeled patrons would not abide the aesthetic shortcomings of the town’s thriving fishing industry, so they did everything in their power—including arson, some say—to push the blue-collar undesirables out of both sight and mind.
And even though my love of the Monterey Bay Aquarium makes me once again hesitant to proclaim as much, there is evidence of the same sort of culling in terms of both their exhibit design and visitor demographics. Aquarium tanks are highly curated situations, and for a good reason. Few people would actually care to witness the true brutality and barrenness of life in the ocean. So the aquarists—the men and women who care for the fish and design their habitats—are tasked with presenting a highly edited and beautified version of life in the bay. In a sense, it’s a Disney World for fish: a place where the ugliness of reality is replaced by reality’s pleasantly circumscribed doppelgänger. It’s a considerable achievement, and it costs a lot to maintain, which is why the ticket prices are so high. Which, in turn, is why, when you roam the aquarium’s galleries, you often see more diversity inside the tanks than in front of them.
From all accounts, Walt Disney never became disenchanted with Marceline, Mo. As Disneyland grew into a bona fide phenomenon, its founder’s ambitions became extraordinarily wide-ranging. In addition to considering Disney-branded golf courses, bowling alleys, cocktail bars, and childcare centers, Walt also had grand plans for his childhood homestead in Marceline. For a time in the late-1960s, he wanted to turn it into a model farm: a tourist-friendly version of the real thing. This particular vision was never realized, but that didn’t stop Disney from conducting other experiments in the forcible redefinition of home. To wit, Celebration, Fla: a master-planned community adjacent to Disney World that allows its residents to live the dream not just on vacation, but year-round.
Joan Didion ended up in New York. There are so many questions that, given the chance, I’d love to ask her. In spite of everything she’s come to realize about home and its limitations, does she still consider herself a Californian? Has she made her peace with the collective delusion on which the state was built and continues to operate? Does she still experience “a lightening of the spirit” when she flies west, or has that mellowed and darkened with time? Like Didion, I flew back to Monterey to bury my mother, and it’s hard to imagine a day when the sight of that coastline will be anything other than shattering.
Unlike Didion, however, I’ll try not to beat myself up about this. I won’t speak ill of nostalgia: mine or anyone else’s. I won’t condemn those who spend their hard-earned money and fast-vanishing time on hallucinations, convincing or otherwise. Most of all, I’ll try not to pass judgment on Disney’s latest trick. To find inspiration for the setting of Finding Dory, the sequel to Finding Nemo, Disney animators visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium. They examined the viewing galleries and the service corridors. They made sketches that beautified the already beautiful, that condensed the already condensed. The final result is, of course, gorgeous: a hologram within a hologram in which viewers from every corner of the globe will feel instantly, inexplicably at home.
Image Credit: Flickr/harshlight.
First, a parable for manliness in the 21st century:
Throughout graduate school, I’ve made ends meet by clearing land on a ranch owned by an acquaintance. Not long ago, my daughter, who is four, came to work with me. My wife, who stayed home, sent her off in boots and a cowgirl hat over a pair of pigtail braids.
While I worked, my daughter followed behind me with a miniature set of clippers, chopping the ends off of cedar branches and throwing the pieces onto the brush piles I was building. Then she helped me find firewood, and then we roasted hot dogs and made s’mores and shared stories and jokes until bedtime.
The next morning in the ranch house, as I was helping get her dressed, I started to pull her hair into a ponytail. “No,” she said, “I want a braid.” I started to say Sweetie, mama does that, not daddy, because at home her mother does her hair. But I stopped myself. I can figure it out, I thought. Braiding hair can’t be that hard. And I did it. I braided her hair.
I was stupidly proud of that braid the rest of the day, proud like I had been the first time I started my own campfire. When I got home and told my wife about it, she was less awed: “Of course you can braid hair,” she said. “You’re a grown man.”
The point is that there are different ways of looking at manliness: in one view, manliness is what differentiates men from women; in another, it’s what separates a grownup (who identifies as a man) from a child. It’s adulthood, performed by a male-type person. In the first view, the manly thing to do if you find yourself in my position is not to braid your daughter’s hair, because that’s not what men do. In the second, the manly thing is to do it, because you’re a grownup responsible for a little girl, and this one little thing will make her day better. You can do it, so you should.
In case it’s not clear, I hold the second position. It seems to me a more valuable understanding of manhood, the one that makes manliness actually matter. More importantly, it doesn’t block manliness off from any part of goodness — like being nurturing or cooperative, which are characteristics useful in any grownup. Instead, it makes manliness synonymous with goodness, with doing the right thing.
Think of the ways we talk about manliness: as making necessary sacrifices for those who depend on us, doing what needs to be done, choosing the ugly truth over the pretty lie. Leaving behind the comfortable, taking risks when they’re needed. In all of those definitions, we’re still just talking about being good, brave, responsible. And if that’s what we mean by manliness, then we have to acknowledge the fact that women are now — and always have been — as good at it as men are. Which, in turn, means that men can, and ought to, learn manliness from women.
This idea, that men can learn how to be from women, hits right at a number of controversies related to religion and the contemporary world. You might remember, for example, Cardinal Raymond Burke and his comments on the “feminization” of the Catholic Church. Those comments only make sense if you hold the first view of manliness. Because if you hold the second, the “feminization” of the church doesn’t matter. After all, no one (not even Cardinal Burke) is saying that girl altar servers or women readers or any women helping at church are less devout, less disciplined, less faithful, less willing to sacrifice than men or boys (“The girls were also very good at altar service,” says Burke, as if that’s proof they need to be excluded). If those are the virtues the Church is supposed to be teaching, and if men are refusing to learn those virtues because they’re being taught by women or girls, then — as Michael Boyle points out — those men need to grow up. Or, to put it more plainly, they need to man up.
Speaking of learning from women, a few months ago, a “manliness” website called the Art of Manliness posted the commencement address Adm. William McRaven gave last May at my school, the University of Texas. It’s a great speech: in it, McRaven takes 10 things he learned at SEAL training and generalizes them into life lessons. Like: “don’t back down from the sharks,” and “measure a person by the size of their heart, not the size of their flippers.” And the lesson that gives the speech its title: “If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.” McRaven said:
If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another.
By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter.
If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.
That’s absolutely right. But as much as I liked the speech — and I really, really liked it — these days I need something more. I mean, I know I should make my bed, and I do. But that doesn’t get me one page closer to finished with my dissertation. It doesn’t get me job interviews or help me speak with ease and confidence when I do get those interviews. In fact, making my bed (like doing the dishes and mowing the lawn) is one of my ways of procrastinating, of making myself feel productive without doing the stuff I need to. Making my bed has become, for me, a marked card.
“Marked card,” you may already know, is a reference to an essay that gives me something McRaven’s speech doesn’t. I keep a copy of this other essay printed out in my desk drawer, my go-to pep talk: it’s Joan Didion’s “On Self-Respect.” In that piece, Didion writes:
The tricks that work on others count for nothing in that very well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself: no winning smiles will do here, no prettily drawn lists of good intentions. One shuffles flashily but in vain through one’s marked cards — the kindness done for the wrong reason, the apparent triumph which involved no real effort, the seemingly heroic act into which one had been shamed.
Maybe pep talk is the wrong word. More of a stern talking-to.
A high point of the essay comes in this passage near the end:
In a diary kept during the winter of 1846, an emigrating twelve-year-old named Narcissa Cornwall noted coolly: ‘Father was busy reading and did not notice that the house was being filled with strange Indians until Mother spoke about it.’ Even lacking any clue as to what Mother said, one can scarcely fail to be impressed by the entire incident: the father reading, the Indians filing in, the mother choosing the words that would not alarm, the child duly recording the event and noting further that those particular Indians were not, ‘fortunately for us,’ hostile. Indians were simply part of the donnée.
From that, she distills the essence of what she calls self-respect:
In one guise or another, Indians always are. Again, it is a question of recognizing that anything worth having has its price. People who respect themselves are willing to accept the risk that the Indians will be hostile, that the venture will go bankrupt, that the liaison may not turn out to be one in which every day is a holiday because you’re married to me. They are willing to invest something of themselves; they may not play at all, but when they do play, they know the odds.
Like McRaven with his bed-making, Didion extols the virtue of the “small disciplines.” Only, she also writes that “the small disciplines are valuable only insofar as they represent larger ones.” Obviously McRaven gets this, but it’s Didion who really pushes the point. In short, McRaven makes a great cheerleader; more often these days, I need Didion the drill sergeant.
The joke, of course, is that Didion is supposed to be a girly writer, maybe the girliest. Caitlin Flanagan writes that “to really love Joan Didion — to have been blown over by things like the smell of jasmine and the packing list she kept by her suitcase — you have to be female.” And Katie Roiphe says that she has never “walked into the home of a female writer, aspiring, newspaper reporter, or women’s magazine editor and not found, somewhere on the shelves, a row of Joan Didion books.”
Flanagan’s essay actually introduced me to Didion, in particular to “On Keeping a Notebook,” which might still be my favorite piece of hers. When I read Flanagan’s article, I rolled my eyes, and went to the library right away to check out Slouching Towards Bethlehem, just to prove her wrong.
But Flanagan did have a point. She made fun of a male fan who forgot what Didion said she wore in The White Album:
I once watched a hysterically sycophantic male academic ask Didion about her description of what she wore in HaightAshbury so that she could pass with both the straights and the freaks. ‘I’m not good with clothes,’ he admitted, ‘so I don’t remember what it was.’
Not remembering what Joan wore in the Haight (a skirt with a leotard and stockings) is like not remembering what Ahab was trying to kill in Moby-Dick.
I think I got something from her packing list in that essay, but I’ll admit that I don’t get all of the resonances of all Didion’s outfits. It reminds me of the other night, when my wife and I were watching the end of the TV series The Fall. About Gillian Anderson, she said, “Her skin! It’s just so good.”
I don’t think I’ve ever commented on another person’s skin. I don’t think I’ve ever noticed another person’s skin, unless something horrible was going on with it. I realized, when my wife said that, that we were watching the show in entirely different ways. But is that it? Is that the big, essential difference between men and women? I have an endless memory for football games, and she notices other people’s skin and the hems of their skirts?
Of course it’s not — as even Flanagan would admit, there are men who notice skin and skirt hems and women who are oblivious to them. But even if so, what does it matter? What does it matter next to “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not?”
I found a counterpoint to Flanagan’s essay in a 2007 post from author “Jessica” at Jezebel. Jessica insists that men like me who love Didion do so because we can read her without (in her words) feeling like pussies. She picks up on what could easily be called a vein of masculinity that runs through all of Didion’s work.
Look again at “On Self-Respect.” The whole essay is an act of gender-bending. Didion rejects the role of Cathy from Wuthering Heights, and of Francesca da Rimini. Instead, she compares herself to Raskolnikov and says she wants to be more like Rhett Butler. She puts Jordan Baker’s manhood up against Julian English’s: Jordan wins. And then there are the references to the Wild West, to Waterloo and the playing fields of Eton, and to Chinese Gordon holding Khartoum against the Mahdi.
(By the way, I had to look up Chinese Gordon and the Mahdi. I think that should go on the record if we’re going to make something out of me not knowing about crepe-de-Chine wrappers.)
Besides Didion’s subject matter (wildfires, John Wayne), Jessica zooms in on what she calls Didion’s “glacial emotional distance.” Coolness, hardness, distance: these are characteristics that show up regularly in writing about Didion’s writing. Here’s Roiphe:
There is in her delicate, urban, neurotic sensibility something of the hardy pioneer ancestors she describes, jettisoning rosewood chests in the crossing, burying the dead on the wagon trail, never looking back. At one point she quotes another child of California, Patty Hearst, saying, ‘Never examine your feelings — they’re no help at all.’
“She is, in the end,” writes Roiphe, “a writer of enormous reserve.”
The point is, Didion herself is — or acts like — one of the gender outliers Flanagan glosses over in her profile. Even Flanagan gets around to this, near the end of her piece — except that rather than writing about the masculine (the cool, the hard, the distant) in Didion’s prose, Flanagan finds it in her parenting, which makes the passage pretty tough reading. Focusing on the early death of Didion’s daughter Quintana, Flanagan writes:
Both of Quintana’s parents worked constantly, left her alone with a variety of sitters — two teenage boys who happened to live next door, a woman who ‘saw death’ in Joan Didion’s aura, whatever hotel sitter was on duty — and they left her alone in Los Angeles many, many times when they were working. The Christmas Quintana was 3, Didion planned to make crèches and pomegranate jelly with her, but then got a picture in New York and decided she’d rather do that, leaving her child home. (She was there because the movie was ‘precisely what I want to be doing,’ Didion wrote defiantly, although she admitted that it was difficult for her to look into the windows of FAO Schwarz.) She balanced ill health and short deadlines by drinking gin and hot water to blunt the pain and taking Dexedrine to blunt the gin, which makes for some ravishing reading, but is hardly a prescription for attentive parenting. Where was Quintana when Didion was living at the Faculty Club, or finishing her novels at her parents’ house, or bunking down in the Haight? Not with her mother.
If you’ve read Flanagan before, you know that this is, for her, a gendered charge. In fairness, she also chides Quintana’s father, John Gregory Dunne, for his parenting. But that “Not with her mother” mirrors the close of Laurie Abraham’s 2006 profile of Flanagan. Abraham begins by saying that she confessed, on entering Flanagan’s home, that she was feeling a bit guilty about being there because, back home in New York, her children’s gerbil had died and she thought they might need consoling. Then, at the end of her piece, Abraham writes:
Midway through the interview in her home, I say that I noticed she removed the most searing line from her revised ‘Serfdom’ essay: ‘When a mother works, something is lost.’ So, I ask her, do you stand by that line? ‘Yeah,’ Flanagan says, her voice now soft, serious. ‘The gerbil’s dead, and you’re here.’
So Flanagan isn’t criticizing Didion as a person — she’s criticizing her as a woman. Distance, coolness, and hardness might be okay in a father (think of Cardinal Burke’s comments on fatherhood), but they’re unforgivable in a mother.
But while both Roiphe and Flanagan write of Didion’s hardness as a flaw (an artistic flaw for Roiphe, a moral flaw for Flanagan), I wonder how much of her popularity has to do with precisely that, and with all of the ways that she diverges from the stereotypical female script. In other words, I wonder if her popularity isn’t just about the clothes and the interior design, but also about the war references; not just about the flowers in her hair, but also about the Stingray. Didion’s popularity might just be a perfect illustration of British writer VJW Smith’s observation that “the experience that girls share is not so much that of being a girl but that of not being one.”
If you want to talk Didion and gender, you could turn to her profile of John Wayne, or to her send-up of early-1970s feminists in “The Women’s Movement.” But more interesting, I think, is her profile of Georgia O’Keeffe.
Like Didion, O’Keeffe is a sort of icon of smart femininity — the same girls who have Didion on their bookshelves may have had, at some point, O’Keeffe prints hanging on their walls. (Full disclosure: when I met my wife, in college, her room was decorated with small versions of O’Keeffe’s flowers, cut from a calendar that had been a high school graduation present.)
In Didion’s profile, O’Keeffe has self-respect, having been “equipped early with an immutable sense of who she was and a fairly clear understanding that she would be required to prove it.” Didion describes her as hard, as astonishingly aggressive, a child of the prairie, a “straight shooter.” When she observes something, she does it “coolly;” when her paintings are exhibited in Chicago, she “was a hard woman who had imposed her 192 square feet of clouds on Chicago.”
Didion also calls her a guerilla in the war between the sexes. For some writers, “the war between the sexes” could mean a clash of masculine and feminine cosmovisions, the natural result of Mars meeting Venus. But that’s not how Didion uses the phrase. For Didion, O’Keeffe’s struggle comes from the fact that her femininity blinds the men around her to the ways that she’s like them. Or, more accurately, to the ways that she’s better than them. Because in Didion’s profile, O’Keeffe out-mans the men:
‘The men’ believed it impossible to paint New York, so Georgia O’Keeffe painted New York. ‘The men’ didn’t think much of her bright color, so she made it brighter. The men yearned toward Europe so she went to Texas, and then to New Mexico. The men talked about Cézanne, ‘long involved remarks about the “plastic quality” of his form and color,’ and took one another’s long involved remarks, in the view of this angelic rattlesnake in their midst, altogether too seriously.
My favorite passage, though, comes at the end of the piece:
In Texas she had her sister Claudia with her for a while, and in the late afternoons they would walk away from town and toward the horizon and watch the evening star come out. ‘That evening star fascinated me,’ she wrote. ‘It was in some way very exciting to me. My sister had a gun, and as we walked she would throw bottles into the air and shoot as many as she could before they hit the ground. I had nothing but to walk into nowhere and the wide sunset space with the star. Ten watercolors were made from that star.’ In a way one’s interest is compelled as much by the sister Claudia with the gun as by the painter Georgia with the star, but only the painter left us this shining record. Ten watercolors were made from that star.
I may not get everything about the leotard and the stockings. But going silent as the stars come out over the Texas prairie? That I get.
I want to make clear, though, that I’m not just saying that I’m drawn to some masculine energy I see in Didion’s writing. Even if I (still) disagree with Flanagan, I also think something’s missing from the Jezebel article, too. When I re-read “On Keeping a Notebook,” I remember that, despite all the talk of pioneers and shooting bottles out of the sky, my stake, like Flanagan’s, is with the girl in the plaid silk dress at the end of the bar. That’s either despite or (more likely) because of the fact that I can’t know exactly what it’s like to be her.
And I can’t know that for lots of reasons. But that doesn’t mean I can’t relate to her, and if I can relate to her, I can learn from her. Didion starts Slouching Towards Bethlehem with a quote from Peggy Lee: “I learned courage from Buddha, Jesus, Lincoln, Einstein, and Cary Grant.” Whatever her personal failings — and we all have them — that’s what so much of Didion’s writing is about: courage. And whatever our differences, that’s why we listen to, study, and read each other. To learn. And, to steal a phrase from her piece on John Wayne, Didion makes great reading if you want to learn about doing what a man’s gotta do.
It’s a single line of dialog in Ernest Hemingway’s classic story, “Hills Like White Elephants,” but that one line, 11 words, has had an outsized influence on the course of literary titling. It’s spoken by the female character, Jig, as she waits for a train in Zaragosa with her unnamed American man. In the train station they begin drinking, first cervezas then anisette, and soon conduct a suppressed dispute about whether or not to end a pregnancy. Tensions mount, differences are exposed, and with that, Jig utters the legendary line. It’s a breaking point that is as much textual as emotional: “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?”
Hemingway couldn’t have known the legacy that line would have — or maybe he did, he famously sought “a prose that had never been written.” When the story was published in 1927, the line broke open a new way characters talked on the page. Exactly four decades later, that groundbreaking colloquy resurfaced as a stylistic approach to the contemporary American literary title. Raymond Carver’s story, “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” published in 1967 (the titular collection appeared in 1976), echoed Hemingway’s line, and in turn spawned a subgenre of titling in the vernacular style.
What I’ve come to think of as the colloquial title rejects literary tone for the purely voice-driven. Colloquial titles can be wordy, even prolix, and often make use of a purposefully curious yet catchy syntax. The colloquial title is based in common parlance, but also draws on aphorism, the stock phrase, and familiar expressions. For a more elevated voice-driven title, look to the literary/biblical allusion, the colloquial title’s highborn cousin. With exemplars like As I Lay Dying and Slouching Toward Bethlehem, the allusion-based title has undisputed gravitas, and frankly, when it comes to authoritative tone, is hard to beat. Think of The Violent Bear It Away and A River Runs Through It.
And yet, ordinary language is equally capable of authority. Like any compelling title, those based in the vernacular can deftly portray a sense of foreboding, loss, or lack. Plus, when ordinary language is placed in a literary context, meaning can shift and complicate, taking shades of tone it might not otherwise. It might even be said that, unlike the conventional variety, the colloquial title is captivating even when its message is trouble-free.
There is a certain power in hearing phrases we know and may have used ourselves. When a title speaks to us in everyday language, it’s not so different from any voice aiming to get our attention. I read a colloquial title and hear a speaker with an urgent message. Maybe like Jig’s, its phrasing is odd, idiosyncratic. Or, where one speaker might as easily equivocate, another may cut in, or confess. Or be presumptuous and opinionated. Whatever the persona, the colloquial title leans in close and says I’m talking to you, and I listen, eager to know what lies beyond that strangely familiar voice.
Here then is a sampling of colloquial titles, culled from eight decades of classic and contemporary literature.
1. Classics of the Form
An early example of the colloquial impulse is Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses Don’t They? (1935). The title of this Depression-era portrait adopts ironic tone to reference the period’s human desolation and the suffering of its characters.
William Gass’s collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968) uses the power of repetition to suggest a journey to the deeper realms of character and place. The recursive device proved influential, as demonstrated by more than a few of the examples that follow here.
Leonard Michaels’s I Would Have Saved Them If I Could (1975) is an exemplar of the colloquial approach. The title seamlessly integrates the prose style of the collection and its mood of uncertainty and pathos.
Charles Bukowski’s You Get So Alone at Times That It Just Makes Sense (1986). Bukowski’s style pays a debt to the Hemingway prose style, to the confessional tone of the Beat Poets, and, to this reader’s ear, the personalized truth-telling of the ’60s.
David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997). The distinct SoCal syntax and wry tone make this title a classic of the colloquial style.
2. The Aphoristic Vein
Common phrases and well-worn adages make ideal colloquial titles. Somehow, in a title, platitudes and cliché never feel stale, but spark irony and double-meaning.
Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find (1955). The title is drawn from a popular idiom of its day, and the homespun tone runs against the grain of the titular story’s mystical, violent drama.
William Maxwell’s novella So Long See You Tomorrow (1979) and Elizabeth McCracken’s collection Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry (1993). Both operate on the familiarity of common parlance (and what might be called the gravity of goodbye), not to mention direct address: we read “you” and feel at once a stand-in for the addressee.
Jean Thompson’s collection Who Do You Love (1999). While a good number of colloquial titles take the form of a question, Thompson’s intentionally drops its question mark. The lyric from the Bo Diddley song is used without its original punctuation, shifting the phrase to an assertion, a stark refrain that echoes throughout the collection.
Amy Bloom’s collection A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You (2000). Here, aphorism meets avowal and reflects the fierce attachments that occupy Bloom’s stories of youth, aging, loss, and hope.
Adam Haslett’s collection You Are Not a Stranger Here (2002). Another appropriation of dialog. Here, the outsider tone is a salutation that is both welcoming and sorrowful, and likewise defines the collection.
3. Matters of Opinion
This colloquial vein might be called the idiosyncratic declarative, a variety of title distinguished by off-kilter observation, unconventional syntax, and the frequent use of personal pronouns:
In this category, Raymond Carver alone spawns a near-genre of declarative titling. The story collections Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (1976) and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981) and the poetry collection Where Water Comes Together With Other Water (1985), are seminal in their approach. Crucial to the effect is the nonliterary usage, as is repetition. Notable too is the tone of candor, rather than irony.
Lorrie Moore’s story “Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People,” from Birds of America (1998) reframes the declarative title as an ironic aside. Likewise, Moore’s formative “People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk,” takes the conversational into a uniquely personal lexicon.
William Gay’s I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down (2002), is defined by a plaintive tone and suggestion of intimate disclosure.
Robin Black’s collection If I Loved You I Would Tell You This (2010) is a prime example of a declarative with an artfully placed hanging pronoun.
Richard Ford’s Let Me Be Frank With You (2014). In the latest installment of the Frank Bascombe saga, an old adage takes the form of wordplay.
Finally, not to be overlooked in this category, Nathan Englander’s collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (2013), a riff on Carver’s iconic title.
4. Be Forewarned
Everyday language can spawn titles of a more unusual sort, whether instructional, cautionary, or sometimes surreal. The style often has a portentous tone, and interestingly, makes frequent use of the first person plural.
Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End (2007). This pronouncement marks many endings within the novel — of a century, a booming economy, a job, a relationship.
Ramona Ausubel’s No One is Here Except All of Us (2012). Here, the title is foreboding, an augur that taps into the novel’s speculative, catastrophic history.
Adrianne Harun’s A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain (2013). Colloquy here takes on a solemn and surreal turn, setting the tone for a tale of tragic disappearances.
Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves (2014). The title is a literary allusion (from King Lear), referencing the novel’s characters who, as Thomas has said, “by dint of circumstances are not allowed to be themselves.” Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2013), contains a voice-driven prologue that begins, “Those who know me now will be surprised to learn I was a great talker as a child.” It’s a perfect opening to a novel with a colloquial title that, in typical style, doesn’t hold back.
John Steinbeck found Of Mice and Men in a poem by Robert Burns; Joan Didion came across Slouching Towards Bethlehem in one by William Butler Yeats. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was scrawled in the bathroom stall of a Greenwich Village saloon, which Edward Albee entered in 1954. Many of Raymond Carver’s titles were changed by his longtime editor, Gordon Lish — for better (“Beginners” became “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”) or worse (“Are These Actual Miles?” was replaced by the vague and perplexing “What Is It?”). F. Scott Fitzgerald first titled his most famous work Trimalchio in West Egg. Though eventually persuaded that The Great Gatsby was less obscure, easier to pronounce, and much preferred by his wife, Zelda, Fitzgerald maintained that the final choice was “only fair, rather bad than good.”
In lieu of a fateful bathroom visit or an assertive editor, how do authors find their titles? Many plumb the work of Shakespeare (Edith Wharton’s The Glimpses of the Moon and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, as well as a number of titles by Agatha Christie, were all inspired by the Bard); others, religious or not, turn to the old poetry of the Bible. Still more scour their own manuscripts in search of a string of words that might capture the novel’s spirit. And some, like Alice Munro — whose latest title, Dear Life, was taken from a phrase she heard as a child — find that the perfect moniker was in them all along. Still, the process of titling remains individualized and mysterious: methods range from intuition to reason, from revelation to painful labor. Here, five contemporary authors tell us about theirs.
Marie-Helene Bertino, author of 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas:
I knew my debut novel’s title would finish with the clause The Cat’s Pajamas, however I heard the beginning of the phrase only as a rhythm. It sounded like: Something something something The Cat’s Pajamas. When I realized the missing phrase included “2 a.m.” (the time bars close in Philadelphia, where the novel is set), it prompted me to clarify the 24-hour nature of the novel and use hours of the day instead of chapter headings. Then, all I had to do was figure out what happened at that fateful hour. For weeks, this question rotated in my subconscious as I conducted the errands of my life: what happens at 2 a.m.? WHAT HAPPENS AT 2 A.M.? Whatever it was had to synthesize what up until then are disparate story lines while staying true to my desire to keep the stakes realistic. I ticked through all the possible tricks: murder, mass suicide, alien invasion, but knew the answer would be somewhere in subtle middle distance, harder to write, but closer to the way I’ve found life actually works. One of the unexplainable mysteries of writing fiction is that I normally begin already knowing the title and last line. I can’t explain why. It’s a mystery. The stories for which I don’t already know these elements take longer. Perhaps because something hasn’t quite distilled, and my conception is still a piece of sand, battling a shell to turn itself into a pearl.
Ted Thompson, author of The Land of Steady Habits:
When it was finally time to submit my novel to publishers, I had no title. I sat for a full day in utter paralysis, staring at the title page, my cursor blinking in 24-point font. I would type whatever came to mind, most of it nonsense, just to see how it looked, and it all looked ridiculous. I had spent the previous week taking long walks and speaking aloud every term that came into my mind when I thought of the manuscript, an embarrassing voice recording of my attempts to seem smart. I went to Shakespeare — King Lear! I thought, there are some similarities, aren’t there? Old guys, unraveling families. Never mind the fact that I had never really understood that play, not really, and didn’t then when I skimmed it looking for my answer. Finally, I wrote my friend Stuart, who was one of the only writers I knew who didn’t overthink things. He wrote back a few minutes later with a list of trivia about Connecticut. Facts and data, all surface details. Stuff that seemed hopelessly superficial. But there, at the bottom, under a list of nicknames was “the land of steady habits.” And that was that.
Some titles come at me, wham, even before the story. I wrote the story “Welcome to Your Life and Congratulations” after that sentence somehow appeared in my brain, having no idea what the story would be about. Other titles are fought for. For a good while, my first novel was titled The Constellation Makers, which is not a good title at all (I knew that, fortunately). I had a long list of titles but I can’t remember the others because once I thought of No One is Here Except All of Us (which I took from a sentence in the book), I knew it was right and it never changed. However, I assumed that if I was ever lucky enough to get the thing published, surely the publisher would nix my long, complicated title. I assumed they would want something snappy (and that I’d hate it). This is not at all what happened and I was so glad that I had gone for the thing I wanted instead of guessing at the desires of the industry—turns out uniqueness, at least in this case, was an asset. Whatever the journey to a title, whether based on list-making and brainstorming and bouts with Thesaurus.com or one of those beautiful revelatory moments, I know the right title by instinct more than reason.
I titled my short story collection, Brief Encounters With the Enemy after one of the stories, A Brief Encounter With the Enemy. I know this may appear like an uninspired choice—indeed, it took me about one minute to come up with it—but I intended some subtlety behind it. For one thing, pluralizing the title helped to thematically link the eight stories, but more important is that it raised the question: who exactly is this enemy we keep encountering, and why? I’ll leave that up to each reader to decide.
Matthew Thomas, author of We Are Not Ourselves:
I had been working with another title, The Real Estate of Edmund Leary, which I liked for the double-duty “real” was doing, but I didn’t prefer to include the name of a character in the title, particularly when the book was more explicitly Eileen’s than it was Ed’s. While re-reading Lear in preparation to teach it, I came to the line in Act 2, Scene 4, where Lear is wondering why Cornwall won’t appear, even though he’s been ordered to. To explain away the offense to his ego, Lear says, “Infirmity doth still neglect all office/Whereto our health is bound”—i.e., sickness prevents us from doing the duties we’re required to do when healthy. The next line elaborates on this theme: “We are not ourselves/when nature, being oppressed, commands the mind/to suffer with the body.” Lear justifies Cornwall’s flouting of his authority by appealing to the universal experience of being beholden to our bodies: when the body isn’t working, the mind doesn’t work perfectly either. I found rich resonance in the idea of locating both the mind and the body in Lear’s formulation in the brain, so that the body that isn’t working is the mind, in fact — and then positing the mind in Lear’s formulation as what we think of as the spirit, the soul, the personality. When the brain isn’t working at its optimal best — when there’s an obstruction of function through illness, or a fixation or obsession that springs from traumatic early childhood experiences — the animating spirit of the person, what we think of as personality, is impaired as well.
The phrase struck me immediately as being at the heart of my concerns in the book. We Are Not Ourselves suggests characters who are not at their best, who by dint of circumstances are not allowed to be themselves. It also suggests that we’re always learning and evolving, that we’re works-in-progress. We are not ourselves yet, in a sense; there’s hope in that. In a different vein, we are not reducible to whom we appear to be in our biographies. We contain multitudes in our rich internal lives that our lived lives don’t reveal. Another resonance for me is that we need each other to experience the full flowering of our humanity and our greatest happiness. We are not only ourselves; we are not islands unto ourselves. I liked that the phrase opened up fields of interpretation that would extend beyond the more circumscribed concerns of my original title, so I grabbed it and didn’t look back. As soon as I knew it was the title, it was as if it had been the title all along.
Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name.
Even before it became officially so in the United States, April has long been the poet’s month. “April” (or “Aprill”) is the third word of one of the first great poems in the English language, The Canterbury Tales, and the first word in The Waste Land, which does its best to feel like the last great English poem. April — “spungy,” “proud-pied,” and “well-apparel’d” April — is also the most-mentioned month in Shakespeare, along with its springtime neighbor May, and it has given a poetic subject to Dickinson, Larkin, Plath, Glück, and countless others. Why? Do we like its promise of rebirth, its green and messy fecundity? Its hopefulness is easy to celebrate — and easy to cruelly undercut, if you’re T.S. Eliot rooting his lilies in the wasteland of death.
Eliot wasn’t the only one a little tired of the ease of April’s imagery. In 1936 Tennessee Williams received a note from a poetic acquaintance, a high school student named Mary Louise Lange who had recently won “third honorable mention” in a local literary contest. “Yes, I think April is a fine month to write poetry,” she mused. “All the little spear-points of green pricking up, all the little beginnings of new poetic thoughts, all the shafts of thoughts that will grow to future loveliness.” A few days later, Williams, oppressed by the springtime St. Louis heat, despairing of his own youthful literary prospects, and perhaps distracted by all those “spear-points” and “shafts,” confessed to his diary that he was bored and lonely enough to consider calling on her: “Maybe I’ll visit that little girl poet but her latest letter sounded a little trite and affectatious — ‘little spear points of green’ — It might be impossible.”
In our man-made calendars we often celebrate Easter and baseball’s Opening Day this month, but the April date most prominent in our lives now is April 15, the American tax day since 1955. Lincoln, who died on that day, had Whitman to mourn him, but Tax Day found few literary chroniclers until David Foster Wallace’s last, unfinished novel, The Pale King, which turns the traditional, eternal rhythm of the seasons into the flat, mechanical repetition of bureaucratic boredom. In the IRS’s Peoria Regional Examination Center where Wallace’s characters toil, the year has no natural center, just a deadline imposed by federal fiat and a daily in-box of Sisyphean tasks, a calendar that in its very featureless tedium provides at least the opportunity to test the human capacity for endurance and even quiet heroism.
Here is a selection of recommended April reading, heavy on birth, death, and rebirth, and a little boredom:
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (late 14th century)
When you feel the tender shoots and buds of April quickening again, set out in the company of Chaucer’s nine and 20 very worldly devouts, in what has always been the most bawdily approachable of English literature’s founding classics.
The Confidence-Man by Herman Melville (1857)
It’s no coincidence that the steamboat in Melville’s great, late novel begins its journey down the Mississippi on April Fool’s Day: The Confidence-Man is the darkest vision of foolishness and imposture — and one of the funniest extended jokes — in American literature.
“When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d” by Walt Whitman (1865) and The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot (1922)
Whitman’s elegy, composed soon after Lincoln’s murder and the end of the Civil War, heaps bouquets onto his coffin, and a livelier, more joyful vision of death you’re not likely to find. You certainly won’t in The Waste Land, written after a war equally bloody and seemingly barren of everything but allusions (to Whitman’s funeral lilacs among many others).
On the Road: The Original Scroll by Jack Kerouac (1951)
The legend of On the Road’s frenzied composition is partly true: Kerouac worked on the novel for years, but he really did type a complete, 125,000-word draft on a 120-foot roll of paper in three frenzied weeks in April 1951, a version finally published in 2007.
“Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King (1963) and At Canaan’s Edge by Taylor Branch (2006)
April is both the month that King, jailed in Alabama in 1963, scribbled in the margins of newspapers an open letter to the white moderates of Birmingham who counseled patience toward segregation, and the month of his murder in Memphis five years later, a scene whose seven solemn pages close the final volume of Taylor Branch’s 3,000-page trilogy, America in the King Years.
Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey (1968)
Outfitted with trailer, truck, ranger shirt, tin badge, and 500 gallons of water, Abbey began his first workday, April 1, watching the sun rise over the canyonlands of Arches National Monument, the first moment recorded in this cantankerous appreciation of the wild inhumanity of nature.
Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion
In the “cold late spring of 1967,” Didion took her notebook and her eye for entropy to meet some of the young people gathering in San Francisco, where she diagnosed the end of the Summer of Love before it had even begun.
Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
April in Erdrich’s North Dakota is cold enough for the sudden blizzard that opens Love Medicine and buries June Kashpaw, who had stepped out into the snow in search of a man who could be different from all the rest.
The Sportswriter by Richard Ford (1986)
Beginning with a Good Friday reunion with his ex-wife on the anniversary of their son’s death, Ford’s indelible ex-sportswriter Frank Bascombe reckons with balancing the small, heart-lifting pleasures of everydayness with the possibilities of disappointment and tragedy that gape underneath them.
The Age of Grief by Jane Smiley (1987)
Smiley’s early novella is still her masterpiece, a story of a family laid out by flu and a young marriage struggling to survive the end of its springtime that’s as close to an American version of “The Dead” as anyone has written.
My Garden (Book) by Jamaica Kincaid (1999)
“How vexed I often am when I am in the garden, and how happy I am to be so vexed.” Midway through life, Kincaid started planting in her yard in most “ungardenlike” ways, and her garden book is willful and lovely, made of notes in which she cultivates her hatreds as passionately as her affections.
The Likeness by Tana French (2008)
Ireland’s French crafted an intrigue with equal elements of the Troubles and The Secret History in her second novel, in which Detective Cassie Maddox is seduced by the mid-April murder of a student who had been playing with an identity disturbingly close to her own.
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace (2011)
Don’t expect a novel when you open up The Pale King, culled from manuscripts Wallace left behind at his suicide. Read it as a series of experiments in growing human stories out of the dry soil of bureaucratic tedium, and marvel when real life, out of this wasteland, suddenly breaks through.
Image Credit: Flickr/Roger Sadler
In a recent Bookforum essay, Natasha Vargas-Cooper argues that we should stop teaching novels to teenagers because she hated reading novels as a teenager. Her first example is The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. It took her a decade to understand Jake Barnes’s condition because she, “like most high school sophomores, had no frame of reference to tap into the heady though subtle emotions that course through Hemingway’s novels.” She found Jake and company boring. She was a “hungry” teenager “starving for stimuli,” so “trout fishing in Spain did not cut it.” Hemingway wasn’t the only snore. Add F. Scott Fitzgerald, along with the “damnable Brontë sisters [who] were shoved down my throat.” She traded Bless Me, Ultima for mediums that were more “vital and urgent,” like “movies, musicals, and plays.” Those visual narratives “gave me large and instant rewards for spending time with them.”
The real villains were not stodgy novels, but her public school teachers. “Brutally inept teaching of The Pearl” almost soured her on Steinbeck. Most of her teachers “were as inspiring and provocative as the Great Expectations Word Search they handout out the first day we started Dickens.” Those teachers were “largely well-intentioned adults who don’t have the resources, or sometimes even the intellectual vigor, to make emotional landscapes of the western front, nineteenth-century London, or Pamplona very real to sixteen-year-olds.” In the hands of these insipid instructors, novels weren’t “the best device for transmitting ideas, grand themes, to hormonal, boisterous, easily distracted, immature teenagers.” Her proposed solution: students should read non-fiction.
Her potential reading list includes memoirs, creative non-fiction essays, meditations on language, and journalism. It’s a good list, but the problem is that Vargas-Cooper thinks she’s discovered the groundbreaking secret “to spark a love of reading, engage a young mind, and maybe even teach them how to write in a coherent manner.” Non-educators who write about education often make breathless suggestions that have already been used in the classroom for decades. Many of the writers and works who appear on Vargas-Cooper’s list are commonly taught in high school classrooms, and are suggested as independent reading selections for summer work: David Foster Wallace, Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, George Orwell, Jon Krakauer, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, and others. Here’s a small sample of non-fiction from my own classroom: Wallace’s “Shipping Out,” “The Essay Vanishes” by Ander Monson, “Listening for Silence” by Mark Slouka, “How to Make Collard Greens” by Megan Mayhew Bergman, excerpts from The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr, and essays from Brevity.
Like many sweeping proclamations about high school education by those who have never done the actual work of guiding and caring for a classroom of students, Vargas-Cooper’s essay doesn’t pass scrutiny at the line-level. She wants the same supposedly banal educators she attacks earlier in the essay to now teach Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster” and Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion. She then follows with a confounding sentence tandem: “Maybe the classroom is not the best setting for children to have profound literary experiences. Give the kids something they can relate to, immerse themselves in, and even copy!” I assume this means that teachers should give students non-fiction, but this transfer and experience must not happen within a classroom. Even parodic prose needs clarity.
Although I remain befuddled by her unawareness of high school reading lists, I am not surprised that Vargas-Cooper chose to begin her complaint with Hemingway, a writer often reduced to his myths. The Sun Also Rises is particularly well suited to misreading because of its unreliable, love-drunk narrator, Jake Barnes. Many of my own students have enjoyed Hemingway’s novel. I don’t say all, because no one other than a first-day teacher—or writers of thin commentaries on education—expects all students to enjoy every assignment, or even to read every book. But if Vargas-Cooper is looking for a “thought-provoking excursion into themes of empathy, human responsibility, and folly,” Hemingway delivers. I’m fairly certain that a novel about a man in love with a woman who would rather just be friends might connect with a teenage audience.
Students also enjoy The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene, a literary thriller suffused with theological complexities. An unnamed “whiskey priest” is on the run in 1930s Mexico after a regime based on the real-life governance of Tomás Garrido Canabal has outlawed Catholicism. Priests can either forsake their religion, or die. The whiskey priest chooses faith, but that faith is tempered by pride. He is no exemplary priest; in fact, he is a terrible man. He has abandoned the daughter he fathered out of wedlock. Anyone in his presence is in danger of arrest or execution. Another unnamed character, the lieutenant, considers the whiskey priest a symbol of all that is evil within the Church: gluttony and hypocrisy. The lieutenant wants to eradicate all vestiges of Catholicism, and he will use all means necessary.
I teach at a public school, not a parochial school. Most of my students have a vague cultural knowledge of Catholicism, but they are a world away from the Mexican province of Tabasco. Some students miss the double meaning of “father.” Others don’t understand why the villagers would risk death to receive the sacrament of confession. And others still will not read the book at all, either because of disinterest, or because they are overwhelmed with other classes and commitments. But I do not want to live or teach in a country that asks students to only engage experiences similar to their own. I look to create comfortable dissonance in the classroom. I want my students to recognize that they are geographically and culturally different than the characters in Greene’s novel, and then to consider their shared humanity with these fictional characters. I ask them to do the same with the Bundrens in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, or with Oedipa Maas in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. They spend a season with the brilliant, maniacal football team at Logos College in Don DeLillo’s End Zone. And I pray that they will never know pain equal to the men and women in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, but they benefit from seeing the world through such scarred eyes.
We should continue to teach novels in the high school classroom. Fiction has a home there. But we should stop writing fiction about high school teachers within essays about education. Vargas-Cooper’s ribbing is playful compared to the stereotypes cast by politicians who hope to siphon funding from education. Teachers don’t enter this profession to relax. Teachers are women and men who work themselves exhausted.
Let me be clear: we public school teachers are not martyrs. We get paid for what we do. Whether that pay is acceptable or not is for another discussion. In America, teachers are either seen as angelic or caustic, saviors or sycophants. These stereotypes enable politicians to convince the public to support the latest education fad or slash needed budgets. The reality is we teach because we love to help kids, and we think literature is a way to examine and understand our complex lives. We do our best to help students inhabit the world of novels. The worlds of those texts might be imagined, but the emotions are palpable and authentic. We do real work in public schools. That, I can assure you, is not fiction.
Image credit: Flickr/mujitra.
There is a tangible shape to my year in reading: it can be plotted on a map. It’s comforting for me to think of it that way, as a path arcing out across the Atlantic, because this was my year of big transitions, and it’s easy to lose sight of where I began, and where I am now. I rang in 2013 at a bar on the Gowanus in Brooklyn, my home for the past five years (the borough, not the canal). I’m writing this from my flat in Hackney, tucked between a big, grimy thoroughfare and a slick new Overground station, on the extension of the old East London Line. New York and London sometimes feel like mirror worlds — some things here are remarkably similar to the city I left behind — but other things are deeply foreign, in a way that rattles me. I grasp for the familiar, but I’m here to look for the new. It helps, then, to root myself in the books I’ve been reading over the past 11 months: they have carried me across the ocean, as I have carried them.
Fittingly enough, I began the year with Bloody Foreigners: The Story of Immigration to Britain, by Robert Winder. I have no memory of purchasing this book, but it appears to have been printed here in the U.K., so I imagine I picked it up on some Waterstone’s table years ago. (I’ve done stints of various lengths in the British Isles many times in the past decade, all of them characterized by too many impulse-book-buys relative to the sizes of my suitcases.) I’m an aspirational reader when it comes to nonfiction: “Oh, I’m interested in the topic!” I’ll say, super enthusiastically, but in the end I’ll barely manage to slog through the introduction. But Winder is a lively and charming writer, and the book teases out a thread that runs contrary to the popular immigration narrative in Britain: that immigration here, and the racial conflict tied with it, is a modern problem, a post-colonial problem. “Ever since the first Jute, the first Saxon, the first Roman and the first Dane leaped off their boats and planted their feet on British mud, we have been a mongrel nation,” he writes. “Our roots are neither clean nor straight; they are impossibly tangled.”
My spring reading was routine, a stockpile of books for review, some chosen by me, some assigned. So I crisscrossed the globe seemingly at random, cartography determined by publishing schedules and press releases, South Asia to southern New England, Ireland to New York. I like being assigned books, because it takes the pressure off, sometimes: save a few writers that I love and a few that I hate, most authors are new to me. I try to approach each book as an aggressively neutral third party, no preconceived notions, no agendas, no hopes for the reading experience. Of course, at some level, this is bullshit: I am all of my preconceived notions and agendas and hopes for reading packed into a single individual, and it’s impossible to separate that out. But I like the illusion of it, however temporary: the idea that I am a blank slate, open to whatever book drops through my letter box, is a sort of armor against time’s narrowing effects on my mind.
And then, it was goodbye to all that. Before the release of the collection that seemed to get all sorts of people riled up (Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York), I wrote my own ode to Joan Didion’s leaving-New York essay, as I prepared to leave New York. So I re-read Slouching Towards Bethlehem, because, well, Joan Didion. Shortly before I packed up the last of my boxes, I flew across the country to visit my little sister in Los Angeles, and I cracked open The White Album for another Didion re-read while sitting on the beach in Santa Monica. I confirmed what I’d suspected all along — I’m very bad at reading on beaches — and the book was abandoned in the sand as my shoulders burned.
The end of summer was crisp and prematurely autumnal in upstate New York, and as the racing season came to a close, I started to think about which books were making the journey overseas. I made little piles; I swapped out heavier volumes for lighter ones; I tried to think about what I wanted at my side, and the old aspirational book-gathering again — what sort of person would I be, with these books on my shelf across the ocean? I wound up in the parking lot at JFK on the hottest day in the history of man, sweating profusely as I frantically pulled out paperbacks and handed them to my mother. They would arrive, along with boots and coats and a blanket, in a battered package a month later. By then, I’d already purchased a dozen new books, falling hard on old habits, Waugh and Forster and Conan Doyle, overlarge collections of literary criticism by Edward Said and David Lodge, and a paperback of a book I already own back in the U.S., just because it was £2 and it was there sitting on a table at the store. I trekked up to the IKEA in Tottenham and bought a BILLY bookcase; I proceeded to assemble it incorrectly. It’s nearly full already, and it’s only November. At the Columbia Road Flower Market a few Sundays back I bought my first plant, to sit on top. “It’s my first plant!” I announced to a deeply unimpressed Cockney flower-seller. “Yeah, so that’s a fiver,” he repeated, holding out his hand.
I’ve ended the year with books for class — I’m here at University College London to study the digital humanities, so that’s a broad and varied body of literature, the history of mark-up and theories on user-centered design and Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. All of that will be the story of next year’s reading. For now, I’m trying to navigate my transatlanticism as well as I can. On Thanksgiving, after the American service at St Paul’s Cathedral, I walked down Fleet Street and over to Charing Cross Road, where I popped into Foyle’s and picked up Terry Eagleton’s Across the Pond: An Englishman’s View of America. On my way out the door I was stopped by a survey-taker — this country seems gripped by a frenzy of surveys right now — to whom I revealed, laughing self-consciously, that I’d come into the store and purchased the book on a whim. Her eyebrows went up when I said it, and she smiled slightly as she ticked the boxes. I didn’t tell her I had a new bookshelf to fill up.
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“Goodbye to All That,” Joan Didion’s essay about coming to the end of being young and in thrall to New York, is an invincible piece of writing. Didion was in her early 30s in 1967, when she wrote the essay that would become part of her celebrated book Slouching Toward Bethlehem. Now she’s 78, and has become just as renowned for writing about the devastations and indignities of old age. But “Goodbye to All That” endures, as a classic of its genre and a guide to a particular time in a certain kind of life.
Didion moved to New York as a starry-eyed 20 year old — “was anyone ever that young? I am here to tell you that someone was” — and spent eight years in love with the city before her enchantment was replaced by exhaustion and despair. By the time she turned 28, she writes, “I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it.”
In the years between her arrival at the bus station in a smart new dress and her departure for Los Angeles, Didion stayed out all night and went to lots of parties and was struck by her share of indelible moments. She met everyone there was to meet and skulked around her under-furnished apartment, whose windows she had hung (foolishly, and therefore glamorously) with “fifty yards of yellow theatrical silk.” The longer she stayed, though, the more depressed and impatient she got. None of it felt worthwhile, except as material for the deeply romantic cautionary tale that became “Goodbye to All That.”
Some might find the essay discouraging, but plenty of young writers read it as an enticement, or at least a challenge. After all, in describing New York as a place of heightened senses and jagged emotions, Didion had described tantalizing working conditions for a writer. In Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, an anthology edited by Sari Botton that’s explicitly inspired by its namesake essay, 28 writers consider their own experiences in the shadow of Didion’s, with her “Goodbye” as their guide. These writers — including Cheryl Strayed, Ann Hood, Dani Shapiro, Maggie Estep, and Millions staff writer Emily St. John Mandel — bring a decidedly contemporary world-weariness to their reflections on what can’t help but be a pretty tired subject. If living in New York is an established rite of passage, this collection suggests that the act of leaving it behind is an equally important milestone.
As laid out by Didion and the anthology’s contributors, it happens like this: First there’s anticipation, imagining how your life will finally make sense when you arrive. The actual experience of living here is one of finding your place, followed by an intense feeling of ownership. You can stay at that point for years. But eventually, sometimes without knowing it, you begin the slow slide toward a moment of decisiveness. Sometime after that, there’s the actual leaving. And then, the having left. Living in New York turns out to be a process of earning nostalgia — hoarding enough memories to give you the kind of claim on a place that makes it possible to leave it. When you reach your limit and set out elsewhere, memories are your consolation prize. (Bonus points for writing about them.)
If you’re tired of hearing about how New York is the center of the universe, you’re not alone. Even those of us who live here and love it get annoyed at the relentless fascination with the city, the way people project so much onto it and then feel betrayed when it doesn’t live up to their expectations. (Emma Straub, who grew up here, captures this tension nicely in her essay, writing, “because my hometown is New York City, everyone else thinks it belongs to them, too.”) But even in basic ways, the city is still special enough to justify the fixation. It’s concentrated. It’s diverse. It’s where a lot of important things have happened and influential people have lived, and so it is full of history and legend. It’s a place of ideals, “where anything is possible.” And yet it’s also a place of limits, one people leave when their desire for more space or stability — or very often, a family — begins to clash with reality.
It’s not clear how much it matters that Didion’s disillusionment unfolded in New York. There are things about the city that can hasten that feeling, but “Goodbye to All That” doesn’t focus on them. Still, the essay is so inextricable from its setting that when she writes, “Of course it might have been some other city, had circumstances been different and the time been different and had I been different, might have been Paris or Chicago or even San Francisco, but because I am talking about myself I am talking here about New York,” it’s not entirely convincing. The anthologized writers, for the most part, are talking very specifically about New York: its pressures, disappointments, contradictions, cross-streets, and clichés. And they tend to reinforce time-honored New York mythology rather than complicating it. The question of whether or not New York should matter is overwhelmed by the extent to which it plainly does.
In these pages, New York is “the one that got away” and “love at first sight.” It’s personified as a drug, and a seductress. We read about day-to-day things: tiny apartments and crappy jobs and drinking too much. Residents’ (overstated) preference for wearing black, the competing smells of roasting nuts and sweltering garbage — the word “urine” comes up regularly — and the annoyance of shopping for groceries without a car. Some of the writers here have left New York only to return, others have left for good (at least so far). Some are wistful, others recall their time in the city with relief that it’s over. They note the ways New York has changed, and how they’ve changed along with it, in one case raging at the city for not being as cool as it once was. Some say they left because they couldn’t be their “true self” here. Others leave, only to return because they realize this is the only place that thee authentic self can thrive.
Many of them come to New York, as contributor Marie Myung-Ok Lee observes, “with an inchoate sense that writers went there and then stuff happened.” That stuff, they hope, will include excitement and inspiration and connections and book deals, seasoned with just enough struggle to make the whole thing feel raw and real and earned. All of the writers in Botton’s anthology have stories to tell about their lives in New York, things that happened to them here that they’ll forever associate with this place. But then other things happen. Relationships end and rents rise and favorite restaurants close and jobs are lost, and the whole city loses its luster. Those things become stories, too — and in some cases, reasons to live their next chapter somewhere else.
A number of the essays here are thoughtful and vivid, though the anthology as a whole is undercut by repetition. Elisa Albert, who now lives in Albany, N.Y., brings a rare sense of urgency to her essay about coming to terms with her new home. “You actually love it here, it turns out,” she insists, speaking to the difficulty of making her mark in the city she left behind. “Look closely: it’s a promising place…Put your money and effort and energy here, where it’s possible to make a dent.” Melissa Febos, back in New York after a stint upstate, reflects, “Leaving gets harder as you age. You don’t leave out of anger or from coming to your senses, but because your love is not as a strong as your reasons for going.” Roxane Gay grew up fantasizing about living in New York, until she realized she didn’t actually want to: “I had learned the difference between being a writer, which can happen anywhere, and performing the role of Writer, which in my very specific and detailed fantasies could only happen in New York.”
It helps to see New York in contrast to places these writers lived before and after: among them two Portlands (Maine and Oregon), Madison, Wisconsin; a nameless town in Connecticut, Moscow, Paris, and Montreal. One of the best essays comes from Ruth Curry, whose story begins and ends in New York but otherwise unfolds in Christchurch, New Zealand, where Curry moved to be with a boyfriend. The unraveling of their relationship is spurred on by Curry’s status as a foreigner, a resident of an objectively beautiful place where “differences were not so much differences as they were inversions or transpositions just similar enough to fool you into thinking nothing had changed.”
Fittingly, Meghan Daum’s essay “My Misspent Youth” is reprinted here. First published in The New Yorker in 1999, Daum’s unsparing look at how the dream of New York is undone by the all too real cost of living in it has become a kind of next-generation “Goodbye to All That.” Introducing the piece in this collection, Daum says that she regularly hears from people who just discovered her essay for the first time and “felt it to be describing his or her own life…and grieved alongside me for a version of New York — and by extension, a version of adulthood, of being human, or being alive — that was discontinued long ago and may have, in fact, never been the commodity we like to crack it up to be.”
Disenchantment is remarkably consistent across generations, so “Goodbye to All That” invites endless imitation even as it’s praised for being timeless. Reading Didion’s essay today, it’s easy to think nothing has really changed since 1967. Whether you find that comforting or troubling will depend in part on your capacity for moving on — which might have something to do with the amount of time you’ve spent living in New York.
He was wearing a three-piece, olive green, wool blend suit, and, casually placed atop a table, was his patterned silk scarf and hat. Gay Talese is not exactly a household name, but in the world of writers he is very well known. As I sat listening to the famed journalist in conversation with Max Linsky of Longform.org, at an October 10 event at NYU, I found myself scribbling as fast as the words came out of his mouth.
Without further scene setting, here are 10 things I learned that Mr. Talese noted would land me a job at The New York Times. (Mr. Talese, from your mouth to their ears.)
1. Pursue Your Curiosity.
In his essay, “Origins of a Nonfiction Writer,” Talese writes of his “eavesdropping youth” spent in his mother’s dress shop, which was “a kind of talk show that flowed around the engaging manner of my mother.” This notion of curiosity is seen in the minor characters –– the ordinary people –– he championed throughout his career, as in “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” where the entire interview is an amalgam of minor characters, from the lady who held Sinatra’s wigs to the press agent and the preening blondes on barstools. Talese didn’t want to write about Frank Sinatra for Esquire because, as he told us, everything had already been written about Sinatra. When he finally agreed to do the essay, he said, “It was almost better that Sinatra couldn’t talk to me.”
2. Be Well Dressed.
Or like Talese, never underestimate the value of a good first impression, or a three-piece suit.
3. Never Use the Phone.
I didn’t ask if phone translated to the Internet but, based on this list, and my impressions, my guess is he would tell writers not to use the Internet, unless it was to get someone’s home address. Of the inadequacy of the phone, Talese wrote: “I also believe people will reveal more of themselves to you if you are physically present.” Joan Didion also spoke of disliking the phone, not because it was a short cut, but rather because she didn’t like to talk.
4. Show Up at Your Source’s Front Door.
A helpful piece of advice, but as our world has become almost transparently public, so too has it become secretive and private. House visits, phone calls, and the personal touch have been replaced by emails, texting, and tweeting. Many of the scoops Talese wrote about he got because of his in-person doggedness: showing up at Nita Naldi’s hotel, talking to the headline operator in theater district, the groundskeeper at a pet cemetery.
5. Do More Research Than You Think Is Necessary.
In the recently annotated version of his essay “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” –– published by Nieman Storyboard –– Gay spoke of the inventive way he sourced a particular quote for use in the profile: “That quote was published. I lifted it out of a magazine article about Marilyn Monroe that was written by Maurice Zolotow. I just clipped it. I took it out and I stuck it in there, and it took on a meaningfulness, a dimension. Hell, I never interviewed Marilyn Monroe. So I sometimes incorporate what has gone obscure in other people’s work. It’s in another context that the quote becomes a gem.”
6. Talk to People at Length or Learn the Art of Hanging Out.
Another writer who speaks of this is Kurt Vonnegut, who said, “Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.”
7. Be Polite and Learn How to Ask Questions without Being Nosy.
Talese learned early how to fade into the background as he watched his mom talk to her dress shop customers, as they tried on clothes while “discussing their private lives and the happenings and misadventures of their friends and neighbors.” When asked how to develop that trust, Talese said, “Journalism is like going out on a date.”
8. Don’t Use A Tape Recorder.
This is a sticking point for me. How do you accurately capture quotes without a recording device? Talese told the audience, “Don’t use a tape recorder, because then you have their exact words. You are a partner in the quotation. The quote is polished in your prose.” When prodded further, Talese said he would ask the questions again and again so that he could refine and get at what they really meant. The final quote, he told the audience, needs to be in your voice, with your tone, not the black and white words. Later in the conversation, Talese expanded on this by saying that he would include in his notes: “What they say, what he [Talese] says, and what they think.” His use of interior monologue was a tool Tom Wolfe complimented him on in his discussion of The New Journalism.
9. Don’t Take Notes in Front of People.
From out of the front pocket of his elegant suit, Talese removed a small stack of cardboard scraps, explaining they were the collar stays from his button-down shirts. When he interviewed his subjects he would slip into a bathroom to jot down notes, and at night he would type them up, along with his recollections of the day.
10. Write with Respect, and Don’t Mistreat Anyone in Print.
Joan Didion writes in the preface to her collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem that since she is “neither a camera eye nor much given to writing pieces which do not interest me, whatever I do write reflects, sometimes gratuitously, how I feel.” Talese writes of his subjects from a place of extreme interest, striving for a deep understanding in the “social and historical forces that contributed to their character –– or lack of character.”
As a writer’s writer, Talese delivered these tips from a somewhat mythical place where pieces in magazines were paid for handsomely, weren’t due in one day, and were allowed to run at considerable lengths. While the above list seems both obvious and difficult, as a writer who would love to write 15,000 words about an ordinary person, I’m willing to give it a try. If it doesn’t work, at least I’m ready with my backup, also recommended by Gay Talese: “Get a job in a restaurant, and in your downtime: write.”
Bonus Link: Gay Talese’s sports writing is destined to last.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
On a sparkling day early this fall I drove from my home in New York City to Harrisburg, PA, to take part in a rite that’s sacred to all writers. There, in the Midtown Scholar bookstore a few blocks from the state Capitol, I waited in line to pay cash for a signed copy of a new book by a writer named Brad Bumsted. Nearly 40 years ago, at the small-town daily newspaper in nearby Chambersburg, PA, this man with the impossibly poetic byline taught me something that has kept me alive ever since – he taught me how to be a reporter. So I had come to Harrisburg to pay my respects and pay back a tiny fraction of a long-standing debt to my very first mentor.
Brad’s book is called Keystone Corruption: An Insider’s View of a State Gone Wrong. The operative word here is “insider” because after our brief time together in Chambersburg in the 1970s, Brad went on to newspaper postings in Pittsburgh and Tallahasee, FL, before landing in Harrisburg in 1983 with Gannett News Service. Since then, other than a brief stint in Washington, D.C., he has been reporting from the Pennsylvania state capital.
Now, at 62, he is the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s veteran in Harrisburg, a reporter, columnist, and regular commentator on television and radio shows, the insider’s insider among the capital press corps, a man who has had a ringside seat to the state’s Byzantine political machinations for nearly three decades. In that time he has witnessed and reported on every form of scam, corruption, disgrace, and redemption ever devised by political animals, plus the downfall of one notorious pedophile. Through it all Brad has remained what he was on the day we first met, 37 autumns ago: an old-school, shoe-leather reporter who understands the importance of cultivating sources, of making phone calls, knocking on doors, talking to people while looking them in the eye, listening to their voices, reading their body language. With today’s tsunami of electronic information and 24/7 news cycle, and with the ongoing implosion of daily newspapers (cf. Jeff Bezos’s recent purchase of the Washington Post), Brad is an important reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Good journalism still matters, it still happens, and it is still built on what it was originally built on – not technological innovations, but on the ability of dogged, savvy, intelligent reporters to gather information and quickly turn it into factual, even-handed, and engaging prose. Few people have done it longer than Brad Bumsted. Few do it better.
Even his competitors are happy to admit it. “Brad is the hardest working journalist in Pennsylvania,” says veteran Philadelphia Daily News political columnist John Baer. “Journalism and Pennsylvania are lucky he’s where he is, doing what he does.”
Keystone Corruption is an astounding book. As Baer put it in his review in the Daily News, Brad “has amassed a deliciously detailed record of the ugliness” of Pennsylvania politics, ranging from the rampant graft during the construction of the Capitol building in the early 20th century, right up to the latest pols to get carted off to prison earlier this year.
Stitched together from Brad’s own reporting, other news sources, government documents, websites, and books – all of it meticulously chronicled in the endnotes – the book paints a picture of a state where for more than a century corruption seems to have been in the air and the drinking water. Corruption comes to Harrisburg in waves and then it goes away and then it always comes back. Only a few other states – Louisiana, Illinois, New York, and New Jersey come to mind – can rival Pennsylvania’s long and lustrous record of venality. At the moment, seven former Pennsylvania legislative leaders, including two former Speakers of the House, are behind bars. The rogues who’ve worked their sleazy magic under the Capitol’s soaring green dome have possessed delightful nicknames, including Senator Sludge, Ernie the Attorney, the Dweeb, the Vince of Darkness, Mr. Big, and the Kingfish. They have woven scams involving kickbacks, no-show jobs, no-bid contracts, tax-funded bonuses for campaign workers, and massive self-awarded pay raises and perks. One of the book’s more surprising revelations is that few of these scams were designed to enrich the scammers; rather, they were usually means for people in positions of power to retain their personal power and secure their party’s majority in the legislature, by whatever means necessary. As former Speaker of the House John Perzel, a Republican now residing at the State Correctional Institution at Laurel Highlands, put it, “You don’t govern if you don’t win… In the minority, you don’t decide anything. You don’t decide what bills come up. You don’t have a proportional share of what’s going on. You have zero.”
Nicely put – a proportional share of what’s going on.
One of the most dependable tools for winning re-election was the illegal use of tax dollars to pay bonuses to staffers to do campaign work. In a 2007 column, Brad dubbed the scheme “Bonusgate,” and the term stuck. Since then, 10 people have been convicted for their participation in the scheme.
So why do people go to such lengths to win elections and amass power in Pennsylvania? Well, because, as this book lays out, Harrisburg is one lush gravy trough. Pennsylvania’s 253 state legislators, the largest “full-time” legislature in the country, get paid from $83,000 to more than $100,000 for being in session some 70 days a year. (Legislators in New Hampshire, by comparison, get $200 every two years.) Every Pennsylvania legislator’s car and staff are paid for. They get a killer pension and pay just 1 percent of their salary for health insurance (it was free until recently). They also get $163 per diem for expenses, which frequently goes straight into their pockets. Nice work if you can get it. Even nicer if you can keep it.
One of this book’s great virtues, aside from its deft marshaling of mountains of information, is that Brad never indulges in snark, never takes the high moral ground, is always willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, even when they don’t appear to deserve it. In the end, this even-handedness serves to make the evidence even more damning. For instance: “What former Rep. Tom Druce did was worse than any of the stealing that occurred at the Capitol. He killed a man. What gets it listed under corruption is the cover-up and the insurance fraud that Druce engaged in.”
But even after that opening salvo, Brad does not rush to judgment. Druce, who had been drinking, struck and killed a Marine Corps veteran on a Harrisburg street while driving a leased Jeep SUV, then fled the scene. Later he claimed he thought he had struck a signpost. Eventually he pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of a fatal accident, insurance fraud, and tampering with evidence. He received a 2- to 4-year sentence.
Rather than excoriating Druce for this sorry performance, Brad writes, “As I get older, I have often thought of Druce’s moment as a defining one in life for all of us. How many of us have a similar moment, even if not as dramatic? At that instant, would most of us show character and act out of conscience?… Is it possible that in a snap-second judgment you would panic and flee the scene? Have you ever driven, when you shouldn’t have, after consuming a few drinks?… There is no excuse for what Tom Druce did… But ask yourself, are we any better than he is?”
Despite such old-school fairness and his old-school reporter’s cred, Brad is no technophobic Luddite. He has adapted to the 24/7 news cycle, posting his stories online as soon as he gets them, updating them regularly, then writing a final draft for the next morning’s print edition. He has a slick website. He e-mails and tweets and texts like a banshee. His smartphone is always on.
“Up-and-coming reporters think they can google things instead of going out and talking to people,” he says. “The positive side of how things have changed with social media is that a couple of keystrokes and you can find almost anybody, plus a lot of information about what they’ve done. If you combine that with the old shoe-leather, it can be very effective. But really, what I do every day is no different from what I did covering the county commissioners in Chambersburg in the 1970s.”
Brad and I met for the first time in the fall of 1976, a few days before Jimmy Carter unhorsed President Gerald Ford. I had been summoned to Chambersburg to interview for a cub reporter’s job at Public Opinion, the 20,000-circulation daily owned by the Gannett chain, which was then in its most robust phase of empire building.
The guy who interviewed me was the paper’s publisher and editor, Bob Collins, a sandy-haired terrier from New Jersey with rolled-up shirtsleeves and a staccato way of talking that immediately said newspaperman to me. I had spent the five months since my college graduation pinballing up and down the Eastern Seaboard, from the Adirondacks to Savannah, knocking on newspaper doors, trying to get a job. I dreamed of becoming a writer – a real writer, a novelist – and I believed the ideal place to learn my craft was in the typhoon of a daily newspaper’s city room. But my credentials were thin – just three short sketches for my school paper and zero work experience. Even worse for me was the fact that this was the post-Watergate season. Hard to believe today, but it was a pre-Internet age when daily newspapers were fat on profits and many bright young people ached to become the next Woodward and/or Bernstein. Entry-level reporter jobs were hard to come by.
For some reason, Collins and I hit it off. Despite my lack of experience he offered me a starting salary of $140 a week to cover several local school boards and write as many “enterprise” stories as I wanted to. Then he warned me that Gannett had a strict corporate policy forbidding overtime pay. Of course I jumped at the offer.
The deal done, Collins led me out of his office, through the advertising department and into the cave of the newsroom. My heart actually started to race. This was where my life as a professional writer would begin.
The ceiling was black, the walls were greasy yellow brick, the carpet was frayed. Blinds were drawn on all windows, and the light came from cold white fluorescent tubes suspended from the ceiling. There were brimming ashtrays and piles of old newspapers on most desks, just a few reporters murmuring into telephones at this late-afternoon hour. Every desk had its own telephone and red IBM Selectric typewriter. A few desks along the right wall, obviously for editors, had those new-fangled things called computers with screens like television sets.
Just then a man came through a back door that led to a parking lot, bringing a gust of chill air with him. He smelled of cigarettes. Collins introduced me to Brad Bumsted, the paper’s star reporter, who covered the county commissioners, spectacular crimes, major trials, anything that would land his byline on the front page. Bumsted was short like Collins but built like a beer keg. With his mud-brown hair and cheap sportcoat, he looked more like a cop than a reporter. (His hair is gray now, and his sportcoats are considerably more expensive.) After shaking my hand he took his time sizing up the new competition.
Getting hired must have made me feel cocky because I blurted out, “You like your job, Brad?”
“Yeah, I do,” he said. “Very much.”
“You like covering the commissioners and courts?”
“I said yeah. I do.”
“I wouldn’t mind having that beat myself.”
I immediately thought, What an asshole! My pushiness was totally out of character. But Collins told me years later that he knew right then he’d been right to offer me the job. He liked his reporters brash and pushy. That’s why he loved Brad Bumsted.
Despite that awkward introduction, Brad took me under his wing and we became fast friends. I studied the way he worked – the way he talked to people on the telephone and on the street, coddling sources, getting people to open up, asking soft questions while working up to the hard ones, bullying or flattering or lying as necessary. He was relentless, always ready to make the extra phone call, double-check a bothersome fact, a spelling, a job title, a date. Nothing could stop him from getting a story. I soon realized that was all that mattered to Brad: getting the story, and getting it right. Though Brad typed (and still types) with just his two index fingers, he was fast, and soon I was fast too. Fueled by adrenaline and bad coffee, we sat down at our Selectrics at 7:30 every morning and often cranked out half a dozen bylined stories apiece before the noon deadline. We were glorified galley slaves, and we were loving it.
After I’d been on the job just a few weeks, Collins gave us a dream assignment. He wanted us to go down to Easton, MD, to cover the murder trial of a local Chambersburg legend named Merle Unger, a ruffian in the Robin Hood vein who’d led a life of petty crime and had a penchant for breaking out of jail. For a while, he broke out of the county jail at night, went out cavorting with his girlfriend and buddies, then broke back into the jail before deputies counted noses in the morning. But on one his breakouts Merle made the mistake of shooting an off-duty cop during a store robbery in Hagerstown, MD. The cop died, Unger was captured, and the party was over. Due to heavy publicity, the trial was moved from Hagerstown to Easton, where Brad was to cover the courtroom proceedings and I was to write colorful stories around the edges.
On the last day of the trial, while the jury was deliberating, I underwent the test that makes or breaks every reporter. A small woman had been sitting in the courtroom’s back row that day, and when I learned that she was Merle Unger’s mother, I knew I had to talk to her. But I couldn’t possibly do it – what do you say to a mother whose son is about to get sent to prison for the rest of his life? But I had to talk to her. As Brad had taught me, all that mattered was getting the story, and getting it right. When the woman left the courtroom, I forced myself to stand up and follow her down the stairs to the courthouse lobby…
(It wasn’t until years later that I understood the moral wringer I was being put through as I followed that woman down those stairs. In the opening lines of her 1990 nonfiction book, The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm famously described the dilemma that lives at the heart of the journalistic enterprise: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.” Or as Joan Didion put it even more succinctly in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, “Writers are always selling somebody out.”)
…and when I got to the courthouse lobby I introduced myself to the woman, who confirmed that she was Mildred Smith Unger, Merle’s mother. To my surprise, she didn’t tell me to go away. Thinking of Brad, I opened with small talk, got her talking, then gently steered the conversation toward the horrific things I had to ask her about. And I did it. I overcame my unease. I gained her trust and then I betrayed her without remorse. My front-page story in the next day’s paper began like this:
On the second day of Merle Unger’s murder trial, a small woman with black hair came into the courtroom and sat in the back row.
“I feel sorry for them,” she said when she learned that the two women sitting on a nearby bench were the widow and daughter of slain Hagerstown policeman Donald “Barney” Kline. “But there’s nothing I can do about it now.”
During the jury’s deliberations, Mrs. Mildred Smith Unger gazed out a courthouse window at a gray, darkening sky. “Sure I was surprised when I heard what Merle did,” she said. “But I’ve always thought he wouldn’t do something like that unless somebody did something to him first. And we still don’t know exactly what happened.”
And my story ended this way:
A commotion at the top of the stairs signaled the jury’s return to the courtroom. She took one last look at the sky, then said: “You know, I’ve always been a firm believer that there’s more good than bad in life.”
Then she climbed the stairs and took her seat in the back of the courtroom. When the jury delivered its verdict – guilty on all counts – her eyes remained dry and fixed on her son.
Brad had taught me a hard lesson, and taught it well. Being a reporter may be morally indefensible and sometimes cruel, but there’s also something noble about getting the story, and getting it right.
Eventually Brad and I would drift apart and lose contact for many years. In that time I came to see that despite our similarities, despite the bond of mentor and pupil, there was a fundamental difference between us. Brad, like Bob Collins, has always been a newspaperman down to his socks, while I viewed newspaper work as a means to an end, a paid apprenticeship that would prepare me for the serious work of writing fiction. Now that I’ve published two novels and found out that it’s just about impossible to make a living off the things, I’m more grateful than ever that Brad taught me the craft of getting the story, and getting it right. Nearly four decades later, it’s still paying the rent. And it’s still something that I, like Brad, love to do.
After the book signing at the Midtown Scholar in Harrisburg, Brad offered to take me out to dinner with his wife Gail and their daughter Lindsey, a senior at the University of Pittsburgh. As soon as we stepped into a popular downtown restaurant called the Firehouse, a compact, dark-haired guy turned from the bar and thrust out his hand. “Hello, Brad!” the man cried. “Good to see you. Congratulations on the book.”
“Thanks, Mike, you’re looking good,” Brad said, shaking the hand and pausing to make small talk.
Later, at our table, Brad told us that the guy at the bar was the paroled felon Michael Manzo, one of the masterminds of the Bonusgate scam, who received an 18- to 48-month prison sentence in the spring of 2012 for the illegal use of $1.4 million in taxpayers’ money. Manzo had just gotten out of prison early for good behavior, and his hearty greeting at the bar testified to his delight at that turn of events. Here, from Keystone Corruption, is Brad’s description of Manzo after he’d risen to become chief of staff of Bill DeWeese, then Speaker of the House and currently an inmate at the State Correctional Institution at Retreat:
Manzo had a reputation as a lady’s man. He was smooth and articulate, but more importantly he was in a position of power…
At that time, Michael was dating Rachel Hurst, who would later become his wife. It can be said of her that Rachel was a stunning blonde with beautifully angular facial features. She looked more like a model than a research analyst. Michael would later stray from her during their marriage. Worse, his affair would become very public and part of the Bonusgate case. Manzo had placed his mistress, Angela Bertugli, on the payroll in a caucus job (in Pittsburgh) where she did little if any work and was away from the scrutiny likely in Harrisburg, according to the grand jury. Bertugli told investigators that she had “nothing to do 70 percent of the time.”
The former beauty queen was paid $45,000 in annual salary, and she received a $7,000 bonus in 2006. Manzo met her at a West Shore bar in 2004. Angela was 21 at the time. He was 35. They had sex in a car after a few drinks, according to the grand jury report.
This sketch beautifully captures the flavor of corruption in Pennsylvania – the way a little power can go to a man’s head, can lead to extramarital sex in a parked car, then to the misuse of taxpayers’ money, and finally, inevitably, to prison. The flaws in Pennsylvania politicos tend more toward the tawdry than the tragic. Their stories read like low-rent Shakespeare. And yet, as picayune as these villains may be, a million bucks here and a million bucks there and pretty soon we’re talking about real money.
As we were eating, Manzo came over to our table to get introduced around. When Gail asked what he was doing now, he replied brightly, “I’m working as a consultant.”
After he left the table, Gail said, “I can’t believe the guy! Fresh out of prison, walking around smiling, shaking hands, like nothing ever happened!”
“I don’t know,” said Lindsey, who plans to go to law school after graduating from Pitt. “He did his time and paid his debt to society. Life goes on. People deserve a second chance.”
My feelings fell somewhere between Gail’s outrage and Lindsey’s forgiveness. I was thinking, What’s the big surprise? Our culture has lost the capacity for shame.
It was Brad, appropriately, who had the last word. He said, “I have mixed feelings about Mike Manzo. I always liked the guy. I thought his sentence might have been too stiff – he cooperated with the prosecution on three different cases. Sure, he deserved to go to prison, but I agree with Lindsey. He did his time. One thing to his credit was that, unlike a lot of these other guys, he took responsibility for his actions.”
That’s my mentor for you – able to see the big picture, zero snark, and forever old-school.
“It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.” –Joan Didion
It becomes palpable in late spring, when I receive a pair of unconditional offers posted first-class Royal Mail. I give ample notice at work; I make a little list of things I “haven’t done yet,” as though I am permanently relocating to the moon and will never again have the opportunity to ride the Staten Island Ferry; I chart out the furniture I need to sell, making guesses at how much cash I might collect as I disassemble my life. The days slip by and summer stutters in, blisteringly hot at first, then endless weeks of rain. (Half a dozen people say something to the effect of “You’d better get used to this!” often with a wink and a nudge, and I bite my tongue, or sometimes, I don’t, and snap, “The rain in England is not like this,” even though sometimes it actually is. A friend buys me a raincoat — a “parting gift” for the “the precipitation zone you will be heading to” — and I am profoundly grateful.) I begin to get maudlin as I leave certain places, or say goodbye to people at the end of the night. “Will this be the last time I…” The abstract idea that has hovered over me for ages — leaving New York City — sprouts legs and begins to crawl.
I’m headed to University College London in the fall, after one more season taking bets in my hometown, at the Saratoga Racecourse (this summer marks my tenth anniversary as a pari-mutuel clerk). These steps have been charted for a good while now, guided by the gravitational pull of London, a city in which I’ve lived before and a place that always manages to provoke my most extreme emotions, for better or for worse. Before all of that, though, I have to say goodbye to New York, which feels a bit self-indulgent: people change cities, migrate across the globe, uproot their lives every day, and most of them don’t feel compelled to write long essays about moving. But New York, though — maybe it’s the preponderance of writers here, the narcissism and the navel-gazing, that turns our comings and goings into a series of extended metaphors? We document our arrivals and our acclimations, the natural evolution of a human being, growing older — changing in a city that’s often painted as the living embodiment of change. And when we manage to leave, if we manage to leave, escape becomes a genre in and of itself.
Because it often feels like that: escape, like getting out of town is risky, or hard to coordinate, or something that happens just in the nick of time. There are a lot of “leaving New York essays” out there, nearly all of them framed from the vantage of the author’s new location, a place that’s usually less shiny or less gritty, somewhere that’s better in a lot of ways but invariably shadowed by nostalgic regret, maybe a kind of lingering sense of not having “made it” here, whatever that means. They follow a tested formula: you march confidently across the Hudson possessed with extreme naivety, because you are impossibly young when you arrive in New York, no matter your age on paper; you quickly learn the same sorts of hard lessons that people have learned for years on end; you pay a lot and get very little and sharpen your cockroach-killing reflexes; you have moments of startling clarity, as you reference specific street corners or landmarks or bits of cultural currency, paired with embarrassing vocalizations of these moments of clarity. (These references have obviously shifted over the years; right now, it’s often people drinking Tecate on rooftops in Bushwick as the sun sets over the Midtown skyline. For me, in my years working the night shift in a skyscraper in Times Square, it was the Midtown skyline sometime after midnight, from the BQE just above the Kosciuszko Bridge, cemeteries and hulking warehouses shadowed in the foreground and a postcard stretch of light and geometric wonder across the river.)
And then somewhere along the way, it ends. It’s not the day you leave, because if you’re writing this sort of piece, it’s likely that no one is forcing you to go, or you’re not putting up much of a fight. The New York of our imaginations has to end sooner than that — maybe it collapses under the weight of our own preconceptions, or maybe pinning so much responsibility on a city serves to mask the way the passage of time can alter us: when we arrive we are willing and eager to fold ourselves into different shapes, to make ourselves fit, but as we grow older, acts of contortion become more difficult, or at the very least, less desirable. It was always easy enough for me to live here, but my New York lost the vibrancy of the early days pretty quickly; I could hold my folded shape, but the stagnancy chipped away at me over time. People say that New York is a city for the rich, or a city for the young; it is also a city for the new and the bendable.
On Easter Sunday, I box up my books and hesitate as my fingers pass over a well-worn pair of Didion essay collections, the big two, Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album. I am sorting books into three piles: to give away; to send upstate; and to keep around for my final few months in New York, things I know I need to read, my half-dozen favorites, and a few shelves of “emergency books” that I irrationally feel like I might want to reference and need nearby me at all times. Afterwards it looks like the oddest little library — Gulliver’s Travels and Orwell’s essays and Evelyn Waugh’s collected short stories? Why did I keep these things here? Did I think I’d need to peruse How Fiction Works in a pinch? But I remember now, three months later, why I kept the Didions close at hand. In the vast realm of “leaving New York” essays, “Goodbye to All That” says everything that has ever needed to be said — but better.
I bought Slouching Towards Bethlehem in the final weeks of my senior year of college, and I read it during the strange, torpid months that followed. I open it up years later and remember, with some surprise, that those months coincided with my ill-fated experiment in becoming the kind of person who makes notations in books. Flipping through the essays, I see that I was playing fast and loose with the brackets and asterisks, basically rendering the act of marking totally pointless, like highlighting an entire page. I marked some good stuff, but most of it’s good stuff, kind of extraordinary stuff, really. It’s here that I should pause and acknowledge that if there’s anything more tedious than a “leaving New York” essay, it’s a “young girl discovers that Joan Didion has an inside window into her soul” essay. Bear with me for a moment, please.
I can’t help but wonder why “Goodbye to All That” was placed at the very end of the book: chronologically, it belongs at the very beginning — it explains away her twenties, and lays some of the foundations for the woman we find through all the rest, simultaneously fragile and steely, searching for answers under the California sun. Didion in New York is bendable to the point of breaking: it feels so removed from the rest of it, and I suppose, in a real sense, it was: she arrived here at age twenty, in the late fifties; she left eight years later, to return to her native California, as the West Coast was securing its central place in the socio-political history of the decade, and a permanent place in the American cultural imagination. In the final pages of the book we do a bit of a 180, back to Didion’s New York. Even from a distance, across the river and half a century later, the city is so instantly recognizable that it’s startling. I re-read the part about talking to her long-distance boyfriend during the first few days and laugh aloud on a packed train at rush hour. (“I would stay in New York, I told him, just six months, and I could see the Brooklyn Bridge from my window. As it turned out the bridge was the Triborough, and I stayed eight years.”)
There’s a dangerous paradox in writing about your earliest years, about the very beginnings of adulthood. We believe our experiences to be unique but the messages to be universal, and we have a hell of a time trying to strike the right balance, without coming off as narcissistic or arrogant, qualities that look all the harsher when paired with inexperience and immaturity. It’s tricky to avoid whining. The circumstances of my own first year out of school are difficult to quantify, sometimes interesting, sometimes mind-numbingly ordinary: the post-graduation confusion, then a return to my summer job at the track; moving to Edinburgh to work in a t-shirt shop and live in a long-term hostel; moving to San Francisco to take an internship and cobble together rent money with sketchy side gigs; getting a call one day in early July, waiting for cheap sushi in San Francisco’s financial district, that my best friend had been hit by a truck and killed as she was biking to work that morning. I had decided to leave California a few weeks prior; I felt slightly out-of-synch out west, uncomfortable in ways I’d never felt in Scotland, as grim as my life there turned out to be. With loss, priorities can sharpen. I returned east immediately.
If you asked me to explain myself that year, I’m not sure I could. I can outline my movements in plane tickets and bank statements, in e-mail chains and hazily-recalled phone conversations, but I fall victim to that paradox, the simultaneous convictions of uniqueness and universality. I came to New York on the heels of all of this, and those convictions solidified there, as I attempted to lay the foundations of the life I felt I was supposed to lead. Didion describes her own naïve march into New York by addressing the paradox with a kind of unflinching sentimentality:
When I first saw New York I was twenty, and it was summertime, and I got off a DC-7 at the old Idlewild temporary terminal in a new dress which had seemed very smart in Sacramento but seemed less smart already, even in the old Idlewild temporary terminal, and the warm air smelled of mildew and some instinct, programmed by all the movies I had ever seen and all the songs I had ever heard sung and all the stories I had ever read about New York, informed me that it would never be quite the same again. In fact, it never was. Some time later there was a song on all the jukeboxes on the upper East Side that went “but where is the schoolgirl who used to be me,” and if it was late enough at night I used to wonder that. I know now that almost everyone wonders something like that, sooner or later and no matter what he or she is doing, but one of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before.
It almost feels like some sleight-of-hand, the way the experiences her twenty-year-old self believes to be singular are cut down by that final sentence. Didion, a pioneer in the school of New Journalism, stretches her years in New York across the city like a broad, welcoming umbrella, inviting all of us underneath to find our own experiences in her early fumblings. “Of course it might have been some other city,” she writes, “had circumstances been different and the time been different and had I been different, might have been Paris or Chicago or even San Francisco, but because I am talking about myself I am talking here about New York.” I can’t help but wonder, though; it’s an impossible sentence to counter, after all. I compare my own earliest fumblings to my years in New York — the place where my twenties slipped away, where I worked very hard and got just a little bit in return, where I spent huge swathes of time never setting foot outside the five boroughs (more like three boroughs, actually), where my own cultural assumptions met up with hard realities, where I stopped to marvel at that stretch of the Midtown skyline every single time I passed it — and I think that it couldn’t have been anywhere else. But then, perhaps because I am talking about myself I am talking here about New York.
Everything changes, even people, at least a little bit, and I watched my friends unravel somewhat in New York and then weave themselves into something nearly unrecognizable to me. I am leaving at a pivotal moment: one after another, people I know bid goodbye to their twenties, approaching the time when it feels as though one must choose to escape New York and rebuild elsewhere, or attempt to graduate into a more settled existence, moving in with partners and purchasing real estate and thinking about the future in years, maybe decades, rather than months. I think that those who stay are not choosing the life I’ve known: they are hoping to create something new, or so I assume. All the while, the circle contracts: a good number of my friends, some of the closest, have left town within the past year or two, nearly all of them in the height of summer, making toasts at outdoor goodbye parties as sweat collects at the backs of our knees.
I want to say goodbye properly but I am not quite sure how to manage it. “You’ll be back,” people tell me, at work or out at some party or other, and I think, well, maybe, or better yet: yes and no. Joan Didion, after all, has returned to the Upper East Side. I can come back for certain — though maybe when I win the lottery, because I can barely afford to stay now — but I can’t return to any of this; I lost it some time ago. I suppose that’s why it’s so much easier to say goodbye to the physical space, to the things that give me my daily bearings, than to the alternative: I’ve always been terrible at endings, from my childhood notebooks to the current collection of folders on my desktop littered with unfinished stories and essays, things that are very nearly there, if only I could find the last key piece, some subtle thematic note that could tie it all together.
“Goodbye to All That” takes its title from Robert Graves’s autobiography, Good-Bye to All That, his “bitter leave-taking of England” written in the wake of the First World War. But Didion’s essay, first published in The Saturday Evening Post, was originally titled “Farewell to the Enchanted City,” which I think might suit it better, in some inexplicable way. There’s so much inevitable disappointment wrapped up in the title — nostalgic regret, my absolute go-to when leaving a place. The Enchanted City, the land of outsized expectations. “All I mean is that I was very young in New York, and that at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young anymore.” It isn’t hard to live here, for some of us, but maybe it is hard to sort our expectations from our dreams: the horizon is too hazy, blotted out by the skyline.
Months to go, then weeks, and then it is a matter of days. I take stock, and I don’t say much, let alone any real goodbyes. To the physical spaces, my favorite corners: Cadman Plaza just after a thunderstorm, the view up Manhattan Avenue, dashing towards the train at Bryant Park at sunset. To the golden rhythms of the life I’ve known, because I, like Didion, spent my New York years making a magazine: I spend a few weeks working to not feel responsible for these words on these pages, for the publication to whom I’ve sacrificed Friday nights for nearly five years (and a good number of Saturdays, too), for the magazine that’s always been irrevocably wrapped up in my idea of New York, long before I ever stepped foot in the lobby. To my friends, who, if we can manage it, will always be my friends, but never like this again — even if I rushed back tomorrow, the ground has already shifted beneath me. But mostly to the Enchanted City, to the idea of it, how effortlessly it formed in my mind, and how it can disappear in an instant, when your back is turned. Someone else, somewhere, is arriving right now, marching across the Hudson: picking it back up, and falling in love with New York City for the first time, too.
Image Credit: pexels/Arthur Brognoli.
Last winter, I wore the same snow boots every time I left my house for almost seven months. Minnesota, in the grip of a historically severe winter, was shellacked in several feet of snow from November to April—the kind of snow that doesn’t melt, but rather petrifies, growing yellow with the urine of dogs and drunks and sprouting a crust of cigarette butts and aluminum pull tabs. The kind of snow that requires not just snow boots, but a certain kind of Lutheran forbearance, to endure. I had finished graduate school the previous spring and was staying in the Midwest and trying to write, but mostly failing. Instead of writing, I was watching television. Sometimes I took breaks from the television to Google Reporting neighbors for not shoveling sidewalks—Minneapolis. For weeks on end I passed the same puddle of frozen vomit on the sidewalk, walking to the co-op in my neighborhood to buy hothouse vegetables and peaches of a baseball’s firmness that would never soften, flown in from some place where they’ve never heard of microwavable socks and only use rock salt for the making of ice cream.
I was, you might say, in a bad way.
In April, I went out to San Francisco for five days, my first real vacation in several years. I flew to the west coast to visit a few friends, with the idea in the back of my head that if I liked it, I’d think about making a move. Let me pause here to say that I am not sure what it is in my past that has convinced me I’m a levelheaded and methodical person, not prone to following impulse. It’s one of the bigger of my self-delusions. I should have guessed what would happen when I got to California—I didn’t think about money or employment or the kind of support system I might have if I moved to a state after spending less than a week there. I didn’t make a budget or research apartment rentals or neighborhoods. I just walked out of the baggage claim at the San Francisco airport and thought, without hesitation, Yes. By the time my friend arrived in a ‘94 Toyota Corolla with a sheet of Plexiglass welded over the top (a reveler had stomped through her sunroof after the Giants won the World Series), I was deep in the kind of mental acrobatics necessary to consider lifting up my life and resettling it, 2,000 miles away.
If there’s ever a time in your life to read early Joan Didion, it’s when you’re young and thoroughly disenchanted with a place. As it happens, I brought Slouching Towards Bethlehem with me on my trip to California, and I read “Goodbye to All That” on the flight. The essay—which is a good deal about New York, but a greater deal about how it feels to become so thoroughly sick of the circumstances of your life that you lose all ability to imagine something better, something easier, any change at all—did not make any lasting impression on me as I crossed the continent. I had a deep appreciation of certain sentences, but that was all. I didn’t yet recognize myself in Didion’s rueful description of her own younger self; I was too caught up in the excitement of a trip and long-missed friends and warm(ish) weather. It was only later, when I had handed my heart over to fog and tiers of cheerfully mismatched houses and the dumplings at a certain restaurant not far from the ocean, and was back in my cold and spare Midwestern apartment, that Didion’s prose began to seem like a beacon.
It’s funny how, if you’re a reader of any degree, you sometimes come across the exact right text at the exact right time. It has happened for me once or twice before—Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation at a moment when I could not understand why no place seemed to feel like home any longer; Lydia Davis’s The End of the Story in the middle of a breakup that wouldn’t take. Of all the books I could have picked up for my San Francisco trip (the unread story collection I was meant to review for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the perpetually half-read Madame Bovary), I chose Bethlehem on a kind of premonition, seeing it on the shelf in a neighbor’s apartment. Wasn’t Didion Californian? was all the thought I gave it. As easily as that, I had a thing I hadn’t known I needed. There Didion was in my ear, telling the story of how New York had ended for her, and showing me, with the gentle brutality of a certain kind of mother, how Minneapolis had ended for me as well.
For the next few months, Didion’s images lingered: gold silk curtains, the scent of crab boil, a cockroach on the tiled floor of a bar during the moon landing. I thought of those scenes as I packed my books and linens into boxes. I thought of how I would think about the Midwest, once I had gotten out of it.
I loved Minneapolis, at first, in the way Didion describes loving New York:
I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and you never love anyone quite that way again. I remember walking across 62nd Street one twilight that first spring, or the second spring, they were all alike for a while. I was late to meet someone but I stopped at Lexington Avenue and bought a peach and stood on the corner eating it and knew that I had come out of the West and reached the mirage.
I knew that mirage. I encountered it first when I arrived in the Minnesota, on a crisp and clear late summer day (the kind I know, now, that there are only three or four of per year), and saw my new neighborhood, with its rows of cottages and little bungalows all shivering when the train passed through. I loved my house, my walk to campus, the old grain elevator overlooking the park on the corner and the generally bygone feel of the whole region. In winter I loved watching children ice skate and the sound of snow plows late at night passing my bedroom window. Later, when I moved to a seedier part of town, I loved that too: the dive bars and the buckled sidewalks and the charm of my 1930s apartment with its old Murphy bed and clawfoot tub.
Didion writes that she is not sure of the moment New York began to sour for her. I can say almost certainly that only my first year in the Midwest was unqualifiedly good, untouched by the long, slow decline that characterized the later seasons. There were bright moments always: I spent weekends in idyllic cabins and made pickles and played bocce near city lakes. I, too, had historic experiences in bars—I watched the 2008 election results come in in a bar on Lyndale Avenue, watched young people flood out into the streets and felt for a moment that the world was significant and somehow more real than it had been only minutes before. I didn’t cry in laundromats and I avoided parties almost as a rule, but for a long time, like Didion, I “cherished the loneliness of it, the sense that at any given time no one need know where I was or what I was doing.” I suppose the solitude ought to have been a sign.
And slowly, it became one. People I cared about began to move away from the Midwest, moved on to New York, San Francisco, Washington D.C.—places I visited and found intoxicating in their pace and vibrancy. People in those cities didn’t watch as much television or read as many books; they were really living life! Meanwhile the intolerable Minnesota winters grew even more intolerable, and the summers somehow worse, brutally hot and plagued with unspeakable numbers of insects (and the particularly Midwestern pressure to always be enjoying the summer). I wrote to friends in other cities and began to find Minneapolis’s charm slipping, its provincial face showing. I could no longer write, Come out, and we’ll go to the state fair. I didn’t want to go to the fair. A mirage vanishes, is the thing; the way you imagine a place and the story you tell yourself about your life there slowly give way to the drudgery of everyday perception.
In July, my final month in Minnesota, it was so humid that mushrooms began growing in a corner of my bathroom, and none of the doors of my apartment would open or shut properly, they were so bloated with the moisture in the air. I came home one oppressive afternoon and found two men drunk on Listerine passed out on the front lawn. I saw someone on the bus using needle-nosed pliers to remove his nostril hair. None of it was out of the ordinary, but my view of it was. Minneapolis hadn’t changed, but the ugliness had become all I saw of the city.
It’s an act of great ego to write an echo of someone else’s work—or maybe it’s the humblest act of all. Didion herself was writing an echo, of Robert Graves’s autobiography on the topic of his postwar “bitter leave-taking of England,” where he had “ceased to care what anyone thought about [him].” Didion’s material feels both particular and universal because of this fact of tribute—no one could have written the piece but her, except that someone already did. She leaves this fact to the reader to know or uncover. Does that omission mean a reader should compare (or can’t avoid comparing) the parallel pieces? To me, the act of unacknowledged echoing suggests both equivalence and abasement: I am the equal; I will never be the equal. I’ve taken the coward’s way out by writing about Didion directly, here. If I were braver—and oh, if I were braver!—I would have let the reference go unmentioned.
I’ll end true to form. See how Didion begins her final paragraph: “it was three years ago [my husband] told me that, and we have lived in Los Angeles since.” There’s an abruptness here—there’s the barest suggestion of that false hope, that you can escape what hounds you by running away fast enough, or cleverly enough, or suddenly enough. Never mind what comes next; never mind what a little research will actually tell us about Didion’s later years. Never mind all that. Instead, look at the now. There is a complex power to this type of ending, this fleeting perpetuity. Now: I am writing this in a café not far from Dolores Park, in San Francisco. Now: I’ve lived in California for two months. The wonder of everything isn’t lost on me yet; a palm tree, for example, is a very good thing. As a friend explained, “It means you’re somewhere new.” I did do one brave thing. I’m somewhere new.