Artists are often mythologized for their neuroses—picture James Joyce scrambling to the printer with corrected pages of Ulysses or Orson Welles toiling over his unfinished feature length of Don Quixote. Following the release of his seventh studio album, The Life of Pablo, Kanye West continued tweaking the supposedly finished product for several weeks. Track titles and lyrics changed. New guests appeared throughout the album and some songs were divided into new tracks entirely. West tweeted that Pablo was a work of “living breathing changing creative expression,” giving critics ample room to ponder the plastic nature of art and the definition of completion. Pablo became more than a well-received addition to West’s eclectic discography—it also became an experiment on the revision process itself.
Modern technology has made it possible to hone published work on an ongoing basis. Whereas one cannot edit typos or misinformation from print in real-time, Internet content is rife with constant revision and deletion, both by artists (writers, videographers, graphic designers, etc.) and publishers. The public stream of information and opinion is in perpetual update, so that the final product is often never, in fact, final. While many editors are hesitant, if not flat out resistant, to altering published work, certain exceptions are granted as new information becomes available; the wiggle room for limitless amendment lends itself to the indefatigable 24-hour news cycle, because accuracy is subject to change.
When Iris Murdoch published her first novel, Under the Net, in 1954, she seemed to recognize the inherent permanence of her creation. The book is padded with graceful examinations of the imperfections of the written word. Indeed, the book’s title, a direct reference to the restrictions of language, also hints at the author’s own feelings of being trapped, caught beneath the confines of the finished manuscript.
She not only gives credence to the idea that a finished product gains value simply in its own completeness, but also warns that—while flawed—language is the best tool we have for shaping universal understanding. No matter its complexity, language never serves as a perfect representation of sentience, but it does make the world navigable.
While Under the Net is considered a picaresque novel, following the exploits of down-and-out writer Jake Donohue as he tries to find housing and make a living in London, Murdoch deftly weaves complicated ideas about nominalism and the philosophy of universals throughout the text, making the value of language central to Jake’s dilemma. Jake’s adventures send him rubbing shoulders with mimes, translators, and fellow novelists, all of whom reveal different perspectives on art, communication, and mediums of representation.
Murdoch lays this groundwork on several levels, both through direct plot work and more abstract considerations. Most prominently is Jake’s self-prescribed falling out with a close friend, Hugo Belfounder, because Jake is afraid Hugo will hate how he is depicted in Jake’s fictional novel, The Silencer. Clever title aside, The Silencer is Jake’s attempt to recreate lengthy intellectual conversations he had with Hugo while they were both subjects in a medical experiment. Hugo believes language is intrinsically corrupt, and, after The Silencer’s publication, Jake avoids him due to resounding feelings of guilt.
As a fireworks manufacturer, Hugo’s occupation is also of symbolic importance. Jake opines, “There was something about fireworks which absolutely fascinated Hugo. I think what pleased him most about them was their impermanence. I remember his holding forth to me once about what an honest thing a firework was.” Like a casual conversation, a firework’s ephemeral nature results in its details fading into the darkness. It’s Murdoch’s sly demonstration that she is not only interested in language as an imperfect attempt to recreate thought, but also in the inherent lying and generalizing that comes along with being a writer.
It’s unsurprising then that Murdoch’s most direct theorizing takes place at the meta level within dialogue found in The Silencer. This layering grants Murdoch a certain level of distance from the prose itself, deflecting any fault in language to her fictional protagonist. In the passage given, Annandine, a thinly veiled version of Hugo, explains to Jake’s stand-in, Tamarus:
‘What I speak of is the real decision as we experience it; and here the movement towards truth. All theorizing is flight. We must be ruled by the situation itself, and this is unutterably particular. Indeed it is something to which we can never get close enough, however hard we may try, as it were, to crawl under the net.’
Tamarus, on the other hand, believes language is a necessary social currency for civilization. In this debate—dialogue in work of fiction found within a work of fiction—Murdoch is perhaps providing clues to her own insecurities and artistic compromises as a debut novelist. Time and time again, she appears to forewarn readers of the flaws she sees in her own work. Ironically, Under the Net would end up being one of her best-received novels.
Of course, one of the tragic realities Murdoch also appears to recognize is that this burden weighs heaviest on the author herself. When Jake finally confronts Hugo near the work’s end, expecting to be harangued for his betrayal, Hugo instead says, “I forgot, really, what we talked about then, but it was a terrible muddle, wasn’t it? Your thing was so clear. I learned an awful lot from it.”
Jake thus learns that Hugo’s memory of their conversations is as fleeting as his own. In this regard, it is primarily the author who knows what ultimately didn’t make the page, the musician who knows what tracks were cut from the album, or the director who knows which scenes didn’t make the final cut. The same could be said for visual artists, chefs, and anyone tasked with bringing a creative vision to fruition. That is to say the divergence of artistic vision and conception is often a deeply personal matter.
Murdoch’s fascination with language is particularly important in the ever-evolving landscape of communication today, for the themes in Under the Net dig at the core of contemporary attempts to defy archaic limitations on language. Paramount to this inquiry is the philosophical exploration of universals and generalizations. One could argue Murdoch attempted to assuage any potential negative criticism of Under the Net by denigrating the system necessary to the novel’s existence. Words simply don’t do justice to any memory, argument, or work of fiction concocted in the mind. Language is an inadequate but necessary solution for addressing our disparate versions of reality. Yet, if there is an unlimited set of resources available for this creation, along with malleable means of publication, then hypothetically artists could continue revising work for a lifetime in hopes of coming closer to perfection. But the long-term risks of consistent tinkering are aesthetic dilution, overwrought vision, and disparate focus. In other words, the project might become too extensive and ponderous to remain cohesive.
On some level, perpetual revision and authoritarian artistic control limit these stakes and extinguish the value and integrity of criticism. Consistent workshopping of a published project becomes a tiresome attempt to achieve universal subjective approval. Murdoch suggests that criticism is an inevitable part of any form of creation, and that accepting the limits of language is a reciprocal contract between the artist and audience.
On an August 2013 episode of The New Yorker’s Fiction Podcast, author Donald Antrim read and discussed Denis Johnson’s short story “Work.” Antrim said he remembered the liberation he associated with reading the story when it was published in The New Yorker in 1988: “At the time, I was trying to write stories myself, but they were somewhat dead and I think I felt a little lost…I think reading Denis Johnson had to have something to do with a sense of permission, a sense of freedom to do something that I didn’t understand fully and didn’t know how to imagine or envision.”
Antrim’s revelatory experience of reading the stories in Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son – a linked collection that follows the drug-addled wanderings of a narrator known as “Fuckhead” — is far from unique. In 2012, Illustrator Jane Mount compiled My Ideal Bookshelf, a collection in which 100 contemporary cultural figures shared the books that mattered to them most. Jesus’ Son was tied alongside James Joyce’s Ulysses as the third most selected book. They both only trailed behind Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
On The New Yorker podcast, Antrim goes on to describe some of the unusual techniques in Jesus’ Son that have rattled so many readers and writers. Antrim notes the clipped and disoriented structure to many of the stories and scenes. He remarks on the speed of the narrative transitions. He says that there’s “an incoherence in the thought process that actually has a coherence.”
Then, as is the case on each episode of the podcast, Antrim reads the selected story: “I’d been staying at the Holiday Inn with my girlfriend, honestly the most beautiful woman I’d ever known, for three days under a phony name, shooting heroin. We made love in the bed, ate steaks at the restaurant, shot up in the john, puked, cried, accused one another, begged of one another, forgave, promised, and carried one another to heaven.” Antrim proceeds through a story in which the narrator and his friend Wayne go to rip copper wire from an abandoned house. Then Wayne visits his wife while Fuckhead waits in the car. Then they go to the bar where they spend all the money they just made scrapping the copper wire. The story ends with Fuckhead gawking at the angelic bartender. “I’ll never forget you,” he thinks. “Your husband will beat you with an extension cord and the bus will pull away leaving you standing there in tears, but you were my mother.”
New Yorker Fiction Editor Deborah Treisman tells Donald Antrim about how she recently interviewed Denis Johnson at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. She says, “I asked him about this book, about Jesus’ Son…he’s quite dismissive of it when he talks about it now, and he said it’s just a rip-off of Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry…” Antrim says that he’s never read Red Cavalry, and the discussion of Jesus’ Son, on its own terms, continues on.
But what does Denis Johnson mean by calling his most iconic book a “rip-off” of Red Cavalry — a classic of early 20th-century Russian literature? Johnson’s book features a ragtag cast of addicts in rural America, engaged in efforts of drug procurement and petty crime that almost always go wrong. Red Cavalry, on the other hand, features the title army during the Russian-Polish campaign, the Soviets’ first military effort toward spreading Communism to the rest of Europe. In terms of locations and circumstances, the books are radically different. But, on closer look, they actually do share a lot in common.
“The orange sun is rolling across the sky like a severed head,” Babel writes in the opening story of Red Cavalry (as translated by Peter Constantine). “The stench of yesterday’s blood and slaughtered horses drips into the evening chill.”
In an introduction to Red Cavalry, Michael Dirda writes, “Violence and brutality mingle with a surreal, sometimes poetic beauty…This juxtaposition of an elevated literary style with coarse soldier’s talk, of strikingly original analogy with harsh naturalistic observation, lies at the heart of Babel’s achievement. In every way the stories yoke together opposites.”
Jesus’ Son actually works with a similar set of tools. “The sky is blue and the dead are coming back,” Johnson writes. “Later in the afternoon, with sad resignation, the county fair bares its breast.”
Using “elevated literary style” alongside “harsh naturalistic observation,” both writers convey haunting and brutal landscapes. Babel: “Stars slithered out of the cool gut of the sky, and on the horizon abandoned villages flared up. With my saddle on my shoulders, I walked along a torn-up field path…” Johnson: “There’d been a drought for years, and a bronze fog of dust stood over the plains. The soybean crop was dead again, and the failed, wilted cornstalks were laid out on the ground…”
Both books feature frequent and intense poetic violence. Babel writes of Dolgushov who lies in the mud with his exposed heart beating and his intestines spilling out. “[He] placed his blue palms on the ground and looked at his hands in disbelief.” Johnson writes of McInnes, who’s been shot in the stomach and is dying in the backseat of a car. “[He] was white and sick, holding himself tenderly.”
Both writers seem to be geniuses of metaphors on the sky. Babel: “The moon hung over the yard like a cheap earring.” Johnson: “The sun had no more power than an ornament or a sponge.”
What gets quickly lost when I put particular sections side-by-side like this is how radically different each book still really is. In a Red Cavalry story, a young Jewish soldier will accost an old woman and murder her goose to prove he’s not an intellectual sissy. In a Jesus’ Son story, a drugged-out hospital orderly will try to save a litter of “bunnies” in the desert to prove he’s not a fuck-up. “It’s a name that’s going to stick,” his friend Georgie tells him after he sits on and kills the rabbits. “‘Fuckhead’ is gonna ride you to your grave.”
Considerable narrative overlaps between the two books also exist, but they tend to be circumstances that are realized in newly distorted ways.
In one Red Cavalry story, the narrator transcribes another soldier’s letter home about, among other things, his brother Fyodorovna being “hacked” to pieces. “I wrote it down without embellishing it,” the narrator says, “and am recording it here word for word.” In Johnson’s “Steady Hands at Seattle General,” the narrator carefully shaves the face of another man in rehab, while that man tells him the story of each of his scars. “Are you going to change any of this for your poem?” he asks. “No,” the narrator says, “It’s going in word for word.”
Babel’s “Ivan and Ivan” and Johnson’s “Two Men” both feature men hitching rides who are perceived-to-be-faking deafness. Kirill Vasilyevich Lyutov shouts, “Are you deaf, Father Deacon, or not?” Fuckhead says, “Look…I know you can talk. Don’t act like we’re stupid.”
“What sort of person is our Cossack?” Babel wrote in his 1920 Diary. “Many-layered: looting, reckless daring, professionalism, revolutionary spirit, bestial cruelty.” He stops, and then writes, “Omit the ‘revolutionary spirit.’” The same things might be said of Fuckhead. In “Out On Bail,” he steals and cashes Social Security checks from a dead tenant’s apartment, but he says he’s always believing he should be finding an honest way to make a few dollars, always believing he’s “an honest person who shouldn’t be doing things like that.” In “Dirty Wedding,” he mourns the death of his ex-girlfriend Michelle, who he once abandoned at the abortion clinic for a hooker at the Savoy Hotel: “[Michelle] was a woman, a traitor, and a killer. Males and females wanted her. But I was the only one who ever could have loved her.”
One of the more pronounced elements of both books is their narrative messiness. In The New York Times book review of Jesus’ Son, James McManus wrote, “The narrator’s inability to construct a ‘well-made’ story, or even to keep the facts of his life straight, expressively parallels the rest of his dysfunctional behavior.” McManus is talking about how Jack Hotel dies of a heroin overdose at the end of “Out on Bail,” and how, in the next story, Hotel returns, smokes hashish, and remarks, “I wouldn’t mind working as a hit man,” as McInnis bleeds out in the back of the car. An early story in the collection is titled “Two Men.” Later in the book, in “The Other Man”, the narrator begins: “But I never finished telling you about the two men. I never even started describing the second one…”
In “Emergency” — the prescription-pill-loaded narrator — undermining the entire story he had been telling up until that point — stops and reflects, “Or maybe that wasn’t the time it snowed. Maybe it was the time we slept in the truck and I rolled over on the bunnies and flattened them.” He decides, “It doesn’t matter. What’s important for me to remember is that early the next morning the snow was melted off the windshield and the daylight woke me up.” In the final pages of the story, the narrative logistics turn impossible. Fuckhead and Georgie return to the hospital, possibly the same day they left. Then the narrator remembers how, just hours earlier, they had picked up their AWOL friend, Hardee, and how Georgie swore he’d get him across the border: “I think I know some people,” Georgie said to him. “Don’t worry. You’re on your way to Canada.”
Red Cavalry — in oftentimes strange and beautiful ways — is also haphazardly constructed. In “The Story Of A Horse,” Khlebnikov, a self-proclaimed white-stallion enthusiast, fails to reclaim his horse from Savitsky. Khlebnikov spends several days crying and writing a petition for his horse on a tree stump. At the end of the story, he’s discharged from the army as an “invalid” for his poor health and battle wounds. Ten stories later, in “The Continuation of the Story of a Horse,” the narrator reminds the reader of the disagreement between Khlebnikov and Savitsky, then transcribes a pair of no-hard-feelings correspondences between them; the horse only receives a brief and fairly inconsequential mention. “Thirty days I have been fighting in the rear guard, covering the retreat of the invincible First Red Cavalry and facing powerful gunfire from airplanes and artillery,” Savitsky writes to Khlebnikov. “Tardy was killed, Likhmanikov was killed, Gulevoy was killed, Trunov was killed, and the white stallion is no longer under me, so with the changes in our fortunes of warm Comrade Khlebnikov, do not expect to see your beloved Division Commander Savitsky ever again.”
In another story, the same vivid and incredibly specific metaphor shows up twice: “Trunov had already been wounded in the head that morning. His head was bandaged with a rag, and blood trickled from it like rain from a haystack,” the narrator reports early in the tale. Later he says, “At that moment I saw Trunov creeping out from behind a mound. Blood was trickling from his head like rain from a haystack and the dirty rag had come undone and was hanging down.”
Babel was an active soldier in the Red Cavalry army while he was writing many of his stories. The dangerous and dismal conditions under which the material was gained likely made smooth story construction quite difficult, even if that ever was an ambition. “Under machine gun fire, bullets shriek, a dreadful sensation, we creep along through the trenches,” Babel wrote in his 1920 Diary. “Some Red Army fighter is panicking, and, of course, we are surrounded.” Similar to what McManus describes in his review of Jesus’ Son, in Red Cavalry it’s also fitting that tales are so surreal and fractured. Johnson, meanwhile, was originally writing Jesus’ Son as a piece of memoir. He said, “Originally, in fact, I wasn’t even going to publish it. But then I added a lot of things that never happened to me, though almost everything in there actually happened to someone I know or heard about.”
The conditions under which the books were written share another important similarity: both were written with a sort of wild-eyed desperation. Babel joined the army, on the advice of his mentor, Maxim Gorky, to find material for his writing in the hopes of getting published. “My birthday,” Babel wrote in one of his early journal entries, “Twenty-six years old. I think of home, of my work, my life is flying past. No manuscripts. Dull misery.” In 1990, Johnson after a rough stretch and a rocky conclusion to his second marriage, owed $10,000 in taxes. He called his editor at FSG: “I told him, ‘I’ll make you a book of short stories; all you have to do is pay off the IRS.’”
Jesus’ Son vaulted to a cult popularity among contemporary readers and writers that’s hard for many other individual story collections to measure up against. Maybe Flannery O’Connor achieves a similar level of cultural cachet with A Good Man Is Hard To Find. Maybe Ernest Hemingway does with In Our Time. Jesus’ Son, though, was the collection chosen more frequently than any other in Jane Mount’s My Ideal Bookshelf. Similarly, on The New Yorker’s Fiction Podcast, Denis Johnson has been the most selected writer — three times with all three stories from Jesus’ Son. On a 2009 episode, before Tobias Wolff read “Emergency,” Deborah Treisman laughed and said, “I’ve had three other writers ask to do this very story while I put it on hold for you.”
Is what Denis Johnson said true, though? Is Jesus’ Son just a “rip-off” of Red Cavalry? “Rip-off” seems to be the wrong word. It borrows heavily, yes, but it seems to me Jesus’ Son is less a “rip-off” of Red Cavalry than West Side Story is a “rip-off” of Romeo and Juliet. Or, in keeping with the Johnson-Babel theme of stark and brutal poetry, Jesus’ Son is less a “rip-off” of Red Cavalry than Apocalypse Now is of Heart of Darkness. With any of these works, even adaptation or re-creation seem to not entirely be the right words; in each case, the follow-up deviates wildly from what might be considered its source material. In Jesus’ Son, the stories and execution certainly have a lot in common with Red Cavalry and — in considering them closely — it seems right for Johnson to acknowledge his debt. But do the similarities diminish any of the virtues of either book? Even more than in the case of the most liberal of re-creations, adaptations, or “rip-offs,” it seems to me that each book is still its own radical thing.
After Treisman tells Antrim, on the 2013 podcast, that today Johnson is dismissive of the stories in Jesus’ Son, Antrim says, “Well, he has his own attitude about what he did a long time ago. I have a tendency to write things off after 20 years, too. I’m not a particularly good judge of what I do. Maybe he’s not a particularly good judge, over time, of what he’s done.” Antrim pauses in thought, and then adds, “And that’s probably as it should be.”
Recently, Lynn Stuart Parramore tried to explain “Why a Death-Obsessed Pop Siren Is Perfect for Late-Stage Capitalist America.” She was referring, of course, to Lana Del Rey. Parramore explains that the Ultraviolence chanteuse is only the latest heir to a long lineage of decadent femmes fatales that rise to cultural prominence at moments of perilous social transition or imminent collapse:
This potent combination of women, sex and death is going to be one of the calling cards of late-stage capitalism. We are experiencing fearsome global dislocations and distorted social and economic systems that are killing our life-affirming instincts. The death drive is perennial, but when a society seems to hover on the eve of destruction, these Eves of the Apocalypse — suicidal brides, young women fixated on pain and death — emerge to speak our well-founded anxieties. They signal that just now, the death drive is very strong.
Parramore’s thesis may not seem to have much to do with Ira Glass’s controversial assertion, tweeted after seeing a performance of King Lear, that, “Shakespeare sucks.” But when you consider that one of the late 19th century’s favorite sources of death-and-the-maiden imagery was the drowning Ophelia, weltering picturesquely among the strewn flowers of her fatal madness, the Shakespeare/Del Rey connection becomes more plausible. Just as Parramore (and others) criticize Lana Del Rey for social irresponsibility, for promoting an anti-feminist celebration of sadomasochistic sexuality and for embracing capitalist spectacle unto death, so the most persuasive and compelling attacks on Shakespeare have charged him with amoral aestheticism and a sensationalized skepticism about human potential.
Ira Glass’s infamous tweet complained of King Lear that it had “no stakes” and was “not relatable.” Rebecca Mead and Adam Kirsch have explained at eloquent length why Glass’s expectation that Shakespeare be “relatable” is a naïve and even pernicious application of the narcissistic standards of advertising to serious art. But is Glass’s assertion that King Lear lacks “stakes” really so off the mark? This is a play in which traditional authority and the religious foundation on which it rests have collapsed into nothingness. Its villain, Edmund, worships no god but amoral nature, and its forlorn metaphysical conclusion is, in the words of the brutally blinded Gloucester, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. / They kill us for their sport.” It’s not wrong to say that there are no stakes in the tragedy’s meaningless cosmos. At the play’s conclusion, a set of numb and chastened survivors mutter small consolations in a blasted landscape.
Turning the final page of ultraviolent King Lear in a literary anthology, you would expect it to be succeeded not by Milton’s Puritan justification of God’s ways to men or Pope’s Enlightenment assertion that, “Whatever is, is right,” but rather by the God-haunted and God-abandoned worlds of Kafka and Beckett. Shakespeare’s despairing modernity— — if by “modernity” we mean the collapse of all tradition and a resulting ontological insecurity — is uncanny, so uncanny that we can see elements of Lana Del Rey’s persona prefigured in Lear’s daughters: in the desperate and fatal sexual longings of Goneril and Regan, in the mysterious born-to-die intransigence of Cordelia.
This sense of an after-the-deluge world gone wrong, a world where faith, hope, and love are powerless to improve the human condition, has long disturbed Shakespeare’s critics, most notoriously the poet Nahum Tate, whose happy-ending re-write of Lear held the English stage throughout the 18th century.
But there are less moralistic ways to critique Shakespeare than Tate’s bowdlerization. In 1986, the brilliant polymath critic George Steiner gave a remarkable lecture called “A Reading against Shakespeare,” later collected in his No Passion Spent: Essays 1978-1995. In this densely learned paper, Steiner attempts to synthesize into a coherent and persuasive argument the complaints against Shakespeare made throughout modern history; he focuses particularly on the criticism of Leo Tolstoy and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Tolstoy and Wittgenstein, Steiner explains, implicitly relied on a concept of the poet as spiritual authority and moral prophet. For European thinkers of the 19th and early-20th centuries, it was not enough to be a prodigious coiner of words and creator of spectacle, as Shakespeare undoubtedly was:
Shakespeare is the incomparable Sprachchöpfer, the prodigal wordsmith, the limits of whose language are, in the idiom of the Tractatus, the limits of our world. There is scarcely a domain, constituent of men’s works and days, which Shakespeare has not harvested in language, over which he has not cast the encompassing net of his matchless lexical and grammatical wealth. Disposer of a vocabulary of almost thirty thousand words (Racine’s world is built of one tenth that number), Shakespeare, more than any other human being of whom we have certain record, has made the world at home in the word. This does not, however, make of him a Dichter, a truth-sayer, an explicitly moral agent, a visible teacher to and guardian of imperilled, bewildered mankind. An authentic Dichter, urges Wittgenstein, ‘cannot really say of himself, “I sing as the birds sing”—but perhaps Shakespeare could have said this of himself’ (Milton’s ‘warbling notes of wood-notes wild’ is fairly obviously present to Wittgenstein when he makes this suggestion). ‘I do not think that Shakespeare would have been able to reflect on the Dichterlos’ — a term again resistant to translation into English and into the entire register of Anglo-Saxon sensibility, but signifying something like the ‘calling’, ‘the destined ordnance’ of the poet.
Because his plays express no sense of a nearly divine vocation, of a mission to save humanity by transmitting ethical truths, Shakespeare cannot be the equal of Dante or Milton or Goethe, of the Greek dramatists or the Russian novelists, all of whom wrote to commune with the divine and to bring light to the world. What had in the Romantic tradition long been seen as Shakespeare’s unique strength — what Keats famously called his “Negative Capability,” his capacity for “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” — on this view becomes a liability, a social irresponsibility, a feckless acceptance of humanity’s doomed and ignorant lot without any attempt to improve it. Shakespeare can be seen as the paradigm of the apolitical artist, the dissolute aesthete reviled not only by the religious conservatives of all faiths but also by those who nurse radical political hopes, such as the anarcho-pacifist Tolstoy, the Soviet sympathizer Wittgenstein, and even the socialist-feminist Lynn Stuart Parramore. From this perspective, we find Shakespeare at the origin of that dangerously aloof aestheticism for which Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile has given us the most memorable picture in contemporary letters: the literary soirée above the torture chamber.
Accusing Shakespeare of reactionary politics is a longer tradition that one might expect; it certainly predates those deconstructionists, Marxists, postcolonialists, and feminists that the Bardolotarous Harold Bloom notoriously castigated as the “School of Resentment” in his Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.
In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, for instance, Shakespeare’s plays lure Septimus Warren Smith into the Great War to fight for an England he associates with the Bard’s poetic achievement. But after the war, the shell-shocked Smith discovers a different moral in Shakespeare:
Here he opened Shakespeare once more. That boy’s business of the intoxication of language — Antony and Cleopatra — had shrivelled utterly. How Shakespeare loathed humanity — the putting on of clothes, the getting of children, the sordidity of the mouth and the belly! This was now revealed to Septimus; the message hidden in the beauty of words. The secret signal which one generation passes, under disguise, to the next is loathing, hatred, despair. Dante the same. Aeschylus (translated) the same.
While other classic authors are implicated in Septimus’s very 20th-century sense that, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” (to quote Walter Benjamin), Shakespeare bears the brunt because he is the British icon whose poetic splendor tricked Septimus and his generation into fighting a nationalist and imperialist war that has destroyed their lives.
In James Joyce’s Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus makes a similar case in his lecture on Hamlet in the National Library of Dublin. The young colonial intellectual sees Shakespeare as the poet of empire, anticipating the postcolonialist critics of P.C. academe by more than half a century. “Khaki Hamlets don’t hesitate to shoot,” Stephen bitterly observes of the British empire. Joyce’s autobiographical hero imagines the Elizabethan playwright as a litigious capitalist (Shakespeare was part-owner of his own theatrical company and of the Globe theater) who projected his avarice onto Shylock in a classic instance of anti-Semitism. Stephen even pictures Shakespeare as a money-minded hoarder of necessities during famine, an image of horrifying relevance to Ireland:
— And the sense of property, Stephen said. He drew Shylock out of his own long pocket. The son of a maltjobber and moneylender he was himself a cornjobber and moneylender with ten tods of corn hoarded in the famine riots.
Stephen further speculates that Shakespeare’s nihilism was caused by wounded male pride, stemming from a betrayal by his wife, construed by the playwright/investor as yet another piece of his property:
But a man who holds so tightly to what he calls his rights over what he calls his debts will hold tightly also to what he calls his rights over her whom he calls his wife.
To sum up the political case against Shakespeare: his nihilism and skepticism translate directly into a political agnosticism all too willing to collaborate with oppression and injustice, especially when it is in the interests of shareholders. On this reading, what is at stake in Shakespeare is profit. Therefore, comparing him to Lana Del Rey, the putative commodity-image studio creation of the erstwhile Lizzy Grant and her industry collaborators, doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched.
“And yet,” as George Steiner likes to say.
G. Wilson Knight wrote an essay in the 1930s reviewing Tolstoy’s polemic against Shakespeare. Knight concludes that, while Tolstoy’s utopianism is admirable, the kind of a purely ethical art he desires will never satisfy us, because audiences require a metaphysical drama that speaks to all of experience, one in which “[p]ersons both satanic and divine will inter-thread its story.” This conclusion, disturbing to moralists of all stripes, recalls another great analysis of Shakespeare by Knight, his classic “The Embassy of Death: An Essay on Hamlet.” (Both essays can be found in The Wheel of Fire: Interpretation of Shakespeare’s Tragedy.)
Knight spends much of “The Embassy of Death” building what looks like another Bardoclastic case, by patiently demonstrating the virtues of every character in the drama besides Hamlet. Claudius is a thoughtful king, committed to resolving international conflict through diplomacy rather than war; Polonius and Laertes are sensible to warn Ophelia away from the unstable Prince; Ophelia and Gertrude are innocent victims of Hamlet’s cruelty. These secondary characters are “creatures of earth,” Knight says, who love life and seek to make it as pleasant as possible, whereas Hamlet is a soul-sick death-bringer among them, a diseased intellect who trails destruction in his wake. Knight seems to make an irreproachable judgment against Hamlet — and, by extension, against the writer who expects us to take this monster for a hero:
He has seen the truth, not alone of Denmark, but of humanity, of the universe: and the truth is evil. Thus Hamlet is an element of evil in the state of Denmark. The poison of his mental existence spreads outwards among things of flesh and blood, like acid eating into metal.
What can Knight say to mitigate this conclusion? Nothing — so Knight surprises us instead: unlike Tolstoy or Wittgenstein, Knight devastatingly concludes, “It is Hamlet who is right.” In other words, the dark Prince’s evil vision has truth, if not morality or good politics, to recommend it.
Without mentioning G. Wilson Knight, Simon Critchley, and Jamieson Webster have come to a near-identical conclusion in their recent book, Stay, Illusion!: The Hamlet Doctrine, a doctrine they define as “the corrosive dialectic of knowledge and action, where the former disables the latter and insights into the truth induces a disgust with existence.” They go on to ask, “What is so heroic about Hamlet’s disgust? Do we even like him?” But that, as Critchley and Jamieson well know, is like asking if Hamlet is relatable. Of course we shouldn’t like him — but on the evidence of the play’s tenacious prestige, we do anyway. The authors of Stay, Illusion earlier relate, “We kept noticing occurrences of the word ‘nothing’ in Hamlet…and discovered that nothing, as it were, structures the action of the play and the interplay between its central characters.”
Hamlet’s — and Shakespeare’s — charismatically demonic knowledge of the void at the heart of reality, the death that is the essence of life, catches something very real in our experience (or mine, anyway), a basic metaphysical uncertainty that should disturb all of us, a faithlessness and despair that no doubt has the poisonous potential to ruin the plans of our reformers and revolutionaries, of our dispensers of Christian charity and our disseminators of socialist-feminist politics, but a grim knowledge that nevertheless murmurs constantly beneath the busy clamor of everyday life and that seeks passionate expression in the face of all protest. Maybe Shakespeare sucks because — and to the extent that — life sucks. It doesn’t and shouldn’t please us if we want to believe in a better world, and it may not cheer the fans of NPR, but Shakespeare’s visionary perception that precisely nothing is at stake in each of our lives will probably continue to worry us as long as there are playgoers and readers to experience it.
Image Credit: LPW
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.”
1. A Portrait of What Was In the Air
Haven’t enough trees been felled, enough ink spilled, enough careers devoted to praising, panning and parsing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s greatest creation? Surely the answer is yes. And yet Sarah Churchwell has done something almost unimaginable: She has discovered something new and she has written something fresh and revealing about the most chewed-over piece of fiction in the American canon.
Churchwell’s new book is called Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby. As the subtitle implies, the book is not straight history; rather, it sets out to explore how fiction gets made, what sources novelists plumb, and how the events of an age shape the fiction that springs from it, and vice-versa. Churchwell tells the story of Gatsby’s creation in tandem with the story of a bizarre double murder that dominated American newspapers beginning in late 1922, lurid tabloid fodder that, in Churchwell’s view, seeped into the bloodstream of Gatsby. The victims of this unsolved double murder were Edward Hall, an upstanding Episcopal minister in New Brunswick, N.J., and Eleanor Mills, his married lover who sang in the church choir. They were both shot in the head and their bodies were discovered under a crab apple tree on a local lover’s lane, surrounded by their love letters.
“The Hall-Mills case has, until now, been considered in relation to The Great Gatsby only by a handful of scholars in brief articles, and in a few footnotes,” Churchwell writes, “but it is my contention that this remarkable story amplifies and enriches the context of Gatsby in many more ways than have yet been appreciated.” She goes on, “Careless People began as a species of biography — the biography of a book — seeking the origins of Gatsby, especially in relation to 1922 and to the role these notorious murders may have played in its inception. But along the way it became about something more: it also reconstructs a remarkable moment in America’s history, at the dizzying center of which stood Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, trying to navigate their unsteady way through it.”
That remarkable moment was the year 1922, which began with the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses and ended with the publication of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. That fall, Fitzgerald, a newly minted literary star and media darling, moved with Zelda to Great Neck, N.Y. It was in that year and in that place that he would set Gatsby, turning Great Neck into West Egg, where the arriviste Jay Gatsby’s “huge incoherent failure of a house” faced across Manhasset Bay toward old-money East Egg, where Tom and Daisy Buchanan lived in carefree splendor, unaware that Daisy — and the green light at the end of their dock — were the magnets that would soon draw Gatsby to his doom.
Churchwell’s book is handsomely illustrated and her research into the existing source material is prodigious — there are 20 pages of end notes and 13 pages of bibliography, including newspaper and magazine articles, the Fitzgeralds’ scrapbooks, essays, letters, scholarly articles, biographies, novels, and other books. A literary journalist and author of The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe, Churchwell even unearthed a few morsels than no Fitzgerald scholars were aware of — most notably a letter by Fitzgerald about his intentions in Gatsby that was quoted in a lost review of the novel by Burton Rascoe. Churchwell, clearly thrilled by her spadework, calls Fitzgerald’s letter “a tiny, heart-stopping treasure.”
So Careless People is a portrait of “what was in the air” as Fitzgerald conceived his masterpiece, including the drama in New Brunswick that contained every major element of the novel — “a remarkable tale of murder, adultery, class resentment, mistaken identity and the invention of romantic pasts.”
2. A Killing Regret
Considering what was in the air in the 18 months the Fitzgeralds lived in Great Neck, and in the ensuing months when he finished writing Gatsby in France, it’s not surprising that Careless People is a delightful blaze of a book. The air was full of music and laughter and parties, illicit booze and ill-gotten money and flashy cars, and characters from the worlds of show business, Wall Street, journalism, literature, and organized crime, all of whom seemed to share Fitzgerald’s mortal terror of “conventionality, dullness, sameness, predictability.” Such orgies tend to make good copy.
One of the chief virtues of Careless People is the way it leads the reader back to its source material. Churchwell quotes extensively from The Twenties, Edmund Wilson’s sublime journalistic sketch of the Jazz Age. Here is an entry from 1924, when Fitzgerald was planning to leave behind the dissolution of Long Island and move to France to complete his novel:
Great Neck, mid-April. Fitz said he was going abroad because his reputation was diminishing in America, and he wanted to stay away till he had accomplished something important and then come back and have people give him dinners. There was great talk on (Ring) Lardner’s part of going to the Red Lion or some other roadhouse, but when we did leave — all the liquor now gone — we simply went on to Lardner’s, where we drank Grand Marnier — he insisted on presenting us each with a little bottle — and more Scotch…Zelda had gone to sleep in an armchair and covered herself with a shawl – she was bored by Scott’s chart of the Middle Ages and made herself very disagreeable about it…Then we went back to the Fitzgeralds’. Lardner and I started talking about the oil scandal and Fitz fell asleep in his chair…
Such boozathons were the rule, not the exception, during the Fitzgeralds’ time at Great Neck. Small wonder that he got little writing done there and yearned to get away. This passage also hints at the cracks in Scott and Zelda’s marriage, and it presages another of Churchwell’s sources, The Crack-Up, Fitzgerald’s autobiographical writings from the 1930s, collected and edited by Wilson.
That book’s title essay, which appeared as a three-part serial in Esquire magazine in 1936, is a brutally frank account of what it’s like to fall from a dizzy height. As the echoes of the Jazz Age faded, Fitzgerald likened himself to a cracked plate: “Sometimes, though, the cracked plate has to be retained in the pantry, has to be kept in service as a household necessity. It can never again be warmed on the stove nor shuffled with the other plates in the dishpan; it will not be brought out for company, but it will do to hold crackers late at night or to go into the ice box under left-overs…” And then there is the harrowing loss of self that accompanies a crack-up: “It was strange to have no self — to be like a little boy left alone in a big house, who knew that now he could do anything he wanted to do, but found that there was nothing that he wanted to do — ”
Sad as this is, it’s not as sad as re-reading The Great Gatsby and coming back into intimate contact with genius at its fragile peak, just before the crash. The greatness of the book points straight to the true sadness of Fitzgerald, something Churchwell addresses with an admirably cold eye: His failure to live up to his enormous talent.
In addition to being an alcoholic who was devoted to a mad wife, Fitzgerald was lazy, a squanderer, a man who drank until he passed out in hundreds of chairs, then woke up and kept drinking until he was in the grave at the age of 44. In “The Crack-Up,” he confesses to any writer’s most killing regret: “I had been only a mediocre care-taker of most of things left in my hands, even of my talent.”
In a telling observation about Lardner, his friend and neighbor in Great Neck, Fitzgerald wrote, “Whatever Ring’s achievement was, it fell short of the achievement he was capable of, and this because of a cynical attitude toward his work.” This is most likely true, and I think it absolves Lardner, much as it absolved Nathanael West, another genius who had no capacity for evaluating the worth of his own work. That, it seems to me, is a far less grievous sin than the one Fitzgerald and a handful of other American writers have committed — Truman Capote and Jack Kerouac come immediately to mind — the sin of squandering an outlandish gift.
3. A Story of Our Moment
Churchwell’s title is derived from the penultimate page of The Great Gatsby. Nick Carraway, the novel’s narrator, has just overseen Gatsby’s sparsely attended, rain-drenched, and thoroughly depressing funeral (an end that eerily foreshadows what awaits Fitzgerald). One day shortly after the funeral, as he’s getting ready to leave haunted New York and return home to the Midwest, Nick spots Tom Buchanan striding purposefully down Fifth Avenue. They stop to talk, and Nick’s suspicion is confirmed that it was Tom who directed the pistol-wielding cuckold George Wilson to Gatsby’s house, in the mistaken belief that it was Gatsby, not Daisy, who was the hit-and-run driver behind the wheel of the car that killed Wilson’s wife, Myrtle. Tom neglected to tell Wilson that it was he, not Gatsby, who was having an affair with Myrtle.
“It was all very careless and confused,” Nick muses. “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money and their vast carelessness, and let other people clean up the mess they had made….”
Sad as it was, re-reading this sharp little gem of a novel was also uplifting, a reminder that Jay Gatsby’s story is timeless. It is, as Churchwell writes, “so much a story of its moment and yet so much a story of ours.” In his essay “Echoes of the Jazz Age,” Fitzgerald looked back on the wild party from the vantage of 1931, two years after the crash. He could have been talking about himself and he could have been talking about our world today when he wrote, “It was borrowed time anyhow — the whole upper tenth of a nation living with the insouciance of grand ducs and the casualness of chorus girls.”
The upper 10 percent has become the upper one percent and class resentment grows deeper and more bitter by the day, but otherwise not much has changed. The Great Gatsby will continue to inspire re-reading, re-thinking, and sad rejoicing. This is so because Fitzgerald was a genius who understood that we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Image Credit: Bill Morris
“It is February,” Anne Carson once wrote, perhaps from within the polar vortex. “Ice is general.” By the time we get to February, the days may be getting longer, but there is a weariness to the winter. Hibernation’s novelty has long expired, and the fruits of the fall harvest are running low. On the coldest day of 1855, Henry David Thoreau noted the old saying that “by the 1st of February the meal and grain for a horse are half out.” (He spent the rest of that frozen month skating on the local rivers.)
But in the middle of the month the calendar calls to break the ice with romance. We’ve settled on February 14, the feast day of St. Valentine, as love’s holiday, but there’s little evidence that any of history’s St. Valentines were linked to romance until Geoffrey Chaucer, first artificer of so much in our language, joined them in his Parliament of Fowls: “on Seynt Valentynes day, / Whan every foul cometh there to chese his make.” (And even he may have had an Italian St. Valentine’s festival in May, not February, in mind.) We celebrate birthdays too in February: Lincoln’s, for instance, a holiday Richard Wright chose for his first novel, Cesspool (published after his death as Lawd Today), a violent and raunchy satire of one day in the lives of a Chicago postal worker and his friends. And some authors have celebrated their own February birthdays: James Joyce asked that Ulysses be published on the day he turned forty, February 2, 1922, while Toni Morrison, one of the least autobiographical of novelists, nevertheless tucked a small hint of herself into the first page of Song of Solomon: the day the insurance agent Robert Smith announces he will fly from the cupola of Mercy Hospital is February 18, 1931, the date of Morrison’s own birth in Lorain, Ohio.
Here is a selection of recommended reading for February, full of love, birthdays, and late-winter gloom:
Persuasion by Jane Austen (1818)
Austen readers looking for a love story in the month of valentines have many choices, but her last novel, the story of an overlooked but independent woman finding love despite obstacles of her own creation, offers perhaps the most moving moment in all her work: the unexpected delivery of a love letter upon which all depends.
Domestic Manners of the Americans by Frances Trollope (1832)
Mrs. Trollope’s February arrival in the frontier town of Cincinnati (she left her future-novelist son at home in England) may have led to business disaster — the glamorous department store she struggled to build there failed — but ultimately it made her fortune, thanks to this sharp-tongued and coolly observant travelogue, a scandal in America but also a bestseller.
Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy (1874)
There are plenty of obstacles between Bathsheba Everdene and true love in Hardy’s breakthrough novel, beginning with an idle and frolicsome Valentine’s Day joke that turns deadly serious. This being Hardy, more death follows.
Life and Times of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass (1881; 1892)
The third autobiography of Douglass, who chose to celebrate his unrecorded birthday on Valentine’s Day, doesn’t carry the compact power of his original 1845 slave narrative, but it’s a fascinating and ambivalent self-portrait of a half-century in the public life that was launched by that bestselling Narrative.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl (1964)
Every day is more or less the same at the Buckets’ tiny ramshackle house—watery cabbage soup for dinner and the winter wind whistling through the cracks—until young Charlie Bucket finds a dollar in the snow and then a Golden Ticket in his chocolate bar inviting him to appear at the Wonka factory gate on February 1 at 10 o’clock sharp.
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin (1969)
One of the most challenging and imaginative of love stories takes place entirely in winter, as an envoy from Earth has to learn to negotiate an ice-bound planet populated by an androgynous people who can take the role of either sex during their monthly heat.
Moortown Diary by Ted Hughes (1979)
These poems from the decade Hughes and his third wife took to farming in North Devon, the country of her birth, are journal entries hewn rough into verse, wet and wintry like the country and full of the blood and being of animals.
The Breaks of the Game by David Halberstam (1981)
February is doldrums season in the National Basketball Association, well into the slog of the schedule but still far from the urgency of the playoffs, and few have captured the everyday human business of the itinerant professional athlete better than Halberstam in his portrait of the ’79-’80 Trailblazers’ otherwise forgettable season.
Ravens in Winter by Bernd Heinrich (1989)
Over four Maine winters, with as much ingenuity and persistence as his intelligent subjects and an infectious excitement for the drama of the natural world — the “greatest show on earth” — Bernd Heinrich tried to solve the mystery of cooperation among these solitary birds, better known as literary symbols than as objects of study.
Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer by Ben Katchor (1996)
“By the second week in February, the city’s wholesale calendar salesmen pack up their samples and enter a state of self-induced hibernation,” begins one of the comic-strip tales in Katchor’s second Knipl collection, which celebrates the minor industries, fading establishments, and idle off-seasons of his unnamed city with a profound, if paunchy, elegance.
February House by Sherrill Tippens (2005)
Fans of literary anecdotes and surprising artistic encounters will find an embarrassment of riches in this account of the short time in the early ’40s when Carson McCullers, W. H. Auden, Paul and Jane Bowles, stripper-turned-novelist Gypsy Rose Lee, and others shared a Brooklyn brownstone that got its nickname because so many among them (McCullers, Auden, Jane Bowles, and house organizer George Davis) had birthdays in this month.
As I write this sentence, I’m surrounded by old friends. About 1,500 of them. The bulk of my books, stacked on seven tightly packed bookshelves. I see yellowed paperbacks of John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse, Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and Donald Barthelme’s Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts. All purchased at the Northwestern University bookstore in 1970 by a disoriented, overwhelmed freshman from Dubuque, Iowa. From Ethan Frome to metaficton in a matter of months. It was like a non-swimmer being tossed into arctic waters.
Or the green, stained hardcover edition of Marion French’s Myths and Legends of the Ages (1956), with its (to me at least) iconic illustrations by, I swear, Bette Davis. I had left it in my classroom on my last day at Bryant Elementary School, but it had my name in it and a kind teacher sent word to me at junior high to stop by and pick it up. I must have. I just looked up its market price for the first time. I could only find one copy for sale: $156.00.
Oh, I go on periodic weanings, but a lot remains. Take the row of Ace paperback editions of Edgar Rice Burroughs, purchased for 40 cents each at the Book Nook on Main Street when I was 11 and 12. These were being reissued contemporaneously with fantastic Frank Frazetta covers: a barely clothed woman with sculpted hair, a six-foot spear, flanked by snarling, but clearly domesticated, saber-toothed tigers. I can pick one up today and still feel a touch of that old excitement, the delicious anticipation of going on yet another adventure to Pellucidar, the stone-age world under the north pole, populated by a fantastic race of dimorphic humanoids whose males look like Neanderthals, while the women are clones of Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C. Who could resist? My well-used copies would be lucky to fetch $10.00 today.
I’m putting them all up for sale. Well, not all. I’m not willing, like the minions of part-time booksellers on Amazon.com, to list thousands of titles priced between $0.01 and $2.00 (my guess, hoping to make a dollar or two on handling and shipping). And there are a few I can’t part with. Yet. So I’ve decided to list the ones that, after painstaking research, appear to be worth at least $10.00, while not so dear to my heart that it would haunt me to see them go.
My idea is to whittle the shelves down. Who else would want the burden? Some 15 years ago, the last time we relocated, the burly, but middle-aged mover looked me up and down suspiciously as he climbed down from his van.
“You’re not a professor?” he asked. I shook my head, guiltily, wondering if I actually smelled like a library. Over half of the household weight was in books back then, and I’ve bought more shelves since.
I imagine the groan in the room as my will is read when they come to the sentence “And I leave my books to…”
My idea when I opened an online bookstore at biblio.com was to not only reduce the burden on my heirs, but to monetize my impeccable selections, most bought at used book sales for pittances. For instance, I was happy last year to pack off to Canada my copy of The Integrative Action of the Nervous System (Yale, 1961) by Sir Charles Sherrington for $39. I’d bought it at an Iowa State University library sale for 25 cents in 1978. I’d studied his work in a graduate-level neurophysiology course at the University of Iowa and thought it might be worth something. No real emotional attachment there.
But what about the five books that Arthur Ashe took off my desk at the U.S. Tennis Association back in 1988 with a sly smile, saying he had to think a bit about the inscriptions? He hadn’t yet revealed his AIDS diagnosis, but would be dead of complications from it within five years. Included in the books he signed were his just-published, three-volume history of the Black American athlete, which he had written with the fury of the condemned, often in hotel rooms, carting a computer with him everywhere, long before the days of laptops.
One of the joys of scanning my library is spying the discoveries, the first or early books of authors acquired when they were far from subsequent fame. Each was like discovering an amazing new restaurant before the reviews start hitting and the crowds ruin the fun. I recall the wall of rejection letters T.C. Boyle used to decorate his office when a graduate student at the University of Iowa. I read his MFA thesis one afternoon in the library and recognized many of these darkly comic stories when his first, thin-selling collection, Descent of Man appeared. Years later, when I asked him to sign it at a Barnes & Noble in Kansas City, he looked at me leerily and said, “You know, these are getting to be worth a lot of money.” I told him I didn’t intend to sell it, and so far that’s been true.
I’m not sure how I was tipped to Carl Hiaasen, who remains one of my great reading pleasures to this day. But I bought a copy of his first solo novel, Tourist Season, back in 1986 and told everyone I knew to read it too. Or the pristine copy of Bill Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe, purchased and read long before it was turned into Field of Dreams. Or knowing John Irving for his pre-Garp, hilarious Setting Free the Bears and The Water-Method Man and his Esquire profile of wrestling great Dan Gable, in which he bravely took to the mat with him.
But I must come clean. As fun as it is to get a sale, my currently listed volumes are moving at a pace which would take some 70 years to empty my e-store. Of course, that’s assuming people will continue to prize certain books: great out-of-print novels, first editions, volumes signed by the author. As e-books continue to take market share, paper books may be destined to become decorative objects, like cupboards built to hold commodes or vinyl album covers. I’ve seen a number of designer rooms in magazines where the books are shelved with titles to the wall (what?) or sorted by color. Maybe the next generation will fill shelves with books the way Gatsby did — real ones, but uncut (i.e. unread). Perhaps our progeny will shop for books the way the latecomers to the book sale do: $2 per shopping bag, or carrying a tape measure.
In any case, my shelves are already packed with wonderful books of no particular cash value. What will become of these? Who would want a battered paperback of Joyce’s Ulysses, even if it was used in classes taught by both the critic Alfred Kazin and the novelist Anthony Burgess, filled (perhaps ruined further) with my annotations? Who could possible care about my complete collection of paperback Best American Essays, starting with the inaugural 1986 edition? How could I find anyone else who would take equal delight in the first sequential tennis stroke photos ever published, in my battered Volume Two of the American Lawn Tennis Library, Mechanics of the Game (1926)?
And to tell the truth, I’m still acquiring about 10 books for every one I sell. But, honestly, each is indispensible. True, the shelves are already full, but it’s always possible to cram a few more in. And when the neighborhood library has its next book sale (hardcovers $2), can I really leave those possible gems to the illiterates with scanners? Even if I don’t find another autographed copy of Tim O’Brien’s first novel, If I Die in a Combat Zone (sold for $120 to an English professor at the Naval Academy), how can I possibly lose?
Image Credit: Flickr/Joe Shlabotnik
Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House
On the overcast morning of February 23rd, snow still on the ground, I embarked with the students in my Harvard undergraduate seminar on a walking tour of Cambridge and Boston. We began at Harvard Square, walked northeast to Inman, south along Prospect St. to Central Square, and took the “T” out to the Warren St. station in the Allston/Brighton area. We toured the grounds of the Brighton Marine Health Center, and carried on up the hill to the surroundings of St. Gabriel’s Monastery, closed since 1978. From there we gazed back down at the imposing Brighton High School, and beyond that surveyed a vista of the city, and the territory we had crossed.
The occasion for this outing was the inaugural Infinite Boston tour, a journey orientated by sites and events described in David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel, Infinite Jest. I borrow the phrase “Infinite Boston” from William Beutler’s website of that name, described on its homepage as “a limited-run essay series about the real-life Boston area locations” featured in Wallace’s novel. The site is choc-full of excellent photographs and illuminating descriptions of the various streets and spaces of the book. When confirmation came that I would be teaching “David Foster Wallace and his Generation” in the Spring semester, I contacted Mr. Beutler to see if he would be interested in leading an official tour. It turns out that he does not live in Boston, but in D.C. Instead, he kindly put me in touch with another Bill, Bill Lattanzi – Cambridge resident, playwright, science documentary maker, and part-time MIT professor – who undertook the pre-planning and did the honors in fine style on the day.
I myself am not a native of Boston, or even of the U.S.: I am Irish-born, and hail from Dublin, a city inextricably bound up with another great twentieth-century novel, James Joyce’s Ulysses. Many visitors to my hometown are attracted by their reading of this modernist masterpiece – it’s a rare novel that can make a city famous, as a friend recently commented to me – and those cultural tourists are presented on arrival with a variety of tour options based on Joyce and his most famous book. A well-known quip about Ulysses has it that were Dublin to be destroyed, it could be reconstructed from the meticulous detail that makes up the novel. The same may not quite be true of Infinite Jest. The “metro Boston area” described in the novel is reconstructed in part as a future fantasia, and with the exception of Don Gately’s jaunty drive crosstown in a pimped-up Ford Aventura, no character comes close to covering the city as thoroughly as Leopold Bloom does in his perambulations. Nonetheless, Wallace’s vision, like Joyce’s, is significantly rooted in the vagaries and possibilities of place. This is something I came gradually to appreciate while living in Cambridge and re-reading Infinite Jest for our seminar.
I have never thought of myself as having a particularly nuanced or consciously deep relationship to place. I don’t consider this a character flaw, exactly, more a trait that occasionally causes bemusement in me and mild exasperation in some of my friends, the more observant of whom might want to draw my attention to the contours of a street corner or an unusual pattern of plant life. In rural surroundings, I often find myself afflicted by the kind of gentle anxiety I imagine is common to the post-Romantic mind, whereby an abiding connection to nature is more regularly displaced by awareness of the absence of an abiding connection to nature. Even in cities, those hubs of the modernist spirit, I am capable of walking around lost in thought and the realm of ideas, barely recognizing the details small and large that make up urban life. This can be the case even upon visiting a city for the first time, when I should, in theory, be most open to fresh realities. But my natural affinity for theory over reality, for the ideal over the material, is probably what inspires the thing I like most about exploring a new city: studying and internalizing its representation on a map. Like some overly literalist version of the Marxist critic Fredric Jameson, I need a cognitive map before I can begin to appreciate fully the territory that has inspired its construction.
This want of affinity for the materiality of place is no doubt a contributing factor to the kind of literary criticism I write. The essays on Wallace I have published to date, for instance, have discussed his work mainly in the context of the history of ideas. I have written on the new kind of sincerity embodied in Wallace’s fiction, on his use of dialogue to explore logical, political, and cultural ideas, and on the challenges posed by his fiction to the norms of contemporary criticism. What I lacked before coming to the U.S. was an appreciation of the rootedness of his work in a specific geography. Before living in Cambridge, in other words, I had experienced only how the map could shape the territory. Re-reading Infinite Jest, and participating in Infinite Boston, allowed me to see how the territory might conversely underpin the literary map.
This recurrent language of map and territory is drawn, of course, from Infinite Jest itself, and particularly the famous Eschaton scene that takes place at Enfield Tennis Academy. Our tour took place on a Saturday, and for class two days later we read a long stretch through the middle of the novel, beginning with Eschaton and culminating in Gately’s brutal fight with the Canadian gangsters that occurs outside the novel’s other primary institutional site, Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House (sic). At nearly 300 pages, this constituted approximately twice the usual reading for a class, the previous week’s meeting having been annexed by Presidents Day. In conjunction with Infinite Boston, however, these sections of the novel provided much food for thought and classroom discussion on the question of place.
Eschaton is “an atavistic global-nuclear-conflict game,” but one renowned among the students who play it for its theoretical purity. It takes place on four contiguous tennis courts, which, as one of my own students put it in his mid-term paper, “represent a concrete war territory but are themselves only theoretical in nature.” This fragile distinction between theory and reality – an opposition that, owing to the representational quality of the Eschaton game itself, does not fold neatly onto map vs. territory – comes under pressure when snow begins to fall during the game. In response to the young participant JJ Penn’s suggestion that the snow should alter the calculations that constitute the game’s action, Michael Pemulis, an older student and “sort of eminence grise of Eschaton,” is apoplectic: “It’s snowing on the goddamn map, not the territory, you dick!” Pemulis might well be clear in his own mind on the rules, and on the necessary axioms that allow for the rules to apply – “Players aren’t inside the goddamn game. Players are part of the apparatus of the game” – but all this “metatheoretical fuss” is both negated and sublated when Evan Ingersoll attacks Ann Kittenplan with a direct hit that he also claims is a strike against the world superpower she represents.
Of course, Wallace is drawing attention here to the unreal idealities of global nuclear conflict during the Cold War, where game theoretic strategies often took precedence over the lives and concerns of real human beings. But the Eschaton scene is also a comment upon the role of fiction itself as a form of representation that takes the world as its object without becoming identical with it, or even being tied to it. The fact that real events such as falling snow and inter-player fights can “threaten the game’s whole sense of animating realism” tells us something important about the artifice of realism, but it also tells us something about place, and how it gets transmuted into fiction. In his entertaining new preface to the just re-published Signifying Rappers – wherein I learned that some of my favorite haunts in Cambridge were also David Wallace’s back in the summer of 1989 – Wallace’s co-author Mark Costello offers one reading of the way place fed into his friend’s writing in that book: “There’s a bounce in the prose that captures some of the fun, god-damnit fun, to be found around Boston that summer.” This sentiment locates the affective quality of place in the experience of the writer himself: a fun time generates bouncy prose. But the “elegant complexity” of the Eschaton scene teaches us that there are also other, and perhaps more interesting, ways to consider the relationship between writing and place.
In Wallace’s personal library held at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, there is a book called A Place of Sense: Essays in Search of the Midwest. A collection edited by Michael Martone, it dates from 1988, and Wallace might have encountered it soon after its publication or later in his career. If his markings are to be our guide, however, it seems clear that Wallace only ever read one essay from the book. This is the contribution by Martone himself, a short meditation entitled “The Flatness.” On the opening page, Wallace underlines some isolated words and phrases, but the only full sentence he marks is the third one: “The geometry of the fields suggests a map as large as the thing it represents.” This sounds, of course, like a Borgesian idea, and Wallace was a committed fan of Borges: in a review of a biography of the Argentinian author, Wallace called him “one of the best and most important fiction writers of the last century.” Nonetheless, the metaphysical conceit Martone invokes is in this case simply the precursor to a more aesthetic conceit, one that clearly attracted Wallace’s attention. Five pages later, in the final paragraph of the essay, he underlines the following sentences: “I grew up in a landscape not often painted or photographed. The place is more like the materials of the art itself – the stretched canvas and paper.” Beside this, Wallace writes in the margin, “Not object but medium.”
Place not as the object of art, but as its medium. If we take this complicated idea seriously, then the “bounce in the prose” inspired by the writer’s subjective experience of place becomes supplemented, and even transcended, by a stronger claim to the centrality of place as the objective medium for art. And a medium is not only the canvas or paper on which art gets created; it can also be, as Marshall McLuhan informed us, the message itself. Moreover, for an advanced artist like Wallace, the medium is what provides the norms and characteristics whose exploration and expansion become part of his project, become part of what his art is attempting to articulate and express. Here the Boston of Infinite Jest (and its Midwestern counterpart, the flat Peoria of The Pale King) becomes the medium without which there would be no message, becomes the real boundary that limits but also enables the acts of the artist’s transformative imagination.
As we traveled from stop to stop on the tour, Bill alternated his commentary among relevant anecdotes from Wallace’s biography, his own reminiscences from 1980s Cambridge, and passages from Infinite Jest. Outside the Cambridge Hospital, he read aloud the scene of Poor Tony Krause’s post-seizure release back into the world. On the green line from Park St. to Warren St., I read the passage about Mike Pemulis’s drug run to obtain samples of “the incredibly potent DMZ” (the reactions of the train’s non-affiliated passengers remain unrecorded). Standing in the grounds of Brighton Marine Health Center, the students took turns reading the novel’s descriptions of the “seven exterior Units on the grounds of Enfield Marine Public Health Hospital.” Here we could remark on Wallace’s imaginative fervor in inventing the grim activities of the various Units – #1 treats “Vietnam vets for certain very-delayed stress disorders,” #4 houses “Alzheimer’s patients with VA pensions,” #5 is a home for catatonics – and simultaneously test the accuracy of his descriptions of the “seven moons orbiting a dead planet” against the realities of the place that inspired those descriptions. All of these buildings we could see for ourselves, in other words, so that characters’ movements could be imagined, and their sightlines reconstructed, with a new awareness of the possibilities the place provided.
Bill and I had agreed in advance that we should end the morning by each choosing a favorite passage from the novel to read. Bill selected the scene of Mario Incandenza’s nighttime walk down the Enfield Hill to the grounds of Ennet House. When I sat down the following evening to finish the reading for class, I found myself entranced as never before by this scene, which directly precedes Gately’s fight. In keeping, perhaps, with my relative obliviousness to place, I don’t consider myself to have much of a creative visual imagination as a reader (something my fiancée likes to poke fun at me for), and so having a clear picture of Ennet House from the day prior enriched my experience in unanticipated ways. With the “real” Ennet House in my mind’s eye, I could better appreciate Mario’s warm feelings for the “crowded and noisy” authenticity of the halfway house, a place “where people are crying and making noise and getting less unhappy, and once he heard somebody say God with a straight face and nobody looked at them or looked down or smiled in any sort of way where you could tell they were worried inside.” I could see the darkness surrounding the buildings, the lights illuminating the residents of the house, the ramp on which they go outside to smoke, Mario smiling grotesquely but tenderly as he and his police lock stand tilted forward on the cusp of the hill.
For my own concluding contribution to the tour, I chose a more ostensibly abstract passage, which I read aloud as we stood on the hill by the old monastery, overlooking the high school and the city:
Schtitt’s thrust, and his one great irresistible attraction in the eyes of Mario’s late father: The true opponent, the enfolding boundary, is the player himself. Always and only the self out there, on court, to be met, fought, brought to the table to hammer out terms. The competing boy on the net’s other side: he is not the foe: he is more the partner in the dance. He is the what is the word excuse or occasion for meeting the self. As you are his occasion. Tennis’s beauty’s infinite roots are self-competitive. You compete with your own limits to transcend the self in imagination and execution. Disappear inside the game: break through limits: transcend: improve: win. Which is why tennis is an essentially tragic enterprise, to improve and grow as a serious junior, with ambitions. You seek to vanquish and transcend the limited self whose limits make the game possible in the first place. It is tragic and sad and chaotic and lovely. All life is the same, as citizens of the human State: the animating limits are within, to be killed and mourned, over and over again.
I don’t necessarily think that Wallace agreed with Gerhardt Schtitt’s analysis of tennis or of the self. The German coach’s “Old World patriarchal” values retain a whiff of fascism, something the capitalization of State alludes to here. Schtitt’s neo-Hegelian understanding of the relationship between self and other also denies the true existence of another who is not simply the occasion for meeting the self; this position is uncomfortably close to what Wallace will elsewhere say he most fears, the trap of solipsism. Nevertheless, when it comes to emotionally affecting passages of philosophically inspired prose, Wallace has few equals in literary history. It is difficult for me to read, even silently, those closing sentiments – “It is tragic and sad and chaotic and lovely. All life is the same…” – without being moved both intellectually and emotionally, without having my head throb heartlike, as Wallace suggested to his editor Michael Pietsch he wanted to achieve with Infinite Jest.
What finally interests me most about this passage, however, is the discussion of boundaries and limits it contains. One of Wallace’s most profound historical projects involved trying to convince his generation of Americans that they needed to revalue and reestablish boundaries; rather than individual freedom inhering in a lack of restrictions, limits could be understood as animating and enabling. The boundaries of a game, and the boundaries of a self, were clearly two kinds of limits that fascinated Wallace. But there are also the boundaries set by the tennis court itself, the medium through which this particular confrontation with the truth of limits occurs. It might be, then, that the most enabling boundaries for any writer are the boundaries of the places he or she inhabits and knows well, real territories transmuted in the writer’s mind into maps of new territories that are then opened for exploration by readers. It is a well-established fact about Wallace that forging a connection between writer and reader was for him a central aim. I have found, as a reader of Wallace, that this connection can be deepened and extended by a trip around the Boston of Infinite Jest, the writer’s canvas, his territory, his map and his medium, all at once.
The first line of Suzanne Scanlon’s novel, Promising Young Women, is a knockout — “Ever since I heard Don Reakes say that the beauty contestant deserved to be raped by Mike Tyson, I wanted him dead,” — and from there the book only continues to deliver jabs of trenchant insight and fine-tuned language. The novel proceeds in a series of fragmented portraits that follow the young Lizzie, actress and wandering, suicidal soul, through a series of psychiatric institutionalizations, most significantly in the SS Roger, a ward for super-sensitives. Promising Young Women is a writer’s novel in its preoccupation with language and its many facets, and it’s also a performer’s novel in its concern for the performative, and especially in the (re)performance of texts it’s aligned with, like Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Curtis White likens the experience of reading Promising Young Women to riding a wave: “The reader is driven before the story like something driven before a wave. And that is a deeply pleasurable feeling.” And Kate Zambreno, in her 2012 Year in Reading, called the book “a series of fragmented, poetic portraits…marked by Suzanne’s really gorgeous, wry, erudite voice.” Suzanne and I corresponded via email in a conversation that touched on the ways narratives are codified to create meaning, the liberating experience of reading and working with David Foster Wallace, and art as “the impossible trajectory of hope.”
The Millions: The epigraph for Promising Young Women contains three quotes; I’d like to focus on the first two, by Clarice Lispector and Ariana Reines, that allude to the inevitable interdependency of literature and life. Lispector’s quote, “She wanted to explain that that’s what her life was like, but not knowing what she meant by ‘that’s what it’s like’ or ‘her life’ she didn’t answer,” implicates language and all of its inadequacies (an idea you return to throughout the book) while Ariana Reines’s asks if a book can sufficiently construct other worlds and transport the reader between these worlds: “Can a book carry you into the world you have to pretend doesn’t exist most of the time, can a book carry you back out into what first made you alive.” With this in mind, how do literature and life intermingle for you as a writer, and also in what way does this interaction speak to your vision for Promising Young Women?
Suzanne Scanlon: I’m not exaggerating when I say that much of my identity has been founded or invented or re-created on the books I’ve read. I’ve always read that way — for instructions on how to live, as Flaubert put it. There have been times in my life when the worlds/ideas offered within a book — Virginia Woolf or Marguerite Duras or Shakespeare or Erica Jong — were immensely comforting to me — a balm, a relief from the limitation of the worlds/ideas most present in so-called real life. I guess I’m also very influenced by and interested in writing that, as Ben Lerner put it in an interview, recently, “collapses the distinction between art and life.” I wanted the referenced literature to be central to the life of Lizzie, she has collapsed this distinction in her mind (for better or worse), such that while she’s lying in the quiet room, having been administered a shot of Thorazine, she’s thinking about Virginia Woolf. That’s funny to me, and problematic and true; it might be as dangerous to her as it is her salvation.
TM: I’d love to hear you talk about the performative aspects of writing as an actress and theater critic — how does writing character in fiction compare to taking on a role as an actress? What inspiration does your writing draw from theater and acting?
SS: As a theater student, I was very early educated on a voracious reading of plays, of going to the theater — part of why I went to college in New York. Theater has been a passion of mine for as long as I can remember and I think the world of it is great training for a writer. I recall very well the excitement of my first exposure to Beckett, Ionesco, Chekhov, Caryl Churchill, Wallace Shawn, Karen Finley, to name only a few playwrights — it was simply magic to discover these writers. And in a contemporary sense, I think some of the most interesting writing these days is happening for the theater (Young Jean Lee, Annie Baker, my dear friend David Adjmi, to name a few); there’s an attention to language, to rhythm, and an openness to experimentation that isn’t always valued in (mainstream) fiction. There’s also a playfulness, an awareness of the futility/absurdity of language, the artifice — but with a persistent sense of hope, which is taken for granted in the theater. Erik Ehn once said that the theater is about “the impossible trajectory of hope” and I never forgot that. I suppose that’s what I think all art should be.
TM: You touch on the power of spoken language in your story (or is it an essay?), “How I Lost My Dictionary,” where the narrator is carjacked by a boy claiming he has a gun that he never reveals: “This is a stick-up. If you say something, does it make it true? If you call your finger a gun, does it make you powerful? Do the words matter?” In Promising Young Women, it seems that the psychiatrist’s diagnoses function in the same way — if Roger says Lizzie is sicker than he thought then this becomes truth. In what way do words matter, especially in the ways they define identities and catalyze interactions? In what way is life a performance?
SS: Thank you for reading that piece! Yes, that’s long been a concern and, at times, obsession of mine. The way narratives get codified and repeated to create meaning. There was a time when this terrified me — the way that naming, labeling, delimits identity. As a parent, I see it anew: how a child may take to a label s/he is assigned (shy, smart, naughty, etc.) and then live up to it; the way families begin very early to assign, and repeat narratives (the lazy one, the difficult one, the responsible one). When Roger uses the term “Designated Patients” this speaks to the same idea — there is always a scapegoat, one to play the role — we like to limit identity and are less comfortable understanding the self as a fluid, multivalent thing. If we did accept that, we might see that we are all more alike than we could bear.
TM: Many reviews of Promising Young Women have remarked on the number of literary allusions folded into the relatively short novel — from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Ariel, from Joyce’s “The Dead” and Ulysses,, from Tolstoy and Melville, too. You’ve also borrowed scenes and structural devices and integrated them into Promising Young Women, and specifically scenes from The Bell Jar. This strikes me as a form of acting, perhaps in the sense of adopting roles of other novels and acting them out within your own. It also seems like an intriguing, fresh take on allusion. Could you talk more about the literary ancestors and allusions and borrowing, and how these play into the novel for you?
SS: Well, you know David Foster Wallace, who was my teacher at one point, does this throughout his work — he samples, alludes directly and indirectly — this is something I learned reading his work, and also through things he said. Reading him was mind-blowing: Wow, you can do that?! It was as if he gave me permission. I didn’t realize what fiction could be. I can say that about many writers, I guess, but for someone alive at the same time as I was — it felt huge. I remember reading “The Depressed Person” for example, and thinking, wow, so you can take that language and turn it around, make it do something else? Perform it, yes. I think his work is very performative, hysterically shifting, constantly referencing other works, other writers, while becoming his own.
Taking on the role of Plath, of course, using her words — well, it is easier in a novel than it is in real life. Just as Lizzie plays a woman who puts her head in the oven, I can play with Plath’s novel. I feel quite privileged, in fact, to be able to learn from Plath — to recognize her genius and the truth of her writing — and yet to have lived in a moment which has allowed me to approach it as one voice among many, one within a dialectic.
TM: The artist/writer Alexandre Singh recently laid out his own beliefs on the simultaneity of art-making by referencing Borges’s idea, that “every new artist causes the past to become deeper and richer. The past isn’t a dead, fixed place but one to which we’re constantly looking back to, discovering things, seeing things anew.” How do you envision this playing out within your writing? (Or do you?) To what extent do you see literature as enabling a dialogue with writers past and present (and future)?
SS: I do love the idea of the past as a shifting place, open to revision — and I like his idea that interviews are fictions! Yes, I feel like various dead writers are dear friends of mine — from Woolf to Plath to Duras to DFW — their lives and lessons and warnings and urgings are constantly informing my own, challenging my own. In this book, in writing in part about my mother’s death, I was both performing her life (which is supposedly fixed in the past, a space we are meant to leave behind) and her death. I was inventing a mother and then finding a way for her to die, to allow her to die. To move her to that place so that I might move there. I don’t know if that was conscious, but that’s how I see it now. For years I longed to speak to her, to get her advice, and I suppose a comfort in writing is being able to create her as much as I create a self.
TM: I was impressed by the verve and tone of the narrative voice — from the striking opening line, “Ever since I heard Don Reakes say that the beauty contestant deserved to be raped by Mike Tyson, I wanted him dead,” to aphorisms like, “There is a kind of loneliness that comes from being with people.” Much is said about the failure of communication, about the gaps between what is said and what is conveyed, about distances that cannot be bridged, about the utter failure to find the words, to convey messages. Very few writers who attempt this are able to communicate this breakdown so well. And yet this focus on the failure of language, its limitations, this occurs with a novel that, of course, relies on words. Would you speak more to the general weariness here, and also specifically the weariness towards language — the gaps and spaces?
SS: Well, yes, a general weariness. But I think the joy of writing is the feeling of reaching across or through those gaps. I love this essay by Susan Griffin where she states that her favorite moment in writing is “when the writing falls short.” I, too, find that exhilarating — that even at times the awareness of its limitation is comfort. This essay is in John D’Agata’s Next American Essay which also contains an essay by Annie Dillard, who is always working toward and around and through these gaps. I am not wearied when I read a line, a paragraph of hers or a line of DFW’s. I’m regularly thrilled by the movement toward or across that impossibility.
I suppose there was a time when I felt like Lizzie the narrator — that it was a waste to even try. The older I get, the more grateful I feel to have the chance to try, to work within and against a tradition.
TM: One of the things that Lizzie says she learns on the S.S. Roger — the psychiatric ward for super sensitives where Lizzie is a patient — is that she’s a cipher: “I am an empty thing. A fragmented mutating subject.” This is central to Lizzie’s desire to try on identities through acting, and is echoed through the novel’s structure. The novel, too, is a fragmented mutating subject, told from various overlapping perspectives. I’m wondering if you could talk about the role of this structural system in Promising Young Women (or other structural systems you were/are drawn to). Did you consciously define the novel against the traditional male bildungsroman, with its phallic Freytag triangle and climax? Also, in this sense, are there other literary influences to this novel/your writing, that aren’t as conspicuous as, say, the Plath?
SS: No, it was not consciously defined against the bildungsroman, though I have been interested in what I read as female bildungsroman (like The Bell Jar or Kate Chopin’s The Awakening) and so in that way it’s a subversion. Many of my favorite books are fragmented in structure, resisting linear plot or redemption — perhaps especially work by women — Lydia Davis, Claudia Rankine in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Maggie Nelson, also The Lover, Jesus’ Son, Beloved, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. I think that while revising certain sections of PYW I was rereading both The Bell Jar and Infinite Jest. These novels might seem dissimilar but both are kind of anti-coming of age stories and both, of course, contain descriptions of depression that feel inspired, true.
Also, my editor, Danielle Dutton, is a brilliant writer and reader and her vision for fiction and this book truly made these fragments cohere, essentially made this a book. There was a time when I saw these as a collection of linked stories, but she saw it as a novel.
TM: The phrases “Promising Young Women” and later, “Girls with Problems,” are such taglines for the ways that young, attractive, women are romanticized, and even exulted, for their dependencies, their great sadnesses and weaknesses, and who become projects for the men, like the psychiatrist and like the boyfriend, who want to or need to help. While the book exposes these clichés (much like it maligns Friends, whose laugh track and faux cheery camaraderie alienate Lizzie) does participation in this system become a self-fulfilling prophecy? How does one break from the loop, and where does Lizzie and the SS Roger fall into this?
SS: Honestly, I don’t know how to break from the loop, save from becoming an artist who is both outside and inside. I think getting older helps, too. It’s much easier not to be a young woman, though everywhere you go you’re told to feel bad about getting older. I think Lizzie wants to be part of this system as much as it wants her. I think it is a mutual dependency. I don’t see it in black and white terms; one can be exploited and helped all at once. But yes, self-fulfilling prophecies abound — as with the naming of someone ill or sick; she lives up to this idea of herself, which is an idea that she, on some level, wants/needs to believe at this point in her life. Part of her breakdown then becomes a gift, a breakthrough — a total embracing of an identity in order to exhaust it, perhaps, to wear it out. If that makes any sense.
I first came across the work of Teddy Wayne in his debut novel, Kapitoil, the story of a Qatari computer programmer living in Manhattan. Daring in subject matter yet impeccably relatable in its concerns — how does one live well? — Kapitoil marked the arrival of a new voice in fiction with something important to say about our relationship to not only the complex machinations of the stock exchange but to pop culture as well. Now, Wayne returns with his sophomore effort, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, a coming-of-age novel about a tween singer in the vein of Justin Bieber. Once again, Teddy Wayne examines the role pop culture plays in our lives. Who creates it? Who benefits from it? What is its effect on us? In January, I had the opportunity to read with Wayne in Manhattan, and almost immediately after, we set up this interview to discuss some of these questions.
The Millions: The lame cliché writing instructors often tell their students is to avoid dropping pop culture references in their work so that it’ll be more timeless. Yet both of your novels are steeped in their time and place. Kapitoil touches on fantasy baseball and samurai flicks, and the plot hinges on the paranoid run-up to Y2K. Your new novel, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, discusses Jonny’s music, his concerts, his Twitter feed, even his staged relationship with another teeny bopper. What is it about popular culture that interests you? Why do you think it keeps popping up in your work? And do you think the old advice about avoiding pop culture in fiction is old-fashioned or esoteric?
Teddy Wayne: David Foster Wallace got into arguments about this in graduate school, when he wanted to depict the heavily mediated space around him — subject matter his professors thought was inconsequential or un-literary. As he pointed out, he’d see hundreds of ads and commercials each day, and they constituted an integral part of his mental activity. Writing about this material gets pejoratively labeled “postmodern” or “experimental,” but what’s more “realist” than describing the physical world, even if billboards and 30-second spots replace trees and rivers?
Likewise, it misses the point to discard fiction simply because it’s about social media or the celebrity-gossip machine and not Iraq or divorce. By focusing on areas that seem marginal through a narrow aperture, you can sometimes render a much more expansive portrait of a country. I’m an advocate of critic Manny Farmer’s agile, industrious “termite art” (as opposed to bloated, self-important “white elephant art”):
The most inclusive description of the art is that, termite-like, it feels its way through walls of particularization, with no sign that the artist has any object in mind other than eating away the immediate boundaries of his art, and turning these boundaries into conditions of the next achievement.
Moreover, James Joyce and Jane Austen — and nearly all writers, ever — also wrote about the popular culture of their times; it just wasn’t called “pop culture” then. Disposable songs of the day frequently recur in Ulysses, for instance, including “What-Ho! She Bumps!,” which sounds like a Black Eyed Peas’ single.
Many Americans no longer have physical communities. We don’t know our neighbors or live in the same place for our whole lives; our kids don’t play together in the street; we don’t socialize in organized groups, whether in a house of worship or a bowling alley. What we do have is mass culture that binds us, so that two coworkers who have little in common can still discuss last night’s episode of American Idol around the water cooler. (And that ritual, too, is getting fragmented now that people watch television shows on their own time and the culture is further splintering into yet more tribes.) This has become our ersatz religion, and it’s important to document and analyze its effects on us.
TM: Even though The Love Song of Jonny Valentine is drenched in our tween-sensation, YouTube landscape, there are very few references to real life pop culture phenomena within the book. Jonny’s favorite video game sounds appropriately complex and plausible, yet it doesn’t exist. Jonny speaks about the artists that have influenced him, but they’re rarely, if ever, real-life singers. Even his hero, Michael Jackson, is only referred to as MJ throughout. What prompted you to go this route with the novel? Why create an entire alternate universe of pop culture for Jonny to exist in? And did you ever consider using real life singers and video games in the novel?
TW: I generally find it hacky when public figures show up fictionalized in books (or TV shows or movies) in cameos, because it lends itself to caricatures, unless the writer does something radically revisionist with the received persona (as Wallace, for example, does with Alex Trebek and Pat Sajak in the story “Little Expressionless Animals”). It feels like gratuitous name-dropping, in the same way that it annoys me when writers use a historical event, completely independent from the story, to ground us in time and place (the way Mad Men does far too much, for my taste).
So while Jonny and the novel refer to real musicians and songs throughout — from the aforementioned MJ and “Billie Jean” to The Clash and “Complete Control” — the two other musical performers who dominate the book are fictional: pop megastar Tyler Beats, whose career Jonny is trying to emulate, and Zack Ford, the front man for the Latchkeys, Jonny’s opening rock band. The late-night talk-show host who interviews him might strike some readers as similar to a real figure, but by naming him, it reduces the character to that sole possibility. I’d like the book to operate, as you suggest, as an alternate universe, both to preserve this potential and to invite in readers who have limited knowledge of contemporary music. Ideally, you should be able to enjoy this even if you stopped listening to new music after 1970.
A friend proposed I name the video-game system Jonny plays, but I declined to, for the same reason; if it’s a PlayStation, then it can be only that system, and the game Jonny plays incessantly has to accord to its real-life standards. Incidentally, the game, called The Secret Land of Zenon, is based off a real role-playing game series (does this make me sound incredibly cool or what?), Ultima, that I played for a few years when I was much younger. It’s always a catalyst for bonding — since I’m not in a bowling league — when I find out someone else has a nostalgic attachment to the same semi-obscure object from their youth. I got a lot of emails for a throwaway allusion to the “purple stuff” Sunny Delight commercial in Kapitoil.
TM: I also steep my work in the details of the era. My novel Last Call in the City of Bridges is set during the first Obama campaign, and the characters routinely voice their triumphs and failures on Facebook and Twitter. Even in four short years, the way people interact over social media is totally different. People don’t write things like “Teddy Wayne is answering questions for an interview” anymore, but they did back in 2008. So I’m wondering if you share my fear, that perhaps we’re dating our work by relying so much on the internet and pop culture. In Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, he worries that his book will one day be “as outdated as a 1983 book about Fantasy Island.” I teach Klosterman’s essay about Saved by the Bell, and it’s always astounding to see how and if undergraduates can interact with it if they have no knowledge of the show. Do you ever worry about prematurely dating your book, or do you think it’s almost impossible not to date your work?
TW: I really like that Klosterman essay, having parlayed my years of committing every episode to memory into a single humor piece years later. Efficient use of my youth. And I’ll resist the urge to make a bad joke about dating my book by taking it out to dinner and a movie and we’ll see where the night takes us. I’ll strongly resist it.
My aim for this book, and my first one, was to capture something about the era it portrays (and in the case of Kapitoil, set in 1999, also the era it was published in) while doing my best to write a story that transcends the time period. It’s true that, 50 years from now, we won’t be using Twitter as we currently do, but we don’t ride in stagecoaches or believe in the Olympian gods, either, and plenty of those narratives remain relevant. Investigating your contextual surroundings confines you to that spatial-temporal sphere only if that’s your one concern. I recall reading an interview with Bret Easton Ellis about Glamorama, in which he responded to concerns that its extensive cast of millennial celebrities might soon be outdated, as this list from the first chapter makes clear:
Naomi Campbell, Helena Christensen, Cindy Crawford, Sheryl Crow, David Charvet, Courteney Cox, Harry Connick, Jr., Francisco [sic] Clemente, Nick Constantine, Zoe Cassavetes, Nicolas Cage, Thomas Calabro, Cristi Conway [sic], Bob Collacello, Whitfield Crane, John Cusack, Dean Cain, Jim Courier, Roger Clemens, Russell Crowe, Tia Carrere and Helena Bonham Carter — but I’m not sure if she should be under B or C.
Ellis’s answer was that of course it would be outdated — that was exactly his point. (This seems like an easy point to make, but that’s another matter. When a novel’s major project is to expose the shallowness of the culture, it risks being equally shallow. Also, check out how outdated that New York Times page looks by now.) If your entire mission is to traffic in the there-and-gone minutiae of our culture, then, yes, I think you flirt with early obsolescence. If you marshal it as the trappings for a complete story, though, you have a chance to pinpoint exactly what it is about the epoch that is also universal.
It’s ironic, though, that we sometimes criticize contemporary work steeped in modern detail for its triviality, yet lavish praise on period fiction or entertainment with hyper-accurate attention to historical detail (again, Mad Men). To me, that sometimes also feels like the name-dropping of celebrities, or an occasion for the writer — or set and costume designers — to prove to the reader that he’s done his homework.
TM: This is a bit of a softball question, but it’s one I kept coming back to while reading Jonny Valentine. You seem like a very well-adjusted, adult man. What prompted you to write a book from the perspective of a prepubescent tween heartthrob? What is it that interests you about this world? What do you think it says about us as a society when Justin Bieber can go from a completely normal kid singing on YouTube to an overnight sensation recording tracks with Kanye West and the Rza? Does it say anything?
TW: You’d have to canvas my friends to gauge how well-adjusted and adult I really am. Though I’m not an 11-year-old, I certainly share many of Jonny’s anxieties, especially his professional ones. He gets nauseous before sold-out performances at corporate arenas; I get a few butterflies before reading in front of four people at a bookstore. He’s promoting his second album; this is my second book. He chronically masturbates in hopes of achieving his first ejaculation; I…never mind.
I’ve always been interested in child stars and prodigies. It’s a strange phenomenon, to have an adult mind or adult responsibilities but the restricted emotional comprehension of a child. We’ve had huge child stars in this country for a long time, ever since Jackie Coogan and Shirley Temple in the 1920s and ’30s, and many more the last few decades, especially this most recent one. We’re fascinated by the contrast of outsized talent in somebody so small, and we impute qualities to them — usually angelic innocence — that may not necessarily reflect their private personae. And their histories are often profoundly tragic; I don’t need to list the examples.
I don’t know what the overnight-sensation trend says about us other than that we’ve always been a country fixated on get-rich-quick schemes and the dream that someone with power will discover us at the drugstore soda fountain and turn us into a star. The difference, now, is that nearly everyone has the potential to make him or herself famous for fifteen seconds (perhaps not minutes) — especially if you don’t mind public humiliation.
TM: How deeply did you research this world? In the acknowledgments section, you bring up some influential nonfiction books, but I want to focus on the music here. Did you go out and buy a bunch of tween albums? Did you listen to them incessantly? Do you have favorites? Did you listen to any while writing?
TW: I listened to more tween pop than I cared to, to get a feel for the public images but also the lyrics, so that Jonny’s own songs sounded plausible and not like satirical send-ups. But I also read some child-star autobiographies, from the somewhat more serious (Tatum O’Neal’s A Paper Life) to the semi-trashy (Drew Barrymore’s Little Girl Lost) to the propagandistic-advertorial (Miley Cyrus’s Miles To Go). And I read a number of tween-celebrity websites and magazines, sometimes in public, which can be hard to explain to onlookers.
I’m partial to One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful.” I think that would be the way to be an adolescent pop star: in a quintet, so that you’re among friends, even if everyone knows that just one of you will make it out alive (Mark Wahlberg, Justin Timberlake).
TM: On the surface, Kapitoil and The Love Song of Jonny Valentine couldn’t be more different; however, they share some similarities. Both are told in very convincing first-person voices from characters with extremely different backgrounds from your own, and, reduced to their most basic levels, both involve young men finding their place in the world. Do you find it easier to write in first person than third? Did you ever attempt to write either of these books in third person? Is third person something you want to work toward in future novels, or do you not obsess about the divide between third and first as much as I do?
TW: I do find it easier to write in first person, when I’m able to stretch out the fullest possibilities of a character’s voice, which is the most pleasurable part of writing for me. I’m always drawn to ventriloquism, especially of characters with idiosyncratic speaking styles. This is not to say I won’t ever write in the third person, but reading first person typically inspires deeper empathy for me. It also feels like it best exploits the native advantages of fiction — interiority and subjective language — whereas film can sometimes surpass what third-person narration does. (Film can use voice-over, of course, but it’s usually clunky.)
Kapitoil didn’t sell in its first round of submissions, and several editors complained about Karim Issar’s voice, an English-as-a-second-language hybrid of technofinancial jargon and mathematically precise grammar. My agent thought I should see what it would look like in the third person, so I “translated” a page. It was lifeless, lacking everything that a reader might gravitate to in the book, so I stopped. (I did revise the last third of the book, among other things, which was a more necessary fix.)
TM: Kapitoil was released in April 2010, and The Love Song of Jonny Valentine will be published this February. That’s less than three years. How do you manage to produce so many pages? Do you write every day? Or are you someone who writes in quick bursts? Do you think your process informs the work you do? And finally, what’s next? Are you going to take some time off between books, or are you already imagining what your third novel will be?
TW: Before and after Kapitoil was published, I was slogging through another novel for about a year. I wasn’t having fun with it and the words were coming slowly; I think I produced about 100 pages. Then, one morning in October 2010, a friend emailed me asking if I had any ideas for a humorous book we could collaborate on. Without much premeditation, I suggested a parody of the pop-star autobiographies I would later go on to read for research. He liked the idea; an hour later, I realized it could make a good novel if I treated it with more gravity. I wrote 3,000 words that afternoon, a torrent for me. (I usually aim for 500 a day and am ecstatic if I get 1,000.)
Soon after, I signed up at Paragraph in New York, a writers’ room, and used an old computer with no Internet so that my only entertainment was writing the novel itself. I finished a first draft in six months, also speedy for me, and spent about a year revising until my agent tried to sell it (and then several more months of work with my diligent, brilliant editor, Millicent Bennett, after Free Press bought it). It was a lesson that if a project is proceeding torturously, maybe you should abandon it, and if something is coming (relatively) easily, it might be a good sign. I mix in a decent amount of freelance writing, too, so I try to write something most weekdays and sometimes on the weekends, though I don’t hold myself to a strict schedule. With fiction, I can concentrate for about four hours at a time; for nonfiction or humor writing, I can last much longer.
In the near future, I’ll be working on a screenplay with the writer Amber Dermont, author of The Starboard Sea and the forthcoming story collection Damage Control, and on a TV pilot with her and director/screenwriter Yaniv Raz. I have a vague idea for a new novel, but if the past is any indication, it will also be a bust (I finished a failed novel before Kapitoil, too). I look forward to referring back to this interview several years from now to tell an anecdote about the misguided novel I’d been struggling with before I righted my ship.
Oh, what did I read this year. I read all the Dear Prudence columns and some of The New York Times Vows and 6,000 things on Wedding Bee and even more things on Facebook and a lot of Tweets I do not remember now. I read two-thirds of the things about the election and one-third of the Mormon mommy blogs. I read most of the Andrew Sullivan and some of the Ta-Nehisi Coates and half of The New Yorker, but not the thing about Hilary Mantel, because I didn’t read Wolf Hall, until this week when I read half of it on the train. In the airplane I read Esquire. In the bathroom I read The Economist that I got free with the miles I accrued reading Esquire in the airplane. In the living room I read the alumni magazine I got free with the expense I incurred on my education. I read the whole Jonah Lehrer scandal. My favorite thing I read on Jezebel was a video of a dog fetching a cat.
I read In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, and my word, was that good. I read The Appearance of a Hero, and wrote a whole review of it in my head called “Where the Bros Are” — or was it “For the Bros”? — but forgot to write it down (don’t get me started on the things I didn’t write this year). I read NW and couldn’t stop thinking about the scene with the tampon string like a mouse tail and got the taste of metal in my mouth, thank you very much Zadie Smith. I read We Need to Talk About Kevin and got the feel of bleach in my eye and hamster in my sink, thank you very much Lionel Shriver. I read The Snow Child which was like Crystal Light with extra Splenda (that is not a compliment, in case it’s not clear). I read The Silent House which gave me the willies (that is a compliment). I read the The Deptford Trilogy because every year I have to read something by Robertson Davies and like it and then forget what it was about. I read the Donald Antrim triple-decker (one, two, three), and those were the greatest old new things I read this year.
I re-read Good-bye to All That and Tender is the Night and Midnight’s Children. I did not re-read The Tin Drum or Middlemarch or The Chronicles of Narnia or any Sherlock Holmes stories, and I really feel it in my bones that I did not re-read these things. I did not re-read The Corrections or Cleveland’s History of the Modern Middle East, which I was going to re-read to remember what is the deal with Syria. I only re-read half of one movement of A Dance to the Music of Time (one-eighth, then).
I still did not read Witz or Swamplandia! or The Instructions or A Visit from the Goon Squad or Skippy Dies or The Art of Fielding, or How Should a Person Be? even though I spent $30 on it at a book thing to seem like a team player. More distressing, I still did not really read Don Quixote or Das Kapital or War and Peace, or a thing by Stendahl or Ulysses. I did not read one really hard book this year, except one by Buket Uzuner, and that was just hard for me, and I didn’t really read that either, just 20 pages.
As usual, to compose my Year in Reading is to confront my failures. Resolved for 2013: more paper, less screen. More reading, more revelation.
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Because of an illegal u-turn en route to this year’s Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, I found myself enrolled in online traffic school this summer. The course required that I pass a series of quizzes, all of them simple, before proceeding to the final exam. The whole thing could have taken less than a half-hour, but because this wasn’t solely a rehabilitative affair, I had to watch a timer click down 40 minutes before I could move on to the next quiz, turning 30 minutes of work into seven hours of inconvenience. I had already read the beginning of Zona, Geoff Dyer’s meditation-cum-liveblog of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, but I knew I’d have to see the film before proceeding further. So, pre-loaded with some idea of where Dyer was headed, I watched Stalker in 40-minute chunks on YouTube, while waiting for the next traffic school quiz to appear. Anyone who cares in the least about film, film history, Tarkovsky, artists and their intentions, or high culture in general, probably wants to poke me in both eyes with a sharp stick right now. I might as well have been reading Ulysses while directing traffic. And yet the film worked its magic on me, much as it had worked its magic on Dyer, when he first saw it in his youth (in more traditionally ideal conditions). I devoured Zona soon afterwards, and I can only describe the experience as getting to re-watch a brilliant film in my mind, this time seated next to a highly voluble and intelligent friend. A unique reading experience, and one I’m grateful for.
Other than my traffic school experience, I can divide my reading year into the periods before and after I read Sarah Manguso’s spare and penetrating The Guardians: An Elegy. It floored me. Bracingly smart, moving, and sometimes very funny, this slim volume charts Manguso’s relationship with her friend Harris, who two years earlier escaped from a psych ward and jumped to his death under a Metro-North train. In so doing, it exemplifies how writing can serve as both bulwark against and passage into life’s vicissitudes.
This year I also read The Pale King by David Foster Wallace, a book about which every writer known to man seems to have volumes to say. Not me. It left me inarticulate and emotional, as if I’d been zapped back in time to the broodiest moments of my childhood. I expect to spend the rest of my life staring across vast space at Wallace’s unfinished Death Star, wondering “What if?”
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The man wanted the box I was carrying. I’d almost made it to the front door of a Goodwill in Brooklyn, and I had no idea how he’d guessed the box was full of books. There were no labels and the top flaps were closed. I was staggering a bit under its weight, but I could have been donating kitchen supplies, clothes, or old toys. Anything! He came toward me, a man probably in his 30s, ragged, living on the edge. His face opened into a smile and he closed the distance between us fast, holding out his arms.
“Books?” he asked. “Are those books?”
“Yes,” I said. Then I realized I was in the wrong place. A sign on the door of the Goodwill said we needed to use another entrance around the corner.
“Can I have them?” he asked. “I love books. I love reading.”
I looked at my husband. He was holding two boxes of books and staggering more than I. I looked at my children, who were looking up at me, waiting.
I am uncomfortable shedding books. The three boxes my husband and I were holding, plus three more in the trunk of the car, were the result of a careful purge executed after living abroad for a year. We’d been home only a few weeks and it was clear our bookcases were too crowded to hold all the books we’d bought in Germany. In the days I’d spent weeding the shelves, I’d very nearly given up my college edition of Ulysses before confessing on Twitter and being saved by a bookseller friend who suspected I was making a mistake while still addled by jetlag. But I did a few unthinkable things, such as keeping only my favorite McEwan novels. I told myself only collectors keep complete sets and I am fundamentally not a collector, especially in a Manhattan apartment.
“You like to read?” I asked weakly, stalling.
“Yeah!” he said.
His enthusiasm seemed genuine, but given his general condition, I couldn’t convince myself he wasn’t going to go around the corner and sell the books on the sidewalk. Did I want the sale of the books to benefit Goodwill more than him? That didn’t seem right. But I was committed to the idea that the books would sit, dry and cared for, until someone came along and chose them. My husband’s grandmother, an amazing reader, bought all her books at the Goodwill in Norfolk, Va., I guess I was picturing someone like her.
“Mom?” my nine-year-old daughter said. She looked worried and a bit confused. She loves books, too, and this is what she was taking in: My reluctance to give a box of books to someone who had just told us he loved to read. I didn’t know what to do.
“You really want them?” I said. “You want to read them?”
I gave him the box and smiled at my daughter, but I was aware of making a choice that had more to do with how I wanted to teach her to treat people than how I actually wanted to treat the books I was holding. And then, unable to shake the feeling that I was abandoning some part of myself to an uncertain fate, I followed him and my daughter followed me. My husband and son headed to the correct Goodwill entrance; the man with my books crossed the street, put the box down, and opened it. He sorted through the books, picked up a few for closer inspection, and ultimately put several in a bag he was wearing over his shoulder. I wanted to know which books he was taking, books I’d lived with for nearly 20 years, but his back was to me and I couldn’t see.
“What’s he doing?” my daughter asked. We were standing behind a parked car across the street.
“Well, I think he’s picking out the ones he wants,” I said.
“He’s not taking them all?” she asked.
“Maybe not. The box is heavy.”
The man closed the box, picked it up, and started walking again. Half-a-block along, and now directly across the street from the Goodwill entrance my husband had gone to, he appeared to run into a friend who was unloading a truck. They talked for a minute, then he put the box down and his friend went through the books, also taking a few for himself. The exchange seemed spontaneous and magnanimous.
I hugged my daughter.
My husband passed by with the last two boxes. “How’s it going?” he asked.
“He’s sharing some of the books with a friend!” I announced.
While my husband was in the Goodwill, the man crossed the street, put the box on the sidewalk in front of the correct entrance, and walked away.
In the car on the way home, my husband said that the workers inside the Goodwill had been truly grumpy about receiving five boxes of books. He’d found it disheartening, and on top of it all, we’d gotten a parking ticket, the fact that we were making a donation not impressive enough to save us.
I turned around and looked at my tired children. “Isn’t it so lucky we bumped into a reader on the street?”
“Do you really think he was?” my daughter asked.
“I do,” I said. And I do.
Image Credit: Flickr/Beaufort’s TheDigitel
My reading of Shakespeare tends to be seasonal: comedies in the spring and summer, histories and tragedies in the fall and winter. There are exceptions. A hot, sweaty tragedy like Othello or Antony and Cleopatra reads better in hot, sweaty weather, and a “problem” comedy like Measure for Measure seems less problematic during an autumn chill. I persist in this folly even when confronted with The Winter’s Tale, three/fifths wintry tragedy, two/fifths vernal comedy, and wholly a masterwork, because Shakespeare seems to me more rooted in the earth and its rhythms than any other writer. Samuel Johnson believed that “Shakespeare is, above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature.” Johnson was speaking primarily of human nature, but if we extend the term to mean the other kind too, we get a little nearer the mark. Shakespeare is the poet of everything.
What then is the optimal time to read The Winter’s Tale – in winter if you feel the burden is primarily tragic, in spring if you feel the opposite pull, or maybe (if you feel the issue is eternally undecided) in a blustery week in late March when the crocuses have begun to push through? (The logical solution – to read the first three acts in the winter and save the last two for warmer weather – is, alas, a reductio ad absurdum. Not that I haven’t tried.) Theater people don’t have the luxury to be so choosy, and I’ve seen excellent productions of The Winter’s Tale at all times of the year, the most recent being a (winter) performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music starring Simon Russell Beale and Rebecca Hall that left me in tears. A local high school production probably would have done the same. In my experience, The Winter’s Tale plays more effectively on stage than more celebrated works like Hamlet or King Lear, which are sometimes doomed by theatrical self-consciousness and present obstacles to staging (the storm on the heath, for instance) difficult to surmount. In particular, Act IV of The Winter’s Tale is so perfectly conceived that it seems as much carnival as theater. Slapstick, satire, music, dance, suspense, disguise, romance, bawdry, philosophy, sleight-of-hand: one mode of performance succeeding another, and all stage managed by the greatest dramaturge of them all. So yes, Shakespeare was a playwright – an actor, a director, a producer, in fact a man wholly of the theater – and The Winter’s Tale is a play. But we can’t always have the benefit of an actor as skilled as Simon Russell Beale interpreting Leontes for us, and even then, it’s his interpretation, not ours. When we read the plays, we’re actor, director, and lighting designer at once. And what we’re reading, it’s worth pointing out, is very largely poetry.
Seventy-five point five percent poetry, to be precise. The Winter’s Tale is just about the golden mean – 71.5% blank verse, 3.1% rhymed verse, and 25.4% prose, plus six songs, the highest number in the canon, and appropriate for the genius of wit and improvisation who sings them, the “rogue” Autolycus. How I love Shakespearean metrics! Iago has 1097 lines to Othello’s 860, 86.6% of The Merry Wives of Windsor is in prose, King John and Richard II have no prose whatsoever, 45.5% of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is in rhymed verse, there are 150 named female characters in the canon as opposed to 865 male, and the actor who plays an uncut Hamlet has to memorize 1422 lines. (Cordelia, by contrast, makes her overwhelming presence felt with a mere 116 lines.) If there were a way of computing the Bard’s earned run average, I would want to know that too.
Clinical as they might seem, these statistics do remind us of a salient fact: three quarters of Shakespeare’s dramatic writing is poetry. (The other quarter is pretty good too. Shakespeare wrote the best prose as well as the best verse in the English language, and if there were anything other than prose and verse, he would have surpassed everyone at that as well.) Polixines’s first lines in The Winter’s Tale are, “Nine changes of the wat’ry star hath been / The shepherd’s note since we have left our throne / Without a burden” (I.ii. 1-3). That’s a long way from, “It’s been nine months since I’ve been away from my kingdom.” Even if Shakespeare had phrased the lines in prose, they would have been suitably orotund, something like the courtly politesse Archidamus and Camillo speak in the opening scene. (“Since their more mature dignities and royal necessities made separation of their society, their encounters (though not personal) hath been royally attorney’d . . . “) Nevertheless, they are in verse. No prose could match the effect of the bold initial spondee balanced by an unstressed pyrrhic before catching up with the regular iambic rhythm of the pentameter line. (“NINE CHANG/es of/the WAT’/ry STAR/hath BEEN . . .”) It’s like a bell going off. Surely what’s greatest about Shakespeare is not that he knows where to put his iambs and trochees but that he writes so expressively within character. Polixines’s periphrastic way of saying what could have been said much more simply is more than the eloquence one would expect of a king taking leave of another king. In evoking the moon and the waters and the shepherd’s eternal rounds, Polixines conjures the elemental, folkloric realities that the play will traffic in. There will be shepherds, long passages of time, lots of water, and boy will there be “changes.” Plus, this being Shakespeare, Polixines’ lines are almost gratuitously beautiful. He just couldn’t help it.
On the other hand, beauty has a job to do. It compels attention, and if you’re paying attention to the words, chances are you’re also paying attention to what words do: tell stories, define characters, establish themes, orchestrate emotions, explore ideas. Not that it’s as easy as all that. There are times in The Winter’s Tale when it’s maddeningly difficult to figure out what the hell the characters are talking about. You are ill-advised to attend any production cold.
Harold Bloom has grumpily admitted to boycotting most productions of Shakespeare out of frustration with tendentious interpretations. For me the problem is less directorial overkill than the sheer difficulty of doing Shakespeare at all – finding actors who can speak the verse properly, trimming the texts to manageable lengths, not overdoing the dirty jokes, and so on. I usually attend three or four productions a year and happily settle for whatever patches of brilliance (sometimes sustained for nearly a whole evening) I can get. And yet I wouldn’t want to deprive myself of the pleasure of unpacking the involutions of Leontes’s soliloquies in The Winter’s Tale at my leisure and with text in hand – partly because in the theater it’s so hard to follow what this lunatic is actually saying. Even his faithful courtier Camillo at one point has to confess that he’s mystified as to precisely what dark “business” his Highness is hinting at:
Leon. Was this taken
By any understanding pate but thine?
For thy conceit is soaking, will draw in
More than the common blocks. Not noted, is’t,
But of the finer natures? By some severals
Of head-piece extraordinary? Lower messes
Perchance are to this business purblind? Say.
Cam. Business, my lord? I think most understand
Bohemia stays here longer.
It’s true that the density of this language depends at least as much on formal rhetoric – all those tropes and devices that Shakespeare had drilled into his head as a schoolboy – as on versification. But what the poetry gives us that prose could not (or not so well) is a sense of formlessness within form. Leontes is falling apart. His jealous ravings feed on themselves in an ever more frenzied cycle of psychological dislocation. You might call it a nervous breakdown. Yet no matter how feverish his utterances, they all stay within the strict boundaries of ten or sometimes eleven syllables. If you’re losing your mind in iambic pentameter, your mode of expression is necessarily compressed. No wonder Leontes is so hard to understand:
Affection! thy intention stabs the centre.
Thou dost make possible things not so held,
Communicat’st with dreams (how can this be?),
With what’s unreal thou co-active art,
And fellow’st nothing. Then ‘tis very credent
Thou mayst co-join with something, and thou dost
(And that beyond commission), and I find it
(And that to the infection of my brains
And hard’ning of my brows).
To my mind, no one has ever satisfactorily explained the meaning of the first line, but the sense of psychic violence is clear enough, as is the sense of delusion that Leontes unwittingly demonstrates in the following lines – he perfectly illustrates what he thinks he’s criticizing. Hard as it is to follow this soliloquy on the page, it’s that much harder in the theater, which doesn’t allow for second readings or leisurely reflections on dense ambiguities. Unlike the pattern of some other geniuses, the movement of Shakespeare’s late work (at least verbally) is toward an increasing complication rather than a simplicity or clarity of expression. Those Jacobean groundlings must have had remarkable attention spans, and no wonder. The linguistic transformation that they witnessed, according to Frank Kermode in Shakespeare’s Language, “happened in the writing of Shakespeare and in the ears of an audience he had, as it were, trained to receive it.”
Dense, compressed, harsh, impacted: these qualities don’t stop Shakespeare’s later dramatic verse from being magnificent. Has anyone ever rendered the grosser tendencies of the male imagination with more obscenely “reified” imagery? What makes Leontes’s ravings especially sickening is that he pronounces them in the presence of his innocent son Mamillius:
Inch-thick, knee-deep, o’er head and ears a fork’d one!
Go play, boy, play. Thy mother plays, and I
Play too, but so disgrac’d a part, whose issue
Will hiss me to my grave: contempt and clamor
Will be my knell. Go play, boy, play. There have been
(Or I am much deceiv’d) cuckolds ere now,
And many a man there is (even at this present,
Now, while I speak this) holds his wife by th’ arm,
That little thinks she has been sluic’d in ‘s absence,
And his pond fish’d by his next neighbor – by
Sir Smile, his neighbor.
When Simon Russell Beale spoke these lines at BAM, that “sluic’d” went through the audience – or at least through me – like a wound. Sometimes it’s hard to believe just how graphic Shakespeare’s imagery can be. As a woefully inexperienced undergraduate, I thought Pompey’s description in Measure for Measure of Claudio’s offense against sexual morality – “Groping for trouts in a peculiar river” – vaguely amusing. Amusing yes, vague no. There are some things no book can teach you.
The simplicity that many people would like to find in late Shakespeare as they do in the closing phases of Beethoven or Michelangelo is in fact there but selectively deployed and as much a matter of technique as of vision. Hermione’s protestations of innocence during the horrendous trial scene have a dignified plainness in contrast to the casuistry with which Leontes arraigns her. (“Sir, / You speak a language that I understand not.”) The language relaxes in the last two acts, as we move from suspicion and sterility to rebirth and reconciliation. Yet touches of lyricism occur earlier in the play (as in Polixines’s “We were as twinn’d lambs that did frisk i’ th’ sun, / And bleat the one at th’ other”), just as echoes of Leontes’s rhetorical violence occur later in Polixenes’s rage at the prospect of a shepherdess daughter-in-law (“And thou, fresh piece / Of excellent witchcraft, whom of force must know / The royal fool thou cop’st with”). Our Bard, who knew rhetorical tricks from hypallage to syllepsis, was not likely to disdain something so basic as plain contrast. Consider this contrast: Leontes, who earlier expressed the most extreme repugnance toward almost any form of physicality, now uses the homeliest of similes to express his wonder at the “miracle” of Hermione’s transformation from statue to living creature in Act V: “If this be magic, let it be an art / Lawful as eating.” Eleven lines later the loyal retainer Paulina, who has brought off the whole improbable spectacle, speaks the half line that is, for me, the most wrenching moment in the whole play: “Our Perdita is found.” How like Shakespeare – to expand emotionally by contracting linguistically. (Compare the lonely, cuckolded Bloom’s “Me. And me now” in Joyce’s Ulysses – the emotional heart, in four words, of a novel much given to logorrhea.) To gloss such a line would be almost an impertinence, except to say that being lost (“Perdita,” analogous to “perdition”) and found is in some sense what the play is all about. It’s not just Leontes who, rediscovering his wife and daughter, finds himself. Ideally, at a performance or in a reading, so should we.
Self-discovery can be a pretty scary experience, which is why Tony Tanner in his Prefaces to Shakespeare wrote that the proper response to this play is one in which awe borders on horror: “It does not merely please or entertain. It should leave us aghast, uncertain of just what extraordinary thing we have just witnessed.” Iambs and trochees will get you only so far. They signify that Shakespeare thought poetically, and thinking poetically means expressing experience in a highly concentrated manner. It’s curious that as Shakespeare’s language grew increasingly dense and demanding, his plots moved in the opposite direction – towards the deliberate improbabilities of folklore and fable. Shipwrecks, foundlings, treasure chests, prophecies, oracles, and hungry bears: if the plot of The Winter’s Tale were to be retold stripped of its poetry, it “should be hooted at / Like an old tale,” as Paulina says of the biggest improbability of them all – the apparent transformation of the martyred queen from cold statue to living flesh. To the disappointment of some, the patterned contrivances of the four late “romances” (Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest) necessarily entail a slackening of authorial interest in the particulars of character development. Othello’s jealousy is motivated point by excruciating point; Leontes’ jealousy just is. Sometimes it’s well to think back to Samuel Johnson’s point of view. Shakespeare is the poet of nature, and all that naturalism shines out amid the archetypal movements and resolutions of the late romances. Certainly these plays have evoked unusually personal responses. Northrup Frye, no critical slouch, wrote of The Tempest, it is a play “not simply to be read or seen or even studied but possessed.” When Eric Rohmer wanted to depict a transfiguring moment in the life of his heroine in A Tale of Winter (Conte d’hiver, 1991), he did so by having her attend a regional production of The Winter’s Tale and training the camera on her face during Hermione’s transformation scene. Nothing like seeing a clunky, old-fashioned version in French to make you understand what Shakespeare can do without language.
Another curiosity about the romances is the degree to which they turn on the concept of forgiveness. “Pardon’s the word to all,” says Cymbeline late in the play of that title, jauntily brushing aside five acts worth of treachery, corruption, murder, and deceit. Was there something in Shakespeare’s experience that turned his thoughts in his last years to the possibility of forgiveness? Had his many years as an absent husband and father begun to gnaw at him as he contemplated retirement and a return to the wife and family he had clearly neglected? Or had his wife Anne – perhaps understandably in the light of their long separation – been “sluiced” in his absence, and had he, with all his attendant guilts and slippages, to pardon her for that? Was he thinking of the Catholicism he might secretly have been raised in and of the doctrine of grace that – it could be argued – subtly informs these plays? Or was it something simpler and even more personal – namely, brooding on the usual fuckups that everyone racks up over time and hopes to be forgiven for? Virtually nothing is known of the man’s inner life, but few people dispute the semi-autobiographical nature of The Tempest, with its sense of a valediction to the theater he had known and loved. So why not extrapolate a little from the work to the life?
Depends on whose life, I guess. While I’m very much interested in Shakespeare’s life, I’m more interested in my own. What I extrapolate from The Winter’s Tale is that if Leontes deserves a break, so do I. There came a time in my life when I needed to be forgiven. I wasn’t. If I must take my consolation from a play rather than from any flesh and blood Hermione, that’s not quite so bleak as it sounds. Yes, I would have preferred real forgiveness to the literary kind, but I find it no small consolation that at the end of his life the world’s supreme imaginative writer returns again and again to a basic home truth: we must forgive each other. For me, reading Shakespeare is like going to church, except that in place of a God I could never and wouldn’t want to believe in, I “commune,” so to speak, with a mind that seems to comprehend all others and enforces no doctrinal obedience. This community of believers embraces anyone who has ever seen, heard, or read a word of Shakespeare’s and been moved to wonder and reflection. That’s what I call a catholic church.
The forgiveness I’ve spoken of is not without cost. Antigonus and Mamillius die, and when Hermione steps off that pedestal, she speaks to her daughter, not to her husband. Part fairly tale, part moral exemplum, The Winter’s Tale is what religion would be if it could free itself of those hectoring, incomprehensible Gods. In the unveiling of the supposed “miracle” in Act V, the sage and long-suffering Paulina speaks the lines that could serve as the epitaph for all of late Shakespeare: “It is required / You do awake your faith.” The fact that the miracle turns out to be completely naturalistic (the “resurrected” Hermione has been hidden away for sixteen years and has the wrinkles to prove it) means only that the faith required transcends any particular religious dispensation. It’s a faith, first of all, in the reader’s or spectator’s willingness to enter without quibbling into the imaginative world that Shakespeare has created, but more than that, it’s a faith in life itself – in the human imagination, and in our capacity for endurance, transformation, and renewal. As Leontes exemplifies, our capacity for hatred, rage, and murderous insanity is pretty impressive too. To see whole and to understand these contradictions – that too is an act of faith.
I don’t presume to know what this or any other play by Shakespeare ultimately “means.” They will not be reduced to “themes.” Obviously, the plays and sonnets teem with ideas, a few of which are near and dear to my heart, but I could no more sum up the “themes” of Shakespeare’s work than I could sum up the “themes” of my own life. If his work has any unity of meaning, it is simply that of life itself – its abundance, its ongoingness. In Shakespeare’s Imagery and What It Tells Us, Caroline Spurgeon wrote that “The thought constantly in Shakespeare’s mind,” in The Winter’s Tale, is:
the common flow of life through all things, in nature and man alike, seen in the sap rising in the tree, the habits and character of flowers, the result of the marriage of base and noble stock, whether it be of roses or human beings, the emotions of birds, animals and men . . . the oneness of rhythm, of law of movement, in the human body and human emotions with the great fundamental rhythmical movements of nature herself.
Spurgeon was writing in 1935. We tend to be skeptical of such claims now. There are no universals; or, as Terry Eagleton bluntly put it apropos of a couple of poems by Edward Thomas, “If these works are not ‘just’ nature poems, it is because there is no such thing” (How To Read a Poem). If language and culture mediate everything we can know, why should Shakespeare, the playwright-businessman writing for a motley provincial audience of sensation seekers and esthetes, be exempt? Wouldn’t he be just as blinkered by the social prejudices of this time, just as imprisoned by the reigning discourse, as anyone else? So it would seem – until we turn to the plays themselves. There we find that our hearts speak to us in a different register than our minds do. There we find, as in Florizel’s wooing Perdita, precisely that sort of “universality” that is supposed not to exist:
What you do
Still betters what is done. When you speak, sweet,
I’ld have you do it ever; when you sing,
I’d have you buy and sell so; so give alms;
Pray so; and for the ord’ring your affairs,
To sing them too. When you do dance, I wish you
A wave o’ th’ sea, that you might ever do
Nothing but that; move still, still so,
And own no other function. Each your doing
(So singular in each particular)
Crowns what you are doing in the present deeds,
That all your acts are deeds.
Ever been in love? Florizel speaks courtly Renaissance verse because he’s a prince. The shepherd’s son, who isn’t even granted the dignity of a name (“Clown”), woos the shepherdess Mopsa in rustic comic prose. Although Shakespeare grants Clown the full measure of his country kindness and courtesy, he won’t let him talk like Florizel. Such were the parameters of the Jacobean worldview. I doubt any lover anywhere has ever spoken so beautifully as Florizel, but if you have been in love you’ll recognize the feeling – the idealization that has yet to withstand the test of time but nonetheless ennobles both the lover and the beloved and creates, as it were, its own truth. How did the groundlings and the nabobs respond when they first heard those words at the Globe Theatre in 1611? My guess is that some of them reacted much as I do. They wept.
Always someone turns up you never dreamt of. This is a refrain repeated frequently throughout Enrique Vila-Matas’s novel Dublinesque. It is a line originally found in the “Hades” episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses, and is used there to describe an unnamed “lankylooking galoot.” That nameless minor character in Ulysses is often given the title “the Man in the Macintosh,” and he has become quite a mystery in Joyce scholarship over the years. He shows up in Joyce’s novel a handful of times, but scholars have never been able to agree upon his identity. Yes, always someone turns up you never dreamt of; and sometimes just as quickly he vanishes, remaining a ghost, a mystery. Literature has always been fascinated with these uncanny entrances and exits, the comings and goings that in life are so commonplace, but that, on the printed page, we often imbue with such significance. It is in mysteries such as these — in the catalogued coincidences and connections, the inquiries and epiphanies, that we seek out the patterns of life, create meaning in the chaos of existence, and confront and embody that Beckettian maxim: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”
In the Internet age, after the heights of Joyce, and beyond the depths of Beckett, there is, it is sometimes argued, not much left to explore in literature. Story is suspect, for every story has already been told (or so the banal argument goes). Yet even if Enrique Vila-Matas can’t go on telling new stories, he’ll go on writing, mining the past to communicate the present; and we’re all the better off for it. The Spanish novelist is a master of that problematic enterprise of literature: the death-defying highwire act of telling the truth through lies, of invoking reality through fiction. In his newly translated novel, Dublinesque, successfully rendered into exquisite English by Rosalind Harvey and Anne McLean, Vila-Matas treks across the literary landscape from Joyce to Beckett, from Gutenberg to Google, rubbing one allusion up against another, and colliding both fictive and actual worlds.
Samuel Riba, the retired literary publisher who takes center stage in Dublinesque, is a character with an “exaggerated fanaticism for literature” who “has a tendency to read life like a literary text.” Therein lies a clue to reading the book: as the novel opens, life and text are already intertwined, confused, inseparable, and it only gets more complicated further on down the rabbithole.
In his retirement (and sobriety), Riba has retreated further into himself, sitting in front of his computer, Googling things for hours on end, like a Japanese hikikomori. He only ever really leaves this position in front of his computer at the behest of his wife, with whom he has a strained relationship that is only being strained further as he turns more inward and she turns more toward Buddhism, or in order to visit his parents and keep up the pretense that he is still a literary publisher (as he has chosen not to clue them in on his retirement). It is in one of these awkward visits with his parents that the idea of traveling to Dublin emerges.
Two years before the start of the novel Riba had a dream about that Irish city, and so when his mother accuses him of not having any plans, he “lets Dublin come to his rescue,” and makes up the lie that he’s been planning a trip there all along. Rather quickly he becomes obsessed with the idea of visiting that city of Joyce and Beckett, the Dedaluses and the Blooms, and mysterious men in macintoshes. He is determined to go to Dublin and, intentionally mirroring the funeral of Paddy Dignam in Joyce’s “Hades” episode, he will perform a funeral for the age of print, for “the Gutenberg galaxy,” as the digital age comes fully into being.
In many ways, both physical and metaphysical, literal and metaphorical, Dublinesque is haunted by ghosts. But these ghosts take different forms, and most often they are in the form of allusions. As Joyce writes in Ulysses, and Vila-Matas reiterates in Dublinesque:
What is a ghost? Stephen said with tingling energy. One who has faded into impalpability through death, through absence, through change of manners.
Like the novel itself, Riba’s head is filled with ghosts — filled with the cobwebs of literary quotations, artistic allusions, bits of stories, trivia about the lives and works of authors and artists. Besides Joyce and Beckett, whose spirits remain a presence throughout the book, there are references to Paul Auster, Jorge Luis Borges, George Perec, and Philip Larkin (whose poem “Dublinesque” provides the novel with its title), in addition to extensive mentions of the films of directors John Ford and David Cronenberg. These and many other artists haunt the book like specters. Riba’s obsession with artistic and literary trivia may not be quite as all-consuming as it is for David Markson’s Reader/Writer/Author/Novelist in Markson’s final four novels (The Notecard Quartet: Reader’s Block, This is Not a Novel, Vanishing Point, and The Last Novel), but it is about on par. Indeed, David Markson seems like someone Riba would have wanted to add to his catalogue of published authors, had he not been retired: “Isn’t a literary publisher a ventriloquist who cultivates the most varied different voices through his catalogue?”
Coincidences abound from the very beginning of the novel, as there are countless threads connecting his parents to the text of Ulysses. Riba — and Vila-Matas- — weave a tangled web of allusions and intersections between literature and life, between fiction and reality. This is typical Enrique Vila-Matas territory: in his novels, reality and fiction are forever blended. Real people populate their pages as often as fictional ones, and a confusion between the two always invokes problems. Like Montano in Montano’s Malady, another Vila-Matas novel available in English translation, Samuel Riba has a kind of literature-sickness.
Bloomsday, a holiday that the book focuses on, embodies this mix of fictive and real elements. After all, it is a holiday in the real world, but celebrated because on that day, in a novel, a fictional character, based on a real person, wanders around Dublin, a real city, which the author, Joyce, wanted to capture so perfectly that if the city were to be wiped off the face of the planet it could be recreated using his novel. There is no better holiday for an Enrique Vila-Matas novel to engage itself with.
Furthering the insufficiency of reality, Riba constantly questions whether he is in a novel, dreading the possibility that he might be. He makes it abundantly clear at various points that “in no way does he want to live in a novel.” He may not want to be a character in literature but he keeps bringing up the possibility that he may very well be, a possibility he feels, even if he can’t quite explain it.
Surely it would be useless to explain that he’s not crazy, and that all that happens is that sometimes he senses or picks up too much, he detects realities no one else perceives.
But Riba’s greatest dread, the ultimate disappointment in his life, is that he hasn’t yet found the great writer of genius that he always assumed he would. Enter a mysterious figure. He first appears during the funeral procession for the Gutenberg era, and Riba deduces, with very little reasoning or evidence, that this must be the writer he has waited for his entire life. Is the figure Joyce’s “Man in the Macintosh?” Or is he a young Samuel Beckett? Or is he just a local Beckett lookalike? Or might the figure actually be a ghost with Dracula’s ability to disappear into a fog? Or could this man in fact be Vila-Matas himself- — the author of Dublinesque and the creator of Riba? Appearing in his own novel, just as Vladimir Nabokov claims Joyce appeared in Ulysses as that “Man in the Macintosh?” Is it possible also that the macintoshed man is an embodiment of the “old whore” literature herself? In a way, this mysterious figure is all these things and more. There isn’t a precise logic to it, it just makes sense in the confines of literature, which is a reflection and a refraction of life itself — a thing full of mysteries, ultimately unexplainable.
What logic is there in things? None really. We’re the ones who look for links between one segment of our lives and another. But this attempt to give form to that which has none, to give form to chaos, is something only good writers know how to do successfully.
If nothing else, Dublinesque secures the position of Enrique Vila-Matas on the list of writers who know how to give form to chaos. Just as he tells the story of the Gutenberg age giving way to the Google age, and catalogues a literary trajectory from Joyce to Beckett, Vila-Matas finds a perfect middle ground, the apex between these two pillars: Dublinesque reflects the sparseness of Beckett and the intricateness of Joyce, but more importantly it provides the mystery and depth of both. As two sides of the same coin, doppelgangers of one another in one way, and yet polar opposites from another vantage point, Joyce and Beckett show up through the text, finding a number of ways to haunt its pages. Always someone turns up you never dreamt of.
The creative writing class is a beautiful thing. The longest journeys begin with a single step, and (I’m sure) just like countless colleges and writers’ centers throughout the world, the classes I attended at The Irish Writers’ Centre were safe, exciting places to put one figurative foot in front of the other. Though clearly my metaphors need a little work…
The established rules are pretty clear to anyone who’s attended school: do your assignments, listen to the other students, respect your teacher. But of course, society is also filled with unwritten rules, observed by most and flouted by others. Don’t sip your drink too loudly at the movies; don’t answer your phone during a gig; and, if you’re attending a writing class, don’t do any of the things described below.
1. “I didn’t know we could do that!”
Lesson number one begins with a writing exercise that I love. Students are asked to turn to their nearest classmate and ask three questions about their life, then take 10 minutes writing the opening paragraph of a story using some of these details. For example, if someone mentions that they travel a lot, tan easily, and like the ocean, you could (if you’re a genius) use it as the opening to a story like John Steinbeck’s The Pearl.
It’s a great warm up if there’s a big enough group, and a chance for people to express themselves to a new class in a safe way. That is until people show resentment for classmate’s use of imagination.
To illustrate: One student was told of a classmate’s insomnia, love for travelling, and fondness of Latin America. This gave birth to a Latin variation on The Hulk (or Jekyll and Hyde, if you’re feeling even more generous). It was a lively, pulpy little piece and the closing line “when he slept, he became Rodrigo, and Rodrigo was not a nice person to know” evoked gasps and a few knowing chuckles: This young man had taken some bare facts and built the foundations of a fun — if slightly derivative short story. There were backslaps all round, at first.
“I didn’t know you could do that!” one student spluttered, so outraged she could barely get the words out fast enough. “He…he used supernatural elements. That’s not allowed! Is it?”
What was the real issue? That he didn’t follow her imagined parameters of the assignment? Or that her story was a literal shopping list of what she’d just been told? She had broken the first unwritten rule of creative writing classes: Don’t get sore if someone else has a better idea.
2. “Oh, I haven’t read it.”
Early in one beginner’s class, we were assigned to bring in a book we wished we’d written. I resisted the urge to bring in something classy like Ulysses, or indeed Slash’s autobiography, and instead opted for High Fidelity by Nick Hornby. Another classmate brought in A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe. She praised it eloquently, saying how the fall of a tycoon was relevant, how Wolfe writes with the authority of a gifted investigative journalist, and how it echoes Wolfe’s idol, Charles Dickens. “What do you like most about it?” asked the teacher.
“Oh I haven’t read it,” she breezed, without a hint of embarrassment or contrition. She later went on to correct other people’s assertions and interpretation of Wolfe’s opus, utterly oblivious to the inconvenient fact that they had read it and she had not.
You would think it doesn’t need clarification, but apparently it does: When told to talk about a book you admire, it’s best to choose one you’ve already at least opened.
3. “I thought it was sentimental.”
Outside of medicine and pharmaceuticals, which profession do you imagine is most affected by the existence of incurable diseases? I imagine it’s creative writing teachers. In the first class I attended, the writing-about-terminal-illness cases were approaching 50 percent. Terminal illness is obviously a serious subject, but even the most powerful subject’s impact can be dulled with repetition, or when it’s used as a narrative short cut.
You’ll be surprised how callous you become when numerous consecutive students read aloud their story about the elderly neighbor (kindly or cranky), known only for one hobby (gardening or withholding children’s Frisbees) who succumbs to a disease that reveals their true colors (humor and/or courage). Making someone cry is as hard as making someone laugh, and, in both comedy and tragedy, it’s painful to endure a piece of fiction that tries and fails.
This brings us to a student we’ll call “Anna” and rule number 3: Appreciate it when classmates are being polite. Her short story was about a precocious and grating young child who didn’t like her aunt. The twist is (you’re way ahead of me) that it turns out the aunt is fighting a serious disease. It was a mawkish, deadly serious piece of work, and the 4the illness-themed piece in one class. After she read it aloud, everyone gave polite, vague, and very gentle criticisms. Many tongues seemed to be held and bitten.
Then it came time to read my debut opus, in which a boy realizes he’s getting too old for stunts on his BMX. It was a little rough around the edges, but not the bike-crash I thought it was before Anna piped up. “I thought it was sentimental,” she snipped, oblivious to the fact that she had just read out a piece that Nicholas Sparks would have deleted and re-drafted. “Yeah, it was mawkish,” she continued, louder this time, “I didn’t get it”.
“Hey listen, lady!” I didn’t say. “The only reason you’re taking such liberties is because you wrongly think your story is nuanced and insightful.”
“And if we weren’t so polite during this fragile and important learning phase, you’d know how leaden and syrupy your misery mope fest really was,” I didn’t continue.
“Thanks, Anna, that’s really helpful,” I actually said, meekly and sadly combing over my every word to look for manipulative or sentimental passages I could re-write.
Image Credit: Flickr/Elvert Barnes
When I first read a plot summary of Joshua Henkin’s newest novel, The World Without You, my second thought — after, this sounds like a great story — was: this sounds like women’s fiction! As a woman who writes fiction and bristles against such categories, brandishing the latest VIDA stats to anyone who will listen, I was a bit horrified by my own reaction. If I think like that, how can I expect others not to? I was curious to know what male authors — or one male author, at least — make of such labels. And since I’m lucky enough to know Henkin — an acclaimed short story writer, director of the MFA program in Fiction Writing at Brooklyn College, and author of the novels Matrimony, a New York Times Notable Book, and Swimming Across The Hudson, a Los Angeles Times Notable Book — I decided to ask.
Anna Solomon: The catalyst for The World Without You is a public one — journalist Leo Frankel is killed in Iraq — yet the story itself is remarkably private. It takes place in and around the Frankel family’s old summer house, on the one year anniversary of Leo’s death, and for all the outer conflict that drives the plot — Leo’s parents are separating, his three sisters are struggling with their own relationships and marriages, his widow comes bearing her own secret — I think the book’s greatest strength lies in the quiet, patient unspooling of these characters’ inner lives. These categories — public v. private, outer v. inner — how conscious of them were you as you conceived of and wrote this book?
Joshua Henkin: When I write, I’m not conscious of much, as least for the first draft. You need to cede control and see where the book takes you. Flannery O’Connor once said that a fiction writer needs a certain measure of stupidity, and I agree. In terms of public versus private, the characters in The World Without You are deeply engaged with the outside world and with politics, so the public sphere certainly plays a role in the book, but it’s an indirect role, through character, which is how it should be. I’m suspicious of fiction writers who are driven by big ideas. I see it in my graduate students’ stories, and I see it, too, in published work — fiction too obviously driven by grand ideas, where the characters feel like mouthpieces for the writer and the book ends up being a lie. Here, too, I agree with O’Connor, who said that if you want to truck in grand ideas then fiction writing is too humble for you. Go be a sociologist, or a politician, or a rabbi, or a priest. It’s not that there aren’t ideas in good novels, but ideas aren’t principally what a good novel is about. For me, it’s fairly straightforward, though of course very difficult to achieve. I aim to tell a story. I try to plumb the depths of my characters’ inner lives because that’s what good fiction can do in a way that nothing else can. I strive to make characters so real the reader will feel that she knows them as well as or better than she knows the people in her own life. That’s what fiction writing is to me — no more and no less.
AS: I love these Flannery O’Connor quotes. I also experience writing fiction as a very humbling act; it puts what one notices, feels, imagines, above what one knows. So where do you think the “grand idea” impulse comes from? Are the writers you’re talking about truly meant to be sociologists and politicians? Or are they responding to some pressure — an idea they have about what constitutes Literature, or what kind of Literature sells?
JH: I think the issue may be more fundamental than that. A friend of mine wrote her undergraduate psychology thesis on how adults group objects versus how kids group objects. The adults group the apple with the banana, whereas the kids group the monkey with the banana. This is another way of saying that children are more natural storytellers than adults are. In fact, I’d go further and say that the process of becoming an adult, of functioning in the adult world, involves having our innate storytelling ability leached out of us. Adults think in terms of category, in terms of concept. In order to buy dessert for my family in the most efficient way possible I need to understand that apples and bananas are generally housed together. But what makes for a good dessert purchaser doesn’t make for a good fiction writer. Adults think in abstractions, and abstractions are the death of a fiction writer. Kids, on the other hand, don’t think in abstractions. Consider a toddler learning to talk. She speaks almost exclusively in concrete nouns and verbs. Although she doesn’t realize it, she’s following Isaac Babel’s dictum to eschew adjectives and adverbs and rely on nouns and verbs. I’m always telling my graduate students to think monkey-banana, not apple-banana — so much so that the last night of class one semester they showed up to workshop wearing t-shirts they had made with a monkey and a banana emblazoned across the front.
Are there people trying to be novelists who are really meant to be sociologists or politicians or theologians? Absolutely. The world is filled with extremely intelligent people who want to be novelists but whose intelligence doesn’t help them in that regard. In fact, it often hurts them. Lionel Trilling, arguably the greatest literary critic of the 20th century, famously wanted to be a novelist, but he just wasn’t good at it. This is not to say that there aren’t good critics who are also good novelists, nor is it to say that critical skills don’t help a writer (I think they’re very important for revision), but the two skill sets are quite different and there are many absolutely brilliant people who wouldn’t begin to know how to write a novel.
I do think we’ve been living in a time when certain kinds of “big-idea” writing are in vogue. When I was starting to write fiction, in the late ’80s and early ’90s, traditional realist fiction reigned. Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Ann Beattie, Tobias Wolff — those were the writers who were hugely influential for my graduate school classmates and me. Ten years later the pendulum swung, and now it may be swinging back. That’s just how it is. Fashions come and fashions go, but what doesn’t change is good writing.
I think there’s also something psychologically complicated at work here, which has to do with the anxiety of influence. Someone once said that there are only two kinds of stories, Stranger Comes to Town and Person Goes on a Trip — which is really just one kind of story, since Stranger Comes to Town is simply Person Goes on a Trip from a different point of view. I don’t find this particularly perturbing. Yes, every story has been told, but it’s the way of telling — the how — that makes every writer unique, and if you have a distinct voice, if there’s emotional truth to your characters, if you use language in service of this voice and these characters, then your book will be distinct. I mean, look at the world around us. We don’t say, Why fall in love, why have a job, that’s been done already by billions of people. We don’t not get married just because everyone’s been doing that forever. But I think this feeling that every story has been told does concern a lot of writers, often to their detriment. They’re insufficiently confident that the story they’re telling is worth telling, and so they dress it up with a lot of grandiosity and big ideas; they deck it out in pyrotechnics. You read a lot of novels that smack of, I’m John, hear me roar, I’m Jane, hear me roar. Reading these writers, I find myself thinking, Would you please just chill? There’s an underconfidence at work that comes in the guise of overconfidence. Whatever it is, it does bad things to the fiction — it makes it a lie.
One of the paradoxes is that novels that try to be big often end up being small, whereas novels that, on the surface, seem more curtailed in their ambitions, end up being bigger. Take Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, which to my mind is one of the great novels of the last 30 years. Now, you could say that the book is about the Vietnam War, and I suppose on some level it is, but you can be sure that O’Brien didn’t sit down to write a book about the Vietnam War. He sat down to write a book about his characters, and the war filtered in because that’s who his characters are — they’re soldiers, grunts. And because his characters are so real, so complex, so true, because the language, while never showing off, is so lovely, O’Brien touches our souls and we have a much richer and deeper sense of the war than we would if he were making big pronouncements. Good fiction is fundamentally about the particular, not about the general. Put another way, it is through the particular that the novelist gets at the general. In other words, if you do the particular sufficiently well, the book will feel general in the best sense — that is, universal.
AS: Big/small, abstract/concrete, public/private — these terms are often correlated with the masculine/feminine dichotomy, too. I’m curious what role gender played as you wrote The World Without You. Not on a “grand idea” level but in the particular choices you made about character and point-of-view. Of the six main characters in the book (I’m defining “main” as those whose points-of-view you regularly visit) five are female, while only one — the father — is male. Do you remember how you decided on this cast of characters? Were you at all wary, as a male writer, of writing a novel that not only could be described as “domestic,” but that’s dominated by women, too?
JH: I’m afraid this answer may not be very satisfying, but I really don’t think about such things. My characters simply come to me as they are. Their gender, their dispositions, their hair color, their allergies, do they sleep on their backs or their stomachs or their sides — it’s all extremely important, but none of it is a conscious decision. I follow my characters to where they take me. I’m not saying gender isn’t important. I come from a family of three boys, and now I’m a father of two girls, so I think about gender a lot. But it’s not like I sat down to write about a family of women any more than I sat down to write about a family of redheads, which is something else the Frankels are.
Wary? Wary of what? Of being a man writing from a female point of view? Flaubert did it pretty well if you ask me. And women write successfully from a male point of view all the time. If you don’t want to descend into solipsism, you’re always going to write about people different from yourself. Shy people write about gregarious people, young people write about old people. Why should gender be any different? Wary of writing domestic drama? What’s Madame Bovary if not domestic drama? What’s Anna Karenina, ultimately? I’ll probably get some disagreement here, but I think “The Dead” is Joyce’s greatest work. Whether or not it is, it’s important to remember that the same person who wrote Ulysses also wrote Dubliners. Much of the world’s greatest literature (most of it, I would argue) is domestic drama. It makes sense. We are born into families, and the majority of us eventually start families of our own. We live public lives, certainly, but for most of us our private lives are what make us who we are, and it’s the plumbing of these private lives, the exploration of what’s internal, that fiction is uniquely suited to do. It’s what makes it sui generis.
AS: I ask if you’re wary because I think a lot of women writers today are wary of writing books that can easily be summed up — perhaps dismissed — as domestic drama. If not wary, then aware. Maybe not as they write but certainly as they work toward publication and watch how their book is presented to the world and received. In a recent New York Times essay, Meg Wolitzer asks if Jeffrey Eugenides’ latest, The Marriage Plot, if written by a woman, “would…have been relegated to ‘Women’s Fiction,’ that close-quartered lower shelf where books emphasizing relationships and the interior lives of women are often relegated?” So maybe I should be asking you this: after all the writing and revising, did you consider how your book might be categorized, packaged, marketed? Did the term “Women’s Fiction” ever cross your mind?
JH: That’s a reasonable question, and in my case it’s not an academic one. My last novel was called Matrimony, and title aside, it had some significant similarities to Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot. It’s about a love triangle, much of it takes place on college campuses, and it’s a domestic drama. One key difference was that I was relatively unknown at the time of its publication (I’d published just one novel at the time, 10 years before), so I didn’t have Eugenides’s reputation to protect me. But the book was treated seriously by the literary world. Would that have been the case if I’d been a woman? I hope so, but you never know. Might it have been consigned to “women’s fiction”? I suppose it’s possible. On the other hand, I was published by Pantheon, a very literary house, and that would have given me some protection, just as FSG’s name protects Eugenides.
Would The Marriage Plot have been consigned to “women’s fiction” if it had been written by a woman? It depends on the woman. If Lorrie Moore had written it, she would have been taken as seriously as Eugenides is. The same goes for Alice Munro, who writes nothing but domestic fiction and is considered by some of the people I respect most to be the best living writer in English. Look at the titles of Munro’s books. Lives of Girls and Women. The Progress of Love. The Love of a Good Woman. Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. This is not exactly Infinite Jest. And if you look at the paperback covers for Munro’s The View from Castle Rock and Runaway, it appears as if they’re being marketed as “women’s fiction” (whatever else, “women’s fiction” sells more than literary fiction), and none of this has hurt Munro in the slightest. On the other hand, she’s Munro, and she’s developed a reputation over many years.
What I’d say is this. There are a number of things that can protect a writer. If you’re already established in the literary world, that helps a lot. If you write short stories, that helps, too, because short stories tend to be the territory of literary fiction. If you teach in or are otherwise associated with a good MFA program, that’s also helpful. And if you have an edgier sensibility (here Lorrie Moore is a good example), that, too, is protective.
Are there female writers of domestic fiction who would never get consigned to the “women’s fiction” shelf? Absolutely. Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer for a book of domestic fiction, as did Jhumpa Lahiri, Carol Shields, Jane Smiley,and Anne Tyler. Julia Glass and Alice McDermott won the National Book Award. And just to be clear, there’s plenty of domestic fiction written by women that just isn’t any good. There are women writing novels that have scant literary merit just as there are men writing novels that have scant literary merit. Neither gender has a monopoly on good or bad writing.
But is the bar set higher for women? I believe it is. In fact, it would be strange if it weren’t. There are biases, conscious and unconscious, against women doctors, lawyers, scientists, and CEOs; why wouldn’t it also be true for writers? We’ve come a long way since George Eliot had to call herself George Eliot, but you’d have to be blind to think we live in an equal world.
AS: One complaint from women writers (and I’m talking about writers of literary fiction, not schlock) is that while women readers are interested in reading about men’s lives, men aren’t as interested in reading about women’s lives. Do you think men will be as drawn to your book as women are? Should they be? What about for you, as a reader? Do you ever find yourself (consciously or not) choosing which books you want to read based on whether their protagonists are male or female?
JH: Every writer wants as many readers as possible, so of course I hope that men will read my novel as much as women do. But the fact is — and this has nothing to do with my book — women are much bigger readers of literary fiction than men are. Any publisher will tell you that. There’s even a reference to this in The World Without You. David, more of a fiction reader than most men (he recently retired as a high school English teacher), nonetheless is reading a biography of Ulysses S. Grant, and when Noelle comes into the room and catches him he says, self-derisively, “…women read fiction and men read biographies of Civil War heroes.” As for which books I choose to read, I don’t think I have the tendency you’re referring to, though it’s hard for me, of course, to know what I do subconsciously. But I just looked over the novels and stories I’ve read recently, and I don’t see a bias toward fiction with male protagonists. I’d also say that, as someone who reads 500 MFA applications a year, I find the women are generally better than the men. That’s a huge generalization, of course, and there are certainly exceptions, but when someone on the committee once said said, “Jesus, we’re going to have to institute some affirmative action for these men,” I understood what they were saying.
AS: You mention covers — let’s talk about covers. It doesn’t take long to see that a lot of fiction by women is adorned with a nameless girl or woman. She’s headless, or we see her from the back, staring off at a house or the ocean or (gasp) the endless prairie. The picture overwhelms the title, certainly the author’s name. You mentioned to me a while back that your publisher tried about 30 covers for The World Without You before settling on the final one — black, with big serif font letters. Can you tell me a bit about some of those other covers, and what factors you think went into picking the final one?
JH: Everyone tells you not to judge a book by its cover, but the fact is the cover is the first thing a potential reader sees, so it’s tremendously important, and now, because books are so often bought online, the cover has to work online too. I can’t say enough good things about the art department at Pantheon. They came up with many, many possibilities, most of which I didn’t even see (my editor only passed on the ones that seemed possible), and although some of them were clearly wrong for the book, they were all incredibly well done and looked very professional. Toward the end of the process we were focused on a very type-driven cover, with both my name and the name of the book in bold. There was a cover whose type both my editor and I loved, and there was something beautiful about the image too — it was a watercolor painting on a matte background, but the image was of a bare tree, which felt too forlorn even for a book about someone who has died, and the book takes place over the summer and the image screamed fall or winter. My agent and I liked the idea of fireworks — both because the book takes place over July 4th and because fireworks evoke, among other things, violence and explosions, which is how Leo was killed. So the artist went back and did a fireworks image with the type that we loved, and while this image, too, was beautiful, it didn’t seem sufficiently clear that it was fireworks. I mean, it could have been fireworks, but it just as easily could have been flowers or a Jack-in-the-box popping out or a really interesting acid trip. So the art department went back and tried to get the artist to make the image be more clearly fireworks, but it didn’t work out in the end, and so they scrapped the oil painting idea and went with a photograph of fireworks against a black background. It took a long time to get there, but it was the right cover for the book — I’m thrilled with it.
AS: The World Without You is your third novel. As you kick off your tour, how are the highs and lows of your previous launches figuring into your approach now? What has all this book-wrangling taught you, or is it like starting from scratch each time?
JH: This is my third tour, and I’m keenly aware that with rare exceptions book tours are a thing of the past, so I’m grateful for the faith my publisher has placed in me. Anyone who thinks that a book tour is the literary equivalent of a rock tour doesn’t have a clue. That’s so 1989, and it wasn’t even true in 1989. It’s never been — and certainly isn’t now — roll out the expense account and invite your friends out for sushi and cocaine. It’s a job and I’m keenly aware of it as one. My goal is to spend my time and my publisher’s money wisely. In most ways it’s gotten harder—there are fewer local media outlets for fiction, less local radio, fewer book review pages. On the other hand, since Matrimony did pretty well I’m positioned better than I was last time. But you never know what will happen. You write your book, then you go out into the world and try to help it however you can, and then you go back home and start your next one.
Image Credit: Flickr/Tilemahos Efthimiadis
The house was packed to bursting. It was a simple enough premise, yet I had never been to a reading structured the same way: favorite passages delivered by a long list of participants, both published authors and anonymous enthusiasts. Nobody occupied the podium for significantly longer than five minutes. Covered in the panorama: the opening of “Little Expressionless Animals,” the introduction of mathematically intricate Everything and More (about getting out of bed in the morning), self-loathing reflections on the cruise-ship hypnotist from essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” a few pages of “Good Old Neon,” a good deal from the diving board in “Forever Overhead,” one of the more fiendish relationship monologues in “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men,” an introductory, in-flight sequence from The Pale King (its then recent release, the ostensible spark for the event) and several selections from Infinite Jest, including, most memorably, Don Gately’s dialogue with the specter from his hospital bed and the footnote on the fate of Avril Incandenza’s beloved dog.
The David Foster Wallace Memorial Readathon spanned three to four hours in the basement of Greenpoint bookstore WORD. Not everyone saw it through; the crowd thinned just a little for the latter half. Now and again my own attention took trips around the block and back.
But can I say this? You could feel the love. Here was a group turned out to commemorate the brilliance of one guy’s colossal strivings, his dogged humility, the beautiful nuance and intricate recursions of a mind pushing past the simple given, which mind was everywhere and nowhere in the spaces between those of us gathered to follow his words as they were given life, and enlivened in turn, by each speaker, the glittering humor in their eyes, a sense of having been found. What experience the author mined at extremes of individual solitude gained in the audience a forgiveness, a redemption, a gentle receptivity of spirit. That feeling belonged to everyone.
The point, it became enormously clear, was not that David Foster Wallace stepped wretchedly into the inky hereafter, leaving us only to mourn, to puzzle the question of his life, or to take heed by seeing around his work to “The Depressed Person.” It was that he first succeeded at writing volume on volume of powerful prose, fiction and non, the concentrated, interwoven achievement of which we could feel, supersedes — present tense — the fragmenting wonder-farm telenexus in which every last one of our imaginations dissolve on the descent to wherever it is we will land in our desire to pass on whatever it is we will pass on.
And by “us,” zooming out now in my longing from that one room in Greenpoint, I mean, people. Everyone.
To anchor a marathon reading an author must have created a singular story. As it happens, the Wallace reading at WORD registered among the first in a decided upswing in recent marathon literary events. In the past year, New York City has seen and heard readings of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”, Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, Frederic Tuten’s The Adventures of Mao on the Long March, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth and, to bend genres, which the marathon reading inherently does, Elevator Repair Service’s productions of The Sun Also Rises and The Great Gatsby.
As these things usually go, lit marathons happen during the holiday season and June 16th AKA Bloomsday. The New York City marathon reading in longest standing is actually not of fiction but poetry: the St. Mark’s Church New Year’s event during which scores of poets give breath to their own verse and that of others. It dates to the ’70s. When they opened a new community space in Greenpoint, editors at lit journal Triple Canopy were well aware in choosing to organize a reading in late January (duration: 53 hours) that a motley group of NYC artists had once gathered every New Year’s Day at the Paula Cooper Gallery to orate Stein’s The Making of Americans; the practice began in the ’80s, going on hiatus with the new millennium’s arrival. On both the East and West Coasts, Bloomsday inspires numerous lit marathons around Joyce, whether the text is Ulysses or, for the more fearless, those willing to snatch beauty and truth from the mouth of nonsense, Finnegans Wake. With the holiday in mind, the Housing Works in Soho stages a four-hour reading of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In response to popular sentiment, the same organizers played a part last November in bringing to fruition a reading of “Bartleby, the Scrivener” near what was then occupied Liberty Square.
As well, the novelist Jonathan Lethem undertook, with help, a marathon reading of his own Chronic City over several nights in the fall of 2009.
Lynne Tillman, author most recently of novel American Genius, A Comedy and story collection Someday This Will Be Funny, has participated in several recent marathon events. When asked what might illuminate the trend, she spoke to an unlikely source of interest: “The Combatant Status Review Tribunals, pp. 002954-003064: A Public Reading” conducted initially in 2007 and subsequently reenacted annually at MOMA (see the current video installation, “9 Scripts from a Nation at War”). As the prison camp at Guantanamo continues to operate, a collective of artists bring unedited transcripts of U.S. military tribunals to the public eye.
Another source from the art scene is performance artist Marshall Weber, who, since 1994, has delivered solo lit marathons of titles ranging from William Vollmann’s The Rifles to Homer’s The Odyssey to The Bible. As for what might spur such a marathon into being, Weber writes on the Brooklyn Artists Alliance’s website: “The cycle is an evocation of the hope contained in human literature and the joy of street reading as well as an exorcism of the demonic forces of illiteracy, fundamentalism and textural literalism.”
Regarding the marathon reading, poet Barbara Swift Bauer offers by e-mail: “I think what’s important is that it is a way of publicly honoring the writer.” There is something wonderful about how a great author’s voice refracts through a reading audience gathered for such an observance. Writing is a solitary activity; writing a novel especially so. Just imagining the effort required is enough to make many readers, or reading attendees, go pale. We think of novelists almost as advertisements of individuality, exemplary studies of what a person can achieve in solitude. In a marathon reading, something of the division between individual and collective is closed: see anonymous members of the audience glow as the author’s individuated voice carries through them. Not coincidentally, such readers’ own individuality stands out all the more: which passage of the author’s work did the reader choose? How does the reader deliver the given passage that so many of us looking on have read before?
In Constantine’s Sword, his epic history punctuated by memoir, novelist and historian James Carroll envisages the birth of Christianity unfolding. In the chapter called “The Healing Circle,” he correlates how he and other loved ones grieved the loss of a friend with the methods those nearest to Jesus might have followed in commemorating his passing:
Lament. Texts. Silence. Stories. Food. Drink. Songs. More texts. Poems. We wove a web of meanings that joined us…Our circle was an extended American version of the Irish wake, of Italian keening, of African drumming in honor of ancestors. It was a version of the Jewish custom of ‘sitting shiva,’ from the Hebrew word for seven, referring to the seven days of mourning after the death of a loved one…To imagine Jesus as risen was to expect that soon all would be.
With its immersive, beatific reach the lit marathon stands in funny relation to organized religion in general and Christianity in particular. At a time when church attendance in many parts of the country is down, even as the voting power of the evangelical bloc stands in ever sheerer relief, children of the heartland and of the South continue to head for the coasts, where lit marathons multiply.
There exists a definite likeness with organized religion’s governing impulse in the reverence inherent to the marathon reading. In one sense, carrying on to an audience like a non-ordained minister is the height of Christian heresy (though, certainly, most fiction is less offensive than, say, your average goth rocker’s sacrilegious imagery); in another, a novel might be the brilliant lived sermon that found no root in organized religion as currently composited. Faith and doubt exist in dialectic, after all. It is difficult to believe the person who claims to know one while having no experience of the other.
Perhaps it is the seeming disproportion of a full novel’s demands that gives readers in the heartland pause. On his having steered clear of the lit marathon phenomenon, one Midwestern-based novelist writes, “People here don’t seem to think that they should make a lengthy claim upon your attention.” Another, raised in the South, reflects that perhaps he has never participated in a lit marathon for the simple reason that he has “always been inclined toward an early bedtime.” A veteran of many a writers’ conference and their attendant readings refers to the marathon variety as “a perfect storm of not-likingness.”
In that inclination for avoidance, we can recognize that the work of an artist must remain a thing apart. Tillman shakes off religious connotation in describing the pull of the marathon, even as her language borders it: “There’s so little ritual in our lives, or at least in my life, and there is an aspect to these marathons that’s ritualistic. It’s about as close to ritual as I get. Myself, I don’t use that kind of language, but there’s something, I would say, about participating in a reading in a room full of people, most of whom you don’t know, and being part of an event that is one of reverence for books, and love of books. There isn’t all that much love of books in our culture anymore—not the larger culture.”
The marathon reading usually gives fair indication of that intra-fictional divide between the canonical, the career-driven, and the striving — even as any feeling of great division melts away over the marathon’s immersive course. In the latter hours of a long reading, it can feel that the story being told is the only story there is to tell, or at least the only one that could bring together the group with whom you as listener or reader have now weathered so many hours.
“There were maybe 40 people around for the conclusion near midnight Sunday night,” wrote Sam Frank of Triple Canopy. “People kept coming in to this room full of cult members, the Church of Stein, consecrating our new space with half a million words.” Said Amanda Bullock, director of public programming at Housing Works (she dubbed their reading of Dickens’ The Christmas Carol “a 5k”): “It’s fun I think for the readers to read the work of someone they admire, in tribute, and to all hang out.”
Of participating as both reader and listener, Tillman muses, “The distribution of pleasure is greater. You have a more comradely feeling with your fellow readers, and since it’s not your own work, it’s less nerve-wracking. I mean, you want to do a good job because you want to do a good job; but it’s not your work. When I was a kid, I got a lot of pleasure being read to; if you can get into that mood, and because a marathon is so long, maybe it allows you to get there, you can feel more dreamy. Also there’s something about it that may be very comforting, like watching the same movie again.”
Seizing something like a movie’s active engagement, recent years on the West Coast find theater groups such as Word for Word trying on for marathon-size new titles like Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, while, out east, the Elevator Repair Service ushered in theatergoers by the hundreds to experience their rendition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
As imagined by Elevator Repair Service amid the boredom of weird modern office-place pastiche, Fitzgerald’s novel takes possession of the workers and whatever unspoken ambition brought them there: the slump-shouldered drone at the outmoded computer takes on the role of Nick; the janitor becomes Tom, the well-dressed sales rep, Daisy. The distant, slow-speaking boss assumes the guise within the guise of Gatsby himself. The story never leaves the one room.
This particular marathon’s focus is not a novel to the exclusion of all else, but the manner in which we bridge Fitzgerald’s words with our present being. The actors win laughter by calling attention to how their own unique features do — or do not — match the ideal of those described on the page. Jim Fletcher, who plays Gatsby, tilts his head to show a pronounced bald spot as Nick reads of his host’s exemplary head of hair. An antic hive of allusiveness (rarely have sound effects been so integral to a marathon reading), Gatz owes much to the sensibility of a show like The Simpsons: the modernist classic spruced up by myriad post-modern threads. The woodenness with which Fletcher speaks Gatsby’s lines underscores the character’s dubious identity; it also hints at how a novel, that which aspires to stand outside time, cannot but recede, adopt layers of age that will either diminish or augment its resonance. In this way, those famous closing lines of Fitzgerald’s seem to rattle the limitation of their own artifice (“boats against…”), a flair that would ripple outward in the later work of such authors as Barth, Barthelme, Borges, Carter, Coover, DeLillo, Pynchon — and Wallace.
If it has happened yet, no one told me, but to imagine a marathon reading around Infinite Jest makes for an entrancing pause. (Make it in summer when teachers are free; encourage costume; start working on those pharmaceutical pronunciations.) Few novels parade an aesthetic of such exhaustive intelligence, the humor of All Too Much; the characters on its pages grapple with their own slides and recoveries in the way of All Too Much. The book’s addictive depths were built to give ballast.
Where Fitzgerald casts feeling across the brow of novelistic self-consciousness, Wallace revels in oiling and refashioning the squeaky wheel of novel-ness, to arrive at what the enterprise represents at its core, the entire literary lineage. The lit marathon tempts a similarly immense question by bringing the reader out of seclusion. Of the way it wraps around us, exhausts our capacity to pay attention while also abiding our coming and goings — we can drop in, drop out, and when we get back, chances are good it will still be there — the poet Susan Terris, echoing Tillman, reflects, “I guess the singular joy of the marathon reading is being read aloud to, which most of us love — exactly in the same way we did when we were children.”
Image Credit: Flickr/Elvert Barnes
I have to admit up front that I’m an Erickson neophyte. I love delving into the hard-to-find back catalogs of cult authors who’ve gone more mainstream over the years, but in Erickson’s case I’ve only read Zeroville and These Dreams of You, his two newest and, I’ve been told, most accessible and perhaps therefore least representative novels. It’s true that neither was as surreally overwhelming as I’d expected, but there’s something else to recommend them, a kind of aching vitality, that more than makes up for their surface normalcy and lack of special effects.
I discovered Erickson a few months ago when I came across an article that Brian Evenson wrote for The Believer in 2003. In a fairly complete study of Erickson’s early works, Evenson claims that the apparently longstanding expectation that Erickson would one day claim the throne held by Pynchon and DeLillo – he got a Pynchon blurb on his very first novel! – has not come to fruition.
Although touted as a “secret heir,” Evenson thinks he’s actually more of a “true romantic” than his forebears ever were. He may never get the mass recognition that was promised him, but, from a reader’s perspective, his contribution has been a far less redundant one: he’s carved out territory that he doesn’t have to share.
Had I not found this article, I don’t know how soon Pynchon would have come to mind while reading These Dreams of You (maybe Erickson’s early works more readily beg the comparison). But, the case being what it was, I went in wondering what a true romantic who’d renounced his postmodern birthright might look like.
Like Pynchon (the overlap with DeLillo is there too, but mainly as a kinship with plenty of authors who have idiosyncratic takes on modern geopolitics), Erickson is after a secret illumination buried in the dark center of the imagination. Both he and Pynchon use obscure continent-hopping quests to probe the psychic state of the world at a moment or hand-selected set of moments in history, and both pry into the hypothetical inner lives of iconic historical figures, gutting the external pop landscape and then rebuilding it inside their novels.
This is where they diverge.
The pleasure of Erickson over Pynchon is how warm and man-to-man his writing remains even at its most dissociative. He leaves the edges of his narrative web dangling so you can hook them up to your own heartstrings. The attendant frustration – the thing that Pynchon does that’s inimitable – is that Erickson’s web, although swarming with notions of time travel and mistaken identity, reincarnation and coincidence, never pops with the exhilarating tautness of a totalizing cosmic vision. The web of Pynchon’s vision is vaster but, because he exerts such meticulous, almost mathematical pressure on it, it’s less universal and thus more distinctive. The “Pynchonian” is more recognizable than the “Ericksonian” not only because Pynchon is more famous.
Instead of rarifying a cosmic vision of his own, Erickson takes on the exoteric mysteries of self, home, and family. Even a character as endearingly strange as Zeroville’s “cineautistic” Vikar Jerome, wandering his pilgrim’s paths through Hollywood, is a plausibly real person, thinking and acting in ways that link him into larger chains of thought and action.
Both Zeroville and These Dreams of You open doorways into worlds that exist before and beyond them – they offer themselves as one way into places that have other ways in. Less a magician than a psychic confidante, Erickson holds your attention not by promising a trip to somewhere you’ve never been, but by enlightening and enlivening the places you can’t escape.
Leading up to this collapse, Zan, a has-been LA novelist and current late nite radio host, sits down with his newly adopted Ethiopian daughter, Sheba, to watch Obama win the presidency. He gets to thinking that at last the evaporated dream of the 60s – and the guiding dream of his life – has been fulfilled.
Later in the novel but more than forty years earlier in the nation’s history, Bobby Kennedy claims, either despairingly or prophetically, that “the promise of this country can’t be kept until white begs forgiveness of black… [and] who knows how such a thing can happen, the request for forgiveness and the granting of it? What historic moment can represent that?” To Zan in 2008, it looks like the moment has come. He believes he’s finally witnessed “the existence of the politically miraculous.”
The rest of the novel follows the myriad ways in which this turns out not to be the case.
In so doing, it becomes a novel about a midlife crisis that’s also an End Times crisis. A nation’s tenuously unified mood buckles under its own weight, and the mystery of who Zan and his family really are mirrors the mystery of what America, “a country that always has belonged to the rest of the world’s imagination more than it belongs to its own,” really is.
No sooner have Zan and his wife Viv brought their daughter to live in the “end of time” that is LA, away from her orphanage in Ethiopia, “the land where God placed Adam and Eve,” than they lose their house and become orphans themselves, scattering across the Old World in search of a way to regain the citizenship of their nation, or of the world, or, failing this too, of the universe at least.
In full drift now, Zan gives a lecture in London on the future of the novel in which he fixates on the series of revisions that the Life of Christ underwent as each apostle took his turn telling it. He explains how the power of the Gospels comes not from safeguarding any original version but from plunging headlong into the magic of fiction.
Taking his own plunge, he finds himself writing a new novel about discovering a copy of Ulysses in Berlin in 1919, three years before its publication, and indulging in the anxiety-fraught fantasy of plotting his own “authorship of the Twentieth Century” by copying out the text and beating Joyce to the punch. Riding this train of thought, he begins to wonder, “If I produce the novel first, who’s to say I’m not the author?”
The way in which writing and rewriting (and hence living and reliving) converge functions in These Dreams of You on the level of the laws of physics. Events occur unexpectedly with incomprehensible results and then they occur again. Seen from another angle, they begin to take on meaning even if the nature of this meaning remains veiled.
Zan can’t keep his past from being rewritten, but he can participate in the process, slowly gathering the strength to shape it for the better. Sheba’s birth grandmother wakes in the middle of the night and “already feels her womb invaded by the future,” while Viv goes to Ethiopia where she hears “a rhythm and blues from the future that’s spiraled round the sphere of time to come back up through its birth canal.” These are the moments where the old reappears as the new and wide narrative loops swing shut, sending out ripples in all directions.
Identity – Zan says this about Jesus, thinks it about himself, and sees it in his family and in the wavering figure of the new president – is subject to these same physics of revision. Forces that want to shape the self to their own obscure ends are locked in conflict with other forces that will never recognize these shapes.
Watching in horror as legions of Americans question the validity of Obama’s birth certificate, Zan can’t “remember a president’s very identity being such a point of political contention.” He wants desperately to hold onto his personal and political messiah, but a TV image of Obama’s face horribly distorted with the word ANTICHRIST printed beneath won’t leave his thoughts.
Fearing the total collapse of the presidency, Zan wonders, “Isn’t a politician who cares about who he really is doomed?” Fearing imminent personal collapse in equal measure, he wonders, “How did the determination to uncover and understand the bonds of this family lead to such a smashing of it?”
As a novel that obsessively returns to the theme of abandonment, populated by characters who serially abandon one another, one question resounds in its interior: what’s the difference between a person leaving and a person staying but turning out not to be the person you thought they were and need them to be?
More than a novel about bodies and thoughts drifting across a visual map, it’s a novel about resonances, about the acoustic connections of voices and music.
Music, for These Dreams of You, is nothing less than the carrier of myth and the portal to the eternal world within the temporal, just as film was in Zeroville. It’s not just that the prose is suffused with descriptions of music, nor just that the title comes from a Van Morrison song, nor even that David Bowie plays a major role: the very structure of the book manifests the verse-chorus-verse structure of rock and blues, or the ways in which jazz moves among interpreters, its spirit intact through constant flux.
Music bridges the pitfalls in time and space that open up whenever the past rewrites itself, and whenever identity shifts. It’s the only way to get back to the beginning from the end because it’s the one thing that’s been there all along, even as it’s never stopped changing. It’s change made danceable.
At the heart of the music stands the 4-year-old adopted girl, herself a radio transmitter. Nicknamed “Radio Ethiopia,” her voice resounds “like a boombox in a confessional” as her body calls out for her lost birth mother. She is living proof that songs are the sound of the universe manifested through human bodies (and not only human voices, as Sheba’s radio hum is all-pervasive and fully involuntary), connecting them across infinities of dead airspace.
Snaking their circular paths through time, songs are indifferent to their authors, “as if any music belongs to anyone.” John’s “experimental” Gospel prefigures this in its determination “to banish from history those who are deaf to its music and to declare all other sins trivial compared to the sin of deafness.”
In this way, music becomes a vessel for reality as dynamic as religion.
The meltdown of the American political scene is finally most comprehensible to Zan as a crisis of disharmony, of people refusing to agree on what song to sing.
If Zan has learned anything by the end of his wanderings, it’s that the present is no easier to remain in than the past is to remember. A snatch of tune drifts in through an open window and he finds himself “whiplashed to some other place in time except it’s another present rather than the past… swept up and deposited in a warp of voices.” All that has been abandoned and replaced with longing reemerges among these voices, and suddenly the very idea of abandonment shines with an alien hue.
Underneath his loose web of coincidences and recurrences, what Erickson really ends up writing about is a return to faith. It’s not the rigid zealotry of Zan’s 60s Leninist compatriots, nor that of the American fundamentalists who want to demonize Obama, but the faith of a man who knows that, even though his story is almost over and everything about it is subject to change, without faith it would have ended long ago.
This story trails off into the ghostly on all sides, but Erickson keeps his vanishing points in the foreground and doesn’t let us peer beyond. He’s writing about lives lived in the midst of ghosts and nightmares, not about ghosts and nightmares themselves. The kind of faith that Zan reaches allows him to continue walking down the haunted hallways of such a life, recognizing the end up ahead as another version of the beginning far behind, and trying, as much as is possible, to hold onto his family as the ghosts swarm in.
To keep walking requires more than faith in music. It requires faith as music.
Bonus Link: Staff Pick: Steve Erickson’s Zeroville
I have two items to mention.
1. I have long enjoyed the fiction of Jorge Luis Borges, owner of the most prodigious imagination of the twentieth century. The reader probably is familiar with that body of work; if not, I suggest laying hands on “Funes the Memorious,” or “The Library of Babel,” or any of his other short stories. In the likely event that you find them delightful, you might become interested in spending additional time in the company of Borges to learn what he had to say when he wasn’t writing those remarkable tales. For that purpose I recommend a book that I enjoyed immensely this year and that is a bit less familiar: his Selected Non-Fictions.
The book collects more than 150 essays, biographical sketches, book and movie reviews, and other miscellany that Borges wrote over the course of about sixty years. Every piece is short. The range of his curiosity and knowledge is astounding. There are comments on Virgil, Shakespeare, Gibbon, Melville, Henry James, William James, and dozens of other writers and thinkers, many famous and many obscure. There are his contemporaneous reviews of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, and of King Kong and Citizen Kane. He writes about the history of the tango, and about the blindness that overtook him in middle age. There is an essay on the paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise, another called “The Art of Verbal Abuse,” and another on sixteenth-century projects of John Wilkins that would be at home in a Borges short story. And on and on; these hints only start to suggest what is here (and what is here is but a sampling of his gigantic output).
Borges is provocative, eccentric, ingenious, peremptory, and often funny. He leaves the impression of having been one of the best-read people ever to walk the earth, with an ability to deploy all that he knew on short notice and with a light touch. I don’t find every one of the entries interesting. Perhaps nobody would. But open to any page and you are in brilliant company, with an excellent chance of being edified and amused.
2. I’ll bet few readers of this site have heard of John Jay Chapman, let alone read anything by him; in any event, I had not until this year. He deserves better. Chapman was one of the finest American essayists of the early 20th century, and a very singular character; after starting an unjustified fight as a young man, he punished himself by putting his hand into a fire until the skin burned off, forcing its amputation. Fortunately he did his writing with the other hand, and was prolific with it. He wrote with learning, passion, moral energy, and rhetorical skill about all sorts of topics, most related to American political and cultural history. An excellent example is his piece on William Lloyd Garrison, the great anti-slavery agitator. Garrison might sound like a dull subject; I only bothered to read the essay after much badgering by a friend. I’m glad I did, though, because Chapman’s fascination with the man, his work, and his place in history is sufficiently intense to infect the reader from a great distance. Unfortunately most of Chapman’s writings are out of print, but many can be found online. Here is the one I just mentioned.
If I am fortunate enough to count you as a reader of Classical English Rhetoric, you are especially likely to enjoy Chapman’s work. He writes very clearly, but in an older tradition; he makes vigorous and skillful use of figurative language. Chapman merited inclusion in the rhetoric book, and I am sorry not to have provided it. He will certainly appear in any sequel.
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Sebastian Flyte, the eccentric drunkard at the heart of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, after describing the degrees of religious devotion in his English Catholic family, finally confesses to Charles Ryder:
“…I wish I liked Catholics more.”
“They seem just like other people.”
“My dear Charles, that’s exactly what they’re not — particularly in this country, where they’re so few… everything they think important is different from other people. They try and hide it as much as they can, but it comes out all the time.”
There was a time in the middle of the 20th Century when Catholic writers, many of them converts to the Church, were icons of the Anglo-American literary scene. In the U.K. writers like Waugh, Graham Greene, Muriel Spark, and J. R. R. Tolkien were preeminent, while Americans Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, J.F. Powers (his novel Morte D’Urban won the National Book Award in 1963), and Thomas Merton were celebrated on this side of the Atlantic.
Percy, whose novel The Moviegoer won the 1962 National Book Award, in a way articulated a Catholic artistic vision when he described his pursuit of “…A theory of man, man as more than organism, more than consumer – man the wayfarer, man the pilgrim, man in transit, on a journey.”
Yet despite such a rich Catholic literary heritage with many contemporary admirers — one can’t help thinking of how passionately the MFA/Creative Writing/Workshop establishment venerates the stories of Flannery O’Connor — there has not been a new generation of Catholic writers to take up Percy’s vision, one where their inherent “otherness” is not edged to the margins, but is at the very heart of their craft.
The obvious reason for this literary vacuum is that the Christian faith, and the Catholic Church in particular, have been in full-cultural retreat since the 1960s. In the wake of the sexual revolution and the women’s movement, many Catholics left the Church over its opposition to abortion, artificial contraception, and the ordination of women, to name just a few hot-button topics. And then, beginning in the late 1990s, a wave of priest sex-abuse crimes came to light that have scandalized untold numbers of Catholics.
Yet there was another revolution in the 1960s — an internal Catholic one — that was in many ways as profound as the one taking place in the streets of Paris, New York, and London. It was a liturgical revolution, and it impacted each and every Catholic at that most fundamental unit of faith — Sunday morning Mass.
In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI released the document Summorum Pontificum. Benedict’s Apostolic Letter got little attention outside of Catholic circles, but within the Church it was headline news: with the stroke of a pen, the Pope gave permission for parishes worldwide to again celebrate the so-called “Latin Mass,” or Tridentine Mass as it’s officially known. So after a four-decade absence the ancient Mass that Dante, Mozart, Montaigne, and Michelangelo knew so well, the Mass whose liturgical prayers and hymns were the well-spring of western classical music, was once more in front of Catholics.
In the 1960s, when Evelyn Waugh learned of plans to alter the Latin Mass, he wrote a series of worried letters to then English Archbishop John Cardinal Heenan. In the wake of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Waugh’s worst fears were realized as English replaced Latin, priests suddenly faced the people (as if to entertain them), and the reverential tradition of kneeling at the altar rail to receive communion on one’s tongue was replaced with the breezy practice of taking the host standing and in the hand. In short, what for centuries had seemed eternal, mysterious, and rich in symbolism — the very marrow that feeds artists — was suddenly being conducted in the same language as sitcoms, TV commercials, and business meetings.
The German Catholic novelist Martin Mosebach in his 2003 book of essays, The Heresy of Formlessness, argues that the reform of the Latin Mass in the ‘60s left many believers, like Waugh, with a profound spiritual deficit. “All have lost something priceless,” he writes, “namely, the innocence that accepts (the Mass) as something God-given, something that comes down to man as a gift from heaven.”
Mosebach believes that even James Joyce, who was no fan of the Catholic Church, owed his “rank linguistic extravagance” to the rituals and language of the Latin Mass. In the opening passages of Ulysses there is even a reference to the psalm “Judica,” which is prayed at the start of the old Mass. “Ulysses could never have been written without the old liturgy; here we sense the liturgy’s immense cultural and creative power,” Mosebach writes. “Even its opponents could not avoid being in its shadow; they actually depended for nourishment on its aesthetic substance.”
During the 40-year absence of the Latin Mass it has become clear that novels — both by Catholics and non-Catholics — grappling with what used to be called “the drama of salvation” are no longer just rare, but almost unthinkable nowadays. The novelist Jonathan Lethem, who is not Catholic, brilliantly captured the attitude of contemporary writers toward “eternal questions” during a recent spat with literary critic James Wood (Lethem took issue with elements of Wood’s review of The Fortress Of Solitude):
Can Wood’s own negative capability not reach the possibility that in some life dramas “God” never made it to the audition, let alone failed to get onstage? Pity me if you like, but I can’t remember even considering believing in either God or Santa Claus.
In the years since the suicide of David Foster Wallace, much has been made of his personal struggles: his battle with addiction, his appetite for self-help books, as well as his desire to write in a more emotionally communicative manner, and not rely exclusively on his immense intellectual and verbal acumen, or what he called “witty arty writing” in a letter to his former girlfriend, the memoirist Mary Karr.
Evan Hughes, in a New York magazine article on Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and Jeffrey Eugenides, wrote that Wallace, at the end of his life, “quietly sought out spiritual answers and flirted with joining the Catholic Church.” And if this comes as a surprise, it should be noted that Karr later became Catholic, chronicling her conversion in the book Lit: A Memoir.
And while it’s tempting to think of what a writer of David Foster Wallace’s caliber, like James Joyce before him, would have gleaned from the immense cultural patrimony of the Catholic Church and the Mass, it’s anyone’s guess whether the reemergence of the Latin Mass will spark a Catholic literary renaissance. In the end, searing inquiries into the nature of man and his place vis-à-vis the Divine always comes down to belief of one kind or another, and that’s precisely what puzzled Waugh’s character Charles Ryder about his friend Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited:
“But my dear Sebastian, you can’t seriously believe it all.”
“I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.”
“Oh yes, I believe that. It’s lovely idea.”
“But you can’t believe things because they’re a lovely idea.”
“But I do. That’s how I believe.”
Image credit: kainr/Flickr
We need more literary holidays. Right now we have Bloomsday, and that’s about it. As great as Ulysses may be, we’re missing out on plenty of other books that lend themselves to an annual celebration. For what it’s worth, I want to claim today (October 25) for readers. A lot of people don’t know it, but today is already a holiday — St. Crispin’s Day. In theory, it’s meant to honor a Christian martyr named Crispin, but for me the day belongs to William Shakespeare and his play Henry V. The drama’s most memorable scene is the title character’s St. Crispin’s Day Speech, in which he rallies the British army to face off against a larger French force on the Feast of St. Crispin.
And there are lots of ways we can celebrate it. After all, the St. Crispin’s Day Speech is one of the best inspirational speeches in literature, and it was written by the most famous dramatist in the history of the English language. It practically demands to be read aloud. People could even perform it at home and post it on You Tube. As for myself, I am celebrating by simply reading the play — and thinking about the king at the center of it.
The St. Crispin’s Speech is not only great theater, it is Henry’s defining moment as a character. In it, he brushes aside concerns that his troops are outnumbered by declaring, “The fewer men, the greater share of honor” and insisting that anyone afraid to fight should leave because “We would not die in that man’s company/That fears his fellowship to die with us.” He slowly works these two threads — glory and fellowship — together throughout the address:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.
Henry is playing on his men’s desire for acclaim, telling them that they will be seen as heroes back home, “Familiar in his mouth as household words.” He doesn’t stop there, however. The speech culminates not only with Henry’s most famous line, but also with his boldest promise:
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…
Though it is a remarkable piece of rhetoric, inspiring his men to an unexpected victory at the Battle of Agincourt, the attentive reader or playgoer will notice that it is transparently untrue. After all, the play is called Henry V for a reason — because it is Henry, and Henry alone, who is remembered for the victory at Agincourt. The men that make up his “band of brothers” are almost all unnamed in the play and have been forgotten by history. They are fighting for Henry’s glory, not their own. Henry readily admits, “if it be a sin to covet honour,/I am the most offending soul alive.” His speech is a means to that end — he is rallying his troops because he needs them to make himself famous. He is lying to them even as he asks them to give up their lives on his behalf.
As W.B. Yeats observes, “(Henry) is as remorseless and undistinguished as some natural force, and the finest thing in his play is the way his old companions fall out of it broken-hearted or on their way to the gallows.” Yeats is referring especially to the fate of Bardolph, Henry’s erstwhile friend who is executed by a British officer — with the king’s approval — over a petty theft. What’s most striking about the scene is his coldness about giving the order, saying, “We would have all such offenders so cut off.”
Henry’s treatment of his friends is revealing. Bardolph dies because Henry wants to maintain total discipline in his ranks. Friendship and mercy do not produce victories, so Henry discards them. In the two parts of Henry IV — a pair of earlier plays focused on Henry’s youth — Prince Hal (as he was then known) is a friendly, jovial man, often playing pranks on Bardolph and their mutual friend John Falstaff. Now he is calculating and cruel. In Henry V’s first act, we learn that Falstaff has died of grief after being cast aside by Henry as a political liability. This is especially poignant because in Henry IV, Part One, Falstaff sets himself up as Henry’s one connection to humanity, warning the prince, “banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.”
What the execution of Bardolph illustrates is that Henry has indeed “banished all the world,” and done so willingly. He does not have a single conversation in the entire play that doesn’t further his ambitions; he has no friends, no emotional attachments of any kind. All this is done in the service of becoming a “great” man. By some measures, it works. His willingness to say anything to his subjects makes him a great manipulator of emotions, which in turn makes him an effective public speaker. His single-minded pursuit of glory makes him a brave soldier, willing to throw himself into battle alongside his troops if that’s what it takes to impress them. Most importantly, from Henry’s point of view, he is successful — not only conquering France but also seducing the nation’s princess, Katherine, which should ensure that his offspring would inherit the French throne. Henry is a winner, and as he points out in his battlefield address, history remembers winners.
But it is one thing to remember a man; it is another to honor him. The play subtly makes the case that winners aren’t necessarily worth honoring — that greatness is a paltry thing. The poet W. H. Auden says it best: “Hal has no self.” He is incapable of reflection; he wants and he acts and that is all. If to lodge himself in people’s memory, he needs to invade another country on flimsy pretexts, then he does it without a second thought. He will also execute a friend for a relatively minor offense to set an example. He will even promise a woman he has never seen before that he is in love with her in the hopes of adding another title to his own. By showing us the emptiness and selfishness underlying Henry’s noble words and brave deeds, the play warns us to be leery of great speeches, great men, and even great victories.
Henry’s triumph at Agincourt brings no benefit to the English nation. The whole reason his force is so small is because most of his troops are needed back home to prevent a split among the English nobles from turning into a full-fledged rebellion — a split that Henry makes no effort to heal. His friends either end up dead, like Falstaff and Bardolph, or disillusioned. And students of British history know that Henry’s son, Henry VI, will not be able to hold his father’s empire together, and that Henry’s heirs will never truly rule France. Though Henry is acclaimed as a hero at the play’s end, it’s clear the only beneficiary of his heroism is himself. He is a walking statue — emotionless, rigid, and of no practical value to anyone.
In Henry V, Shakespeare offers us an opportunity to see the horror that results from pursuing winning only for its own sake. This is why St. Crispin’s Day ought to belong to Shakespeare’s play, and not the historical Henry’s battle. Because by reading, rereading, or simply thinking about the play, we are reminded that there is often a difference between the achievements that usually get remembered and the achievements that actually make people’s lives better. In a sense, the best counterpoint to Henry is Shakespeare himself, who has managed to take a shallow, dishonest man and turn him into the subject of a profound, candid work of art. That’s the kind of accomplishment I want to celebrate.
Who’s with me?