I’m not a completist by nature or inclination. Even if I enjoy a novel or album a great deal, I tend to let chance determine what the next thing is I’ll read or listen to. There are very few artists whose entire catalog I’ve ever felt compelled to digest: Kubrick, The Beatles, most Alice Munro, possibly no one else. And, for reasons I’m not sure I fully understand, Ian McEwan, whom I began to read in my early 20s, and whom I’ve doggedly continue to follow, recently finishing his latest, Machines Like Me. His fifteenth: fifteen of this man’s books I’ve read, and having recently taken note of my unusual McEwan completism, it seemed worth thinking about the new novel in the context of his body of work, the only prolific author for whom I could attempt to do so.
It’s difficult to think of a writer with a more interesting, and in many ways desirable, career trajectory than Ian McEwan. His debut novel, The Cement Garden, published in 1978, was a Grand Guignol tale of death and incest, an unnatural (or perhaps all too natural) relationship that develops between a sister and brother when their parents die and they are left with their younger siblings in the house. It is a very good book: by turns funny, frightening, and powerfully creepy.
Creepiness is a theme that runs through the early part of McEwan’s corpus, a body of work that earned him the nickname Ian Macabre. [SPOILERS AHEAD] There is the creepiness of incest in The Cement Garden, the creepiness of child molestation in the story collection First Love, Last Rites, the creepiness of child abduction in The Child in Time, the creepiness of serial murder in The Comfort of Strangers, and the creepiness of bestiality in Black Dogs. I don’t mean this pejoratively—while this urge to shock and disgust can sometimes mark out an immature writer, in the case of McEwan’s early work, the unnatural seems natural, less motivated by the urge to provoke than the urge to explore the limits of human behavior.
My sense is that a reader in the 1980s would have thought of him as an oddity, maybe Iain Banks with better style chops. My sense certainly is that a reader of this era would have been shocked to learn that, by the early 2000s, Mr. McEwan would be a standard bearer of popular literary fiction. A run of three novels—Amsterdam, Atonement, and Saturday—cemented his mainstream reputation as surely as The Cement Garden had cemented his fringe reputation. The one-word titling suggests a narrowing shift in intent, and indeed, I believe this mid-career makeover to be intentional, as much as such a thing is possible, anyway. These books trim away much of the gothic fat of the early work, and present a kind of streamlined, updated Victorian realism, especially in the runaway bestseller Atonement.
This is his high-water mark, the ideal synthesis of McEwan’s genre and literary talents. Atonement simultaneously manages to be a legitimate romance, a mystery, and a World War II narrative without sacrificing much in the way of stylishness or sentence-level pleasure. It is either the most highbrow middlebrow book ever written, or the most middlebrow highbrow (I mean this as a compliment), and the same could be said of Mr. McEwan’s general authorial talents. In an era of intense specialization and branding, it is the extremely rare writer who manages to wear as many hats as McEwan does, especially during this middle period.
Solar, published in 2010, inaugurated McEwan’s late phase, the one that is perhaps my least favorite of the three, despite the various pleasures it still reliably serves up. Like James Michener with states, these are McEwan’s Idea Books, each one easily articulable in terms of social problem or dramatic conceit: Solar (Climate Change); Sweet Tooth (MI5); The Children Act (Euthanasia); Nutshell (Hamlet as Performed by a Talking Embryo). And now, Machines Like Me (Robots), the title of which I find impossible not to subvocalize with the emphasis on like, briefly imagining a book about robots being fond of the narrator. The book is an alternate history in which technology and AI advanced faster than it has in our timeline, producing human simulacra by the early 1980s. The narrator, Charlie—for reasons that are not entirely clear, to us or to him—purchases a robot named Adam (the male robots are Adams, the females Eves; the book notes that seven Eves have been dispatched to Riyadh, a not very good joke). Adam, over the course of the proceedings, develops feelings of what he describes as love for Charlie’s romantic interest, Miranda. The novel proceeds as a bizarre love triangle, between the three, with extra bits of intrigue thrown in to move things along.
This plot machinery includes a secret backstory for Miranda involving a false rape allegation against a man named Gorringe as revenge for his actual rape of her friend Mariam. There’s also: her dying father, an orphan boy named Mark, Charlie’s use of Adam as a kind of automated day trader, and the recurring guest appearance of an Alan Turing who is still very much alive in this timeline. This accumulation of the exciting and implausible begins to feel a little—and it brings me no joy to say this—silly. The late-phase books all, to varying extents, have an aspect of the ridiculous to them; or an aspect of the fun, depending on one’s point of view. Machines Like Me joins its brethren in a genre unique to McEwan, one that as I read, I began to think of as “high-concept intellectual potboiler.”
The intellectual part should not be understated. Take, for
instance, this gorgeous passage, describing a moment, one of the novel’s best
scenes, when Miranda’s father mistakes Charlie for a robot:
There are occasions when one notices the motion of an object before one sees the thing itself. Instantly, the mind does a little colouring in, drawing on expectations, or probabilities. Whatever fits best. Something in the grass by a pond looks just like a frog, then resolves itself into a leaf stirred by the wind. In abstract, this was one of those moments. A thought darted past me, or through me, then it was gone, and I couldn’t trust what I thought I’d seen.
Even McEwan’s worst books, and this is not one of his worst, are full of this kind of writing, almost somnolently smooth and controlled. The command of language goes a long way toward pulling together the strings of material that, in a lesser writer’s hands, might feel completely absurd (that Nutshell, with its pithy, oratorical embryo of a narrator, was even partially successful, is a testament to McEwan’s ability). The book is also full of interesting, if not always bleeding-edge, ideas about AI and consciousness. Adam has a precocious teenager’s love for earnest philosophy, a tendency played for laughs, but one that also produces many genuinely interesting digressions:
He said, “I’ve also been thinking about vision and death…We don’t see everywhere. We can’t see behind our heads. We can’t even see our chins. Let’s say our field of vision is almost 180 degrees, counting in peripheral awareness. The odd thing is, there’s no boundary, no edge. There isn’t vision and then blackness, like you get when you look through binoculars. There isn’t something, then nothing. What we have is the field of vision, and then beyond it, less than nothing.”
“So this is what death is like.”
Nonetheless, despite the book’s many pleasures, one senses in Machines Like Me, as to some extent is true in all these late-phase books, a master prioritizing his own amusement. McEwan is clearly intellectually curious, and these Idea Books are clearly fun: fun to research, fun to think about, fun to write. And, to be fair, pretty fun to read. Having already dominated the British literary landscape for more than a quarter century, having produced several bestsellers, having won the Booker and just about every award that can be won, it is difficult to begrudge the man his pleasure. Nonetheless, there is an aspect of the hobbyist to it, the retiree retreating to his basement to fool with model trains.
As a lifelong fan of McEwan’s, this reader—and I suspect others—pines for a late-late phase. One that sees him leave the playroom and evolve once more while recapturing his earlier form, returning to novels of the small and intent variety. It’s not impossible to imagine—as much as McEwan’s subject matter has changed from The Cement Garden to Machines Like Me, if you read closely, certain elements and preoccupations are consistent: human desire, the ramifications of sex, the violence that people can so easily do to each other. The creepiness of the earlier work is less intense, more diffuse, but it is still very much there. McEwan received a great deal of justified flack recently, for an interview in which he spoke about the possibilities of science-fiction exploring the ethical ramifications of AI, seeming unaware of Isaac Asimov and the last 50 years of the genre; that said, to my knowledge, until the publication of Machines Like Me, sci-fi had yet to explore the possibilities of robot-human cunnilingus. In a gobsmacking moment early on, Charlie listens to Miranda and Adam going at it in her apartment overhead and vividly imagines the scene:
Minutes later, I almost looked away as he knelt with reverence to pleasure her with his tongue. This was the celebrated tongue, wet and breathily warm, adept at uvulars and labials, that gave speech its authenticity.
This is, on the one hand, a somewhat insane thing to write, but on the other it is characteristic McEwan—the unblinking, simultaneously scientific and voyeuristic eye. Even stately Atonement, a sweeping historical tragedy set in a 1930s country manor, hinges on a vulgar love letter and features a sexual tryst that includes the word “membrane.” Yes, the creepiness of the early novels remains. It is a productive, idiosyncratic creepiness that I personally find more compelling than the big ideas of his last few novels.
This, perhaps, explains why 2006’s On Chesil Beach is my personal favorite of McEwan’s novels. It tells the story of a young married couple trying and failing to have sex on their honeymoon. That’s it. It is simple and heartbreaking, paring away almost all plot machinery, distilling McEwan’s thematic interests down to the essential: two people, and the question of how to exist together. Its creepiness is the greatest creepiness of all, one that Machines Like Me also explores, but in a much more labored and labyrinthine style: the inescapable reality of human consciousness—the way we are trapped in our own minds, never able to really know anyone else in the end.
At the bottom of Ian McEwan’s new novel The Children Act, a brisk tour of the English family courts, is the same bitter pill the writer has been mulling over since his early work, refusing to swallow. A youthful and artistic idealism must be sacrificed to responsible administration. In The Cement Garden, McEwan’s first novel, a house of orphaned adolescents ward off government services for a time by storing their mother’s body in an elaborately cemented trunk kept in the basement. But this doesn’t eliminate the need for those children to implement grotesque variations on the lost parental order. The state’s eagerness to do more — to midwife the parents — is in turn skewered by The Child In Time’s mammothly dysfunctional Official Commission on Child Care, the recommendations by its 14 subcommittees always mired in political and commercial interests, its members plagued by personal tragedies.
For McEwan, neither the citizens nor the bureaucrats seem up to their end of the social contract, which is why the impersonal law persists to safeguard the sovereignty of individuals in the private, domestic sphere while protecting victims from those who abuse their parental privileges. To be a grown-up worthy of commanding the law is truly a higher, almost divine, calling. So McEwan, stalking secret wellsprings of authority through steady production in five decades, tilts his frame from the easy drama of arguing attorneys to the fallible hand that hands down the judgment. Even a discipline as seemingly objective as Nobel-level physics, as witnessed in Solar, could decay into a Ponzi scheme with the right human contamination. The trendy sociologists in that book, explaining how the discovery of a specific gene or subatomic particle was socially constructed, were supposed to be academic court jesters. McEwan continues to demonstrate how similar social truths can best be delivered elegantly by a novelist.
In The Children Act, High Court Judge Fiona Maye, 59, is highly esteemed and remains invigorated by the cases passing through her Family Division, each exotic claim and novel circumstance “assimilated at speed.” She believes in her work and considers it “a significant marker in civilization’s progress” that the law favors the needs of children over their parents, as coded in the statute that lends the novel its name. The law is an esoteric language, a forbidden fruit whose knowledge causes litigants to lapse. “Parents soon learned the new vocabulary and patient procedures of the law, and were dazed to find themselves in vicious combat with the one they once loved.” After 35 years, Fiona’s marriage is stagnating, and her husband Jack, a Classics professor, candidly asks her permission to pursue an affair with a 28-year-old statistician, Melanie. When he leaves, she changes the locks.
McEwan tailors his sentences for each book, but tends toward Jamesean intricacy, rigging each clause with multiple detonations of meaning. Here is McEwan introducing Solar’s physicist, Michael Beard:
He belonged to that class of men — vaguely unprepossessing, often bald, short, fat, clever — who were unaccountably attractive to certain beautiful women. Or he believed he was, and thinking seemed to make it so. And it helped that some women believed he was a genius in need of rescue.
This plume of competing impressions — physical details and projected airs — is anchored by the storyteller’s pretense to contain his man and pin him to a type. Beard’s elusiveness makes him seem more real. In The Children Act, McEwan uses a closer third-person that mimics Fiona as she coolly itemizes the relevant facts in one of her cases, or in the marital ordeal that consumes more and more of her attention:
Her days were full, and in the evenings recently, various dinners…and taxis, Tube trains, dry-cleaning to collect, a letter to draft about a special school for the cleaning lady’s autistic son, and finally sleep. Where was the sex? At that moment, she couldn’t recall.
Tracks often switch mid-paragraph. Self-pity in others embarrasses the judge, but she can’t help but feel victimized by the ruthless decision her husband makes in favor of a fling. Out of all her courtroom experience, Fiona observes kindness as the “essential human ingredient.” She can sometimes pursue this one humanist virtue in the law by using it to save a child from an unkind parent. The problem is that kindness is voluntary, unwarranted by law.
Circumstance can also prohibit kindness by forcing the choice between two evils. Fiona is still haunted by a famous case of Siamese twins, which left her to decide between a surgery that would result in the death of one brother and letting both die by doing nothing. She cites the trauma of this decision as a turning point, when sensual pleasure between herself and Jack ceased. The case that takes up the bulk of The Children Act offers a medical solution, but to get there Fiona must first grapple with religious fundamentalism. Adam, a cancer-stricken teenage Jehovah’s Witness, refuses a lifesaving blood transfusion. He is 17, not 18, but can be ruled responsible for his elected martyrdom by a standard he easily exceeds.
The judge and the novelist are interesting analogues. McEwan already offered a look in the narrative kitchen with Black Dogs, a literary son-in-law sniffing out one side, then the other, of an estranged marriage that withered away with Communism. As an allegory, the compassionate wife and the sharp-minded husband served as the synthesis absent from Communism’s historical moment, but they could just as easily stand for the two best sides of Fiona. She is entirely credulous about the law. She’s made it her fate. And she can play it like the baby grand that sits in her living room, jazzing up her judgments with Aristotle and John Stuart Mill.
The Children Act is light by McEwan’s standards. It arrives at big questions too easily. Its simplicity nonetheless exposes the limitations set on a society that sees only in laws and how to profit from them. Fiona expresses a typical cynicism when we are given her impressions of a pervasive greed. The children become counters in a game, and every petty grievance is a money grab. Contrasting this “moral kitsch” is an alien display of substance that logically slides toward self-annihilation. Fiona determines that she needs to visit Adam in the hospital in order to rule, and finds that he’s only too aware of the consequences of his conviction. He is intelligent, charismatic, brave, and shows ambition, if not promise, as a poet and violinist. Is moderation even possible?
Fiona is reminded by her many nieces and nephews of just how much of her own life her ambitions have gobbled up. What shines through her legal mastery is McEwan’s commitment to a clear-eyed reckoning of the forces at play in his world, even his own circle, whether through a bitter divorce or the zealous death threats leveled at fellow-writer and friend Salman Rushdie. To remain a prominent, serious novelist in this culture — and not merely among novelists — requires a certain level of engagement with the headlines, and maybe a certain accent. What keeps McEwan afloat is an almost callow ambition sustained, from book to book, by an amateur’s curiosity.
Were I to claim that Jean-Philippe Toussaint shared a certain amount of common ground with Ian McEwan, I might be in danger of coming off as flippant or, worse, willfully obtuse. Toussaint, after all, is a Belgian avant-garde novelist known for his radically plotless books that seem intent on revealing as little as possible about their protagonists. McEwan is a purveyor of skillfully propulsive novels about upper-middle class English people, who has — fairly or unfairly — become synonymous with upper-middlebrow literary fiction. Toussaint is an exemplar to those of us who want to see the novel being taken to places it has not yet been. Ian McEwan is a writer whose books David Cameron has used for PR purposes (he once arranged to have himself photographed on a suspiciously empty tube between Epping and Charing Cross, cross-legged and suavely engrossed in On Chesil Beach). It’s the kind of comparison that could easily be mistaken for an attention-grabbing stunt. But I’m going to make it anyway — in good faith, I assure you — because it’s one that kept occurring to me as I read Toussaint’s brilliant and compelling The Truth About Marie, the latest of his novels to be translated into English.
I don’t mean to imply that Toussaint is really an upper-middlebrow novelist masquerading as an avant-gardist (he’s definitely not), or that he shares a sensibility or a set of artistic objectives with McEwan. They present the reader with very different kinds of experience, and demand very different intensities of reading. But they are each in possession of a rare and remarkable gift for creating stunning standalone scenes that involve the steep deceleration of narrative time. McEwan’s long and absorbing set-pieces — Enduring Love’s hot air balloon disaster, the battle scene in Atonement, the disappearance of the child in the opening pages of The Child in Time — are, famously, the best thing about his books.
The truth about The Truth About Marie is that it is essentially one set-piece after another. It’s divided into three distinct parts. The first details the events of a single night, during which Jean Christophe de G., the wealthy lover of Marie (the ex-girlfriend of the unnamed narrator) suffers a massive heart attack in her apartment and dies on the spot. In her state of panic, she phones the narrator, who leaves his flat just half a mile away (where he has been making love to another woman, also named Marie) and walks through a Parisian downpour to be with her in the apartment they used to share. The second part jolts us back to the beginning of Marie and Jean-Christophe’s affair. It’s this section that really showcases Toussaint’s spooky powers of chronological manipulation, his idly urgent exploration of the vast spaces of a single moment. In a sequence that accounts for almost half the length of this short novel, the narrator (who offers us no plausible assurance of the reliability of his testimony) comprehensively details an occurrence at which he himself was not present: the transportation via cargo plane of a racehorse, owned by Jean-Christophe, from Tokyo to Paris. In the third part, Marie invites the narrator to come and stay with her in Elba at the home of her recently deceased father, and a forest fire breaks out that threatens to consume them. The novel, in other words, is three show-stopping climaxes specifically not in search of a plot. It’s as though the best, most audacious bits of McEwan’s books had been extracted from the stories of which they serve as centerpieces, in order to be fastened loosely together into some wholly strange and original (nouveau) nouveau romanesque construction.
The Truth About Marie reveals its author’s perennial obsession with the tensions between motion and stasis, which is, as always, nested within a larger concern with the inescapable progression of all bodies towards immobility, and all lives towards death. (Even in the earlier, more whimsically comic works like The Bathroom and Camera with which Toussaint made his name in the 1980s, there is always this slow, quietly horrified circling of the abyss of mortality.) When the paramedics arrive and attempt to resuscitate Jean-Christophe de G. with a defibrillator — to reverse, as it were, his body’s progression from movement to stillness — Marie observes the failure of this attempt, and her lover’s lifeless body is suddenly revealed to her, laid bare in the fullest sense of the term:
Falling back onto the floor, the body lay motionless, and Marie understood then that Jean-Christophe de G.’s heart had stopped beating. Marie approached the paramedics and looked down at the stripped body, its face hidden by the oxygen mask, its white inanimate flesh dotted with electrodes, skin like a fish, cod or flounder, and Marie couldn’t help thinking that it was this same motionless body that she’d held in this room less than an hour earlier in that very spot, this body stripped naked and dispossessed, objectified by a whole array of medical apparatuses, shaved, hooked to an IV and ventilator — this body reduced to its bare substance, bearing no sign of Jean-Christophe de G.’s personality. She realized then that up until this moment she hadn’t really looked at his body, not once throughout the whole night, not even while making love had she taken an interest in his body, she’d hardly even touched it, hadn’t paid it the least attention, being concerned as she always was with her own body alone, caring only for her own pleasure.
The word that keeps impressing itself upon the reader here is “body.” It appears eight times in three sentences. The passage is a kind of narrative still life, in which the facticity of death, the pallid truth of what we are, is stared down. Marie is apprehending this man as though for the first time here, really seeing the condition of his existence at the precise moment at which that existence has ceased. What she is looking at, in other words, is a thing — a thing that, without her ever beginning to appreciate it, has always been a thing — a body revealed and “objectified” by the epiphenomena and appurtenances of sudden death. Here and elsewhere, Toussaint’s beautifully ruthless descriptions reveal the seemingly paradoxical way in which a death at once conceals and lays bare what a person, every person, actually is. As the narrator reaches Marie’s apartment, he passes the paramedics as they carry Jean-Christophe’s body to the ambulance, and he does not know who or what he is seeing on the stretcher. All he knows is that he has been summoned by a panicked Marie, and that now he is seeing a body being removed from her building — a body which, for all he knows, could well be hers. He then observes some visual details that reveal the form as that of a man. “I gleaned nothing,” he tells us, “but isolated details, focused, removed from their context, caught only in passing, his socks, dark, imposing, as if this man would henceforth be reduced to these, his wrist, horrid, to which the IV was attached, a livid wrist, yellow-hued, cadaverous, his face pale, on which I focused closely, scrutinizing its features to see who this was, but in vain, his face, completely covered by the oxygen mask, was perfectly invisible.”
Jean-Christophe de G. is depersonalized in death, “reduced” to an anonymous aggregation of parts. Most novelists would use this as a starting point for an attempt at reintegration, for a narrative that might endeavor to give this man back the identity taken from him by death. But Toussaint’s narrator makes no such effort, and Jean-Christophe remains a more or less wholly concealed figure (as does the narrator himself, and as does Marie). In fact, he casually informs us at the very beginning of Part II that Jean-Christophe de G.’s real name was actually “Jean-Baptise de Ganay” — a fact gleaned from his obituary in Le Monde — and then reverts anyway, for the remainder of the novel, to calling him Jean-Christophe. There’s something savagely vindictive about this insistence on ignoring the facts of the man’s life. He is denying Jean-Baptiste his real name, using the privileges of narratorship to punish him for his affair with Marie. There’s a lesson in this that might be too awful for us to want to learn, which is that death takes from us not just our lives, but also our right to insist upon a particular version of those lives. What we think of as “our” truths, in other words, are just as provisional and corruptible as what we think of as “our” bodies.
There’s a suspect and slightly creepy moment not much later when the narrator admits that he may have been wrong in many of his assumptions about Jean-Christophe — or “Jean-Christophe” — but insists that he is on much surer ground when it comes to Marie. “I knew Marie’s every move,” he assures us, “I knew how she would have reacted in every circumstance, I knew her instinctively, my knowledge of her was innate, natural, I possessed absolute intelligence regarding the details of her life: I knew the truth about Marie.” As is so often the case with such excessive insistences, this draws attention to precisely the kind of uncertainty it attempts to conceal. The narrator does not, cannot, know “the truth” about Marie. Either there is a truth, and he doesn’t know it — because he wasn’t there — or (more likely) there is nothing like a truth to “know” about a person in the first place, let alone a person who isn’t oneself.
So the substance of the novel is, necessarily, an indulgence of the narrator’s imagination, as he creates a vivid version of what happened before and after Jean-Christophe’s death. The Japanese section, about the transportation of the racehorse, is by far the most impressive of these. (It takes place, incidentally, just after the events described in Toussaint’s earlier novel Making Love, in which Marie, who is a successful fashion designer, brings the narrator with her on a business trip to Tokyo so that they can take some time out to concentrate on breaking up properly). It focuses much more intently on the horse than on the two human characters. There’s a long, nightmarish sequence in which Marie and Jean-Christophe remain in the hold of the cargo plane with the petrified animal, trapped in a metal container inside a winged metal tube hurtling through a turbulent night sky. The fact that the horse’s name is Zahir is a clue to the position he occupies in the narrator’s mind (Borges’s story “The Zahir,” which is about an object that completely and exclusively occupies the waking and sleeping consciousness of anyone who beholds it, is referenced as the source of his name). This animal, whose raison d’etre is speed, is being kept completely immobile inside a machine that is moving at incomprehensible speed toward a destination that is, to him, likewise incomprehensible. The scene, which seems to illuminate and magnify our powerlessness to escape the trajectory of time and the destination of death, produces in the reader a kind of base animal unease.
At one point, the narrator happens across Marie and Jean-Christophe at a racecourse in Tokyo, and he observes them without their noticing him. It is not long after he himself has broken up with Marie. “I looked at Marie,” he says, “and it was clear to me then that I was no longer there, that I wasn’t the one with her anymore, this man’s presence revealed nothing if not the reality of my absence. I had before my eyes the striking revelation of my own absence.” This, in fact, is one of the few moments up to that point at which the narrator is actually present for the scene he describes. It becomes a sort of premonitory glimpse at the reality of his own death, and it illuminates the paradoxical way in which his absence has all along been the most overbearing presence in the novel. This is the way Toussaint’s writing achieves its revelations: at first slowly and imperceptibly, and then suddenly and blindingly. It’s a beautiful moment in a strange and unsettling novel that upholds its author’s status as one of the most exciting figures in contemporary fiction.
March 12, 2010
Five months from today, my first novel, You Lost Me there, is being published. Max from The Millions emailed me today wondering if I’d write something come publication time. I stared at the kitchen table. I drank a delicious Diet Coke. (Superfluous—all Diet Cokes are delicious.) How about, I suggested, a pre-publication diary?
I’ve always been curious about what it’s like for writers in that period before a first book appears. The back-room deals, the marketing plans. Perhaps, I suggest to Max, the subhed could read, “The Ecstasy and Agony of My First Novel Being Published.” Ecstasy because getting a novel published is an extraordinary thing! It’s a meteor landing in the backyard. It burns down the swing-set. It completely freaks me out. And agony because, obviously, such a thing would be terrifying. JEREMY WHO THE FUCK BURNED DOWN THE SWING SET.
You Lost Me There took me four years to write. Before it, I wrote two other novels, one that was junk and another that received many polite rejection notices from big publishers. What happens if this book is judged to be corrosive to the Earth? What if little girls cry when they read it?
This summer, a new David Mitchell novel and a new Gary Shteyngart novel will arrive on shelves, both of which I will rush out to purchase. A new Andrea Levy, new Tom McCarthy (Remainder—!!!), new Jennifer Egan. Six billion terrific “debut” novels will appear, I’m sure, in a year when many terrific novels have already been published. And then there’s Franzen. Franzen. For years, publishing executives have stage-whispered over lunch, “When will Franzen return to rezap our cojones?”
I am ridiculously lucky and deliriously happy to be so seriously fucked.
March 13, 2010
I’ve never kept a diary before. My wife and I live in the woods on the rural fringe of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. We moved here after stints in New York and Paris because we wanted to be around nature again. We have blueberry bushes, a gigantic fig tree, and thousands of ticks. Behind our house is an acre of forest. On its back side, there’s a guy with a lumber business who wields a much bigger, louder gun than I do. Mine is my wife’s dead grandfather’s BB gun, which we use to frighten away deer, whereas the neighbor’s gun is a shoulder-mounted cannon that he fires whenever he likes. Eleven o’clock tonight, I’m reading on our porch and the neighbor blasts five shots in a row. KAPLOW5. Does he wear night-vision goggles? In my fantasy he says to himself while reloading, in a Rue McClanahan voice, You sweet little motherfucker.
March 15, 2010
Nice day. Brisk. This afternoon, I submitted the final changes to the novel’s manuscript. My editor’s assistant bears with me. After this, I’m warned, I’ll be charged for every changed word, something like $20/sentence. I need to send brownies to my editor’s assistant.
March 16, 2010
I’ve been working on two other books for two years. One’s a novel about Tijuana. It will be completed in 2044, by which time David Mitchell will have already written it and written it better. Also working on a nonfiction book about Paris, or at least a proposal for one. I can’t seem to get it right, the proposal. It propels me away from my desk. Today I called a local author who’s become a friend. “Book proposals are hell,” she said. “They fuck you.” “Fuck you up?” I said. “No,” she said, “they fuck you.” She didn’t want to talk about it after that.
March 18, 2010
Worked late last night and went to bed happy. No crickets, no frogs, dead silence. Then this morning I erased the file I’d been working on. Who needs book proposals when I’m so competent at self-fucking? I should begin sleeping with a caffeine drip.
March 19, 2010
Sent brownies to my editor’s assistant.
March 20, 2010
Played tennis with another local author, Nic Brown. Per capita, I believe the Raleigh-Durham area to possess more writers than Brooklyn. Nic’s second book, a wonderful novel, Doubles, comes out in July. At one point in his book, there’s a doubles tennis team named Brown and Baldwin who aren’t very good. Today, Nic beat me 6-0. During a break I socked him in the head with a ball. I felt bad about that until bedtime.
March 21, 2010
If I’m not writing, reading, exercising, or talking on the phone, I worry about money. Ergo, I really, really love writing, reading, exercising, and talking on the phone.
March 22, 2010
7:43 a.m., the neighbor with the shotgun was out pounding squirrels. I saw him through the trees. Black cargo pants, tall desert boots, no shirt, American eagle/flag bandanna skullcap, and a pair of mirrored yellow Oakley sunglasses. Like he’s defending America while playing right field. Twice at night I’ve see him across the road in the woods, feeding trees into a big red splitter under construction lights.
Inchworm snuck into the picture
March 23, 2010
My brother-in-law and his wife had a baby. Wonderful day.
March 24, 2010
Awful day. Lost six hours to a panic meltdown. Anxiety is a future that hasn’t happened yet, but makes no other future seem possible. I made coffee, did some push-ups, and went for a walk. No problem can’t be solved by caffeine, push-ups, and a long walk in the woods.
March 25, 2010
Drizzling rain and severely windy. Did a lot of email, including asking an artist to help me make a video trailer for my book, Aya Padrón, a wonderful photographer based in Maine. Perhaps her pictures, I suggested, will get people excited about reading my novel, once rendered into YouTube format? Though, really, who the fuck knows. Does anyone know how to flog books online? Social-media flavor crystals don’t seem to be the answer.
March 26, 2010
No expression on America’s Defender today. Maybe he’s sad. He’s standing there holding some type of shotgun, staring at me. He pumps the gun, turns around, and goes back into his house.
March 29, 2010
Lovely spring weather. Spent an hour writing thank-you notes to various people at Riverhead, my publisher. I’ve heard nightmare accounts from other writers about their publishers. Let it be said, Riverhead is a dream, every employee.
March 31, 2010
On my birthday I have a tradition of taking the day off to bum around and get drunk and read stuff. I keep it classy. This year, my friend Melissa asked me to keep tally of what I consumed in chronological order. It went:
– 4 coffees
– 2 paper newspapers (News and Observer, Wall Street Journal)
– 1 Diet Coke
– 2 breakfast tacos
– 3 slices of vanilla cake with vanilla frosting
– 1 glass of milk
– 1 turkey, avocado, bacon sandwich
– 1 espresso
– 1 novel (The Wings of the Sphinx, Andrea Camilleri)
– 2 shots of tequila, 2 beers, 2 glasses white wine
– 1 cheese plate
– 1 slice of vanilla cake with vanilla frosting
– 1 glass of milk
– 1 magazine (The Atlantic Monthly)
– 1 coffee
– 1 glass of champagne, 2 glasses red wine, 2 glasses white wine
– 4 rounds of tapas
– 1 shot of tequila, 1 beer
– 1 college basketball game
– 1 slice of vanilla cake with vanilla frosting
– 1 glass of milk
– Half of Inspector Morse episode #31
April 2, 2010
Panic about the novel is set to low simmer. The next novel and the non-fiction book proposal aren’t flying, they’re flunking. Anxiety is causing my fingernails to reverse course and grow inward. What if You Lost Me There is perceived to be a bomb, would it be so bad? Playing around today, I figured out that Michiko Kakutani is an anagram for “Atomic Haiku Kink.” Michiko alone becomes, “Hi I Mock.”
April 4, 2010
Sunny day. Spotted two snakes, several lizards, and a pie-sized snapping turtle under our fig tree. Went to mow the yard, but the mower crapped out, so I called my wife’s uncle, a race-car driver with an elaborately equipped garage, and we threw the mower in his truck, grabbed some tools, cut a new spring, and refit the mower cap. Very satisfying afternoon.
April 7, 2010
Dread, the proper noun, is a pussy. Dread can’t stand Real Shit. When Real Shit turns up at the party, Dread resumes playing wall-flower, all envy. In a way, I’m thankful for today’s Real Shit, of a private nature that I’m not comfortable revealing here, but anyway, it’s a reminder. A novel’s only a novel. I’m extremely grateful for what I’ve got here in this world. My wife, my family, my health. And I am also thankful for Diet Coke and András Schiff.
April 8, 2010
Got off the phone. It happened again. In conversation and correspondence with other writers, two books routinely come up from the last couple years, as in, Dude, have you read this yet? David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. To the list, I would add Chimamanda Adiche’s Half of a Yellow Sun and Edward P. Jones’s The Known World.
I find it weird to meet writers who aren’t also big readers. Met one the other day at a bar and I looked at him queerly. He said he couldn’t find the time. This reminded me that readers are probably my people first, before writers. Writers are more likely to be dicks. Look at all the thug authors, unsmiling and posing so hard on their book jackets. I spent way too many afternoons in seventh grade reading Piers Anthony and Dragonlance books (and every one of my sister’s Babysitter Clubs) to pretend I’m a thug.
I just remembered I’m neither smiling nor appearing particularly thuggish in my own author photo. What’s really happening in that photo is I’m trying not to laugh, which is what happens when you’re trying to obey instructions not to smile or frown but to smile with your eyes and seem appealing. Not easy!
April 11, 2010
Dark outside. Woke up at four a.m. during a panic attack. Rocked myself back to sleep with visions of Andy Murray’s service returns.
April 13, 2010
Today I spoke to Daniel Wallace’s class of fiction-writing students. Daniel Wallace is the local king of novelists and a very nice guy. One of his students, after hearing about my work schedule, asked when I sleep. I told them something eloquent like, “Sleep is dumb.” Which is me paraphrasing Diddy, who says things like, “Don’t sleep, there’s too much to do,” and “Let’s go!” However, let’s call bullshit, bullshit. These poor kids only had a Pepsi machine in the lobby of the building, no Coke. Who could blame them for napping?
April 16, 2010
Ahoy! You Lost Me There was chosen by Entertainment Weekly for their summer list. I yelped when I received the news. My publicist and editor were as surprised as I was, especially by the caption, “a much-hyped debut novel,” since this is the first piece of “hype” we’ve seen. My book won’t appear for another four months. Have I already jumped the shark? I wet myself. Nearly.
April 19, 2010
First gunshot of the day, 8:42 a.m. Lesson relearned by the end of the day: nonfiction book proposals are hell. Very long walk followed by tequila.
April 29, 2010
Today we received the following email, from a newsgroup for people in our area:
A friend moved to a cabin across the road. On Monday afternoon she and her father were in her yard when they heard some close-range gunfire, said it sounded like a semi-automatic. Bullets were hitting the trees and even the house. She and her father lay flat until the shooting stopped, then called the sheriff’s department. If you have any information, could you please call the County Sheriff’s Office?
May 3, 2010
Finished Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano today walking around a New Urbanist community while Rachel went to the gym. Hard to imagine Lowry, with his extremely powerful imagination, imagining someone finishing his book in these circumstances.
May 4, 2010
9:43 a.m., first shot of the day. Ran into the squirrel hunter on the road yesterday. He waved. Warning sign of impending assassination? Vultures circled the house this afternoon, at least thirty of them.
May 12, 2010
Vultures are circling the house again, which means something died in the woods. After four hours, I’m nowhere with writing. Maybe ten satisfying lines. I wrote on my left wrist, WWDJD? (What Would Denis Johnson Do?)
Caught myself in the afternoon chasing a squirrel down from the side of the house while yelling Old Dirty Bastard lyrics at him, “Shame on you, if you step to!” First gunshot today, 10:12 a.m.
May 15, 2010
Finished the non-fiction book proposal and shipped it. Good riddance and good luck, dear proposal. Had drinks tonight with another writer, a friend of a friend swinging through town. I asked him what he writes. Among other things, he said, he’s the author behind a much beloved children’s series (that shall remain nameless). I.e., he’s the most current ghostwriter handling the work. I told him how I used to love the series when I was a kid. “Oh it’s different now. You’d hate it. The main characters are hackers,” he said. “They bust terrorists.”
May 16, 2010
Half the day I spend in my imagination, half I spend in car repair.
May 17, 2010
First advance review of You Lost Me There appeared today, a paragraph in Publishers Weekly. They’re giving it a pass. The anonymous critic found my book, among other things, to be “a highbrow melodrama.”
Afterward, my head’s hitting the kitchen table every ten minutes, spilling brain fluid. I’ll be thinking something else, then wham, my head hits the table. Melodrama? What’s so wrong with melodrama anyway? I told my editor never to send me another review, good or bad. Full of self-pity, I wondered, what do reviews offer anyway other than fluff jobs or despair? I moped until lunch, then I really started feeling bad for myself. In one month’s time my book had gone from “much-hyped” to passé. Maybe there’d still be time for a comeback?
The hardest part about jumping the shark is getting humped by its mouth.
May 21, 2010
Aya Padrón, the Maine photographer, loved the book and has decided to go shoot some pictures on Mount Desert Island, where the novel’s set. Wonderful news. Then I found out that You Lost Me There was recommended by TIME magazine for summer reading. Well, we flipped out.
May 24, 2010
Three days in New York with my sister. My sister lives in Brooklyn and we spent the weekend eating and drinking. Deviled eggs, I discovered, are in vogue in Manhattan right now, and now there’s a hatchery in my lower intestine. Diary note from the return flight, “New York is an office-park with a very good food court.” First gunshots this morning at 8:28 a.m. Good to be home.
May 25, 2010
Two events occurred simultaneously. 1) I found an egg on the counter; 2) a squirrel appeared on the window, clawing at the screen. I went outside and threw the egg at the squirrel. I hit a tree.
June 7, 2010
Woke up with dread around my neck like a chinstrap. Terrible hangover gave me a pork brain. Everything is horrible, only Publishers Weekly knows the future. I made coffee and it tasted like balsa wood. Worked from 6-10:30 am, then went back to bed to take a nap, but I couldn’t sleep for a panic attack about bad reviews to come, i.e., the end of the universe. (God, I’m pathetic.) Called my wonderful agent, PJ Mark, and if you account for our conversation based on what was actually said, rather than what was meant, I called PJ in order to apologize for calling him.
Went for a walk and listened to a radio show about tumors. Tumors are endlessly fascinating. Everything is interesting, inside I’m blank and unknowing.
June 9, 2010
Threw a can of generic diet cola at a squirrel because I hate both the fuckers, squirrels and generic diet sodas.
June 14, 2010
A week since I opened this diary. Well, diary, I spent the past week floating on air. Really floating. Received an offer on that nonfiction book and I’m still floating. Wolves briefly held at bay for a few more months. Writing is my peppermint-flavored heroin.
June 21, 2010
Yesterday something died in the woods. We could tell by the smell. This morning, Rachel barely made it to the car without barfing. It’s the smell of rotting flesh, of ninety-six-degree heat producing cheeseburger. I spent half an hour this morning beating the undergrowth for Death. Quite a sight, I had a black and white winter scarf wrapped around my head for a makeshift mask. Didn’t find Death.
June 22, 2010
Smell’s gone. Goodbye, Death. Thank you, vultures.
June 28, 2010
Had an article published on Slate about how frequently the phrases “a dog barked in the distance” and “somewhere, a dog barked” appear in novels, something I started noticing in college. Today, @dankois wrote on Twitter that he loved the new David Mitchell novel except for two instances where “a dog barked in the distance.” He added the hashtag, #thanksalotrosecransbaldwin. I felt the need to apologize.
July 7, 2010
There are endless sneaky ways to feel no good. Especially in the early hours, when Despair hides surface-to-air missiles in the couch and aims them at my amygdalae. This morning, I read a letter Nicholson Baker wrote to John Updike twenty-five years ago and I just felt awful. It’s one hell of a letter. Very Bakeresque. Me, I admire authors who keep digging after the same thing book after book. Baker, Ishiguro, Greene, Murakami. I mean, none of them’s a Philip Roth, a Coetzee, but who is? I go out into the woods and dig a hole with the toe of my boot to bury some coffee grounds and egg shells. No gun blasts.
July 12, 2010
Shotgun man just rode by my kitchen window on his motorcycle, stars and bars flying off the back. He was wearing tiny running shorts, tennis shoes with socks pulled up to his knees, and that’s it. Moustache blowing in the wind.
July 14, 2010
This afternoon, there was a thump on the front porch. The FedEx guy was walking back to his truck while I eyed the package. I knew what it was. Can I be a thug about this and still say I cried when I opened it and saw my book for the first time? Do thugs never cry? Who said thugs can’t be happy, can’t be true to themselves and their Lucy Lius?
July 20, 2010
Great advance review came in from the American Library Association. Thank you, Booklist! Libraries and librarians the world over, I honor you. Otherwise, my anxiety is causing acid reflux. I’ve started buying big bottles of chocolate milk. It is delicious, so sweet and so cold, and so fatty.
July 23, 2010
Book trailer went live today on YouTube. I love the novelty of book trailers. Why not? Why shouldn’t novels be sold every which-way? Look at the Shteyngart trailer, look at Sloane Crosley’s videos. We need more of this, not less.
Three years ago, I worked in advertising for 18 months and participated in a few big-scale shoots. One involved me interviewing Sir Sean Connery at his private Bahamas retreat. Highly ulcerous. Beforehand, the island faxed us a dress code requiring that men wear slacks and keep their shirts tucked in at all times. The filming was done in the afternoon after the photo shoot, and I can testify that the dock in the following picture was constructed that morning. I can also say that Sir Sean Connery was extremely nice. I’d say he was more nervous than me, but then he’d also been posing on a beach for three hours in ninety-degree weather in a wool sweater and a tuxedo.
July 26, 2010
Only way to get up in the morning and work steadily is to imagine there aren’t six million writers doing the same exact thing at the same moment with more imagination. That is one reason why I no longer live in New York.
July 29, 2010
Shit is really swinging. Reviews, interviews, news of reviews slated, online thingies solicited, and all are wonderful! I say yes to everything! And when I run my tongue over the gift horse in my mouth, I swear it’s chocolate and I pray it’s not squirrel inside. As you read these words I am very likely somewhere south of you, breathing into a paper bag. I am the luckiest bastard in the world.
August 3, 2010
We invited a farmer to visit and have his way with our fig tree. He brought a stepladder about sixteen feet too short; our fig tree is as tall as the house. He climbs up the tree and picks eight baskets full. The plan, he tells me, is to sell everything at a nearby farmer’s market, and in return he’s offering me trade in homemade sausage and cheese. Ne Fuck Pas Avec Les Benefits de La Semi-Rural Life. Evening lesson: Chocolate milk and tequila do not mix.
August 5, 2010
Self-Googling is never not shameful. Lots of push-ups today, some not very good work, a not very good nap, and I read a very good novel by Tove Jansson, The True Deceiver. Can NYRB Classics publish no wrong?
August 8, 2010
No gun shots in a week. Non-book stuff today: caught a pro-am tournament in Durham and watched NBA players battle in a tiny gym while listening to Gucci Mane. Man—or, as pronounced down here, mane—I wish I were athlete enough to get away with wearing shower sandals with dark socks pulled up to my knees.
August 10, 2010
So, this is what they call sleep deprived. Interviews have gone strangely, some wonderfully, some odd. One reporter called and we immediately went to tape for a radio broadcast while my mouth was full of a tomato sandwich. Most common question I’ve heard when people learn I’ve got a book coming out, “Are you touring?” The answer is, not really. I.e., I’m doing three readings in North Carolina and one in New York in September. But I wonder about the impulse behind the question. When did “author tour” become so popular a notion? What does happen when authors tour? I have no idea. Backyard amateur wrestling? Masked group sex? Eyes Wide Shut recreated nationwide in English department conference rooms? Diary, if I ever author-tour, it will be all of that, and commemorative T-shirts will be given out for free.
August 11, 2010
Last day of the diary. Diary, it’s been fun. To anyone reading, I hope you were entertained, I hope you laughed and cried, and I hope that was enough. Tomorrow my book will be published and shelved in stores, and we can socially-communicate regarding its inability to out-swim the hype shark. In the evening, I will visit one of my local bookstores, Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill (one of the events I’m doing), and they will serve (red) wine, (white) wine, and pabst (blue) ribbon. Perhaps I should invite my neighbor, America’s Defender.
I went running this afternoon to burn off some nerves. I saw him, my shotgun-toting neighbor, drinking beer outside his buddy’s trailer. He waved. I waved. I called out, “How you doing?” He yelled back, “Good man, good.”
Well, that’s exactly how I’m doing, times a thousand.