In the spring of 2016, Dani Shapiro received one of the biggest shocks of her life when she learned, through an Ancestry.com DNA test, that she and her adored, deceased father were not biologically related. She had taken the test on a whim and wasn’t expecting to discover anything new. In fact, she thought she had pretty well excavated her family history in two of her previous memoirs: Slow Motion and Devotion. But the results of the test forced her to revisit mysteries she thought she had put to rest:
There had always been something more—something I could never quite fathom. An invisible live wire stretched between my parents and me. Touch it, and we might up in smoke. I knew this, too, thought I couldn’t have articulated it. I had turned away from fiction, toward memoir, as if a trail of words might lead me there.
Inheritance, her latest memoir, is the remarkable story of how, with just a few clues, Shapiro discovers both that she was donor-conceived, and the identity of her donor. With her mother also deceased, there are many unanswered questions, and Shapiro finds herself delving into the early history of sperm donation, and interviewing the remaining friends and acquaintances of her parents. But she’s most powerful when she writes about the strange memories that have never left her, memories imprinted with a mystery she couldn’t recover.
After reading Inheritance, I was very curious about how she went about writing this story, which is so different from her recent memoirs, but at the same time, speaks directly to them. I spoke to her over the phone last week, and as in her book about writing, Still Writing, she was very good at describing the different stages of her writing process. Our interview has been condensed slightly and edited for clarity.
The Millions: When did you know you would write about this experience?
Dani Shapiro: Very, very quickly. I’m a writer who has mined my own life and attempted to shape my experience into stories for my entire writing life. And then this massive wrecking ball of a story came into my life. I can’t even say it’s a story; it’s a revelation about what has always been true. It never occurred to me not to write about it. Somebody actually wrote to me on social media today—how do you think you would have written about this story if your parents were still alive? I wrote back, that’s a big question, and I’m not going to start responding to it on social media, but the fact that my parents were gone, and I was left with this massive mystery, and the only way I’ve come to understand anything about myself or about life is by writing about it, by following the line of words. And so I began jotting down notes very early on. Just fragments. Part of it was that I thought I wouldn’t remember the very early feelings and thoughts because I was in such shock. And the other reason was because I was aware that anything I might learn about the truth of my origins and the culture and the time and place that made me, those people who might know something about that, were very old if they were still living. I felt this urgency to put my reporter’s hat on and learn as much as I possibly could. I did not have the luxury of thinking, I’m going to write about this five years from now, after I’ve processed it. And, also, some books require distance, but this one felt like it required immediacy.
TM: It’s interesting that you realized right away that the clock was ticking in terms of the research you could do, and the interviews you could do.
DS: I think I would have felt that way whether I was writing the book or not. Writing a book sometimes gives you the excuse, the permission to pick up the phone and call people. I’ve always felt that way, whenever I’ve done a journalistic piece—a personal history piece—it’s always been spurred by what I really want to know but I don’t have permission ask. And if I have an assignment, then I have permission. So, there was something of that.
TM: When I was reading it, I thought it was so lucky that you are a writer—and also you had a journalist husband who could help you with your research. I just felt you had a good way of processing it, but I wondered if you felt that way, too?
DS: Initially I was just in it. I was in the fog of it; I was just doing anything I could, whatever I could. I felt that my emotional future well-being required that I at least try to turn over every stone that I could. I didn’t know what I would discover. But one of the things I figured out very quickly is that, if you have to find out that you’re donor-conceived, I had a miraculously good story. I had almost eerily so, just enough clues. My mother had once let slip, just in one brief conversation with her, certain vital clues: the word “Philadelphia,” the word “Institute.”
And then, let’s start with the fact that I did the DNA test at all. Because I easily could never had done that. It was a very random thing to decide to do, and it was only because my husband was doing it, and the prices have come down, so I thought, Sure, why not? It was so casual, and then the incredibly fast time that it took from the moment that I realized that my dad hadn’t been my biological father to finding my biological father. It was crazy, it was 36 hours, it was a domino effect, one thing leading to another, and a kind of hypothesis, and a couple of clues, and a couple of educated guesses, and the fact that my first cousin was on my page on Ancestry.com, and the fact that we could figure out who he was. It wasn’t hard. There was a certain amount of journalistic chops that were required; I think when my husband figured out that the name associated with my first cousin wasn’t first name-last name, but last name-first name, that’s the kind of thing that maybe somebody who is not an investigative journalist might not have gotten to as quickly, but it did happen in this way that, when I look back on it now, was miraculous.
I’ve heard a lot of stories now of dead ends, of donors who don’t want to be disturbed, or who don’t come around, and don’t respond. I just recently heard a story of a woman who is nearly 80 who just found out that her father had not been her biological father. What do you do with that when you’re 80 years old? I feel like the when in my life when I found out, was probably when I had the most stability, the most time and space, to actually be able to truly, deeply go on this journey. I wasn’t too young and I wasn’t too old. I write about this in the book, but when I was told about donor-conceived people who tattoo their donor numbers on their body, I get that. I had 36 hours, which is nothing, of feeling like I may never know who my biological father was. It felt like I was walking with a void underneath me. Like I had been uprooted—the roots that I thought that I had were no longer my roots. I might never know the facts of my identity.
TM: Did you know the structure of the book right away? And did the writing of this book feel different from writing previous memoirs?
DS: I started writing right away and I thought that I was writing the book. It’s funny, because I’ve taught writing for many years, and I’ve written a book about writing, and every once in a while I come up against something where I think, I know I would tell a student that this is impossible, but it’s not going to be impossible for me…
I learned something important to writers, regarding writing from experience. I have written directly from experience before. In my memoir Devotion, and in Hourglass, those are both books written like the present is a laboratory, and writing from the center of experience, but what was totally different about embarking on writing Inheritance was that those earlier books were not being written from a place of trauma. In initially trying to get what was happening to me down on the page, I was writing from the center of trauma. There’s that moment in my book when I quote from Bessel van der Kolk’s—I don’t have the quote exactly right, but it’s something like, “It’s the nature of trauma that doesn’t allow a story to be told.” It’s the reason why people who are in a traumatic state repeat themselves, and need to keep telling the same story over and over again. But that does not make for good literature—although I want to interject and say that I do think there is one literary form in which you can write directly out of trauma, and it’s poetry.
I wrote 200 pages of a draft. And I was already under contract and I was feeling actually pretty good about what I had on the page at that point. But then I had to go on tour for Hourglass. And I went on the road and I had to go on this mode of really not thinking about it, because I couldn’t think about it and be talking about Hourglass, which was a book that I felt so proud of, and wanted to be promoting. So I was on the road, and I think it must have been about two months that I didn’t touch the manuscript. And I sort of settled in, and I took myself to a local café where I like to read, and I started reread and my heart just completely sank. It had some passages that worked, but as a whole, it simply was not the book I wanted to write. And I was in despair. I went home and told my husband, I know that this is productive despair, I would tell any writer telling me this story that it is productive, and that this is going to end up being a good thing, but it didn’t feel that way. It felt like despair with a capital D.
And then I went back and I reread The Year of Magical Thinking. Because my editor and I had spoken about The Year of Magical Thinking before I had even started writing. She brought up that book as something that had within it a sense of immediacy. And yet at the same time, a powerful coolness to it because that’s what Didion does. In my memory of the book, she was writing from the center of her husband’s death. But when I started rereading it, I realized she actually found a place that is slightly removed from, that was outside the sphere of direct shock and trauma. She was writing from that spot, which allowed her to move back into the immediacy but also away from it in a way that allowed her to tell a story. And so I understood that I hadn’t known what that was. So I spent a couple of months exploring what that place was from which to tell the story, that was on the one hand still unfolding. But the actual breathless 36 hours of that story was very much in the rear view mirror for me when I sat down in earnest and was writing.
My job as a writer was twofold. One was the opposite of what writers need to do—I had to really slow it down. It’s a runaway train of a story, and I had to really think about how to give it the ballast and the weight that it required. The other way that it was different was that I was aware of the outsized details, the sheer strangeness of the story itself, and the uniqueness of it. I mean, I know it’s happened to a lot of people, but most people haven’t experienced it. Yet I wanted to write a book that people would be able to read and find for themselves what’s universal in it. In my memoir Slow Motion for example, my parents had been in a car accident. Even if your own parents haven’t been in a car accident anyone can emphasize and imagine what the person might feel like.
When I’ve written a couple of times about my son when he was little and he was sick, anyone, whether they’re a mother or a father, can put themselves in the shoes of this person telling the story. And I was aware that discovering in midlife that my father was not my biological father, I was going to have to a) help the reader understand what that feels like and b) write a book that took those experiences and took the strange, later-in-life journey that I found myself on, and really made meaning about what is this teaching me about human nature, about personhood, about identity, about family, about love, about what makes a family, about what makes a father, about nature and nurture, about all these huge ideas that I was suddenly grappling with on a deeper level than most people ever have to, and certainly than I had ever done before.
TM: The experience you describe of being able to see your biological father online, giving a video presentation, was just so stunning—I mean, the fact that we are even able to do that, first of all, but also the way you could recognize him. It just must have been so bizarre. You did a great job of describing it, I felt like I experienced it, and it made me think about how we look like our relatives, how my children look like my grandparents, or whomever, and I take it for granted, I don’t really think about it.
DS: Yes—or, if you know that you’re not biologically related to your parents, or one parent, then you know that and that also becomes part of your identity. And that’s a point that I find that I need to make, because it’s not an obvious one. People who are adopted or people who are donor-conceived, who have always known this, or parents who have donor-conceived kids, or adopted kids, who have always disclosed to their children their origins, that is a completely different story from mine, or from the many people these days who are discovering that a secret was kept from them. If you grow up knowing that you don’t know something, then that lack of knowledge becomes part of your identity. But if you grow up believing something that isn’t the case, and something about it just doesn’t make sense—that was the story of my life, and I think it’s actually the reason for all those memoirs.
TM: I actually had the same thought while I was reading. I found myself wondering if you would continue to write memoirs after this?
DS: I very much doubt that I will ever write a straightforward memoir ever again. Hopefully I’ll write fiction and I’ll write nonfiction. I was moving in a direction before I wrote Inheritance that was kind of a more fractured narrative, and away from traditional narrative, which is hilarious to me and ironic because then I had this story land on me, that was like a story with a capital S that could only be written in a straightforward, linear way. I hadn’t written in a linear fashion in a decade or more. So I have no idea what’s next for me, but I really do believe that my writing life has been formed by not knowing and always searching for what I did not know. There are clues all over all of my books. There are clues in my first novel, there are clues in my second novel, there are clues in Slow Motion, there are clues in Still Writing, and there are certainly clues in Devotion; there are clues in all my books except perhaps for Hourglass, which is really a book that is about marriage and time and memory and kind of steered clear of some of my other obsessions, but I was formed by what I didn’t know.
TM: I think Inheritance is also, in a way, a book about writing. Because you write about looking back on your old books—on what you’ve written before—and I also appreciated the amount of textual analysis you applied to the emails from people, and to what people say to you, and what you said to yourself.
DS: I love that, you’re the first person who has said that to me, and I was aware that I was parsing Ben’s emails—he used this word or he made this Freudian slip—and parsing the language that was used at the time of my conception. The word “treatment,” the word “boost.” And all the ways in which euphemism was used, to create a cloud of unknowing, that parents could find themselves wandering in a fog for the rest of their lives about what they had done—if they wanted to, they could do that. And also, I really do feel like everything I’ve written has led to this. My husband, early on, I think he felt bad that I had made this discovery, and it was his fault because he had asked me if I wanted to do the DNA test, but I have never had a moment—not even at my most destabilized—of feeling like I haven’t known. Because my life, in particular, as somebody who has been relentlessly exploring identity, my dad, my relationship with my dad.
It’s taught me a lot about stories and the narratives that we tell ourselves—all of us, not just writers. It’s how we all understand ourselves through storytelling. My narrative about both of my parents had to be reconsidered in light of this new information. I have a shelf of books that supply reasons for why they were the way they were and all of that is still true, but it’s not the whole truth. I was missing the biggest bone. The part that puts it all into complete dimensionality had eluded me until I made that discovery. And then it made everything make profound sense. Almost instantly. It didn’t make it less painful. It was very hard to digest. But I knew absolutely that I was looking at the truth and I had never seen the truth in my life.
TM: One last question—I was wondering if you have read Proust?
DS: I have read Proust, I have taught Proust—why do ask?
TM: I felt like the theories of memories you write about are similar to the ones in In Search of Lost Time, especially the idea that the memories that survive childhood, the deep ones, are the ones that have the truth in them and you have to kind of deep dive to find them.
DS: And to return to them. Why did that conversation with Mrs. Kushner stay with me my whole life? Because I don’t have a good memory of my childhood, but that—I can tell you what the leaves on the tree looked like, and the glasses of iced tea, and what Mrs. Kushner looked like. It was seared into my memory. And that was also true of the conversation I had at Sarah Lawrence with my mother, and on the car ride home. And what’s Proustian about all that is that we don’t know that those moments are becoming recorded in a way, but they are, because somewhere within us there is this very subtle recognition of their importance.
When I taught In Search of Lost Time it was in a graduate writing program at The New School, and I was teaching the literature of autobiography. I made my own syllabus, and I chose books that I wanted to reread. I think I taught that class for 10 years. And I would end every year with Proust. What was drawing me again and again to thinking, to the way he thought about memory? That’s part of what I mean by it all led to this. My friend Hannah Tinti, who is one of the people that I told pretty early on, she had one of the best reactions: She burst out laughing, first of all—laughing at the incredulity, and also like, of course. She wrote to me the next morning and said I had been in training for this my whole life. And I thought, what is it to be in training for something my whole life and have it happen? Or was I in training because of it? It haunts me that I could have possibly have never known this, because I would have missed my mark.
1. American Graffiti Abroad
My wife and I started watching Gilmore Girls in Helsinki when our first daughter was a toddler. My wife is Finnish, and the show has been with us through the childhoods of all four of our kids.
For better or worse, American high school is now an international experience, shared around the world. My three daughters and one son are all in Finnish grade school or preschool, but many of the rituals of teen America have already entered their imagination, just as they entered mine when I was a boy in Seattle and D.C. Helsinki mean girls operate differently from Hollywood’s Mean Girls, yet the movie helps frame the concept of teen cruelty here, just as Heathers and The Virgin Suicides help frame international views of why teens kill themselves. My own kids, from their distant Nordic nook, love Ferris Bueller and Willow Rosenberg, and they’re primed for American-flavored teen adventures they might never have.
Out of all the teenagers Hollywood has launched overseas, Rory Gilmore — the main character of Gilmore Girls — is the one I like best, at least in her high school years. It’s not just that she’s smart and fiercely dedicated to literature and learning. The teenage Rory has her weak points: her mistreatment of Dean, her self-absorption, her cluelessness about some of her impulses. In general, though, she maintains a core of common decency and fair play while facing off against a series of narcissistic little tyrants. The show’s central joke is the comedy of the bookish and reasonable Rory holding her own against people who bully everyone around them.
2. The Dorothy Parker Reader
Across the Internet you can find lists of all the books Rory read or talked about over the series’ seven seasons, which originally ran between 2000 and 2006. The lists conjure up not so much the millennial preferences of Rory’s generation as the Baby Boomer preferences of the series’ talented creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino. The novels are almost all safe, traditional choices, from Madame Bovary and Moby Dick to The Metamorphosis and Ulysses.
If Rory’s literary leanings tend to be old-fashioned, they reflect a larger retrograde bent in the series. As Rahawa Haile has deftly documented, the show reserves almost all its speaking roles for white actors, and compounds the problem by casting actors of color mainly as silent tokens. The town of Stars Hollow has less cultural variety than the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, and Rory’s classics-oriented reading choices can’t even make room for, say, The Tale of Genji or The Blind Owl. While Finland doesn’t have quite the same culture wars as the U.S., it faces similar problems with the rise of rightwing hate groups, and the overwhelming whiteness of Stars Hollow — like the whiteness of the casts in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dawson’s Creek — now looks more obtuse and offensive with each passing year. When I watch Gilmore Girls these days, Rory’s fixation on famous old novels by famous old authors feels less quaint and more ominous — more like a reinforcement of Europe’s new line of bigoted and belligerent reactionary nationalists.
Still, I’m wary of generalizing about the ways Europeans absorb U.S. films and TV shows, because America’s influence cuts in so many different and contradictory directions here. From a Nordic perspective, for instance, it’s obvious that Rory would join most Finns in opposing the EU’s current assortment of jingoist demagogues, and would fight back against the attempts of those demagogues to use her favorite authors for their narrow political purposes. Also, Gilmore Girls is popular in Finland in part because this is a nation of readers, and I know two young Helsinki journalists who — despite their anger at America for our military and economic activities — found Rory’s love for books an inspiration when they were growing up.
After all, how many other TV teenagers can convince you they’ve not only read Anna Karenina and Swann’s Way but have made their reading a part of their decisions and their personality? Rory’s books aren’t just fashion accessories, as they are with most TV characters. Her relationship with Jess turns on him filching her copy of Howl and then proving he can catch the Charles Dickens reference she makes (“Dodger”). At the same time, we see some of the limits of her connection with Dean when she tries to teach him how to read Leo Tolstoy.
More broadly, her devotion to the writing of Dorothy Parker sharpens Rory’s natural ear for snappy dialogue — and this isn’t simply an aesthetic preference but the key to her entire approach to life. She values good talk because she values the ability to connect with other people and to have them connect with her. The contrast between Rory’s sleepy-eyed manner and her Parker-like flair for keeping a conversation in play is a major part of the show’s appeal. Her closest friendships — with Lorelai, Lane and Paris — are built on quick, casual banter. The jokes aren’t laboriously set up for a punchline in the old sitcom style. They dart along, one after another, easy and light and always moving on. Trying a video game with Lane, Rory says: “So this is what teenage boys are doing instead of watching television? Seems like a lateral move.” When Rory reacts to a comment from Lane by saying, “Sarcasm does not become you,” Lane answers, “No, but it does sustain me,” and keeps talking. In season three, Lorelai tries to suss out the degree of Rory’s interest in Jess: “Okay, now let’s say he’s in the house and there’s a fire, and you can save either him or your shoes — which is it?” Rory hedges, saying: “That depends. Did he start the fire?” Rory and Lorelai can’t stand together at a checkout line without slipping into their usual patter:
Lorelai: I hate crossword puzzles. They make me feel stupid.
Rory: Then don’t do them.
Lorelai: But if you don’t do them, you’re not only stupid—you’re also a coward.
Rory: Or you’ve got better things to do with your time.
Lorelai: You think people buy that?
Rory: The people who line up on a daily basis and ask you if you do crossword puzzles and then when you say no, challenge you as to why? Yes, I think they will buy it.
Lorelai and Rory are, famously, best friends as well as mother and daughter. Their friendship has its problems, but at its heart is the pleasure of their conversations. They’re bound to each other by language, their feel for the rhythms of each other’s phrases. Gilmore Girls belongs to the tradition of the great screwball comedies, films like Bringing Up Baby and Talk of the Town: the skill of the writing is largely in the lightness of the touch.
3. Early Rory
Lauren Graham plays Rory’s mother to perfection: she makes Lorelai wickedly charismatic. Driven and resourceful and a bit devilish, Lorelai typically sports a big knowing grin that’s up for all kinds of mischief. She takes command of the series 30 seconds into the first episode, when she looks at diner owner Luke Danes with the profound desire of someone who needs her next cup of coffee and will stop at nothing to get it. She’s a treat, and she brings a delirious energy both to her work as an innkeeper and to her love for Rory.
Yet she’s also a bit of a monster. She insists that Rory tell her everything, and places practical and emotional demands on her daughter that would break many children. Pregnant at 16, Lorelai ran away from her rich parents and rich boyfriend to raise Rory on her own. Lorelai envisions Rory’s future as a rebuke to the privileged Gilmore background — though another of the show’s nice comic touches is its recognition of how much this background defines Lorelai and Rory, and how heavily they still rely on it. Lorelai has encouraged Rory’s childhood dream of going to Harvard, and together they’ve built Rory’s life around reaching that dream.
It’s a potentially ugly situation for Rory, especially since Lorelai has a habit of bending others to her will. As Rory, Alexis Bledel lacks Lauren Graham’s I-can-do-anything-I-want-with-a-line acting chops, but her unnervingly serene demeanor brings something original to the mix. She’s quietly compelling when she spars with her mother, and usually acts like the adult in the relationship. Lorelai, with her playful eat-the-world smile, is like an insanely cheerful cartoon character turning the barrels of a Gatling gun, shooting out swirls of rapid-fire sentences and mowing down anyone in her path. Rory is less overwhelming, but she knows how to put forward her opinions. In her low-key fashion, she refuses to let her voice get lost in the onslaught of Lorelai’s presence. She’s much tougher than people assume, and this makes listening to her a constant pleasure.
Rory prefers to work things out, to understand the other person’s position and find a shared solution. Lorelai’s nature is simply to push and push until she gets what she wants, even if it often turns out she doesn’t want what she gets. During the first three seasons of the show, when Rory is a student at the pricey private school Chilton, Lorelai and she bring out the best in each other. If Lorelai is a great mother — one of the most complex and intriguing parents on television — she owes part of her success to Rory’s strength of character. Not every child would’ve prospered under the Lorelai Gilmore regime.
4. Occupying Paris
In high school, as Rory goes from bewildered outsider to top student, we see her at her best. Standing up to her mother has taught her how to stand up to the other megalomaniacs she meets: most notably, the immortal Paris Geller.
My kids are wild about Paris, and they’ve got a point. Paris is so mercurial—and Liza Weil inhabits the role with such virtuosity—that the character delivers comic bliss. Paris alternates between self-aggrandizement and self-hatred, between feeling superior to everyone and feeling crushed by her own inadequacy. She has a dazzlingly unhinged compulsion to scold people, and to control their every thought and deed.
As editor of the Chilton newspaper, Paris tries to sabotage Rory by giving her a lame assignment, a piece on repaving the school parking lot. Rory buckles down and does a good job on the article, and then confronts Paris directly. With calm force she explains that nothing Paris does will make her quit the paper. It’s the turning point in their relationship. Able to strike sensible compromises and work well in hostile circumstances, Rory also shows she can fight back when Paris is malicious or unreasonable. Bit by bit, Paris is impressed, and eventually becomes one of Rory’s best friends.
Rory’s success with Paris mirrors her success with the other little dictators in the series, like her charming but domineering grandparents Emily and Richard, and the pompous Stars Hollow autocrat Taylor Doose. (It’s easy for Europeans to imagine that if Taylor were French he’d be a Marine Le Pen supporter, and if he were Danish he’d vote DPP.) In situation after situation, Rory demonstrates the strength behind her decency, the ability to defend herself and assert her viewpoint while winning over those who at first want to control or hurt her. She lives out a fantasy of good faith—of a world where understanding beats aggression, and where intelligence and compassion defeat unfairness and cruelty.
5. The Corleone Connection
Gilmore Girls is full of references to The Godfather, and Lorelai and Rory quote from the film repeatedly. The first three seasons of the show set up the possibilities for Rory’s future so we can watch her, in seasons four through six, grow increasingly unbalanced and misguided. She’s the Stars Hollow version of Michael Corleone: she changes from a fresh and appealing college student to someone who has lost her way, becoming a dark and negative image of her former self. In season five she drops out of Yale, cuts off contact with Lorelai, and devotes her time to Emily’s social circles and a relationship with the rich and creepy Logan. The change is nightmarish to watch, because we can see our own bad decisions in her, and our own fears about what we might become. Even after she returns to Yale, she keeps dating Logan, and it’s clear she still hasn’t fully come out of the crisis that started when Logan’s father told her she doesn’t have what it takes to be a journalist.
Because of a contract dispute, Sherman-Palladino left the series before its seventh and final season, and she was never able to finish Rory’s story. Now, thanks to the show’s popularity on Netflix, Sherman-Palladino has had the chance to make Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, a revival in four 90-minute parts. She’s gone back to her original conception, and to her old plans for Rory. The revival is ambitious, and compared to the series, it places the emphasis much more on drama than on comedy.
The Rory we now find, 10 years after we last saw her, is slowly disintegrating, and we follow her as she falls apart. Her journalism career has stalled, and she seems to have lost the ability to finish an article or even pitch an idea. Some reviewers have blasted Rory for her lack of professionalism, but we know from her years on the Yale Daily News that the mistakes she’s making aren’t due to ignorance or stupidity. She’s sabotaging herself, and part of her knows it while part of her denies it.
At the same time, she’s carrying on a degrading affair with Logan, who’s engaged to someone else. The revival takes pains to show that Rory’s view of Logan is a fantasy, a damaging illusion. The long party sequence with Logan and his friends is a dream: at the start, a sign magically changes from the word “Flowers” to the word “Tonight,” and the sequence closes with Rory caught in a burlesque of Dorothy’s farewells in The Wizard of Oz. This is the Logan she wants to believe in, a Gatsby/Kennedy hybrid who would care enough to give her a final night of Jazz Age entertainment. The real Logan is much colder: he lets Rory break things off with him over the phone and simply goes on with his life. Always polite, always superficially concerned, he can’t be bothered to make much of an effort with her.
The revival’s last four words, which Sherman-Palladino always planned to use for the final scene of the series, turn out to be chilling. Rory says she’s pregnant, and since the baby is probably Logan’s, the effect is grim. Rory’s transformation is complete. The girl who planned to leave Stars Hollow and become an overseas correspondent is gone, replaced by this eerie ghost-Rory who might never find her way forward again.
The ending isn’t hopeless. Rory has started writing a book about her relationship with her mother, Chilton has proposed a job for her as a teacher, and her connection with Lorelai is strong. You can picture a happy future for Rory, if you want. Still, the overall mood of the revival is bleak, and the darkness that always hovered behind the comedy of Gilmore Girls has now swallowed everything else.
This makes the revival very much a show for our time. We’ve all sensed it, of course, these past few years: the feeling of disaster in the air, of violence and anger and a rampant, all-devouring bad faith. This isn’t an era when people like Rory flourish. Instead, they tend to fall into self-doubt and self-destruction, and to become as narcissistic and manipulative as the culture around them. Rory has always carried her share of flaws. We all do. If we don’t like what we see in her these days, it’s because Sherman-Palladino has been pitiless about showing what can happen to us when we go bad. The Gilmore Girls revival is an odd, somber way to end a series that built its reputation on quick-witted comic brio. Sherman-Palladino has shifted us from the realm of Dorothy Parker to the scarier and more disorienting realm of Jean Rhys — and the revival makes Rory’s teen years now look heartbreaking in their wasted promise.
I knew an MFA candidate in grad school who had already written a novel and even had an agent, and who, whenever Ernest Hemingway was mentioned, would instantly come down with a migraine so severe that he had to retire to bed with a cold compress on his forehead for eight hours. It was as though Hemingway were a kind of god whose very name could smite his acolytes. My friend, needless to say, never published and did not become a writer. The weight of his hero was just too much for him.
Writers have their touchstone authors. Marcel Proust is mine, and has been for almost 30 years. I learned French primarily because I wanted to read Proust in the original. I’d made my way through the Scott Moncrieff translation over a period of eight or nine months while living in the usual reduced circumstances of an aspiring writer in Cambridge, England. He was deep-sea diving into themes that I’d begun to introduce into my own work: time, memory, the past. In French his prose is sinewy and supple, much stronger and bolder than he comes off in the Scott Moncrieff translation. But it was how Proust dealt with character that most fascinated me.
By my count, I own some six biographies of Marcel Proust, not including biographical material contained in other volumes, such as his devoted housekeeper and amanuensis Céleste Albaret’s valuable Monsieur Proust, as well as those books dedicated to one aspect or another of his life. For years the most authoritative biography in English was that of George D. Painter, who wrote under the assumption that In Search of Lost Time was a way into the life of its author; an approach Proust utterly disdained. As Proust wrote in what is considered an early version of the Search: “A book is the product of a different self from the one we manifest in our habits, in society, in our vices.” Thus, many assumed that this asthmatic hypochondriac with his fur-lined coat, pale complexion, and drooping mustache could never possibly create anything more substantial than a flowery thank-you note to his hostess. Instead he produced one of the great works of literature.
Also one of the least-completed. Most readers who take the plunge get through Swann’s Way and give up. Yet once you forge ahead in the seven-volume work you see the pace increase, the humor deepen, the obsessions grow even more obsessive. This isn’t a rambling, stream-of-consciousness book of memories lost and found; it’s a novel with a subtle and solid architecture, where in its last volume, Time Regained, the shape of the work comes finally into focus. The man who tells this story, the “I” of the book, known as the Narrator, isn’t the author, per se, though once or twice they share a first name. And the book you’ve just finished reading isn’t quite the book the Narrator now sets out to write: it’s as though the author and his novel were a kind of optical illusion: where is the reality, where is the fiction? And what is this we’ve just read? A book about a man who wants to write a book about what we’ve just read?
The arc of the novel is the Narrator’s search for understanding the nature of time and the meaning of the past, in the end learning that, though the body ages and the mind weakens, the past never dies, it’s as vivid as when it was first experienced: always retrievable, always alive within us. The Narrator is something of an undercover agent. He’s an outsider who yearns to be accepted by the higher circles of le tout Paris, in particular the salons of the Duchess de Guermantes and that of her cousin, the Princesse de Guermantes. Proust himself, never one to shun the salons of le beau monde, had the perfect disguise: mix with high society and French nobility, look and listen and be tolerated, while few would suspect this social butterfly would ever make anything of himself. And yet the entire time he was observing, taking in not just how people spoke but how they looked, how they gestured, how they presented themselves both when in public and in their unguarded moments (something that Pablo Picasso recognized when he and Proust were at the same gathering towards the end of the author’s life: “Look, he’s keeping his eyes out for models,” as Jean Hugo quoted him as saying, though Benjamin Taylor rightly points out that all the models had already been found; some of them in that very room).
There’s a key scene in the novel when the Narrator, still a young man, happens to witness an exchange between the Baron de Charlus and Jupien, a tailor, soon to be Charlus’s secretary and afterwards the owner of a brothel, which the Narrator sees as something like an insect being drawn to pollen. He observes the baron’s little dance of seduction, how he now approaches, now retreats, until the two men have vanished inside Jupien’s waistcoat shop. Now the Narrator knows something that no one would suspect him of knowing. I spy with my very own eye, Proust seems to be saying, and I know everything. In many ways the central character of this long novel, Charlus, so robust and masculine at the start, then becoming an old man, retains something of the decrepit dignity of King Lear. As a creator of character, Proust is something of a Cubist: his people are never seen in only one dimension; they’re constantly changeable, and changing, and all of those faces exist on the same plane.
In Search of Lost Time is, I’ve always felt, aside from being a kind of detective story, something of a spy novel, which may stem from the fact that its author was both Jewish and gay, firmly placed as outside the perceived mainstream. The fact that gay men were ostracized (though in some quarters quietly tolerated) needs no elaboration here. And with the Dreyfus Affair being the story of the day when Proust was a young man — a story that didn’t quite go away for some 12 years — the population was divided, with anti-Dreyfusism becoming to a degree synonymous with anti-Semitism. Proust campaigned on behalf of Alfred Dreyfus. “Was this because he felt Jewish?” his latest biographer, Benjamin Taylor, asks. “Certainly not. Proust saw himself as what he was: the non-Jewish son of a Jewish mother. The Dreyfus Affair was for him, first and last, a clear-cut miscarriage of justice that demanded reversal. In this he was like most of the Jews, half-Jews, and baptized Jews who rallied to the cause in 1897 and 1898; they did so not because Dreyfus was Jewish but because he was innocent.”
The definitive biography in English is by William C. Carter, and in French we have the exhaustive, encyclopedic and equally valuable doorstopper by Jean-Yves Tadié, which has been translated into English. Just released from Yale University Press is Benjamin Taylor’s slim but rich volume, Proust: The Search. By now we know pretty much everything there is to learn about Proust, though the diaries of Reynaldo Hahn, considered by scholars to be, as Taylor calls it, “the holy grail of Proust biographers,” are under embargo until 2036, and will undoubtedly shed a great deal of light on this important relationship. So what does Taylor have to offer that’s new?
One might think that, as Taylor’s biography is part of Yale University Press’s Jewish Lives series, the author would be focusing on Proust’s life as a Jew. Though Proust’s Jewish mother, Jeanne Weil, never converted, his father, Adrien Proust, wished to have his children baptized into the Catholic church. Taylor, I think wisely, doesn’t make much of this, and turns his attention to the life of a writer, not just a Jewish writer, giving us a slender but rich work of biography that is stylishly written and covers all the bases of Proust’s life and career. Because so many of the highlights and details are well known to those who’ve read the earlier biographies, he succeeds not so much by narrowing the focus but by shedding light on the salient points of the author’s life and by reminding us why Proust is such a touchstone for so many.
However one reads the Search, when you come out at the other end of the experience you have become a different person; not just because something like eight months or a year has passed and you also have changed over that time, perhaps falling in love, or out of love, or becoming a parent, or finding yourself uprooted, but because you now see the world through the eyes of this author, just as, Proust writes in his novel, once Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s paintings were seen, people would say of a woman passing by, “That’s a Renoir woman.” “To succeed thus in gaining recognition,” Proust writes elsewhere in the novel, “the original painter, the original writer proceeds on the lines adopted by oculists. The course of treatment they give us by their painting or by their prose is not always agreeable to us. When it is at an end the operator says to us: ‘Now look!’ And, lo and behold, the world around us (which was not created once and for all, but is created afresh as often as an original artist is born) appears to us entirely different from the old world, but perfectly clear.” And that is what Proust does to you: you begin to define the world around you through the eyes of this artist.
There’s an eerie moment in the fourth volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Sodom and Gomorrah that stopped me dead the first time I came across it. In a meditation on sleeping and waking and memory, the author writes: “…I, the strange human being who, while he waits for death to release him, lives behind closed shutters, knows nothing of the world, sits motionless as an owl, and like that bird can only see things at all clearly in the darkness.” I had the strange sensation that the author, by then dead more than 50 years, was somehow still very much with us as he describes his exact circumstance, both as the voice of the book’s Narrator and as the person writing this book, as though he knew that one day someone would come across this line and sense the living author behind it. For that moment he knows you’re there; in those few words he is still alive. As he wrote upon hearing of the writer John Ruskin’s death to his friend Marie Nordlinger, “I am shown how paltry a thing death is when I see how vigorously this dead man lives.” Thus it is with Proust, and all our touchstones.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Since Bill Cunningham’s death last week, I’ve been thinking that he was New York City’s Marcel Proust. He captured the people of this city, and the special, sometimes hard-to-see beauty of its streets, just as Proust immortalized certain stylish Parisian women, and the particular seasons and moods of Paris’s parks and sidewalks.
I’m not the first to make this comparison: the fashion writer Cathy Horn made a connection between the two artists in a lovely remembrance for The Cut. She notes that Proust’s eye was different from Cunningham’s, because he was constructing a fictional world, whereas Cunningham was a journalist who recorded the world. Yet Cunningham and Proust have a similar sensibility when it comes to clothing. Both have a love for eccentrics, and for elegance. They go wild when the two converge. One of my favorite passages in all of In Search of Lost Time has to be when Marcel sees Robert de Saint-Loup for the first time. Saint-Loup, who will soon become his good friend, is wearing a beautiful summer suit:
…along the central gangway leading from the beach to the road I saw approaching, tall, slim, bare-necked, his head held proudly erect, a young man with penetrating eyes whose skin was as fair and his hair as golden as if they had absorbed all the rays of the sun. Dressed in a suit of soft, whitish material such as I could never have believed that any man would have the audacity to wear, the thinness of which suggested no less vividly than the coolness of the dining-room the heat and brightness of the glorious day outside, he was walking fast.
To me, that passage is like one of Bill Cunningham’s photographs in the way it magically captures a season, a moment in time, and a person, all at once. It’s easy to imagine Cunningham taking a photo of Robert de Saint-Loup in his white suit and then enthusing over it during one of his weekly “On The Street” videos. He might even use the word “audacity” to describe Saint-Loup’s style. More likely, he would simply say, “Isn’t it mahvelous?”
One of my favorite Sunday pastimes was to watch Cunningham’s videos, which were both a window to Manhattan and a fashion lesson. In a recent video from this spring, when the weather was still iffy, he extolled fluffy, white fake fox collars:
…you talk about a glamour frame for this face: that’s it! It always has been, and as a matter of fact, in the 1920s, they had what they called “summer fox” — same fox people wore in the winter, but they put a name on it. And people carried it or wore it. It’s hilarious how fashion captures people’s moods…
With that little snippet, you can get a sense of what made Cunningham’s eye special, and Proustian. He had a sense of history, and a sense of humor. Like Proust, he understood how clothing was a reflection of the wearer’s mood, and the season. Other New York novelists have tried to capture specific fashion moments and trends, but too many of them focus solely on status, the way that clothing can express a character’s aspirations and anxieties. Take someone like Tom Wolfe, whose The Bonfire of the Vanities is full of 1980s fashion. Wolfe, in his trademark white suit, obviously cares about clothes and is very good on the subject, especially the perfectly coifed appearance of the “social X-rays” — a wonderfully memorable phrase. And yet Wolfe did not catch the humanity of his female socialites the way that Cunningham, who photographed them, often did.
Cunningham understood that clothing is about more than just personal identity. Fashion is a mirror of the culture, with links to the past and arrows pointing to the unknown future. On its most basic level, fashion is related to the weather, to variations in the color of the sky and the quality of the light. It’s almost too obvious to say, but what people wear has to do with how warm or cold it is outside, how wet or dry the streets are, and for how long people have been stuck in a season, how hungry they are for change. It has to do with collective desires, not always conscious, brought on by the physical environment, as well as emotional factors having to do with the news or the holidays or even something as frivolous as the sudden appearance of daffodils in public parks.
Cunningham had a sort of naturalist’s sense for fashion; he was interested in learning how people adapted clothing to fit their environments. Just as you can see in the evolution of the peppered moth, that textbook example of adaptation, how the color of the moth changed after the Industrial Revolution, Cunningham’s photos showed how women’s fashion changed to accommodate their changing daily lives. For instance, the fact that women began to commute meant that women needed more durable and practical outerwear. Cunningham was very interested in commuters. He paid a lot of attention to coats, utilitarian objects that can be quite beautiful and striking if worn with style. One of his famous early photos was of Greta Garbo, though he didn’t realize he was photographing Garbo. He just noticed a woman in a coat with a beautiful shoulder and he photographed that coat, that stunning shoulder.
More recently, in another one of his weekly videos, Cunningham observed that pale pink coats were making an appearance, noting that a pale pink coat is luxury item that is very difficult to clean. I love him for remarking on this, because he wasn’t saying it to be a killjoy. Instead his comment was to emphasize that women must really want to wear pink, they must need pink in some way, if they are willing to go to the trouble of wearing it. In another recent video about a trend in black and white clothing, he noticed the way that white clothing was giving way to silver, a subtle metamorphosis that seemed to point to an increasing focus on technology.
Cunningham was wonderful on color, in general. Through his photos I learned to see the way certain colors rippled through the city. Meryl Streep taught Anne Hathaway the same lesson in The Devil Wears Prada, with her lecture on “cerulean,” but her speech emphasized the power of the media and the marketplace. Cunningham understood the power of designers, manufacturers, and materials, but he wasn’t as interested in their influence. His great insight as a photographer was that fashion evolves on the streets, because that’s where the people are. It’s such a simple observation, but it became powerful, and then, profound, in the way that he executed it, day after day.
Even before Cunningham’s death, I found myself thinking of him while reading In Search of Lost Time. There’s a moment toward the end of Volume I in which Marcel describes pigeons as group of birds “whose beautiful, iridescent bodies have the shape of a heart and are like the lilacs of the bird kingdom.” I read that and thought, only Proust would see the beauty hidden in something as common — and potentially annoying — as a flock of pigeons. But then I thought: Bill Cunningham probably feels this way about pigeons, too. He could see the sublime in the most everyday aspects of city life. He often said he was looking for beauty, and he believed that it could be found anywhere. Like the great novelists, he taught us how to see other people, and the world.
Image Credit: Flickr/Bicycle Habitat.
I used Leap Day to catch up on my Marcel Proust reading. And my laundry. Now, it’s March, I’m doing laundry again, and I’m finally caught up and well into Volume II. I was keeping a good pace with Volume I until mid-February, when my son had a week off from nursery school. During that same week, my husband was traveling in Australia. So it was just me and a three-and-a-half-year-old and a bad Skype connection for six days. I planned activities and playdates but foolishly did not schedule a babysitter. Also, it didn’t occur to me that it would be summer in Australia, and that when I dialed up my husband for an end-of-the-day chat, it would be morning where he was, and that he would be wearing sunglasses, a short-sleeved shirt, and a helpless grin.
On the second-to-last day of winter break I was so exhausted that I went to bed at eight, shortly after my son fell asleep. I slept deeply, waking up the next morning with the sense that I was in my childhood bedroom — that feeling Proust describes so well in the opening pages of Volume I. I closed my eyes and held onto the illusion, wondering if I noticed and identified the feeling because I had been reading Proust or if the feeling itself had arisen from reading Proust. And then my son called for me to make his breakfast and the sensation of being in my old bedroom vanished.
At that time, I was still reading Volume I, finishing up the last pages of the third section, “Swann in Love.” I was only managing a few pages a day, which was maybe an apt way to finish “Swann in Love,” with the slow pace of my reading mimicking the protracted period in which poor Swann, tormented by jealousy, can’t get enough time or attention from his lover, Odette. The worst part is, even when he’s with her, he can’t enjoy her company. And then, one morning, after a strange dream, his love dissipates and he famously wonders how he could have spent years of his life pining “for a woman who did not please me, who was not my type!”
This is probably the fourth or fifth time I’ve read “Swann in Love,” because even though I haven’t finished Proust’s novel, I’ve returned to “Swann in Love” several times and read it as if it were a stand-alone novella. When I first read it, I was most struck by Proust’s insights about romantic relationships, specifically, the role that memory plays in shaping our idea of a person, and how those memories create a narrative of “falling in love.” We use memories of shared experiences to build a story for our love and then we live in that story, inhabiting it so completely that we no longer see it as a fiction. Falling in love means abandoning an objective point of view for a subjective (some might say delusional) one. Somehow Proust manages to dramatize this change in perception in Swann’s story, making it feel epic and emblematic.
Over the years, I’ve approached “Swann in Love” from an apprentice fiction writer’s perspective, wondering how on earth did he do it? In earlier readings, I’ve thought the genius of the narration had everything to do with Proust’s prose style — his beautiful sentences and insights, his similes, his sense of humor. Now I think what matters most is the distance from which Marcel tells the story. Finding the right narrative distance is a problem I’ve been tackling in my own fiction, so maybe this is just projection on my part, but as I reread “Swann in Love,” this time, I kept thinking about the fact that Marcel introduces the story of Swann’s love affair with Odette as one that happened before he was even born. It’s a story he’s telling secondhand, “with the precision of detail which it is easier, sometimes, to obtain about the lives of people who have been dead for centuries than about the lives of our most intimate friends.”
Marcel never says who told him the story of Swann’s love affair, though there are occasional references to Marcel’s grandfather, who was friends with Swann’s father, and has a somewhat paternal and disapproving view of the younger Swann. We also meet Swann in the Combray sections of Volume I. He first appears as the visitor whose unexpected appearance disturbs Marcel’s bedtime routine, preventing Marcel from receiving a kiss from his mother. In this way, Swann is a father figure of sorts. But most of the time, Swann is like the fun, bachelor uncle whose unpredictable visits and dilettantish, social existence is in contrast to the staid routines of Marcel’s traditional, middle-class family. Swann fascinates the young Marcel, even more so after his “unfortunate marriage” to Odette, the coquette who is not even “his type.” But the younger Marcel of the Combray years doesn’t know her as Odette, he doesn’t know her “type,” and he has not yet heard the story of Swann’s tortured early years with her. All young Marcel knows is that his parents do not approve of the woman Swann has married.
To tell a story well, you need the right combination objectivity and intimacy. It’s important that Marcel’s fascination with Swann begins in childhood. Marcel will always have a memory of Swann that is visceral and associated with his family and his childhood home; he will always feel that he knows Swann in a deep way. That’s where the intimacy comes in. The objectivity comes into play as Marcel begins to wonder about Swann and the world he inhabits — a world that Marcel’s parents conceal or else know very little about. Looking back on my own childhood, the most interesting stories were the ones that my parents only told in part. I would have to piece the untold parts together like a reporter, using logic, deduction, and my own observations to make sense of what little I knew — as young Marcel does with Swann. Marcel’s questions about Swann’s life and his love affairs are essential questions of childhood: what is love, what is sexual desire, what is society, what is class, what, in short, are these mysterious forces that are shaping life but which no one alludes to directly?
A couple of months ago, I saw the movie, Brooklyn, based on Colm Tóibín’s novel of the same name and was struck by how well it translated to film. It’s not an especially dramatic story. It follows Eilis, an ordinary Irish girl who immigrates to Brooklyn in the 1950s and has to decide who she will marry and where she will live. Her choices are not very surprising or bold. And yet, in both the book and the movie, Eilis comes across as a brave heroine. Her ordinary life seems larger than life. Even with the period details, there was something slightly out-of-time about the story; it was almost like a fairy tale. Some critics objected to the tone, wishing for something more gritty and realistic, but I don’t think it would have had the same emotional depth without it — the same mix of intimacy and objectivity. In an interview with Tóibín, I wasn’t surprised to learn that the story was from his childhood, one he heard secondhand at an emotional moment in his life:
My father died when I was 12. We were living in a small town in the southeast of Ireland. An old woman came to our house to pay her condolences. She told a story about her daughter, who had left Ireland to live in Brooklyn. She never said “America” or “New York.” She always said “Brooklyn.” Like it was a country all by itself. The way she talked about her daughter’s experiences there — working in a big department store on Fulton Street, marrying an Italian boy — there was something magical about it. I knew even then that one day I would tell that story.
Flannery O’Connor famously said that anyone who has survived childhood has more than enough material to write fiction. When I first heard that quote, secondhand and out of context, I assumed she was referring to the trauma of adolescence, and that it was her way of saying, “if you can’t get a story from that transformation, you probably won’t get a story from anything.” That’s part of what she’s saying, but having read the quote in context, her main point seems to be that it’s not life experience that makes you a good writer; it’s your contemplation of whatever experience life gives you. More than any writer I know, Proust shows how the half-stories we hear in childhood, the people we meet, the histories and landscapes we absorb, can be excavated in adulthood, with an adult’s sympathetic imagination.
A few weeks ago, to prepare myself for my solo book club, I read a biography of Marcel Proust — though not the Jean-Yves Tadié doorstopper that I mentioned in my first entry. Instead I read Benjamin Taylor’s Proust: The Search, a tightly focused biography concerned mainly with one question: how did Marcel Proust, of all writers, manage to author what many consider to be the greatest novel of all time? According to Taylor, it was not by any means preordained. No one in his circle, especially those who knew him in his youth, would have predicted it. His first published efforts were mediocre and forgettable. He lacked discipline, socialized too much, and couldn’t be bothered to show up for his part-time librarian job. He was also very sickly, an asthmatic who was easily exhausted by travel and parties — both of which he could not resist. Yet somehow, Taylor argues, “all this light-minded flitting around would turn out to be essential preparation.”
It took Proust about 13 years to write In Search of Lost Time, an extraordinary pace when you consider that he wrote seven volumes, none of them less than 400 pages and some close to 900. And it’s extraordinary considering the quality of his prose, and how interconnected the books are, with certain themes repeating and developing over the course of the novel, and a cast of characters changing over time, aging and evolving (or not evolving), just as real people do. Proust had the end of the novel in mind when he began, and a vague sense that he had found the structure — or, maybe, the moral sensibility — that could finally contain all the different modes of writing he wished to employ: description, analysis, dialogue, gossip, satire, and of course, his essays and insights about memory and consciousness. He was 38 years old and in poor health when he started writing. He knew he did not have any time left to waste. He believed — as it turned out, accurately — that he was writing on deadline. He died in 1922, shortly after completing his novel.
Reading Taylor’s biography, I kept thinking about the fact that I’m turning 38 this spring. This felt, at first, like a very egotistical thing to dwell upon, a secret hope that I might be on the cusp of writing a novel as grand as Proust’s. But, delusions aside, I think what really interests me about this parallel is that as a reader, I am the same distance from my childhood as Proust was from his when he began his book. Given Proust’s theme of memory lost and found, that similarity in perception has made the early pages of the novel feel very close to my current experience of memory and time.
Even those who have only a passing knowledge of Swann’s Way, the first volume of In Search of Lost Time, will probably know that it begins with a long recollection of the narrator’s childhood trips to the country. This recollection is famously spurred by a happenstance bite of a madeleine cookie dipped in tea. The narrator, Marcel, describes the memories as “involuntary”, and all the more beautiful because he did not even realize he had them; they were bidden by sensory experience, not intellectual recall.
When I first read Proust in college, I certainly knew what it was like to suddenly and surprisingly remember something after encountering a particular smell or taste. But at 21, my memories of childhood were so close that nothing really seemed forgotten. If the smell of someone’s shampoo unexpectedly brought back the pretty smile of a long-lost babysitter, I didn’t believe, as Proust did, that it was a stroke of luck to have remembered that girl, and that I might have forgotten her, entirely, if not for that whiff of Herbal Essences. Now, at 37, I understand how distant memories can become. Lately, I feel like I’m looking at my childhood from a slightly higher vantage point, so that I can finally see the topography. Certain events and people seem to have risen in importance while others have blended together. I was talking to a friend my age about this and she knew what I was talking about, reporting that just recently she seems to have forgotten parts of her teens and 20s. Does this happen to everyone, we wondered — was it some kind of subtle marker of impending middle age? Did it happen to Proust? Was forgetting what allowed him to write his marvelous book of remembrance?
As I write this, I am about three weeks into reading Swann’s Way. I’ve finished the first two sections of the volume, “Combray I” and “Combray II,” which detail the summer hours Marcel spent in the village of Combray as a child, staying at his aunt’s house. I’ve read these pages twice before, so they were familiar, and as always, I reveled in Proust’s overwhelmingly sensual descriptions of the French countryside. It made me wonder if I’ve gravitated toward these books in January because of how evocative they are of warm weather, long walks outdoors, flowers, and sunshine. The funny thing is that Marcel often avoids the outdoors and would prefer to stay inside with a book. As a result, he is just as lavish, if not more so, in his descriptions of domestic space:
The air of those rooms was saturated with the fine bouquet of a silence so nourishing, so succulent that I could not enter them without a sort of greedy enjoyment, particularly on those first mornings, chilly still, of the Easter holidays, when I could taste it more fully, because I had just arrived then at Combray: before I went in to wish my aunt good day I would be kept waiting a little time in the outer room, where the sun, a wintry sun still, had crept in to warm itself before the fire, lighted already between its two brick sides and plastering the room and everything in it with the smell of soot, making the room like one of those great open hearths that one finds in the country, or one of the canopied mantelpieces in old castles under which one sits hoping that outside it is raining or snowing, hoping even for a catastrophic deluge to add the romance of shelter and security to the comfort of a snug retreat…
This sentence goes on to describe the variety of smells in the room, and how they are intensified by the warmth and heat of the fire, baking together “like a pie.” It’s wonderfully childlike, and it brought me back to my grandparents’ houses in West Chester, Penn. Both my maternal and paternal grandparents lived in West Chester (my parents met in high school) but they retired and moved away when I was still in elementary school. Their houses, along with the houses of certain school friends, seemed preserved in a particular part of my memory, at once more specific and dreamlike than the houses and apartments I’ve come to know as an adult. It’s these dream houses — or at least, aspects of them — that I helplessly imagine when a novel prompts me to imagine a house, or when I’m creating a house for a character in a story.
My life is a lot more domestic than it was 10 years ago, when I last read these pages, and that’s probably the main reason I’ve been paying closer attention to descriptions of interior space. I’ve also been watching my son grow up, and it’s dawning on me that his earliest memories will be of the apartment and the neighborhood where we now live. I love our apartment and our neighborhood; they have been the location of many important life events, including my wedding reception. And yet, my experience of my apartment will never be foundational, and as I look around its rooms and out its windows, I’m not at all sure what my son will remember of it.
When I was his age, I lived in a small town in Maine in a gray house that was next door to a fire hall and across the street from the town common. If you were to ask my father about this house, he would probably tell you about the downtrodden state it was in when he and my mother bought it, and the work they did to renovate. He would recall certain quirky details: the phone booth, the clawfoot bathtub, the little library. He would also remember the inconveniences: the fire hall’s alarm that went off every day at noon; the driveway that needed to be shoveled out every time it snowed; the loads of wood that had to be chopped for the furnace.
But I don’t remember any of that. I might even be wrong about some of those details, because I’m simply transcribing what I’ve heard in conversation, as an adult. What I remember from childhood are the narrow back stairs that led from my playroom to the kitchen like a secret passageway; the view of the town common from my bedroom window, how it looked empty and dark at night, like a lake; the cracked, uneven sidewalk that led from our house to the end the block where a maple flamed fuchsia and red every fall; the painted wooden steps where I liked to arrange my tea set, and where bits of gray paint flecked off in my hands; my mother standing on the front porch to call me indoors at 11:57, so I wouldn’t be startled by the alarm; my father shoveling out a hole in snow drift, “a snow house” to contain me while he shoveled the drive…
My childhood memories are dear to me, and indelible. I can only guess what my son’s will be. I can hope for certain things that I consider beautiful to have made an impression: the yellow walls in his room; the wall quilts that my mother made; our framed, antique map of Maine; our tall bookshelves, and our neighborhood walks to Valentino Pier, the bakery, and the cruise ship terminal, where the Queen Mary 2 docks and disembarks every few weeks. I hope — and yet, for all I know, my son’s memories are devoted to the recycling bins, the television remotes, the broken slatted shades, the gum-spotted sidewalks, the dinners in the IKEA cafeteria. I have very little control over what he remembers, and if Proust is to be believed, neither does he — neither do any of us.
Freud famously said “the madman is the dreamer awake”: better, we think, to let him lie. Like Mr. Rochester’s woman upstairs, we quarantine the dreaming mind in time and deny its existence by day. But what if it were true that night and day were not separate, and that our fictions were considered to be as serious, as vital, as what we do while awake?
I’ve always had strange dreams, but when I entered my mid-twenties, they became much stranger. By day, my life was unremarkable: I was a graduate student in a college town, then an adjunct instructor of writing and an administrative assistant at a non-profit; I lived in an apartment in a quiet neighborhood with my fiancé, a fellow graduate student, and went to bed by 10:30.
At night, though, things were far more exciting. I underwent terrifying medical experiments while strapped to a hospital bed. I bought a pet porcupine named Sweetie and dressed her in a fur coat, so that I could pet her, feeding her yogurt from a spoon. I gave birth to tacos and teddybears and human children, always boys, one of which came out fused to my hands. I joined the French Resistance and witnessed an alternate ending to World War Two in which Eva Braun, Hitler’s longtime mistress, detonated the wrong bomb, killing Hitler instead of us. When I started my novel, no one who knew me was surprised to hear that it explores dreams and the human subconscious.
I’m certainly not the first writer to lead a real life less dramatic than the one in my imagination—or, perhaps, to wonder about the worth of fiction in the face of reality. Emily Dickinson—dubbed “the Queen Recluse” by her good friend Samuel Bowles—spent most of her life at home, watching with frustration as the men of her family pursued careers in politics and public service. Jane Austen wrote love stories that resonate centuries after her death, despite the fact that she likely did not experience a romantic relationship herself. Charlotte Bronte had so powerful an imagination that she referred to her characters as her “inmates.” Marcel Proust worked from a Paris apartment soundproofed with cork and curtained from the sun. While writing In Search of Lost Time, Proust was lost in time himself: he slept during the day and worked at night. Once, he walked to the Louvre, realizing only when he arrived that it was midnight and the museum was closed.
For other writers, sleep offers a wellspring of creativity. Dreams have played a key role in some of literature’s greatest works of fiction: Frankenstein was conceived in a dream by Mary Shelley, as was E.B. White’s Stuart Little. Robert Louis Stevenson dreamt about a doctor with split personality disorder so vividly that he wrote a novel about this character—later titled The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—in an astonishing three days. In her book Writers Dreaming, Naomi Epel interviewed a collection of writers, including Stephen King and Maya Angelou. King, a famous proponent of the creative power generated via sleep, said creativity and dreams are “just so similar that they’ve got to be related. Part of my function as a writer is to dream awake.” Angelou agreed: “I do believe dreams have a function. I don’t see anything that has no function, not anything that has been created. The brain is so strange and wondrous in its mystery.”
It’s this tension—the potential functionality of dreams versus their ultimate mystery—that makes our relationship to the sleeping mind so fraught. While non-REM sleep has been tied to an array of critical subconscious processes, from emotional regulation to restoration and homeostasis, the function of REM sleep, when dreaming occurs, remains controversial. Some researchers believe it plays a role in learning and memory processing. Others think that dreams rid the brain of unwanted thoughts that could otherwise lead to obsession or paranoia. Michel Jouvet, a leading dream researcher from the University of Lyon, believes dreams give us the opportunity to rehearse our responses to frightening situations ahead of time, preparing us for their occurrence in waking life.
But in the absence of conclusive evidence, sleep’s utility—like that of fiction—is still in doubt. How much, in the end, does either one matter? Neither fiction nor dreams are what we call “real life,” that conscious space sandwiched in the sunny hours of each day. No matter how vital my dreams are to me, they—like my writing—exist in the margins of my daily life, the shadowed wings to either side of whatever action is happening onstage. The decrease in the financial support and cultural priority allotted to all forms of the arts has enhanced the sense that what writers are doing is not quite a job, not quite worth professional payment—not quite, well, necessary.
Business is now the most popular college major in the United States. Since 2009, funding for humanities and liberal arts programs—called “nonstrategic disciplines” by Florida Gov. Rick Scott—has decreased across the nation. It’s not all dire: the National Endowment for the Arts recently avoided a 49% budget cut, and Michelle Obama’s campaign on behalf of arts education has brought attention to the President’s Committee on the Arts and the two-year-old Humanities Turnaround Arts program. Still, cultural funding has been in global decline since 2009: Australia and Britain, as well as a range of European governments, have instituted major cuts; Portugal closed its Ministry of Culture after legislative elections in 2011.
Though I’m strongly in favor of arts funding, I still feel a near-constant sense of doubt about the worth of my work. I wonder whether my contributions could ever be equal to that of a doctor, a social worker, a soldier. As the earth’s climate warms and its resources thin, indulgence—both material and psychological—feels increasingly unsustainable. Even sleep has become a luxury, commodified for its relationship to performance. But the profits of dreaming remain unclear; in schools, excessive daydreaming—dreaming’s voluntary counterpart, commonly dismissed as “spacing out” or frivolous wishful thinking—has even been named a disorder.
Certainly, daydreaming has its drawbacks. As a child, a teenager and even a college student, I could spend hours imagining scenes so detailed that I was oblivious to everything around me until I came to, minutes or hours later, in a classroom whose lessons I hadn’t learned.
But daydreaming, like a self-built raft, has also carried me through years of fear and loneliness. Those moments were self-building, too, opportunities to experiment with experience and personality—and ultimately, to develop the character who will accompany me throughout my life: me. Like fiction, daydreaming allows me to imagine my way into a life that isn’t mine, and in the process, it offers emotional sustenance. And though it might not be real life, fiction can feel like it. In fact, a 2006 scientific study found that reading fiction activates the brain in a way that is very similar to actual, lived experience: reading vivid metaphors arouses the sensory cortex, and action-oriented sentences do the same for the motor cortex.
But the fact remains: no matter how many studies link fiction to empathy or dreaming to memory consolidation, we still don’t know conclusively what fiction or dreaming do for us, and perhaps we never will. It’s the most painful thorn in our side, this not-knowing, the eternal bane of human existence: we like to marvel at mystery, but we also like to contain it. Perhaps our limited tolerance for mystery has made us similarly resistant to the same in-between qualities in ourselves: irrationality, indecision, eccentricity. Yet peculiarity is as inherent to the human animal as muscle or bone. The mind is a beast in itself: like the body, it needs time and space to roam. In cordoning it off, we run the risk of alienating ourselves from the miraculous absurdity of life itself. We forget how to wonder, to drift. We forget that most questions in this world—the ones that really matter—are impossible to answer completely.
Readers of fiction are notoriously divided on open-ended conclusions. But are there any other kinds? In fiction, as in dreams, we muck around in the innards of things. We play and pretend. I get the same feeling, reading a novel or a short story, that I do when I look up at the stars: I am silenced, awed by the unknowable. Is sleep villain or hero, enabler or hindrance, site of action or useless intermission? If we knew, we might know a great many other things, too, and then there would be little reason to write fiction at all.
Image Credit: Wikicommons/Sogno di una sedicenne.
In Paolo Sorrentino’s film The Great Beauty, a louche writer named Jep Gambardella, spends much of his time strolling through the cobble-stone streets of Rome and soaking up impressions and experience, that will figure, we assume, in a long-delayed follow-up to his first acclaimed novel. He reflects on the ineffable qualities that mark good writing.
“I was destined for sensibility. I was destined to become a writer. I was destined to become Jep Gambardella.”
At another point, while responding to the flattery of a beautiful, young female admirer, who quotes from his book, Jep says the sentiment he was expressing had been better written by the Italian prose master Alberto Moravia.
Born in 1907, Alberto Moravia achieved at 21 critical and commercial success with his first novel, The Time of Indifference, a cause célèbre eschewing middle-class mores. Before his death in 1990, he would publish over 40 novels, including The Conformist (1951), the adaptation of which in 1970 by Bernardo Bertolucci has the unusual distinction of being both a classic of post-war Italian cinema and of early-1970s zeitgeist.
In his recollections to the Paris Review, after Mussolini came to power, he struggled to get his books published (though Mussolini himself approved the 1940 publication of The Dream of the Lazy) and eventually fled for refuge to the Apennine mountains in 1943. He spent the war years trying to get his scandalous novels past Fascist censors:
I sent Agostino to them two months before the fall of Fascism, two months before the end. While all about them everything was toppling, falling to ruin, the Ministry of Popular Culture was doing business as usual. Approval looked not to be forthcoming; so one day I went up there, to Via Veneto — you know the place; they’re still there, incidentally; I know them all — to see what the trouble was. They told me that they were afraid that they wouldn’t be able to give approval to the book. My dossier was lying open on the desk, and when the secretary left the room for a moment I glanced at it. There was a letter from the Brazilian cultural attaché in it, some poet, informing the Minister that in Brazil I was considered a subversive. In Brazil of all places! But that letter, that alone, was enough to prevent the book’s publication.
Moravia himself spent most of the second half of the 20th century strolling along the Via dell’Oca (which means “Street of the Goose”). Anna Maria de Dominicis and Ben Johnson, in the introduction to his Paris Review interview, describe the street as “houses of working-class people: a line of narrow doorways with dark, dank little stairs, cramped windows, a string of tiny shops; the smells of candied fruit, repair shops, wines of the Castelli, engine exhaust” on one side and on the other side “the serene imperiousness of unchipped cornices and balconies overspilling with potted vines, tended creepers: homes of the well-to-do.” His fiction would explore both sides of Italy.
In an introduction to Moravia’s Boredom, William Weaver says, “Moravia was a great friend to walk with: a born Roman, he knew every brick of the city; even the most drab apartment block or the scruffiest little church could set a sparkling train of associations and memories. But, on encountering him, I would first, automatically, ask him how he was.
“’Mi annoio,’ he would usually reply, in his clipped telegraphic way.
NYRB Classics has recently republished Moravia’s early novella Agostino, in a fine translation by Michael F. Moore. Agostino is a young boy who has an unusually close attachment to his widowed mother, and the novel takes place during their extended stay at a beach resort. His sensitivity and jealousy drive them apart in the first chapters of the book, a closely reworked Swann’s Way:
Agostino’s mother was a big and beautiful woman still in her prime, and Agostino was filled with pride every time he got in the boat with her for one of their morning rides.
The novel, though, soon plunges from Proust into the hard-knock fringes of the beach resort. Driven away by his mother’s interest in a “tanned, dark-haired” young man, Agostino falls in with a group of working-class boys who are inarticulate, violent, inscrutable. He is drawn to them, as a kind of foil to his predictable upper-middle-class universe:
For a moment Agostino felt happy as he swam while the cold powerful stream tugged at his legs, and he forgot every hurt and every wrong. The boys were swimming in all directions, their heads and arms breaking through the smooth green surface. Their voices echoed clearly in the still air. Through the glassy transparency of the water, their bodies looked like white offshoots of plants that, rising to the surface from the darkness below, moved whichever way the current took them.
Eventually, the privileged Agostino whose home has 20 bedrooms (an unimaginable number for the other boys) begins to beg for change. He encounters a father and son, and the father unadvisedly takes the opportunity to teach his son about the have’s and have-not’s.
“And how old are you?” the man inquired.
“Thirteen,” said Agostino.
“You see,” said the man to his son, “this boy is almost the same age as you and he’s already working.” Then to Agostino, “Do you go to school?”
“I wish…but how can I?” replied Agostino, taking on the deceitful tone he had often heard the boys in the gang adopt to address similar questions. “I gotta make a living, mister.”
“You see,” the father turned to his son again, “this boy can’t go to school because he has to work, and you have the nerve to complain because you have to study?”
Moravia maintained an interest in intellectuals who rationalize their own impulsive behaviors and others’. In stark contrast to Agostino, his later novel, Contempt, rereleased a decade ago by NYRB Classics, features a first-person narrator, a screenwriter whose disgust for movie-writing is matched only by his wife’s inexplicable contempt for him. Throughout, the narrator interrogates his wife, and by extension the mystery of attraction itself:
Suddenly, the suspicion that she no longer loved me sprang into my mind again, in an abrupt, haunting sort of way, as a feeling of the impossibility of contact and communion between my body and hers…And I, like a person who suddenly realizes he is hanging over an abyss, felt a kind of painful nausea at the thought that our intimacy had turned for no reason at all, into estrangement, absence, separation.
Since so many of his themes touch on the unconscious and taboo sexuality, it might be surprising how skeptical his novels are to psychoanalytic techniques. Throughout Contempt, Moravia satirizes a character who has embraced a very schematic version of Freudianism.
Moravia suggests that ratiocination is a poor substitute for taste. One of his great themes is how sensibility is wrecked by negotiations with other people, other classes, other individuals, and thereby reinvigorated. As the screenwriter-narrator of Contempt says of his wife when she tells him she despises him, “It was the tone of the virgin word that springs directly from the thing itself and pronounced by someone who had perhaps never spoken that word before, and who, urged on by necessity, had fished it up from the ancestral depths of the language, without searching for it, almost involuntarily.”
Both Contempt and Agostino have an almost Neoclassical form, unlike, say, The Leopard. Lampedusa and Moravia point toward two very different directions for Italian fiction, though Contempt, a bracingly austere book that harkens back to naturalism, was published in 1954, and Lampedusa’s inventive, comic experiment was published in 1958.
Though his work deeply engaged with early-20th-century social and intellectual concerns, he claimed his fiction was informed most by the big “C” Canon. In his conversation with the Paris Review, he comes across as alternately fusty and cantankerous in his observations on the Moderns. He rejects O’Neill and Shaw as major dramatists because they “resorted to everyday language and, in consequence, by my definition failed to create true drama.”
If the first chapter takes off from Proust, the last movement of Agostino is a poignant revision of the ending of Sentimental Education. In Flaubert’s novel, Frédéric and Deslauriers, after several intervening years of disillusionment and disappointment, reminisce about a youthful visit to a brothel. During the visit, Frédéric becomes embarrassed and flees into the street, and his friend follows him. They are both seen coming out, and it causes a “local scandal which was still remembered three years later.” The novel ends with the two failed romantics remarking on the story:
“That was the happiest time we ever had,” said Frédéric.
“Yes, perhaps you’re right. That was the happiest time we ever had,” Deslauriers says.
In the final pages of his novella, Moravia has the prepubescent Agostino visit a brothel with his piggybank savings. When the encounter at the brothel predictably ends badly, he goes back home and demands of his mother that he be treated like a man. It is a moving depiction of a young person’s thwarted autonomy.
“But he wasn’t a man,” Moravia writes, “and many unhappy days would pass before he became one.”
I don’t know what I’m preparing for. My whole life I’ve considered valuable certain experiences, accomplishments, and knowledge simply because I imagine they’ll be useful to me in the future. I’m beginning to doubt this proposition.
Here’s an example. For the last ten years, I’ve kept a Word document for quotes. Any time I come across a worthy passage, I file it away. By now, the file has grown to over 30,000 words from hundreds of books, articles, poems, and plays. I do this not in the interest of collecting quotable prose or for the benefit of inspiration or encouragement or even insight. What I’m looking for are potential epigraphs.
You see, I love epigraphs. Everything about them. I love the white space surrounding the words. I love the centered text, the dash of the attribution. I love the promise. When I was a kid, they intimidated me with their suggested erudition. I wanted to be the type of person able to quote Shakespeare or Milton or, hell, Stephen King appropriately. I wanted to be the type of writer who understood their own work so well that they could pair it with an apt selection from another writer’s work.
If I ever wrote a novel, I told myself, about a writer, maybe I could quote Barbara Kingsolver: “A writer’s occupational hazard: I think of eavesdropping as minding my own business.” Or maybe one of Philip Roth’s many memorable passages on the writer’s life, like:
No, one’s story isn’t a skin to be shed — it’s inescapable, one’s body and blood. You go on pumping it out till you die, the story veined with the themes of your life, the ever-recurring story that’s at once your invention and the invention of you.
Or, taking a different tack:
It may look to outsiders like the life of freedom — not on a schedule, in command of yourself, singled out for glory, the choice apparently to write about anything. But once one’s writing, it’s all limits. Bound to a subject. Bound to make sense of it. Bound to make a book of it. If you want to be reminded of your limitations virtually every minute, there’s no better occupation to choose. Your memory, your diction, your intelligence, your sympathies, your observations, your sensations, your understanding — never enough. You find out more about what’s missing in you than you really ought to know. All of you an enclosure you keep trying to break out of. And all the obligations more ferocious for being self-imposed.
In some cases, I’d read something that was so eloquent and succinct, so insightful, I’d be inspired to write something around it, even if I didn’t have anything to go on other than the quote. Aleksander Hemon’s The Lazarus Project is positively riddled with possible epigraphs. Right away, on page two, we get this: “All the lives I could live, all the people I will never know, never will be, they are everywhere. That is all that the world is.” (Recognize that one? If you do, that’s because it has already been used as an epigraph for Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, except McCann changes all of the I’s to we’s.) Then, on the very next page, this: “There has been life before this. Home is where somebody notices when you are no longer there.” A few pages later: “I am just like everybody else, Isador always says, because there is nobody like me in the whole world.” On page 106: “Nobody can control resemblances, any more than you can control echoes.” That one made me want to write about a despotic father and the son who’s trying to avoid following in his footsteps. I didn’t have a great need to write that story, but the quote would have fit it so perfectly I actually have an unfinished draft somewhere in my discarded Word documents.
This is, of course, a stupid way to go about crafting fiction. I learned that lesson. You can’t write something simply because you’ve found the perfect epigraph, the perfect title, the perfect premise –– there has to be a greater need, a desire that you can’t stymie. Charles Baxter once wrote, “Art that is overcontrolled by its meaning may start to go a bit dead.” The same is true of art overcontrolled by anything other than the inexplicable urge to put story to paper. I know this now.
Yet I still collect possible epigraphs. And so far, I have yet to use a single entry from my document at the beginning of a piece of fiction.
Epigraphs, despite what my young mind believed, are more than mere pontification. Writers don’t use them to boast. They are less like some wine and entrée pairing and more like the first lesson in a long class. Writers must teach a reader how to read their book. They must instruct the tone, the pace, the ostensible project of a given work. An epigraph is an opportunity to situate a novel, a story, or an essay, and, more importantly, to orient the reader to the book’s intentions.
To demonstrate the multiple uses of the epigraph, I’d like to discuss a few salient examples. But I’m going to shy away from the classic epigraphs we all know, those of Hemingway, Tolstoy, etc., the kinds regularly found in lists with titles like “The 15 Greatest Epigraphs of All Time,” and talk about some recent books, since those are the ones that have excited (and, in some cases, confounded) me enough to write about the subject in the first place.
A good epigraph establishes the theme, but when it works best it does more than this. A theme can be represented in an infinity of ways, so it is the particular selection of quotation that should do the most work. Philip Roth’s Indignation opens with this section of E.E. Cummings’s “i sing of Olaf glad and big”:
Olaf (upon what were once knees)
does almost ceaselessly repeat
“there is some shit I will not eat”
For a book titled Indignation, this seems a perfect tone with which to begin the novel. Olaf’s a heroic figure, who suffered unrelenting torture and still refused to kill for any reason, which means Roth here is also elevating the narrative of his angry protagonist to heroic status. Marcus Messner is a straight-laced boy in the early 1950s, attending college in rural Ohio. Despite his best efforts, Marcus gets caught up in the moral hypocrisy of American values, winding up getting killed in the Korean War. Marcus and Olaf are, as Cummings wrote, “more brave than me:more blond than you.”
Authors do this kind of thing all the time. They borrow more than just the quoted lines. In Roth’s case, it was Cummings’s moral outrage about American war he wanted aligned with his novel.
Poets claim that we recapture for a moment the self that we were long ago when we enter some house or garden in which we used to live in our youth. But these are most hazardous pilgrimages, which end as often in disappointment as in success. It is in ourselves that we should rather seek to find those fixed places, contemporaneous with different years.
The unknown element in the lives of other people is like that of nature, which each fresh scientific discovery merely reduces but does not abolish.
The theme of Egan’s novel is time and its effects on us –– how we survive or endure, how we perish, how things change, etc. –– a fact established here by quoting the foremost authority on fictive examinations of time, memory, and life gone by. But more than that, Egan is connecting her novel –– which is full of formal daring and partly takes place in the future –– to a canonical author whose own experimentation has now become standard. Like the music industry in her book, the world of literature has changed, maybe not for the worse but irrevocably nonetheless, and Proust’s monumental achievement has become, to most modern readers, an impenetrable and uninteresting work. Egan’s choice of epigraph places her squarely in the same tradition. The Modernism of Proust gave way to the Postmodernism of Egan. Years on, to readers not yet born, A Visit from the Good Squad may seem a hopelessly old-fashioned relic. Such is the power of time.
James Franco also opens his story collection Palo Alto with a selection from In Search of Lost Time, but the effect is severely diminished in his case. First of all, the quoted passage reads:
There is hardly a single action that we perform in that phase which we would not give anything, in later life, to be able to annul. Whereas what we ought to regret is that we no longer possess the spontaneity which made us perform them. In later life we look at things in a more practical way, in full conformity with the rest of society, but adolescence is the only period in which we learn anything.
Though a fitting passage for a work that focuses on young, troubled California teenagers, there is nothing other than the expressed idea that justifies Franco’s specific use of Proust as opposed to anyone else. And Franco attributes the quotation to Within a Budding Grove, which is the second book in, as Franco has it here, Remembrance of Things Past. Those two translations of the titles are, by now, somewhat obsolete, the titles of older translations. Within a Budding Grove is now usually referred to as In the Shadows of Young Girls in Flower. There is something a tad disingenuous about Franco’s usage here, a more transparently self-conscious attempt to legitimize his stories, something he didn’t need to do. His stories, despite some backlash he’s received, are pretty good.
Some writers are just masters of the epigraph. Thomas Pynchon always knows an evocative way to open his books. His Against the Day is a vast, panoramic novel that features dozens of characters in as many settings. The story begins at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893 and goes until the 1920s, a period of remarkable technological change the world over. Electricity had been commercialized and was becoming commonplace. Tesla was conducting all his experiments. Pynchon reduces all of these pursuits to a wonderfully succinct quote:
It’s always night, or we wouldn’t need light.
–– Thelonious Monk
First of all, have you ever even thought about the universe in this way? That darkness is its default setting? Secondly, have you ever heard a more beautiful and concise explanation for one of the great plights of humanity? We’re afraid of the dark, and the desire for light (both literal and metaphorical) consumes us. Referencing Monk does the opposite of referencing Proust. Pynchon’s working with high theme here, but he’s coming at it with the spirit of a brilliant and erratic jazz artist.
His so-called “beach read,” Inherent Vice takes place at the end of the 1960s, an era that clearly means a lot to Pynchon. Earlier, in Vineland, radicals from the 60s have become either irrelevant eccentrics or have joined the establishment. It’s a strange, mournful meditation on the failures of free love. Inherent Vice takes a similar approach. Doc Sportello is a disinterested P.I. for whom the promise of that optimistic decade offers very little. That optimism is where we begin the novel:
Under the paving-stones, the beach!
–– Graffito, Paris, May 1968
A very pointed reference. Paris in May of 1968, of course, was a hotbed of protest and civic unrest, a time of strikes and occupations, and, for hippies and radicals, a harbinger of the changes to come. Well, Inherent Vice takes place on a beach. No paving-stones need be removed for the beach to appear. Yet the promise of the graffito –– i.e., that beauty and natural life exist under the surface of the establishment –– seems, to Doc Sportello (and us, as readers, in retrospect) a temporary hope that, like fog, will eventually lift and disappear forever. In the end, as Doc literally drives through a deep fog settling in over Los Angeles, he wonders “how many people he knew had been caught out” in the fog or “were indoors fogbound in front of the tube or in bed just falling asleep.” He continues:
Someday…there’d be phones as standard equipment in every car, maybe even dashboard computers. People could exchange names and addresses and life stories and form alumni associations to gather once a year at some bar off a different freeway exit each time, to remember the night they set up a temporary commune to help each other home through the fog.
The fog will lift, and the dream of the 60s will become a memory, murky but present. For Doc, and for us, all he can do is wait “for the fog to burn away, and for something else this time, somehow, to be there instead.”
For many, Inherent Vice was a light novel, a nice little diversion, and it mostly is, but for me it has more straightforward (and dare I say, sentimental?) emotional resonance than many of Pynchon’s earlier novels. And this epigraph is part of its poignancy. Doc’s complicated personal life becomes a panegyric for an entire generation, all in the form of a “beach read.”
Sometimes, though, epigraphs offer a different kind of poignancy Christopher Hitchens’s last collection of essays, Arguably, opens with this:
Live all you can: It’s a mistake not to.
–– Lambert Strether, in The Ambassadors
Hitchens, by the time Arguably was published, had already been diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He knew he was dying. This epigraph stands as Hitchens’s final assertion of his unwavering worldview. Even more retrospectively moving are the epigraphs of Hitch-22, a memoir he wrote before the doctors told him the news. One of these passages is the wonderful, remarkable opening of Hitchens’s friend Richard Dawkins’s book Unweaving the Rainbow:
We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of the Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, who are here.
Though I’m not sure how “ordinary” Hitchens viewed himself (he seems to have thought a great deal of himself), this still seems an uncannily prescient sentiment to be quoted so soon before his diagnosis.
But maybe my all-time favorite epigraph comes from Michael Chabon’s recent Telegraph Avenue:
Call me Ishmael.
––Ishmael Reed, probably
This is one of the cleverest, funniest, and most arrogant epigraphs I’ve come across in recent years. “Call me Ishmael” is, as we all know, the opening sentence of Moby Dick. Ishmael Reed was a black experimental novelist, author of the classic Mumbo Jumbo, a writer steeped in African American culture not depicted in mainstream art. Chabon’s novel takes place in Oakland and focuses, in part, on race. It is Chabon’s most direct attempt to write a Great American Novel (it even suggests as much on the inside flap of the hardcover), with its grand themes and storied setting, its 12-page-long sentence, its general literariness. By framing his book with an irreverent reference to one of America’s definitive Great American Novels, placed in the mouth of a black writer, Chabon both announces his intention to write a Great book and denounces the entire notion that there can be Great books. How does the supposed greatness of Moby Dick speak to the black experience? What does its language offer them? So here, the most revered sentence in American literature becomes, for a man named Ishmael, a quotidian utterance, a common request. Call me Ishmael. Just another day for Ishmael Reed. And Telegraph Avenue works like that, too. It’s just another day for Archy and Nat, the book’s main characters. Is Telegraph Avenue Chabon’s Moby Dick? His Ulysses? Perhaps. But it’s certainly in conversation with those books; the epigraph makes that much clear.
Epigraphs are, ultimately, like many components of art, in that they can pretty much accomplish anything the writer wants them to. They can support a theme or contradict it. They can prepare readers or mislead them. They can situate a book into its intended company or they can renounce any relationship with the past. And when used effectively, they can be just as vital to a novel’s meaning as the title, the themes, the prose. An epigraph may not make or break a book, but it can certainly enhance its richness.
And, more, they can enhance the richness of the epigraph itself. Because of Michael Chabon, I can never look at Moby Dick’s famous opening the same way again. When I read Cummings’s poem “i sing of Olaf glad and big,” I have a new appreciation for its political implications. Literature is wonderful that way. It isn’t merely the creation of new work; it’s the extension of the art itself. Each new novel, each new story, not only adds to the great well of work, it actually reaches back into the past and changes the static text. It alters how we see the past. The giant conversation of literature knows no restrictions to time or geography, and epigraphs are a big part of it. Writers continuously resurrect the dead, salute the present and, like epigraphs, hint at what’s to come in the future.
Now that I think about it, I realize that all those quotes I’d been saving up over the years finally have a purpose. Since I’ve become a literary critic, I’ve mined my ever-growing document numerous times, not for an epigraph, but as assistance to my analysis of a literary work. I’ve used them to characterize a writer’s style, their recurring motifs or as examples of their insight. These quotations have become extremely useful, invaluable even. In fact, I see my collection as a kind of epigraph to my own career. At first, I didn’t understand their import, but as I lived on (and, appropriately, as I read on), those borrowed words slowly started to announce their purpose, and when I revisit them (like flipping back to the front page of a novel after finishing it), I find they have new meaning to me now. They are the same, but they are different. Like Pynchon writes in Inherent Vice: “What goes around may come around, but it never ends up exactly the same place, you ever notice? Like a record on a turntable, all it takes is one groove’s difference and the universe can be on into a whole ‘nother song.”
Just in time for the new season of Mad Men, The Paris Review unlocked their interview with Matthew Weiner from the new issue. The showrunner talks, among other things, about his father’s love of Swann’s Way and his own adolescent love of Winesburg, Ohio. You could also take a look at our own Hannah Gersen’s list of books to read when the season winds down.
Michelle Wildgen had established her reputation as the resident gourmand in Tin House’s New York office, where she was then managing editor, long before I set foot there in the mid-aughts. In need of obscure spices, olive oil, fresh mozzarella? Michelle would promptly send you up to 125th Street, down to Vinegar Hill, off to an Italian neighborhood in the Bronx. She regaled the office with English toffee before the winter holidays, showing her behind-the scenes-mastery of the candy thermometer. Rumor of an enigmatic past as a cheese reporter in Wisconsin trailed her. It became obvious, quickly, that for Michelle, food was central as a medium, as a subject, as a way of life. She gave me recipes for dishes I loved to eat but didn’t know the first thing about how to approach. Chana masala, for example, which at that point I ordered from an Indian joint in my neighborhood at least twice a week. Upon request, she also supplied me with a list of must-have cookbooks, which included Nigel Slater’s Appetite, the perennial classic Joy of Cooking, and Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen. Part of me still holds on to the idea of becoming a culinary goddess, but with each passing bout of inspiration I’ve learned that this desire to up the ante in the kitchen only lasts until I’m confronted by my own knives and cutting board and sink. This doesn’t diminish the pleasure I take in dining, of course, or overhearing an explicit description of a lavish feast. And so, for a while I lived vicariously while working with Michelle and listening to her mastery and enthusiasm for food, her robustness of detail. Those were hopeful years for me.
Food plays a central, steady, and rather predictable role in most of our lives. Three meals a day, coffee with breakfast, nightcap before bed. Or, if that’s not right, perhaps it’s coffee for breakfast, tuna salad for lunch, dinner out, and a nip of dark chocolate after? To each her own. Continuing to consume is necessary to continue living but this ongoing cycle of hunger and feeding doesn’t usually incite a predicament in the way that narrative fiction requires.
And just how many meals do characters prepare? How many do they eat? Oh, there are significant meals. There are wedding banquets and funeral meats. The tears of longing that fall into the wedding cake batter in Laura Esquivel’s Like Water For Chocolate afflicts each wedding guest who has a piece. Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus ends with a banquet where the guests are served a pie filled with meat cut from the bodies of Titus’s daughter’s assailants. Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way is forever linked to the madeleine because of an ecstatic memory of a morsel of that small French cake. And that’s not Proust’s only paean to food in Swann’s Way. His description of the kitchen scullions at work and the rows of all things vegetables sent me into a deep hunger the first time I read it:
I would stop by the table, where the kitchen-maid had shelled them, to inspect the platoons of peas, drawn up in ranks and numbered, like little green marbles, ready for a game; but what most enraptured me were the asparagus, tinged with ultramarine and pink which shaded off from their heads, finely stippled in mauve and azure, through a series of imperceptible gradations of their white feet — still stained a little by the soil of their garden-bed — with an iridescence that was not of this world.
Proust’s peas and asparagus evoke the 19th-century still lives of Édouard Manet, whose numerous depictions of kitchen stock and cuisine include a hare hung by the legs and a platter of raw oysters accompanied by lemon wedges. Consider also Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons and its portraits of food. The rhythm and sound come together to convey the object’s essence, making Stein’s “Asparagus” a different stripe than Proust’s. But Stein’s cubist rendering also aspires to art: “Asparagus in a lean in a lean to hot. This makes it art and it is wet wet weather wet weather wet.”
A chef knows how to stiffen the egg whites so that the soufflé stands; a fiction writer develops a sense of how to craft sentences and paragraphs to support the narrative and its central characters. There are prescriptive recipes for many types of writing just as there are for all kinds of dishes, and yet the ability to follow directions is more skill than art. It’s only after the procedures are internalized and diverged from that both cook and writer can pull off an original concoction.
Perhaps in this way, writing a novel is similar to planning a feast.
Wildgen’s depictions of food hew closer to Proust’s than Stein’s in that they are indulgent and languorous. And she’s as skilled at the mechanics of whipping up a well-crafted story as she is describing how to make a béarnaise. In her essay “Ode to an Egg” Wildgen confronts the egg, a character that is both pliable and stubborn: “Faced with gracelessness, an egg asserts itself…Just try skipping the tempering of beaten yolks with warm liquid before adding them to a béarnaise and watch the egg clench its proteins like fists. You will be no more successful with a chilly egg yanked from the fridge than you will with a date you have shoved into a swimming pool.” And yes, her fiction contains an abundance of edibles, too. In her first novel, You’re Not You, the narrator, Bec, is a young college student who takes a job as a caretaker for a woman afflicted with Lou Gehrig’s disease. The novel is peppered with vivid scenes of shopping in Madison’s farmer’s market, among the cascades of vegetables, cheeses, and meats. Wildgen’s second novel, But Not for Long, is set within a food co-op, and now, her latest, Bread and Butter, is nestled firmly in the restaurant industry as it follows three restaurateur brothers. Leo, the businessman, works in partnership with Britt, the charmer who oversees the front end of their well-established restaurant Winesap; and Harry, their upstart younger brother who wants to make his mark decides to open his own, edgier place, Stray.
Food is the true currency of Bread and Butter. Food is an art, a language of affection, of consolation, a way of life. The culinary imperative is present from the opening scene, where a young Harry buys a lamb’s tongue with his allowance. The long, lingering pass over the butcher’s case establishes the narrative eye as unflinching and artful:
Inside a butcher’s case, denuded rabbits curled pink and trusting in white bins, while the sheep’s heads appeared chagrined and surprised by the depth of their eyeballs, the narrow clamp of their own teeth. The display of calves’ brains and kidneys, livers and tripe, repulsed Britt, struck Leo as regrettable but unavoidable, and entranced Harry who was six.
The brothers’ reactions foretell much about their future adult selves, from Leo with the rational mind to Harry the adventure seeker. Their lives are defined in relation to food. This is true whether Leo and Brit worry about whether their warm chocolate cake has become outdated, or when the Harry argues for keeping a provocative dish on his menu: “you’ve also gotta give people something they haven’t tasted, something they can’t imagine and have to come in and try.” And, well, this scene also provides fair warning for readers who find so much meat unsavory, much like Momofuku’s Ssäm Bar whose the menu of which announces, “We do not serve vegetarian-friendly items.”
Human behavior is observed within the context of the rules of the trade (and the rules that are broken): don’t date coworkers; the staff is young, desirable, and often temperamental; key players in the kitchen will be lured and poached by other establishments; extreme focus is required during rushes, when on a good day the kitchen and wait staff merge into complimentary sides of a well-oiled machine. And the food! If nothing else (and there is plenty else), the novel revels in its cuisine. Sentences are peppered with exquisite dishes throughout and take detailed note of the textures and presentation and garnishes, allowing reader gorge. Dishes served include pig’s ear, hard salami, putty-colored lambs tongue, rabbit ragù with pappardelle, salted brittle, and sardines. An entire hog has been butchered and transformed into barbeque and charcuterie for a staff party. This physicality grounds the brothers’ struggles, caught up in assuring Winesap’s relevance as Stray establishes its name. When Britt first tastes Harry’s signature dish of lamb’s neck with Jerusalem artichokes he’s concerned that it’s too adventurous to lure small town diners. The same dish dazzles Leo and makes him worry he’s become too complacent. It’s the kind of conundrum that plagues the brothers, as well as all forms of art and commerce — the inspired dish won’t lure diners despite its brilliance, while the reliable dishes that sell are often staid.
Bread and Butter is a tremendous feast of a novel. Like a meal served at the streamlined Winesap, it adheres to a more classic ideal of what makes a book worth reading. It doesn’t aspire to rework the novel as form, nor does it attempt to. Instead, it achieves with excellence what it sets out to do, with its well-crafted characters and the subtle development of their entanglements, as it offers an insider’s view view of the restaurant industry, including the struggle to balance business and creativity, the intermingling of family and business, and of course, the cuisine. The food’s physicality is so palpable and inviting, and is rendered with precision and balance — this too is art. I’ll leave you with a morsel to whet your appetite, as Harry serves the lamb’s neck: “He drew something meaty and brown, dripping, from a braising pot and set it on a metal dish and slid it into the oven. Then he arranged some crisp root vegetables and broccoli rabe on a round white plate, placed the meat at the center, and scattered the whole thing with something golden and green and finely chopped. He placed this before Britt with the air of a cat delivering a freshly killed gopher.”
Add this to the roster of great literary takedowns. Apparently Evelyn Waugh once wrote the following about Proust: “Nobody told me he was a mental defective. He had no sense of time.” (This stands in stark contrast with the views of Aleksandar Hemon, who wrote in a recent Year in Reading piece that Swann’s Way is “one of those miraculous books that gets better with every re-reading.”)
I’ve been dipping in Baruch Spinoza’s Ethics and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, for no particular reason, other than that I like thought — I’m sick of the relentless, numbing emotionalism of American culture.
Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks deserves every bit of attention and success it has received, for the way it addresses the ethics of science and race. Also, I am a huge fan of historical characters that would be forgotten if it wasn’t for a talented, curious writer who doesn’t succumb to the pressures of being in this (boring) moment. Thus I loved Monique Brinson Demery’s Finding the Dragon Lady: The Mystery of Vietnam’s Madame Nhu.
It took me only a couple of days to read Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. One of the things we are good at are the systems of thoughtlessness — witnessing the dissection of one of them was both rewarding and disheartening. I’m a huge fan of Graham Robb’s work, particularly his biography of Rimbaud and his books on Paris and France. But Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century was a revelation in the power of its conviction and erudition.
I loved Laurent Binet’s HHhH, its intelligence and ethical commitment. Gary Shteyngart is one of the funniest people alive, but Super Sad True Love Story is not just very funny, it is also sad and sadly true.
And it is, of course, the centenary of the publication of Swann’s Way, the first volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which is one of those miraculous books that gets better with every re-reading.
And I’ve gone through dozens of books on soccer in 2013, but I’ll just mention two: Barca: the Making of the Greatest Team in the World by Graham Hunter and Pep Guardiola: Another Way of Winning by Guillem Balague, both full of great stories, meticulous research, and recollections of great soccer matches. In my entire life, I’ve read only one book about American football, which I despise every day of my life. But Rich Cohen’s Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football is one of the best sports books I’ve ever read and now I have something to talk about with men at Thanksgiving.
Looking into the future, I enjoyed and admired Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman (coming out in February 2014), because it is a book about reading (as translating), and full of love for it. Presently, I’m enjoying Yelena Akhtiorskaya’s Panic in a Suitcase (July 2014) — it is funny and smart, inventive and poetic, makes me want to write down every other sentence. And I shudder to think it is only her first book.
I read a lot, so I’ll stop here.
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I’m deciding which books to take on a trip to Austin next week. I get excited every time I choose a new book to read, obviously, but I get especially keyed up about choosing books to take on a trip. Vacation books are important. A lot of people use vacation as a time to read lighter, dare I say trashier books, with pictures of women’s calves on the front or authors in bomber jackets on the back. This convention is predicated on the notion that you’ll be able to read for longer periods of time, and books that are heavier – thematically and physically so – will overtax your brain at a time when you are meant to give it a break.
I don’t think this notion gives our brains or our books enough credit. The deep immersion in a book that long bouts of reading produces is suited to books with the richest, deeply-buried treasures. A good book invites you to sever your connection with the real world and come into the one it creates; the longer you read it, the more that connection is severed, the more you exist in the interior world of the book rather than this one. Just imagine how this effect is heightened when the world you are in is alien to you, one where you’re just visiting and don’t know the people or your way around, and therefore the book’s world becomes the familiar one. This is when the magic happens.
I read the second and third volumes of In Search of Lost Time on a trip to Santorini during which I would spend whole afternoons – whole days! – reading Proust on a sun-soaked terrace. I may sound like Marie Antoinette advocating cake here, but those 300-page dinner party scenes are best read in one sitting. It does take a while to adjust to Proust’s rhythms, but once you’re there, my goodness, stay there as long as possible.
Taking a book on vacation, reading it in this leisurely, savoring manner, stacks the odds that it will become special to me. For this reason, I take a long time choosing, because I know that when I remember the vacation, it will be intertwined with my memories of the book I was reading. I associate Proust with Santorini the way I associate On Photography with Marseilles, Cloud Atlas with a train ride to Kansas City, Out Stealing Horses with a 9-hour plane ride, Home with Grenoble, and The Fault in Our Stars with a cabin in Colorado.
This theory of vacation books, which I subscribe to so heartily, all began with a vacation I took, to London, which was one of the worst decisions I ever made, and the book I took along, Banvard’s Folly, which was one of the best.
I spent my junior year studying in London. I fell in love with the city, and also with one of its men. He was my first real love and is still one of my favorite people in the world, but when the year was through and it was time for me to go back to my senior year in the States, we saw no other option than to break up. About two months later, he saw no other option than to start dating the girl who had been my best friend and roommate in London.
Oh, readers, the drama! The professions of anger and confusion and betrayal and regret and understanding and forgiveness and serenity. Peace was restored, hard feelings were said to be lacking, we all decided to move past it. Eighteen months later, another friend was getting married in London, and I was going over to attend. Ask yourself who the worst person I could have stayed with was. Then ask yourself if I stayed with her.
It wasn’t a fiasco, but it was pretty bad. It was a lot easier for the three of us to be past it when we were an ocean apart rather than in the same room. The folly of our decision to spend five days together was apparent from the first one. When things got weird — and they got weird a lot — I read my book.
I was an author events coordinator in Boston at the time, and we had just hosted Paul Collins. Of the several dozen author events I worked during my years there, his remains my favorite. His 40-minute talk was warm, engaging, informative, surprising, funny, inspiring, and delivered without notes. Every person in attendance, a tragically small number, purchased every one of his books. I did the same, and I’d been saving what I’d heard was the best.
Each of Banvard’s Folly’s 13 chapters tells the story of a person whose genius, ambition, or imagination far exceeded their success. The paperback’s subtitle is “Thirteen Tales of People Who Didn’t Change the World.” They are therefore forgotten, but in Collins’s hands unforgettable. There’s the titular Banvard, a famous painter who squandered his fortune trying to compete with PT Barnum. There’s the guy who first bred the Concord grape before you could patent that sort of thing. There was a French physicist who thought he’d discovered a new source of radiation and a woman who tried to prove Francis Bacon was Shakespeare.
Paul Collins is a gentleman to his subjects, always, and this book neither smirks nor condescends. It had the same lively curiosity and optimism that I’d witnessed in Collins’s talk, and when I needed to escape an awkward room or a conversation I wasn’t a part of, I would excuse myself to be introduced to more of these admirable, doomed people. Each of them was quixotically devoted to an idea that didn’t work out. I actually only just realized, 10 years later, as I’m writing this, that I was devoted to a doomed idea myself. I thought I could maintain two friendships that could not be maintained, and I was watching that idea fail. Maybe I needed to be in the company of someone who never smirks nor condescends.
Banvard’s Folly is very special to me. It was my best friend on that trip. I turned the last page as my plane was taking off from Heathrow. Then I closed the book, and hugged it, and I cried.
I choose my vacation books carefully. I can’t imagine one of them will ever be as significant as Banvard’s Folly was to that trip to London, but they’re important. Choose wisely.
It’s funny and fitting that Madame Proust, in a letter now on display at the Morgan Library, implored her son to share persnickety details about what time he got up in the morning. Another thing the exhibition, which celebrates the hundredth anniversary of Swann’s Way, reveals: early drafts of the book used “biscottes” in place of “madeleine.”
When Christopher Tolkien recently broke a 40-year public silence in Le Monde, he did not have kind words for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings: “They eviscerated the book by making it an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25, and it seems that The Hobbit will be the same kind of film.”
Tolkien snubbed an invitation to meet with Jackson, and, as his father’s literary executor, he has sworn not to allow adaptations of material over which he has control (like The Silmarillion). Had it been his choice, Jackson’s blockbusters would likely never have been produced, and certainly not in their present form. But it wasn’t his choice. In 1969, United Artists made a prescient purchase from the elder Tolkien: £100,000 for full rights to movies and derived products for The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. And that was that.
The result, according to Christopher Tolkien, was nothing less than disastrous: “[J.R.R.] Tolkien has become a monster, devoured by his own popularity and absorbed into the absurdity of our time. The chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has overwhelmed me. The commercialization has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing.”
Admirers of Jackson’s work may find such comments a touch melodramatic, if not downright inaccurate. Salman Rushdie, for instance, appears to favor the films over the originals: “Jackson’s cinematic style, sweeping, lyrical, by turns intimate and epic, is greatly preferable to Tolkien’s prose style, which veers alarmingly between windbaggery, archness, pomposity, and achieves something like humanity, and ordinary English, only in the parts about hobbits.”
Then again, there’s A.O. Scott on The Hobbit: “Tolkien’s inventive, episodic tale of a modest homebody on a dangerous journey has been turned into an overscale and plodding spectacle.”
Taste is a difficult thing to arbitrate, making debates like these fun but virtually irresolvable. Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that the participants all share a common assumption, which often remains unexamined. Rushdie puts it simply: “Everyone accepts that stories and movies are different things.” Indeed. But how, exactly? Is one a higher art form than the other? More illuminating? More demanding? Does one strengthen children’s brains while the other is more likely to rot them?
Perhaps it would be best to leave pronouncements of relative quality to the critics, and instead take this opportunity to reflect on the objective differences between books and movies.
There is no better place to start than with J.R.R. Tolkien himself, who analyzes precisely this issue in his essay “On Fairy Stories,” which appears in Tree and Leaf. Concerned about the potentially deleterious effect of illustrating fantasy, he devotes a long footnote to the difference between “true literature” and all art (including drama and the “cinematograph”) that offers a visible presentation:
Literature works from mind to mind and is thus more progenitive. It is at once more universal and more poignantly particular. If it speaks of bread or wine or stone or tree, it appeals to the whole of these things, to their ideas; yet each hearer will give to them a peculiar personal embodiment in his imagination. Should the story say “he ate bread,” the dramatic producer or painter can only show “a piece of bread” according to his taste or fancy, but the hearer of the story will think of bread in general and picture it in some form of his own. If a story says “he climbed a hill and saw a river in the valley below,” the illustrator may catch, or nearly catch, his own vision of such a scene; but every hearer of the words will have his own picture, and it will be made out of all the hills and rivers and dales he has ever seen, but especially out of The Hill, The River, The Valley which were for him the first embodiment of the word.
This is strong language from a man whose color illustration of The-Hill-at-Hobbiton served as the frontispiece for most early editions of The Hobbit. Was Tolkien ruining his own book, forcing impressionable readers to accept his picture, denying them the opportunity to exercise their imaginative capacities?
The idea that books leave more room for the imagination is a commonplace, and this quality is usually understood as a virtue. Books, even trashy ones, require some effort from the reader, while movies allow for unadulterated passivity and laziness. Tolkien’s so-called “dramatic producer” does the work for you, making the artwork easy and less personal.
Yet the notion that movies are by nature limiting needs to be nuanced. Sure, there are no visuals in an unillustrated book. But it is not therefore true, as Jen Doll asserts at The Atlantic Wire, that books are simply “a compelling descriptive outline,” which you can “play your own way, seeing the characters and their motivations exactly as you like.” One virtue of books is that authors can reveal characters’ inner motivations in great detail — a virtue that limits the readers’ ability to speculate about those motivations. (Proust’s Narrator isn’t exactly up for grabs in In Search of Lost Time.) Another virtue of books is their length — which allows authors to narrate scenes that in films must be left to the readers’ imagination.
And while we’re on the subject, what’s intrinsically great about freedom? If we push Tolkien’s logic a little bit further, authors do readers a disservice whenever they narrow the scope of imaginative possibilities. James Joyce turns me into a passive lump of receptivity when he describes his protagonist, Gabriel, in “The Dead”:
He was a stout, tallish young man. The high color of his cheeks pushed upwards even to his forehead, where it scattered itself in a few formless patches of pale red; and on his hairless face there scintillated restlessly the polished lenses and the bright gilt rims of the glasses which screened his delicate and restless eyes.
Better: “He was a young man.” Now my imagination can run wild!
Similarly, dramaturges would be doing us a disservice by putting on plays, directors would be cheating us by bringing screenplays to life, and chefs would be destroying the pure literature of recipes by specifying both appearance and flavor.
One rarely hears complaints about vividly detailed descriptions as such. Nor do people assert that “adaptations” of screenplays into movies or plays into stage productions somehow reduce aesthetic and philosophical impact. The upshot of all this is that exercising the imagination, whatever that means, is not always best, and books aren’t necessarily better at doing it than movies. (Which is a great relief to me, since I don’t want to feel bad about passively populating Roald Dahl’s entire universe with Quentin Blake’s fantastic illustrations.)
Even the most die-hard critics of cinematic adaptation have their own favorite exceptions. I love Miloš Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s nest so much that I don’t want to risk ruining it by reading Kesey’s book. And so, if we accept that books aren’t formally superior to movies and adaptations aren’t necessarily ruinous, a new question arises: what is it about the process of adapting a book that so often leads to disappointment?
Part of the answer is that Tolkien is wrong: when we read about bread, we don’t just think of bread in general. Our minds fashion a specific image of the bread upon first encountering it, and then that image stays with us, in all its specificity, as we continue reading. The Elvish bread known as lembas does not change form each time it appears in Tolkien’s ouevre: my mind decided what lembas looked like when I first read the word, and it supplies that initial vision whenever I read it again.
These fixed images then compete with the fixed images provided by a director, and the power of first impressions is difficult to overcome. For that reason, even skillful novelizations of good movies (like Alan Dean Foster’s Star Wars novels) can feel like they miss the mark. Attachment to original experience is a powerful force.
Another problem is that adaptations are usually inspired by masterpieces. Richard Brody puts it well: “A director is likely to stumble when taking on the work of a writer who is a greater artist. Many directors of moderate merit do well in capturing their own experience or that of others… but when they lay hold of works of genius, they simply aren’t up to the material and reveal not the vastness of the author’s imagination but the limits of their own.” Asymmetry of ability favors the more talented artist, regardless of form. That’s why Orson Scott Card’s novelization of The Abyss is better than Cameron’s original. Arthur C. Clarke + Stanley Kubrick = Great. Arthur C. Clarke + Pretty Much Anyone Else = Doubtful.
That said, there is one quality of films that makes them susceptible to being lousy. They are expensive. Studios must ensure the profitability of their product, and when it comes to good art, the customer — or the product placement sponsor — is not always right. Limiting artists with the demands of consumers often hampers the creative process and product. (In a similar vein, the limitations on filmmakers imposed by MPAA ratings are nicely documented in This Film is Not Yet Rated.)
In this sense, Christopher Tolkien is right to bemoan commercialization. The upcoming adaptation of Candyland from board game to film will undoubtedly fail to do justice to the original. Why? Well, I don’t think I’m remiss in suggesting that Hasbro Studios, the force behind films like Battleship, Transformers, G.I. Joe, and Candyland, might be less concerned with good art than with profit. The same principle explains the frequency of bad film sequels (a phenomenon that is substantially less common with books).
The recent explosion of extraordinary graphic novels is evidence that bias against a particular art form is likely unjustified. (A comic book? scoffs my mother when I recommend Chris Ware’s Building Stories.) Contra Tolkien, “true literature” is not inherently more progenitive. Great art of any kind can work from mind to mind. And, in the end, it is not books but great art that is sacrosanct, and it is great art that is threatened by adaptation.
That’s why the goons at Hasbro would do well to heed Brody’s cautionary words before reducing the aesthetic and philosophical impact of Eleanor Abbott’s Candyland: “Those of us who are standing on the shoulders of giants shouldn’t try to wrestle with them; only giants can wrestle with giants, and adaptation, if it’s any good, is no mere mark of respect but an active and dangerous contention, an assertion and self-assertion that is as brave and as daring as it is potentially catastrophic.”
A Word on Weddings
Like many people whose marriage impends, I have been initiated into the strange, febrile world of weddings — a world whose population is varied and ever-changing, a time-lapse version of the actual world. The wedding world is headquartered at sites like The Knot or Weddingbee, where the affianced and the “waiting” (for someone to put a ring on it) alike convene to commune in questionable spelling and reverent platitudes of surpassing banality: “marrying my best friend,” and “it’s not the wedding, it’s the marriage,” uttered in the course of a discussion about five-dollar chair covers.
Making fun of The Knot or Weddingbee is like shooting fish in a barrel, and most of the womens’ interest blogs of the sort I favor have taken aim. But Jezebel cannot tell me anything about tipping the caterer, while Weddingbee bristles with opinions on the subject. Moreover, long after I harvested the helpful hints I needed from Weddingbee, I return frequently to view the forums, which I have found absorbing to an almost debilitating degree.
It began with the unkind voyeuristic impulse behind something like The Hairpin’s Today’s Top Ten Wedding Bee Discussion Board Thread Titles. The Internet, more than travel, more than almost any other thing, gives you a glimpse of how other people live and what they care about. And with weddings being a widespread but mostly un-ideological phenomenon, a wedding website attracts a real slice of life. On Weddingbee there are the expected Marxian differences, as well as significant regional and hemispheric variations.
In spite of this, these boards are a friendly place. Women are frequently reminded by the world at large that they are catty and shrewish, but I am often struck by the fierce generosity demonstrated by groups of women unknown to one another (also by the speed with which a group of female strangers will turn to topics of contraception under the right circumstances). As in any community, some members are just assholes. But someone asks if she is too fat to see daylight, and everyone tells her no, no, no. Someone loses her job a week before her wedding, and the hive gathers round her in an online embrace.
Disdain for these sites is often of a parcel with another phenomenon the wedding-haver encounters — a sort of race-to-the-bottom humblebrag about the minimal expense of the interlocutor’s wedding, sometimes phrased so that the implication is that the success of a marriage is inversely proportionate to the cost of the shindig. “Had it in the backyard,” they say, and the Lord rained down gratis BBQ and compostable cutlery to reward their lack of pretension. Then there is Caitlin Flanagan, who characteristically manages to be right about a lot of things while sucking the joy right out of the world, reminding us that weddings are a colossal, farcical, tasteless, and needless expense representing a hollowed-out institution — just another example of our sick culture.
Everyone has their own line for what constitutes folly. I am not without my own strain of Flanaganism. But one thing I really like about weddings is that though they are a folly, they are to the best of my knowledge a relatively universal folly (and one of the few driven by some ostensibly joyful and optimistic instinct). Even in less libertine cultures than my own, they often represent a union in which not a shred of virginity, financial health, or, sometimes, likelihood of enduring love remains. Even so, we are going to get spruced up, create a festive atmosphere of one sort or another, and take photographs. In a thousand languages, people spend money, fight about the guest list, and try not to get any unsightly hives on the big day. Then, they try to stay married. We are unlikely to make ourselves less stupid than we collectively are, so we should have parties.
My own experience of wedding planning has been a very traditional cocktail shared with my beloved, composed of anxiety, guilt, and joyful anticipation. Like many people, I made a lot of lists of things and fretted too much about some things and not enough about others. I did things that were called “wedding planning” which were actually just mindless Internet trawling, looking at pictures of things that have no bearing on my life, and patting myself on the back for at least not being as x as the people who say y on Weddingbee.
What the wedding sites made clear to me about weddings generally and ours in particular is that they are inevitably one iteration of a thousand other weddings — a melange of logistical and aesthetic decisions dictated by social forces largely imperceptible to you. You find that choices you believed you had arrived at quite on your own are some current staple of Pinterest, totally characteristic of your particular station in life. My demographic, evidently, is very fond of the “rustic” and the “vintage.” And while I have grown to shudder at these terms (one wedding theme I read about: “vintage books”), part of it is the pain of realizing that you are part of a vast, rushing current, and your tastes are not your own.
I eventually resigned myself to rusticity and sameness, but one place where I thought I could assert my personality (without leaving my fiance totally by the wayside, or course), was the wedding reading. I was confident that Weddingbee could tell me nothing that I did not already know about a pithy piece of writing.
How Literature Failed Me in my Hour of Need
It is now customary in many weddings to write one’s own vows, tailored to fit the bride and groom’s individual quirks. Faced with this prospect, some dour inner Protestant stirred and grumbled. I could not picture us telling the assembled that we enjoy fattening food, Breaking Bad, and architectural boat tours. That when I mop the floor, I like to get drunk and listen to Groove Armada. When you sneeze, you sneeze five times. That I promise to always like the Redskins even when they are dismal. No, I am partial to “death do us part.” And brevity, ironically.
Thus the reading became the one place in the ceremony for a little customization and flair. My beloved also likes books, but I am bossier, and I took the reigns on this project. And since I find literature sufficient for expressing most of what there is to express about human life, the bar for this particular passage was very high.
As a bookish person, it felt like cheating to be searching for beautiful passages from the Internet. I preferred for it to happen more organically (so precious, so mistaken). I read books all the time, I thought to myself; surely I should have some interior commonplace book chock-full of beauty and inspiration to consult. But the only two poems I can recite in their entirety — Philip Larkin’s “High Windows” and “This be the Verse” — are so far from wedding-worthy it’s hard to imagine anything worse: “When I see a couple of kids/ And guess he’s fucking her and she’s/ Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,/ I know this is paradise.” (Or “They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” obviously.)
I love “The Whitsun Weddings,” which is technically a poem about weddings. But while, contra Christopher Hitchens, I think its last line is romantic, the romance is that of life, not of individual human relationships: “A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower/ Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.” “Broadcast” is love poem, but a more sneering and cringing love poem there never was: “…Then begins/ A snivel on the violins:/ I think of your face among all those faces,/ Beautiful and devout before/ Cascades of monumental slithering.” Most unsuitable for a wedding. And anyhow, Larkin — more on him later.
My favorite poem is probably T.S. Eliot’s “Preludes,” the last lines of which reveal the haunting ordered chaos of the universe, but hardly warm the cockles: “The worlds revolve like ancient women/ gathering fuel in vacant lots.” In a book shop pawing through the poetry, I sensed this was a theme, in poetry in general, and especially in the poetry I like. Tomas Tranströmer seemed promising for a minute in “The Couple,” if a touch erotic: “The movements of love have settled, and they sleep/but their most secret thoughts meet as when/ two colours meet and flow into each other/ on the wet paper of a schoolboy’s painting.” But that ending: “They stand packed and waiting very near,/ a mob of people with blank faces.” It leaves an impression of a lonely echo in a hallway, a little like “Preludes.”
Googling had seemed like cheating, but I started to Google, and found, predictably, that I was hardly the first person to have had this problem. Book snobs abound. I went to the library and took out several anthologies, including a book of readings specifically for weddings. There are things I have seen before — sonnets, for example — but I like free verse. There were many things I hadn’t seen. Margaret Atwood has a poem about marriage called “Habitation,” evidently used in some weddings. I liked it, stupidly, because it mentions eating popcorn, which happens to be something that my beloved and I do together on a shockingly regular basis. But it seemed a little fraught for a wedding. The last line, “We are learning to make fire,” hangs at the bottom of the page, lonely as early man: I pictured us shivering in our damp cave.
I liked an excerpt from Toni Morrison’s “Jazz” — “It’s nice when grown people whisper to each other under the covers” — but that’s so private, and then the poem invokes an off-stage “chippie” and “stud.” I checked out Love Letters of Great Men, but the problem, aside from the sort of ethical weirdness of reading someone’s mail, is that great men tended to write romantic letters to a number of different women, which is not really on-message for our marriage (this was not in the collection, but I remember Malcolm Lowry once wrote one of his wives that he wanted to use her toothbrush instead of his own). I looked to the eminently quotable Flaubert in the pages of Julian Barnes’ wonderful Flaubert’s Parrot. Here’s a good one: “You ask for love, you complain that I don’t send you flowers? Flowers, indeed! If that’s what you want, find yourself some wet-eared boy stuffed with fine manners and all the right ideas. I’m like the tiger, which has bristles of hair at the end of its cock, with which it lacerates the female.”
Rumi figures in anthologies of love poetry. I like Rumi, but for a wedding I feel that the Sufis are off-limits. As far as I know, which is not very much, the beloved of whom they speak is likely to be God, or the young man who brings you your wine. Context matters. Also, my favorite line from Rumi is fiercely individualistic: “I drip out of a spout drop by drop — But like the deluge I crush myriad palaces.” (Rappers have nothing on Rumi). I toyed with finding something in Turkish — but it seemed to me that this was a moment for my mother tongue. And my knowledge is limited, and my favorite Turkish poetry is in any case a line written by the twelfth century poet Yunus Emre, too defiant for a wedding unless it was one disapproved of by all relatives: “What should the ignorant know of us?/ Greetings to the ones who know.”
Context matters, and that’s really what takes Philip Larkin out of the question: he loved Monica Jones so much he helped Kingsley Amis turn her into one of literature’s great hysterics, a caricature of a pain-in-the-ass female (Lucky Jim‘s Margaret Peel). When I think about literature I don’t typically dwell on the private life of the author, because it’s a slippery slope. But I found when looking for a wedding reading that I became more interested in whether the writer him or herself had been married and gave at least the appearance of contentment.
On love, Emily Dickinson basically sums it up: “That Love is all there is/ Is all we know of Love;/ It is enough, the freight should be/ Proportioned to the groove.” But love and marriage are not the same thing. Most unkindly, I wondered what the virginal shut-in would know of the long intimacy, the vaunted tedium of marriage. Bizarrely, I veered into some exclusionary policy regarding Auden and Forster, whose circumscribed personal lives were in the broad sense casualties of a bigoted and ignorant society. Nabokov was promising; he is known to have loved Vera, and wrote her poems. But the 1974 poem “To Vera” is just that, a poem to Vera, and seemed to have nothing to do with us. “How I Love You” is Nabokovian in a way that confounds a ceremonial reading: “…gnats:/ hanging up in an evening sunbeam, / their swarmlet ceaselessly jiggles…”
There is the religious angle — a friends’ wedding featured Isaiah 43:1-7, which I believe is a particularly badass selection from the Old Testament: “When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned.” But novels are my sacred texts, and we are in any case rather unclear in our feelings about the Lord. His brief invocation in Robert Louis Stevenson’s cheerful “Wedding Prayer” is enough: “Lord, behold our family here assembled” (which one could also read: “Oh Lord, they’re all here.”)
Poetry letting me down, I turned to the novels that I love. No passage suggested itself to me — unless you have a very certain kind of mind, you can’t survey the text of every book you’ve ever read all at the same time. And if it’s not cricket to go looking for a previously unencountered reading that somehow has meaning to you, it’s equally uncricket to read everything with an eye to appropriating some piece of it for your marriage ceremony. But I began to see that’s how I should have been reading for the entirety of the preceding year.
What had I read most recently? We Need to Talk About Kevin, for chrissakes, and a book about rabies. I reread Goodbye to All That, which Graves closes with “…marriage wore thin. New characters appeared on the stage. Nancy and I said unforgivable things to each other. We parted on May 6th, 1929. She, of course, insisted on keeping the children. And I went abroad, resolved never to make England my home again…” My fiance had most recently read Travels With Charley, and suggested I look there. But Travels With Charley is about a man and a poodle, and the poodle goes “ffft.”
I began to comb through my favorite novels, but from the outset it was clear that most would never do. There’s Burmese Days or Of Human Bondage, where goodish men are driven mad by worthless women, with differing outcomes. A Suitable Boy is a spectacularly romantic novel, weddings all over, but it portends falling in love with the man you can marry, in lieu of the one that you can’t. The Tin Drum, full of obscenity. Wodehouse, too facetious. The aforementioned Lucky Jim closes with a romance, but it is a revenge story, against all Welches and Margarets, rather than a love story about the well-formed Christine. Iris Murdoch’s novels are full of bizarre marriages and strange perversity. (The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, anyone?) Till We Have Faces, jealous sibling love and spinsters. I opened Possession, even Swann’s Way — they presented unyielding blocks of text. The closest I came was from A Dance to the Music of Time, and in fact explained why I was having so much trouble:
A future marriage, or a past one, may be investigated and explained in terms of writing by one of its parties, but it is doubtful whether an existing marriage can ever be described directly in the first person and convey a sense of reality. Even those writers who suggest some of the substance of married life best, stylise heavily, losing the subtlety of the relationship at the price of a few accurately recorded, but isolated, aspects…Its forms are at once so varied, yet so constant, providing a kaleidoscope, the colours of which are always changing, always the same. The moods of a love affair, the contradictions of friendship, the jealousy of business partners, the fellow feeling of opposed commanders in total war, these are all in their way to be charted. Marriage, partaking of such — and a thousand more — dual antagonisms and participations, finally defies definition.
It defies definition, and yet I wanted something romantic, weighty but not melancholy, in English, about marriage. It was finally Louis C. K. who drove it all home, how hard this is to do:
…Or you’ll meet the perfect person who you love infinitely and you even argue well and you grow together and you have children and then you get old together and then SHE’S GONNA DIE. That’s the BEST CASE SCENARIO, is that you’re gonna lose your best friend and then just walk home from D’Agostino’s with heavy bags every day and wait for your turn to be nothing also.
That is indeed the best case scenario, the lost best friend, that friend so abstract on the Weddingbee message boards, so real in practice. I listened to Donald Hall reading about the death of Jane Kenyon on This American Life and bawled my eyes out.
In the end, I stood again in a book shop, rifling through every poetry book they had. (In the course of the hunt I was descended upon by the proprietor, and because the last thing I wanted was someone’s advice on the matter, remained mute on the subject of the wedding and was thus compelled to read two suggested Bill Hickok poems while he stood watchfully at a remove.) Finally, I picked something, a poem by Billy Collins from his collection Nine Horses. I picked something, but what I thought was even better in that collection was something else, “Bermuda,” which is basically a poetic version of the Louis bit. A husband and wife lie together on a beach: “and the two of us so calm/ it seems that this is not our only life,/ just one in a series, charms on a bracelet,/ as if every day we were not running/ like the solitary runners on the beach/ toward a darkness without shape/ or waves, crosses or clouds,/as if one of us is not likely to get there first/ leaving the other behind,/ castaway on an island…”
It turns out that it was hard for me to find a good wedding reading because I’m a gloomy old bastard.
There, it would seem, is the rub. But I wasn’t going to put this foreboding stuff into the wedding ceremony. No, with several days remaining until the wedding I picked Collins’s “Litany” (“You are the bread and the knife,/ the crystal goblet and the wine”), which I thought was lovely and romantic and yet also conveyed the promised prosaic qualities of long relationships. It’s funny, but not too much. I find the long dashes of the last lines poignant: “You will always be the bread and the knife,/ not to mention the crystal goblet and — somehow —/ the wine.” There is an element of the sacramental which appeals to me, something that begins to approach the reverence I feel for my own beloved.
After all this, after the fretting and gnashing of teeth and weeping over sad poems and vases in empty rooms, I learned I could have found my reading on the Internet. It’s on a list of wedding readings compiled by Publisher’s Weekly, for one. I could even have found it on Weddingbee, where some fiercely unique soul, someone just like me, recommended it in a thread five years ago, lauded as a “a quirky expression of love, perfect for an English major who likes playing with metaphors.”
But I don’t care, I’ve got my love to keep me warm.
Image: Pexels/Caio Resende.
How far would you go to learn the truth? In AMC’s detective drama, The Killing, “the truth” is the identity of 15-year-old Rosie Larsen’s killer in a perpetually-overcast Seattle. Would you risk losing your teenaged son, like Detective Sarah Linden? Ditch your fiancé? Would you work fifty hours straight, like her partner, Detective Stephen Holder? Endanger your sobriety by stepping into the den of your old meth dealer? Would you wrench your family even further apart, like Rosie’s father, Stan Larsen? Would you fight City Hall? Would you give up your badge and your gun?
Would you watch 13 hours of television? 26? 39?
This is, essentially, the question asked of us by The Killing, which just ended its controversial second season. The show began as one of the most critically acclaimed new shows of 2011, nominated for three Critic’s Choice awards and six Emmys. Tim Goodman at The Hollywood Reporter declared it “excellent, absorbing and addictive. When each episode ends, you long for the next – a hallmark of great dramas.” But a few months later, that same reviewer was singing a different tune. “Did The Killing Just Kill Itself?” his review of the first season finale asked.
For those who have not become as addicted to this show as I have, all you really need to know is that, after thirteen incredibly tense episodes, all the evidence began to point toward the charismatic Mayoral candidate, Darren Richmond. Most damningly, a photo from a toll booth showed Richmond driving away from the scene of Rosie’s abduction in the car where her body was later bound inside the trunk. But then, seconds before the credits rolled, Detective Linden discovered the photo was a fake. Meanwhile the innocent Richmond was shot by a friend of the Larsen family. The season ended, and the show’s fans rioted.
When I first began to watch The Killing two months ago, I told a friend who’d been watching since day one. His reaction was vehement. “Goddamn FUCK THE KILLING. I keep watching it and it keeps NOT GOING ANYWHERE. I keep thinking “OK, THIS is it” and theeennn… nope. And yet I cannot stop watching.” This same friend directed me to the website, fuckthekilling.com, which is essentially a short, explicit open letter to the show from its fans.
Most critics were just as outraged. Many cited the fact that The Killing is based on a Danish TV drama Forbrydelsen, or “The Crime”, and the pilot episodes were nearly identical, shot-for-shot. They argue that while the first season of Forbrydelsen ended satisfyingly, by disclosing the true identity of the murderer, The Killing broke that unspoken pact between itself and its audience: watch this show for 13 weeks and you will be rewarded with the truth. Subverting our expectations has brought great acclaim to other AMC shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, but with The Killing, the move appears to have backfired.
As the second season began, Goodman issued the show a stern warning. “By not revealing who killed Rosie Larsen in season one, this season could implode.” But in this same breath he complained that Veena Sud was compounding the problem by speaking out and directly assuring fans that the Larsen case would be solved by the end of season two. This creates a major suspense problem. “In the first 12 episodes, viewers will never believe a suspect is about to be revealed or that detectives closing in on a suspect in, say, episode seven, has any real relevancy. It certainly doesn’t make that storytelling immediately essential. Secondly, it’s telling viewers that they will be rewarded with a resolved mystery after 26 hours of television. If you see the appeal in any of this, please fire off a flare.”
Well, Tim, consider this my flare.
Think about it. How can we be upset when the truth is withheld just when we most expect it, and when someone promises that it will be delivered, right on time? But we in the audience always want to have it both ways: we want to have our expectations met, and at the same time, confounded. Novelist Elizabeth Bowen observed that “Story involves action[…] towards an end not to be forseen (by the reader) but also towards an end which, having been reached, must be seen to have been from the start inevitable.” Figuring how to get out of this double-bind has been the failing of many a writer. In all mediums, we reserve a large segment of our judgment until we see how well an entertainment ends. A great ending sends reverberations back through everything that transpired to reach it.
In the second season finale on Sunday night, The Killing achieved one of these great endings for the Larsen case. Sud kept her promise and revealed the truth about Rosie’s murder. The conclusion was satisfying, in that it did not satisfy. Rosie’s killing turned out to be caused by two different villains, one somewhat expected and the other utterly unexpected. In the end, these truths bring neither clarity nor comfort. Not to the Larsens or to the detectives. The truth behind Rosie’s killing turn out to be so meaningless and darkly ironic that we almost wish we didn’t know it. We know how Detective Holder feels as he shakes his head in his dark office. “Just the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometimes it just comes down to that I guess. Just randomness.” He comes to understand, as we must, that the truth is never as holy a grail as the quest we took to find it.
“Sounds like LOST,” another friend of mine scoffed, when I described my love of The Killing, “Never making that mistake again. LOST took away my ability to trust other people.”
Like The Killing, LOST steadily alienated its huge initial audience when writers decided to take the show in unexpected directions and then readily admitted to viewers that they did not have the truth about the mysterious island quite worked out, but that they’d figure it out as they went. The result was seven seasons filled with great drama and action, but also dead-end plots, quickly forgotten clues, and pointless characters. All of this stalling produced one loose end after the next, and there was simply no way to tie them all together in the end.
Tim Goodman likewise criticized the first season of The Killing for introducing too many “red herrings.” A red herring is a staple in most mystery stories. It is a misleading clue planted to distract us from the eventual truth. It is a kind of intended misdirection, which keeps an audience on their toes. The term originates in the training of dogs. A red herring would be run along the ground away from the scent that the dog was meant to follow. The idea was to train the dogs to eventually recognize when they were being fooled.
But while LOST dropped misleading clues haphazardly here and there to buy more time, The Killing has thus far used red herrings intentionally to lead both viewers and detectives in the wrong direction, not simply to kill time, but to make us interrogate our own assumptions about these dead-ends.
Did candidate Richmond really fit the bill? Wouldn’t it have been pretty lame for the oh-so-charming politician to wind up being a sociopathic killer? And why would he have been stupid enough to arbitrarily snuff out a call girl, two weeks before his election? And did it ever make sense that sweet, sheltered Rosie Larsen would work part-time as a high-priced underage hooker? Sud turned Richmond into yet another red herring, and this should have made us, like the detectives, wonder why we were so desperate for the truth that we’d have preferred that patently ridiculous answer. The innocent Richmond was shot and crippled for our eagerness, just as the previous nonsensical suspect, Rosie’s teacher Bennett Ahmed, was beaten nearly to death. Did anyone really think they’d make him into a secret terrorist? Now that we know the truth, it is easier to see how red those herrings really were.
It is telling that Veena Sud’s upcoming film project is a remake of the Hitchcock classic Suspicion. Hitchcock was the rare artist who managed to entertain audiences and subvert their expectations at the same time. Hitchcock achieved this most often by using a “MacGuffin,” allowing the initial mystery itself to become the red herring. Use a MacGuffin right and you can accomplish almost anything; do it wrong and your audience will never trust you again. Just ask M. Night Shyamalan.
The Killing is often compared to the Hitchcockian TV drama, Twin Peaks, which captivated America in 1990. Director David Lynch brought us Detective Dale Cooper, who was also searching for the killer of a young girl deep in the woods of Washington State. Twin Peaks used Laura Palmer’s murder as a MacGuffin to lead its viewers closer to the bizarre townsfolk, through surreal dreams, and chasing after a one-armed man. It became the most popular show on American television, but when Lynch ended his first season without delivering answers, audiences were rabid. Lynch gave in and revealed early in the second season that grieving father Leland Palmer had killed his own daughter.
And after this reveal, Twin Peaks lost its audience anyway. Soon the show ranked 85th out of 89 shows on the air. Now that Veena Sud has kept her word and revealed the killer, she runs the risk of finding her audience evaporating just like Lynch’s.
Fans and critics might well be outraged at The Killing’s anticlimax. Some might even wish Sud had decided to just leave us all in suspense for another year. But hopefully this ending will encourage viewers to stop trying so hard to see The Killing as a typical police drama and wake up to the fact that it long-ago metamorphosed into something much more fascinating. It has been, from the start, a show that makes us question – like Detectives Linden and Holder – the value of the truth, and what we will invest of ourselves in order to know it.
Last year, in an interview with Alan Sepinwall, Veena Sud defended the integrity of the show. “We said from the very beginning this is the anti-cop cop show. It’s a show where nothing is what it seems, so throw out expectations. We will not tie up this show in a bow. There are plenty of shows that do that, in 45 minutes or whatever amount of time, where that is expected and the audience can rest assured that at the end of blank, they will be happy and they can walk away from their TV satisfied. This is not that show.”
Veena Sud worked for four years as a writer and producer for the CBS cop show Cold Case, a cop show which follows a tight formula: a long-forgotten case somehow surfaces and eventually is solved through the use of “modern techniques” of DNA processing and microfiber analysis. In truth, cold cases are rarely solved, and lawyers today cite The CSI Effect to explain how juries accustomed to TV crime dramas have come to expect an unrealistic level of certainty in evidence. An FBI study done in 2010 showed that since 1980 only 63% of murders have been solved, nationwide. This ranges from highs of 82% in North Las Vegas and lows of only 21% in Detroit. Perhaps this explains why we are so buoyed by the prospect that a single hair follicle might lead detectives to a killer within hours of a murder. No one ever said red herrings didn’t smell good.
Perhaps Sud asked herself what it says about audiences that we will watch essentially the same unrealistic episode of Cold Case, again and again? That show ran for seven years. CSI has run for thirteen years so far and has spun off two other series, both still running. Law & Order ended after twenty-years, after spinning of four new series. There’s NCIS, times two. Bones. Criminal Minds, times two. Hawaii Five-O all over again. Each show, in its own way, comfortingly repeats the formula, delivering the truth right on time, usually with an arched eyebrow and a wry quip. Perhaps The Killing isn’t breaking a pact with us, but staging an intervention.
It’s suggestive that Detective Holder is a former meth addict, and some of the dialogue between him and Linden revolves around the nature of addiction: what you’ll give up for your high and what rock-bottom looks like. Linden too, is depicted as an addict, not to drugs but to the case. She is, like us, addicted to the truth. Years earlier, Linden had a similar case which was never solved, and it landed her in a psychiatric institution. Then, facing the impossibility of knowing the truth drove Linden crazy. But at the end of the second season, she sees that knowing the truth is almost as unnerving. When Holder insists, for the second time that day, “We got the bad guy,” Linden’s only response is a chilly, “Yeah, who’s that?”
Because The Killing began as an adaptation of the Danish TV drama Forbrydelsen, many compare it to Stieg Larsson’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo books. But while it has some of that same icy edge and atmosphere, I think a better comparison is to the novels of another introverted writer from a gloomy European locale, whose work also went on to great acclaim only after his death: Franz Kafka.
Kafka’s most famous story, The Metamorphosis, is about a man who wakes up one day mysteriously transformed into a bug. But this strange mutation is a MacGuffin. We want to find out how poor Gregor turned into a bug, and so we delve deeper into Gregor’s sad predicament. Like Hitchcock’s The Birds, Kafka gives no explanation in the end, by which time we are so moved and awestruck that we’ve forgotten what we came for.
Another classic tale, “In the Penal Colony,” involves a man journeying to a remote prison to see a machine of elegant torture. An Officer there explains that it painfully tattoos a criminal with the phrase “Be Just” until they eventually receive a mystical revelation and die in ecstasy. The Officer is so excited by this magnificent torture that he jumps into the machine – only it breaks and kills him before he can find out truth the criminals received.
The Killing would fit right in with Kafka’s two best-known novels, The Trial and The Castle, which each feature a protagonist known as “K”. Both novels stretch on for hundreds of pages as K attempts to learn some sort of unobtainable truth. In this absurd pursuit K loses everything, breaks down utterly, and gets nowhere. And because neither novel was even finished at the time of Kafka’s death in 1924, even K’s total ruination is never quite completed.
Both novels show K toiling futilely against the systems of the law. In The Killing the inverse proposition is examined: two lawmen attempt to bring justice and to uncover an important truth. Their truth becomes just as elusive as the one sought by poor K. The deeper they dig, the further away it somehow gets.
Modern detective work, despite microfibers and DNA, is still rooted in the rational principles of the 16th century scientific revolution, when thinkers began to re-embrace the Classical idea that logical inquiry could lead us to the truth. The scientific method makes a kind of pact with us: collect evidence and probe it until the rational world gives up its secrets. Develop a logical hypothesis and test it out. If it fails, then you have at least eliminated something that is untrue. Start over. Try again. Keep looking. You’ve almost got it.
Four centuries later, we live in a world in which astronomers have discovered incredible things about the nature of matter, right down to the tiniest subatomic particle, and charted the expanses of the universe for light-years in all directions. And yet each answer has given us a hundred new mysteries to solve. We’ve interrogated the human body down to the smallest acellular organisms, and for each truth we have learned, ten more questions have popped out from behind it. We’ve learned much, but for all that we understand, perhaps the greatest thing we’ve learned is how much more there is to learn.
In the case of killings, there will are always unsolved cases, wrongful convictions, and unreliable witnesses. But even when we do know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that one person killed a second person, and we arrest and punish that first person, there’s still so much we don’t know. The Killing makes this uncertainty its very heart. Is imprisoning the killer any justice. Is killing them? Can we ever understand how the killer did what they did? What is the measure of that lost life? What is the measure of the killer’s?
Don’t get me wrong. The pursuit of truth is a noble ambition. Asking if this pursuit is futile is itself but one more truth we should keep pursuing.
People often mistake Kafka for a nihilist, but his books can be very uplifting. In echoing the human struggling we often feel, we can feel less alone in that struggle – we may even laugh at it. Novelist David Foster Wallace explained how he would get his students to see the humor in Kafka. “You can ask them to imagine his stories as a kind of door. To envision us approaching and pounding on this door, increasingly hard, pounding and pounding, not just wanting admission but needing it; we don’t know what it is, but we can feel it, this total desperation to enter, pounding and ramming and kicking. That, finally, the door opens… and it opens outward – we’ve been inside what we wanted all along. Das ist komisch.” (Roughly translated, this means, “That’s pretty funny.”)
The Killing does not want to tell us an easy truth, but a difficult one. Hollywood Reporter Tim Goodman has himself argued that difficult shows can be worth the effort it takes to understand them. “You know what else is difficult? The first chapters of War and Peace. Also, great gobs of Remembrance of Things Past. Did you also know that diving in to William Faulkner can leave you wondering what the hell is going on?”
Plenty of us, of course, don’t have the patience to read the classics, or to even watch The Killing, but this does not mean that we wouldn’t be rewarded if we developed some. By embracing the entertainments of difficulty, we can learn, like Detectives Linden and Holder, to become more aware in our pursuit of the truth. We can begin to see that we are the ones who are forever tattooing that fervent Kafkaesque wish upon the world, “Be Just.”
I started my first-ever vegetable garden this year at a small cottage my husband and I are fixing up an hour and a half outside New York City. I had no idea what I was doing and the anxiety of inexperience led me to nearly replace my habitual novel and short-story reading with a compost heap of gardening and how-to books. Here’s what I learned: I am on trend. The marketplace is soggy with pretty guides for beginners by green-thumb gurus and back-to-the-land life stylists. And the books are so pretty! I bought and read a lot of these books as if they contained the secret map to finding the secret garden. But, to be honest, I still can’t say I know much about growing food. And though I made some salads, my garden is not aesthetically pleasing. This is just to say, that a lot of these books are heavy on the glossy photographs and inconsistent on advice. I learned from these books that the way you learn to garden is to try and fail at gardening. I was great at Japanese eggplant, not so great with heirloom tomatoes. I smothered the broccoli by planting the cucumber too close, but I grew lovely peppers. Not a single garden book warned me about the aggressive, almost pernicious, nature of the cucumber. I did find one book more straightforward and informative than the rest. Brett L. Markham’s Mini-Gardening: Self-Sufficiency on a ¼ Acre. It’s the book I will look at again next year. It’s more of a basic agriculture book than a plant-this-vegetable-next-to-that-vegetable book. Besides gardening, most of my 2011 reading was research focused. I had my nose buried in Edgar Allan Poe and Poe-related scholarship for a book I’m working on, all the research is stuff that’s been around, except for Mat Johnson’s excellent novel Pym. Pym takes a depressingly hilarious look at race in America by following an African-American scholar who is fixated on Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, on a wild-Poe chase to Antarctica.
I do want to mention one book that had nothing to do with my laughable attempts at agriculture or my Poe studies, and that’s Edmund De Waal’s memoir The Hare with Amber Eyes. De Waal is a world-famous ceramicist who inherited a collection of 264 Japanese netsuke from his great uncle Iggie. He becomes fixated on uncovering the story behind the delicate wood and ivory carvings and determines to trace their history through his family. His research leads him back several centuries and ends up taking the reader on an introspective, tragic, and ultimately romantic journey through many eras, wars, and the Holocaust. Along the way his family ancestors rub shoulders and make appearances in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, in a painting by Renoir, and in the work of other artist intelligentsia from the Belle Époque. It’s a remarkable secret history discovered through De Waal’s love of objects. I was swept away by this book and that just doesn’t happen as often as I’d like it to these days.
While writing this I also realized that 2011 was the rare year for me where I read more non-fiction than fiction. And by rare, I probably mean that it was a unique event in my life. It was unsettling. My favorite novel I read this year was Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. (I know, I know. It came out a while ago, and everyone loves it, and the Pulitzer). I found the book to be breathtaking and also unsettling – particularly Egan’s global warming future forecasting – perhaps this aspect of Goon Squad also encouraged my decision to start growing food. So I guess this year in reading taught me that I need more goon squads and less green thumbs in my life. I’m just no good without a good story.
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André Aciman is, by training, a scholar of Comparative Literature. He is part of the Comparative Lit faculty at the City University of New York Graduate Center, and he assembled The Proust Project, a volume comprised of prominent writers’ insights on passages from In Search of Lost Time. But Aciman is perhaps better known as a novelist, memoirist, and essayist. Memory, its endurance and mutability, rank high among his running concerns, which is fitting given his affinity for Proust. And while memory can seem stale when taken up by a lesser writer, in Aciman’s hands it seems fresh and complex once again.
Alibis follows one previous collection of essays by Aciman, False Papers, and a memoir, Out of Egypt. Early on in Alibis, he refers to himself as, “an exile from Alexandria, Egypt.” This exile began at fifteen, when his family emigrated to Italy, and continued one remove further at age nineteen, when they moved on to New York. On the occasion of Alibis, his project is ostensibly the result of his travels, and he does indeed treat readers to lengthy reflections on Rome, Barcelona, Paris, Tuscany, and New York, among other locales. But these are not simple city guides. They are personal, searching efforts, prompted by places which hold some mythic quality for the author, places which have figured prominently in his life. On traveling with his wife, Aciman writes, “I have no tolerance for monuments…I care nothing for small picturesque hill towns…The last thing she wants is to be reminded of home; I can’t wait to pick up remnants of mine.”
In fact, Aciman views the places he visits not with the wondering, landmark-seeking eye of a tourist, but with the speculative, assessing eye of a potential resident. In “Place de Vosges,” he writes, “I come to the Place de Vosges to make believe that I belong, that this could easily become my home.” A similar impulse is revealed when he writes that the “peculiar spell” of “this dreamy Tuscan landscape” is “to make you think that it’s yours forever.” He examines this habit at length in “The Contrafactual Traveler,” and concludes that, “I ‘connect’ not by saying, ‘Isn’t this lovely, picturesque hill town beautiful?’ but ‘Do I see myself living here?’” Curiously, he steps outside himself when considering New York (“New York, Luminous”), where he has lived for many years, instead imagining the reactions Walter Benjamin might have had, if only he “hurried and crossed the Pyrenees before the Nazis closed in on him.”
Place itself is a door to other concerns for Aciman – the role of memory in particular, as well as how we form our identities across years and experiences. If his concerns sound weighty, he balances them against a fluid, engaging style, one equally suited to handling painful memories and dear ones alike. He opens with “Lavender,” a memory piece organized around his relationship with scent. “Life begins somewhere with the scent of lavender,” he writes. “My father is standing in front of a mirror. He has just showered and shaved and is about to put on a shirt.” From there, Aciman traces his life through the scents he has worn. One fragrance recalls an evening when he met his mother downtown in Manhattan, while another is all he remembers of the woman who offered it as a gift, years earlier. Places return to him: Brattle Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts on a snowy evening; a tiny shop in Florence, where the walls are lined with tiny drawers, each holding a different scent. The fragrances also point up how far he has come and how much he remains unchanged. “Me at 16 and me at 32: twice the age and yet still nervous about calling a woman,” he writes, and later, “I had so much going for me at 34, why then was I longing to be who I’d been at 17?”
Throughout Alibis, Aciman uses his chosen subject matter as a means to examine himself. He is not a famous man, but his treatment of his assets and shortcomings is never less than even-handed. At times it verges on the hyper-critical. The most remarkable outcome is that this course of deliberate reflection on how we form memory prompts the same impulse in the reader. Aciman determinedly unravels the thread of memory, questioning even the factual accuracy of his own previously published accounts.
This course of questioning is perhaps the most curious, and initially the least felicitous, part of Alibis. Aciman refers to his own, previous work on several occasions, even quoting from it once, a choice which is initially jarring. In “Rue Delta,” he refers to an episode from Out of Egypt, his last walk in Cairo, which he had written previously as a time he shared with his brother. His retelling in the memoir casts him alone on the walk. This is not the first time Aciman has explored the dueling versions of the tale, but he goes a step further this time, teasing out the inventions common to each version. The snack he claims to have had? A fabrication, either as falafel sandwich or Ramadan pastry. His brother disappears from the latter version of the story, but a more significant revelation emerges – the walk so minutely examined, never occurred, alone or in company. But because Aciman’s control is so total, he manages to render irrelevant the question of whether he is lying in his first two accounts of the night; instead, the matter of how he fashioned his memories of Egypt ends up far more compelling. He recalls a return visit to Cairo in the mid-1990s, and a trip down Rue Delta, and finds himself unable to summon an image of the street at night without his brother in it. His “true” memories of the street are lost, and the fictionalized version now holds all the piquancy once contained by the storefronts and scenery which surrounded him daily in youth.
Alibis is a slim volume, but this is testament to Aciman’s economy of language, and the preciseness of his observations. Whether exploring the limitations of his faith in “Barcelona” and “Reflections of an Uncertain Jew,” or reflecting on the changed circumstances after his sons have all left for college in “Empty Rooms,” Aciman’s work is consistently thoughtful and unsentimental. Maintaining that tone, particularly on a series of journeys to the past, is no small feat. But André Aciman is a writer in full command of his powers. He meets these demands deftly, without breaking stride. Alibis is a quiet, unassuming triumph. All that’s left is to wonder where Aciman will take us next.
The best book I read this year was Swann’s Way in the Lydia Davis translation. It knocked my socks off. I ought to have read it sooner, and I shouldn’t have been surprised: I am a big fan of Lydia Davis’s own fiction. But I am also a big Marcel Proust fan. And like most English-speaking Proust fans, I first came to him through the translations of C.K. Scott Moncrieff. I loved those translations. I loved their suavity. I loved Scott Moncrieff’s cleverness with dialogue. I loved his inventive titles for the individual books–and I loved it that he stuck to them over Proust’s objections. I even loved it when Scott Moncrieff refused to translate the expression “me casser le pot” (meaning to have anal sex). I loved his freedom and his decorum. I loved his Edwardian vision of the novel. I still do.
But I also love comparing the old translation to the new one. Davis is invariably stronger than Scott Moncrieff and his revisers: more flexible in tone and register, more complex in rhythm, closer to the French. Some people complain that you hear the French too much in the Davis version. But her literalism teaches you to feel what’s there in the original. She can make you believe, for pages at a time, that the two languages–two ways of thinking and feeling–are a hair’s breadth apart. It really is magic.
Magic aside, it made me happy to be reunited with the heroes of Swann’s Way: the middle-aged Vermeer expert Charles Swann and the little boy, Marcel, who falls in love with Swann’s daughter. These are two of my favorite characters in all of fiction–but the last time I met them, sixteen years ago, I hardly noticed that they were characters at all. I had never seen childhood misery described so exactly. I had never seen sexual jealousy dealt with so honestly. There was, as they say in peace talks, no daylight between me and either of these two poor obsessives. Proust had written down pretty much everything I knew about life at the age of twenty one. Now, thanks partly to age and partly to Davis, I saw them as individual, funny, and pathetic in ways I’d never noticed, and the same was true of Odette, Francoise, Gilberte, and the Verdurins–all of them dazzlingly distinct, as if their portraits had just been cleaned.
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I’ll do you the favor of summarizing all the major plot points of the second volume of The Dream of the Red Chamber. Jia Bao-yu, the eccentric adolescent heir of the phenomenally wealthy Jia family, has a crush on his cousin, Lin Dai-yu, and she has a crush on him. He unintentionally slights her, and they have a fight, which is quickly resolved. Bao-yu’s flirtation with a maid inadvertently leads to her suicide; as the result of the maid’s suicide and his friendship with an escaped slave of the Imperial household, his father beats Bao-yu brutally, leaving him bed-ridden. However, he eventually recovers, and starts a poetry club with his sisters and cousins. They have a poetry contest. At the matriarch’s insistence, the family throws an extravagant birthday party for her granddaughter-in-law, Wang Xi-feng. The party ends poorly when Wang Xi-feng catches her husband cheating on her with a maid. More cousins come to visit, and to honor them, Bao-yu’s sister invites them to the poetry club, which holds another meeting. The family celebrates the New Year festival. That’s more or less all that really happens, and that story takes some 560 pages of tiny, dense text to tell. It’s also only the second volume of five, each about the same length.
At the beginning of the summer, I set out to read the entirety of the David Hawkes translation of The Dream of the Red Chamber. Its author, Cao Xueqin, was the scion of one of the wealthiest families of early Qing China. He was also unfortunate enough, as a child, to be a witness to its dramatic downfall–a result of political purges and property confiscations. Cao spent most of his life in dire poverty, writing and re-writing the semi-autobiographical Dream of the Red Chamber continuously until his death in 1764. Dream of the Red Chamber–circulated in coveted hand-copied manuscripts until the first print edition in 1792–was an almost instant success. The novel has had a profound impact on the Chinese literary tradition; scholarly studies of Red Chamber are so numerous that there is a minor field of study dedicated to the novel – hongxue, literally, “redology.” Red Chamber serves as an invaluable record of the lifestyle of a wealthy Chinese family at the beginning of the eighteenth century, faithfully portraying the Neo-Confucian conservatism of the newly established Qing dynasty and the anxieties that preoccupied its governing scholar bureaucracy. Its doomed lovers, Jia Bao-yu and Lin Dai-yu, are as iconic in China as Romeo and Juliet are in the West. It’s also notable for its staggering length. At about twenty-eight hundred pages, Dream of the Red Chamber is about twice as long as my copy of War and Peace.
What is most striking to me about the experience of reading this book, however, is not the length. It is the vast distance between The Dream of the Red Chamber and the modern sensibility. In the post-Lish verbal economics of the contemporary novel, where every word has to count, the dramatic waste of words in Red Chamber is astoundingly alien. I am aware, of course, that not every novel is plot-driven, but most novels do tend to have some sort of force propelling them forward, some sort of urgency, whether that urgency is derived from the events, the character, or themes alluded to by the work. Dream of the Red Chamber, on the other hand, is unbelievably comfortable with its own languor. It is often content to bring the story to a complete standstill while it explains the minutiae of household management. The novel often seems to proceed only with a great reluctance.
I won’t tell you it isn’t occasionally boring to read this novel. I also won’t tell you that it isn’t maddening. Or that, after reading every excruciating detail of the umpteenth drinking game, I didn’t want to angrily trample it, like an apostate stomping on the cross. But the extravagant waste of the prose is also part of the overall design of the novel. The low signal-to-noise ratio causes the mind to actively search for the tiny anomalies that reveal the profundity behind the endless series of parties. I love this single sentence, for example:
It was customary in the Jia household to treat the older generation of servants – those who had served the parents of the present masters – with even greater respect than the younger generation of masters, so that in this instance it was not thought at all surprising that You-shi, Xi-feng and Li Wan should remain standing while old Mrs. Lai and three or four other old nannies (though not without first apologizing for the liberty) seated themselves on the stools.
I cannot remember where I last saw the relationships between servants and their masters so concisely described. This sentence (particularly the parenthetical) perfectly captures the way a master’s gesture of apparent humility and gratitude can end up as nothing more than the ultimate expression of power.
The novel is filled with these diamonds in the rough. In fact, the overall technique of the novel is that of an elaborate shell game, as if the narrator were attempting to hide something behind every description of a meal. Surrounded by reams and reams of meaningless detail, the sudden dismissal of a maid jars us as an unconscionable cruelty. We come to understand the magnitude of the Jia family matriarch’s vanity and selfishness by carefully reading between the lines. And only by trudging through each and every poetry contest can the reader absorb the tremendous depth of the regret that suffuses the novel; with each innocent poem written about transience, with each second idly wasted, the young residents of the Jia family mansions unknowingly signal their own doom.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the novel is dead. Heck, forget the novel; the short story is dead. It’s all about flash fiction now. Not only is this a foregone conclusion, everyone knows how it happened, too. Television, or video games, or the internet, or Twitter destroyed our attention spans. For one thing, nobody reads anymore (a sentiment expressed exclusively, it should be noted, by people who read a great deal). And besides, nobody’s interested in fiction anymore (again, a statement that is only ever written by people who love literary fiction).
Myriad and ever-emerging like cockroaches, those essays that would pronounce a final sentence on the novel rely on a gross misperception of how culture works. The logic behind most of these arguments is that readers are only willing to read works that reflect their direct experience; thus, a faster paced world demands shorter stories, or an image-obsessed world eschews text altogether. “Death of the novel” essayists would condemn the art form to the dustbin of history like the telegraph, the typewriter or some other piece of outdated machinery. Theirs is a brutally determinist view of the world; they seem to believe that culture can only reflect–and never influence–the societies and people that produce it.
However, that’s never been my experience. I have continually been shaped by books. To Kill A Mockingbird taught me what courage is. Beowulf taught me about death. Swann’s Way taught me how to let go of love. And I hope that Dream of the Red Chamber will teach me to pay attention. For as much as life is made out of Joycean epiphanies, it seems that a great deal more of it is composed of lunches and dinners, awful parties, boring family get-togethers, and countless, idly-watched episodes of Law and Order. There seems to be a great deal of value in learning how to find the beauty that lies in this “wasted” time. Not to say that we can’t also have quick beach reads. But we don’t only read to consume; we also read in order to learn and maybe even in order to change and to grow.
Since the beginning of time, there have been long novels and there have been flash fiction–though, back then, flash fiction pieces were called epigrams. I’d argue that the first post-modern novel was Don Quixote. I’d argue that the first anti-novel was Tristam Shandy. The same modes of expression have always been around, albeit with different names and different styles. Their use has only been limited by the mind, which has generally proved flexible enough to find new meaning in the old forms and come up with new forms to talk about those same old universal human experiences.
Through books–both sweepingly long ones and dramatic short ones–we’ve come to terms with the staggering impact of science, the economic traumas of capitalism, the dislocations of globalization, and the unique nightmare of modern war. I think we’ll figure out a way to deal with Twitter, too.
Bryan wrote in with this question:I’m a 2007 graduate of Columbia. I majored in American Studies with a concentration in 20th century American literature. I’m a huge fan of the Millions. I’m attaching a recent reading list, if there’s any chance you’d be interested in giving a book recommendation [based on it], that would be totally awesome. Here goes:Currently reading:Heart of Darkness by Joseph ConradRecently read (sep 07 – april 08):Elementary Particles by Michel HoullebecqA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave EggersMan In The Dark by Paul AusterPortnoy’s Complaint by Philip RothWhat We Should Have Known – n+1The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullersLook Back In Anger by John OsborneThe Road by Cormac MccarthyPages From A Cold Island by Frederick ExleyUltramarine by Raymond CarverThe Unbearable Lightness Of Being by Milan KunderaThe Country Between Us by Carolyn ForcheLiterary Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice by Charles BresslerA Good Man Is Hard To Find by Flannery O’ConnorGoodbye, Columbus by Philip RothWinesburg, Ohio by Sherwood AndersonThe Big Sleep by Raymond ChandlerMeditations In An Emergency by Frank O’HaraSwann’s Way by Marcel ProustThe Sound And The Fury by William FaulknerLife Studies and For The Union Dead by Robert LowellFor Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest HemingwayIncidences by Daniil KharnsJourney To The End Of The Night by Louis-Ferdinand CelineBryan’s recent reading list is an interesting one, and in discussions among Millions contributors, several interesting observations were made. Emily noted, for example, that it is a “very testosterone-y” reading list and added, “I think all testosterone diets are bad for the soul. (as are all estrogen diets).” Her prescription? Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Ben, meanwhile, noted several “upgrades” that Bryan might consider to the books above. Instead of Goodbye, Columbus, read Saul Bellow’s Herzog. If you’re going to read Exley, read A Fan’s Notes, and “Infinite Jest should be on there, probably the greatest work of 20th century literature,” Ben adds. Garth said that Bryan “needs urgently to read is Mating by Norman Rush, which is like an amalgam of Conrad, Roth, Proust, F. O’Hara, and Hemingway,” all authors featured on Bryan’s list.In thinking and discussing Bryan’s list, we also hit the idea of a “staff picks” for recent grads – a year out of school, Bryan qualifies, and with another round of graduates set to be expelled from academia, we figured that it might be both timely and useful. Below follows a handful of suggestions. This list is woefully incomplete though, so we ask you to help us out with your own reading suggestions for recent graduates in the comments.Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson recommended by EdanThis novel-in-verse is a contemporary retelling of the myth of Geryon and Herakles. In the original myth, Herakles kills Geryon, a red-winged creature who lives on a red island; Carson’s version is a kind of coming of age story, in which Geryon falls in love with Herakles. If the form intimidates you, don’t let it: this is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read.The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams recommended by EdanThree teenage girls, a bitch of a ghost, and the apathetic desert. The Quick and the Dead is an odd and very funny novel that has pretty much no narrative drive but is nonetheless a joy (no pun intended!) to read because of its wondrous prose.Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy by Dave Hickey recommended by EdanThis is a fun collection of essays that will feel far more entertaining than any criticism you read in college (though maybe not as mind blowing). The best piece in the book, I think, is Hickey’s argument for why Vegas (where he lives) is so terrific.George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London recommended by AndrewSo you’re holding your degree in one hand and, with the other, you’re untangling a four-year growth of ivy from your jacket. All the while maintaining that cool, detached air that you’ve been carefully cultivating. Well, before you join the real world and settle into the routine that will destroy your soul bit by bit, each and every day FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE, take a breath, find a copy of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, and shake your foundations one last time.Orwell was probably about your age – mid-twenties or so – when he found himself out of the army and living in the underbelly of Paris and then in London, living in poverty, working as a plongeur and doing other assorted subsistence-level jobs, and scraping by. A largely autobiographical account of those years, Down and Out in Paris and London exposes Orwell’s social soul. “I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny.”Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis and The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway recommended by MaxTo me, the post-college years are characterized by two often warring desires, to become a contributing member of society despite the horrifying drudgery of those first post-college jobs and to extend the second childhood of undergraduate life for as long as possible. Lucky Jim riotously encapsulates the former, as junior lecturer Jim Dixon finds himself surrounded by eccentric buffoonish professors and overeager students at a British college. He wants what many of us want: to escape the dull life before it traps us forever. The Sun Also Rises famously depicts the pitfalls of the other path. Brett and Jake and their burned out gang live life in a perpetual day-after-the-party fog. The Pamplona bullfights, aperitifs, and camaraderie may be tempting, but the attendant spiritual weariness gives pause.
Scott Esposito is the editor of The Quarterly Conversation and the host of the literary blog Conversational Reading. His writing on books has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Chattahoochee Review, and the Rain Taxi Review ofBooks, among others.I’m a big advocate of the test of time – often I’m favorably impressed by a book right when I finish, but in the ensuing weeks and months, when I have a chance to look back through a book and see how it ages in my mind, many books that I once thought were good begin to lose their luster. So, in order that you can attach the proper grains of salt to each pick, I’m going to do my favorites for 2007 in the order in which I read them.Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital, the third book I read, reads like a grand old mannered novel that got stuck with a 21st-century premise: there’s a new Biblical Flood, and all that survives is a children’s hospital. The story unfolds as the staff and the tiny patients figure out what God has in store for them. If this sounds overly religious and fantastic, it isn’t – Adrian builds amazingly realistic characters while telling a tale that, although it certainly includes elements of fantasy, should satisfy any devoted realist. Adrian’s an amazing talent, and for more info, read my review of this book.A couple books later I read what might be my very favorite novel of the past few years: Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec. This novel simply describes the rooms in a Paris apartment building, but in these descriptions Perec ranges all over the world, telling all kinds of amazing, intricately crafted stories. The whole book is too complex and well-built to ever do justice to in a small paragraph like this – so, please, just read it.At number 15 is The Savage Detectives, another book composed of discreet, story-type units. This book is generally agreed to be Roberto Bolano’s masterpiece (either that or the never-completed 2666), and in it Bolano simply traces the lives of two poet-youths as they and their forgotten generation age. Though the book is innovative and stylistically challenging, it still delivers realistic characters and deep emotion.About ten down we come to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and the first book of Proust, both of which I won’t bother to write about as readers probably know about them already, and then at 28 Raymond Queneau’s Witch Grass, a wonderful, playful book that one might legitimately say is about “nothing.” Some have said that this is Queneau’s gloss, in novel form, of Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am,” but regardless of how you interpret it, this is a plain old joyful read, as Queneau’s prose is continually fresh and entertaining. In my blog, I wrote a little about it.At 36 is Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, which made me wish I had read her earlier; Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence follows at 37. Then we get onto some works of criticism: Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, in which he lays out his famous theory of myths and tries to pin down the basic kinds of stories people tell. Though this book is sometimes dense, there’s a lot here, and it certainly changed the way I looked at narratives. A little after that I read Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction, in which he looks at how works of fiction are built. As erudite as this book is, it’s highly readable; Booth meant this as the definitive book on rhetoric in fiction, and though he tried to bite off more than he (or probably anyone) could chew, this is about as good an attempt as you’re going to get.After that I dipped into a little Spanish, reading Cesar Aira’s How I Became a Nun and Enrique Vila-Matas’s Bartleby & Co. The Aira is a subversively funny work about a little boy (or is it girl?) who has a completely crazy experience when his father takes him out for his first taste of ice cream; the Vila-Matas is an un-novel that is composed entirely of footnotes to a book never written about writers who stopped writing. It’s a very clever book that transcends mere cleverness, and for more about Vila-Matas, whom I think is an amazing writer, have a look at my essay on him.After that there was Iris Murdoch’s masterful The Sea, the Sea, which I blogged about. In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin, the unforgettable Tristram Shandy, Alex Ross’s fine overview of 20th-century classical music, The Rest Is Noise, George Eliot’s Middlemarch (which I can’t recommend highly enough), and, most recently, the Renaissance work of 100 stories, The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio.Though the last was written in the 14th century and may seem a little old and musty, I hope people give it a look. These stories are clinics in how to compose a short work of fiction, and reading them compared to something written by a more contemporary author is as refreshing as listing to a Bach sonata after taking in a symphony by Shostakovich. Moreover, these are just plain fun – Boccaccio’s swipes at the church make you realize that people always have, and always will, have axes to grind with politicians and those in power, and his stories are bawdy enough to make you laugh out loud at his boldness.More from A Year in Reading 2007
This guest contribution comes from Buzz Poole, the managing editor of Mark Batty Publisher. He has written for the likes of The Believer, Village Voice and San Francisco Chronicle, and is the author of Madonna of the Toast, a look at the cultural ramifications of unexpected religious and secular icons. Keep up with his adventures in surprising iconography at his Madonna of the Toast blog.In the wake of what was the weltering sea of publishing professionals awash in New York City’s Javits Center for Book Expo America 2007, The New York Times ran the piece “Waxing Philosophical, Booksellers Face the Digital.” The writer invoked John Updike’s speech from a year ago during which he beseeched booksellers to “‘defend [their] lonely forts’ against a digital future of free book downloads and snippets of text.” In the constant digital flutter of information that courses at us through screens – the one you read from this moment, PDAs and cell phones – it stands to reason that technologists would aim to bring reading, writing and the notion of books into the fray of this constantly shifting landscape. While the conversations of how books will endure our digital age have gone on for years, often at rates that far exceed the available technology, this Times piece evidenced the inevitable changes to publishing in the presence of companies like Google and MySpace at places like BEA While the dissemination of books has certainly changed over the years, downloaded or bought at highly reduced prices from Amazon, the product is still very much a book that meets the conventional standards of writing and reading, in the sense that an author has written something for readers, and agree or disagree, like it or hate it, nothing will change about the actual text. Wired editor Chris Anderson was apparently touting his forthcoming book at BEA, something called Free, which will indeed be free to readers willing to download a version interspersed with ads. Print-on-demand books allow more writers the satisfaction of seeing and holding their words on bound pages held together by glue and a case, but they are still, “just books.”In the realm of publishing, however, especially mainstream publishing, the concerns and campaigns are geared to getting better at selling books, not to how the very nature of books is, and has been, changing for years.The Institute for the Future of the Book is on the bleeding edge of this evolution. Headquartered in Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, the Institute is redefining the act of reading, with the ultimate goal of democratizing how information is created, conveyed, maintained and understood. The Institute is not the first on the block to try to make the best of technology for such a purpose, but it is making its ideas reality. The Institute is a project of the Annenberg Center for Communication at the University of Southern California, funded by the MacArthur Foundation. But it is much more than money, technology and profile that put the Institute at the forefront of this evolution; the Institute’s founder Bob Stein is why the Institute will change how we understand the acts of writing and reading, or not.With the look of a mischievous urban Zen monk, replete with the tonsured pate, Stein has long advocated for the optimal uses of the newest technologies to reinvent the conventions of media. Stein founded the Criterion Collection, today a carefully curated series of films transferred to DVD and supplemented with all the extras, outtakes and commentary we have become accustomed to. But pre-DVD, Criterion took classic films and put them on laser discs. (For those of you who don’t remember, there was a time, albeit brief, during the nascent stage of the digital revolution, when both audiophiles and cinephiles thought the future of film was on a record-sized CD that had to be flipped in the middle of the movie.)The second Stein project to fuse various technologies with the hope of creating a multi-media experience to go beyond just “watching” a movie or “reading” a book was Voyager CD-ROM. In 1988, Voyager produced the first consumer CD-ROM, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The release is also considered the first interactive electronic publication. The recording of the symphony by the Vienna Philharmonic, with the help of Apple’s HyperCard, blended the aural with the visual, altering how users could link and interact with time-based events, in this case music accompanied by a cursor, controlled by the user, that moved across each and every note, elucidating aspects of the music like Beethoven’s sense of rhythm.Voyager released over 500 titles, like Art Spiegleman’s Maus, an examination of Marshall McLuhan’s ideas and a compilation of Mumia Abu Jamal’s writings and interviews, all in the name of creating books that were about much more than ink on paper. Regardless of the subject matter, all of it complex one way or another, Voyager put readers inside the book as active participants. A book was no longer something readers acted on, but acted with.The zeal with which Stein approached these projects, however, has been ramped up tenfold through the Institute for the Future of the Book because now technology can keep up with ambition. The enthusiasm fires out in the office as Stein, Jesse Wilbur, Ben Vershbow and Dan Visel spend their days blogging, writing treatises and hosting a revolving door of programmers, artists, writers and academics chasing and dreaming up ideas with the hope that their programmers, scattered all over the world, can hang with the whimsical but relevant musings of what Vershbow refers to as a group of “wayward humanists” and Wilbur calls “technical evangelism.”At any given moment, the Institute juggles many projects at once, though they all relate to free, accessible networks of information. The cornerstone of these projects, however, is Sophie, an open source digital infrastructure that synthesizes the best aspects of applications like Final Cut Pro, Word and the entire Adobe Creative Suite. (The alpha version of Sophie is available for download, free of charge.) Stein and friends coined the name based on its Greek etymology, meaning “knowledge,” or “wisdom.” They also appreciated the happy coincidence that three of the eleven Sophie programmers live in Sofia, Bulgaria (the other eight live in the United States, Canada and Germany).The potential for Sophie is totally untapped, and if one is to believe the Institute, the potential is limitless, kept in check by nothing other than the bounds of one’s imagination. “When you make a tool,” Stein states matter of factly, “you want people to use it. How they use it has nothing to do with us.”And it is here that things really get interesting. The most influential people behind the Institute are not so much about the technology; rather they are about intellectual economies where theory and practice are equally valued. The Institute wants to do more than democratize information; it wants to reappraise the exchange of information and how it is valued.Reading has always been a transformative activity; look at the Bible or the Qu’ran. Whether for the purpose of educating, manipulating, entertaining or escaping, readers throughout time have read for the purpose of being taken to places outside of their respective physical environments. Both reading and writing have been associated with the ever elusive post-modern “Other,” that state of being or understanding totally apart from the confines of convention. If the powers that be define meaning, like what is “good” and what is “bad,” with nothing but their own interests in mind, once you step outside of that box, the new perspective reveals the subjectivity of those definitions. This is the perspective of the Other, a vantage point from which you can see the entirety of the construct rather than just the walls of the construct in which you are contained.The genteel protagonist of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past: Swann’s Way is often associated with this notion of stepping outside of the tradition of meaning and understanding. He loathes outside activities; what he relishes, however, are inside activities, especially reading. He greatly appreciates the power of books: “I myself seemed actually to have become the subject of my book… Then it would begin to seem unintelligible, as thoughts of a former existence must be to a reincarnate spirit; the subject of my book would separate itself from me, leaving me free to choose whether I would form part of it or no.” A century removed from Proust’s days, the Institute strives for the same kind of total immersion into the act of reading, where reader and author act as partners, in a process that can conceivably go on forever, never ending just evolving.So What Does the Institute Actually Do?Before this question is answered, first it should be established how the Institute defines a “book,” because it has nothing to do with ink or the tactile turning of pages. No one at the Institute wants to defame the traditional codex book, for they are the primary sources of inspiration that have fed these hungry minds. However, the rapid availability of information has reshaped culture at large; the Institute wants the act of reading, and publishing, to directly respond to the nature of social interaction. We live in a networked world, so there is no reason why books shouldn’t be fully networked landscapes of social interaction, according to the Institute. Cast in this light, a book becomes anything that contains information, whether it is text based around music or images, or images based around text and music, or any permutation of media you can imagine. A book is anything that serves as a vessel for information, really no different from the dead trees you have on shelves and stacked up on the floor, with the exception that traditional books can’t be networked.Sophie is the ultimate example of such new books, a 21st century Voyager in many ways. Though, unlike Voyager products, Sophie, in Stein’s words, “is a very flexible tool. You will be able to make open-ended projects like Gamer Theory or ‘pickled’ objects that resemble printed books.” Sophie is rigged for laypeople; you don’t need to be a programmer to make these books. The spec for Sophie, written by Dan Visel, and found on the Institute’s website, avers: “Sophie is media-agnostic: all media is the same inside of Sophie.” No matter the media employed while using Sophie, the end product is a book, as cut from the fabric of the Institute.”Because Sophie is open source,” says Stein, “it continually evolves itself.” The author will evolve into more of a moderator, the readers will become like panelists or members of a live audience, free to add their thoughts, contest, agree, diverge, all in the pursuit of unfettered knowledge the source of which can always be identified.Though it is a prototype, a mere shadow of what Sophie will permit in terms of media synthesis, McKenzie Wark’s GAM3R 7H3ORY, one title in the “Thinking Out Loud” series, is the best example of what the Institute is getting at in terms of how information can be made transparent and foster new ways of intellectual discourse. The basic premise of Wark’s “electronic monograph” is that life looks and acts like a game. It’s not surprising that the Institute champions GAM3R 7H3ORY, since they are all of the age, with the exception of Stein, in which the video game is ubiquitous, not some novelty that you fed quarters to at the mall if you were lucky enough to catch a ride. Wark contends: “The whole of life appears as a vast accumulation of commodities and spectacles, of things wrapped in images and images sold as things.”In the case of GAM3R 7H3ORY, and as is the essence of this notion of transparent information, readers can respond instantly to Wark’s words, or the words of other readers, and often times Wark responds to them. The text develops with every comment and any subsequent responses. When the whole process is made available for scrutiny, you can be sure certain readers will address the flaws, something the guys at the Institute get excited about. They study the differences in the rhythms of print versus networks, striving to reconcile where analog meets digital. These books permit “the ability to see the layers, the documentation of time.” Ben Vershbow, the guy responsible for bringing Wark on board for this experiment, not without an understandable tone of pride says, “With this kind of model, it’s no longer the author speaking, it’s the book speaking.”Any student of Marshall McLuhan would recognize the relevance of Wark’s book. McLuhan long ago posited that we become the forms of media that we create. He hinges the point on the creation of the printing press, as a matter of fact. The mechanized process of publishing was the first major step toward full-throttle industrialization because objects could readily and regularly be produced, over and over again. “Typography, by producing the first uniformly repeatable commodity,” says McLuhan in an interview in Playboy, “also created Henry Ford, the first assembly line and the first mass production. Movable type was archetype and prototype for all subsequent industrial development.” If you place the emphasis, as McLuhan insists, on the medium rather than the content, then the Institute truly is on the pulse of the culture, even if the culture doesn’t realize it yet. The Institute’s experiments in book making are social experiments, taking place through screens, keyboard and fiber optic cables. For them, it is the means to an organic economy of information that gives voice to any voice that wants to be heard. That’s why the Institute gives Sophie away for free; it is the vessel that transports the information that they are most concerned with. Giving Sophie to anyone that wants it is like throwing out handfuls of wild flower seeds and waiting to see what pops up, except in this case the result is an electronic ecology.And so, where does this leave us? What do you think? We are left with many ideas, many new ideas that need time to breathe and suffer the vagaries of actual application. What the publishing industry needs to realize, however, is that books are primed to be more multifaceted than ever, in ways far more important and compelling than how to sell them. For better or worse, the digital age has made us media junkies in that we expect information delivered as text, imagery and sound, often as quickly as the event from which the information derives happens. These cultural developments do not threaten the traditional book, but they do necessitate writers, publishers and readers to explore and foment these developments, because if they don’t, they will miss out, spending too much time figuring out how to put banner ads in books.If this piece were a Sophie book, what would it look like? You’d have the text, the piece you just read. I will have scanned in various drafts, from which you could read scrawled notes to myself in the margins. There would be lists of what I have been reading, listening to and working on during the process of writing about the Institute. You would be able to read the 1969 interview with Marshall McLuhan from Playboy; River of Shadows by Rebecca Solnit, Proust and Steinbeck’s often overlooked In Dubious Battle; an article about James Joyce’s cantankerous grandson and the ethics of copyright abuse. And as you read, you’d listen to Jeremiah Lockwood, Broken Social Scene, Amalia Rodrigues, hell, I could dump my entire music library into this thing and you could ride the shuffle the same as me. And don’t forget about Nathan Troi Anderson’s Shadows of Time, a book of black and white photographs of ancient petroglyphs juxtaposed with contemporary advertising. All of these media have influenced this piece. And this is what is important, influence, the influence of the individual to have control of the information he or she is expected to swallow, often times like a dose of castor oil (and now watch a Looney Toons cartoon where Bugs Bunny foists castor oil on Yosemite Sam).Lastly, you would be able to add your own voice to what I have written. You could call this a bunch of futurist hogwash; you could use a single sentence as the point of departure for your own piece about information economies, or McLuhan, or Bob Stein and the Institute for the Future of the Book, and it would all be welcomed as the essence of how information should be relayed and ricocheted today, in a space you can always step outside of and call your own, creating an inside that is always outside the box.