The Horror, The Horror: Rereading Yourself

Here is a secret about writers, or at least most writers I know, including me: we don’t like to read our published work. Conversations I’ve had over the years with author friends have tended to confirm my own feelings on the matter—namely, that it is very nice and fortunate and rewarding to get something published, but you don’t ever especially want to read it again. One reason for this is the fact that, by the time you’ve finished revising, copyediting, and proofreading a book, you have already reread it effectively a hundred million times before publication. Another reason: there is something deeply nerve-wracking about the fact of the thing you’ve written, mutable for so long, now being fixed and frozen forever, with no possibility of rewriting whatever mistakes you might—and will—find upon rereading. Among the countless, loving tributes in the wake of her recent death, one memorable Toni Morrison anecdote recounted her habit of taking a red pencil to her published works as she read from them; Toni Morrison, of course, was one of the few authors who might have reasonably expected reprintings and possible future opportunities for correcting errata. Toni Morrison was Toni Morrison.

The rest of us have to live with the reality of what we’ve written and managed to get out in the world, and so there’s a self-protective instinct to look away from it. But when the case of author’s copies of my new novel, The Hotel Neversink, arrived—and with it, the usual reticence to crack one open—I found myself wondering about this impulse: is it good? Maybe not. A writer could go through their whole life accumulating work and publications without ever, in earnest, going back and looking at what they’ve done with a reader’s eye. And if you never revisit your old work, you may never fully understand how, or if, you’ve changed as an artist and person. With a sense of great reluctance and apprehension, I therefore decided to sit down and fully reread my first novel.

The novel in question is The Grand Tour, which I wrote from 2013 to 2014, while I was in graduate school at Cornell. I revised it over the following year, during which time I was lucky enough for it sell to Doubleday, which published it almost exactly three years ago, in August, 2016. For what it’s worth, it received good reviews from outlets like Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, and was generally well-received by readers, although not readers who were expecting an uplifting read. One of the highlights of publication came in the form of a hostile email from a very old woman telling me how much she hated my main character, Richard. And she wasn’t wrong to hate him. Richard is quite hateable. In an era of nice characters, and an ever-increasing expectation of “relatability” from readers, The Grand Tour features the kind of anti-heroic ’60s/’70s protagonist sometimes played in films by Jack Nicholson, the kind who no longer curries any cultural favor whatsoever.

But that’s the point of Richard Lazar: he doesn’t curry any favor in his fictional world, either. He is washed-up and alcoholic and socially radioactive, having lived in the desert for ten years following the collapse of his second marriage. When he receives word that his Vietnam memoir has grazed the bestseller list, he is uniquely unprepared to capitalize on this fleeting moment of success. Nonetheless, his publisher trundles him out on a promotional tour, where he meets a young fan named Vance, providing the basis for what is essentially a coming-of-age road novel, (a bildungsroadman?).

The book’s first chapter sets the tone. Richard comes to after blacking out on a flight, is rude to a flight attendant and hostile to Vance, who meets him at the airport with a homemade sign. He proceeds to get drunk before the reading, do a predictably bad job, get drunker at the faculty dinner, and hit on the Dean’s wife. As he’s driven back to his hotel room by the disillusioned Vance, he tells the kid not to bother with writing.

I knew Richard sucked, but this time around, I found myself disliking him a lot more than I did while writing or revising the novel. Richard is a version of the Unhappy White Guy protagonists I grew up reading, and that I attempted to classify in this essay. His specific lineage is the hard-drinking hard-luck variety found in books by the Southern writers I loved in my twenties: Messrs Hannah, Brown, and Crews—Barry, Larry, and Harry. Ultra-masculine, drunk and doomed, these writers and their antiheroes exerted an outsized influence on The Grand Tour. I suppose it speaks well of my personal growth that I’m less (read: not) enamored with this type of character the way I was seven years ago. In a way, this disenchantment feels healthy and generally axiomatic: books take a long time to write and publish, and perhaps they should always feel a little dusty and outmoded by the time they come out.

To the novel’s credit, I think, it is aware of Richard’s awfulness, and, to an extent, Vance’s. It is not the kind of book that misjudges its protagonist, although it might misjudge the extent to which, for a reader, the comedy of complete assholishness can justify having to spend 300 pages with a complete asshole. That said, this time around, I still found it to be a pretty funny book with lots of amusing passages, for instance this one, describing Richard’s purchase of a house in foreclosure after the 2008 real estate bubble:

[His advance] was enough, as it turned out, to buy a nearby house in foreclosure, in a superexurban neighborhood called The Bluffs. There was no bluff visible in the landscape, so perhaps the name referred to the cavalier attitude local banks and homeowners had taken toward the adjustable-rate mortgages that subsequently emptied the neighborhood. It turned out they were giving the things away—all you had to do was show up at auction with a roll of quarters and a ballpoint pen.

Horrible or not, Richard is a successfully drawn character, if one with many problematic antecedents. Vance is drawn convincingly, as well, although his chapters feel slightly less successful to me, simply for the fact that he’s a less funny character. He’s nineteen, stuck at home, depressed and painfully earnest—in other words, the perfect earnest foil for Richard’s cynical lout. This odd couple set-up does feel formulaic, although it also works, as formulas tend to do. Formulaic, as well, though less successfully so, are a clutch of chapters representing Richard’s memoir in the book. On a reread, the appearance of these Vietnam chapters felt somewhat unwelcome to me, and not just because of being typeset in italics. They lean a little too heavily on skin-deep source material like Full Metal Jacket and The Things They Carried. Here comes the gregarious, rebellious grunt. There goes the gruff sergeant and patrician lieutenant. I did do some actual research about troop movements and munitions and local geography, but the whole thing feels a bit stale, though maybe any Vietnam story published in 2016 would.

What does not feel stale at all this time around is the introduction of a third perspective, Richard’s estranged daughter, Cindy, a casino croupier and malcontent, who takes over the middle third of the book. On this read, Cindy strikes me as the most successful aspect of The Grand Tour. She’s the most original character, and she structurally provides respite from the bad male behavior that otherwise dominates the proceedings. Richard and Vance are, after all, two sides of the same coin, i.e. the coin of male ego and its attendant problems. That Vance’s ego is subdued and wounded makes it no less irritating.

The novel’s awareness of these men as problematic and tiresome, and the section in which Cindy more or less destroys them—Vance sexually, Richard emotionally—elevates (I hope) the book above similar novels that simply find their male hero’s antics fascinating. Cindy makes her gleeful exit, disappearing into a street fair crowd, in one of the novel’s most memorable passages:

The Friday-night crowd swelled around her as she neared downtown—in front of the façade of a large art deco building, a stage was set up on which a bunch of paunchy white dudes mangled “Whipping Post.” People pushed past and she rejoiced in it, becoming part of the throng, the multitude … she wondered what someone watching her from above, looking at her face, might think. Would they know anything, be able to divine something about her, her life, or her mistakes? No. No one knows anything about anyone, she thought, and for the second time that day was struck by the feeling that she could start over—that nothing, in fact, would be easier. Denver, why not? She dragged her suitcase into the hot jostle, for the moment immensely pleased.    

The remainder of the novel (SPOILER) finds Vance getting sent to Riker’s Island (!) and all of Richard’s proverbial chickens coming home to roost. A lot happens in these last chapters, probably too much. This is, I think, an unavoidable function or symptom of the book itself trying to do too much. One thing that struck me on this reading is just how much there is going on. It’s a common feature of the debut novel, in which an author takes decades of reading and thinking about novels and compresses it all into their first try, as though it will also be their last. Some of it works here, and some of it doesn’t. If I were to give critical advice to the person who wrote this, I might tell him to think about losing at least one of the component parts—maybe the Vietnam sections—and to also not feel like he has to conclude all of the proceedings with quite such a bang. The tour, I might suggest, could end on a more muted note. The final pages do manage this quietness, and it’s a relief after the sound and fury that precede them.

All of which is to say, I think it’s… pretty good? It’s entertaining and funny, and the writing is solid and sometimes excellent. That sounds like an unreliable claim, given my obvious bias, but would it convince a reader of my objectivity if I also say that I found the book to be weirdly old-fashioned and in certain places very contrived? Ultimately, it’s an uneven novel held together by its humor and prose. I believe if I hadn’t written The Grand Tour and had just happened across it, I would have finished and enjoyed it, with reservations. And if I’d written a review, I might have been generous with this first-time author, adding to everything I’ve said here that I looked forward to what he comes up with next.

Image credit: Unsplash/Rey Seven.

The Craft of Jennifer Clement’s ‘Gun Love’

This piece is the first in a series of author interviews about the craft of writing conducted by Chigozie Obioma for The Millions.

Jennifer Clement’s Gun Love is a beautiful novel. The writing is so lovely that, at times, it seems the author is observing the world through a peephole that foregrounds and magnifies every minute object. A tired person is described as being unable to make “my fist,” and a woman’s love interest is described as “the song inside her body.” The characters are eccentric, unforgettable, and nuanced. Pearl, especially, is a wonder: so finely shaped and created.

For the first in a series of interviews focused on the craft of writing, I asked Clement a few questions about her process and technique. If you’ve read Gun Love and have questions for Clement, please post them in the comments section before May 22. We’ll send the first three to the author, making this an ongoing conversation.

Chigozie Obioma: Did you do any research for this novel? I’m curious to know how prior knowledge shaped the lives of the characters in this novel since—as I understand—you have not even been living in the U.S. for a while now.

Jennifer Clement: Yes, I did a lot of research for this novel. I think of some of my books as an iceberg and what the reader reads is the surface of something much deeper.  However, the research did not shape my characters. The investigation was into people who live in cars, gun violence, guns, and I did interview survivors of gun massacres.  I’m on the advisory board of an organization called SHOT: We the People headed by Kathy Shorr, who photographs survivors of gun shots and how their bodies have been devastated. The truth is I’ve hardly ever lived in the United States.  I grew up in Mexico City, where I live today. I lived in New York City from 1978 to 1987.  My memoir Widow Basquiat is about this time in New York.

Because I live in Mexico, Gun Love is also about how U.S. guns get to Mexico.  This has also been a part of my research and the numbers are chilling.  As a low count, 20,000 guns cross the border into Mexico every day.  There are more than 8,000 gun shops on the U.S. side of the border.  This means that both poverty and violence in Mexico and Central America is fueled by U.S. guns.

CO: The characters are eccentric, and this is why they are also so compelling. This, of course, makes them very memorable. Margot, for instance, is able to live in her father’s house for two months with a baby without anyone knowing a child was there. What was the inspiration for such a woman?

JC: I’ve actually read about women who were able to hide their newborn babies for quite some time and I’ve always found this fascinating.  It’s not hard to do especially if you’re a lonely girl living in a big house.  There is no character in Gun Love who is based on any real person. At a certain point of my writing, I begin to feel a strong tenderness for my characters, which is a kind of love, and then I know the characters have come alive. What you point out reminds me of what Flannery O’Connor said when asked why her characters were so eccentric, “Whenever I’m asked why southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.”

CO: For me, this is also in many ways a philosophical novel. There is wisdom, quiet wisdom I’d say, scattered throughout the page in form of aphorisms that Margot passes on to her daughter and therefore the reader (e.g., “If you don’t dream at night then only this life matters.”). Were you thinking specifically in these lines?

JC: I’m glad to hear you think this, as I do also. Part of developing a character is finding out their credo, what they live by.  I would never want to write a didactic novel, but a philosophical one, yes.  I’m interested in the fact that we spend half our day sleeping in a completely different world. One of my favorite poems is John Donne’s “Elegy X, The Dream” where he says, “If I dream I have you then I have you for all our joys are but fantastical.” I also know it’s in dreams and in the imagination where the muses live.

CO: Again, on a craft level, your language is breathtaking throughout this book. But I also noticed that it seems you save the bulk of the novel’s lyricisms for the end of each chapter. What is important about the end of chapters?

JC: This has to do with my love of poetry. I like to be going someplace and I do see the end of each chapter as a destination, as I do with each stanza of a poem.

CO: The story is extremely conversational in tone. What do you bring to writing dialogue?

JC: When writing dialogue, I think like a playwright. Every conversation has this kind of care. I like to read plays and scripts as a study of craft. This may be the reason that so many of my novels have been staged.

CO: Also, to that question, there seems to be a McCarthyian thrust in your technical attitude towards punctuation, in that you use it sparingly. Thus, much of the dialogue is unmarked while many sentences contain few commas. What’s your rationale for this?

JC: I’ve done this in my last two novels—Prayers for the Stolen and Gun Love. This was deliberate and made me have to be careful so that the reader can easily follow. Since both books are a long monologue, it felt right that the language would appear as a long cascade. I’m an admirer of Cormac McCarthy’s work so, of course, I’ve read him and am interested in what he does with punctuation. The poet W.S. Merwin also experimented with this and eliminated all punctuation.

CO: Imagery is viscerally rendered in most places to such an extent that one begins to almost see oneself living in the filth described, even “breathing in garbage,” as Pearl and her mother do. What is it about poverty that you find compelling?

JC: I don’t think it’s poverty exactly. I am always interested in how language can bring beauty to ugliness and despair. Language can enlighten the divine within the profane. I wanted to do this with gun violence. This was my challenge. In Gun Love, Pearl has empathy for people but also for objects. She discovers this when she senses that the pearls in a necklace are lamenting the sea. This also allowed me to give the guns a voice and history.

CO: It is almost uncanny to say this, but despite the violence and filth, this is a very, very funny book. How do you manage humor in such a dark atmosphere?

JC: Charles Dickens wrote tragedy mixed with comedy and he called this technique, “streaky bacon.” I do the same. I’m from Mexico where we have quite a subversive sense of humor. I think this comes from the fact that if you can laugh at something it doesn’t hurt as much.

CO: Can you talk about the title? There is something mystical yet familiar about the juxtaposition of two words which operationally seem diametrically opposed to each other, and consequentially are light and day. Operationally, “gun” is used to wreak violence often motivated by hate and the consequences are often dark. But “love” operates to bring comfort, consolation, peace, even joy, and consequentially it is always pleasurable. What is the import of the title?

JC: As sometimes happens, the title came to me very early on in the writing of the book and it felt perfect immediately. It has the complexity of describing love for guns but also speaks to a contradiction. The book is about guns, but it also is about the redeeming force of love. I remember Elie Wiesel once said that the people who survived Auschwitz were full of their mother’s love.

CO: In the novel there are different kinds of love—“Sunday love,” “gun love,” “mother love,” etc. Can you speak about your philosophy of love?

JC: Since I see Gun Love as a mixture between a ballad and a blues song, themes of love and music are present throughout the book. One character, Margot, has a philosophy of love, which is based on all the music she’s listened to and calls a “university for love.” At one point she says she has a Ph.D in love at first sight, which I also have!