Beauty spins and the mind moves. To catch beauty would be to understand how that impertinent stability in vertigo is possible. But no, delight need not reach so far. To be running breathlessly, but not yet arrived, is itself delightful, a suspended moment of living hope. —Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet 1. I discovered boys at the height of my reading years. I was 12, in Copenhagen, and I read on the train to school, walking home from the station, on family holidays driving across Europe, at night in bed while my parents entertained guests around the dinner table on the other side of my bedroom wall. We had left Turkey for my father’s work when I was in third grade. My parents worried that our language would deteriorate during our time abroad and strictly required that my brother and I read in Turkish. I did not care what language I read in, as long as the story was exciting. I read my parents’ childhood copies of Jules Verne; I read the books our grandparents sent us about children resolving blood feuds in Aegean villages; I read all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books that my American best friend, Theresa, gave me; I went through entire bookshelves at the school library on Egyptians, Vikings, paranormal activity, and exploration. I even read a book I had accidentally checked out about Mikhail Gorbachev and have had a strange friendship with the word glasnost ever since, as if it belonged to that golden Danish autumn when I first encountered it. That year I won the school library contest having identified the most fictional characters and lines from books. It was Robert Louis Stevenson who established my victory against Theresa in the last round: “Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest/yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum.” (Theresa had won the bookmark contest some months earlier with her drawing of a man immersed in his book, sitting on top of Salvador Dali’s melting clock. The caption said: Read the Time Away.) Even though my eyes and imagination were content to embark on whatever book came my way, I also read repetitively, going back to my friends Anne from Green Gables, Jo from Little Women, Lucy from Narnia, a villager girl Halime, and one German Gundula with a fiery temper. I followed them again and again into their worlds of boyishness and adventure, at a time when grandparents, uncles, and aunts were telling me that I was already a “young lady.” When I walked our dog, Dost, in the forest, I cast myself in the role of my heroines, pretending that I lived another, carefree and adventurous life, far from the Copenhagen suburbs. Sometimes I thought of myself as an explorer walking for hours in the forest, familiar with every tree, bird, and flower, my schoolbag transformed to a satchel of tools and maps, my loyal dog following at my heel. (In truth, I was afraid to let Dost off the leash, because he would dart off immediately and I would have to search for him for hours.) Even though I insisted that I was still a child, I secretly knew I was no longer so innocent. I made an effort to look disheveled, hid any evidence of breasts with oversized t-shirts, and tried my best to ignore my interest in boys beyond games of rounders and tag. That was the year I fell in love with David—a blond, freckled Italian who wore white polo shirts and was the star football player of our class. What I mean by falling in love is that I slowed my step when I saw David in my peripheral vision, memorized the names of Danish and Italian football players, and even allowed myself, several times, to write out his full name in my notebook, before hurriedly erasing it. Beyond this, I did not really interact with him, except for one memorable walk from the train station to school when I asked if he would be watching the Juventus game that evening. I thought, then, that I saw a glimmer of recognition in his eyes. I had encountered David’s types in books, too. His free-spirited boyishness was not too different from Gilbert Blythe’s in Anne of Green Gables. His delicate, handsome features were just like Laurie’s in Little Women. He had dimples and talent for sport like the eldest brother Peter in The Chronicles of Narnia. But I was not in love with David’s fictional counterparts. Instead, in my fifth, sixth, 1oth readings of these books, I would jump ahead to the scenes with Anne’s bashful adoptive uncle Matthew; the sloppy and clumsy Professor Bhaer; the soft-pawed lion Aslan. I thought that all girls who read Narnia were in love with Aslan, until a friend recently burst out laughing at what she thought was a strange confession. “You were in love with the lion?” she said. “Sure, we all loved him, but like…a teddy bear, someone you’d like to hug.” Of course, I was not really in love with the furry creature, nor with the farmer Matthew who was my grandfather’s age. It was what they represented—kindness, unconditional love, nobility—that made them superior to the handsome boys still battling with their temper and pride. Beneath their bodily disguises, my heroes embodied the perfect person whom I had never seen but felt certain was there, just out of sight. And even though I liked to attribute noble traits to David that were not visible to the eye—imagining, for example, when I saw him walking with his little sister that he would fight a battle for—I was old enough to know that the real world and its inhabitants would always be a bit disappointing compared to those of books. During my younger years of reading, I believed like most children that the worlds of stories really existed. They were there—somewhere—even if I did not always see them, just like my grandparents’ yellow house which I only saw in the summers, but which continued to stand quietly behind the mulberry tree even when we were back in the city. I particularly loved the worlds within worlds of The Secret Garden, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, or Enid Blyton’s adventure series, when I would first enter the lethargic lives of the characters (which were exciting to me nonetheless in their English quaintness) before embarking on an adventure. After spending several lazy afternoons in old relatives’ houses, the characters and I would all step into the magic kingdoms. I was proud to think that I had come the longest way of all, traversing not just one, but two worlds to enter the garden hidden behind a wall of ivy, jump aboard the Dawn Treader inside the painting, or discover the secret passage that led to the mines. When I became aware that these places did not exist, I was neither disappointed nor disillusioned. I simply shifted my admiration from the characters and their hidden kingdoms to the very essence of their existence—to the minds that imagined them. 2. Anyone who knows me has heard that I am in love with Orhan Pamuk. I’ve allowed this one infatuation to become a joke—as ridiculous as falling in love with a lion—so that I may preserve my other authors in their sacred light. Even though I have never met him, I’ve written letters to Pamuk (which I’ve never sent) as well as stories where I go on walks with him around Istanbul. On these walks I call him Orhan Abi, Brother Orhan, as I would a Turkish elder. Of course, there is preemptive protection in this familial address, turning my admiration to sibling love, so that we are on more equal footing and I expect nothing in return for my affection. On some walks, Orhan Abi is engaged in the conversation, on others he is lost in thought and restless to go back to his desk. Though I certainly dramatize my love for this man (whose Istanbul has so infiltrated my imagination that I find it impossible to write about the city without his shadow), I’m always surprised when friends bring me news of the real Orhan Pamuk. “Did you hear who he’s dating now?” “The Nobel Prize brought out the arrogance in him!” I hear in their voices a determination to cure me of my obsession before I have my heart broken, because, they are telling me, Orhan Pamuk won’t make a worthy boyfriend. My Orhan Pamuk is a man of my own making, fashioned from novels, imagining the type of person who would write them. While his tangible double gives lectures, has love affairs, signs books, and goes to airports, Orhan Abi is immersed in a Russian novel. He watches the Bosphorus from his desk and hopes in agony for a glimpse of a beautiful woman walking past his window each evening. It is neither the lion with a furry mane, nor the sullen, spectacled man that I fell in love with. I am enchanted by words in the literal sense—I enter into chant, not by the tangible objects that words point to, but by the rhythms and harmonies arising from their spell. Perhaps I did not learn my lesson when I realized that books were the constructions of authors, because authors for me are just as much a construct of my imagination. [millions_ad] But if the worlds of books are separate from our own, it should also be said that they intersect with ours in mysterious ways. For me, the joy of reading is partly for the thrill of becoming aware of these collisions of worlds even if I don’t always know how to interpret them. 3. There is no clearer parallel to the sights of literature emerging in life than falling in love. Then, too, every street sign, shop front, and overheard conversation becomes part of a conspiracy. And just like love, which tunes the senses to invisible harmonies (otherwise called coincidence), literature reveals patterns that connect us to multiple worlds. “What is the significance of these similarities, overlaps, and coincidences?” W.G. Sebald asks in his essay on Robert Walser, tracing the real and fictional paths they have both walked at different times. “Are they rebuses of memory, delusions of the self and of the senses, or rather the schemes and symptoms of an order underlying the chaos of human relationships, and applying equally to the living and the dead, which lies beyond our comprehension?” I can think of no truer way to express affection for a writer who has shaped our world than by simply listing the trivial encounters of our fates. “I have slowly learned to grasp how everything is connected across space and time,” Sebald continues. “Walser’s long walks with my own travels, dates of birth with dates of death, happiness with misfortune [...] On all these paths Walser has been my constant companion. I only need to look up for a moment in my daily work to see him standing somewhere a little apart, the unmistakable figure of the solitary walker just pausing to take in the surroundings.” But I wonder if Sebald would have noticed Walser’s footsteps if he had really set off on a walk with him. Do our crossings with these companions not depend on their invisibility? Do the signs of a beloved not surround us only in his absence? “The other whom I love and who fascinates me is atopos,” says Roland Barthes in A Lover’s Discourse. “I cannot classify the other, for the other is precisely, Unique, the singular Image which has miraculously come to correspond to the specialty of my desire. The other is the figure of my truth, and cannot be imprisoned in any stereotype.” I wonder if admiration does not build itself in the unique space of imagination, unencumbered by reality. I wonder this because I once had the misfortune of going on a real walk with one of my imagined writers. I thought of this man as my writer, undiscovered by anyone else despite his fame. It does not matter who he is. There are many stories about him, just as there are about Orhan Pamuk that have nothing to do with my walking companion Orhan Abi. During our walk, around a small town in Mexico, the writer observed many details that were invisible to me—the strange animals carved on a church door, the gaudy, imitation relics of saints inside the church that reminded him of his native parish, the lines of myth and history connecting the Virgin of Guadalupe, St. Brigid, and Diana of Ephesus. Afterwards, we sat on the terrace of a monastery with our backs to the fading fresco of Dominican monks holding a map of the monastery (like a book within a book). In front of us, a vertiginous valley was reddening in the afternoon light. I asked the writer what aspect of the monastery and landscape he found inspiring. He shrugged and said that all that surrounded us was built in vain, in the name of a god that didn’t exist. (“Quite frequently,” Barthes writes, “it is by language that the other is altered; the other speaks a different word, and I hear rumbling menacingly a whole other world, which is the world of the other.”) After I returned from Mexico, I sent the writer an essay I’d written about our walk. I also sent him a present to thank him. He did not respond. The same friends who told me to get over Orhan Pamuk also told me that I could not expect such a famous author to write back. Some friends said I should be grateful that he came on the walk in the first place; others said he sounded awful. In reality, the writer was not to blame for my disappointment. He was not the person whom I’d known years prior to our meeting and I wonder if he could have acted in any way that resembled the writer of my own making. My heartbreak is akin to encountering a lion in a zoo, and waiting for him to walk up to me and offer the kind of guidance I’d expect from Aslan. A few months later, I ran into the writer on the street during a visit to New York— another thread of chance without visible meaning. He was disheveled, out of breath, walking his dog. He did not mention the essay or my present. We chatted for a while about Mexico. “Well then,” the writer said after a few minutes, “you take care.” “I suddenly see the other,” Barthes says, “abiding by, respecting, yielding to worldly rites […] For the bad Image is not a wicked image; it is a paltry image: it shows me the other caught up in the platitude of the social world—common place.” But I don’t quite believe that my imaginary companions and their tangible counterparts are entirely separate. I’m sure that the sullen Orhan Pamuk whom I’ve never met is acquainted with my dreamy friend watching the street from his window, and that the dismissive writer is not entirely numb to the seductions of landscape. After all, both pairs of men take equal claim for the words committed to paper. Part of my heartbreak, then, was trying too hard to see the familiar person residing in the writer, of probing him for a glimpse of the poetic and mysterious. When I encounter beauty, I have an urge to possess it, to take it apart and discover something within. In my naïve effort to see the writer’s imagination, I am reminded of coming upon a bird’s nest, no bigger than my palm, one afternoon when I was walking Dost in the forest. Dost spotted it first, prodding his nose inside a mound of leaves to drag out a concentrated mass. I could not immediately make out what it was, and even felt frightened by the intricate chaos. But once my sight adjusted to its shape, I was so amazed by the beauty and compactness of its architecture that I took a stick and poked at it, hoping to find something hidden inside that would explain its lovely, cupped sight. I poked deeper with my stick until the nest came apart in twigs, feathers, and mud, leaving me utterly disappointed. Beauty avoids our grasp because it’s made of the same, ephemeral texture as imagination. It suggests that it is holding something we cannot see, like the evocative sight of a nest or seashell, like light faintly emanating from a lion’s skin. Like love, beauty tempts our imagination to walk down its path with the promise of revealing its golden forest, but turn after turn it spares us the sight, so splendid it would blind us if ever we were to see it. Image Credit: Pixabay.
1. Despite never writing about it directly, explicitly—the way he wrote about cruise ships or Roger Federer or the eating of lobsters—David Foster Wallace had a keen and lifelong interest in the brain. There was an obvious personal reason for this: on most of the days of his life, he consumed brain-altering chemicals as a way to stave off suicidal depression. His first published short story is essentially an extended musing on the connections between chemicals, the brain, and subjective wellbeing. These interests continue to animate his early works; both The Broom of the System (1987) and Girl with Curious Hair (1989) are peppered with offhand but learned references to neuroanatomy. Paul D. MacLean’s once-popular triune brain theory appears in Infinite Jest, and there are also quieter references to Gilbert Ryle and Julian Jaynes—two other well-known theorists of the relations between neurology and the mind. As Wallace scholar Stephen J. Burn has put it, analyzing The Pale King (2011), Wallace nurtured a “career-long fascination with consciousness.” His 2004 short-story collection Oblivion has always been a somewhat confusing book: dense, obtuse, cold, fragmented, a little cruel. However, while penning a PhD thesis on the intersections between neuroscience, theories of consciousness, and modern Anglo-American literature—a Wallacian labyrinth of thought if ever there was one—I think I have come to understand Oblivion for what it really is: A work of horror fiction, whose unique brand of horror is rooted in Wallace's reading about the brain. In the eight years between Infinite Jest and Oblivion, Wallace's reading in neuroscience and consciousness studies intensified. His essay “Consider the Lobster,” published almost in tandem with Oblivion, displays a sophistication of engagement with neuroscience that outstrips any of his previous work, referencing nociceptors and prostaglandins and endorphins and enkephalins. The more precise direction of Wallace's reading is indicated by two books found in his personal library (preserved today at the Harry Ransom Centre at UT in Austin): the Danish popular science writer Tor Nørretranders’s The User Illusion, and Timothy D. Wilson’s Strangers to Ourselves. Wallace read both of these works of popular consciousness studies closely, and what he took from them is revealed by his annotations. In Nørretranders's The User Illusion, Wallace has heavily underlined a section where Nørretranders writes “Consciousness is a fraud.” On another page Nørretranders has written “Most of what we experience, we can never tell each other about—we can share the experience that through language we are unable to share most of what we experience.” In his copy, Wallace has underlined this paragraph, and written, at the top of the page, “Loneliness—Can't Talk About It.” In Wilson's Strangers to Ourselves, alongside Wilson's remark that “Freud's vision of the unconscious was far too limited,” Wallace's scribbled note reads “omniscient not on conscious thought but on unconscious drives” [sic]. Most of what we think of as self-directed behavior, explains Wilson, may well be actually “non-conscious intention.” These quotes give you a sense of these two books, both of which build on what Alan Richardson calls “one of the great lessons of the cognitive revolution”: “just how much of mental life remains closed to introspection.” As a brief summation, the unified thesis of Nørretranders's and Wilson's works looks something like this: We are not really in control. Not only are we not in control, but we are not even aware of the things of which we are not in control. Our ability to judge anything with any accuracy is a lie, as is our ability to perceive these lies as lies. Consciousness masquerades as awareness and agency, but the sense of self it conjures is an illusion. We are stranded in the great opaque secret of our biology, and what we call subjectivity is a powerless epiphenomenon, sort of like a helpless rider on the back of a galloping horse—the view is great, but pulling on the reins does nothing. If this description of reality feels familiar to you, it's because such a neuroscientifically inspired pessimism is a quiet but powerful strain of modern thinking. It lurks in the shadows of the breezy materialism professed by science popularizers such as Richard Dawkins and Neil deGrasse Tyson—who tend to shroud the meaninglessness behind a smokescreen of excitable awe. Raymond Tallis calls the worldview conjured by works such as Nørretranders's and Wilson's “biologic pessimism.” In its broad strokes, the shadow of biologic pessimism is what dismayed a young William James. Today, it informs the work of the philosopher John Gray, and has found its most popular advocate in the character of Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle, in HBO's True Detective. When Cohle explains to Woody Harrelson’s character that he thinks “human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution,” and that “we are things that labor under the illusion of having a self,” what sounds like poseurish gloom is actually an entirely rational, reasonable interpretation of the modern scientific paradigm. As Wallace himself put it elsewhere, in his not-so-compact history of infinity, what science tells us is that “our love for our children is evolutionarily preprogrammed” and “our thoughts and feelings are really just chemical transfers in 2.8 pounds of electrified pâté.” The character of Rust Cohle in True Detective links nearly back to Wallace's Oblivion by virtue of the fact that the character of Rust Cohle was based to an almost plagiaristic degree on the nonfictional musings of another American fiction author: Thomas Ligotti. Ligotti, probably the finest living American horror writer, has built a whole fictional style upon the same pessimistic interpretation of the brain sciences that Wallace himself appears to have arrived at independently. And though Wallace, unlike Ligotti, is not known first and foremost as a horror author, he was in fact a lifelong fan of the genre. His teaching syllabi included Stephen King, he adored the work of Thomas Harris (particularly Red Dragon), and he praised Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian as “probably the most horrifying book of this century.” Wallace was also a “fanatical” David Lynch fan, and wrote a long piece praising his work for being “not about monsters...but about hauntings, about evil as environment, possibility, force.” For Lynch, Wallace wrote, “Darkness is in everything, all the time—not 'lurking below' or 'lying in wait' or 'hovering on the horizon': evil is here, right now.” As it turns out, Wallace's assessment of the special atmosphere of Lynch's horror (published in 1996) functions as an uncannily accurate description of his own Oblivion (published in 2004). Oblivion was a strange collection that quietly baffled many readers, both when it was first published and to this day. But when you understand that the whole collection is about the horror of consciousness, what first appears as a fragmented piece of work achieves cohesion. With Oblivion, these two deep-set interests—the brain, and dispiriting interpretations of its nature and relationship to our subjective lives; and horror—collide. [millions_ad] “Mr. Squishy,” Oblivion’s opening piece, is infused with an air of subjectivity as helpless, capricious, and buffeted by winds of influence over which it has no control. The pitiable protagonist, Terry Schmidt, is tortured by his lust for a co-worker, and is driven to masturbation “without feeling as if he could help himself.” In his imaginings he cuts a pathetic figure, and he is troubled by “his apparent inability to enforce his preferences even in fantasy.” The state of affairs, we learn, “made Schmidt wonder if he even had what convention called a Free Will, deep down.” (Readers may know of Benjamin Libet’s famous experiments, often taken as strong neuroscientific evidence of the non-existence of free will.) Schmidt has “had several years of psychotherapy,” but remains helpless. So total is his isolation of self, that Schmidt is on the verge of “making a dark difference with a hypo and eight cc's of castor bean distillate”—that is, committing mass murder via mass-poisoned commercial confectionary. In “The Soul Is Not a Smithy,” a ranging recollection of a day in the childhood of an unnamed adult narrator, filters through the claustrophobia of an anxious mind a pitch of ascending dread and doom, the presence of violent insanity, and a lethal culmination. Evoking directly Wallace's neuroscientific reading, the narrator muses that “that the most vivid and enduring occurrences in our lives are often those that occur at the periphery of our awareness.” The big cruel joke of “The Soul Is Not a Smithy” is that the narrator's consciousness is so capricious and fickle that it has missed absorbing “the most dramatic and exciting event I would ever be involved in in my life.” The entire story is the narrator's attempt to learn about an event that he rather ludicrously has no real first hand knowledge of because of his inadequate brain. The flash fictional “Incarnations of Burned Children” seems to darkly riff upon this chronic mind-scatteredness which blights so many of Oblivion’s cast, by having the awful events of the story render the father's “mind empty of everything but purpose”—a state the narrators of the rest of the collection could never hope to achieve. Only under such awful extreme duress, it suggests, might consciousness reach something like an unfiltered, directional tone. “Another Pioneer” has at its heart the horror of (brain-based) self-consciousness: Within the nested story, doom for the jungle village follows the moment when the child messiah's “cognitive powers [bent] back in on themselves and transformed him from messianic to monstrous,” powers “whose lethal involution resonates with malignant self-consciousness”—a self-consciousness that was a constant theme of Wallace's work, and which the story declares can be found “in everything from Genesis 3:7 to the self-devouring Kirttimukha of the Skanda Purana to the Medousa’s reflective demise to Gödelian metalogic.” This crushing weight of self-consciousness is at the heart of Oblivion’s most famous story, “Good Old Neon,” which n+1 called the collection's “one indisputable masterpiece.” The pseudo-narrator of “Good Old Neon," Neal, has spent his life tortured by “the fraudulence paradox”: “the more time and effort you put into trying to appear impressive or attractive to other people, the less impressive or attractive you felt inside—you were a fraud.” The pressure eventually becomes so great that Neal kills himself. The crucial point is that all of Neal's extensive and extensively described suffering can be located in the makeup and character of the human brain, not society or culture. By the end of the story the strong impression is that Neal's condition is but a particularly acute version of a basic human predicament. As he puts it, it's “not as if this is an incredibly rare or obscure type of personality.” In the modern neuroscientific paradigm, Neal's suspicion that “in reality I actually seemed to have no true inner self” is absolutely correct. There is really nothing outlandish about Neal's fears; within Oblivion’s neuropessimism, they are simple truisms. We do experience time poorly; language is in many ways a weak tool. The same goes for his fear that he is “unable to love:” from a hard Darwinian viewpoint, we are all unable to love, really—or more accurately, what we think we are doing when we love is actually not loving at all as we understand that word. Neal recognizes this himself: “we are all basically just instruments or expressions of our evolutionary drives, which are themselves the expressions of forces that are infinitely larger and more important than we are.” In the title story, “Oblivion,” the protagonist and his wife are so incapable of accurately telling perception from reality that one or both of them can't tell when they are awake and when they are asleep. The narrator's “seven months of severe sleep disturbance” have made for a “neural protest” of symptoms that underpin the story's oppressive, nervous atmosphere. This atmosphere achieves full bloom in Oblivion’s closing novella, “The Suffering Channel,” which features the story's eponymous production company and their “registered motto” “CONSCIOUSNESS IS NATURE'S NIGHTMARE.” (A quotation from the famous pessimist philosopher Emil Cioran, who wrote books with such cheery titles as The Trouble with Being Born.) “The Suffering Channel” features various lonely people failing to connect via their “tiny keyholes” of self. The story's focus on defecating is really an extended metaphor for the interior, the private–that which is common to all, but which is very rarely (to contaminate the metaphor) pushed through the keyhole. Our inability or social aversion to share with one another the deepest workings of our large intestines mirrors our inability to share the deepest workings of our minds. What we have is scatological representation of what philosophers call the Hard Problem. All of the characters of “The Suffering Channel” labor under “the conflict between the subjective centrality of our own lives versus our awareness of its objective insignificance”—in and of itself the overarching tragedy of the whole of Oblivion. 2. Ultimately, just as Wallace wrote that David Lynch's movies were about “not about monsters...but about hauntings, about evil as environment, possibility, force;” that for Lynch “Darkness is in everything, all the time—not 'lurking below' or 'lying in wait' or 'hovering on the horizon': evil is here, right now”–Oblivion is a collection about horror as the basic state of existence. The darkness and dread and horror of Oblivion is not in monsters or evil people; it is in the environment, in all of us, in our neurology and fraught consciousness and ill-evolved minds. Ligotti has written that all real horror writing, from Ann Radcliffe through to H.P. Lovecraft, is motivated by the specter of “the universe itself as centerless and our species as only a smudge of organic materials at the mercy of forces that know us not.” By these standards, Wallace, driven by his voluminous reading in the brain sciences, joins the club. In my thesis—academia being a world where the coining of neologisms is a mark of one's stunningly original thinking—I refer to this style of existential horror, rooted in an interpretation of modern neuroscience, as neurohorror. If there is a chink of philosophical sunlight, it is that Wallace may not have totally believed in the worldview of biologic pessimism. Oblivion and Wallace's final, tortuously produced, unfinished novel The Pale King were heavily intertwined. Wallace used the same notebooks for each, and funneled sections of one into the other as he went. Many critics think that the unrelenting misery of Oblivion was supposed to find its relief and counterpoint in its novelistic partner. As Wallace's biographer D.T. Max puts it, “while Oblivion was descriptive, The Pale King was supposed to be prescriptive. It had to convince the reader that there was a way out of the bind. It had to have a commitment to a solution that Oblivion lacked.” The neurohorror of Oblivion may have represented a flexing of Wallace's pessimist muscles, in advance of an attempt to overpower them. As Wallace himself said in an interview, “any possible human redemption requires us first to face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.” I mentioned that the biologic pessimism that caught Wallace's attention mirrored that which preoccupied William James a century prior. Wallace's potential solution or counterargument also mirrored James's. Indeed, in the very same books that inspired Wallace's neuropessimism, we find him searching for a more sanguine and more Jamesian reading. On page 129 of Nørretranders, Wallace underlined “You can direct your attention where you like.” On 133, he has underlined “the headiness of attaining high, clear awareness,” and under a section explaining the cortex he wrote “change in attention cause activity change in cortex” (sic). The brain might be the problem, but it appears that within these books Wallace was searching for a way for the brain to also become part of the solution. Underneath a quoted passage from William James, he wrote “Able to Choose Focus of Attention.” This would become the backbone to the hard-won optimism of “This is Water.”As David H. Evans has written, James put “activity rather than passivity at the core of our relation to the world” by affirming the subjective power of “the possibility of choice”–choice in terms of, to quote “This is Water,” “some control over how and what you think” over “what you pay attention to...how you construct meaning from experience.” This basic stance can also be observed in other thought systems Wallace was drawn to during his life, notably Buddhism. The most pessimistic reading of all, though, must draw attention to the biographical elephant in the room: Wallace's suicide. In the end, it was his brain—suffering with terrible withdrawal after years of being awash in the chemical mix of Nardil—that killed him. He couldn't think his way out, couldn't “construct meaning from experience” in a way that made something other than suicide the best option. It's possible to see this as a cruel and tragic vindication of the neuro-determinism which colors Oblivion. He completed Oblivion, but wasn't able to finish its optimistic companion The Pale King, despite years of trying—there is a sort of horrible literary mirror of Wallace's own inner life there. Unlike in fiction—where, despite it all, at the end of HBO's True Detective, Rust Cohle is able to remark hopefully that “the light’s winning”—we don't choose our endings. Wallace dug deeply and unflinchingly into the real challenges of modern existence; he made us “face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.” It remains with the rest of us to figure out how to live with it. Image Credit: Pixabay.
Has there, in American letters, at least, ever been a better noticer than John Updike? By “noticer,” I don’t mean “writer of detail,” exactly. There are many writers whose use of detail I find more narratively effective: Saul Bellow, Joan Didion, Toni Morrison, Denis Johnson, Stephanie Vaughn, etc. Updike’s use of detail, as I discussed in a recent essay, often impinges upon the realism, or “realism,” of his fictional worlds, overlarding them with sensory detail that too often alerts the reader to the writer’s presence. But in terms of pure, preternatural eye for the minute, the ephemeral, and the easily missed, it is difficult to think of another writer who can compare. Here are a couple of excerpts from “Incest,” one of the earlier stories (contained, in fact, in the wonderful The Early Stories), many of which endeavor to capture the mundane drama of young married life, as played out in a series of similar, cramped New York apartments. In the first excerpt, Lee, husband and father, is cleaning up the sugar his daughter has spilled: With two sheets of typing paper, using one as a brush and the other as a pan, he cleaned up what she had spilled on the counter, reaching around her, since she kept her position standing on the chair. Her breath floated randomly, like a butterfly, on his forearms as he swept. Later, he watches his wife drying diapers in the bathroom: Looking, Lee saw that, as Jane squinted, the white skin at the outside corner of her eye crinkled finely, as dry as her mother’s, and that his wife’s lids were touched with the lashless, grainy, desexed quality of the lids of the middle-aged woman he had met not a dozen times, mostly in Indianapolis, where she kept a huge brick house spotlessly clean and sipped vermouth from breakfast to bed. The random breath on the forearm like a butterfly, the fine-grained quality of dry eyelid skin—these are signature Updike details. What other writer would notice, let alone bother to describe, the texture of his wife’s eyelids? He is a master at this kind of description, keying in on the microscopic and near-invisible, not as world-building flourishes, but as primary detail. The child’s breath on Lee’s forearm hairs is a perfect metaphor for Updike’s sensory apparatus—I imagine this apparatus as fine cilia, authorial cat whiskers, delicately picking up the slightest shift in descriptive breeze. This keenness extends to non-sensory details, the internal mechanism of a character’s mundane thoughts. We have closely followed Lee from, in his words, breakfast to bed, and we lie with him as he deploys a favorite tack against the insomnia their tiny, hot apartment causes him, a mental exercise he refers to as the insomnia game. The insomnia game sees Lee working his way through the alphabet in the following manner: He let the new letter be G. Senator Albert Gore, Benny Goodman, Constance Garnett, David Garnett, Edvard Grieg, Goethe was Wolfgang and Gorki was Maxim. Farley Granger, Graham Greene… Detailing a character’s nighttime mental routine is unusually perceptive to begin with, but true to form, Updike finds a higher register of his protagonist’s attention to pay attention to, as Lee pauses his list to work through the less familiar foreign first names of Goethe and Gorki. These moments of deep attention are not there to embellish a larger narrative point—they are the point. In the space of several pages, an accumulation of these details create a world in miniature and a feeling of rare intimacy with its inhabitants. The apartment stories—“Incest,” and others like it: “Snowing in Greenwich Village,” “Sunday Teasing,” “Should Wizard Hit Mommy,” etc.—seem to me the perfect vehicle for Updike’s rare gifts. There is, after all, a claustrophobia to this kind of detail, and these small city apartments match setting and theme to technique. The apartments become a kind of panopticon, with Updike’s thousand eyes relentlessly monitoring the stifled desires and tense moods of their main characters—almost invariably a young married man. At the same time, the molecular focus that Updike brings to these stories manages to turn one-bedroom shotguns into universes of discovery. There is a sense in these stories of relentless searching for a truth or truths that can only be found by plumbing down into the granular, the microscopic; these tiny details both encode and reveal the larger hidden structures we move through unaware. A small New York apartment contains an entire life—the miracles (and curses) of marriage, childbirth, sex, and death. [millions_ad] The stories themselves follow suit, finding the largest meaning in the smallest plot point. For the most part, these tales bear little in common with others of their seeming kin—John Cheever’s earlier stories, for example, many of which also center on young married couples pressure-cooking in tiny apartments. But Cheever, despite being an eccentric fabulist, is conventional in his adherence to traditional plot devices, the need for inciting incidents and escalating tension. There is no Enormous Radio in Updike, just a very small one playing in the background, the crackling sound agitating the room’s ambient emotion, and the humbleness of the device itself obscurely bothering Lee (or Richard or Arthur) trying to read in the next room. We seem to be dropped into these characters’ lives almost at random, the barest wisp of event enough cause for a story to coalesce. In “Walter Briggs,” for example, a couple driving home from a party (cars—or trains, or airplanes—like apartments, are ideal Updike sensory dioramas) attempts to remember people they met on their first wedded vacation: “How could you forget Roy? And then there was Peg Grace.” “Peg, Grace. Those huge eyes.” “And that tiny long nose with the nostrils shaped like water wings,” Claire said. “Now: tell me the name of her pasty-faced boyfriend.” “With the waxy blond hair. Lord. I can’t conceivably hope to remember his name. He was only there a week.” This goes on far longer than it would in the work of other writers, several pages. On and on they drone, exactly the kind of inane, half-focused conversation that composes the atomic structure of married life, exactly the kind of desultory scene typically excised from most stories. And yet: something snags—her enviable memory, and his inability to summon the name of a comic figure at the camp. Later, at the door of sleep, his mild frustration blends with a litany of details from the camp, and the sudden return of the man’s name—Walter Briggs—is like a poignant echo of his old love for his wife. In both their obsession with remembering tiny details, and their ability to do so, these two resemble their creator. Who, but Updike, would find erotic charge in a nostalgic memory competition? By so heavily foregrounding textural detail in these stories, Updike calls into question what constitutes a story to begin with. There is an aesthetic claim being made, that anything can be a story if you look closely enough. And the domestic sphere, Updike’s natural habitat and milieu, is all stifling closeness—what are marriages if not an infinite series of minute, learned, hateful, and joyful gestures, performed in the tiny theaters of our living rooms and beds? Here, the aesthetic claim grades into something that approaches a moral claim. A reader, waiting in these stories for twist or conflict or denouement, will get to the end unsatisfied, having missed the all intervening action, action that occurs on a moment-to-moment perceptual level. Life is like that, too. Although modern readers may justly find Updike morally distasteful on many counts—mid-century white male privilege, literary sexism, and political conservatism to name a few—he seems exemplary, at least, in the sense of how much attention a person ought to bring to bear on the banal splendidness that comprises their life. Taken as a whole, the attentiveness that Updike trains on these intermittently peaceful and unpeaceful homes becomes performative and self-justifying. Like a fantastically gifted magician, the show becomes less about the trick itself and more about the dexterity required to perform the trick. He is constantly finding the edge of his talent and reaching just beyond it for the detail so fine and fleeting that it is preposterous, even for him, to notice it. Yes, on a basic level, this is show-offy. But I sense that it also comes from a generous instinct, a desire to share something with the reader no one else has shared before. As he puts it in “Wife-Wooing”: “An expected gift is not worth giving.”
1. In 1936, restless in her romantic relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt and eager to cement her identity as a writer, the journalist Lorena "Hick" Hickok began working on a book about her three years of travels across the country to interview regular people. Nurses, day laborers, miners, teachers, county administrators, housewives, and even children talked to Hick about their experiences of poverty during the Depression. The book was to be about them and for them: "the chiselers and the shovel-leaners; this is their story and to them it is dedicated, in all sincerity and humility." Hick planned to draw on reports she'd typed in dreary hotel rooms as she made her way across the country starting in 1933. Primed with bourbon and homesickness, she cabled her words each night to her boss Harry Hopkins, typically cc'ing Eleanor, who often shared them with the president. These collected reports constitute one of the most valuable oral histories of the Depression ever made. In breadth—covering every region of the country except for the Pacific Northwest—and depth—containing countless one-on-one conversations with individuals—they deliver a multifaceted chronicle, enlivened by Hick's signature humor, eye for detail, and pathos to beat the band. But Hick's book was never published. Editors in New York, well aware of her special access to the first lady, were much less interested in a chronicle of Depression-weary Americans than they were in behind-the-scenes tales about the most famous woman in America. Of course, Hick would never write that book. She had promised long ago that she would never write anything that could hurt Eleanor; she kept that promise, though it cost her dearly. And so when journalists and social scientists and historians began the scramble to shape the Depression into a story that could be told, Hick's work was not among their sources. In 1936, just as now, some voices were valued and some were silenced. It was decades before academics excavated her reports and shed light on the role she played in not only capturing Americans' experiences but shaping policy that in turn shaped lives. Though few seemed to be listening, Hick was telling these stories. And in doing so, she was attempting to tell her own. 2. Hick's childhood in the upper Midwest was, to borrow a phrase, nasty, brutish, and short. The Hickoks were dirt poor, and Hick's father was a violent man who seemed to take sick pleasure in terrorizing Hick in particular, perhaps because she was sensitive and found relief from her social anxiety in spending time with animals. Once he used a horsewhip on her dog while she lay in her room listening to its howls. Another time, he dashed her new kitten's brains out on the side of the barn and left its body where she would see it on her walk to school. Hick left home at 13 and moved from one job to the next around Bowdle, S.D.—maid in an infested boarding house for railway workers, cook in a farm kitchen, dishwasher in a saloon. Her school attendance was spotty. When she could go, she stuffed paper in the toes of her ragged shoes to keep her feet from freezing. Eventually, an aunt in Michigan took her in and she completed high school and went on to Lawrence College in Appleton, Wisc. But Hick struggled there, eventually flunked out, and took a job as a cub reporter for the Battle Creek Evening News in 1912. There Hick found her calling hunting down sources and capturing stories on the page. Later she would say that being a reporter was the only thing she was ever good at, and she used her signature irreverence to describe the tribe she treasured being part of: "We were a wild, boisterous, cynical, unmannerly crew. Only the bootleggers loved us." 3. Over five years as a reporter for the Associated Press, Hick rose from the women's page pabulum she despised to writing bylined stories on political corruption, sensational crimes, and, finally, covering Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first presidential campaign. In late October 1932, as the whistle-stop tour chugged toward election day, Hick was assigned to interview Eleanor Roosevelt on an overnight train from Potsdam to Grand Central Station. Something happened in those hours of intense conversation, and by the time the train screeched into Manhattan the women had fallen hard for each other. They spent the next few months in the flush of new love—going to the opera, dining together alone in Hick's apartment, talking by phone each night. Hick gave Eleanor a ring that she wore for the rest of her life. And the women wrote letters, sometimes more than one a day. Hick had been assigned to cover the incoming president, to subject him and anyone in his circle to the hard-hitting coverage she was known for. But love had done her in. Her objectivity was compromised, her work suffered, and finally she was forced to leave the AP. Hick's 21-year career in journalism was over. Unlike Eleanor, who was a Roosevelt twice over—Franklin was her fifth cousin once removed—Hick had no gilded surname to see her through the dry spell. She needed to find a job, and quick. It was Eleanor who set her up with Harry Hopkins, the top administrator of the New Deal's Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA). In 1933, Hopkins was drowning in data. Charged with overseeing the distribution of $500,000,000 in federal aid money to local officials, Hopkins spent his days scouring statistical reports. The press, meanwhile, demanded to know whether the extraordinary sums being spent actually were making a difference. Statistical data alone could not answer this question. Hopkins wanted a report on the human dimensions of the crisis, and for that he needed a different kind of expert—not a statistician, but a storyteller. Eleanor Roosevelt let him know that one of the best had just become available that summer. Hopkins made Hick the first in his team of investigators, asking her, simply, to talk to people who had lost their jobs, savings, material comforts—and their hope. In the era before Medicaid or Medicare, before public housing and food stamps, school lunches for children or formula for infants, it was a marvel anyone was surviving. The life savings of middle-class families had been wiped out in a day, taking the hopes of the already-poor, who worked for them, right down the tubes too. In each new town, Hick would meet with local officials who were charged with distributing federal aid. Surging rents and food prices as well as local politics and even personal grievances often clogged the pipeline, and officials would eventually break down and tell Hick the location of the worst suffering in their district. Then she would go there: in cities it was the slums, where priests begged her for medical supplies; in rural hamlets she would sometimes have to ditch her car to walk the impassable dirt roads on foot, going door to door, taking notes on the steno pad she kept in the pocket of her skirt. On one of those roads in Kentucky, she met a barefoot old white woman the local people called "Aunt Cora." Hick wrote that she was "half dead from pellagra," the disease caused by lack of niacin. Hick stopped to talk to her and when they said goodbye, the woman put her hand on Hick's arm and said, "Don't forget me, honey! Don't forget me!" Hick was the ideal person for this job because she had spent half her life in poverty. Few journalists of the time with her contacts—a direct line to the White House, experience working with most of the top reporters in New York and DC—could say the same. Those years of deprivation shaped her thinking and her imagination, and the reports show that her firsthand experience shaped what she observed. The men she encountered, she noticed, were haunted by what they saw as a failure to provide for their families, and wanted to keep the fact of their unemployment secret. But in order for a family to receive FERA aid for groceries and rent, a caseworker had to visit the home to fill out paperwork and gather demographic information. These jobs tended to be held by educated young women from the city, and when they knocked on a front door, curtains parted all along the street as neighbors took note. The men's shame about taking aid was compounded by their wives' heartache at letting these women into their living rooms. The social workers arrived smartly dressed, one husband lamented, with "powder on, and lipstick, and pink fingernails." It was unbearable for his wife to be reminded of all the accouterments of beauty she could no longer have—another mark, Hick understood, of the shame of being poor. Because Hick knew the pain of being overlooked and dismissed, she made women a central focus of her reports, ensuring that Hopkins—and the president—could not ignore their plight. One woman in California even confided in Hick that she'd agonized about going without rudimentary birth control measures available in drugstores at the time. She was terrified of creating more mouths to feed, but abstinence was not an option. "You don't know what it's like when your husband is out of work," Hick reported that the woman told her. "He's gloomy all the time…You must try all the time to keep him from going crazy. And many times—well, that is the only way." Birth control was not the kind of thing discussed in polite company in the 1930s, yet Hick courageously recorded the woman's words. This, too, was part of the story of the Depression. In another town, where truancy was rampant because of a lack of clothing, officials used some of the relief money to have donated fabric made into pants for boys to wear. But still the boys did not show up at school. After a single conversation with one of them, Hick understood why. The fabric had a distinctive pattern the other children recognized, and the boys didn't want to be seen wearing government pants. Hick's genius was that she had both devotion to the voiceless and shrewd belief in the power of narrative to sway even the skeptical to take action. When she asked a North Dakotan farmer how his family was fixed for food and clothes for the winter, he broke down crying. Not only did Hick cry right along with him, she made sure to describe her own tears in her report. She knew exactly what she was doing. Hick's perspective was not objective, and some of her reports are laced with racism about black, Mexican, and native communities. She expressed fear about traveling alone in the South in predominantly black areas, and hauled out old tropes about physical differences, work ethic, and hygiene. Many of the New Deal programs introduced during her time on the road plainly favored whites. The 1935 Social Security Act, for example, provided the first-ever guaranteed income after retirement for millions of Americans, but it excluded domestic servants and agricultural workers, and the vast majority of black workers fell into those categories. The Federal Housing Administration, established in 1934, created an appraisal system that tied mortgage eligibility to race, codifying racism and segregation in federal law. It may have been above Hick's pay grade to critique federal economic policy, but she saw evidence of the disparity on a daily basis and failed to question why some people were being left behind. [millions_ad] 4. As Hick spent night after night in those dismal hotels, scrounging up uninspired dinners and drinking too much, her only comfort came by mail: letters from Eleanor. "A world of love to you, darling," Eleanor signed off on November 17. "I'm getting so hungry to see you." The next day: "The 18th, less than a month till you return. Bless you & keep well & remember I love you." Then, two days later: "Dear one, I'm tired but very well. I can't bear to get no letters Friday or Saturday so I'm wiring you my address and from the 29th-3rd I'll be in Warm Springs. I would give a good deal to put my arms around you and to feel yours around me. I love you deeply & tenderly." We mostly have to imagine how Hick replied to Eleanor's loving words. We know that she did because Eleanor references Hick's letters, but most of them are missing from the archive of their correspondence. In 1936 Hick began to reclaim letters she had written to Eleanor, and Eleanor obliged; when Eleanor died in 1962, Hick burned hundreds of letters, including almost all of her own and many of Eleanor's from those first fervent months. Hick told Eleanor's daughter Anna why: "Your mother wasn't always so very discreet in her letters to me." But lest anyone think she wanted to keep their entanglement secret for all time, Hick made sure to donate the remaining trove to the Roosevelt Library, with instructions that it not be opened until 10 years after her death in 1968. Maybe she hoped that in some future time, as our country became a more progressive, open place, the world would be able to understand that she had been in love with Eleanor Roosevelt and that Eleanor Roosevelt had been in love with her. Hick could have burned every last page, but she didn't. Just like the people she met on her travels, she wanted to be sure she wasn't forgotten. 5. The place that haunted Hick most of all was Scotts Run, near Morgantown, W.Va., where the coal mines were shuttered. Families who had come to the region decades before for work were now stranded in the hills, some living in company housing for which they still had to pay rent despite their unemployment, some living in tents. They used the creek polluted with mine runoff for drinking and bathing. Children ran around naked, some covered in sores. Diphtheria and dysentery were common, and many babies died of typhoid every year. People were so hungry they could not wait for the vegetables to mature in their gardens and dug up the tiny, bitter potatoes and ate them raw. Hick called Scotts Run "the worse place I had ever seen." Though she was well aware that her job was to take notes and leave the policy decisions to the experts, Hick was so upset by conditions in the mining camps that she called Eleanor long-distance that night from her hotel room in Morgantown and begged her to do something. To Hick's amazement, Eleanor got in her car and drove herself to West Virginia the next day, and they toured the camps. Most of the people Eleanor talked to had no idea they were speaking to the first lady of the United States. She listened, took notes; she was already forming a plan. Eleanor had a hunch that West Virginia would be the ideal place to try out a program she and FDR had dreamed up, a "back-to-the-land" initiative that would empower the rural (white) poor through decent housing, training in subsistence farming, and work in local industry. A year later, 50 homesteads stood on a 1,000-acre parcel the government had purchased and named Arthurdale. That was 50 families with running water, heat in the winter, and fertile land on which to grow food and raise animals. Soon the number of homesteads grew to 165, and Arthurdale included a clinic, a school, and a community center. Though Eleanor was derided in the press for her "socialist" aims, and despite huge cost overruns and the project's ultimate demise, Eleanor never lost faith in Arthurdale. It changed the lives of hundreds of people and served as an important laboratory for programs that would be used in different forms across the country. And it all started because of Hick's report. 6. Eleanor's letters to Hick never stopped, but they changed in tenor. As the first lady's life grew increasingly more complex, her devotion to countless people, causes, and projects left little time for Hick. Hick's life had evolved in the opposite direction as she saw key pieces of her identity slip away in the wake of the relationship—foremost, her job at the AP, but also her life in New York City and even her beloved German Shepherd, Prinz. Hick realized she'd been naive to believe that, if she sacrificed and was patient, she and Eleanor would really be able to make a life together as they'd promised in the early days of their romance. It was, they both had to accept, heartbreakingly impossible. And so things changed, and the once intense entanglement downshifted into fond friendship that lasted the rest of their lives. Hick put 7,000 miles on her cars in the period she called a "three-year journey into every man's land-and no-man's land." The information she collected in her reports validated Hopkins's hunch that creating jobs that paid real wages would be a more successful form of relief, and he was able to lobby Congress to create the Civil Works Administration to do just that. Visitors to the White House were often astounded by FDR's knowledge of conditions across the country, and much of the detail was gleaned from Hick's reports. Those reports represented years of work and risk—risk of physical harm and depression, and the even greater risk Hick had faced all her life, of being dismissed and forgotten. Hick was a woman with tenuous social standing: her gender, her class, and her sexual identity all made it likely she would be erased. She had to fight to be heard. Flawed though she was, Hick felt a solemn duty to let imperiled Americans speak for themselves, and she left behind a crucial record of some of their lives. "Don't forget me, honey," the old woman in Kentucky had begged her. Hick never forgot her, and, though our attention is overdue, she made sure we won't forget her either. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Sometimes writing fiction feels to me like that oft-used image of a godlike creator: the man pulling the strings of the marionette, orchestrating each fine movement from above the stage. One string might be character, another plot, a third setting, a fourth conflict, then dialogue, figurative language, pacing, point of view, tone, and so on in innumerable quantities. When I position myself at the center of this image—as the Writer—fiction seems like a failed proposition. Invariably, things go wrong: the strings get tangled, the synchronization is off, I lose track of what the left foot or right hand is doing, and the whole show falters. The work is revealed as amateurish and I must step down like Oz from behind the curtain to face my shame. As a teacher, I see my students grappling with this difficulty on a daily basis. Their small successes (“Great dialogue!”) are overshadowed by all the parts that aren’t yet working. And there are so many parts, so many ways to not be working. This is what got me started thinking about simplifying an approach to craft, or rather, trying to understand what craft elements encompass which other ones as a way to focus on manipulating the fewest elements of a story to receive the largest payoff. My answer came from another, highly-complicated field: Physics, specifically, Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. In layman’s terms, the Theory of Relativity proposes that the measurable properties of time and space aren’t actually as fixed as we perceive them to be. They’re subjective. In our real universe, time and space flex, expanding or contracting relative to moving objects. I began to see parallels between the time and space of the physical universe and the time and space of the fictional one. What if time and space were the only two properties the writer sought to control? Would the universe of craft choices become less overwhelming in their entirety? Don’t worry, there’s no math involved in any of this, but there is a diagram. A rudimentary version might look like this, with other craft elements, such as pacing, dialogue, point of view, and so on following naturally from there. Of what use is this to the writer? For one, it puts craft choices into perspective. The writer’s aim must be to address these two questions principally: (1) How will time be managed? and (2) What is the space of the narrative? The first question is addressed by the work of narrative theorist Gérard Genette, whose book Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method, proposes three principal ways in which writers can and do manipulate time: order, duration, and frequency. In the first, “order,” the writer may choose to present events out of chronology; associated terms include flashback and flash forward. At the macro-level, stories that do this wonderfully include Dan Chaon’s “Falling Backwards,” which is narrated, as the title suggests, in reverse order, or Brian Evenson’s “Younger,” a story about two adult sisters attempting to reconcile very different versions of a childhood memory. At the micro-level, nearly every short story is an exercise in anachronisms, borne of the nature of English’s grammatical structures and the writer’s urge to withhold. The second, “duration,” refers to the ways in which a writer might speed up or slow down the effect of the narration, typically through the number of words she chooses to deploy for a particular moment; 10 years might last a sentence, while a minute may consume three pages. In writer’s circles, we call this pacing, and we harp frequently on the rule to show not tell, although all the best writers are masterful tellers, skilled in the art of contracting narrative time in order to squeeze the marrow from it. [millions_ad] Few writers are as deft at this as Lydia Davis. In her story “How Difficult,” she moves from compressed time into present time midway through the final sentence, neatly cramming years of grievances into a single phone call. For years my mother said I was selfish, careless, irresponsible, etc. She was often annoyed. If I argued, she held her hands over her ears, she did what she could to change me, but for years I did not change, or if I changed I could not be sure I had, because a moment never came when my mother said, ‘You are no longer selfish, careless, irresponsible, etc.’ Now I’m the one who says to myself, ‘Why can’t you think of others first, why don’t you pay attention to what you’re doing, why don’t you remember what has to be done?’ I am annoyed. I sympathize with my mother. How difficult I am! But I can’t say this to her, because at the same time that I want to say it, I am also here on the phone coming between us, listening and prepared to defend myself. We are caught, almost by surprise, by the narrator’s dilemma—her ownership and disavowal of her own pettiness, the depth of her grief over neither being able to accept her mother or, as a result of her mother, herself. A long, drawn out scene would hardly capture the same, knife’s-edge force. A writer can also, according to Genette, manipulate frequency. Here, some algebraic-looking letters: In life, an event happens (n) times, (n) being any number between zero and in perpetuity. Of course, the writer may choose to narrate an event more or less frequently than (n), each of these choices bearing significant effects; In William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, the same events are narrated four times, in each instance through the lens of a different narrator. Other times, as in the above Lydia Davis story, multiple distinct events (i.e. the mother’s frequent nagging) are narrated in a fell swoop, indicating habit. In still other instances, something that doesn’t happen at all is narrated in a hypothetical mode. In an even stranger variation, something that happens once might be told multiple times by the same narrator; Grace Paley’s “Mother,” comes to mind, in which the titular mother dies twice, once halfway through the story and a second time at the end, in order to emphasize the narrator’s grief and regret surrounding the mother’s death. To Genette’s list, I might add “gaps,” the domain of narratologist Meir Sternberg and generally understood by writers as “white space,” or “omissions,” that is, the “stuff left out.” In attending to time, the writer naturally addresses other elements of craft, such as plot and conflict. The arrangement of events and the speed and ease at which we move through them determine the reader’s experience of those events, what Steinberg terms “suspense, curiosity, and surprise.” What is not addressed by time is easily covered under the domain of space: of course this includes the setting and characters in the story, which naturally gives way to thoughts about point of view, voice, dialogue, tone and mood, the goal of which are often mimetic, aimed at creating Roland Barthes idea of a “realistic effect.” The unit of composition here is the detail, or if you prefer, the image, which is primarily a matter of distance. How close are we? This is a function of point of view. What can we see, smell, hear, feel, and taste? I prefer detail to image, only because image tends to imply that the visual is the primary sense. Moreover, how large is the space? By this, I am not merely describing setting as filtered through a point of view, but the space of the story itself as an imagined thing. When the reader is lingering over the story later, as is the hope of any writer, how does the story expand into three dimensions in the headspace of that reader? How many rooms are there, if there are rooms at all? Space is a function primarily and necessarily rooted in language. For this, I turn to Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town, in which he discusses the difference between private and public poets. The distinction lies in the relation of the poet to the language. With the public poet the intellectual and emotional contents of the words are the same for the reader as they are for the writer. With the private poet, and most good poets of the last century or so have been private poets, the words, at least certain key words, mean something to the poet they don’t mean to the reader. He goes on to say that, “The reason this distinction doesn’t hold, of course, is that the majority of words in any poem are public—that is, they mean the same to writer and reader.” Of course, this cannot be the case. I think often about this distinction when teaching fiction writers how to create the space of a story through the narrator’s voice (we are, in effect, occupying the space of the narrator’s head, especially in first-person or close third-person fiction). The writer Charles Baxter once gave me the advice not to try to approximate “voiciness” on the page through common spoken tics—colloquialisms of generic nature, or syntaxes meant to sound “speechy.” The advice holds. All good writers are interested in voice, even ones as distinctly different in style as Jamaica Kincaid and George Saunders. What holds their disparate approaches together is that the voices are Hugo’s private voices; the reader understands each word for its denotative meaning, of course, but as Hugo describes, the language bears the mark of living off the page, which in turn allows the characters to feel three-dimensional in the mind of the reader. We call such characters round rather than flat, which means they live with us; they take up space. I return again to the question of how this notion can be of practical application to the writer. If I must take anything from Einstein’s theory, it is that everything is relative to a degree, which suggests to me that the failure of all advice about craft is its willingness to prescribe, and it is this very prescriptiveness that works fresh writers into a tizzy; there are too many rules to follow. I would suggest then, that the only two questions we need to ask ourselves are: Where are we headed, and how quickly or directly would we like to get there? Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Six years ago my wife gave me a pair of house slippers. My first ever. A domestic present I thought signaled some new phase of my life. I thanked her. Tried them on. Plush fur lined the inside. I stood up to make a show of enjoying them. Then she handed me a much smaller set of slippers. These had monkeys stitched onto the top of the feet. This is how she told me. Prior to this we had a fight. Several. The theme of each was my wanting to be a writer and her wanting to have a family. It was a question of time. How much of it we were given and what we would do with it. It was a question of passion. Where it rose in us and how we would dole it out to the world. My son came out blue, cone-headed, and silent. I was holding my wife’s leg, watching everything. She did not make a sound during labor. Silent willfulness held sway in her. I was handed scissors and a wet, translucent chord. I cut. A splatter of blood hit my chin. The silent baby was swept to the corner of the room where more nurses than I knew were there tended to him. I did not breathe. Did not breathe. Not breathe. Then I heard his cry. That spangling noise that reorganized my life in the way I had been told it would but could never believe. I stayed awake all night holding my son in the rocking chair. That time felt sacred. Still does. I stayed awake writing in that rocking chair. His sleeping body slung into the crook of my non-writing arm. I was afraid my time to write had disappeared but I was going to make this work. Silent willfulness would hold sway in me. We brought my toddler son to the Associated Writer’s Program Conference in Seattle. We stayed in a hotel room. Due to time change he woke up at 4 a.m. By seven that morning he had pooped in the bathtub, used the hotel room phone to call the police to our door, twice, and ate a worm outside. At the conference, Seamus Heaney told a story onstage about being a younger poet and having a famous older poet come to his home. The older man looked at all the kids “Vomiting about,” and asked, clearly put off, “You see a lot of your children, then, do you?” My daughter came fast and screaming into this world and has neither slowed nor quieted since. Her smile now lifts her onto her toes and is everything to me. But at first, between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. when she had her bottle and slept, I edited a friend’s novel manuscript in hopes that she would edit mine in return. I sent those pages back with the imprinted circle stains of baby bottles. My third child, a boy, brought the noise of labor from my wife for the first time. When it came time to cut the cord, instead of being a pro, a three-time-veteran, I was leaning over the bathroom sink washing my face, trying to quell the nausea, and not fall and crack my head open on the marble floor. Something I later learned was called a “Code Blue” over the speaker system. “Code Blue. Code Blue,” is the poor hapless father crashing to the faux-marble tiles. Ernest Hemingway’s story “At the Indian Camp,” in which a man listens to his wife endure three days of a violent labor until it becomes too much to endure and he cuts his own throat, comes clear to my mind later that night in the hospital room. For the first time I understood the story. I understood the love and helplessness that made him slide the blade. Before I met my wife I had long stretches of time to think and write. But back then my writing mentor told me I was not writing anything worthwhile because I was not writing about myself. He hit a nerve. I was emotionally closed off. Sealed away. I felt sick after he said this and I could not get out of his office fast enough. I told my father what my writing mentor told me. My father said my mentor was right. But that that will change. I was young. Wait until I had something to truly love in the world. The wells of strength, ingenuity, and love you cannot understand yet will seep up. I was offended. My ego screamed I have something I love. Yet I was just told I was no good at it. I saw my writing mentor in line at a grocery store early one morning soon after he called me out for writing flat characters, the root cause of which was some inner cowardice. It was very early. I had not slept. He had gotten up to make blueberry French toast for his family. I looked at his domestic items and sensed that he had something more important than writing stories to teach me. My wife frequently walks into the room and tells my children to be nice to their father. To me. I had no idea they were bossing me around. I try to pour my kindness onto them and they take advantage. I laugh at moments like this. My days are filled with my children’s needs. Each is so immediate that everything feels choppy now. My thoughts don’t have the long stretches of time to wander over and create narratives I once did. Now someone is always touching me. I am a jungle gym. Consoler. I have to clean my children’s bodily fluids. I have to be close. Look close. Am close. Family sometimes feels like something that is just a matter of proximity. In one day of this I swing from exhausted to elated. I swing along the full range of emotions. I see a lot of my children. My children are thunderclouds. Veined with brilliant light. Full of noise. Their presence is felt in the bones. They leave the most fabulous puddles. They wash over me every day and drain me and they leave everything feeling renewed. There are moments I turn a corner and see them playing quietly in a beam of end-of-day sunlight and I am stilled. I look at them and forgive my parents for everything they ever did that hurt me. How could my parents have done anything other than felt perfect love for me in their imperfect lives? This is how I feel looking at the light. At the child. I wish I had a word for this feeling. [millions_ad] My children are genius poets at recreating our language. At looking at the world. I try to capture everything. My son sprints into the house. “Dad. Dad. We found a place Ninja’s learn how to drive.” He is full of joy. His imagination ablaze. “Teenagers,” My wife corrects and my son and I are both disappointed. “The sky is breaking apart,” my daughter yells out the window at the setting sun, the colors ablaze beyond the suburban water tower. The baby can make any noise and we are overjoyed. I can no longer read stories where bad things happen to children. They hurt too much. I have now held up crying, laughing, and sick children. I’ve held children up to swat at wind chimes. To “eat the wind,” as my opened mouth daughter likes to yell when riding on my shoulders. Because of this I can no longer hold up the weight of stories where calamity falls on the innocent. “I’m wearing eyelashes,” my daughter’s voice rises from the din in the back of the car. My writing mentor was right. My daughter looks up at the crescent moon and yells, “The moon. It’s not all together.” My father was right. “How do you make blood?” my son asks. “Who put all the dirt under the road?” “Do my toes have fingers?” “Tomorrow hasn’t happened yet, right?” It’s very hard for me to access that younger man who had powerful doubts about having a family. My children, even the baby, feel like they have been a part of my life forever. I am saddened by my previous doubt, but I share it in case my children someday feel it too. I want them to recognize it as human and natural. Decisions that are part of the passage they will have to navigate. “Dad. I have a big question for you. What does the tooph fairy do wiff the the teef?” I studied Faulkner and Walker, Proust and Kafka, Baldwin and Angelou, Monroe and Alexie, Allende and the rest like they held the keys to language. I call my children sweet-pea, chicken butt, and smoosh face like all language was meant for these endearments. Like all lessons only needed time to plow over me and leave their truths. I write in the books I read. I keep scraps of papers in every pocket to record my thoughts that could be a seed to a story. All of my clothes have ink stains on them. I have been known to write on my hands. My son stops eating his blueberry French toast and holds up his hands with doodles on the palms. “Like daddy,” he says. I wanted to be a writer. My wife wanted a family. We have a family. I am in the trenches of domestic life. Surprisingly, this life holds the grist of, and access to, the full canon of literature. My children’s vomiting about is the raw material of literature that shook me to my core as a young man. They swirl about me with their magic energy. They drain and refill me. They teach me how to read their lives and mine. They give me the heat and love to look closer at a world. They take my time and focus my time. Their vomiting about. Vomiting about. How I love their vomiting about. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Carnal, today is your birthday. I don't know where you are now. But I know you're somewhere. Many of our intellectual friends would argue that if you're dead, you are nowhere. I know you well enough to know you are busy wherever you went. I am sure—as your family insisted a couple of weeks ago when I sat at your seat at your kitchen table—that you are watching over us. Perhaps leaving signs and hints and small pranks to let them know you're still the great man you were. I suspect you're living your old science fiction dreams—I imagine you circling Saturn, enjoying the colors of the rings. When I was a kid, you urged me to do the same thing, even if it was only in my imagination. You fed my dreams with your old Asimov, Heinlein, Ray Bradbury books. And you sent me the entire space opera series by E.E. "Doc" Smith. I smile, still remembering the galloping space warriors on the good ship Skylark. And in the agonizing months of trying to write a novel inspired by your passing, I sensed you near. I was constantly startled when a scene I had "invented" turned out to have been a very private moment or conversation you had shared with your wife, or your daughter. Blanca, Millie, Alma, Juanito—they are feeling you today. We all are. I know you remember your special whistle. That strange sonic signal that you were in the house, or around the corner, or coming home. The only other person I ever knew with a personal whistle was our father. I wonder if you got the idea from him. I wonder if he's with you out there. Drinking some ghost coffee. Are you guys whistling at us? Millie, your baby girl, just sent me a message. She just heard that whistle this morning after posting a happy birthday message to you. Pinche Juan! For a patriarch, you sure were full of mischief. I remember, many years ago, when I was pursuing my acting career. Ha! That sounds so pretentious! But hey, I went to "Ridgemont High." We all thought we were going to be famous. Writing was still wrestling a little with this acting thing—and winning. But there I was, spending six months with Peter O'Toole. And you would come to the various sets and take pictures with your fancy camera. I was still a po' boy and didn't understand how people got big fancy cameras. The whole world seemed like a magical ritual to me. And we were both away from San Diego. I was living in my friend Sandy's North Hollywood apartment, with my bad friends accompanying me in ridiculous all-night shenanigans. And you were working the computer center for Magic Mountain. And you had stepped into the father-role in that year after Dad died. I didn't even realize you were doing it. We were filming at Indian Dunes Raceway, near Sylmar. Scattered around the set (the old M*A*S*H TV show "Korea") were mock airplanes from "Black Sheep Squadron." A boy's playground. And you would sometimes come for me and take me into the Magic Mountain computer center. It was a '70s sci-fi room full of huge computers with spinning tape reels—so James Bond. Alive with white noise. You knew I'd love it. But you also knew I was a mystical type like you and Dad. And that I'd hear the voices. [millions_ad] You even told me. "If you listen, you'll start to hear the ghosts." The whole vast room was like a gargantuan "ghost box" from one of those ghost hunter shows on TV. It was women at first, then men, then a lot of women and men. Like a cocktail party in Elysium. And we stood there laughing as we listened to this hallucination. With goosebumps. It was not great shock to me when you started to make yourself known on my laptop as I tried to craft fiction out of your death. The first anniversary of Dad's death was a cataclysmically rainy day. I was in the lone phone booth at Indian Dunes. It was very cold. I watched cars crashing on the freeway. Floods everywhere. The booth was across a vast parking lot. Peter came along in his limo, escaping the flooding set. He rolled down his window and said, "G'bye!" and waved his cigarette in its holder. What a very sweet man. I have never been more alone that I was at that moment. And I called you at your office. "What's wrong?" you said. "Dad," I said. You were like Batman. "Stay right there, I'm coming." And you did. You took me to a diner and fed me. You let me cry—something our father would not have done. I admit, writing a novel based on or inspired by such intimate events as your funeral and last birthday party was harrowing. Every time I go back home to San Diego, I find myself sitting at your kitchen table, leading a creative writing workshop for our family. I want everyone to know it's fiction. I tell them, "It is a movie I make in my mind, and some of you acted in it. But it's not about us." Your beloved widow, Blanca, is the greatest advocate for the book. And Millie coached me through some of the hard things. But I felt you, Carnal. I think you smiled when I finished it. So happy birthday. We are all sad today. And we know the anniversary of your death is coming in just a few days. But I also know that you were pretty sure, deep down, even with the pain, even with the fear in your eyes, that death was not larger than you were. We celebrate you. And maybe a few strangers will meet your essence in the book. That is my wish. I did my best. Keep whistling out there. I'm listening. Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons and the author.
1. Little cloud-white lambs wobble over the leas and paddocks, nibbling clover under a wooly sky. Ladies and lords and mustachioed manservants converse through the halls of castles. The subjects and soldiers in the hay fields out past the battlements are content, and peaceful in their boisterous way. There is a tallow candle in every midnight window, a sachet of herbs for every howling teapot, and a ruddy-cheeked family relaxing around every hearth. Welcome to the outskirts of London at the twilight of the 21st century. When Mary Shelley imagined the year 2100 in The Last Man, a lesser-known apocalyptic novel from 1826, she didn’t anticipate the rapid pace of technological and social change that would transform the world. Not only would penicillin prove to be a better cure-all than leeches, but mankind would also devise cell phones and cluster bombs, bitcoin and better long distance travel options than leaky sailboats. And so the frilled nobility and feudal economy of near future Great Britain that Shelley portrays seem anachronistic to contemporary readers, but so too should the notion of a drawn-out apocalypse. In The Last Man, the obliterating pandemic takes a dreadful seven years to finish us off. Can we imagine a slow apocalypse now? Most contemporary depictions of the end of the world in literature and popular culture involve a bang, not a whimper. Think of the luminous comet barreling toward Earth. Think of the radioactive shockwaves of nuclear holocaust rippling around the planet as if across a pond. Think of all the happy Evangelicals slurped out of their pajamas during a rapturous breakfast. Even abstract notions of collapse—say, reaching peak oil or detonating a “population bomb”—portend a quick topple. Our neighborhoods and nations have grown interdependent on complex international networks, and it’s no trouble to imagine everything swiftly tumbling in the direction of rock bottom. But when the world ends, I want it to take a long, long, achingly long time. Time to feel our collective loss, to grapple with the grief of it, and time enough to call up the best in us. 2. That’s why I found Shelley’s take on human extinction oddly refreshing. In The Last Man, the plague that throttles us—characterized as an “invincible monster”—exercises a wicked patience in its malice, and by extension we readers are given what feels like a rare opportunity to mourn our genuine achievements as a species before they are snatched away one by one. Season after season, Shelley’s invincible monster barrels across the globe. It originates in Africa, moves against Asia, and then conquers France and Italy, where the institutions of genteel diplomacy and uplifting commerce start to falter. News becomes scant and gossipy; information unbelievable. Once the disease hops the English Channel, abstractions fall too. While London is racked and ravaged, the government and its practitioners wither. (Somehow the stoic rule of law, for a time, survives the death-spiral of British society.) Out in the idyllic countryside, we watch as wealth and hereditary privilege suffer their own grim fates, as the noble families relinquish their lands to house the poor, transient, and sick. Lastly, we are given the time and space to mourn the emotions that make us human. After fleeing the English countryside, the weary remnant of humankind seeks the salubrious airs of the Swiss Alps and Mediterranean shores. Along the way we witness, with utmost relief, the final gasp of religious extremism. A chance encounter with a church organ and its only remaining players gives us our last experience of the sublime. Jealousy and exuberance, doubt and heartfelt fondness—one by one they disappear. And the sudden death of our narrator’s two final companions, which follows the extended death scene of his son, grants the space to even mourn the act of mourning itself. By the book’s final pages, not much of civilization remains to be mourned except for the odd marble ruin erected by the ancients. “Thus are we left,” says one friend to our narrator, two melancholy blasted trees, where once a forest waved. We are left to mourn, and pine, and die. Yet even now we have our duties, which we must string ourselves to fulfill: the duty of bestowing pleasure where we can, and by force of love, irradiating with rainbow hues the tempest of grief. Nor will I repine if in this extremity we preserve what we now possess. [millions_ad] 3. Decline’s easy pace in The Last Man, despite being written nearly two centuries prior, prefigures a semi-apocalyptic genre with contemporary salience: climate fiction. These are speculative stories of individuals and communities whose lives are threatened by the effects of global warming and climate change. Many of the novels in this genre end not in the shadow of a killer wave, but in the murk below a rising tide. Alternately, the characters of these stories may toil under a sweltering sun, whispering sand dune, or encroaching glacier. Drought chokes the plotlines of both Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife. In both, the American West and Southwest have run dry and the desert heat evaporates what little remains of the human soul. In the novels of Jeff Vander Meer, including Borne and his Southern Reach trilogy, we witness the phantasmagoric reversion of the planet to a natural world unbound from human agency. Lush swarms of monarch butterflies descend upon rural Tennessee in Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, portending great, horrible changes in both the near term and far future. In Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book, Australia’s social and political structure is rocked by climate-induced migration. After the mother of all storms, we see the granular erosion of capitalism in Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow. Classic cli-fi novels include Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake and Ian McEwan’s Solar. This is a small sample of the burgeoning genre. Like all of the natural “antagonists” in the books above, Shelley’s imagined plague advances with a creeping surefootedness, not unlike the incremental buildup of troubling symptoms within the global climate system. There’s an almost unfathomable (and growing) body of data about climate change and the ways it will disrupt our civilization’s pleasant march toward enlightenment. Meteorologists can point to the residential neighborhoods the future’s floods will swallow, forest ecologists can draw the lines of retreat for harried conifer groves, marine biologists can deluge you with estimates of fishery collapse, and glaciologists would prefer instead to recommend options for inexpensive bourbon, so dire is the condition of our planet’s large ice reserves. By these predictions, we can start to imagine the loss of the places to which we’ve grown most connected. Coming to terms with those losses will take more than insight or experience. Describing the strange remnant world left at the conclusion of his aforementioned novel Borne, Jeff Vander Meer writes: There comes a moment when you witness events so epic you don’t know how to place them in the cosmos or in relation to the normal workings of a day. Worse, when these events recur at an even greater magnitude, in a cascade of what you have never seen before and do not know how to classify. Troubling because each time you acclimate, you move on, and if this continues, there is a mundane grandeur to the scale that renders certain events beyond rebuke or judgment, horror or wonder, or even the grasp of history. If mourning is the process of acclimating to loss, then climate fiction is a new literature of mourning. 4. Recall Shelley’s exhortation to duty in the face of grief: “bestowing pleasure where we can, and by force of love, irradiating with rainbow hues the tempest of grief.” While “tempest of grief” may be the most apt and chilling phrase for global warming, “force of love” is a good description of the radical political willpower required to counteract our decline. Both emotional states will naturally arise from the loss of those things, places, and people we cherish most. But, Shelley continued: “Nor will I repine if in this extremity we preserve what we now possess.” This is her exhortation to cherish our individual happy memories, our civilization’s grand triumphs, and our species’ fateful legacy. If we do not mourn those things, we cannot move on from our grief.
The New York Times recently ran an animated ad online that featured a blinking cursor spelling out the words “He said” followed by “She said. She said. She said.” Ad infinitum. The ad, of course, was in reference to #MeToo, a feminist movement of truth-telling about sexual harassment and assault. Perhaps not coincidentally, there has also recently been a steady rise in post-apocalyptic/dystopian books that feature control over some aspect(s) of female reproduction. But these literary efforts have not been entirely lauded. In a recent, mostly-positive review of Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks in The Chicago Tribune, Kathleen Rooney pondered the issue of Handmaid’s Tale burnout: “How much feminist dystopic fiction can audiences read?” Ron Charles of The Washington Post echoed Rooney’s sentiments in his review of Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God: “But do we need another novel that reenacts the grim obstetrical control of The Handmaid’s Tale?” To be clear, Charles’s beef in the review isn’t really with the presence of “grim obstetrical control” in the novel, his concerns have more to do with elements like pacing, writing style, and character. But his question—and Rooney’s—point to relevant concerns, especially in the age of #MeToo: do dystopian novels that feature “grim obstetrical control” run the risk of feeling derivative, the equivalent of a cursor repeating “she said” into eternity? Will readers of these works suffer dystopia burnout and turn to quiet domestic dramas instead? Do these novels have the potential to strengthen or reinforce the #MeToo movement without feeling didactic? And if so, how? It’s true that dystopian/apocalyptic conceits have the potential to feel very derivative: a book published next year about women possessed with electrostatic power would feel like a wanna-be version of Naomi Alderman’s The Power; a novel about changing skin tone to reflect criminal behavior would be a too-close-for-comfort copy of When She Woke; even Erdrich’s concoction of evolution accelerating in reverse, if repeated, would feel redundant. But “grim obstetrical control” is not a speculative premise, it’s a setting that reiterates a current and historical social predicament. While The Handmaid’s Tale often feels other-worldly, Margaret Atwood has explained on numerous occasions that none of the travails of the women in her dystopic novel were fabricated; all of the misogynistic events occurred at some point in history. Nevertheless, mandatory red cloaks or ritualized procreation on behalf of infertile women still seems, especially for more privileged readers, to be events at the bottom of a very slippery slope and not situations we might find ourselves in next Thursday. Enter: Red Clocks. It isn’t speculative or post-apocalyptic, and although some reviewers have labeled it dystopian, Zumas herself refers to it as “paratopian.” Regardless, it reaffirms the idea of “grim obstetrical control” as setting rather than speculative premise by placing the characters in a world only three laws away from our own: abortion has been repealed, in vitro fertilization is illegal, and, imminently, adoptions will require two parents. To make matters worse, there’s a “Pink Wall” separating Canada from the United States, and Canadian officials who suspect minors of crossing the border to abort their pregnancies can return them to their homes to face criminal charges. This “grim obstetrical future” is not months or years away. It is not a cumulative snowball effect of the religious right slowly taking hold of our ovaries; Red Clocks is terrifying because the setting could be tomorrow. We don’t need more novels about “grim obstetrical control” in order to expose the possible reality of the sexual subjugation of women; we need these novels because, like the #MeToo movement, they expose a setting that has felt invisible and unacknowledged for centuries. If “grim obstetrical control” is the setting rather than the speculative premise, then asking whether we need another The Handmaid’s Tale is a little bit like asking whether we need another novel about WWII. Many of us might not choose to read another novel about WWII but we’d never suggest that Nazis were a speculative trope that’s been used up. This distinction, between setting and speculative premise, matters. Readers look to the speculative premise, often a conceit, as the meaning-making centrifuge of dystopian books. Setting, on the other hand, is more likely to be an arbiter of the novel’s mood or context for a character’s identity (though we can all certainly think of exceptions). So to see “grim obstetrical control” as speculative premise, and thus the meaning-making force of these books, is to risk missing the more profound offerings of each. [millions_ad] In Erdrich’s book, for instance, while Cedar Hawn Songmaker’s pregnancy is central to the narrative and the “grim obstetrical control” setting puts her and her growing fetus in danger, it’s her complicated relationship to religion that makes Cedar’s journey compelling. She is a recent Catholic convert (much to the chagrin of her hippie adoptive parents) and edits a Catholic magazine called Zeal. When the novel commences Cedar is at work on an issue on the Incarnation; meanwhile, her baby is due (and, spoiler alert, is born) on December 25. She and her lover conceive the baby while trying on nativity costumes in a church basement (he wears the angel wings) and Cedar takes comfort in religion at various times—mouthing Hail Marys and the words of Hildegard of Bingen. On the other hand, the religious right has renamed all of the street signs after Bible verses and leads the “grim obstetrical control” charge, rounding up pregnant women and imprisoning them (and often disposing of them after the birth). Cedar’s Ojibwe birth mother, who she meets near the beginning of the novel, is responsible for tending a statue of Kateri Tekakwitha, patron saint of Native people. The figure of Kateri has been appearing on the reservation, not to pious believers but to feckless gamblers whom she chastises rather severely. Religion provides both comfort and harm, fodder for philosophical musings and justification for violent subjugation; the nativity looms as a larger parallel story but the analogous actors Erdrich provides are flawed, unwilling, and deeply human. “Maybe God has some plan for me,” muses Cedar near the end of the novel. But then: “I crawl back onto my cot, and at the very notion of God Has a Plan, I start laughing so hard I have to stuff the edge of a blanket in my mouth.” To miss this dexterous, complicated, unflinching portrait of religion is, I think, to miss one of the central dynamics of Cedar’s character and one of the great strengths of the novel. Similarly, although the new misogynistic laws of Red Clocks certainly provide some of the tension in the book, to relegate the novel to a parable about the overturning of Roe v. Wade is to do the book a huge injustice. The five women in the novel struggle with myriad philosophical, ethical, and emotional issues: one character is caught between biological instinct and political conviction; another wrestles with notions of love and vocation; one woman faces feelings of guilt while another confronts grief. All of them wonder, in some way, what makes a life significant, specifically a woman’s life. And they grapple with how romantic relationships—or the true desire for solitude—relegate us to certain roles within our society. The political setting is not the purpose of the book but it does heighten the tension and increase the urgency of the characters’ choices. The decision to stay happily single, for instance, takes on different weight when this means you’ll be barred from adopting a child. Revealing a teenage friend’s pregnancy becomes more significant when the result may be years of incarceration. Though these dire settings raise the emotional stakes and intensify the choices of the characters in both Future Home and Red Clocks, they are not, ultimately, what the books are about. In her review of Red Clocks, Rooney further clarifies her concern about the onslaught of feminist dystopic fiction: “readers,” she cautions, “might find it redundant to be immersed in fiction that so closely resembles nightmares that already feel too present.” Donald Trump fatigue is certainly an important issue, and the inundation of stories from the #MeToo movement can feel disheartening because they point to a real setting, but one that is slippery and sometimes invisible. They point to acts that happen in dark rooms or closed offices or to comments so subtle and insidious that others can pretend to mishear. Novels that feature “grim obstetrical control” as setting make the invisible visible. They offer the relief of seeing plainly on the page what many women have felt for centuries, a vision that might be simply one step down a slippery slope or the horrible wreckage at the bottom. But they do not suggest that ultimate meaning is to be found in the setting, in the subjugation and disenfranchisement; rather, it’s to be found in characters who act bravely, wisely, foolishly, repugnantly, resiliently against the backdrop of this reality.
For many in my generation, living and breathing amidst the colonial ruins and ebbing pride of Calcutta, Amitav Ghosh was the first writer in English to write about the everyday life that we lived. The first writer to write of the streets we took, the bookstores we shopped in, the distinguished poverty we lived in, in the language in which we weren't accustomed to reading of these things. His life and mine began mere miles apart. But he, with his Booker near-misses, his Oxford doctorate, his immersive prose and me with my lying on a bed and staring at the ceiling fan, have had rather parallel lives. When I first touched his The Shadow Lines, I did not know who he was. I was 15 years old, it was a summer afternoon and I was rummaging in the one room of the attic of our rented home that held all our stuff. The book had no cover and its first 12 pages were missing. It lay open, underneath things that had been moved from house to house as we moved along with them. It had been hurriedly put down. I imagined an aunt or an uncle reading it and then being called away. I imagined her shoving the book into the last box, assured that she would open it in the new house soon. I imagined the boxes getting comfortable in the rented rooms that grew increasingly smaller, and us losing the need to open those that held non-essential things. In 1945, my young grandparents had walked from what is now Bangladesh to what is now Bengal, as the British prepared to partition India. Since then, till about 2007, our family lived in one rented home after another. In its crowded home in a cardboard box, where it shared space with terra cotta dolls, Bengali translations of The Rig Veda, and the blankets that were meant to cushion blows to the fragile things, The Shadow Lines, with its dog ears and its maddening old smell, was the very Calcutta refugee that it speaks of in its own pages. I read with the joy of a reader who had so far only read the English literature of the English. Ghosh was not writing the Calcutta of the colonisers, the Calcutta of the north with its lofty crumbling houses belonging to the Queen's viceroys and their good friends; he was writing the south Calcutta where I lived, the south Calcutta where refugees from Bangladesh—like my grandparents had been and like the narrator's grandmother had been—landed. I did not know what a seminal text it had already become in postcolonial literature as I read it, but I remember the first feeling of oneness. Delirious, I wrote to Ghosh through the "Contact" page on his website. "I have been forever changed thanks to your book. My own grandmother is the same woman you have spoken of in Shadow Lines. [And then, in a leap of audacity] I have to ask you if you once had a grandmother who was like this." Ghosh replied, "Dear Soumashree, thank you for writing to me. I am happy that the book resonated with you." The door to the dark underbelly of joy at an author's acknowledgement had been opened. As that summer gave way to the next, the newspapers filled with previews of Ghosh's Sea of Poppies, the first in his Ibis trilogy. By then I had read three more books by Ghosh—The Hungry Tide, The Calcutta Chromosome, and Dancing in Cambodia—and he had become one of the writers whom I would regard as a personal literary trainer. On July 10, 2008, I was browsing a bookstore in a south Calcutta mall when I noticed that Sea of Poppies was to be released on that evening by Ghosh himself. It was mid-afternoon then and the book release was scheduled at 7 p.m. Seven p.m. was also exactly the hour at which my mathematics tutor would arrive at my house. I went home and fell prostrate at my mother's two feet. My mother, the staunch disciplinarian, told me that not only was I allowed to cook up a story for my absence at the math class, but that she would come with me to the book release too. The sun set on the glorious day and my mother and I caught a yellow taxi to go to the mall. On the way, I called my math teacher. "Miss, I am very sorry, but I will be a little late today." "Why, what is the matter?" "It is my eye, miss, I have had to come to the doctor." "What happened to your eye?" "My left eye has developed a blind patch. I cannot see through the patch, though my vision is okay for the rest of the eye." "Oh. Okay. Yes, sure. Absolutely." We arrived on time and just as I was paying for the book, Ghosh entered the bookstore with his wife, the writer Deborah Baker. He looked tired, his shoulders drooping, but who cared, this was the first time I was seeing a writer I had loved in the flesh. There was a short reading from the book, and as the compere read out an exchange from one of the first few pages of the hardcover, Ghosh stared into the distance with a frown on his face. At last, the crowd was asked to queue for the signings. Ghosh rummaged in his pocket for a second and brought out a metal pen. The stage was set. I noticed that everyone was saying something to Ghosh to which he was gently nodding and responding to. I briefly mulled over the line, "The character Mangala Bibi from The Calcutta Chromosome still wakes me up at nights," but decided against it, in what was singularly the only occasion where I have looked before I leapt. The woman in front of me spelt her name out for him, "J-I-N-I-A." "Oh, what a beautiful name, is there a particular reason behind it?" asked Ghosh. "I don't know, my father just like the flower I think," she said. "Oh, haha," said Ghosh. "Can you mention the date, please, sir?" she said. "Of course, of course." Next was I. Before Ghosh even opened to the page, I had said, "Good evening, sir, my name is Soumashree. S-O-U-M-A-S-H-R-E-E" in one breath. Ghosh looked wearily at me and then said, "S-O-U?" "M-A-S-H-R-E-E." In two seconds it was over. So I clutched at the only straw available. "Sir, can you put in the date please, sir?" He had already closed the book. "Sure, absolutely." "Thank you so much." "Thank you." I returned to my mother, standing at a distance, brandishing the book half expecting people in the mall and on the streets to come running up to me to check out the signed copy. Once home, I ambled into my room where my teacher was hunched over the table, asleep. "How do you feel?" asked miss. "Much better," I said and sighed. I read Sea of Poppies, turning often to the first signed page. It was rich and homely—a Bengali book written in English. Exactly two years later, on the same day, I would enter my university's famed English department. Once inside, I read Amitav Ghosh with renewed vigour in classes where The Hungry Tide was taught with Rainer Maria Rilke's Duino Elegies, where passages of In an Antique Land made our professor's voice quiver, and where The Shadow Lines returned in classes devoted to the larger narrative of nation formation and rupture. I was deep into the tumult of daily college life when the second part of the Ibis trilogy, River of Smoke, was upon us in 2011. This book, too, was to release in the same bookstore at the same mall. This time, I noticed from the newspaper ads that Ghosh was to speak in at least three other city venues during the concentrated time period in which he was stopping at Calcutta while touring the country with the book. It had rained heavily on the day, and when I reached the bookstore after a robust fight with my boyfriend, it was entirely full. Ghosh would be in conversation with the maverick Rimi B. Chatterjee—a novelist and my writing professor at university. This time I knew most of the crowd assembled. Classmates, professors, lecturers, friends who studied literature in other colleges, and my boyfriend all milled about in a spirit of great celebration while we waited for Ghosh. He eventually arrived, looking tired. A classmate whispered, "I almost feel bad that he has to sign so many copies now." A discussion ensued. A more lively and interactive one than the one in 2008, but a discussion which Chatterjee had to repeatedly maneuver back to the topic of the book, thanks to the garrulous Calcuttan's natural inclination to begin a long, winding lecture whenever a microphone is handed to him. At the end of a young man's nervous but long-winded account of how he felt Ghosh should have navigated the boatman's experience in The Hungry Tide better, the audience had grown agitated and murmured dissent. Ghosh was unperturbed. He had a slight frown but he thanked the man for his opinion and answered him at length. When the magic hour of the book signings arrived, the bookstore staff handed us small pieces of paper. "What for?" "Write your name on it." I willingly wrote all 16 letters of my full name on it before realizing that the paper was to act as reference for Ghosh as he signed our names on the books. They would speed the process and eliminate the ordeal of him having to figure out the hurriedly announced spellings of our names over the din. When my turn came, I handed him the paper and he unquestioningly wrote down my whole name on the book. I remember thinking if he remembers writing the same name down years ago, and then thinking of all the names that he has had to write in the meantime. "Do you study in college?" he abruptly asked. "I...yes," I stammered, looking around wildly for a professor to substantiate this. "Oh. Where?" Ghosh asked. "At Jadavpur," I barely replied. "Oh. Good," said Ghosh, looking in Chatterjee's direction, acknowledging my need to have a professor verify my presence. "Thank you," I said. "Well, thank you," he replied. I showed my boyfriend the book. The next morning, we spotted ourselves in photographs of the book release that were published in newspapers. Time flew, I got two degrees in English literature and moved to Bangalore to work as a journalist for the tabloid pages of an English daily. Tabloid it was, but within its pages, headlined by only the most conventionally beautiful of women, it had detailed theatre reviews, culture pages, and no fewer than a weekly 1,000 words devoted to literature. I did not like my job and its only perk was these book and theatre stories that we got to write. I wrote these with a lot of vigor, but as a new entrant into the city's tabloid circle, I never quite got into the groove of receiving the first promotional email of any event and was routinely beaten to the juicy book reviews and theatre previews by my colleagues. One Wednesday in June 2015, my boss suddenly asked, "Do you want to interview Amitav Ghosh day after tomorrow?" "What?" [millions_ad] "His Flood of Fire is releasing and I had not noticed the email," she said. "I will forward it to you. Make sure you read some of his work before going." I festered in silence. The email entered my inbox. I called the contact it mentioned at Penguin Random House, Ghosh's publisher. "It's a bit late in the day, isn't it?" she said. "I know, but I was just delegated the interview," I said. "Take this guy Varun's number. He's in charge of the interviews," she said. I called this guy Varun. "Your newspaper's Chennai office is doing an interview for the national Sunday page review already," he said. "I was hoping to speak with him about his particular experience of Bangalore," I lied. "Well, that'll be difficult. Amitav is not doing very well, he is rather ill, so even if I could have squeezed you in under normal circumstances, I don't think I'll be able to do that now," he said. I almost laughed in relief. "I understand. Please give him my best." "Thanks a lot for being so easy to convince, Soumashree. Please do come at the book launch event." "Oh sure, I will." The pressure lifted. What questions could I frame for a 10-minute long interview with Ghosh? What questions need one ask the custodian of one's literary consciousness? The next day, I went to the boss and told her that we had missed securing a slot in a day's interactions with Ghosh. "Do try to go for the evening launch tomorrow, though," the editor said. I opened the email again and stared at the location. It was in an atrium at a five-star hotel at the center of the city. Having edited the "Party" pages of the newspaper and attended one too many nightly events where Bangalore's "it" crowd converged to be photographed, I knew immediately what kind of evening this would be. A staple crowd would turn up to be photographed, they would make small talk and disperse like they dispersed in every other party, no matter what the occasion. Ghosh had passed from the ambit of mall store book releases into the "entry by invitation only" exclusivity. This was no bookstore. This launch would have no crowd of talkative people so neck-deep in the ethos of Hungry Tide that they forget that there is an audience around them. I was livid. I did not go. A day later, the lifestyle editor of our newspaper told us that Ghosh was extremely polite and had signed all her books with great courtesy. "He is a Bengali, like you. Have you read anything by him?" I raged in silence at a writer climbing the last step of impenetrability and moving out of the reach of the people—his people. How dare the Ghosh of the attic afternoons, the Ghosh whose Burma reflected the one my father spent the best three years of his life, the Ghosh who wrote characters like the softly rebellious Tridib whom we find in every single Bengali home…how dare he betray the shared smallness of our Calcutta to the in-your-face prosperity of Bangalore. Does the literature that rises from Calcutta belong to the city alone? Yes, I told myself. I was ashamed even then of feeling this way. But while the likelihood of Ghosh himself announcing that he would like to have a book launch at a hotel instead of a bookstore was pretty slim, I seethed and vowed never to buy this third book. In 2016, I moved back to Calcutta to work on my own novel. And that year, Ghosh released The Great Derangement. Every publication brought out an interview. I purchased all the magazines that had them. Eventually, I saw a circulating flier on Facebook saying Ghosh would come to a discussion at my university. "All were welcome." Events and talks follow a particular tradition at my university. At any given day, somewhere on the campus, a crowd would form around a world-famous academic, leader, writer, or performer visiting then. And the great thing about the crowd was that it was never limited to the students and teachers of the relevant department or even the university. The gates were open to all, all events were open to all. I reached the hall on a sunny afternoon and could barely open the door enough to slip in. It was entirely full. Ex-students, researchers, professors, ex-professors, organizers, absolute strangers, and current students occupied every inch of the floor and sweated through the air conditioning. Some of the seat handles even had a student on it, crouching low, so as to not obstruct the view of the people behind him or her. The windowsills were occupied. Three people sat on the small bench meant for the sound guy. I sat down on the floor, along with nearly 30 others. Ghosh sat relaxed, and then took out his smartphone and took a photograph of us. He was in conversation with a professor of comparative literature and one of oceanography. With all the laughter, the effortless discussion, and the way Ghosh referred to how much he had enjoyed an earlier talk at Jadavpur University—a talk in 2008, on the same day when he had gone to the bookstore where I would first see him—he was making amends for releasing Flood of Fire in a swank hotel. The microphone faltered, the room grew hot, but the deep conspiracy of a summer afternoon on Calcutta was at work once again. The writer was ours once again, putting a lid on my jealousy. Amitav Ghosh would later tweet the photograph of the event. I am there. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.