How Ramona Quimby Made Me Brave

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1.
We didn’t know he was dead when we entered the room, but it didn’t take long to confirm it.

November 6, 1991.

I was a curly-headed kindergartner who figured his grandfather would live forever. I figured wrong.

Standing in the doorway of my grandparents’ bedroom that day, I watched as the paramedic’s hands hovered above my grandfather’s chest like a bee afraid to land. At last, he found his mark: smashing his hands into my grandfather’s heart in an act that looked more deadly than lifesaving.

Until that moment, death had seemed a hypothetical—something that could happen, but that didn’t necessarily have to happen. As long as you ate your veggies and buckled your seatbelt, you’d be blessed with eternal life.

My grandfather’s death ran contrary to that thinking.

In my first existential murmuring, I wondered: Why bother with broccoli if we’re all going to die anyway?

I didn’t voice this sentiment, because I didn’t voice much of anything back then. I was a relatively quiet child to begin with, though I became abnormally quiet after my first brush with death. Some days I struggled to work up the courage even to say hello to my teacher, or my bus driver, or my friends. Parrots held longer conversations than I did.

My reluctance to talk never seemed like a problem until it suddenly was one; my elementary school informed my parents that I wouldn’t be graduating from kindergarten to first grade alongside my peers. Instead, my silence reserved me a spot in a yearlong purgatory called “Reading Readiness,”—a loosely defined “catch-all” class for those of us not yet emotionally or academically ready to continue on.

I didn’t mind. After all, it was there, on a carpet square in Ms. Pfleiger’s classroom, where I was first introduced to a character named Ramona Quimby.

She and I became fast friends, though we were an odd couple: she the outspoken, unruly, and nonexistent one, while I was quiet, well-behaved, and cripplingly aware of my own mortality.

Over the next few years, Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books became my sacred texts. I turned to them in times of trouble, leaving the crumbly roads of the real world in favor of the smooth sidewalks of Ramona Quimby’s Klickitat Street.

Ah, Klickitat Street! The name alone sounded like sanctuary. Cleary once said she’d selected the name because it captured “the sound of knitting needles.” But to those of us from out of town, it was more than that: it was a sun-dappled, tree-lined, living monument to childhood. A landscape run amok with milkmen and paper routes and little red wagons.

The greatest tragedy that ever occurred on Klickitat Street was the passing of the Quimby’s cat, who died of natural causes. It was the kind of loss I could get behind. One that required but a moment of silence.

2.
When Beverly Clearly died on March 25 at the age of 104, my first thought was: how on earth was she still alive?

It seemed somehow incomprehensible that a woman born during the Wilson Administration had only just left us. I credited Cleary’s longevity to vegetable eating and regular seatbelt use. She lived as long as 13 8-year-old Ramona’s combined; a breathtakingly long life, during which she sold more than 91 million copies of her books.

That’s a lot of Ramona Quimby, whose spunky outspokenness paved the way for generations of young readers to live ferociously. More pluck than poise, Ramona Quimby entered the room like a Mardi Gras parade, trumpeting trouble wherever she went. But it was never real trouble, merely the misadventures of a young person trying to crack wide her world. Her life was the laboratory through which kids like me could run our own experiments. What are the consequences of cracking an egg over your head? Or locking a dog in a bathroom? Or doodling in a library book? Ramona had answers for all of the above.

Yet Ramona Quimby endures not because of what she did, but for what she felt while doing it. Beverly Cleary, who was 8 years old in 1924, somehow never forgot the anxieties of that age. She tapped into that turmoil, encouraging Ramona to take the road that didn’t always lead directly to happily-ever-after. The more one read, the more one realized that it wasn’t all smooth sidewalks on Klickitat Street.

One night when I was 7 or so, I stayed up late reading Ramona the Brave. Ramona was up late, too, anxious about her father’s late return from a night of bowling. Book in hand, I turned the pages as fast as I could, desperate to give her a little relief. That night Ramona said her prayers, “then repeated them,” Cleary wrote, “in case God was not listening the first time.”

I couldn’t speak for God, but I was sure listening, and I called out to poor Ramona trapped on the page.

“Your dad’s going to be fine,” I promised. “In books like yours, dads always are.”

Pages later, Ramona heard the rumble of her father’s car, followed by the squeak of the door, then the sound of the thermostat turning.

Upon finding his daughter still awake, Mr. Quimby sternly (but not too sternly) told Ramona to go to sleep. Which she did, now that she could.

For me, Ramona’s greatest act of bravery was that she wasn’t afraid to be scared: a lesson I myself was only beginning to learn.

“What’d I tell you, Ramona?” I whispered. “Didn’t I tell you he’d be back?”

Smiling, I placed the book on my bedside table and flicked off the light.

For too long, my heart had felt too small to bear the loss of the man who wouldn’t be coming back.

But my heart was bigger now. And I was bigger now.

And with every word, the weight lifted.

Marvelous Mutable Marvell

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Twelve years to the day after King Charles I ascended the scaffold at Whitehall to become the first European sovereign decapitated by his subjects, and his son had the remains of Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector during England’s republican decade and the man whom as much as any other was responsible for the regicide, exhumed from his tomb in Westminster Abby so that the favor could be returned. Interregnum signified dreary theocracy, when the theaters were closed, Christmas abolished, and even weekend sports banned. By contrast, Charles promised sensuality, a decadent rejection of austere radicalism. But if there was one area of overlap, it would be in issues of rapprochement, for though pardons were issued to the opposition rank-and-file, Charles still ordered the execution of 31 signers of his father’s judgement, remembered by the subject of this essay as that moment when the king had “bowed his comely head/Down as upon a bed.” Even the dead would not be spared punishment, for in January of 1661 Cromwell was pulled from his grave, flesh still clinging to bone, languid hair still hanging from grey scalp, and the Royalists would hang him from a gibbet at Tyburn.


Eventually Cromwell’s head would be placed on a pike in front of Westminster Hall where it would molder for the next two decades. Such is the mutability of things. Through this orgy of revenge, a revolutionary who’d previously served as Latin Secretary (tasked with translating diplomatic missives) slinked out of London. Already a celebrated poet, he’d been appointed by Cromwell because of his polemical pamphlets. After the blanket pardon he emerged from hiding, but still Charles had him arrested, perhaps smarting when in 1649 the author had described Royalists as a “credulous and hapless herd, begott’n to servility, and inchanted with these popular institutes of Tyranny.” By any accounting John Milton’s living body should have been treated much the same as Cromwell’s dead one, for he was arrested, imprisoned, and no doubt fully expected himself to be flayed and hung up at Tyburn. But he would avoid punishment (and go on to write Paradise Lost). Milton’s rescue can be attributed to another poet a decade his junior.  

Once a keen supporter of Cromwell, but now the new government completely trusted this younger poet and his word was enough to keep Milton from the scaffold. Before the regicide he’d been a royalist, during Interregnum a republican, and upon Restoration a royalist again, all of which earned him the sobriquet of “The Chameleon.” That perhaps impugns him too much, for if Andrew Marvell understood anything it was fickle mutability, how in a mercurial reality all that can be steadfast is merely the present. A man loyal not to regimes but to friends. He was born on this day 400 years ago, he is among the greatest poets, and the relative silence that accompanies his quadricentenary speaks to his major theme: our eventual oblivion. “Thy beauty shall no more be found,” Marvell’s narrator warns in his most famous poem, and it might as well be prophecy for his own work.    

“His grave needs neither rose nor rue nor laurel; there is no imaginary justice to be done; we may think about him… for our own benefit, not his,” writes T.S. Eliot in his seminal essay “Andrew Marvell,” published on this day a century ago in the Times Literary Supplement. Just as John Donne had been known primarily for his sermons, so too was Marvell remembered chiefly as a politician (he was elected as an MP prior to Restoration, a position he stayed in through his death), until Eliot encouraged critics to take a second look at his verse. By Eliot’s recommendation, Marvell was now understood as one of the greatest poets of the century, perhaps only lesser than his friend Milton. Jonathan Bate writes in the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Andrew Marvell: The Complete Poems that his “small body of highly wrought work constitutes English poetry’s most concentrated imaginative investigation of the conflicting demands of the active and the contemplative life, the self and society, the force of desire and the pressure of morality, the detached mind and the body embedded in its environment.” Perhaps Marvell deserves a little bit of rose or rue or laurel. Yet his quadricentennial passes without much of a mention, though presumably some other writers will (hopefully) consider his legacy today. A quick Google search shows that several academic societies are providing (virtual) commemoration, including a joint colloquium hosted by St. Andrews, and appropriately enough a Marvell website maintained by  the University of Hull in his northern English hometown (which features this insightful essay by Stewart Mottram about Marvell and COVID-19). Yet by comparison to other recent literary anniversaries—for Milton, Mary Shelly, Walt Whitman, Charles Dickens, of course, William Shakespeare—there has largely been quiet about Marvell, even though Eliot once said regarding his poetry that a “whole civilization resides in these lines.”

Marvell published only a handful of lyrics in his own life, and while he authored examples of virtually every popular genre of the time, from ode to panegyric, country house poem to satire (though not epic), he stretched their bounds, made them unclassifiable and slightly strange. Having written across three major periods of 17th-century English literary history—during the Caroline reign, the Commonwealth, and then Restoration—he awkwardly fits within both of the two dominant traditions of that age, metaphysical and Cavalier poetry. “Was he classic or romantic, metaphysical or Augustan, Cavalier or Puritan… republican or royalist?” asks Elisabeth Story Donno in the introduction to Andrew Marvell: The Critical Heritage, and indeed such ambiguity threads through his verse and especially his life. This Hull-born son of a stern Calvinist minister who after dalliances on the continent possibly converted to Catholicism (tarred on return as now being an “Italo-Machiavellian”), who served kings and republicans, and who seamlessly switched political and religious allegiances.


The great themes of Marvell’s biography and his poetry are mutability and transitoriness; his verse is marked by the deep sense that as it once was, it no longer is; and as it is, it no longer shall be. “Underlying these themes is the knowledge that in love or action time can’t be arrested or permanence achieved,” writes Michael Schmidt in Lives of the Poets. “A sanctioned social order can be ended with an ax, love is finite, we grow old.” With an almost Taoist sense of the impermanence of life, Marvell casts off opinions and positions with ease, and even his own place within the literary firmament is bound to change and alter. “But at my back I always hear/Time’s winged chariot hurrying near,” as Marvell astutely notes. A poet who has “no settled opinions, except the fundamental ones,” writes Schmidt, though his “political readjustments in times of turmoil have not told against him. There is something honest seeming about everything he does, and running through his actions a constant thread of humane concern.” Steadfast though we all wish we could be, Marvell is the poet of Heraclitus’s stream, always reminding us that this too shall pass. “Even his name is slippery,” writes Bates, “In other surviving documents it is as variously spelt as… Marvell, Mervill, Mervile, Marvel, Mervail. We are not sure how to pronounce it.” A convenient metaphor.

However Marvell pronounced his name, it’s his immaculate words and the enchanted ways that he arranged them that are cause for us to return to him today, a poet for whom his “charms are as real as they are hard to define,” as Schmidt writes. Marvell has no great drama in his oeuvre, no Hamlet or King Lear, he penned no epics, no Paradise Lost. Donne, one of his great influences, was more innovative, and George Herbert provided a more unified body of work. And yet in about six or so poems—”The Garden,” “Upon Appleton House,” “An Horatian Ode Upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland,” the sequence known as the Mower poems, “Bermudas,” and of course “To His Coy Mistress”—are among the most perfect in the language, all written around 1650, when the poet acted as tutor to the daughter of Lord General Thomas Fairfax, commander of the New Model Army before Cromwell. Schmidt argues that “Most of his poems are in one way or another ‘flawed’… [the] tetrameter couplets he favored prove wearying… Some of the conceits are absurd. Many of the poems… fail to establish a consistent perspective… Other poems are static: an idea is stated and reiterated in various terms but not developed… There are thematic inconsistencies.” Yet despite Schmidt’s criticism of Marvell, he can’t help but conclude that “because of some spell he casts, he is a poet whose faults we not only forgive but relish.”

It’s because of Marvell’s overweening honesty when it comes
to those faults, themselves a function of the world in flux, which is to say a
reality where perfection must always be deferred. In “The Garden,”
one of the great pastoral poems, he describes “The mind, that ocean where
each kind/Does straight its own resemblance find;/Yet it creates, transcending these,
/For other worlds, and other seas;/Annihilating all that’s made.”  His “Upon Appleton House,” which
takes part in the common if retroactively odd convention of the country-house
poem wherein the terrain of a wealthy estate is described, contrasts the artifice
of the garden with its claim to naturalism; in “An Horatian Ode Upon
Cromwell’s Return from Ireland,” he gives skeptical praise to the Lord
Protector (back from a genocidal campaign across the sea), where the “forward
youth that would appear/Must now forsake his Muses dear,/Nor in the shadows
sing/His numbers languishing.” Mutability defined not just Marvell’s
politics but his poetry; steadfastly Christian (of some denomination or
another) he gives due deference to the eternal, but the affairs of men are
fickle, and time’s arrow moves in only one direction.

History’s unforgiving erraticism is sometimes more apparent, and Marvell lived during the most chaotic of English centuries. When the Commonwealth that Marvell served collapsed, and Charles II came back from his exile in 1660, it was to triumphant fanfare in a London that was exhausted after years of stern Puritan dictatorship. Crowds thronged the streets wearing sprigs of oak leaves to welcome the young King Charles and the spring of Restoration. In the coronation portrait by John Michael Wright, the 30-year-old king is made to appear the exact opposite of priggish Cromwell; he is bedecked in ribbons and lace, tight white hose and cascading violet velvet, his curly chestnut wig long in the French style (as he would have picked up in the Sun King’s Court at Versailles) with a thin brunette mustache above a wry smile, a royal scepter in one hand and an orb in the other. If Cromwell was a Puritan hymn, then Charles was a baroque sonata by Henry Purcell. Marvell learned the melodies of both. His contemporary biographer Nigel Smith notes in Andrew Marvell: The Chameleon that the poet “made a virtue and indeed a highly creative resource of being other men’s (and women’s) mirrors.” What is espied in a mirror, it must be said, depends on what you put in front of it. Mirrors are ever-changing things. Such is mutability.  

There must be a few caveats when I argue that Marvell’s fame has diminished. Firstly, to any of my fellow scholars of the Renaissance (now more aridly known as “early modernists”) who are reading, of course I know that you still study and teach Marvell, of course I know that articles, dissertations, presentations, and monographs are still produced on him, of course I know that all of us are familiar with his most celebrated poems. It would be a disingenuous argument to claim that I’m “rediscovering” a poet who remains firmly canonical, at least among my small tribe. Secondly, to any conservatives reading, I’m not suggesting that Marvell has been eclipsed because he’s been “cancelled,” or anything similarly silly, though honestly there would probably be ample reason to do so even if that were a thing (and as perfect a poem as it is, “An Horatian Ode Upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland” is problematic in the least), but bluntly his stock isn’t high enough to warrant being a target in that way. Thirdly, and most broadly, I’m not claiming that his presence is absent from our imagination, far from it. If anything, Marvell flits about as a half-remembered reference, a few turns of phrase that lodge in the brain from distant memories of undergraduate British literature survey courses, or a dappling of lines that end up misattributed to some other author (I’ve seen both “Times winged chariot” and “green thought in a green shade” identified with Shakespeare). Modern authors as varied as Eliot, Robert Penn Warren, Ursula K. Le Guinn, William S. Burroughs, Terry Pratchet, Philip Roth, Virginia Woolf, Archibald MacLeish, Primo Levi, and Arthur C. Clark either quote, reference, allude toward, or directly write about Marvell. Even Stephen King quotes from “To His Coy Mistress” in Pet Sematary. Regardless, on this muted birthday, ask yourself how many people you know are aware of Marvell, among a handful of the greatest poets writing during the greatest period of English poetry?

“Thus, though we cannot make our Sun/Stand still, yet we will make him run.” So concludes Marvell’s greatest accomplishment, “To His Coy Mistress.” Like an aesthetic syllogism, the poem piles an abundance of gorgeous imagery in rapid succession to make an argument about how the present must be seized, for immortality is an impossibility. Of course, the conceit of the poem isn’t novel; during the Renaissance it was downright cliché. Carpe diem poetry—you may remember the term from the Peter Weir film Dead Poets Society—goes back to Latin classics by poets like Catullus and Lucretius. A representative example would be Marvell’s contemporary, the Cavalier poet Robert Herrick, and his lyric “Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May.” These poems commonly made an erotic argument, the imagined reader a woman whom the narrator is attempting to seduce into bed with an argument about the finite nature of life. Donne’s obvious precursor “To His Mistress Going to Bed (Elegy 19)” is perhaps the most brilliant example of the form. Bate emphasizes that such a “motif is typical of the Cavalier poets… Marvell, however, takes the familiar Cavalier genre and transposes it to a realm beyond ideology.” When reading Donne, the “poems are written in the very voice of a man in bed with a real woman,” as Bates writes, most likely his beloved wife, Anne, for whom he had no compunctions about blatantly stating his sexual yearning. Marvell, by contrast, “never fleshes out his imaginary mistress,” and the result is that “He is not really interested in either the girl or the Cavalier pose; for him, it is experience itself that we must seize with energy, not one particular lifestyle.” The mistress to whom Marvell is trying to woo is his own soul, and the purpose is to consciously live in a present, for that’s all that there is.

“Had we but World enough, and Time,” Marvell begins, “This coyness Lady were no crime.” Ostensibly an argument against chastity, his reasoning holds not just for sex (though the declaration of “My vegetable Love should grow” a few lines later certainly implies that it’s not not about coitus). Eroticism marks the first half of the lyric, explicitly tied to this theme of time’s fleetingness, while imagining the contrary. “A hundred years should go to praise/Thine Eyes, and on thy Forehead Gaze. /Two hundred to adore each breast:/But thirty thousand to the rest. /An Age at least to every part, /And the last Age should show your heart.” Marvell is working within the blazon tradition, whereby the physical attributes of a beloved are individually celebrated, yet Bates is correct that the hypothetical woman to whom the lyric is a cipher more than a person—for nothing actually is described, merely enumerated. For that matter, the time frames listed—100 years, 30,000, an ambiguous “Age”—all seem random, but as a comment on eternity, there’s a wisdom in understanding that there’s no difference between a second or an epoch. He similarly reduces and expands space, calling upon venerable exoticized images to give sense of the enormity of the world (and by consequence how small individual realities actually are). “To walk, and pass our long Loves Day. /Thou by the Indian Ganges side… I would/Love you ten year before the Flood:/And you should if you please refuse/Till the Conversion of the Jews.” Marvell’s language (orientalist though it may be) is playful; it calls to mind the aesthetic sensuality of Romantics like William Taylor Coleridge, where he imagines the mistress picking rubies off the ground. But the playfulness is interrupted by the darker tone of the second half of the poem.

“But at my back I always hear/Time’s winged chariot hurrying near:/And yonder all before us lie/Desarts of vast Eternity.” The theology of “To His Coy Mistress” is ambiguous; are these deserts of vast eternity the same as the immortality of Christian heaven, or does it imply extinction? Certainly, the conflation of death with a desert seems to deny any continuation. It evokes the trepidation of the French Catholic philosopher and Marvell’s contemporary Blaise Pascal, who in his Pensées trembled before the “short duration of my life, swallowed up in an eternity before and after, the little space I fill engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces whereof I know nothing.” Evocatively gothic language follows: Marvell conjures the beloved’s moldering corpse in “thy marble Vault,” where “Worms shall try/That long preserv’d Virginity: And your quaint Honour turn to dust,” a particularly grotesque image of the phallic vermin amidst a decomposing body, especially as “quaint” was a contemporary pun for  genitalia. “The Grave’s a fine and private place, /But none I think do there embrace.” In the final third of the poem, Marvell embraces almost mystical rhetoric. “Let us roll all our Strength, and all/Our sweetness, up into one Ball:/And tear our Pleasures with rough strife, /Thorough the iron gates of Life.” This couple melding together is obviously a sexual image, but he’s also describing a singularity, a monad, a type of null point that exists beyond space and time. If there is one clear message in “To His Coy Mistress,” it’s that this too shall pass, that time will obliterate everyone and everything. But paradoxically, eternity is the opposite of immortality; for if eternity is what we desire, then it’s in the moment. Traditional Carpe diem demands that we live life fully for one day we’ll die; Marvell doesn’t disagree with that, but his command is that to truly live life fully is to understand that it’s the present that exists eternally, that we always only live in this present right now, so we must ask ourselves what the significance of this brief second is. What’s mere fame to that?

Marvell’s star has faded not because he wasn’t a great poet, not because he deserves to be forgotten, not because he’s been replaced by other writers or because of any conscious diminishment of his stature. His fame has ebbed because that’s what happens to people as time moves forward. The arguments about what deserves to be read, taught, and remembered often overlooks the fact that forgetting is a function of what it means to be human. What makes “To His Coy Mistress” sublime is that there is a time-bomb hidden with it, the poet’s continuing obsolescence firmly confirming the mutability of our stature, of our very lives. Marvell’s own dwindling fame is a beautiful aesthetic pronouncement, a living demonstration of time’s winged chariot, and the buzzing of the wings of oblivion forever heard as a distant hum. After his death in 1678, he was ensconced within seemingly ageless marble, and set within the catacombs of St. Giles-in-the-Fields, a gothic stone church at the center of London, though true to its name it was at the edge of the city when Marvell was alive. Ever as fortune’s wheel turns, the neighborhood is now bathed in perennial neon light—theaters with their marquees signs and the ever-present glow of electronic billboards. Red double-decker busses and black hackney-carriages dart past the church were Marvell slumbers, unconscious through empire, through Industrial Revolution, through the explosions of the blitz. 

“But a Tombstone can neither contain his character, nor is Marble necessary to transmit it to posterity,” reads his epitaph, “it is engraved in the minds of this generation, and will be always legible in his inimitable writings, nevertheless.” Probably not. For one day, there will less seminars about Marvell, and then no more; less anthologizing, and then the printings will stop; less interest, except in the minds of antiquarians, and then they too shall forget. One day, even Shakespeare shall largely be forgotten as well. The writing on Marvell’s tomb will become illegible, victim to erosion and entropy, and even the banks of the Thames will burst to swallow the city. When he is forgotten, paradoxically maybe especially when he is, Marvell teaches us something about what is transient and what is fleeting. Time marches forward in only one direction, and though it may erase memory it can never annihilate that which has happened. Regardless of heaven, Marvell lived, and as for all of us, that’s good enough. His verse still dwells in eternity, whether we utter his name or not, for what is rendered unto us who are mortal is the ever-living life within the blessed paradise of a second, which is forever present.

Image Credit: Wikipedia.

For the Relief of Unbearable Bookstores

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I’ve reached the point in life where my relationship with bookstores is—how to put this?—well, it’s complicated. I love the idea of bookstores. I smile when I see their bright windows on a block. I talk about a new bookshop like normal people talk about newborns. And after the global pandemic loosens its grip on New York, I know one of the first things I’ll do is visit a bookstore in my neighborhood. In my imagination, this means spending a long lazy afternoon browsing shelves and flipping the pages of dozens of new books. There’s just one problem: I long ago ceased to enjoy bookstores. Even before the pandemic, I couldn’t spend more than a few minutes inside one without wanting to leave; no, without wanting to flee, shoulders hunched, like a child caught trespassing.
I once burned for bookstores. And not just because I thought the right books made me look smart, either. This was a love affair that began before I knew pretension. The very first bookstore that I loved as a boy was a mall bookstore. Its name, Abbey Road Books, made no sense to me because it was located on Gull Road, not Abbey Road. The mall would be gone long before I got the Beatles reference.
Abbey Road Books was not large but it was big enough for a guileless boy: a rack near the cash register held comic books. A half dozen long rows running front to back offered popular paperbacks and—I assume—serious literary fiction. I never really looked. I was too busy with the Garfield collections, the Dragonriders of Pern fantasies or the sci-fi pulp. This was where I found my first favorite novel, Laura J. Mixon’s Astro Pilots, a YA book about a teenager whose revenge on a bully is complicated by the temporal effect of traveling at light speed. Pure nerd bliss.
Years of browsing and buying books freely has produced what you would expect: my home is a book orphanage, and the unread books are almost as numerous as the read ones. Based on a recent roll call, a quarter of the books on the shelves are critically praised titles I have not yet read. Let the Great World Spin. White Teeth. The Wings of the Dove.
In the pre-pandemic era, there were six book shops within the lunchtime walking radius of my office near Union Square. The Strand, Alabaster Books, Three Lives, McNally Jackson, Housingworks, and Barnes & Noble. All of the shops except Alabaster (which was smaller than a studio apartment) had display tables at the store entrance. The intention of a bookstore display table is noble; the effect is, for me, pernicious. From the get go, I am reminded of how many unread books exist and how many new unread books are added to that list daily. All the tables and all the books take on an undifferentiated, daunting sheen. You can judge a book by its cover but what you’re judging is sometimes hard to say. To Keep the Sun Alive? House of Stone? Great book covers, lovely fonts, and crackerjack titles; how do you pick between them? The blurb on every other book promises it is “Like nothing you’ve read before.” Or “More knife than novel.” I want to read the work of this “rising star of Arab fiction,” but I also want to read a dozen others, and in the end, overwhelmed by choice, I choose to flee.
Pablo Neruda once wrote that the smell of barber shops made him sob. The smell of fresh book bindings makes me feel like a phony. I am overwhelmed by all the books I have not read, won’t read. How is it that I was ever able to bear this feeling? Why can’t I stand in front of the French Literature section, picking up and putting down books as insouciantly as the scruffy dude with the man bun and the serious face? What has gone wrong in me? Sometimes, at Three Lives, I worried the friendly clerk truing up novels in stacks near the door would stop me one day and say, gently, “I see you here often, dear; is there something specific you need?”
The global Covid pandemic put an abrupt end to this ongoing bookstore angst, for a time. Overnight, bookstores became more theoretical than real. I shifted to curbside pick up for drinks and dinners, and I pivoted to ordering books over the phone from local stores. The first time that I picked up a book purchase curbside was in the Early Covid Era, and I doused all the brand new books with rubbing alcohol before I stowed them in the trunk for a three-day quarantine. Just to be safe. By summer, I was less anxious about touching books; at a pick-up window for a bookstore in Connecticut, I waited while inside a bookstore employee searched for the title I wanted among all the books in their cells. One day, I thought, one day we’ll all be able to go inside again. Won’t that be something?
I want to believe that everything will be different when we turn life back on. I want to believe a year apart from bookstores has changed me. I want to believe I have re-learned how to be casual, how to relax, how to bathe in the bliss of booksellers. I want to believe. But here’s the truth: rather than rewire me for patience, a year at home has probably made me even less able to downshift and enjoy a bookstore properly. I spend more hours than ever each day digging into the larder of my smartphone for the fatty byproducts of the Internet. Social distancing for months has increased the hours spent as a parent mediating fights, insisting on chores, refereeing screen time. Given my jumpy, angsty, barely-nuanced attention span, does anyone really think I’m capable of slipping with ease into the heady trance that is necessary to enjoy an afternoon among books?
Yet, I am too old to change. I know what is coming, in the summer of our post-Covid dreams, when masks are passé and stores no longer post occupancy limits. I will return to bookstores. I won’t be able to resist giving them another chance. And another. And another. But I’m pretty sure where all this will end up. I’ll be back on the sidewalk again within minutes.
The unforgivable sin of bookstores is this: so many of the books that they offer are physical reminders of passing time. Here are the Kazuo Ishiguros I read while in my fresh-faced 20s. Here are the Joan Didions of my 30s. Here are the Tracy Kidders I discovered after my kids were born. A visit to any kind of bookstore will eventually make me jealous for the younger version of me, the person who was unshaped, unaccountable, unknown. Both the books that I have read and not read all remind me that what I am is not what I was; and they point out to me that for all the work of living that I have done, there remains an impossible amount of work that I have not and cannot do. I cannot change course and pursue a life of ornithology. I am no longer a penniless apprentice writing his first novel. I cannot sell everything and live on an arctic freighter. I cannot be what I am not, and by definition what I am not remains so much larger than what I am.
But there is hope. There has to be. Sometimes, a bookstore visit can still be just right. In the last weeks before the pandemic closed all the bookstores in Manhattan, I stopped by Book Culture, a book shop that was once known—in my apprentice writer heyday—as Labyrinth Books, an unapologetically highbrow bookshop. Here is the headline of a Times review lauding the shop shortly after it opened in 1997: “No Krantz, Koontz or coffee bars.” I was here often as a graduate student trying to write a novel in the vein of Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy. The tin soldier rows of books were like a barracks of like-minded zealots. This was where I jealously flipped through debut short story collections like For the Relief of Unbearable Urges and swore I could do better. (Reader: I could not.)
On this visit half a lifetime later, I flipped through a book I recently saw lionized on Twitter. Nice. One more novel I should be reading, but wasn’t. I almost left right then, but then I saw Draft No. 4, a John McPhee book on writing, and I decided, well, let me look inside that one. I scanned the first page. My insides went calm. I was like a parched man cutting open a spindly cactus and finding watery relief. I skipped to the back, read more words that struck me as perfect, and true: “It is toward the end of the second draft, if I’m lucky,” McPhee writes, “when the feeling comes over me that I have something I want to show to other people, something that seems to be working and is not going to go away.” I closed the book, realizing that I would buy it, damn the torpedoes and all the unread books waiting at home.
I brought the McPhee book to the register. A girl with dirty blond hair and a tired, guarded look was handling sales.
“Are you a member of our book club?”
“I’m sure that I was once,” I said. There was no way for her to hear the ironic undertone.
She asked for my first and last name. I told her. She typed, furrowed her brow. “Nope,” she said. “You want to join? It’s quick.”
Of course, I had been forgotten. Emptiness began to swell inside. Then, a thought: “Did you put a space,” I said, “between Van and Dyke?”
She sighed, hit the delete key lightly, then enter, and her eyes brightened. “There you are,” she said, as if she had just learned I was her cousin twice removed. They knew me. I was one of the remembered ones. I still belonged. This made me so happy that now, in retrospect, it makes me sad.
Bonus Link:
A History of Love (of Bookstores)
Image Credit: Piqsels.

No Apologies: On Writing About My Mother’s Life

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My mother asked me to order her a cocktail—“nothing too sweet.” It was June 2019 and we were eating dinner in a restaurant by ourselves. Since the birth of my son, two years earlier, we had rarely been alone together. I was nervous and ordered her a drink at random. She took a sip and cringed.

“I need your permission for something,” I said.

“Okay,” she said.

“I want to write a book about your life.”

She took a second sip of her sugary cocktail. “I do think you had an interesting childhood.”

“Not my life,” I said. “Yours.”

My pitch: the next time I went home to Portland, she and I would take a road trip. We would drive through the deserts of eastern Oregon to Rexburg, Idaho, down to Salt Lake City, and farther south to Provo, Utah. My mother’s past would be our roadmap. At each campsite, cabin, or motel she would tell me about her life before she became a mother. I knew the highlights already. As a high schooler she had lived alone in a trailer park off McLoughlin Boulevard outside Portland. At 18, she had a job counting wild horses on Steens Mountain for the Bureau of Land Management, and a boyfriend 10 years older. She was engaged three times before her 21st birthday. She was married in the temple in Salt Lake City—but her first husband turned on her when he found her packet of birth control pills. After leaving The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, my mother moved back to Portland and met my dad. She remembers thinking, I’m twenty-two now. If I don’t get it together…something bad is going to happen to me. For years afterward, Relief Society sisters would knock on our door. “When are you coming back to church?” And my mother’s answer was always, “Never.”

Maybe other women have more tumultuous, unsettling, or revealing stories about the Mormon Church or the American West. My mother interests me not because she is exceptional—though she may be—but because she is mine. And also not mine. Prying into the details of her life feels both natural and threatening. When I asked if I could write a book about her, I hoped she would say no as much as I hoped she would say yes. That night, in the restaurant, she said that I could.

I wanted to render her young adulthood in novelistic detail. As a novelist, blurring the boundary between memoir and fiction would make the form less daunting. I planned to fill in the background of my mother’s memories, conjuring phone calls that probably happened, songs that likely came on the radio. Interspersed would be reflections from her daughter: dispatches from the 1990s, early aughts, and present day. These sections would give the reader some relief from the saturated palette and shaggy texture of the late ’70s—and would offer a glimpse of who my mother became once the debris of her youth had settled, once motherhood was the role by which she was most often defined.

To complete the portrait, I would include transcripts of our conversations. I wanted to interview my mother beneath the jagged mountain ranges of her past, because those had been my mountains too. She first began to tell me about her life when I was about 13. On long weekends, we would drive to Central Oregon or the southern coast. We would camp or stay in cheap motel rooms whose balconies, at high tide, dangled over the Pacific. She told me how alone she had felt as a young woman, neglected by her own parents. How she cycled through men and clung to Mormonism—in spite of her sins—because she was desperate for unconditional love. How she sometimes endangered herself and manipulated other people to get what she wanted.

I do not believe she told me these things to extract my own confessions—and if she did, it didn’t work. As much as I loved our talks, I concealed my own reckless streak, my tendency to date older boys, and even my ambivalence about the evangelical Christianity in which she and my dad had raised me. Still, it comforted me to learn about the mistakes my mother had made. It was a relief to know that she had been flawed, and it was a relief to know that the narrative of her adolescence was stitched into her adulthood. I didn’t want the years I was living through to mean everything, but I often worried they would eventually mean nothing. By revealing to me the weight of her girlhood, my mother acknowledged the weight of mine, while—artfully, generously—allowing me my privacy.

In her 40s, it would have been easy for my mother to let her teenage daughter view her in shades of bland maternity. And it would be easy for me, now, to let my mother calcify in my mind as “Grandma Ellen,” smiling at my son over FaceTime. I could let her life story fade into half-remembered family folklore. More than ever, though, I want to understand my mother—not as my origin, not as my background—but as a woman who happens to have children, one of whom happens to be me. I want to create an impression of her that’s uncorrupted by shame (she made me), or criticism (she made me), or sentimentality (she made me). To be uninterested in the ways my mother made me a better or worse person than I might have otherwise been is a gift. One that she gave me. Because, yes, mothers can be bad. Mothers have the ability to harm their children, and some do. But in general, I think we are still too hard on moms, too quick—in our therapy sessions and tweets and memoirs—to retroactively judge their performances. My mother was good, and imperfect, and good because she was imperfect.

Almost all of my friends have children. Sometimes we confess our darkest mothering moments: hands tightening around small shoulders; ferocious screams that send the dog into hiding. “Grow up,” I once yelled at my three-year-old—as if he was doing anything else. My friends and I talk about the “rage hangover” that descends as the heart regulates itself, the remainder of the day passing in the nausea of self-loathing and regret. We text each other because we need to hear I’ve done that and It’s okay. Surely, my mom, who had three children, felt herself flicker between mother and monster. She has also witnessed my own meltdowns, spreading her hand across my back as I hold my son and sob. I don’t believe my mother and I owe each other apologies or forgiveness. All I really want is to know her and to let her know me.

In 2019, the project seemed clear: take a road trip, write a book. But that summer, when my mother gave me permission to write about her life, we did not take a road trip. I was living in Richmond, Va., parenting a two-year-old without childcare, and finishing a draft of what would be my fourth novel—a story about professional basketball and celebrity, as far removed from my life as anything I’d ever written. By the time I was ready to begin a new book from scratch, it was September 2020. Travel was no longer an option. And so, having not seen my mother in eight months, I began interviewing her over Zoom. As of March 2021, an entire year since I last saw her, we are still at it. The interviews are hard to schedule. She works until five or six p.m. Pacific Time; I go to bed around 10 Eastern. Our calls last an hour, sometimes two, and take twice as long to transcribe the next day. Watching the recordings, I am struck by the ease of our conversation, our constant laughter, the way we smooth our hair in sync. Talking to my mother, I sound like I am talking to a close friend.

Sometimes I avoid the manuscript for weeks. The document, minimized on my laptop screen, fills me with dread. For one thing, failure feels inevitable. Maybe I can only ever see my mother as accurately as I can see myself: not at all. It crushes me to imagine her as a young woman for whom no one on earth was watching out. Finally, I don’t enjoy dwelling on the unfathomable fact that I haven’t seen my mother in a year. If, at any previous point in my life, you asked what events might lead to such a long separation, I would have known only that it was something very bad.

At the end of each interview, we veer from the 1970s into the present. In September, the air in Portland was choked with smoke, unbreathable. My mother, a nurse manager, arrived at work one morning to find the hallway crowded with incubated preemies, transferred from evacuated hospitals. That just about did me in, she said. As the months went on, she told me about sitting through emergency staff meetings to prepare for a second surge of COVID-19 cases. The ICU at full capacity. Crying in her office. Wanting to retire; the math not working out. I never meant to write a timely book. I had envisioned a nostalgia-fueled memoir about re-immersing myself in the landscape of the west, inhaling as much alpine air as my lungs could handle. Instead, as I write, I wonder if I’ll see those places again. A book that was supposed to be about coming home is instead about severance. My nostalgia has never felt more useless.

I am halfway through a first draft. On bad days, I long for the comforts of fiction: the anonymity, the deniability. When I write a novel, I only have to worry about depicting a character whose humanity is convincing. With this memoir, I worry that I am writing a book about my mother in which my mother won’t recognize herself. What if my literary reenactment of her past feels gauche, like a Renaissance fair? What if I’ve gotten it all wrong? On good days, I think this might be a project for which writing fiction has prepared me: to look at the woman who gave birth to me—from whom I have no prayer of hiding—and to know her at least as well as she knows me. If nothing else, the book has bought me time with my mom. Impossible time. Through those decades before I was born, and through 12 months of a pandemic, and years from now, when she is gone.

Image Credit: Piqsels.

Natural Orders: On Hilary Leichter’s ‘Temporary’

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1.
Every new crisis leads to its own movements, whether it drives people to leave careers they thought would last their whole lives, forces them to abandon one city or country for another, or lines them up against the figures responsible for their pain. An economic downturn plays through a script of collapse in its own peculiar fashion. Nobody knows at the start of a crisis just how bad it will get, but everybody knows the poor will suffer and the rich will find shelter, somehow. I remember, when I saw The New York Times ask the graduating class of 2009 if the 2008 recession had ruined our lives up to that point, wondering how many readers, like me, had gone through a series of flashbacks, after which they answered, simply and finally: “Of course it did! Thank you for asking!”

Back then—of course—there were no jobs, but what really made everyone miserable was the surfeit of fake jobs, gigs that extracted your labor for the promise of “experience,” or less. I remember, in 2010, getting paid $10 an hour to write a newsletter, full-time, until my boss revealed there wasn’t enough money to keep paying me. Could I work 12 hours a week, he asked? I did, making less than $100 a week once you factored in taxes, after which I got hired at a travel company to run their social media “on contract,” which meant working full-time with no sick days, vacation time, or benefits. I worked there until the company shut down my branch a year later. After that, I got interviewed at a publishing company for a job as an editorial assistant, a very prestigious position that involved, I was told, working 12 hours a day—all to be near a prestigious Boomer editor—for a salary of $26,000 a year. (I did not get the job, as it happens.) Over time, what I learned is that jobs don’t grant you security, that our economy itself is built on a series of lies. Your work ethic barely factors in—if anything, it can make you more vulnerable. What matters is whether a rich person thinks you can help. If you’re lucky, you’ll save enough money to survive when they inevitably change their mind.

It’s pretty common for people my age to nurse this sort of cynicism. Raw numerical evidence bears this out. Last year, a Deloitte study found that Americans under 40 hold dim views of corporate motivation, with around two-thirds agreeing that profit is the only real motivator in business. It was also revealed, in this study, that half of younger Americans plan to quit their jobs in the next two years, with low compensation cited as the primary driver. A similar percentage expected to grow poorer than they were at the time in the future. And several years before this, in 2014, a Pew Research study found that Millennials had by far the lowest levels of social trust among the generations, with a measly 19 percent believing “most people can be trusted.” Altogether, these numbers depict a bleak portrait of our age, when a vast majority of young adults feel that success is out of reach.

Naturally, these views coincide with a broader shift to the left. By now there are too many studies to count that reveal that younger Americans are much more progressive than their elders. And while there are lots of ways to interpret or contextualize this fact, I’ve found it helpful to think of this shift in terms of modern regime theory. First developed in the early ‘90s by the scholar Stephen Skowronek, regime theory parcels American history into a number of multi-decade eras, defined by their overarching structures of thought, reaction, and belief. In short, a regime is not a particular administration but instead a set of ideas that govern the country’s elites. What Skowronek called the New Deal regime, for example, governed American life from the ‘30s through the ‘70s, imbuing legitimacy and authority to Keynesian economics. Ever since the Reagan era, we’ve been living through a right-wing regime, in which a supermajority of those with power in this country have believed and acted upon a notably different set of ideas. These ideas and assumptions have driven our leaders, including Democratic ones, to cut public spending, privatize basic goods, and metastasize the carceral state, among other things. Many leftwing inclinations of younger people can be seen as a reaction to this drift. How can anyone, the thinking goes, support things continuing as they have?

Part of what makes this theory attractive is that it has an element of hope. It suggests, after all, that a better regime is poised to overthrow the one we’re living through, and that this period of collapse will lead to a period of renewal. It also provides a diagnosis of the mindset that’s caused our current rot. For more on that mindset, I’ve found immense value in The Reactionary Mind by Corey Robin, whose articles from the early days of the Trump presidency helped frame our current movement in Skowronekian terms. The book places Trump and his movement in a centuries-old right-wing framework, one that ties stupidity and hatred into a broader ideology. The conservative, in Robin’s formulation, is a feudalist for a democratic age, a person who wants to hold a vaunted place in a rigid and brutal social hierarchy. The cruelty of someone like Trump fits neatly with this hypothesis—by relentlessly demonizing vulnerable groups, Trump reenforces the hierarchy. Here’s how Robin describes the ur-conservative:
The conservative does not defend the Old regime: he speaks on behalf of old regimes – in the family, the factory, the field. There, ordinary men, and sometimes women, get to play the part of little lords and ladies, supervising their underlings as if they all belong to a feudal estate. Long before Huey Long cried, “Every man a king,” a more ambiguous species of democrat spoke virtually the same words, though to different effect: the promise of democracy is to govern another human being as completely as a monarch governs his subjects. The task of conservatism becomes clear: surround these old regimes with fences and gates, protect them from meddlesome intruders like the state or a social movement, and descant on mobility and innovation, freedom and the future. (191)
To put this another way, the conservative wants the freedom to dominate the people in this own life, even if it means being dominated by those higher up on the social hierarchy. Inevitably, this stands in direct opposition to democracy, as the conservative sees equality itself as a threat to his ideal arrangement. He wants, at base, a land of private fiefdoms, where those with power maintain their positions through violence, coercion, and penury. Inequality isn’t a side effect—it’s one of the chief aims of his movement.

Characterizing the right in this way helps illuminate a number of things. In part, it explains why the GOP is hellbent on repealing taxes, no matter how disastrous its short- or long-term effects. It explains why a small group of tech companies have monopolized everyday life. It explains why, for decades, parental wealth and pedigree have grown more important in finding success, why the costs of higher education have risen into the stratosphere. It explains why so many people blame poverty on character and not circumstance. It explains why Blackstone founder Stephen Schwartzman once declared, infamously, that raising taxes on private equity firms is akin to the Nazis invading Poland. It explains why millions of people feel that our healthcare system is working precisely as intended when it forces immiserating debt on people for the crime of being sick. It explains why “greed is good” was a signifying phrase of the ‘80s. It explains why many rich people interpret the slightest criticism as a form of “punishing success.” It explains why the right is so focused on punishing society’s most vulnerable. And—as younger Americans overwhelmingly align themselves in opposition to these forces—it explains why the left has grown fiercer in its attacks on concentrated power.

Inevitably, these changes have shown up in the fiction of the past 10 years. By now enough books have come out to form a post-Recession canon. Arguably the most prescient of these is Severance, the 2018 novel by Ling Ma, which has gotten more attention in recent months not only for its eerily accurate portrait of a modern pandemic but also for its portrayal of a numbing, dead-end career. Daniel Torday’s 2015 novel Boomer1 takes Millennial resentment to a violent extreme, depicting a nascent movement of terrorists who attack wealthy Boomers. The Beautiful Bureaucrat, a 2015 novel by Helen Phillips, follows a young woman employed at a shadowy bureaucracy, giving us a comical play-by-play as she keeps getting evicted from apartments. And Halle Butler’s The New Me, a harrowing novel that cuts extraordinarily close to the bone for  somebody with my employment history, is a tale of a destitute, 30-something temp worker, a woman whose opportunities have dried up. All of these novels—in addition to being meticulously crafted and observed—are clear-eyed glimpses of our new, unbearable economy.

Last year, another book took its place within that canon, partly by dealing explicitly with the hardening of social hierarchy. Paradoxically, it’s a fabulist work, entirely whimsical and weird. Yet it provides commentary on the present day that has the weight of the very best parables. For readers who see the outlines of an emerging feudal society in the cruelties of recent years, Temporary by Hilary Leichter is a necessary read.

2.
In brief, the plot of Temporary is this: a young woman works through a series of fantastical, short-lived jobs, none of which give her a clear path to long-term stability. In her world, pirates and witches are employers with their own staffs and jargon, and people known as temporaries are given the status of permanent temp workers at birth. Our protagonist, who goes unnamed, is attempting to gain her “steadiness,” a euphemistic term for having a stable career. The fundamental question hanging over the plot is: will she attain it in her lifetime? This is a poignant question for her, because her mother, a temp worker herself, died without gaining her steadiness, and she raised her daughter to know exactly what it means to be a temporary.

“We work,” she tells her daughter, repeatedly, “but then we leave.” From this, a number of rules follow. It’s a bad idea to make friends at work, because you may have to say goodbye to them—forever—at any time, for any reason. It’s also a bad idea to ask your manager for a raise, or for anything, really, because doing so will likely get you fired. After all, the role of the temp is to do the work without complaint and leave—why should any of them hope to earn money or respect? It’s also the case that you can ask, sometimes, what you need to do to gain your steadiness, aware that nobody will give you the real answer, thanks to a kind of noblesse oblige. You’ll get your steadiness when a wealthy person decides you should have it, and that’s that. Everything you’re striving for depends on their caprice.

Not coincidentally, caprice is also why temporaries most often get fired. No matter your innocence, your boss can blame you for any little thing that goes wrong, or you could simply be the victim of one of their transient bad moods. Even if they like you, bosses can go bankrupt or get arrested, or they could come to the conclusion one day that they don’t like working anymore. The only person with no choice in the matter is you, the unfortunate temporary, who needs your boss to speak well of you so your agency can find you new jobs. This locks the temp into endless cycles of sucking up to their superiors, trapping them in a hierarchy in which their bosses are glorified nobles, the temporaries are serfs in nicer clothes, and the best the temporaries can hope for an act of mercy, as in a fairy tale.

Not all the jobs the narrator holds are patently absurd, but most are, and it’s a testament to this novel how eerily her struggles echo real-world conditions. On a pirate ship, the narrator ends up being forced to walk the plank, not because she did anything wrong but because, instead, the woman she’s replacing decided to return a month early. A rich man dies and wills the narrator to carry his ashes in a necklace, all so he can continue to be a “man about town.” In her role as apprentice to a murderer, the narrator takes pride in evil work, an Arendtian dynamic familiar to anyone who’s worked for bad people. Her jobs are impossible creations, in other words, but her struggles are real, and mundane.

While she gets exploited, of course, she also gets treacly advice. Her contact at the temp agency tells her, falsely, that she’s in “high demand,” and that her care in filling out time sheets means she’s “bound” for the steadiness. The phrase “just doing my job” appears, as it does in real life, so often it becomes hypnotic, and means (depending on context) some combination of “you’re welcome,” “I’m sorry,” and “I’m being forced to do this unconscionable thing.” When her murderous boss “goes public,” he says, the narrator will surely get rich, and he might be able to give her a raise when crime spikes in “the busy season.” The act of handing out pamphlets is called “disseminating information.” And when the narrator, meeting an old friend, learns that her friend has not only gained her steadiness but has done so well for herself that she can afford to hire a woman to clean her house, the old friend says, defending herself: “We need to treat ourselves kindly!”

There’s another hypnotic phrase that appears throughout the book. In the prologue, we get a short abstract for the story that follows, alongside a hodgepodge of objects, conditions, jobs. And this: “What happened exactly, specifically, in detail, While You Were Out.” The narrator hears this phrase as a child, tucked into her mother’s bedtime stories, often as part of a laundry list of items in an unnamed office. (Later on, the narrator informs us that she makes sure to write things down so that she can tell her mother, now dead, what happened while she was out.) A passage near the end of the book gives a prophecy of the last temp in history, who is also (conveniently) the last person on Earth. Why does this Last Temp record what’s happening? “It’s the least I can do while you are out.” No matter what happens in the world around her, the temp is a kind of placeholder, dutifully recording the calls and emails and notifications intended for their superiors, who (of course) remain superior to the temp eternally, long after their deaths. “While you are out” is a qualifier, a phrase that reduces the temp’s work to something irreducibly less-than. a substitute for a person with real and lasting power. Even as the world ends, the temp answers calls that she knows are never meant for her.

To be a temp, in other words, is to be an interim human being. It means having almost no rights and begging for scraps to survive. It means hearing, from comfortable superiors, that the world is reasonable and fair, that all you have to do to earn your grace is work hard, always work hard. It means understanding that you can’t have a full identity, not even when it comes to basic things. (As is customary, temps don’t have their own birthdays—instead, they adopt them from people they’re required to fill in for.) Temps don’t have stable housing, they can barely hold on to their possessions, and they can’t depend on anyone in their lives, for anything, as they all discover. Their one hope lies in being rescued.

In true medieval fashion, the hierarchy that rules this world stretches all the way to gods. The gods created the First Temporary so they could take a break. This woman, this Eve of the Temporaries, is told what her role entails, that she was created not to ask for more but to be grateful, hard-working. Obedient.

She lived in the space between who she was and whom she was meant to replace.

3.
For a couple of months in 2009, I was a temp myself, though my agency managed to place me in two full-time positions, total. (Each one lasted a week.) Eventually, I got an unpaid, part-time internship at a fledgling literary agency, which ended abruptly four months in when the agency shut down its office. I moved on to the newsletter job, and then from there to the travel company, where I hoped to settle in for a while, build up “experience.” A year later, I was back to applying to 10 jobs a day. A month or so into this, I got an interview at a “content producer,” a murky place with a legal theme.

Inside their office, 50 or so people typed furiously at bare, spotless desks. There were no personal items in sight, no pictures of family, no coffee mugs. Everybody seemed to be wearing nice clothes and they all looked supremely unhappy. My interviewer, in contrast, worked comfortably in a sunlit office.

Without looking over at me, she went through a checklist of anodyne questions, asking me about my past jobs and what I hoped to achieve. At some point, she got to what mattered. This role, she told me, required writing 10 pieces a day, all of which had to be fact-checked and had to run at least 1,500 words. These were summaries of on-the-books laws, and writers had to be their own fact-checkers. They paid $11 an hour. Did I think I had what it takes?

With embarrassing slowness, I did the math. That’s 15,000 words a day.

“No,” I answered. I hadn’t planned this. I’d never sabotaged an interview. But sitting in that office, I saw immediately that I couldn’t do what she wanted. I’m not that fast a writer. I knew I’d be fired within a week if I accepted the job.

Puzzled, my interviewer stared at me. I don’t think she’d ever heard that answer. Nevertheless, she knew what to say. “Everyone else here is doing it.”

Goodbye, Rush Limbaugh, and Good Riddance

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Rise of the Slathering Pit Bull

Back in the 1990s, while working as a newspaper columnist in North Carolina, I spent countless hours driving back roads on my way to interview the criminal, the colorful, the obscure and the merely famous. My chariot on those trips through the Piedmont tobacco fields and pine thickets was the paper’s staff car, a bare bones Chevy with no air conditioning and an AM radio that got spotty reception. Which is how I got introduced to that slathering pit bull of right-wing talk radio named Rush Limbaugh.

You’ve seen one tobacco patch, you’ve seen them all. So on those scorching afternoon drives I came to relish the bombardment that began issuing from the dashboard speaker every weekday at noon on the dot, then kept roaring nonstop for three hours — the whining, hectoring, insulting, chortling, blistering, coarse, cruel and often very funny voice of Rush Limbaugh. A typical show would open with a riff from The Pretenders, which made no sense and which surely set Chrissie Hynde spinning in her leather pants. And then: “Greetings, conversationalists across the fruited plain. This is Rush Limbaugh, the most dangerous man in America, with the largest hypothalamus in North America, serving humanity simply by opening my mouth, destined for my own wing in the Museum of American Broadcasting, executing everything I do flawlessly with zero mistakes, doing this show with half my brain tied behind my back just to make it fair, because I have talent on loan from God!”

What the fuck was this? Listening to Limbaugh’s show was like driving past a ghastly car wreck: I was powerless to turn away. He spent three hours every day ridiculing and belittling targets that included feminists (“feminazis”), gays, immigrants, AIDS victims, poor people, environmentalists (“tree-hugging wackos”), all government programs (except the military), and anyone who could be tarred with the label of liberal. “Feminism,” he said, “was established so as to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream of society.” I had worked in radio in Savannah and Nashville, and as I listened to this river of bile, I kept asking myself, How does he get away with saying this stuff?

Most astonishing of all were the listeners who called in to the show, people who dubbed themselves “dittoheads” because they were proud of the fact that they agreed with every word that came out of Limbaugh’s mouth. It’s obvious they were rigorously screened because they never challenged the host and only rarely engaged in a back-and-forth conversation. They were calling in for one purpose: to fawn.

Too Funny!

By then, Limbaugh, who died Feb. 17 at 70, was on his way to becoming a media phenomenon with an audience estimated at 15 million. He parlayed his megaphone into a career that carried him far beyond the AM dial — to television, the bestseller lists, fabulous wealth, a seaside mansion in Palm Beach and, inevitably, Republican kingmaker. After Limbaugh helped engineer the Republican Revolution in the 1990s, a freshman from Indiana named Mike Pence said, “I’m in Congress today because of Rush Limbaugh.” Though no one knew it at the time, the poison Limbaugh was injecting into our national politics would eventually help land Pence in the White House alongside an improbable one-hit wonder named Donald Trump. Trump repaid the favor by bestowing the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Limbaugh the day after he revealed  that he had terminal lung cancer.

Couldn’t have happened to a more deserving guy. If he accomplished nothing else in his outlandish lifetime, Limbaugh revealed the bankruptcy, hypocrisy, and outright cruelty burning  in the heart of every right-wing moralist. For such people, it’s not enough to believe that abortion is morally wrong; they must see to it that no one can get a legal abortion. Anyone who dares to disagree is open to merciless attack, with mockery as a preferred weapon. In a precursor to a bit of Trumpian shtick, Limbaugh once quivered spasmodically to mimic the actor Michael J. Fox, a card-carrying liberal who had contracted Parkinson’s disease. Anyone who has watched someone die of this horrific affliction knows just how hilarious that bit was. Limbaugh also mocked gay men dying of AIDS during the regular “AIDS Update” segment of his show, playing Dionne Warwick’s “I’ll Never Love This Way Again.” Too funny!

Doctor Shopping and Pill Popping

In his bestselling book, Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations, the comedian Al Franken pointed out that Limbaugh viciously ridiculed poor people and anyone who takes government handouts — while glossing over the fact that, by his own admission, he once accepted unemployment benefits and spent his jobless time sitting on the sofa gorging on junk food and moping, too lazy to get off his widening ass to mow his own lawn.

Now comes the best part. Limbaugh was an ardent trooper in America’s culture wars and its misguided and unwinnable war on drugs. As he said on his show in 1995: “There’s nothing good about drug use. We know it. It destroys individuals. It destroys families… And we have laws against selling drugs, pushing drugs, using drugs, importing drugs… And so if people are violating the law by doing drugs, they ought to be accused and they ought to be convicted and they ought to be sent up.” In 2003, the news broke that Limbaugh had bought hundreds of prescription pain pills a month after “doctor shopping” – a crime punishable by five years in prison – but he avoided jail time by agreeing to pay for the police investigation and go into rehab. Big, fat, white, male, right-wing moralists don’t go to prison; they go into rehab.

Off With Their Heads!

Limbaugh didn’t just go into rehab. He also went to the top of the bestseller lists with two books whose titles, respectively, capture the self-righteousness and smugness that drive the right-wing moralist. The books were The Way Things Ought to Be and See, I Told You So. When I heard that Limbaugh had died, I remembered the abrasive tone of those books — and I remembered an encounter with another right-wing moralist who made it to the bestseller lists.

This also happened in North Carolina, during an earlier stint at the same newspaper. One day one of the editorial writers invited me to a local beer joint to meet a man who, my colleague assured me, was an intellectual giant on his way to greatness. The man’s name was Bill Bennett, and at that time, the late 1970s, he was the director of the National Humanities Center in nearby Research Triangle Park. As the three of us drank longneck beers and listened to the country music pouring out of the jukebox — I can still hear Jim Ed Brown singing “Pop a top again, I think I’ll have another round…” — Bennett made a point of letting me know that he had degrees from Williams College and Harvard Law School and that he had served as assistant to John Silber, the controversial president of Boston University who resisted faculty efforts to unionize and decried the “homosexual militancy” of gay students. Then, as a Moe Bandy tune came on the jukebox, Bennett gazed out at the rush hour traffic and wistfully remarked, “I miss places like this.” And I thought: You fucking phony egghead Brahmin. Give up the salt-of-the-earth act already.

My first impression of Bennett was validated years later, after he had achieved the predicted greatness – if your idea of greatness is running the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Department of Education under President Ronald Reagan and then serving as the get-tough drug czar under President George H.W. Bush. Bennett, a devout Catholic, bemoaned “the death of outrage” when people failed to foam at the mouth sufficiently over President Bill Clinton’s moral failings. Like Limbaugh, Bennett was a gung-ho foot soldier in both the culture wars and the war on drugs. On Larry King Live, Bennett proclaimed that a listener’s suggestion that drug dealers should be beheaded was “morally plausible.” This is the right-wing moralist in full plumage: Off with the heads of people who disagree with me or fail to live up to my high standards! In 1993 Bennett published The Book of Virtues, a compendium of bromides about self-discipline, compassion, responsibility, honesty, etc., etc., in which he showed off his vast erudition by quoting Big Thinkers from Aristotle to St. Augustine, Aesop, George Washington, Hilaire Belloc, Kierkegaard and James Baldwin (!).

The book sold well and was adapted into a cartoon series for television called “Adventures From the Book of Virtues.” Small problem. The series was broadcast on PBS, and Bennett, like all good conservative Republicans, is opposed to federal funding for PBS or anything else that has to do with the arts. Robert Mapplethorpe, anyone? The moral of this story is that even right-wing moralists are allowed to swallow their objections when presented with an opportunity to burnish their brand in prime time. “It’s not that I think PBS is bad,” Bennett said at the time, by way of justifying his moral somersault. “It’s the risk of having government involved that I object to.” That’s not even halfway up the mountain to the high moral ground.

Now comes the best part. After publishing this blueprint for virtuous living and co-founding a group called Empower America that opposed the expansion of casino gambling, Bennett, according to an expose in The Washington Monthly, had lost $8 million gambling in those twin citadels of virtue, Atlantic City and Las Vegas. Oops. The right-wing moralist’s defense for this disconnect between word and deed? Bennett was raking in $50,000 per speaking engagement, he was rich, and he could afford to blow a few million on his gambling addiction. “I don’t play the ‘milk money,’” Bennett said after the story broke. “I don’t put my family at risk, and I don’t owe anyone anything.” His wife Elayne stood by her man: “We are financially solvent. Our bills are paid.”

The nastiness, phoniness, and brazen hypocrisy of right-wing moralists like Rush Limbaugh and Bill Bennett should do much more than remind us that such men walk on feet made of clay. Their failings — and the hypocrisy they tried but failed to mask — should remind us of the true moral of this story. It is this: Anyone who tries to tell you how to live, regardless of his political stripes, is trying to make you less free. Such people are to be distrusted and avoided. When you see them coming, run for your life. Goodbye, Rush Limbaugh, and good riddance.

Image Credit: Pexels/cottonbro.

Bird Brain: Lauren Oyler, Patricia Lockwood, and the Literature of Twitter

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There was no way for anyone to see it coming, of course—there never is. When the odd little microblogging service launched in 2006, it seemed like a nerdy joke, some bizarre configuration of the literature of constraint. What could be the point of trying to communicate in bursts of 140 characters? Twitter seemed like a novelty, a fad, a gimmick, a shiny toy that would dull quickly and be forgotten. Instead, it colonized the minds of millions of people, permanently altering the culture, spreading like some kind of digital kudzu, seeping down into the very neurons of whole classes and tribes of people. And this new medium proved particularly intoxicating for writers; writers and editors and journalists and critics and publishers and booksellers, all swimming in this strange new sea.

Fiction has always been slow to react to technological change, but it always eventually gets there. Newspapers, automobiles, telephones, movies, television, e-mail, and mobile phones have all been absorbed into, and subsumed by, the older technology’s capacious and appetitive flexibility. Twitter has, so far, proved singularly resistant. There is something liminal about it that makes it hard to translate cross-medium: it’s a mode of communication but also a space of performance; a so-called community forged out of collective isolation. It produces its own language, because when you try to explain things on Twitter to people who aren’t on Twitter, you invariably sound completely unhinged.

Given how comprehensively Twitter has re-wired our fundamental consciousness, it has seemed difficult to believe that no one has yet produced a book equal in expressiveness to its peculiar and otherworldly psychological glow. Olivia Laing’s novel Crudo, from 2018, came closest, but it was derailed by its flip conceptualist framework —it was a wry, Continental jeu d’esprit; clever but ultimately forgettable. As the narrator of Patricia Lockwood’s brilliant novel No One Is Talking About This puts it, all writing about Twitter “so far had a strong whiff of old white intellectuals being weird about the blues, with possible boner involvement.” Boner involvement or no, we suddenly have two novels, released within a week of each other, that brazenly, with swagger and open ambition, take on the voice of the bird app, and thus of our scrambled times.

Lauren Oyler made her name as a literary critic, becoming notorious (well, in certain circles, anyway) for a series of Dale Peck-like hit jobs that betrayed a bracingly astringent sensibility, itself a form of authentic courage in our etiolated age. Although Oyler’s reviews were always more than mere bomb-throwing—they suggested the excrudescence of a rigorous, if somewhat retrograde, critical sensibility—one sensed the room’s temperature raising when Fake Accounts was announced. In the view of the simmering collective unconscious of which literary Twitter is the thermometer, if you are going to have haughtily high standards in your criticism, then you had damn well better be able to deliver when the knives are in someone else’s hands.

Judged in this context, Fake Accounts can only be considered an interesting failure: enjoyable and smart while somehow lacking that mysterious inner light that glows through great fiction. Oyler’s novel centers on an oddly Lauren Oyler-like protagonist who quits her job and is on the verge of breaking up with her boyfriend when things suddenly become interesting. The psychological complexities of this relationship, somewhat surprisingly, are depicted with subtlety and a degree of emotional heft—an oddly 19th-century facet at which to succeed. It’s like the oldest strut in the wheel somehow remains the most durable.

The main strength of Fake Accounts, though, is its narrator’s voice, which is intelligent, fearless, and witheringly amoral. Not-Oyler unleashes plenty of  zingers (a description of “minds narrowed by therapy” has a droll Dorothy Parker ring), but she is also authentically insightful about Twitter—about how “it devours importance,” how it “muffles the sound of time passing without transcendence or joy.” Twitter comes to seem like an invisible third character in the book, one whose needs and rewards are as prickly and rebarbative as any romantic partner’s. Some of her riffs are inspired: a long car ride to the famous Women’s March on Washington with two earnest Hillary Clinton supporters is wickedly sardonic social satire, if faintly counter-revolutionary.

This is good stuff, but stylish asperity, unfortunately, does not a novel necessarily make. The book’s deficiencies become more apparent as it goes along, flattening out noticeably about two-thirds of the way through, unrelieved by anything like character development or indeed plot. There’s a disastrous foray into some modernist-lite experimentalism, and the book’s final twist feels forced and improbable.

Like Lauren Oyler—with whom she is now, due to the caprices of the publishing schedule, permanently frozen in a lit-world pas de deux for all eternity—Patricia Lockwood writes regularly for the London Review of Books. Best known for her irreverent 2017 memoir Priestdaddy, Lockwood’s fiction debut is called No One Is Talking About This, and it is a home run. It is written in quick, agile bursts, and, like Fake Accounts, it’s smart and often extremely funny. Its emotional valence, however, is somehow darker, weirder, quicker; in place of Oyler’s hip urban bohemias, it has the gothic anomie, the mesmerizing nowhere-ness, of the Midwest. Lockwood once voiced a theory that “the surrealism that has overtaken the political landscape in America can be traced back to the poisoned ground of Ohio Facebook.” A similar kind of malevolent hum, barely discernible, lies beneath the freewheeling surface of No One Is Talking About This.

The tensile strength of Lockwood’s prose reminds one that she was, before she became a memoirist and critic, a poet, with the poet’s eye for detail and ear for the music of rhythm. The book’s structure, as a perceptive colleague of mine observed, uses Lockwood’s strengths—the wit, the quickness, the way with a startling turn of phrase—to their very best. The breathless, antic tone of Priestdaddy has been sharpened and honed, suddenly infused with urgency and heart. Lockwood’s vision of Twitter, which she refers to only as “the portal,” is tonally different from Oyler’s—a surreal funhouse rather than a numbing swamp—but she shares the latter’s sense of the absurd, and she is especially good at conveying the weird panopticonical menace that the portal comes to emanate.

The second half of No One Is Talking About This takes a sharp right turn that should not be given away but which vaults the book, unexpectedly, into the realm of the tragic and the sublime. (“Did not have ‘Patricia Lockwood’s novel makes you cry’ on my 2020 bingo,” I tweeted at the time.) Improbably, this restless, hyper-contemporary story accrues a kind of grandeur, melding somehow the new and the impossibly ancient into an emotionally seamless whole. “The doors of bland suburban houses now looked possible, outlined, pulsing — for behind any one of them could be hidden a bright and private glory,” Lockwood writes. The narrator is made an “instantaneous citizen,” she adds, “of the flash of lightning that wrote across the sky I know.” That “bright and private glory,” that knowing, is a form of grieving and, finally, of living, onscreen or off.

Image Credit: Pexels/Sara Kurfeß.

On Literature and Consciousness

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Not far from where the brackish water of the delta irrigates the silty banks of the Nile, it was once imagined that a man named Sinuhe lived. Some forty centuries ago this gentleman was envisioned to have walked in the cool of the evening under a motley pink sky, a belly full of stewed pigeon, dates, and sandy Egyptian beer. In twelve pages of dense, narrative-rich prose, the author recounts Sinuhe’s service to Prince Senworset while in Libya, the assassination of the Pharaoh Amenemhat, and the diplomat’s subsequent exile to Canaan wherein he becomes the son-in-law of a powerful chief, subdues several rebellious tribes, and ultimately returns to Egypt where he can once again walk by his beloved Nile before his death. “I, Sinuhe, the son of Senmut and of his wife Kipa, write this,” begins the narrative of the titular official, “I do not write it to the glory of the gods in the land of Kem, for I am weary of gods, nor to the glory of the Pharaohs, for I am weary of their deeds. I write neither from fear nor from any hope of the future, but for myself alone.” This is the greatest opening line in imaginative literature, because it’s the first one ever written. How can the invention of fiction itself be topped?  

Whoever pressed stylus to papyri some eighteen centuries before Christ (The Tale of Sinuhe takes places two hundred years before it was written) has her central character pray that God may “hearken to the prayer of one far away!… may the King have mercy on me… may I be conducted to the city of eternity.” Fitting, since the author of The Tale of Sinuhe birthed her character from pure thought, and in the process invented fiction, invented consciousness, invented thought, even invented being human. Because Sinuhe is eternal — the first completely fictional character to be conveyed in a glorious first-person prose narration. The Tale of Sinuhe is the earliest of an extant type, but there are other examples from ancient Egypt, and indeed Mesopotamia, and then of course ancient Greece and Rome as well. As a means of conveying testimony, or history, or even epic, there is a utility to first-person narration, but The Tale of Sinuhe is something so strange, so uncanny, so odd, that we tend to ignore it by dint of how abundantly common it is today. Whoever wrote this proto-novel was able to conceive of a totally constructed consciousness and to compel her readers to inhabit that invented mind.

Hard to know how common this type of writing was, since so little survives, but of the scraps that we have there is a narration that can seem disturbingly contemporary. Written some eight-hundred years after Sinuhe’s tale, The Report of Wenamun is a fictional story about a traveling Egyptian merchant who in sojourns throughout Lebanon and Cyprus must confront the embarrassment of being a subject from a once-great but now declining empire. With startling literary realism, Wenamun grapples with his own impotence and obsolescence, including descriptions of finding a character “seated in his upper chamber with his back against a window, and the waves of the great sea of Syria… [breaking] behind him.” What a strange thing to do, not to report on the affairs of kings, or even to write your own autobiography, but rather to manifest from pure ether somebody who never actually lived, and with a charged magic make them come to life. In that image of the ocean breaking upon the strand — the sound of the crashing water, the cawing of gulls, the smell of salt in the air — the author has bottled pure experience and handed it to us three millennia later.

Critic Terry Eagleton claims in The Event of Literature that “Fiction is a question of how texts behave, and of how we treat them, not primarily of genre.” What makes The Tale of Sinuhe behave differently is that it places the reader into the skull of the imagined character, that it works as a submersible pushing somebody deep into the murky darkness of not just another consciousness, but that replicates experience of being another mind. That’s what makes the first-person different; that it catalogues the moments which constitute the awareness of another mind — the crumbly texture of a madeleine dunked in tea, the warmth of a shared bed in a rickety old inn on a rainy Nantucket evening, the sad reflective poignancy of pausing to watch the ducks in Central Park — and makes them your own, for a time. The first-person narrative is a machine for transforming one soul into another. Such narration preserves a crystalline moment in words like an insect in amber. The ancient Egyptians believed that baboon-faced Thoth invented writing (sometimes he was an ibis). Perhaps it was this bestial visage who wrote these first fictions? Writing in his introduction to the collection Land of Enchanters: Egyptian Short Stories from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, Bernard Lewis says that the Tale of Sinuhe “employs every sentence construction and literary device known in… [her] period together with a rich vocabulary to give variety and color to… [her] narrative.” Fiction is a variety of virtual reality first invented four thousand years ago.

By combining first-person narration with fictionality, the author built the most potent mechanism for empathy which humans have ever encountered; the ability to not just conjure consciousness from out of nothing, but to inhabit another person’s life. Critic James Wood writes in How Fiction Works that first-person narration is “generally a nice hoax: the narrator pretends to speak to us, while in fact the author is writing to us, and we go along with the deception happily enough.” Wood isn’t wrong – first-person narration, in fact all narration, is fundamentally a hoax, or maybe more appropriately an illusion. What I’d venture is that this chimera, the fantasy of fiction, the mirage of narration, doesn’t just imitate consciousness — it is consciousness. Furthermore, different types of narration exemplify different varieties of consciousness, all built upon that hard currency of experience, so that the first-person provides the earliest intimations of what it means to be a mind in time and space. That nameless Egyptian writer gave us the most potent of incantations — that of the eternal I. “By the end of the 19th century [BCE],” writes Steven Moore in The Novel: An Alternative History, “all the elements of the novel were in place: sustained narrative, dialogue, characterization, formal strategies, rhetorical devices.” Moore offers a revisionist genealogy of the novel, pushing its origins back thousands of years before the seventeenth-century, but regardless of how we define the form itself, it’s incontrovertible that at the very least The Tale of Sinuhe offers something original. Whether or not we consider the story to be a “novel,” with all of the social and cultural connotations of that word (Moore says it is, I say eh), at the very least Sinuhe is the earliest extant fragment of a fictional first-person narrative, and thus a landmark in the history of consciousness.  

What the Big Bang is to cosmology, The Tale of Sinuhe is to literature; what the Cambrian Explosion is to natural history, so narrative is to culture. An entire history of what it means to be a human being could focus entirely on the different persons of narration, and what they say about all the ways in which we can understand reality. Every schoolchild knows that narration breaks down into three persons: the omniscient Father of the third-person, the eerie Spirit of the second-person placing the reader themselves into the narrative, and the Son of the first-person, whereby the reader is incarnated into the character. It’s more complicated than this, of course; there’s first-person unreliable narrators and third-person limited omniscient narrators; plural first-person narratives and free indirect discourse; and heterodiegetic narrators and focalized homodiegetic characters. Regardless of the specifics of what narrative person a story is written in, the way a narrative is told conveys certain elements of perception. The voice which we choose says something about reality; it becomes its own sort of reality. As Michael McKeon explains in Theory of the Novel: A Historical Approach, the first-person form is associated with “interiority as subjectivity, of character as personality and selfhood, and of plot as the progressive development of the integral individual.”

The history of the novel is a history of consciousness. During the eighteenth-century, in the aftershocks of the emergence of the modern novel, first-person faux-memoirs — fictional accounts written with the conceit that they were merely found documents like Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe or Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels — reflected both the Protestant attraction towards the self-introspection which the novel allowed for, but also an anxiety over its potentially idolatrous fictionality (the better to pretend that these works actually happened). By the nineteenth-century that concern manifested in the enthusiasm for epistolary novels, a slight variation on the “real document” trope for grappling with fictionality, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Concurrently, the nineteenth-century saw the rise in the third-person omniscient narrations, with all of its intimations of God-like eternity that we associate with novels like Charles Dickens’ Bleak House and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. By contrast, the twentieth-century marked the emergence of stream-of-consciousness in high modernist novels such as James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury; and following the precedent of Gustave Flaubert and Jane Austen, authors like Virginia Woolf in Mrs. Dalloway and D.H. Lawrence in The Rainbow made immaculate use of free indirect discourse, where the intimacy of the first person is mingled into the bird’s eye perspective of the third. All of these are radical; all of them miracles in their own way. But the first-person is only that which is able to transplant personal identity itself.

“With the engine stalled, we would notice the deep silence reigning in the park around us, in the summer villa before us, in the world everywhere,” writes Orhan Pamuk in his novel The Museum of Innocence. “We would listen enchanted to the whirring of an insect beginning vernal flight before the onset of spring, and we would know what a wondrous thing it was to be alive in a park on a spring day in Istanbul.” Though I have never perambulated alongside the Bosporus on a spring day, Pamuk is still able to, by an uncanny theurgy, make the experience of his character Kemal my own. Certainly lush descriptions can be manifested in any narrative perspective, and a first-person narrator can also provide bare-bones exposition, yet there is something particularly uncanny about the fact that by staring at ink stains on dead trees we can hallucinate that we’re entirely other people in Istanbul. The existentialist Martin Heidegger argued that the central problem of philosophy was that of “Being,” which is to say the question of what it means to be this self-aware creature interacting with an abstract, impersonal universe. By preserving experience as if a bit of tissue stained on a microscope slide, first-person narration acts as a means of bracketing time outward, the better to comprehend this mystery of Being. “We ourselves are the entities to be analyzed,” Heidegger writes in Being and Time, and what medium is more uniquely suited for that than first-person narration?

The first-person isn’t merely some sort of textual flypaper that captures sensory ephemera which flit before the eyes and past the ears, but it even more uncannily makes the thoughts of another person — an invented person — your own. By rhetorical alchemy it transmutes your being. Think of P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie, who for all of his flippancy and aristocratic foppishness arrives on the page as a keen and defined personality in his own right (and write). “I don’t know if you have the same experience, but a thing I have found in life is that from time to time, as you jog along, there occur moments which you are able to recognize immediately with the naked eye as high spots,” Wodehouse writes in The Code of the Woosters. “Something tells you that they are going to remain etched, if etched is the word I want, forever on the memory and will come back to you at intervals down the years, as you are dropping off to sleep, banishing that drowsy feeling and causing you to leap on the pillow like a gaffed salmon.” If genteel and relaxed Anglophilia isn’t your thing, you can rather turn into the nameless narrator of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, buffeted and assaulted by American racism and denied self-definition in his almost ontological anonymity, who recalls the “sudden arpeggios of laughter lilting across the tender, springtime grass — gay-welling, far-floating, fluent, spontaneous, a bell-like feminine fluting, then suppressed; as though snuffed swiftly and irrevocably beneath the quiet solemnity of the vespered air now vibrant with somber chapel bells.”

Those who harden literature into reading lists, syllabi, and ultimately the canon have personal, social, and cultural reasons for being attracted to the works that they choose to enshrine, yet something as simple as a compelling narrative voice is what ultimately draws readers. An author who is able to conjure from pure nothingness a personality that seems realer than real is like Prospero conjuring specters out of the ether. Denis Johnson was able to incarnate spirits from spirits in his classic novel of junkie disaffection Jesus’ Son. Few novels are able to convey the fractured consciousness of the alcoholic (and I know) as well as Johnson’s does; his unnamed character known only as “Fuckhead” filtering through the distillery of his mind every evasion, half-truth, duplicity (to self and others), and finally radical honesty that the drug addict must contend with if they’re to achieve any semblance of sanity. Writing of an Iowa City bar and its bartender, Johnson says that “The Vine had no jukebox, but a real stereo continually playing tunes of alcoholic self-pity and sentimental divorce. ‘Nurse,’ I sobbed. She poured doubles like an angel, right up to the lip of a cocktail glass, no measuring. ‘You have a lovely pitching arm.’” For those normies of a regular constitution, the madness of addictions like Fuckhead’s can seem a simple issue of willpower, yet the distinctive first-person of Jesus’ Son conveys, at least a bit, what it means to be locked inside a cage of your own forging. Fuckhead recalls seeing the aforementioned bartender after he’d gotten clean: “I saw her much later, not too many years ago, and when I smiled she seemed to believe I was making advances. But it was only that I remembered. I’ll never forget you. Your husband will beat you with an extension cord and the bus will pull away leaving you standing there in tears, but you were my mother.”

Alcoholism isn’t the only manifestation of consciousness at war with itself; self-awareness turned inside out so that a proper appraisal of reality becomes impossible. Consider the butler Stevens in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, who carries himself with implacable dignity and forbearance, and is committed to the reputation of his master Lord Darlington, while overlooking the aristocrat’s Nazi sympathies. Stevens is a character of great sympathy, despite his own loyalty being so extreme that it becomes a character deficiency. No mind is ever built entirely of abstractions. Rather, our personalities are always constituted by a million prosaic experiences; there is much more of the human in making a cup of coffee or scrubbing a toilet than there is anything that’s simply abstract. “I have remained here on this bench to await the event that has just taken place – namely, the switching on of the pier light,” remembers Stevens, “for a great many people, the evening is the most enjoyable part of the day. Perhaps, then, there is something to his advice that I should cease looking back so much, that I should… make the best of what remains of my day.” A distillation of individual thought as it experiences the world, to move from switching on a light to a reflection on mortality. Ishiguro captures far more of life in Remains of the Day than does a manifesto, a treatise, a syllogism, a theological tract.

By its very existence, fictional literature is an argument about divinity, about humanity, about creativity. That an author is able to compel a reader into the perspective of a radically different human being is the greatest claim that there is to the multiplicity of existence, of the sheer, radiating glory of being. Take Marilyn Robinson’s Rev. John Ames, an elderly Congregationalist minister in small-town Iowa in 1956, who unfolds himself in a series of letters he’s writing to his young son, which constitutes the entirety of the novel Gilead. Devout, reverential, and most of all good, Rev. Ames’ experiences — not just the bare facts of his life but his reactions to them — is exceedingly distant from my own biography. As with so many readers of Gilead, I feel that there is a supreme honor in being able to occupy Ames’ lectern for a time, to read his epistles as if you were his son. In what for me remains one of the most oddly moving passages in recent American literature, Robinson writes how “Once, we baptized a litter of cats.” Ames enumerates the unusual piety of his childhood, and how that compelled a group of similarly religious children fearful of the perdition which awaited pagan kittens to dressing the animals in doll clothing while uttering Trinitarian invocations and using water to mark the cross on their furry foreheads. “I still remember how those warm little brows felt under the palm of my hand. Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing.” The way that Ames recounts the impromptu feline conversion is funny, in the way that the things children do often are, especially the image of the meowing cat dressed like a baby, their perfidious mother stealing them back by the napes of their neck, all while the event is marked by the young future minister trying to bring as many of the kittens to Christ as he could. “For years we would wonder what, from a cosmic viewpoint, we had done to them. It still seems to be a real question. There is a reality in blessing… It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that. I have felt it pass through me so to speak.”

And so have I, so to speak, felt that same emotion, despite not being a Congregational minister, a resident of rural Iowa, or a man born in the last decades of the Victorian era writing letters to his son. What the descriptions of first-person narration accomplish — both the litany of detail in the material world, and the self-reflection on what it means to be an aware being — is the final disproof of solipsism. The first-person narration, when done deftly and subtly, proves that yours isn’t the only consciousness, because such prose generates a unique mind and asks you to enter into it; the invitation alone is proof that you aren’t all that exists. Literature itself is a giant conscious being — all of those texts from Sinhu onward mingling together and interacting across the millennia like synapses firing in a brain. Writing may not be reducible to thought, but it is a type of thought. Fiction is thus an engine for transformation, a mechanism for turning you into another person. Or animal. Or thing. Or an entity omniscient. Writing of the feline baptism, Ames remembers that “The sensation is one of really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time.” This, it seems to me, is an accurate definition of literature as well, so that fiction itself is a type of baptism. Writing and reading, like baptism — and all things which are sacred — is simply the act of really knowing a creature.

What Is Wrong with Natasha?: On the Female “Type” in Tolstoian Tales

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Ever since I announced that I had started reading War and Peace, more than one person has warned me about its ending, particularly of its female protagonist, Natasha. “The more you like her in the beginning,” a friend said firmly, “the more disappointed you’ll be toward the end.”

My friend is right. I fell in love with Natasha at first sight, when the thirteen-year-old girl scampers into the room, embracing a doll and laughing her loud, contagious laughter. My favor for her grows when she nags her mother about what dessert will be served for that night, and when later, on a sleepless night, she expresses her wish to fly to the moon. Even her affair with Anatole cannot remove me from her fan club. I try not to see her as only a naïve girl readily seduced by a playboy, but a courageous young woman who is willing to pay the price for giving her heart. (She uses the word “love” to define her relationship with Anatole.) I admire her kindness and tenacity in tending to Andrei on his deathbed, her ex-fiancé who broke off their engagement when he learned she was unfaithful. Perhaps like Andrei and Pierre in the fiction, I am drawn to Natasha’s vivacity and, more importantly, her tremendous joy that is independent of any external condition; as Andrei once marvels, “this slender and pretty girl did not know and did not want to know of his existence and was content and happy with some separate—probably stupid—but cheerful and happy life of her own.”

My frustration with the ending comes not as a surprise. Natasha turns out the very opposite of what she used to be. Seven years after she marries Pierre, she has “filled out and broadened,” her inner fire for life has extinguished, and her contentment derives from the one and only source: her husband and children.

Like any movie viewer who is unhappy with a tragic ending of her beloved character, I accuse the director of his personal malevolence. Tolstoy, I decide, has a very narrow understanding of women at best, or is a hidden misogynist at worst.

We have every reason to suspect him. Unlike Gustave Flaubert, who famously said that he had to let Madame Bovary die because that decision was made by aesthetics, Leo Tolstoy is known as both an artist and a preacher. This does not only refer to the fact that War and Peace is interpolated with large prosy passages about history but also, as critic James Wood observes, the two seemly distinctive selves of Tolstoy are intertwined. (James Wood, “War and Peace: Many Stories, Many Lives”) In other words, Tolstoy is sermonizing while telling a story.

Tolstoy is very emphatic and specific about our takeaways from his tales. Take his anti-war message. Almost all the male characters start out harboring a youthful passion about the Great Men and the war. Tolstoy uses a romantic language to describe Nikolai Rostov’s adoration of the tsar: Nikolai fantasizes what “happiness” it would be “simply to die before the eyes of the sovereign,” and realizes that he is “indeed in love with the tsar.” Later, the exact same language is applied to depict the feelings that Petya—Nikolai’s younger brother—holds for his leader in the army, Dolokhov: in one scene, Petya is too infatuated to let go of Dolokhov’s hand; rather, he leans toward him and requests a kiss. Romance, almost by definition, suggests an ignorance of reality and admits illusion and falsehood. Soon, we attest to those characters’ awakening. After seeing the self-satisfied emperors and many devastated soldiers and civilians, Nikolai rids himself of all the halos of a glorious death. “We’re told to die—and we die,” he concludes, “If we’re punished, it means we’re guilty; it’s not for us to judge.” Similar moments of disillusionment can be found in Andrei’s and Pierre’s wartime experience. Petya, who doesn’t have enough time to acquire this insight, is shot to death in a battle. Nevertheless, you won’t miss Tolstoy’s emphasis: Dolokhov, Petya’s Great Man, doesn’t even bother to bury the dead admirer.

We may easily trace those morals to Tolstoy’s personal answers to the big questions he poses in the book. For example, he rejects the pervasive notion that Great Men determine the trajectory of history. Adopting the preacher’s voice, he argues in the beginning of Volume Three, Part Two, “the drawing of Napoleon into the depths of the country [Russia] occurred not according to someone’s plan, but occurred as the result of the most complex interplay of intrigues, aims, and desires of the people participating in the war […] It all occurs by chance.” In that regard, the enlightenment those male characters have attained during the war are artistic footnotes to Tolstoy’s outlook. There is also his answer to what a “true life” is, the philosophical inquiry that firstly loomed large before Tolstoy out of his fear of death: How can there be a meaning of life that is not canceled out by the inevitability of death? Tolstoy, through a lengthy spiritual journey, has found the key in faith and collectivity. Faith, as he wrote in A Confession, is the “meaning imparted by infinity—a meaning not extinguished by suffering, deprivation or death.” Collectivity, as a way out of one’s clinging to immortality, points to the possibility of a union with others through love. (Tolstoy, On Life.) Even though both essay collections, A Confession and On Life, were composed after War and Peace, the Tolstoian characters in the great novel have already come to the same conclusion, and their revelation arrives precisely at the moment when they are facing death. “I experienced the feeling of love,” the dying Andrei murmurs in hallucination, “which is the very essence of the soul and which needs no object. Now, too, I am experiencing that blissful feeling. To love my neighbors, to love my enemies. To love everything—to love God in all His manifestations.” Andrei’s epiphany is interchangeable with the lesson Pierre has acquired after he barely escapes death himself: “He could have no purpose, because he now had faith—not faith in some rules, or words, or thoughts, but faith in a living, ever-sensed God.” Andrei and Pierre’s revelation serves as the dramatic underlining of Tolstoy’s own philosophy of life.

This pronounced intention of storytelling complicates our perspective of Natasha’s ending: Is the abandonment of personhood Tolstoy’s ideal picture for women? Clues that support this hypothesis abound. First, we have the omniscient narrator’s explanation for Natasha’s disinterest in talks regarding women’s rights:
These questions, then as now, existed only for those people who see in marriage nothing but the pleasure the spouses get from each other, that is, nothing but the beginnings of marriage, and not its whole insignificance, which consists in the family.

[The same questions do not exist] for whom the purpose of a dinner is nourishment and the purpose of marriage is the family. (Tolstoy, War and Peace)
Arguably, the voice belongs to Tolstoy. Later in What Is Art, he draws a similar analogy between dinner and art:
People come to understand that the meaning of eating lies in the nourishment of the body only when they cease to consider that the object of that activity is pleasure. And it is the same with regard to art. People will come to understand the meaning of art only when they cease to consider that the aim of that activity is beauty, i.e., pleasure.
If family, as Tolstoy claims, is the only true purpose of marriage, it is logical that he applauds Natasha’s motherhood as the only true purpose of womanhood—even at a price of losing her individuality. As a matter of fact, we can find a personal note in Tolstoy’s real life to this, what seems now, very limited view of women. Like Pierre in War and Peace, the young Tolstoy lived a life of indulgence; he once confessed to Anton Chekhov that he had been “an indefatigable chaser after women.” In “Tolstoy the Apostolic Crusader,” scholar Rene Rueloep-Miller observes that after his famous conversion, the great author “regarded women as evil because they threatened to awaken man’s sensuality and to provoke what he called ‘the sin of fleshliness.” Tolstoy even recorded his generalization of women on the page: “Women are harmless only when they are wholly engrossed in the duties of motherhood, or when they have acquired the venerability of old age.” (Rueloep-Miller, “Tolstoy the Apostolic Crusader”)

In that light, every change that happens to Natasha in the end substantiates Tolstoy’s dichotomy of women’s virtues and physical attraction. In the novel, this dichotomy is also illustrated by a stark contrast between Pierre’s previous and present wife. Helene is extremely beautiful and always brags about a string of lovers. Natasha, when in her prime, almost sins by eloping with Anatole while she is still engaged to Andrei. However, as she grows obese, plain, and dull in the wake of marriage, she no longer poses threat to her husband’s moral integrity; rather, her lack of charm is sufficient proof of Pierre’s lofty mind: Pierre has finally learned “to see the great, the eternal, and the infinite in everything,” and leads a content life of simplicity. Interestingly, Tolstoy adds a nationalistic note to this outlook: the preservation of self, talent, and appearance after marriage is very “French,” with a prejudiced undertone of immorality. In contrast, the selfless, charmless, and very often mindless Natasha epitomizes Tolstoy’s authentic Russian women.

This type of transformation doesn’t happen to Natasha alone. Princess Marya who used to be a fervent spiritual seeker is also reduced to a mother and wife after marriage. Her religious side which previously gained Nikolai’s respect is no longer shown; instead, same as Natasha, she displays a complete failure in connecting to her husband’s intellectual concerns. The only difference between Princess Marya and Natasha is perhaps that the former doesn’t have the urgency to grow out of shape, since she has been stamped as ugly from the very beginning.

James Wood notices that Tolstoy’s storytelling has a lot in common with fairytales. For one thing, Tolstoy sometimes begins an episode with a throat-clearing “Here is how it came about.” (Wood, “War and Peace: Many Stories, Many Lives.”) The objects and plants in War and Peace sometimes can talk. (An oak tree once exclaims, “Spring, and love, and happiness!”) Also, Tolstoy punctuates the characters with their physical attributes: the “fat” Pierre; Prince Vassily with his “shinning bald head”; the “round” Little Princess. Yet, the most fundamental similarity Tolstoy’s stories share with fairytales is perhaps character “types.”

The good, married female type can also be found in Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s other masterpiece. Kitty, a pretty, lively girl before marriage and a faithful, devoted mother after marriage, reminds readers of Natasha. And, like Natasha and Marya, Kitty is indifferent to her husband Levin’s intellectual side. The lofty, converted male types may include Levin. Just as Pierre gets to appreciate the simple beauty in life after his encounter with the peasant foot soldier Platon Karataev, Levin returns to his childhood Christian faith after talking to a peasant. Even though Levin doesn’t transform immediately, he believes that faith will eventually guide his life toward righteousness.

In essence, this is precisely how fairytales convey their morals: ascribing good or bad endings to different types. The beautiful, kind princesses always win the heart of the handsome, brave princes and vice versa; together they live happily ever after. In other words, virtues such as kindness, courage, and loyalty are always rewarded in fairytales. However, the real world is hardly—if ever—that simple. In a similar and yet more complicated way, Tolstoy tries to convince us that a submission to suffering promises a fulfilled, joyous life. Take the story about an old merchant that Platon Karataev tells Pierre when they are both taken prisoners by the French. The old merchant is wrongly charged for manslaughter and robbery and sent to hard labor. Coincidentally, the real culprit happens to be in the same labor camp with him. Feeling profoundly sorry for the innocent merchant’s suffering, the culprit writes a note to confess. With time, the tsar finally orders the release of the merchant. But when the message finds the poor man, he has already died. “The hardest and most blissful thing is to love this life in one’s suffering, in the guiltlessness of suffering,” so Pierre summarizes the moral he has drawn from the tale. The story itself and the “rapturous joy” Karataev exudes when telling the story make me uneasy. Although I concede that suffering may potentially offer a deeper understanding of life, I wouldn’t go so far as to say all sufferings are meaningful and therefore necessary. But it is hard to push back. Tolstoy hijacks our way of thinking by imposing a religious condition: you don’t appreciate the significance of suffering because you don’t believe all is God’s will; if you have faith, you will agree with me. No, Tolstoy, that’s not a fair play.

The danger of preaching through types is that those types are no longer various personalities, but absolute moral judgement. In fairytales, for example, one of the most common villain types is the stepmother. With perpetuation and reinforcement, a moral connotation is carried directly through this identity, regardless of its specific contexts. We are imparted this false “rule of thumb”: all stepmothers are evil. This is what happens to Tolstoy’s female types. His bias of women wears the garment of universal truth: either they are attractive, childless, and morally suspicious charmers, or plain, dumb, dedicated mothers. He murders the energetic and pretty Natasha because he doesn’t believe women could be both glamorous and virtuous. He is responsible for Natasha’s death.

As a modern woman, I always stay alert when reading the portrait of women of the past. The married Natasha who speaks only her husband’s mind can easily find company in many other stories. In Chekhov’s short story “The Darling,” which was once reviewed by Tolstoy, whenever the female protagonist, Olenka Plemyannikova is attached to a man, she becomes a tape recorder of his opinions. There is also the story by Hans Christian Andersen, “What the Old Man Does Is Always Right,” in which the wife applauds her husband’s each and every stupid decision. Those characters do not necessarily bother me, as I know those kinds of women exist in a miscellaneous collection of humanity. But when I stumbled upon Margaret Schlegel in E. M. Forster’s novel, Howards End, I couldn’t hold still. Margaret and her younger sister Helen represent the “New Woman” type: independent, compassionate, and liberal-thinking. Earlier in the novel, when Margaret hosts a luncheon for Ruth, the matriarch of the wealthy Wilcoxes, Margaret is in every way the opposite of this conventional woman in service of her husband and family. When Ruth utters her belief that “it is wiser to leave action and discussion to men” and her gratitude in “not to have a vote herself,” the table falls into a polite but alarming silence. Unfortunately, after Margaret replaces the deceased Ruth to become the new Mrs. Wilcox, she accommodates herself to the role by taking her husband’s words as orders. It pained me to see her suspect the cold and distant notes Helen has written to her as signs of mental illness; she absorbs this thought from her practical-minded husband Henry who always defines Helen’s attraction to spiritualism, music, literature, and art as clinically-defined “hysteria.” For a certain period of time in that fictional world, Margaret the New Woman—with all her advanced knowledge and progressive ideas—falls back helplessly to a conventional woman type which she refused to be before marriage.

The unsettling picture reminds me of a remark my college professor once made about his female classmates: “I am really sad to see those who used to talk about philosophy and art now only discuss infant formula and diapers.” It may sound insensitive as uttered by a man, but I, too, have mixed feelings when seeing some of my female Chinese friends switch from a challenging job they enjoyed to a stable, routine bureaucratic position so they would have more time for their family. Like Margaret, they have turned into the women they once swore not to be. Viewing Natasha through the same lens, I guess what upsets me the most—more than her tragic loss in physical glamor and personhood—is a retrogression of her life trajectory. Spiritually speaking, the Natasha in the Epilogue is not that different from her thirteen-year-old self when she first emerges: bundling a doll in her skirt, she proudly tells her guest, “This is my younger one.” It feels as if she hasn’t advanced an inch of length in her spiritual journey with all the events she has been through in her life.

Almost all the male characters in War and Peace, on the contrary, have undergone a certain level of intellectual and psychological transformation. Take Pierre. He first appears as the illegitimate son of Count Vladimirovich and as a depraved young man. He is placed in the company of Anatole and Dolokhov; the three of them drink, gamble, and tie a policeman to a bear merely for fun. But through failures, struggles, and revelations, Pierre ripens into a New Man: kind, wise, content, a symbolic figure of the future Russian revolutionary. Tolstoy builds noticeable parallels between the two main characters: Pierre and Natasha. They are both seduced by extremely attractive lovers, and they both face the death of their loved ones toward the end. However, while the death of Karataev triggers Pierre’s rebirth, the death of Andrei is subject to oblivion for Natasha to move on. According to Tolstoy, whether the problem of death would initiate a revelation depends on whether the thinker confronts death concretely and corporeally. Pierre does. What ends Karataev’s life may have ended his too. The fear, anxiety, and despair pushes him to find a resolution or reconciliation in faith. Natasha doesn’t. Though heartbroken to see her ex-fiancé die, she is not threatened by war or illness or death, nor does she feel the urgency to search for the true purpose of life. In fact, all the Tolstoian female characters, domestically bound, fail to attain revelation through life experience as their male counterparts do. When Nikolai is awarded the St. George Cross, for example, Natasha’s initial response is “I’m so proud of him,” so are Sonya and Nikolai’s mother. However, exposed to the brutal nature of the war, Nikolai has already grown ambivalent about the decoration. I am not defending Tolstoy, but the huge discrepancies in the level of male and female life experience might partially explain his stiff portrait of women’s incapacity to connect with their husbands intellectually and spiritually.

Then again, this conundrum itself is a patriarchal social construct. Women’s lack of exposure to life experience outside the home originates from men commanding women to stay at home. In War and Peace, we can also see a curious parallel between Pierre’s and Marya’s religious pursuit. Pierre runs into a “traveler” who will introduce him to Masonry. But, when later he meets Marya’s wanderer woman, he speculates that Marya is dumb enough to have been deceived by a false monk. “It’s a trick,” Pierre blurts out. He does not realize that Masonry also craves his wallet, neither is he aware that the war itself is the biggest trick. As a woman, Marya does not have the freedom to wander and gain spiritual experience. She can only imagine herself walking in “coarse rags,” “with a stick and a bag down a dusty road,” and in the end arrive at the place “where there is no sorrow or sighing, but eternal joy and bliss.” That is the exact image of Pierre after his moral conversion: “Pierre’s clothing now consisted of a dirty, tattered shirt, the only remains of his former attire, a soldier’s trousers, tied with string at the ankles for the sake of warmth, on Karataev’s advice, a kaftan, and a muzhik’s hat, […] His former laxness, expressed even in his gaze, was now replaced by an energetic composure, ready for action and resistance. His feet were bare.” Clearly, Marya’s confinement in a conventional gender role prevents her from transforming into a New Woman.

Besides, the paternalistic cultural models that encourage men to protect women from potential harm often results in further restricting women’s life experience. Take the different impact that carnal love has left on Pierre and Natasha. Pierre almost kills a man out of jealousy and, reflecting on the whimsical duel, learns that his feelings for Helene are only wild lust, not love. Natasha does not seem to acquire any emotional knowledge from her aborted elopement. By driving Anatole out of town and locking Natasha up in her room, Pierre saves her reputation but stops her from possibly learning a life lesson from her failings. As a result, Natasha will fall for the next available suitor like before and her happiness will still be entirely dependent on whoever asks for her hand. This protective rhetoric is tricky because it is justified by the sad fact that women do not have the privilege to err. In Howards End, Leonard Bast—an impoverished lower-class man—summarizes the meaning of privilege sharply, “If rich people fail at one profession, they can try another. Not I.” Similarly, if a noble man like Pierre fails at his marriage, he can try remarrying, but not women, not Natasha. So the vicious circle goes on and on: the more men feel the need to prevent women from irredeemable pitfalls, the more they infantilize women.

Perhaps—and I am aware of my idealistic thinking—rather than sheltering women from the exposure to potential harm, or any life experience in general, we should instead fabricate a safety net for the underprivileged. That way, they can gain miles in their spiritual journey and, if they fail, they can start anew without paying too big a price.

Motherhood and an abandonment of individuality, in Tolstoian sense, is never a solution to women’s dilemma. (Tolstoy might even go on to deny that women faced any dilemma at all.) The final picture of Howards End as a home where the free-spirited Helen Schlegel and her extramarital son can fall back upon is closer to the concept of “safety net” which I proposed, but still, even that home is conditional on Henry Wilcox’s changeable conscience and hardly a guardian of women’s precarious lives. Nevertheless, fiction, as an agency of real life experience, engages us in the joy, shame, sorrow, and fear of others. By experiencing their struggles with women’s pressing issues concretely and corporeally, we may come to our respective resolution in reality, the same way Pierre realizes the meaning of a “true life” in facing the death of Karataev, an epiphany Natasha would have attained if given the same opportunity.

Annotate This: On Footnotes

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Good Protestant that he was, the sixteenth-century English printer Richard Jugge was a believer in the immutable word of God and that the faithful were afforded salvation through the inviolate letters of scripture alone. Through reading the gospels, the good Christian could find their heavenly reward, not in donation, or morality, or good works. Jugge was ordained in that priesthood of all believers composed of all those who were baptized – no need for black-clad priests to keep the Bible locked away in Latin, because any pious Englishman could well enough read the words for him (or her)self, so that the most humble boy plowing the field knew as much chapter and verse as the Pope himself. The meaning of scripture was simple, straight-forward, and literal.

But…. sometimes any reader could use some help interpreting the finer points of Hebrew or Koine translation. And… anyone could be forgiven for needing the guidance of expertise to better comprehend what exactly it was that God wanted them to do, think, believe, and feel. What was needed was some explication. Some explanation. Some interpretation. So Jugge, laying the copper keys into his printing press to produce copies of the official Bishop’s Bible translation in 1568, faced a bit of a conundrum. How were stolid English Protestants to properly read – of their own accord – a book written by ancient Jews millennia ago? How could such a foreign book be applied to the great theological disputes of the day, from the nature of the Eucharist to the finer points of double predestination? His solution was in the details, or rather their margins, for in Richard Jugge’s printshop located just north of St. Paul’s Cathedral and just downward from heaven was birthed the Reformation’s most enduring contribution to typography – the footnote.[1]

God may have supplied the Word, but Jugge was content to supply the gloss (or at least the typographic organization of it). Jugge’s footnotes, it should be emphasized, were certainly not the first instance of written commentary on scripture (or other books) included within a volume itself. “Notes in the margin and between the lines — so-called glosses — had featured in written documents since time immemorial,” writes Keith Houston in Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks. Marginalia has a venerable history in both manuscript and print, and there is a tradition of using the white space of the page’s border to draw attention to something within the text, from the creatures and monsters populating the illustrations of the Book of Kells, beings who sometimes point and mock transcription errors, to the curious symbol of the manicule, a drawing of a hand looking a bit like one of Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python animations, which gestures to the important bits within a book. “But no traditional form of annotation — from the grammarian’s glosses to the theologian’s allegories to the philologist’s emendations – is identical to the historical footnote,” historian Anthony Grafton reminds us in his invaluable study The Footnote: A Curious History.

Along with other typographical devices that are separate from the main text, from epigraphs to bibliographies, I’ve always had an affection for the lowly footnote. Anybody who has ever had to do advanced academic work has a love/hate relationship with the form; the way in which the piling up of footnotes and endnotes exhibits deep reading (or the performance of it), the scholarly equivalent of getting a stamp in your passport, but also the confusing tangle of references, citations, and long-ago academic debates that a young researcher must tip their cap to in due-deference, which can be a perfunctory slog at best. Footnotes can be an exercise in arid, sober, boring credit-giving, but some of the most dynamic monographs have the best stuff squired away in the footnotes. One of my favorite footnotes is in Stephen Booth’s masterful New Critical close readings of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, whereby regarding a particularly contentious biographical issue, the editor notes that “Shakespeare was almost certainly homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual.” Looking for such treasure within the footnotes — digressions, jokes, insecurities, reflections, meditations, disagreement, discourse, conversation, and snark in addition to reference, citation, credit, and acknowledgement — is like a form of textual beachcombing, pulling up something shiny out of a sandpile. As Bruce Anderson enthuses in the Stanford Magazine, “Footnotes allow us not only to see the prejudices of old sources, but the biases and convictions of the footnote himself. They provide readers with the intellectual map that the writer has used to arrive at her conclusions.” Footnotes are several things at once – labyrinth, but also diagram; honeycomb and map; portrait of thought and bibliographic graveyard.

Jugge’s innovation wasn’t commentary, it was knowing when to shunt commentary away at the bottom of the page. It wasn’t his Bible’s only perk, for a book is always more than the words on the page (whether such should be claimed by Protestants or New Critics). David Daniel describes the edition in his study The Bible in English, noting that Jugge’s volume was “lavish in its ornaments in initial letters, fresh title-pages with portraits, 124 distinct woodblock illustrations, and four maps.” Work on the translation which constituted the Bishop’s Bible was largely overseen by Archbishop of Canterbury Matthew Parker who was vested by Elizabeth I with the task of making a version of scripture that, though it was in English, avoided the overly radical tone of the Geneva Bible, which had been translated by refugees who’d crowded to the Swiss canon during the reign of the queen’s sister. Daniel is less than enthusiastic about Parker’s translation, writing that “scholar though he was, [he] could not write even reasonably pleasing English.” [2] Writing poetry wasn’t the Archbishop’s goal however, for the new edition was tasked by the queen to avoid the overly Protestant affectations of previous translations.

Translation was always a sectarian affair. In choosing to call some religious authorities “elders,” or even “ministers,” rather than “priests” and in translating a word normally rendered as “gift” to the word “grace,” Protestant translators dressed the “naked sense” (as the Renaissance translator William Tyndale describe literal reading) of the Hebrew and Greek originals in Protestant clothes. That’s always the point of a footnote, to pick some form of clothing whereby the author or editor renders the text in a certain fashion. In this regard, the Bishop’s Bible (in keeping with its episcopal name) was steadfastly less Protestant than the Geneva Bible (in keeping with its steadfastly Calvinist name). “The marginal notes… are Protestant,” explains Daniel, but Parker exerted himself to “abstain from ‘bitter notes.’” If anything, the Bishop’s Bible necessitated the reduction of marginalia. Instances as when the Geneva Bible glosses Revelation 11:7, which describes the “beast that cometh out of the bottomless pit” as matter-of-factly referring to the Pope, wouldn’t find room in Jugge’s printing. In fact, most of the marginalia from the Geneva Bible wouldn’t be repeated in the Bishop’s Bible, as all of the writing which crowded around the page would be conveniently placed at the bottom.[3]

Footnotes, marginalia, and glosses such as those in the Bishop’s Bible belong to an awkward category of literature called “paratext,” the ancillary stuff that surrounds the main event of a book, which can include introductions, prefaces, prologues, afterwords, blurbs, bibliographies, copyright information, epigraphs, and even covers and author pictures, among other things. Paratext is basically all of that which can be ignored in a text but where a person can still be credibly said to have read that book in good faith (it takes a dogged completist to include ISBN information in their reading itinerary). Easy to forget that all of those accoutrements which we associate with books, but that dim in the background to mere static, have their own histories separate from the book itself. Gerrard Genette writes in Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation that a “text is rarely presented in an unadorned state, unreinforced and unaccompanied by a certain number of verbal or other productions.”

Jugge and Parker may have believed that doctrine was verified through recourse to the text alone, but which text? No book is an island, and its shores are sandy and defuse out into the wider ocean of literature, so that paratext does “surround it and extend it,” as Genette notes, for “More than a boundary or a sealed border the paratext is, rather, a threshold.” Stated theology had it that all which was inviolate would be found in the distance between Genesis and Revelation, yet Jugge’s footnotes belied that quixotism with something altogether more utopian — all books must be, whether spoken or not, visible or not, apparent or not, in conversation at all times with a bevy of other works. Footnotes are the receipts of those dialogues. They are, as Chuck Zerby writes in The Devil’s Details: A History of Footnotes, “One of the earliest and most ingenious inventions of humankind… an indispensable tool of the scholar and a source of endlessly varied delight for the layperson.”[4]

Christians were in some ways Johnny-come-latelies to this method of freezing minds in contrast into the borders of the sacred page. While the footnote was a Protestant innovation, the process of standardizing commentary into a book has precursors in the Jewish Talmud. That massive collection is typographically organized with the primary text of the Mishna, constituting an assemblage of Jewish oral law, placed at the center of the page, which is then illuminated by rabbinical analysis known as Gemara. A tractate of the Talmud will display a portion of Mishnah with the Gemara, by several different authors, arrayed around the primary text. Gemara can be, at times, quite spirited, with Barry Scott Wimpfheimer writing in The Talmud: A Biography that the text “has the habit of citing its rabbinic authorities and tolerating disagreements.”

For example, in one Talmudic tractate where the Mishna is concerned with the prohibition on mixing milk with meat, a disagreement within the marginal gloss of the Gemara erupts as to whether fowl is properly considered meat, especially since poultry produce no dairy (and thus the moral imperative of the original commandment would seem irrelevant). Within the Mishna, Rabbi Akiva says that “Cooking the meat of… a bird in milk is not prohibited by Torah law,” (though he allows that it would be forbidden by the oral law). His interlocutor Rabbi Yosei HaGelili argues that a close conjunction of verses in Deuteronomy regarding the prohibition on eating a kid cooked in its mother’s milk, alongside a ban on ingesting carrion, “indicates that the meat of an animal that is subject to be prohibited due to the prohibition of eating an unslaughtered carcass is prohibited to cook in milk. Consequently, one might have thought it prohibited to cook in milk the meat of a bird.” The interpretive gloss of Gemera is a demonstration of a text’s living properties, the way in which correspondence, dialogue, and debate takes place even within the static environs of a book, and how any codex is an artifact of discussion that exists beyond the parameters of the page itself.

That footnotes are in some sense scholarly is central to our connotative sense of them. A book that is taken off the shelf at random advertises itself as academic if there are footnotes, endnotes, and bibliographical lists littering its pages. We see the footnote as a mark of erudition, as a means of demonstrating knowledge and giving attribution. The footnote is an exercise in due deference. It makes sense that alongside the categorization system of chapter and verse which structures early modern Bibles (and which was quickly adopted by Catholics), that the footnote was both a product of Protestantism and of modernity. Ministers might not have been priests, capable of enacting sacramental changes in our world, but they were like physicians, lawyers, and professors — which is to say bourgeoise professionals selling expertise. A minister can’t change water into wine, but what he’s selling is the explanation of how Hebrew conjugation and Greek declension necessitate the need to tithe. Footnotes are a mark of scholarly professionalism, and rhetorically they impart a heady ethos of demonstrating that the author appears to know what their talking about.     

From one perspective, the footnotes in the Bishop’s Bible arguably marked a new method of composition, whereby a concern with evidence to bolster argumentation helped facilitate the transition from the Renaissance into the Enlightenment. The eighteenth-century, era of encyclopedists and lexicographers, was when the footnote became an academic mainstay; both a sop to the new empiricism whereby inductive arguments must be made by recourse to something outside the author’s reasoning, but also counterintuitively a pale ghost of the ancient reliance on past authorities. John Burrow explains in A History of Histories: Epics, Chronicles, Romances and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the Twentieth Century that footnotes in the Enlightenment did ”far more than just identify sources… [they were] a way of bringing erudition to the support of the text without cluttering it with documents… an idiosyncratic art form, a commentary… [that] gives rein to a relaxed, garrulous intimacy which acts in counterpoint with the tautly controlled formality of the text.”

Perhaps the eighteenth-century’s greatest footnote-enthusiast is the historian Edward Gibbon in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, who uses the form to bitchily comment on antiquity’s greatest thinkers. Regarding the Church Father Origen’s self-castration, Gibbon notes that the goal was “to disarm the tempter;” when considering Saint Augustine, the historian says that his “learning is too often borrowing and… [his] arguments are too often his own.” [5] The role of footnotes, whether in the Talmud, the Bishop’s Bible, eighteenth-century historiography, or modern scholarship is to ostensibly provide source and evidence, but footnotes also provide a glimpse into a mind struggling and sometimes fighting with the material. “They evoke the community of historians, scholars and antiquaries, ancient and modern, in a kind of camaraderie of admiration, scorn and sometimes smut,” writes Burrow. Footnotes are a personal, individual, and estimably humane variety of typography.

Books are never self-contained, they are multileveled, contradictory things, and this is demonstrated best by that great engine of contradiction, the novel. When fully compelled, the novelistic imagination broaches no arbitrary unites, instead reveling in the multifaceted, and thus it’s a genre uniquely suited to mimetically presenting a mind in disagreement with itself. Novelists have thus made great stylistic use of the footnote as a means of demonstrating the simultaneous reverence and disagreement which the form is capable of enacting. Books as varied as James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves,[6] and of course David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest all make use of the footnote’s literary possibilities, allowing parallel narratives to take place in the margins, unseen narrators to comment, digressions, disagreements, and debates to occur within the white space of the page. The gold standard of the post-modern novel using footnotes to both bifurcate and further a narrative is Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, a high modernist poem written by the character John Shade, with the footnoted annotations by the critic Charles Kinbote containing a narrative that ranges from campus bildungsroman to novel of international intrigue.  It’s the sort of book where Shade can wax “For we die every day; oblivion thrives/Not on dry thighbones but on blood-ripe lives,/And our best yesterdays are now foul piles/Of crumpled names, phone numbers and foxed files,” while his biographer can note in the margins “This brand of paper… was not only digestible but delicious.”

An irony in that the reformers said that salvation was afforded through scripture alone, precisely at the same moment that they placed that book in a web of all of its mutual influences (and every other book as well). The Bible might be a thing-unto-itself, but its footnotes are an exhibition in how no book can survive without that almost mystical web of mutual interdependence with other books innumerable. “To the inexpert, footnotes look like deep root systems, solid and fixed,” writes Grafton, but to the “connoisseur, however, they reveal themselves as anthills, swarming with constructive and combative activity.” What makes a footnote remarkable, arguably, is that it provides evidence of that constructive and combative activity, since all studies, histories, monographs, novels, poems, and plays are born from a similar struggle between the author and reality, whether or not those scars are displayed. Since no book is written by an infant, or by a disembodied eternal consciousness, or from the pure and absolute ether of the void, then every book is the result of a writer reading other books. Footnotes are simply acknowledgement and demonstration of that, and every book written is threaded through with the spectral presence of footnotes, stated or unstated.

Image credit: Unsplash/Aaron Burden .

[1] It
should be said that though both dividing chapter and verse in biblical books
was an innovation of Protestants for whom the doctrine of sola Scriptura necessitated
a certain amount of making scripture more convenient for lay readers, it was something
which the Catholic Church took to quickly. The same is true for footnotes; by
1582 the Douay-Reims translation of the Bible, prepared by English priests
living on the continent (and predating the King James Bible by three decades)
had already adopted Jugge’s innovation of footnotes for their own purposes.
[2] The Hebraist Gerald Hammon is even less charitable about the Bishop’s Bible, describing it as “For the most part… a lazy and ill-informed collection of what had gone before, or, in its original parts, the work of third-rate scholars and second-rate writers.

[3] Houston explains that “The Renaissance… marked a change… for the marginal note passed from the province of the reader to that of the writer; notes grew longer and more frequent as authors preemptively surrounded the narrative with their own ‘authorized’ commentary.”

[4] Zerby’s text is idiosyncratic, eccentric, and endlessly readable.

[5] I’ve borrowed both of these examples from Anderson’s helpful article.

[6] Which I started to read in 2003 but, though it’s an incredible novel, I put aside about two thirds of the way through. I’d decided that I’d pick up the horror novel, which is ostensibly about a house that is bigger on the inside than the outside, when I was in a psychologically healthier place. I’ve never picked it up again.